The Casual Vacancy

 

The Casual Vacancy is JK Rowling’s rather brilliant introductory immersion into the world of adult fiction. There is no magic, nor any hint of feathers and light. It’s as dark as the day is long, and it’s absolutely dazzling. I was skeptical when I heard my literary hero had decided to write for an adult audience, but she’s really nailed it. The book had me in tears after a few pages, because it’s powerful stuff. Suicide, rape, heroin addiction, beatings and thoughts of patricide adorn it’s pages. This is not a story for children. The tale has recently been adapted for television too, and it’s fantastic. It’s a must see, and let me tell you why.

The story is set in the tiny, fictional English village of Pagford – think the Costwolds in rural splendour, and you’re there. It chronicles the political and personal fallout created by the sudden death of a member of the parish council named Barry Fairbrother. We are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, varying from hideous and hypocritical snobbery in the form of Howard Mollison, the parish council leader, and Krystal Wheedon, the spunky daughter of a heroin addict, who is single-handedly bringing up her toddler brother and caring for her mother. Howard Mollison strives to bring Pagford to tourist status, and therefore wishes to wipe away the housing estate that surrounds the picturesque village. Other members of the council wish to create a rehabilitation centre for the less fortunate.

This clear societal division lays the groundwork for an in-depth exploration of many underlying issues in present day society. The main conflict is between those who believe in rural preservation and those who have a duty of care towards the less fortunate, and it’s gripping stuff. In last night’s episode, we see a battle of wits between both parties. Howard Mollison discusses the lower echelons of society. He states that they choose to ‘put needles in their veins,’ and that they should effectively be wiped off the map. He claims that they need to take responsibility for their life decisions. The hot-headed village GP argues that he is a hypocrite. His ever-increasing weight is a burden on the NHS. She states that his medication costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, because he has made a lifestyle choice to remain horrendously overweight. Howard Mollison is less than pleased, and takes it as an insult. His pompous ignorance and arrogance is exposed, and the audience are forced to re-think their sociological ideals. Are we all making life decisions that directly contradict our own value systems and beliefs?

This drama is superbly acted, and in episode 2, Howard Mollison has a harrowing dream about what ‘the casual vacancy’ truly is. It’s the grave that waits for all of us. It’s a powerful adaptation, and questions what our legacies will be. The Casual Vacancy deals very vividly with social conscience, and I think it’s superb. If you aren’t watching, then you really ought to.

Sorry, but can we stop saying ‘sorry’?

According to studies, British women apologise up to eight times a day. We apologise for being unable to attend social engagements, and for putting our health and careers first. We apologise for disagreeing with people, to avoid causing offense, and we apologise for the way we look and feel. We are apologising for our choices, every day, and it needs to stop. We don’t need to be the ‘yes’ girls all the time, and we don’t need to justify that either. We’re women, and the choices we make are our own. The mere concept of apologising for something that isn’t your fault, or hasn’t caused any wrongdoing is bloody ridiculous. It’s very British too.

There is a good explanation for our apologies too. Women are socialised from an early age to focus on relationships and nurturing. Any sign of strength can be off-putting, so we’re conditioned to soften communication that can be construed as assertive or aggressive. We undermine our decisions and choices by apologising for them, because we don’t want to seem aggressive or antagonistic, but we need to start taking charge of our decisions, and not apologising for them. Men put their careers first every single day, and they don’t apologise for it, so why should we? Emotional and financial independence is something to be proud of. It doesn’t warrant an apology. People should not be offended by your success. My point is that we can follow our heart’s callings and that’s ok. Do you think Hilary Clinton apologised for becoming the First Lady of the United States? I don’t think she did. She worked hard for it. She earned it.

There are too many pressures on women in this day and age. We are expected to reach certain milestones in a specified timeframe, but those pressures are not ok. Why shouldn’t we wait until we’re ready to have babies? Is it wrong if we don’t want babies at all? Should we all dress and act a certain way, for fear of causing offense? Should we hold back on our careers because there’s a man involved? Absolutely not. I’ve recently realised how often I use the word ‘sorry,’ and it’s a little embarrassing. I’m not taking credit where credit is due, and why not? Am I afraid of upsetting someone for the way I look, act and feel? Should my achievements be apologised for? No they shouldn’t.

In essence, we need to stand by our decisions, and believe firmly in them. It isn’t wrong to be in control of your own life. We should believe in ourselves. You won’t do any good by pretending to be anything less than you are. Let’s stop doing ourselves a disservice.

