The Fog of Self Doubt

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Last month, I received another rejection. Not a ‘no thank you, I never want to publish you in a hundred years,’ sort of a rejection, more a ‘this still needs quite a bit more work.’ sort. Nevertheless, receiving this news rendered me a tiny bit gloomy. No! Forgive me, Friends. I must be frank with you. I was devastated. I cried and stamped my feet a little, fumed and fussed as my mind went on a rampage searching out every criticism, no matter how small. No negative comment went untouched. Whirling around in my mind, each one became hideously amplified and distorted until my husband slapped me on the back and proclaimed, “Never mind, you’ve always got your primary teaching degree to fall back on!”

Well, if that was meant to shake me – it worked. The rage of defeatism passed making room for something far more dangerous. Something so sinister it has been known to cripple one’s vision and dreams until they are filed away deep into the cavernous mind, and forgotten. Of course, I’m speaking of: The Fog of Self-Doubt

I’m assuming every human being, at some point, has been plagued by the fog of self-doubt. It’s the smoke that clouds your mind, whispers words that pull you down, and wound your soul. I’m a rubbish writer. No one wants to read my hopelessly inferior scribbles. I’m never going to write again. Perhaps I should get a job in Asda on the checkout – No, Waitrose – One must have at least a little self-respect. *

This fog of self-doubt once descended, can last for many weeks, perhaps even months, if one permits it. But the longer the choking, stupefying mist is allowed to linger, the thicker it becomes, and the more difficult it is to escape.

Fellow writers! In this situation, one calls for a tempestuous gust of pragmatism to blow that suffocating mist all the way back to hell, for that is where it comes from! As the fog billows, I recall Hemingway’s wise words.

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. The first draft of anything is s***.”

Whilst I don’t admire that particular choice of word, I certainly appreciate the sentiment. He goes on to share something that thins the fog of self-doubt in my mind just a little. He rewrote A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. Did you hear that? He rewrote that novel at least FIFTY times. Even a literary genius like Hemingway had to work hard at his writing. In fact, the more I delve into this subject, the more I discover many brilliant authors had their work initially rejected. JK Rowling rudely told not to ‘quit her day job’, was rejected by twelve publishers before Bloomsbury took her on. Dr. Seuss rejected twenty-seven times; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies rejected twenty times; Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind turned down thirty-eight times; Rudyard Kipling criticised for ‘not knowing how to use the English language’; Agatha Christie waited four years before getting published and some kindly well-meaning publisher advised Louisa May Alcott to ‘stick to teaching’. Thank God, these great writers did not give in to self-doubt, and listen to such counsel.

Now, the fog is lifting but that last stubborn wisp needs a little extra puff before completely clearing. And it comes down to this. I know I’m a writer because it’s in the very substance of me. It’s in my bones, my blood, my tears, my sweat, my soul. It’s my God-given purpose in life. I can’t stop writing, even if a thousand scholarly critics shout from the literary rooftops: ‘Nikki Salt has no writing ability!’ (Though I might change my name, and write in secret if that happened.)  Whether or not I have writing ability, I do not have the ability to stop writing. Despite the stuff of life (which can easily add up to at least twenty-eight hours of the day), I still have to find the time to write. If I don’t, something inside of me dries out and shrivels. It squeezes the breath out of my being until I pick up a biro or open my laptop.

So here I am, again. Writing. And I’ll keep writing. And I’ll keep fighting. Whenever that fog threatens to descend, no matter how thinly veiled, I’ll scatter the inky words across my page like the proverbial farmer scatters the seed. Some will fall amongst the weeds and will be choked, some will fall on the hard ground to dry and shrivel in the sun, and some might just fall in the good soil, and will grow and nourish the world. But none will be lost in the fog of self-doubt.

 

Source: JK Rowling information: Alison Ford, Guardian 24.3.15; Brilliant Authors Whose Work Was Initially Rejected: St Martin’s Press posted 20.9.13 ( https://www.buzzfeed.com/stmartinspress/20-brilliant-authors-whose-work-was-initially-reje-7rut?utm_term=.euamaqDKxo#.ts44R29pdB)

*Sorry Asda! – It’s not that you’re a bad supermarket, it’s Waitrose’s free coffee that pips you to the post!

