The 2017 lookback

I know it’s only the beginning of November but I’m getting this annual ritual in very early because the first professional feedback on my book is due any week now and I don’t want it clouding over all my answers if it isn’t as encouraging as hoped. Life has made me acutely aware of how much can still change between this point in the calendar and Christmas. Three years ago this month, I went from just-about-hanging-in-there to one of my lowest ever points in a snap. A year later I had one of the best Novembers I can recall. This time last year, Brexit and the election of the tubthumping tangerine were killing my post-Marathon buzz and a company director advised me to write my book instead of accepting a City salary as a copywriter and qualifying for a mortgage in mid-Wales. Afterwards someone called the police because they were worried about a “female in distress” near Farringdon station. A bit excessive; quite embarrassing. Right now, anything nearest 2015 would be great…

1. What did you do in 2017 that you’d never done before? 

Finish writing a book. YES, FINALLY. A WHOLE, COMPLETE, ACTUAL BOOK, with support from TLC and The Arts Council. Twice. The whole business meeting-followed-by-police-incident was an incentive. And nobody died while I was writing it! Super-splendid.

2. Did you keep your new years’ resolutions, and will you make more for next year? 

  • Finishing the book – yes, see above.
  • Taking up a new hobby (Most were too expensive because of learning to drive, so one for next year, even if I can only manage it sporadically).

Next year:

  • More stability in all senses of the word. I say that every year but I hope that at last having written the book which says what has long needed to be said actually helps achieve it.
  • If the above happens, other hopes may follow. I’ve never had a relationship worth shouting about and have consciously chosen not to for the last three years so the idea feels like contemplating a dark room full of nettles, but it would be quite nice if it didn’t.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? One of my oldest friends is due soon.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My favourite question to answer “No” to.

5. What countries did you visit? None. Forget being able to afford a holiday while you’re learning to drive.

6. What would you like to have had in 2017 that you lacked? A driving licence.

7. What date from 2017 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 

  • The annual Time To Talk service at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in Feb. I met an older woman there when I went along alone for the first time in 2015; since then we’ve made it an annual meetup-followed-by-lunch. Not exactly a fun and funky place to hang out, but in this era of connections being propped up by social media, it’s weirdly nice just to have the certainty of seeing someone whom you can comfortably label as something.
  • The London Marathon. Watching not running this time, but just as emotional. Well done Bryony!
  • Handing out Oyster wallets at Waterloo and Canary Wharf for CALM’s Mind The Chap campaign.
  • Doing yoga on Clapham Common with Mental Health Mates.
  • The writing retreat.
  • Listening to Green Light by Lorde alone and surrounded by green fields and rolling hills.
  • Visiting or being visited by friends.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year? Other than the book:

  • Learning Beginners Italian (Ropey – it’s Duolingo; I can hardly put together a sentence and I mix up the plural and singular – but it’s good to learn something new and I want to get to 100%).
  • Being – almost – able to drive. Test in early January I hope!
  • Kicking travel/social anxiety in the proverbial and making it away onto the writing retreat.
  • Being introduced to the media head of a national mental health and suicide prevention charity close to my heart, following a copywriting project I worked on last year. Which, when other people get to see it, we hope will help a lot of them…

9. What was your biggest failure?

  • Money, but most of what I did attempted to address that situation in one way or another so as the past six years go, a success.
  • Not sorting my complicated relationship with Twitter.
  • Wondering whether Brexit views would have ended relationships that could never have happened regardless of Brexit (Excellent use of time, Max, bravo). 

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? RSI while writing the book. Minor head injury.

11. What was the best thing you bought? A cloudy lemonade on one of the hottest days of the year. (The other choices in the vicinity were a selection of spirits, or a Jane Austen centenary mug; same price).

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration? Yours, if you voted Remain last year.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? Yours, if you voted Leave.

14. Where did most of your money go? Learning to drive.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? Finishing the book (among many emotions). Going to places I’ll be able to drive to next year – hopefully on warm summer days, feeling accomplished.

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2017? Sounds Good To Me by Thea Gilmore, from the new album, and Beautiful Day from the one before (I haven’t listened to Songs From The Gutter quite so much this year…). Green Light by Lorde. Cali by Ride. Oh Woman Oh Man by London Grammar. Solsbury Hill and Sledgehammer by Peter Gabriel.

17. Compared to this time last year, are you…?

– Happier or sadder? A low bar, but happier. Hopefully book feedback won’t alter that. (My big dread is being advised to crowdfund or self-publish – there’s a stack of reasons I don’t want to do either of those things).