Four Tips To Help You Finish Your Novel

1) Schedule your writing time, and protect it with your life. There are 24 hours in a day, and those hours can be spent however you choose. During my college years, I would get up at 5am to get some writing in before classes, and then stay up late writing too. It wasn’t entirely healthy, but it taught me a lesson. I wanted to write, so I made the time to do it. I’m an adult now (or so I’m told), and so I schedule responsibly instead. I get up at a reasonable time, put the coffee on and sit down to write. I write from 9am-4pm. I work office hours, and my body and my muse finally seem in tune to that pattern. I’m also incredibly protective over that time. I turn the phone and television off, and if people invite me out for lunch? I politely decline. The problem is, non-writers don’t understand the process, nor the importance of your writing time. They think you have all the time in the world because you work from home, but that isn’t the case at all. You must treat your writing like a job, even if it isn’t yet. Make sure you turn up. 2) Set goals. There is no point in saying you’ll write that book or screenplay by January next year. That isn’t how it works. You must set yourself achievable goals, and by achievable goals, I mean word targets. I set myself the writing target of 2000 words a day. I don’t always reach that target, but that is what I’m working towards. On a bad day, I’ll only churn out 1000 words, but on a good day? I’ve been known to get 4000 words done. The point is, it’s all progress. Do the maths. 2000 or 1000 words a day x 365 days = a rather sizeable novel. 3) Write. Write. Write. Don’t wait for your muse. I’ve read many different writing blogs and spoken to numerous writers over the years, and all admit that their muse is unreliable. It’s a myth that writers are suddenly absorbed in a moment of sheer inspiration. They force themselves to sit down in the chair every morning, and they get to work. Inspiration will follow. Ideas will emerge, but this is still a job, remember? Creativity is only a fraction of it. Hard work is the rest. 4) Believe in yourself. I have battled with anxiety and self-doubt for many years, and it can be completely destructive. Don’t compare yourself to other writers, because it’s unrealistic. Your voice is unique, and chances are you’re writing something unique too. If you sound like your favourite author, then you aren’t using your voice, and that’s a damn shame. Believe in your voice, and believe in your work. You can do this.

Depression – My Journey and the Unnecessary Stigma

We all experience variations in our moods, and everyone responds to situations differently. People with depression have vivid and frightening ups and downs, or highs and lows. Elation, happiness, sadness, disappointment, emptiness, and misery. There can seem no obvious cohesion or sense to it, and it’s very difficult to talk about it. Speaking from experience, talking about depression is a taboo subject for many people, and it has a terrible stigma attached. People are happy to discuss physical ailments, but mental health is a different issue altogether. People don’t understand it, and with that lack of understanding, comes misjudgements and misunderstandings. Some people even question whether depression is a genuine thing. This continually shocks me, because depression is very real for me. It has been since I was fifteen years old, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. I’m at peace with it though, because I’ve learnt how to manage it.

In June 2007, I was diagnosed with severe depression. I was experiencing highs and lows of moods, and they were completely unpredictable. One moment, I’d be happy and almost delirious with excitement for life, but an hour later? I would be lost in the dark abyss of depression and be contemplating suicide. I couldn’t control it, and it made me lose love for everything that had previous made me happy. I lost interest in reading, writing and studying, which had always been my passion. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I couldn’t stand leaving the house either, and I felt lost and empty. I could summon no hope for the future, and that frightened me. So I visited my doctor.

My GP was incredibly supportive, and I needed that. I was studying for my A-levels at the time, and I was terrified that the depression would ruin that for me. It didn’t. My GP talked me through my condition, and after several meetings with counsellors and a psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder. I know, it sounds terrifying, and I went home feeling very sick. What did that mean? Was I crazy? I just didn’t know, but I decided I wouldn’t let it wreck my life. I couldn’t. I’d survived a difficult and traumatic childhood, and that was more difficult than this, surely? My education had always been the rock that steadied me, and I didn’t want to lose that on account of mental illness. The prospect terrified me.

I started to attend CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and Psychotherapy, which helped me immensely. I started to identify certain triggers in my life that prompted my low moods, which included minor arguments and situations of conflict. I have always struggled to maintain healthy relationships, because I’d run away to avoid potentially upsetting situations. If me and my boyfriend had a minor argument over something ridiculous (ie whether to fry or scramble an egg, or where to go on holiday) then I’d flip out and decide the relationship was doomed. Rationally, I knew it was a ridiculous thought process, but I just had to accept that my mind didn’t necessarily function like others. With the help of CBT, I have managed to identify these triggers and train myself into thinking slightly differently. I still react emotionally, but I take a moment now and think things through. I’m capable of being more rational about it. It definitely helps.

My main comfort throughout the process is knowing that I’m not alone. I remember breaking down in tears at the doctors, and wailing that I was losing my mind. I questioned why no-one else felt like this, or appeared to. I felt so alone. My doctor regarded me for a moment, and then told me to go home and ‘google’ my condition. I was amazed at the results. I wasn’t alone, and that meant the world to me. I discovered blogs and websites dedicated to offering support, and discussing other people’s personal journeys and thoughts. It was an immediate relief. I wasn’t alone. I realised that there are people out there, who have been similarly diagnosed, and it’s wonderful to be able to talk to them about it. I love to hear other people’s ideas for coping mechanisms, and how they manage their anxiety and low moods. I believe this is crucial to the process of getting through it. I still don’t understand why mental health is still so difficult to talk about, because talking with other people is an immense help. It should be encouraged, and I wish people would do more of it. Communication is key.

Depression will always be a huge part of my life, and I have accepted that now. It’s part of me, and who I am, but it doesn’t define me. It will never define me, and I look forward to a time when people are more comfortable in talking about it. The stigma is so unnecessary. When I told my friends about my condition, they were genuinely shocked. They hadn’t noticed how I felt, which made me wonder – how many people out there are suffering in silence? My friends would have described me as chatty and happy. Some even said I was the loudest and most encouraging of our friendship group, but inside? I was truly struggling, and afraid to speak out. The stigma and reluctance to talk is more damaging than anyone realises, and that needs to change.