Film review – Still Alice

Julianne Moore as Alice in Still Alice1There are a lot of films out there about Alzheimer’s disease. Since my father was diagnosed with the disease I’ve been advised not to see several. The trailer for Still Alice, in which Julianne Moore’s character explains to her daughter (played by Kristen Stewart) how having the disease feels, intrigued me. But I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to watch it.

Having a parent, or any loved one, with Alzheimer’s, is like watching a gradual, unstoppable erosion. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s been lost, and other times it’s hard to remember what was once there. This film is an excellent reminder to live in the moment – because that’s all you can do.

I occasionally find postcards or emails from Dad that I’ve saved and recall suddenly his wit, his intelligence, his humour and emotional grace. He’s still here, and still full of passion for life, but he’s old in a way I never thought possible. He can’t always understand what’s said to him, and is often confused.

I think of the enormous conversations we used to have, the flights of fancy and the moral conundrums we’d explore, and realise how much I miss him. I think that’s important. I can give the him that remains all the love in the world, but I need to mourn the man already lost to us. And that’s hard, I think, for most people to understand.

Still Alice explains it far, far better than I can. My sister (who happens to be called Alice) suggested we go together, which deepened the experience and also opened up our shared but generally uncommented on experience of what’s happening to Dad, and, in reflection, to us.

We sat in the dark cinema and watched the on-screen Alice, only a decade or so older than us, begin to disintegrate. We saw her fear, and the dread of her husband and children. We watched her find moments of comfort and humour against lovely scenery, and we cried (quietly so as not to disturb other viewers around us) as she travelled the journey our father is still in the early stages of.

Regardless of whether you have any personal connection to the film, it’s a heart-rending, sensitively portrayed story well worth watching. Human beings are frail, but we’re also resilient, and Julianne Moore, in her Oscar-winning performance, gave the character a sense of realism that made me feel I knew her, and understood on some small level what she was going through.

Julianne Moore as Alice in Still Alice

There are many moving scenes in the film, including some instances I recognised from my father’s behaviour, such as when she and her husband (played brilliantly by Alec Baldwin) go for ice cream and she echoes his order rather than ask for what she really wants. My dad does that, not always, but occasionally. It makes me realise how important it is that I try to remember what he likes, for the times when he doesn’t.

The standout scene for me, however (the one that made me sob onto my sister’s shoulder) was the one when she gives a talk at a meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association and, using a highlighter pen to follow her words, talks eloquently about her condition. She’s not suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, she corrects us, she’s struggling with it. It’s a delicate distinction, but a crucial one, and a reminder of the exhaustion that comes with each unfamiliar day.

Still Alice was a beautiful experience to share my sister. I’m glad to have seen such a powerful film, filled with stunning acting and cinematography, but more than that I’m glad we watched it together, because at the heart of it, this is a film about family, and about love.

Director Wash Westmoreland
Screenplay Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer
Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart

Still Alice is available to watch at Watershed, who kindly supplied the images for this post, and cinemas across the UK

How to win a writing bursary

Tara Guha homeIn this week’s guest post, Tara Guha tells us how she came to enter and win the Luke Bitmead Bursary 2014 with her upcoming novel Untouchable Things, and offers her tips for how you can do the same.

It was just luck that I happened to be on Twitter that day. Social media has come lately to me and I can’t say I’m a natural. But there I was, on some nondescript day in late spring, scrolling through my Twitter feed instead of (at a guess) writing a honed, targeted letter to an agent. And through the fog of cute kittens and links to articles I couldn’t be bothered to open, it jumped out at me. The Luke Bitmead Bursary for unpublished novelists.

This link I did open. As I read, I got the prickly feeling of something like excitement, something like possibility. The Bursary is in memory of Luke Bitmead, a talented author who died tragically young, set up by his mother to help struggling writers. I felt an instant connection to the focus of the award, which aims to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around mental health issues. In fact, I was about to start a new job as a project worker for a mental health charity. You could say I just had a feeling.