– Thinner or fatter? Inexplicably thinner. Last year I ran a Marathon. This year I did a slow 10K and ran once or twice a week instead of thrice. Losing half a stone in the last three years is one of the few socially-acceptable reasons I don’t feel like a 33-year-old…

– Richer or poorer? About the same (not a good thing), but see Question 9.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Reclining in the sun.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Applying ice to my neck and shoulders.

20. How will you be spending New Year? I hope, in my friend’s flat with bad films and good food.  Last year I was meant to be hosting but my stomach said no and I ended up on my own with dry toast for dinner. After a bit of a mooch, I watched Dawn French’s Thirty Million Minutes on iPlayer in a candelit bath, which turned into an inexplicably awesome evening. Over the years, I’ve memorably spent New Years Eves: On Hampstead Heath, getting crushed in Trafalgar Square, all-night raving, shivering at house parties, at a Sri Lankan beach hotel on somebody else’s dime, and in High Wycombe lying to people so I could go home early because I hated my life and didn’t feel like celebrating anything. If you think of all someone’s New Years as an overall reflection of them, that sounds fair.

21. Did you fall in love in 2017? There are probably alternate realities I need not to be able to picture before that happens. Such as where I’m 27, and Brexit isn’t even a stupid word let alone a stupid reality.

22. How many one-night stands? I have audio smut for those needs. Unlike one-night stands, no dressing up required – literally or metaphorically. Like one-night stands, the quality varies…

23. What was your favourite TV or radio programme? I loved Apple Tree Yard, Clique, The Man In The Orange Shirt, Strike, Trust Me and GameFace. I also watched all of Veronica Mars S1-3 and rewatched the movie.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? No-one I can think of.

25. Do you like anyone now that you didn’t like this time last year? Not as far as I know.

26. What was the best book you read? Didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked due to writing my own and now have a teetering pile of recommendations.

27. What was your greatest musical discovery? Five years behind the rest of the country, I listened to London Grammar properly. If was a twenty-year-old undergraduate in the middle of a Durham winter right now, Hannah Reid could have my soul silver-plated.

28. What did you want and get? A finished book.

29. What did you want and not get? Paid enough.

30. What was your favourite film of this year? I didn’t have a favourite but I loved having a midweek film day with a friend.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? I was 33 and there was a heatwave. I went for lunch and to see La Traviata with family because it was too hot to do much else, they wanted to see it, and I’d never seen it. Despite being a theatre nerd I’d never been to an opera: it is quite the treat.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? Not opening Twitter or watching the news and feeling like I’d just walked into a room full of smouldering rubbish bins.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2017? Gradually getting the hang of introducing more colour to my non-running wardrobe but still resistant to ditching my swampy footballer’s-widow sunglasses.

34. Who kept you sane? My family, TLC and the Arts Council, whose support and agreement that I should do it in order to move forward and have any chance of returning to normal life (or journalism, if you can call that normal life…) made writing the book possible. Also my friends, and the makers of the very funny My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? (a.k.a “the section that gets sadder every year.”) Let’s not talk about what Nick Clegg looking tired and forlorn did to me at 3am on election night (Apologies to his wife, and to anyone who’s eaten recently…).

36. What political issue stirred you the most? Too easy.

37. Who did you miss?  You don’t need to know that. You do need to know this Thea Gilmore lyric:

“Fingernails, thorn trees, my fickle heart too. So many things in this sad little world grow back, except for you…” 

38. Who was the best new person you met? It was brief but lovely to meet Kate and Jess from the new Oxford branch of Mental Health Mates, which has grown from its London origins into an awesome worldwide phenomenon.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2017: Most of them are in my book.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up 2017: “Honey, I’ll be seeing you down every road.” 

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“That’s just the way it is…” Dyspraxia, careers and the need to please

It’s Dyspraxia Awareness Week. If you’re aware of me, you’re probably pretty aware of dyspraxia, so rather than do a general “Here’s-what-dyspraxia-is” post, I thought I’d be more specific. If you don’t know me but know dyspraxia, you might’ve read something I’ve written about it in a paper, been at one of the same conferences as me or heard me speak somewhere about it. This is not an excerpt from my book, although feels like it could/should be. I may feed it in there when I do another round of editing after the first feedback in…eeek…4-6 weeks’ time…

When I was growing up, even before I’d heard of dyspraxia and been identified as dyspraxic at 21, I often felt negatively blamed for how I could be perceived by others. If someone wasn’t my biggest fan, it was somehow my fault for being somehow offputting. I’m sure it wasn’t always the message intended, but it’s one I often had. I don’t think I was ever directly told that sometimes other people wouldn’t take to me because they had off-days, were different to me in a neutral way, or were just tossers. Or that you just couldn’t win ’em all and nor would you want to (I was tacitly raised to avoid people with a certain worldview, although, growing up where I did, that was fairly difficult to do…). Especially as I went through my teens, if something didn’t go well, someone didn’t like me, or even was indifferent, the question was usually an anxious “What did I do wrong?” I needed to be more like this, or not like that, or do this and not that. Often me. Rarely them.

