Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

Tag: real life (Page 1 of 5)

A vintage typewriter with the text "it starts with one WORD" written on a shee

A needful thing

So this post has been a long time coming. It needed to be written, but I kept putting it off because frankly, I didn’t know how to write it. I still don’t, but I’m going to have a go anyway. I hope you understand.

I’m not a fast writer. I have perfectionist tendencies, which mean I don’t let go of anything until I’m absolutely sure it’s the best I can possibly make it. That goes double for creative work. What it goes for for the Wild Hunt Quartet, the story I have wanted to tell for over 25 years, well. I’m not sure there are enough zeroes in the world. That’s how much it means to me.

I’m also ill, and have been so for a long time. Most of you will already know this, because although I don’t shout it from the rooftops, it’s not exactly a secret. I have multiple sclerosis. Officially, I was diagnosed in 2004, but the symptoms go back almost as far as the origins of The Wild Hunt Quartet. There’s an irony, eh?

MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring

Anyway, for those that don’t know, MS is an auto-immune condition in which my body attacks its own nerve cells, slowly stripping them of their protective layer of myelin. Myelin works like electric cable insulation, so MS has approximately the same effect on my nervous system as mice do on your house’s wiring, only you can’t call Pest-B-Gone and hire an electrician to put it right. It’s chronic, progressive and disabling.

I’ve mostly come to terms with it, though on bad days I still get angry and bitter when I can’t do something trivial like get the top off a jar, carry a cup of tea without spilling it, or get to the bathroom in time. There’s more, and worse, but that’ll do for today.

When I was first diagnosed, the disease was relapsing-remitting. I’d have flare-ups of symptoms, like visual disturbances or numbness, then periods of no noticeable disease activity. Rinse and repeat. Over time, as the scarring built up on the nerve fibres, symptoms started to stick around. My balance and mobility have deteriorated markedly over the last few years. My fatigue has increased (and fatigue in MS is not ‘feeling a bit tired’, it’s ‘can no longer stand because after a few minutes the axial muscles just don’t work any more’). And the cognitive dysfunction has got worse.

Cognitive problems in MS patients are very common. These can range from poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and general ‘cog fog’ to mood swings, depression and memory issues. Pick one from the list and I’ve probably had it. Certainly depression. Feeling fat and useless, frustrated and foggy and exhausted is pretty much guaranteed to do a number on your mood.

An open book with ribbon marker

© Ingvald Kaldhussater | ID 514554 | Dreamstime Stock Photos

All of which brings me to THE DRAGON HOUSE. Just as a book, it has its challenges. It’s the last one, the conclusion to the series. The one I have the highest hopes and deepest fears for. It’s the culmination of every decision I’ve made heretofore in the telling, the drop-box for all the “I’ll figure that out in the next book”, the firing of Chekhov’s guns, the resolution of every scrap of foreshadowing. As a discovery writer, it’s also the book I knew least about going in.

A big ask, then. And I’m trying to write it whilst dealing with MS that is now secondary progressive. I admit, it has sometimes been overwhelming. I have suffered from creative paralysis. Decision fatigue. Rampant perfectionism and an inability to believe that anything I do will ever, ever be good enough.

If the book’s not done yet, it’s not been because of a lack of effort, believe me. Or any shortage of tears. There simply comes a point where I cannot work any harder, because I simply cannot work. But I keep trying anyway, and that exacts a price.

I will finish this book. This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down by leaving their tale unfinished. They deserve an ending, and so do all the readers who have come along for the ride. I must just beg your indulgence a little longer.

This story is my heart-song, my dream; I cannot let these characters down

A final few words. I am surrounded with loving support from friends and family. My publisher and agent have been nothing but wonderful. I know I am not alone. This post is not meant to be a play for sympathy, just an explanation. I feel I owe you that. I haven’t kept the blog up to date, despite my best intentions. That’s the thing about missing a deadline; the further past it I go, the less I want to draw attention to myself by mentioning it. The more I’m struggling, the less I feel able to share. My instinct is to hide, to soldier on in isolation. To keep setting myself more deadlines, and keep failing to meet them, so I hide some more.

There are circumstances I cannot change, limitations I will always have to work within, but I will try to do less hiding, going forward.