Bird table cr Tara Guha

Trust your gut

But then, I’d had ‘feelings’ before. Every competition I entered gave me a flutter, that tingle of hope that you absolutely need to keep going as an unpublished writer. But the mental health connection here was something extra. And the prize – to have your novel published – was extraordinary.

To add some context, my novel and I were at that point spending a few months together in Last Chance Saloon. We’d got together after the birth of my first child some eight years earlier, and had enjoyed/endured a rollercoaster ride since. We’d had some memorable times where we couldn’t bear to be apart, we’d broken up a few times, and currently we were figuring out if we had a future together. We agreed to give it until the end of the summer while I fired off letter to agents and entries to competitions, and then if nothing had happened for us by then we’d be free to move on.

Tara Guha's writing spaceMake sure your novel is in good shape

The novel was at third draft stage: in reasonable shape but probably requiring a set of professional eyes. It had come a long way since the breathless scribbled exhilaration of a first draft, hammered down frantically while my new baby napped and I thought “I know, I’ll write a novel.” I laugh at my naivety now but I’m glad of it; had I know what was in store I probably wouldn’t have started at all.

It turns out that I’m one of those writers who loves the freedom of a first draft but completely freezes at the editing process (unlike many I know, who are the other way round). Years went by while I couldn’t face the enormity of knocking this unwieldy thing into shape, during which time I had another baby and used her nap times to wash coffee cups, or sit and stare at the rain.

But I couldn’t let it go. I read books that taught me about structure, character development, plot twists. I rewrote and struggled and rewrote. I sent it out to agents, some of whom requested the full manuscript, all of whom ultimately said no. Which was how we ended up in Last Chance Saloon. I was all set to pop the novel into a bottom drawer and – at some point – use my learning to write another one. But at work one day my phone beeped and I squeaked and read that I was one of ten writers shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary.

Celebrate the shortlist

At last something had happened. I didn’t think for a second that I’d win but this gave me validation – and the chance to get a new dress for an awards ceremony in London. We ummed and ahhed about whether my partner Dave should accompany me, as it would mean sorting out complicated childcare. In the end, thank goodness, he did come with me.

Being announced as the winner was as close as I’m likely to get to an out-of-body experience. People said “You must be thrilled”, but for a while I was actually too stunned to believe it. Even now, I’m not sure I’ve fully taken it in.

Luke Bitmead’s mother  Elaine Hanson presents Tara with her prize

Luke Bitmead’s mother Elaine Hanson presents Tara with her prize

Accept that life will change

Everything changed in that split second, in a way that doesn’t often happen in life, or at least not in my life. Suddenly, in a week where I was working almost every day, I needed to fill in marketing questionnaires, sign contracts, write an author bio and, most scarily, come up with a new title! I’d lived with the old title, Absent, for eight years, but I’m already much happier with Untouchable Things. Two months on I’m still figuring out how to rejig my commitments so that I make sure I can give this opportunity the time and focus it needs. I’ve scaled back on work, but scaling back on my children is not an option – so it’s a constant (and clichéd) juggling act.

I recently had my first meeting with Legend Press where we discussed the book jacket and the other deadlines that need to be met before the 1 September release date. We haven’t even got onto editing yet!

Untouchable Things coverRelinquish some control

Untouchable Things is a psychological literary thriller which unpicks complex group dynamics to explore sexual obsession and emotional addiction. Groups fascinate me. Who am I in a group? What knowledge or opinions do I need to cultivate to join the group, and which bits of myself do I need to hide? What happens if the group revolves around one person? And, in the case of Untouchable Things, what happens if that person disappears?

After so long sitting alone in the driver’s seat it’s a huge relief to hand the controls to someone else, to be told what I need to do and by when, and to know I’m no longer on my own. I wouldn’t say I can exactly sit back and enjoy the ride, but I can at least peep out of the passenger window now and again and know that we won’t crash. Until, of course, I hop into a shiny new Smart Car waiting for me somewhere along the route and start writing my second novel.