Being encouraged to self-question and please others was good in some ways, of course. It meant that despite my hopelessness at most practical, numerical or sporty things, I always tried and my efforts were acknowledged. Being able to own your part in why something hasn’t gone well is a generally valued life skill a few world leaders might like to try sometime. But it was also not good. It meant that by the time I applied to university my head was very poorly and I almost didn’t get there or stay there. It meant I took things personally more often than I should, and still do. (I still struggle not to blame myself and keep plugging away if the barest acquaintance doesn’t open up to me, or seems to be keeping a distance for reasons which may have little to do with me). It meant I put up with a lot of one-sided situations, sometimes with suspicion about why I was trying so hard to be liked. It meant a lot of bad behaviour towards me went unaccounted for. When I was 20 and a driving instructor tickled me as I was doing 70 mph on a dual carriageway I questioned my own actions as much as his. When I was in the wrong job I felt sorry for my boss even up to the point where his behaviour amounted to constructive dismissal. I let a bloke imply that it was all down to my intangible shortcomings that – although he liked me a lot – we couldn’t be together (Spoiler: The actual reasons were both very tangible and very unrelated to me…). Humble pie is like any pie – too much makes you sick.

When I was young and applying for full-time jobs in the media I did a lot of silly things but also saw a lot of bad practice, over which I got confused, angry, or blamed myself. If I ever dared object in passing to the way things were done and point out something was unfair – not only to me but in general – I was belittled and patronised and told “That’s just the way it is.” When I first wrote about dyspraxia for the national press I was still young enough to fit into the “here’s a moaning graduate for you to hate” demographic. Now, as I settle into my thirties, I can complain with a bit more authority and impunity. I can say that 90% of job specs and interview questions appear to be written by Kryten from Red Dwarf and are a hideous disgrace, let alone if you’re trying to recruit someone who can write. I can say that the “be ambitious but don’t ask for things because it doesn’t look good” attitude towards people with disabilities – visible or hidden – shuts them out of jobs they could do with the right support. I can say that competitive industries use recruitment tests to shut people out, and disabled people are often collateral. When I was younger, I never questioned why a generalist role at a magazine where only occasional subbing would be required would use the kind of subbing test you’d get for a traineeship at a national daily paper, just as a way of whittling candidates down. Now I do. I’m never going to be a chief sub at The Times but I’m a perfectly good proofreader. I fell into it while I was training for the London Marathon and recovering from a mental health dip and fast freelance work that didn’t require a lot of travel or interaction was ideal. My proofreading and editing has helped dyslexic people, non-native English speakers and all kinds of people who are not confident with language to get jobs, complete PhDs and be accepted onto MBAs. Yet I know there are proofreading tests I’d fail myself if I couldn’t squeeze proofing marks into tiny spaces with a nervous dyspraxic left hand. Things have changed a lot in the ten to fifteen years since I started working  – there is more general awareness of (some) disabilities, and more emphasis for young people on freelancing, flexible working and portfolio careers, which benefit many disabled and marginalised people. But there is still so much more to do. Too many are expected to be doubly grateful for any work or pay they can get. This is despicably wrong.

Seven years ago, in the light of my own experience in the workplace, I started giving awareness training to businesses on how to support employees with dyspraxia, amongst other strands of freelance work. I had several referrals through one particular London organisation which trains firms – from the media to the City – in how to be more disability aware and inclusive. Three or four years ago, a well-paid in-house job came up with them. I applied, got an interview, and then the fear kicked in. Being from a mostly-freelance media background, I didn’t have the HR and legal knowledge they listed under “Desirable”.  I knew that unless I outright lied this would become apparent quite quickly, and wondered whether there might be scope for training or development, but was too afraid to ask in case I came across as too demanding. If I looked bad in the interview they might never hire me for freelance work again and I’d lose a good client. I gave them my apologies and never went. With hindsight, a lot of me wishes I’d gone for it, done my best and asked about the training in the areas I was lacking, because helping companies be fairer in their recruitment of disabled people – and everyone else – is what I want out of life as much as anything to do with writing. I’m past the age where I enjoy moaning or snarking for the sake of it. I do it because I want to help people be better.  I’ve done a lot of trying to be better. How about meeting me halfway…?

