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…

 

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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.

In which I try to write a book. Again. Hoping nothing awful happens. Again.

Oh, hello, blog. I feel I’ve neglected you somewhat. For a change, this is a blog post about writing. Not about Brexit, or putting my body through ridiculous things for charity…

Seasoned Max Watchers will know that two or three years ago, I was writing a book. I’m no longer writing that book: I stopped writing it at the beginning of 2015 and am still having to grit teeth and explain why; as if I’m going through a divorce…

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to…I didn’t realise you two had…”

“Oh, no no, it’s OK! You know… c’est la vie. Che sera sera. Mange tout Rodney, mange tout…” 

There’s a different book now. Well, there will be, soon. At the end of last year I was awarded a New Writing South bursary for a TLC free read of the first few pages of a memoir I’d started. Fed up with weaving bits of my life into bits of fiction writing that nobody ever seemed to be getting excited enough about, I’d wondered whether it would be better to remove the fiction altogether and write openly about my early attempts at doing journalism. Chapter One’s about the first ever journalistic interview I did, back in 2002, when I was still in my last year at school. The rest’s about where that led: A bit later, 280 miles North; and, very much later, 26 miles around London. Together with the very unique-to-me stuff are the standard experiencees every twenty and thirtysomething can nod along to. You know the ones…

Why do it? The usual reasons people write about experiences: To appeal to people who can relate to them, laugh at them, and help myself move forward from them. I sent the chapter to New Writing South, basically asking: “Do you think this is any good and should I carry on with it?” 

Having won the bursaried read, which basically meant “Yes”, I immediately set about…not writing anything. So far this year I’ve been busy Marathon running, tin-shaking, learning to drive (I meant to blog about that as well didn’t I. Oh. I will, promise!) and getting upset over Brexit. In September I decided that as I started the year with four months of the London Marathon I’d end it by finishing my first draft by Christmas.

Then, there was a death. Another one. People I know seem to keep dying whenever I’m in the middle of writing books. (Friend’s OH: “Have you tried writing novellas…?”) This time it was my dear grandma. Not as horrible and unexpected as the others, clearly, but still family life went pineapple-shaped. Writing did not happen.

It’s now late-October and there are two months (or, 66 sleeps, as e-marketers who still live in 2009 insist on describing it) until Christmas. I don’t even know if it’s physically possible to write about 75,000 words in two months and do anything else, but I would very much like to get something resembling a book written by then. And for nothing else horrible to happen. Obviously….

In other news, yesterday I saw Bryony Kimmings’ A Pacifists Guide To The War on Cancer at the National, a musical about cancer (singing patients! Dancing cells! Inflatable tumours!) which, in her words exactly, tries to make us, Society, suck a bit less at talking about illness and death. Some criticisms of the play, though understandable, remind me a bit of times I’ve felt judged for being open about mental health, or dyspraxia, or bereavement. I think the therapist I see at the moment has sometimes felt I can’t grasp that not everyone feels as comfortable as I do talking/blogging/tweeting about those sorts of things, and that it’s her job to try and make me. It’s not that I don’t understand their reluctance, but I sometimes find it hard not to take it personally because of my stupid brain, which is sort of the whole point of therapy. I must admit I had reservations around Bryony’s earlier play, Fake It Til You Make It, based on her relationship with a depressed man (sour grapes, really, because the way some men handle their depression is not conducive to any lasting relationship at all) . But having seen this play, I’d like to have caught that too. I went with someone who has supported my writing for a long time, and had cancer recently, which made it particularly moving. Thank you!

Unrelated to-anything footnote: For those who read my brief post last month, I wrote to the hospital trust about the person concerned, with recommendations. Thank you to those who persuaded me it was worth doing, and helped with it.

Max Learns To Drive: Part One of Many…

“So, London Marathon done and dusted. What new hobby can I bang on about endlessly in a bid to squash my feelings of social inadequacy and incompetence next?” I wondered.

I could just keep doing the same thing and running more Marathons in more places (the single woman’s equivalent of having another baby every two years…). But, I didn’t get “The Bug” from it. I’m thrilled and proud that I did it, and I’ll still happily run the Berlin Half Marathon next year just for kicks, but I currently have no desire to run a full one again. As far as other projects go, there’s the book, but I’m too shy to talk about it much in case I jinx it like my others. In the longer term, as I’ve said, I’d like to do more directly mental health-themed work, and possibly a counselling training, but a lot of organisations – rightly – have rules that you can’t train or volunteer until at least two to three years afterwards if you’ve been affected by a suicide or a significant mental health dip, so that’s out for a while longer.