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Take a Minute to Breathe

 

 

Picture6A lot of blog posts (and indeed mine) are often about how busy life is and how we can cope with this busyness. Do you feel that If you don’t live life in the fast lane then society considers you as less productive, less successful? It’s fashionable to roll our eyes and dash off after dropping the school kids and exclaim – got to run, so much to do!

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One of the reasons we moved to the middle of a field in Lincolnshire was to get away from the hustle and bustle of the South, only to find ourselves stepping onto another hamster wheel of engagements, responsibilities, deadlines etc. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being busy. In fact, I believe work is a blessing from God and I’ve come to the conclusion that I rather like being busy but I do need to take a minute now and again to breathe.

Last week I took my year six class into the school grounds and asked them to do something very difficult. I asked them to reflect on their surroundings, really notice nature around them and record their feelings – all without speaking. It was part of a series of RE lessons I’m teaching which questions whether science and Christianity can exist in harmony and this session, was to understand the beauty and complexity of nature and how this fits into creation and/or science. Well, it was like I’d asked them to write a paper on quantum physics! “What do I look at, miss? – It’s just grass and trees – I feel cold – I come out here every playtime, miss – I know there’s leaves on the ground.”

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It took some effort but eventually, my class got into the task and having chosen an object of nature that grabbed their attention, we sat in the outdoor classroom and drew the details of the found leaf, apple or twig in complete silence. We took the time to really look at God’s creation and marvel at its wonder. The birds singing, the breeze stirring the leaves, sending them floating to the ground in oranges, russets and reds. I rather enjoyed that lesson – taking a minute to really notice the world around me.

That same evening, I took Hopey dog for her usual walk across the fields and instead of thinking about all the things I had to get done that evening which I normally do (I won’t bore you with the details) I lived in the moment and really noticed my surroundings. A deer sprinted across the field, a blackbird scolded me from the thick, twisted hedgerow lining the path, the scarlet berries resplendent against the deep, winter green of the Hawthorn, a late bee tired and spent from the summer’s work buzzing low over the ground looking for its cosy home in the rich earth. Wow, I think to myself. I should breathe more often!

 

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The God Perspective

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It’s midnight and I’m filled with fear. Tossing and turning, I’ve reluctantly given up any hope of sleep and, herbal tea in tow, I’m facing the mountain that’s just too big to climb. The part-time teaching job that starts on Thursday is especially scary, the need to arrange specialist childcare, the committee responsibilities, the endless church groups, the novel I’m desperate to finish, the blog posts I need to write. The list feels endless especially in this season of uncertainty that I’m currently in. The way feels steep, rocky and unstable underfoot. My mountain is so high, it appears to be blocking out the light and shrouding me in shadows. Yet, as I trudge through the muddiness of my mind, mulling over these anxieties, I realise I do actually have choices.

Perhaps I can turn my back on everything, bail out, give up but then I’d be letting others down, including my children, husband and myself. To abandon everything doesn’t seem very plausible and anyway, I’d probably just build another mountain; equally impossible and intimidating. Picture2

 

Or maybe I can muddle along, feeling inadequate and very much dismayed by this Everest. Drag myself through the daily grind, constantly worrying, working late, consumed by anxiety and dread. It’s probable I’d eventually reach the summit but to what cost? Weary, joyless, snappy, friendless (who wants to be around someone like that?) or worse, ill.

To be honest I’m not too keen on my choices so far but perhaps there is a third. Shouldn’t I look at this differently? Get a real perspective on all of this? Ask those age-old questions such as: what is my purpose in life? – Why am I here? – What’s my reason for getting up in the morning? (And it’s not just because the alarm clock has gone off.) As I start to ponder these questions, I’m reminded that to live in the fleshy, practical way of going about my day; ticking off lists, measuring my success by what I’ve achieved, well, that’s only half living. I pull myself up, amazed that, yet again, I’ve forgotten – I’m a faith-filled Christian! I’m not meant to climb mountains by myself! I’m looking at this mountain all wrong. I need to stand where God is standing. God of the impossible, God of all creation, God of love, God, who gives me true perspective. So, I do. I’m standing right by his side with his arm holding me tight. Aha! Already, that looks better! I’m far away enough now, that I can reach out, palm up and hold this mountain in my hand. It’s not so big and the shadows have gone. I’m getting the God perspective.