Tara GuhaAbout the author

Tara Guha is the winner of the 2014 Luke Bitmead Bursary and Untouchable Things is her debut novel. Born to an Indian father and English mother Tara spent her childhood in the Ribble Valley, passing many a wet day writing poetry and music. After studying English at Cambridge she embarked on a career in the classical music industry in London, promoting artists such as Placido Domingo, Paul McCartney and Dudley Moore. Over the years she has also been a freelance journalist, charity worker and has trained as a counsellor. Tara is a keen amateur pianist, singer and songwriter and lives in the hills of West Yorkshire with her partner and two daughters.

Gemma Atwell’s literary trinkets and treasures

Thimble Kiss pendant1 by Gemma AtwellWe all know that thimbles are kisses, don’t we? It’s what Wendy told Peter in J. M. Barrie’s beautiful tale of lost boys, fairies, pirates and ticking crocodiles, so it must be true.

Silversmith and jewellery maker Gemma Atwell capture these notions beautifully in her creations, drawing inspiration from fairytales, children’s literature and even songs.

“I’m a dreamer and find it easy to get lost in stories,” Gemma confesses. “If something has text on it I am drawn to it and I love to include writing on my pieces of jewellery. The lines I use in my work are generally from those fairy tales that stay with us long in to adulthood. There’s a magic to those stories that I personally wouldn’t want to let go of.” Continue reading

Midweek writing prompt – dogs and fleas

You may have heard the proverb, he who lies down with dogs, gets up with fleas. It’s one that makes me smile, but says so much more. How often do you judge a person by who their friends are?

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, 1887 Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent, courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

The National Portrait Gallery in London are currently showcasing an exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent, revealing his portraits of intimate friends, including Robert Louis Stevenson (shown looking very relaxed and informal in 1887 here), Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin. I love how alive Robert’s expression is, as though he’s about to laugh or speak, or maybe complain about how long Sargent’s had him sitting still for.

It got me thinking about this week’s writing prompt. This time I challenge you to create a character we can only discover through their friends – through what is seen of or said about them by the people they’re closest too, perhaps in the aftermath of a horrendous or wonderful event.

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends will be at The National Portrait Gallery until 25 May 2015.

Squirrelly fine stitched treasures

Oh Squirrel mini cardHow sweet is this little card? It’s made from an old envelope and postage stamp trimmed and stitched onto printed card. Such a fab idea!

The crafty mind behind it is Katie Wagstaff, the founder of Oh Squirrel (yes, that name is part of the appeal!). I discovered Katie through some feature writing I’ve been doing for Simply Sewing magazine, and really love the way she brings sewing and papercraft together. Katie sent me a small gift in the form of this lush notebook and pencil – perfect gifts for a writer. I particularly like the message printed on the pencil: Very busy & important. Well, that’s clearly the case whenever I’m writing, no?

OhSquirrelnotebook_pencil

Continue reading

Apply for a creative residency in Paris

Georgia Fee, 50 Kisses, Paris, 2001

Georgia Fee, 50 Kisses, Paris, 2001

Fancy spending a couple of months in Paris honing your creativity? The Georgia Fee Artist/Writer Residency hosted by ArtSlant is open for applications. The next term will take place from July 1st – August 31st 2015 and includes a monthly stipend of $1,000 USD to to be used for studio space, materials, and other costs, plus airfare to and from the residency site in the Montparnasse neighbourhood of Paris.

The Georgia Fee Artist/Writer Residency in Paris aims to support and invest in emerging artists and writers, to provide an opportunity for them to advance their work and explore and engage with the cultural landscape of Paris, to encourage experimentation, and to increase exposure of their work to an international audience. Continue reading

Listening to Bees – a short story

The Simple Things March 2015My tale ‘Listening to Bees’ is the bedtime story in the beautiful March issue of The Simple Things magazine. Isn’t that a gorgeous cover? It makes me think of things budding and bursting into bloom, filling the air with fragrance.

I’m really happy to have   ‘Listening to Bees’ published in the mag, not least because the talented Hannah Warren has illustrated the tale.

The story is about a woman trying to reunite an elderly brother his rather eccentric sister, with a scene in Bristol’s Botanic Garden.