One too many frustrating experiences with buses in recent months have pointed me to my answer. My next big Thing should be learning to drive again. Less than 5 per cent of the world’s population have run a Marathon and I have. Half of UK adults drive and I can’t. When you put it like that, it’s a bit silly, really. The need is seeming increasingly urgent for me and for many people my age who are being priced out of London, the only city in the south of England with public transport vaguely fit for this century.

The problem here (i.e the reason I’m nearly 32 and still can’t do it) is that learning to drive is really quite expensive, and I’m really quite bad at it. If you wanted to dream up something to make me feel as horrendously useless as you possibly could, you’d probably invent driving. The last instructor I had was younger than me and several of my cousins’ children have passed their tests before me. Literally every skill driving requires in abundance I find singularly difficult. The clumsiness, lack of spatial awareness, poor short-term memory, poor sequencing and slow information processing might be OK if I wasn’t also enormously sensitive to people having a go at me over all the above. And if all the above didn’t make it so buggeringly impossible to concentrate for more than a minute. And if I hadn’t moved around the country so much with so little money, meaning I never settled down anywhere long enough to learn and pass. I’ve had a ragbag of instructors over the years from the very first who almost gave up on me before I gave up on him, to the one who was really good but then I moved away, to the archetypal flirt who thought tickling me while I was driving down the main dual carriageway out of Durham was a good idea…

If you didn’t know and hadn’t gathered, I’m dyspraxic, and driving is pretty universally a nightmare for us. So much so, I wrote an article about dyspraxia and driving for the Daily Telegraph in 2011. All bar one dyspraxic I’ve ever met either doesn’t drive or found it super-hard to learn. The one strange anomaly, who I met coincidentally through non-disability-related journalism a few months after that Telegraph article came out, said it came naturally to him and even claimed driving was one of his two only real talents (the other was playing the drums, apparently…an intriguing skillset for a PR). But he was a bloke and a master of fake bravado so who knows what to make of that. He also grew up in the countryside, pre ‘elf n’safety, and so, like my clumsy dad, probably learned to drive go-karts and Land Rovers off-road before puberty. That always helps.

My first “try-it-and-see-how-it-goes” lesson is this afternoon and I would honestly rather run another 26 miles or do a skydive. As a handy reminder to you all and to myself, here’s why I’m doing this…

  1. Convenience – No more journeys to the next county that involve three methods of transport and take longer than a flight to Barcelona? Yes please.
  2. Work – The big one. I’ve known radio silences from prospective clients to occur when the phrase “public transport” comes up. God knows how many opportunities have never even occurred to me because I can’t get to them…
  3. I hate being the only person over 20 and under 60 on the bus except for someone reading David Icke.
  4. Being fed up of explaining to inquisitive strangers why I don’t drive. I don’t mind on principle. I’m not ashamed of being dyspraxic. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it every time I meet someone. I’m not ashamed of being a woman but I don’t particularly want to discuss my smear tests with late-night taxi drivers, or a stranger who’s organising a conference…
  5. To help friends who don’t drive for other medical reasons by being able to get to them, and drive them around.
  6. I’ve found a local instructor who says he understands people with neurological conditions, and is himself dyslexic. This is an absolute dealbreaker. (And a miracle).
  7. I’m a sensible adult and am ready for this responsibility. Well, perhaps not, but at the very least, I love nobody capable of sending a distracting text or tweet that’ll lead me to crash my car bonnet into someone’s house. And I almost always wear flat shoes so I won’t be that ninnykins who tries to drive in heels either…
Not Me
Try a Google image search for “car crashed into front door”; it’s fun…

The last time learning to drive crossed my mind I actually pitched the idea of a column about it to a few national newspapers. A couple literally said thanks but no thanks. A couple more said “Nice idea but sorry love, no-one’ll read it because you’re not well known enough.” One really liked it but her boss with the pursestrings didn’t go for it. But, the success of my Marathon blog has persuaded me it might be worth blogging this too. I may get so despondent after a while I don’t even want to blog. Or I may call it quits after the first lesson. Who knows? Whatever happens next, I’m dead keen on hearing from other thirtysomethings who are learning or have learned recently. Do say hello!