Writing retreat week! (Book Edits: 1, Anxiety: 0)

I’ve just spent a very marvellous three and a half-days at the Devon writers retreat Retreats For You – courtesy of my very kind grandma – to help me crack on with book edits. I’d been there twice before but not very recently and perhaps my biggest achievement of the week was getting there at all. For the last three years I’ve suffered from especially debilitating anxiety attacks that are especially brought on by travelling. The retreat was originally offered to me as a birthday present for 2015 but travelling alone, writing books, or spending a week with a group of strangers in the middle of nowhere were all very much off the menu then. Long-term therapy has been helping with the why’s. Thankfully necessity won over anxiety – I have an Arts Council mentoring bursary and a deadline for using it. I’ve been sludging through edits over the summer and knew going away was a matter of now or never.

Retreats For You has also had a tough couple of years and is now under new management after the original owner Deborah D.’s husband died suddenly in early 2016. I was on a train back from a long run when I heard the terrible news shortly afterwards. A crowdfunder was immediately set up by writer and regular guest Angela Clarke (I blogged about it at the time, she wrote about it for City newspaper The Wharf). Like many returning guests I assumed Deborah would close shop. However, she decided to find a buyer so it could continue, and it was taken over at the end of last year, by another Deb, Deb Flint.

I’ll admit I was cautious about the idea of going back at first, not knowing whether it would be The Same without the Deborah and Bob I knew and liked. But much is still the same, and the few changes suited me well. New Deb has kept the twee and cosy spirit of the place, with a bit more of a help-yourself vibe to it. Rather than it being her family home she lives in London half the week so guests get two or three days with her to settle in and one or two days left to their own devices. Everything began in my favour: Avoiding all the train mess at Waterloo by getting on at Basingstoke, then travelling through beautiful rolling hills in heatwave sunshine with National Express by the Divine Comedy in my ears. There were five other guests when I arrived, which is as busy as it gets, plus two resident chubby and docile Labradors, Daisy and Gracie. I had the downstairs room which used to be a TV room and still has a TV, with the neighbouring bathroom virtually to myself. I can live with a single bed when it’s so comfortable. There’s also wifi throughout the house but treat it as a normal working week and you shouldn’t get too distracted; it also helps with anxiety to know I’m contactable if need be. Bob’s former workshop has been converted into a studio for extra writing space. I couldn’t use it because my laptop needs a plug to run but there’s also a huge TV and exercise machines, should you be so inclined. Deb’s helpers Linda and Wendy come in three times a day to do all the cooking and do a great job with everyone’s dietary needs whilst playing vintage music and arguing with the Alexa in the kitchen. There’s a ready supply of tea, coffee, snacks and homemade bread so delicious it’s worth the gastric consequences. Deb has cutely labelled cupboards, walls and containers with magic marker so things are easy to find, and you don’t have to spend most of your week saying: “Sorry, where’s the…?”‘Wine o clock’ is daily at six (and it is the only place in the world where the phrase ‘wine o’clock’ is acceptable to me). There are often tutors in residence for writers to get feedback and mentoring if they want it. The tutor for my week was Jayne Watson (from my hometown! I always meet someone from my hometown when I go anywhere!) I’m already getting feedback from somewhere else through my bursary so I didn’t see the need to pay extra, but from what I overheard the sessions were helpful and those who had them seemed to think so. Jayne was also lovely and told a funny story at dinner about getting pissed with a prominent Old Labour irritant…

I resolved that unlike in the past I wasn’t going to talk much to anyone about what I was writing and instead I’d adopt the Monty Python approach (“Get on with it.”). Generally fellow writers respect this and are similarly modest about their own work. I held my resolve, keeping my mouth shut and my head down. Despite Enya, lavender balm and a good sleep routine, by Day 2 I was knackered and being propped up with matches at the dinner table “You look shattered. You’re suffering, aren’t you girl?” said Jayne as I sat opposite her with my head spinning after one glass of white. I also had neck strain – my laptop stand which protects me from RSI was too bulky to bring on the train. I improvised an ice pack thanks to guest Joceyln – who was into her third week – and propped my laptop up on some big books. The neck strain receded and Day 3 was both productive and pain-free. Deb treated us to a dinner rendition of Cheek to Cheek in preparation for her daughter’s wedding. Someone spotted a Dionne Warwick CD in the hall so we put it on and all sang Do You Know The Way To San Jose. I arrived a quarter of the way into edits and by the end of Day 3 I was just over halfway through. As a last-night treat for reaching my target, me and a couple of the other writers had a movie night and watched Whip It with Drew Barrymore and Ellen Page which was funny and silly and very American. Unlike the finale of Trust Me which we’d watched on Tuesday –  strewth! I chatted to writer Penny who has a blog called Great Things About Cancer, which is candid and funny with no cheesy motivational quotes Photoshopped onto sunsets – big win.

