April, month of Absolutely Everything

Gosh, it’s been a bit of a while since I was here last, hasn’t it. A busy while.

And so, we go live to April, the home of big feelings, anniversaries and so on (see also, July, November, Christmas, my birthday. Basically I’m a cucumber with legs and a face throughout most of any given year now. But April’s the daddy of them all…). Despite my best intentions to space events out, everything has converged around the last fortnight of the month like an annual blue-arsed fly convention. Maybe being incredibly busy and incredibly knackered seems a good way of handling things to you; maybe it doesn’t. Whatever. I am it, and I am – touch wood – doing well.

Late-April is exactly seven years since I last saw two people I knew separately alive in the same week. We had an early heatwave and an imminent Royal Wedding then too. Late-April also means it’s two years since I ran the London Marathon (no heatwave then, thank God. In fact, it was bloody freezing, which was OK for me. Not so much for my poor parents who had to stand and watch for 5 hours after they’d just come back from four months in the southern hemisphere…).

As I recently said on Twitter, recent years have basically represented me going through what anyone goes through when faced with the possibility of losing/not having things which our society assumes/expects you inherently get/keep. You make your own normality. In January, probably the most important piece of work I’ve written in years was finally signed off, after two years of back and forth and will-it-ever-happen. It very much did, and the feedback has been very much great. At the same time, having spent the better chunk of 2016 running huge distances and the better chunk of 2017 writing and editing my book, I arrived at the “Shall I spend 5K in relocation costs in order to take a two-year contract job at a department which may not even exist in a years’ time, or invest half that money into my business to make it better instead?” crossroads, and I chose the latter, relaunching my business with a stronger identity and focus. So, say hello to Genuine Copy. I’ve kept meaning to blog about it here and not done it – my website will speak for itself soon, when it fully goes live. If you know me well, I’ve probably already told you something about it, and you’ve probably said something lovely and encouraging. Thank you!

This month I was also chosen as one of fifty “rare minds” to attend RARE London’s two-day masterclass, designed for mid-career people in the creative industries and aimed at encouraging greater diversity in those industries. As a freelancer I was awarded a scholarship place next to people who’d had theirs paid for by the likes of YouTube, Google and Saatchi & Saatchi, which was extra rewarding. It couldn’t have been a better first outing for my business, or a better illustration of what said business is about.

What else? Early next month, all being well, I’m sending my book out to a first batch of agents. And being generally eager to discover what the next few months will bring, on every front….

Oh, and did I mention the small matter of my driving test? I postponed booking it for at least six months, and have been postponing taking it for at least the last four months.  But I’m doing it this time. INCREDIBLY soon. For definite.

At some point in all this, I might manage a drink and a little lie down. With you, if you’re so inclined (Ahem, the drink, not the lie down. I am slightly more discerning on that front…).

 

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Helpful places that could do with your help this Christmas

Dear writers, journalists and whoever,

If you’re lucky enough to be in the position that you and your friends have everything you need and don’t have to worry too much about money, giving to charity instead of buying Christmas presents is a lovely idea. As my (probably) last blog post of 2017, below are some great causes I have given time or money to in the past, and/or which have helped me in difficult times, that you might like to consider helping. If you know me but not well enough to see me or buy me anything for Christmas, I would also be very honoured if you would donate to any of them in my name.

A disclaimer: I can be cautious about cheerleading too much for any one organisation, as different people’s experiences of using the same one for support can be very varied. However, if you use a service as a vulnerable person and get someone unhelpful it’s always worth persevering and asking for someone else. I had a so-so experience with Cruse Bereavement Care and another extremely helpful one when I reluctantly went back three years later. While I wish I hadn’t needed it twice, the support I got the second time was amongst the best I’ve ever had for anything.

Here’s the list…

Mental health support

As well as national charities Mind, Heads Together, Rethink, Young Minds and The Mental Health Foundation consider donating to small local charities providing counselling and therapy for free or at reduced rates, such as Number 22 in Berkshire. While the Samaritans do great work for a lot of people, their volunteers aren’t trained mental health professionals. With NHS services thin to the bone at the moment, local dedicated charities are pretty much the only qualified support available to anyone who can’t afford anything from £50 to £500 an hour to see a therapist. They need all the money they can get. Organisations that train people in mental health first aid and suicide prevention are worth your time too.