And I WILL finish this book. You have my word on that.

Sincerely,

Ellie

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Photo of straw bales in a field

Season’s End

Tomato seedlings in pots

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I was very small, my favourite place in the world was Dad’s greenhouse. It was an old-fashioned, timber-framed Alton, and I remember it as a place of endless dry warmth, with the cat asleep under the cucumber plants, and air that smelled of paraffin and Jeyes Fluid and long drowsy days.

In the greenhouse were rattling canes and balls of twine, a resident spider, dusty jam-jars full of plant labels and pencils that did double-duty as makeshift dibbers. Thompson & Morgan seed packets, sacks of John Innes No. 3, stacks of seed trays that it was my job to rinse out with the hose at the end of each season so they could be used again next year.

Under the potting bench lived big clay pots that were too heavy for me to lift but if Dad turned one upside-down for me, made a perfect stool from which to watch, with that grave solemnity possessed of four year old girls, the gardener at work.

It’s from Dad that I get my love of growing things. I was helping him plant seed potatoes, onion sets and runner beans before I went to school. He taught me the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumbers, how to remove the side-shoots from tomato plants, and, when I was old enough to be trusted with the small, rusty but still very sharp greenhouse scissors, how to tie the plants in to the canes.

Afterwards we’d troop back to the house for tea with my fingers all yellow and smelling of tom-cats (if you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you’ll know exactly what I mean). That tea often included home-grown new potatoes, carrots, peas or string beans from the vegetable patch: plant to pan in maybe 10 minutes – take that, Bird’s Eye! On the table would be a vase containing sweetpeas, or heady roses, and after dinner the peelings and spent flowers would be taken to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden to start the cycle all over again. Dad was an organic gardener long before it became fashionable.

Tomatoes on the vine

Image courtesy of zdiviv at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When I got a bit bigger he’d sit me on the tall stool at the potting bench and get me to prick out seedlings to pot up. In those days he grew everything except the cucumbers from seed: tomatoes, bedding plants, trays and trays of them that I’d water and patiently inspect each day for the first green shoots. Alyssum and marigolds for the borders, salvias, lobelia and petunias for the hanging baskets and planters.

Looking back, I can understand why he got me to do it: my Dad has hands like two pounds of butcher’s finest sausages – you’d never think he was quite a pianist when he was younger – so my small, nimble fingers were able to handle the tiniest plants with ease, and I had a strong young back and patience to spare.

In the autumn I’d help to harvest the apples – old English varieties, like James Grieve and Cox’s Improved – and then Mum and I would make batches of apple sauce, and crumbles and Eve’s pudding. Autumn was also the time of the chrysanthemums; whenever I smell that woody, spicy scent, I know that summer is over for another year.

Every child should get earth under their fingernails from time to time, and understand where their food comes from. Not out of a packet, or a cellophane-wrapped tray from Sainsbury’s, but out of the ground, off a plant. Some of my favourite memories are from Dad’s garden: leaning on the handle of a fork to lever up a potato plant and seeing the earth crumble around the pale pink-eyed King Edwards underneath; picking raspberries off the cane and cramming them into my mouth, warm and unwashed, with the taste of summer bursting on my tongue.

Apple blossom photo

Image courtesy of Simon Howden at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The apple and plum trees are long gone now, as are the roses. Dad’s getting on in years as well, and can’t manage the heavy digging for potatoes and the like, but he’s on his third greenhouse, and still carpets his garden with colour every year – though these days he buys micro-plants in vast trays and grows them on, rather than nurturing them from seed. He still grows his beloved chrysanthemums, and every other year or so sends me onto the internet to source just the right kind of greaseproof paper bags he needs to tie over the developing buds on the outdoor varieties to protect them from the rain.

I’ve never had the time or the land to have a vegetable patch or a greenhouse of my own, and lately my poor health has made it unlikely that I ever will. I can’t express how much I regret that. I miss those quiet hours of just me and Dad and the simple pleasure of things that grow. I miss them with a sharp sad pain that they’re gone and will never come again.

Or maybe I just miss being a kid, when we had proper summers that lasted forever and I had all the time in the world to enjoy them.

Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus, singula dum capti circumvectamur amore — Virgil

Featured image © Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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