Early on Friday before I left I went for a gorgeous run in the early morning sun out to the nearby village of Totleigh, where the Arvon Foundation have a retreat. I missed the sign for the Arvon house itself and the route was much hillier than I remembered from walking it three years earlier. Thus a 5K run ended up being 8K run-walk but I’d allowed the time for it and who minds getting lost in a big bucket of fresh air and twee? My playlist featured Come Up and See Me Make Me Smile, Lorde’s Green Light, Don’t Give Up by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel (one of my London Marathon anthems), the theme song from St Elmo’s Fire and the Todd Terry remix of Missing by Everything But The Girl (how this has only just made it onto my running playlist I do not know). The downstairs shower I was using throughout the week had no water pressure so I couldn’t rinse my hair very well and by day 3 it looked like straw. But after I came back from running everyone else had finished in the upstairs bathroom so I went in there and had the best shower and hair-wash of my entire life, with high pressured soft water. Deb’s a presenter for a shopping channel so she gets lots of divine hair and beauty freebies and puts them in the bathroom for guests to use. I emerged with swishy shampoo advert hair and smelling like an all-over Boots counter. There’s also a superb massage chair in the living room, which I availed myself of while waiting for the taxi. Apparently my voice was deeper when I’d finished. Ooh-err.

As in previous years, I was the youngest guest by quite a long way. As in, the next-youngest was 48, and most were old enough to have me as a daughter. But I held my own, and left with a feeling Retreats For You had grown with me. When I first visited seven years ago I had little more than a big set of drafted scenes and fragmented notes for a novel. I was not far over 25, financially stable but in every other respect a kid: a little unsure of myself and in need of mothering, which Deborah The First, being a mum of three twentysomethings, was more than happy to do. On my second visit in 2013 I had half a novel but ended up abandoning it a year later at 60,000 words. I arrived this time as a 33-year-old with a completed 90,000-word draft and a gritty determination to Get Shit Done. And I did. And it was lovely.

From the kitchen. A rare motivational quote I can get behind…

 

Driving: The home stretch?! Can this really be it!?

I almost made my driving instructor cry today. In a good way. I’m about 60 hours in now and if my lesson had been a test, I’d have passed with three or four minors. I got a clap at the end and a shoulder squeeze, which is acceptable tactile behaviour for a driving instructor, as opposed to a tickle in the ribs while you’re on a dual carriageway. (For those who don’t know the story, yes, this literally happened to me when I was 19 and came close to taking my test, until I moved to university and from a decent instructor to the archetypal bit-of-a-perv. I wish I’d reported him but I didn’t know how, blamed myself for being kind to him, etcetera. If social media had been around back then I might’ve had more encouragement).

When I first decided to blog about learning to drive I wondered how often I should update. Weekly? Fortnightly? Monthly? The fact that large parts of it are a repetitive and tedious bum-ache has largely taken care of that question. For us clever-with-words-and-stupid-at-everything-else people who know we’re not going to pass in under 20-30 hours (the UK average is 50, FYI), from then on it’s largely consistency. You know the mistakes you make (your steering is too shuffly sometimes, you hesitate at roundabouts, you’re “just a liiitttle bit close on the left there,” your focus takes a mo to recover after a manoeuvre) but you keep making them and you just have to keep going until you stop making them. My instructor says my clutch control is better than some of his pupils who’ve taken more than one test; I know the right gears for every point of every tricky hill but I still manage to bugger up first-lesson stuff related to spatial awareness. As for roundabouts, they’re my continual nemesis and my town has some of the worst ones in the UK outside Swindon. I wish I could slow them down like you can slow someone’s voice down on a dictaphone when transcribing interviews…