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) are specifically a male suicide prevention charity I do volunteering bits for, and they’re lovely. Their helpline also uses trained counsellors.

Support for people on low income 

  • Trussell Trust – the main provider of food banks in the UK.
  • Shelter and StreetLink  for homelessness.
  • Arts Emergency – An alternative to old-school-tie networks, supporting young people from underrepresented backgrounds making a living in the creative arts.
  • Regional writing organisations provide Arts Council bursaries to talented low-income writers – the Free Word Centre has more information and links – they are also office neighbours with the lovely TLC, who’ve supported me.

Human rights 

  • Reprieve – Provides free legal and investigative support to those facing torture, execution, rendition and extrajudicial killing or imprisonment.

Bereavement support

Woman-focused organisations

  • Refuge – support for women affected by domestic violence, including gift parcels for families spending Christmas in refuges.
  • Women’s Equality Party. What it says on the tin. You can join if you’re a member of another party.
  • Bloody Good – offers sanitary products to those who can’t afford them, including refugees, and campaigns to end period poverty.

Other organisations close to my heart

  • The Dyspraxia Foundation are the only national UK charity supporting people with dyspraxia.
  • Bliss supports premature babies and their families. I bumped into one of their trustees by chance when I was a spectating at this year’s London Marathon and told him I was one. That was a nice conversation.

Thank you for reading and have a lovely Christmas.

An little update on my book’s journey

(…for some reason I always imagine “journey” said in an elongated Scouse accent although I’ve never heard any actual Liverpudlians say it – and I used to watch Brookside unironically…).

Book feedback – the first set of editorial notes on my first ever completed manuscript – came through a couple of weeks ago and, as you may have gathered, I haven’t taken myself off across the country and locked myself in a Premier Inn for several days crying as per my worse-case. i.e, it was more good than bad. Not only good but very encouraging and at times even profoundly moving. A book report is something of a combination of editorial feedback and a therapy session – helpful if, like me, you’re an old hand at both.  Like an editor in journalism or copywriting, the reader will have tastes, instincts and market awareness. Like a therapist, they won’t explicitly tell you what to do. They’re just there to ask questions in order to draw out what they see as being important from what you present to them. It’s likely there are things you need to do to make things better that you’re too tired to fix and having someone else point them out, along with what’s working well, will help.

My reader has had some remarkably similar life experiences to me around invisible disability and grief, which she shared beautifully. She especially related to what I expressed in the book regarding both, about having a tendency to over-explain myself in order to be better understood and more believed, and the sad irony that it sometimes seems to repel the very people it most wants to convince. Being of a different generation (She’s a boomer; I’m a Xennial, apparently, FYI) she was also particularly interested in the aspects of the book relating to the internet and online friendships (and the way modern technology particularly indulges the thirsty temptation to keep plugging away the more you sense someone withdrawing from you…). She feels that the relationship between my dyspraxia and the internet/blogging/social media could be the book’s timeliest selling point.

There are still a couple of problem areas I need to look at before it’s ready to go out to agents; hopefully fairly early next year. My reader and I both agree on what they are and why they exist. So with that I will resist the temptation to write more about writing and actually get on with doing the edits. Things all got a bit poignant on Saturday night when I was mulling over a new edit schedule while watching the film Spike Island on BBC2. (Read the book and you’ll know why…).

In other “life goals now scarily and excitingly closer to real” news, I’ve booked my driving test for early February. Similarly, I would rather get on with prepping for the test and training for the Berlin Half Marathon right now than write about it, but I expect I will at some point before it happens (not 11pm the night before, ideally…). Less of the Christmas, more of the 2018 please…

As an old friend used to say:

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. I mostly remember what sex is thanks to Night In My Veins by The Pretenders…

23. What was your favourite TV or radio programme? I loved Apple Tree Yard, Clique,  The Man In The Orange Shirt, Strike, Trust Me, Doctor Foster series 2, GameFace, Love Lies and Records, Motherland and The A Word. 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.” 

“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!