 

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My Homeless Brothers and Sisters

I’ve recently moved to Lincoln; a beautiful city with its cobbled streets, independent coffee houses, trendy eateries all nestled in the shadow of the awe-inspiring Cathedral and august castle. But dotted around this impressive landscape are the signs of hardship and poverty. Some drug-induced and alcohol soaked, others hopeless and resigned. First, I was shocked at the sheer number of homeless people living on our streets but, slowly, I realise I’m becoming immune. I flash an apologetic smile and walk past as they reach out a hand asking for small change. A small bullet of guilt stabs at my gut but this is quickly diluted by a mixture of fear (What might happen if I get involved), judgement (For goodness sake – there are charities that can help you – get up and sort it out) and selfishness (I’m busy and I don’t want to stop walking, thank you very much) and then I feel ashamed.

 

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and a few months ago did get involved with my church – helping with clothes bank and chatting with the street people over a cup of tea. But listening to their stories was quite overwhelming, and I felt so inadequate. How can I help these people out of their murky mires? Every time I made a suggestion, they had a reason for it not working, and, in the end, it was easier not to listen. There were plenty of people available to sort out the clothes bank, and anyway, we could only give clothes to people who were referred to us by Social Services. My contribution felt pretty fruitless and, believing my excuses to be both relevant and genuine, I stopped going.

But God won’t let me forget them.

Yesterday I had a gloomy day (One of my black dog days – I get a few of them). After sending the children off on an outing with their dad, I tucked myself into my duvet and watched a film. When I feel like this I tend to go for one of those really awful American Christian films with mediocre acting, and a cheesy storyline. I’m not ashamed to admit I love these films. They have the ability to make me feel closer to God. Anyway, this film was called Hiding in Plain Sight and was about a faith-filled middle-class family (two adults and two children) who had fallen on hard times and found themselves living out of a car for six months. The dad was a university graduate, an IT specialist who’d been made redundant. His wife’s respect and trust in her husband never wavered, (I struggled to believe that one) and the two children went to school each day and slept in the car by night. The little boy stole other children’s lunches because he was so hungry. Entertaining, yes but surely exaggerated – this does not happen to middle-class families in the land of milk and honey!

I don’t know why, but after the film had finished I googled ‘American families living out of their cars’ and couldn’t believe the truth. Not only did this happen but it is actually quite common. Well-educated, poverty-stricken families hiding in cars, trying to protect their children from being taken from them, one adult staying awake to keep watch. I couldn’t believe it! There are even a number of charities set up – one called Dreams for Change, who work with organisations to offer their carparks to families living in such conditions. They are safe in these carparks at night and the Dreams for Change help these families to get back to work and into proper accommodation. There are so many articles reporting on this problem from New York Times 2006 to The Guardian Dec 2017

The land of `milk and Honey is flawed and the system is one-sided. Thank God, I tell myself, things are not so bad in England. Not so bad but still pretty bad, and could it be we are moving in the same direction? More and more cuts are being made, and it is the vulnerable that suffer. Yes, I can point the finger at the homeless and justify my exclamations of ‘Sort yourself out! Find work! Stop smoking! Stop gambling! Quit that drug habit!’ But who am I to judge? Who am I to say they should be able to help themselves?

So, what does Jesus expect me to do about it? 

He expects me to take the slack. To help even in the smallest way from putting a packet of cornflakes into the food bank at Tesco to placing a hot cup of Costa into the hands of the freezing homeless man sitting in a doorway. I can help with clothes or food bank through my church or volunteer with one of the homeless charities such as the Nomad Trust or Shelter. I can do a lot or a little but above all, I must never stop seeing the homeless people as my brothers and sisters. Yes, they’ve hit hard times – whether they’re alcoholics, drug addicts, whether it’s their own fault or it purely accidental, whether they are in this country illegally or legally – I do not judge, I do not assume. I reach out in love. Even if it’s just a smile and a few kind words.