In other writing news, my flash fiction Gloss has been published by Visual Verse. You can read it here: http://visualverse.org/submissions/gloss-2/

And on March 19th I’ll be reading one of my short stories at Bristol literary regular, Novel Nights, taking place at The Lansdown. Hope to see you there!

Journeys through consciousness with Julie Moss

Crossing the River at its Widest Point painting by Julie MossIt’s astonishing how the interplay of colours selected and applied by an artist can stop you in your tracks. In Julie Moss’s Crossing The River At Its Widest Point, shown at the start of this post, I’m struck at once by the shimmering turquoise-green set between two shades of earthy red, and feel I’ve rediscovered a half forgotten place. The use of light dancing on the water against the stillness of land and sky makes this feel like the time just before a storm, when electricity is already stinging the air. Continue reading

Midweek writing prompt – space + time

Sunset from railway bridge cr Judy Darley

Night is setting in. Your protagonist pauses on a railway bridge, gazing over a glimmering city. This is the crunch point of their quest, when they must decide whether to carry on into the unknown, or rush home to face whatever awaits them there. Only they know which is the scarier prospect, and which the action they need to take.

If you write something prompted by this, please let me know by sending an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com. With your permission, I’d love to share it on SkyLightRain.com.

Book review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane coverThey say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and while it isn’t why I decided to read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, there’s no denying the shiver of pleasure I felt whenever I glimpsed it. Featuring the silhouette of a skinny boy swimming in a fathomless ocean, it led me to expect a protagonist with the bravado and wildness of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Far from it. Gaiman’s hero is an ordinary man remembering being an ordinary boy, and that, without doubt, is part of the beauty of this tale. When a lodger his parents take in dies, the boy, who remains nameless throughout, meets the three Hempstock women for the first time – Old Mrs Hempstock, Ginnie and Lettie, marvellous, resourceful Lettie who seems to be eleven years old, but answers only with a smile when asked “How long have you been eleven for?”

Gaiman weaves magic into the story with deft matter-of-factness. The boy takes it in his stride, with a child’s acceptance that the world is, of course, filled with things he doesn’t understand. He reads voraciously, mainly his mother’s old novels crammed with children foiling spies and criminals, and relishes simple details such as sleeping with the windows open so he can listen to the wind and pretend he is at sea.

When the lodger commits suicide something is stirred into wakefulness and needs to be bound to its place. Lettie takes the task on, and brings the boy with her into a place with a sky “the dull orange of a warning light.” It’s a journey which leads a mass of horrors that Gaiman refers to subtly enough to require us to do some of the imagining, the neatest way possible to ensure we take on the boy’s terror as our own.

A bold thread to the tale reminds us that being scared is something that comes with age, with knowledge, so that only the very young are truly unafraid. “I was no longer a small boy,” says our protagonist, ruefully. “I was seven. I had been fearless, but now I was such a frightened child.”

There’s a skill to perfectly balancing dread, suspense and beauty in a fairytale. Gaiman manages it with enviable ease, often offering  comfort in the form of food from the Hempstocks – paper-thin pancakes blobbed with plum jam, honeycomb “with an aftertaste of wild flowers”, drizzled with cream from a jug. It’s at once utterly, earthily bucolic, and curiously reminiscent of the meals eaten by fairies in the stories I read as a child.

The horror comes in the form of the unnamed creature who hangs in the sky like “some kind of tent,” with a ripped place “where the face should have been.” Cleverly though, that’s far from the worst of it, as Gaiman gives her human form, then lets her get the boy’s father to do terrible things.

“You made my daddy hurt me,” the boy says, and she laughs, then declares that she never made any of them “made any of them do anything.”

It’s a chilling revelation, this idea that however much she may have encouraged, or even cajoled, the deeds committed came from some dark place deep inside the boy’s father, not from the monster’s will.

And then there’s the ocean, at the end of the lane, that resembles a duck pond yet contains all the depths of the universe, and, it seems, all its possibilities too.

A beautiful book – grotesque and magical – that every adult should read, if only to remember the brave, frightened children they once were.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman is published by Headline and is available to buy from Amazon.

To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.