Inconsistency has been the irritating watchword the last few weeks. After a test-standard lesson sometime back in May I had a dip in June, including a scary lesson where I suddenly lost muscle memory and kept meeting first gear when I wanted third. Not a good look for a main road, and quite a blow when gears and clutch control are normally a strength. We had to drive up and down back roads until I got it back. I worked out this was down to tension in my wrist and to having driven three different cars in the space of a week as I’d practised parking in both my parents’. For the last couple of lessons after that, I just seemed to be blah-ing along with partly-good/partly-bad lessons that left me wanting to cry with frustration and sheer boredom (sorry, Twitter followers). Today’s was The Breakthrough I’d been waiting for. I aced hill-starts and didn’t fail at roundabouts I still have a bit of residual fear when I’m changing up to third gear and have to do therapy-talk to get rid of it, but no more muscle memory problems. I even did quite a good reverse around a corner, which is my worst manoeuvre because I was never taught it when I was young (I cancelled my test when the aforementioned pervy instructor tried to teach it to me just before I had one booked, with predictably awful results)

I started last June wanting to pass by this Christmas, and I’m still happy with the test being a Christmas present. I need the practice for my nerves, and we still haven’t done the big dual carriageway on the test route which he’s been saying we will for at least three months. But everything looked a bit closer today – including my licence!

On turning 33: Inescapable reminders of being a thirtysomething…

The only things that can keep you awake until 4am anymore are a sudden death or a snap election. The closest thing you have to a celebrity crush is watching Nick Clegg look sad about Brexit….and someone his age could conceivably fancy you without their fitness for high office being disputed. People are asking you difficult personal questions, with difficult personal answers. You’re young enough to count amongst your friends people you know from Twitter or blogging who live less than an hour from you and have met you no more than once or twice in years; but still old enough to find this strange and wonder whether you really should. You’ve actually written a book – one which Arts Council funding is going to help you try to sell – as opposed to the very “Twenties” thing of the perpetual work-in-progress. Being able to drive has moved from a nice-to-have to an essential. Your writer friends quote Bridget Jones in the solemn manner of believers quoting the Bible (TBF, I’ve been called things like “the indie Bridget Jones” ever since I started blogging in my late teens…). You own cookbooks, which you may or may not use. You’ve considered opening a separate savings account for the cost of going to weddings. You got a slightly iffy head from the bottle of supermarket wine you drank by yourself because your married friend announced her pregnancy at the start of a long weekend (TBF, I’m not complaining – big fan of babies, big fan of wine…). Birthday money is less for treats and more for those expensive bits of admin you keep putting off because they’re expensive. Being skint is no longer character-building but soul-crushing. If-onlys and might-have-beens are genuinely serious with implications not only for you. At Christmas you can hope to sink them with cheeseboards, word games and films. A birthday offers fewer distractions. You quite fancy seeing The Killers because you never got around to it back in the day, but thinking of the sorts of people who’d go makes you sigh too heavily. You’re going to the opera for your birthday because mum wanted the family to go for your dad’s birthday but couldn’t get tickets in time, and you’re the right age for it now. You observe that over the years many people you have known have significantly struggled to find their feet in one way or another but most now seem to be doing so. You’re old enough to have known several people die horribly, but still young enough to be in the minority for it – therapy and long-standing friends are great and you are extremely lucky to have both, but it would be great to have more friends who “get it” too. Adversity breeds achievement, a thirst for trying new things and a rush to help others. It also breeds anxiety, moodswings and flipping out over minor inconveniences. You don’t very often look forward to blogging these days, but you miss non-business emailing. Practically the best birthday present you could get from anyone would be a long chatty email; the sort people used to write to each other fifteen years ago. Or even a letter. You still remember actual letters. You’re not sure what you’d actually say in response to one, but you’re sure you’d think of something. No matter how old you are, and for what it’s worth (not very much, apparently…), you will find the words for whatever life hands you and write them down. You’ve been variously told you’ve gone through as much in your thirties as some people have in their fifties. But no-one’s told you how to reconcile with such a fact. You just have to busk that one. Well, we’re all just busking it really, aren’t we?

Never too old for a cause or a sloganed t-shirt: At Canary Wharf and Waterloo last week for CALM’s ‘Mind The Chap’ campaign: https://www.thecalmzone.net/2017/06/mindthechap_june2017/

I actually finished writing a book! And nobody died!

A celebratory hedgehog.
Not actual printout.

Eight years ago my then-boss advised me to write books and do crisis comms rather than continue in that job. Quite perceptively, it turns out. I’ve done plenty of both since. If by writing books you mean writing incomplete books, and by crisis comms you mean talking about my life.