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A Reason to Read

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It’s 8am and my nine-year old is reading a book. I enjoy that tiny frisson of mother’s pride before casting my mind back to Foundation II and the memorable classroom scene. Ah, yes, I remember it well. The gentle nudge from a neighbouring mum, “How’s Bo’s reading? Any joy?” I began to answer but that kind voice continued, “My Emily is on ORT stage 3. I really don’t know where she get’s it from.” Cue tinkling laugh.

The truth is, despite having no hope of winning, I did not enter into the ‘my child is better at reading than yours competition’ because deep down, I knew Bo would be OK. He liked stories too much. Rather than force my son to read books before he was ready, we shared books together. We read everything from Noah’s Ark to Postman Pat; from Facts about Dinosaurs to Enid Blyton’s Wishing Chair; from Roald Dahl’s George’s Marvellous Medicine to The Guinness Book of Records. Despite Bo’s lack of reading ability, he loved books and it didn’t take too long before he was ready to learn to read for himself.

However, as he progressed through the various stages, he began to lose his momentum, struggling to summon the motivation to even take his book from his school bag, let alone read it. I asked him why he didn’t want to read. “It’s boring,” he said. “I don’t care about Percy.” Evidently, Nick Butterworth’s widely loved Percy the park keeper, did not cut the mustard in our house. So, the next morning we had a chat with his teacher and he chose something different.

Bo and I continued to enjoy our bedtime reading but as Bo developed, his idea of a good story became very different to mine. Having read four chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, me enjoying it immensely, Bo asked if we could read one of his Minecraft books instead. Really? With good grace I closed up the JK Rowling and reached for Clash of the Creepers by Winter Morgan. My hand hardly shook.

As a primary school teacher I have watched too many Early Years’ parents become anxious about their child’s lack of reading skills or worse, too many children in the juniors wrestling through Biff, Chip and Kipper, ORT stage 4. The truth is, children cannot easily be forced to learn to read, they need a reason to read. Whether it’s the back of the Frosties cereal packet, the road signs to Grandma’s house or the Beano – all of these  require reading skills and count. One child I worked with had a serious interest in America. Though he struggled with any other piece of writing, show him a newspaper article about Donald Trump, and he became riveted; sounding out the words, desperate to understand the meaning. He had a reason to read.

IMG_4151When I listen to children read and they appear to be struggling, the first question I ask is, “Are you enjoying this book?” If they reply no, we find something else to read. If they say yes, I probe further: why do they like it? Which characters do they like best? What do they think might happen next? What has been their favourite part so far? Once I know they are comprehending and enjoying the story (or the information if it is a fact book) we continue with it. Otherwise, we’ll find something else that is similar but at an easier level.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working with a little chap in year 4, who had been struggling through the Oxford Reading Tree scheme for three years! Now, don’t get me wrong, this is a great scheme and it works for many children. But not Thomas. He was so sick of the magic key, he wanted to ram it right… well, never mind, the point is he hated reading and no wonder; he was bored stiff with the subject matter. Together, we perused the great collection of school reading books to look for something that would grab his imagination but whatever he, reluctantly, picked out became a struggle for both of us. Finally, I put the book down and looked at him. “Thomas,” I said. “There must be something you enjoy? Anything? Perhaps something you watch on television or a game you play? Anything?”

“Minecraft,” he replied without any hesitation.

Groaning inwardly, I nodded and forced a smile. “All right then, let’s read Minecraft.”


All names have been changed.

Author’s note: I can recommend both Primary reading schemes: Oxford Reading Tree and Collins Big Cat as I have used them with many children.
Oxford Reading Tree (ORT) : http://www.oxfordreadingtree.com
Collins Big Cat: https://collins.co.uk/category/Primary/English/Collins+Big+Cat/

 

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