It’s much easier to be writing a book than to have written one. Who knew!? But I’m now extremely delighted to be able to say that for the first time I’ve completed a first draft, which I intend to edit later over the summer and send out into the world early next year. You may or may not have known I was writing it, as I’ve been fairly quiet, or at least, fairly vague about it. Because previous attempts to write books have taught me writing about writing is the best procrastination there is. And getting hung up on what people think of you or it is the best way to get absolutely nothing written.

I abandoned my first proper novel in 2015 after several years of stop-starting. The concept wasn’t sellable enough anymore, I enjoyed the research more than the writing, and above all I often wasn’t in the best of emotional health for doing much at all. For various historic reasons, plus because people kept dying. The book-interrupted-by-death thing became a bit of an in-joke (my friend’s boyfriend quipped: “Have you tried writing novellas? They’re shorter. It might be safer…”) although obviously not ultimately very funny. Cumulative bad experiences put me in a permanent state of waiting for the shoe to drop. I became convinced I shouldn’t write books because it was a bad omen. Which is bollocks, obviously. Although quite fitting too, because many of my previous assumptions about both writing and tragedy have had to be challenged in recent years. I used to assume it would be easy for me to write a book. I was wrong. I used to assume wanting and being able to talk openly about difficult things was the norm rather than rare. Also wrong.

In early 2015 I took up running on my mum’s recommendation, which essentially saved me. In spite or because of it being so utterly alien, running was also immune from my usual self-doubt, to the point I believed I could run the London Marathon. Yes, while telling me I couldn’t even do my job, my brain also told me I could run 26.2 miles. Brains are such a lark, aren’t they. With my writing career seemingly stuck down the toilet, while Marathon training I fell into working as a freelance proofreader (in a very flukey and unsustainable manner I would not recommend, BTW). Marathon running taught me so much more than I’d ever have anticipated about how to approach a big project. So afterwards (with a little slumpy interlude of anger over work and politics) I fell back in love with writing and decided to approach a book like a Marathon. A writing schedule like a training schedule. c.90,000 words, from January to May. And it actually worked.

I soon discovered that typing morning until night seven days a week is not good for your mind or body, that writing can injure you worse than a marathon, and that physio is brilliant but expensive. I bought a laptop stand, enforced bedtimes and an evening laptop curfew and started being kind to myself, similarly to how running taught me to. The book is not all about running or mental health as some have guessed, although it does touch plenty upon them. Besides a lot of running and a lot of therapy, what’s really spurred me on is winning a bursaried read of the opening chapter with TLC, courtesy of the Arts Council and New Writing South. That was at the end of 2015. When I got in touch with TLC again this year with a progress update, to my unexpected delight they said I could have another bursaried read of the final manuscript. There’s still a very long road from here. As I said, I’ll be doing edits in June and July and won’t be querying until January. But under the circs, just having finally got this far without catastrophe is immense enough.

As far as my day job goes, I’m still officially a freelance proofreader but due to a lot of client heartache over the past year I’m rethinking this pretty urgently. I’d like to do more journalism again but wouldn’t everyone; I’d also like to pass my driving test first time in August and have a holiday in the tropics but I doubt either of those will happen. I would certainly like to do more copywriting and social media, either for mental health organisations, or for writing organisations that support underrepresented groups. It’s also partly because I spoke to the director of a copywriting agency who sensed I had baggage, asked about the TLC bursary I’d mentioned on my CV, then sent me away with: “Finish the book before you do anything else” that I decided to commit to it. It was as if I finally had permission.

My celebrations are being hampered slightly at the moment by a stinking cold bordering on flu and someone kindly deciding to clone my bank card last week. Soon after finishing, I had a lovely snotty, croaky ugly-cry at my mum (I swear I’ve done a life’s worth of public weeping the last few years; I’m basically a wandering cucumber). Then I listened to a song I used to play at university on the way to lectures and imagine I was in a film. (Did I just publicly admit that? Oh). But once the lurgy has bleeped off and my bank have sent me a new card, one of my treats for finishing will be going to the Comment Awards Conference and hearing Channel 4’s Matt Frei and the Beeb’s James Harding discuss Fake News. I heard about it through a journalist friend who told me she binge-read this blog, which even my mum hasn’t, so that’s nice.

Thank you all and thank you again.

One year on! Some advice for Sunday’s London Marathon runners…

Hey there April, month of ALL THE BIG FEELINGS. I’m currently busy finishing a big writing project (more on that later…) and trying to fend off some financial bother [nameless client] has left me in. I’ve just been invited to give evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee early next month on my experience in the workplace (Spoiler: My last boss advised me, without irony, to leave my media admin job mid-recession and go and write books…). Late-April is also the anniversary of when I last saw two people alive in person, in the same week of the same year. And, it’s a year since I ran the London Marathon for Mind. Which I’d solidly recommend to anyone looking for a socially acceptable outlet for obsessive tendencies and a penchant for things all-consuming. (It’s better for your mind, heart and finances than many alternatives; trust me…). 

I’ll be at this year’s Marathon on Sunday. Thankfully not running, but with my family and some of the other Mental Health Mates, to cheer on the lovely Bryony Gordon who is running for Heads Together. If you haven’t already, go and hear her Daily Telegraph interview with Prince Harry and subscribe to the Mad World podcast. 

For anyone running this year, or considering it for the future, some tips for the day…

  • Look after your feet. Slather them in Vaesline before you get dressed, clip your toenails to whatever length is most comfortable for you, and wear your best running socks. I was so worried about ruining my feet that they ended up looking better after the Marathon than they do after half an hour on the Bakerloo line in summer…
  • Be comfortably early.  Your Final Instructions magazine should guide you on where you need to be and when.
  • Stash some tissues and plasters in your bra, or whatever the male equivalent is. Mine had a handy front pocket for them. (I had a cold, so I soon ran out of tissues and had to ask the St John Ambulance people for extra, which meant queuing behind a load of people clutching their legs…).
  • Have some spare safety pins on you in case your race number falls off.
  • Keep a couple of paracetamol on you, and any medication you might need This is really important, because the medics on site aren’t allowed to give you any pills. Take them out of the foil or cut the foil so that the corners are round or flat and don’t dig into you.
  • Start slowly. Everyone tells you this, but it’s deceptively hard to do, even in a crowd! Because you’ll have lots of energy from tapering, plus nervous energy, it’s difficult to tell how fast you’re going. I looked at my Fitbit after the first five minutes and saw I was running a five-minute mile. Unless you’re aiming for a three hour finish, you don’t want to be doing that.
  • Use the loo beforehand whenever you can. My dad went to a boarding school where needing the toilet at a slightly inconvenient time was considered a character flaw, so I always try and go if I see one. It’s a helpful approach at running events as the pre-race loo queues are huge. Last year, the Travelodge near Greenwich DLR opened up their ground floor toilet for runners. Don’t panic, though, there are plenty on the route where there will be less of a queue.
  • Keep warm while you wait for your start. The usual advice is to wear bin liners or some old trakkie pants you’re happy not to see again over your kit and just chuck them to the side at the start, where a band of volunteers clear them up and recycle them. If like me you doubt your ability to disrobe quickly in a crowd without panicking and whacking people in the face, just wear a thin long-sleeved thermal top under your vest.
  • Smile hard and enjoy it, but prepare to be bored at times too. New parents always say “No-one told me it could ever be so boring.” As your more experienced equivalent in this situation, I’m telling you, bits will be boring. You will run across Tower Bridge, down the Mall and all the iconic bits you’ve seen on TV. You will also run past endless chicken shops and Deptford retail parks feeling decidedly meh.
  • The pain will be awful at the time but you’ll forget it afterwards. Women who’ve given birth say it’s similar in this respect. I wouldn’t know, but if you have, this may help.
  • Think of the physical pain as a substitute for your emotional pain. Enough said.
  • If you run with music, save it until the second half, when you’ll really need it.
  • Drink your energy drinks gradually from the halfway point onwards. Before that if you need to but certainly after halfway. Don’t wait until you hit the wall.
  • Not everyone hits their wall at Canary Wharf Some do it earlier, I did it later. Canary Wharf was actually one of my favourite bits.
  • Drink plenty of water, not just the energy drinks You’ll want to balance out all the sugary glucose which makes your teeth go fuzzy. For most of the final third, I carried a small bottle of water in one hand and bottle of Lucozade in the other and took small alternate sips. There are plenty of drinks stations as you head towards the finish so you’ll never be short.
  • Don’t try and run the whole thing. If you want to save some energy for the finish line, walk for a mile or two. I had my walk at about Mile 19-20 during one of the dull bits. Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know came on my playlist, and it rained…
  • Know where you’re going to eat afterwards. Everywhere will be full. I booked somewhere weeks in advance, told them I was running, chose my dish from the menu and made sure they’d have it.
  • Be proud and look forward to finding small-talk easier for the next two years.