I did it…

…and, unless I sit my Maths GCSE a third time, or have to rewrite my whole book because no-one wants to publish it, it’ll probably be the hardest single thing I’ll ever do. But I knew it would be, and acceptance was half the battle. I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at 21 in 2005. Early on during the assessment, I was asked whether I could drive and whether I’d found learning difficult or frustrating (“Does the Pope pray?” “Is Boris Johnson a pillock?”). All bar one dyspraxic person I‚Äôve ever¬†met has said they found it hard or impossible to learn, and the one anomaly was a master of fake bravado (he later died – bad mental health, not bad driving…). In 2011, during my happiest spell as a journalist,¬†I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph about dyspraxia and driving;¬†then had to explain patiently to many people that despite it, I hadn’t actually cracked said milestone myself. I took blocks of lessons during my teens and twenties¬†but was curtailed by multiple moves, lack of money and sporadic levels of enthusiasm for driving, and life. Of the five instructors I had age 17-24, only one got me anywhere near to a test. My first could barely get me into third gear and I didn’t drive again until two years later. Two were barely in their twenties. The older one tried to tickle my ribs as I drove down Durham’s main dual carriageway. I learned on Saturday mornings during my first graduate job and gave up because I was far too tired and consequently far too dangerous.

My iron determination to try again and finally see it through kicked in after I ran the London Marathon two years ago. A few people seemed to enjoy the diary I kept here during the training¬†so I thought I could similarly keep one of my learning to drive. But, while it’s normal to publicly celebrate running a Marathon, driving is…well, leaving it late or finding it hard’s not really something you’re supposed to talk about, is it? Like admitting you’re bad at sex, or struggling to get pregnant. Or grieving¬†(You should totally talk about those, by the way. I’ll help you do it).¬†More importantly, though, learning to drive is really quite dull. The basics can come fairly soon, even to a dyspraxic, especially if you’ve driven before. After that it’s just endlessly, boringly making new mistakes and repeating old ones for a long, long time until you get there. I’d expected it would probably take me two or three tests and 12 to 18 months of lessons to pass. It took me fifteen months to drive to test standard, another four months to book a test, and after another four months I still hadn’t passed. I failed the first due to two epic nervous brain farts at the beginning, with just two other minors. The second test a month later was infinitely more pleasant and I thought I’d done well, only to discover I’d failed for wrongly using the left-only lane at a roundabout, and not looking left before turning right at a junction where I thought there was only unused industrial land that side. After the third, another month on, I came back and lay face down on the grass for half an evening. Now well into worse-case scenario territory, I decided it might just help if I expected to pass next time rather than hedging my bets, and tried to put it to the back of my mind rather than overthink every permutation of test route. My driving instructor who overthinks and takes his job nerdily seriously (funny how we got on…) has spent two years emphasising the importance of keeping a positive attitude to driving. He would praise lessons where I had a serious fault but exuded confidence over those where I made no mistakes but drove as if I was driving through Pyongyang in a New York taxi. Sure enough, being quietly confident about my next test – quietly being about about as good as it gets – did seem to make the run up feel easier.

And so, attempt number four. The test centre was much less busy than on previous visits – a big help to begin with. Driving test centres, you may recall, have the combined atmosphere of a hospital wing and the worst places you’ve ever temped. There are lots of signs imploring you to relax and, usually, lots of smart, under-confident young girls being comforted by their gormless, over-confident older boyfriends. Everyone sits in the waiting room nervous-laughing and deep-breathing as they wait for the examiners to come down in their high-vis jackets and call out the names. I was first up, and remembered the examiner from my second test – another good sign. (“We’ve met,” I said, a bit too eagerly. He remembered I was “A writer of some sort.” I remembered he was called Ian). The cardinal rule of driving tests everyone tells you is not to worry about things you think you’ve failed for as you go along. Guess what, this is easier when you’re not on your fourth test during a heatwave. I hoped that I’d be given parallel parking as my manoeuvre, which I am inexplicably very good at, thanks to the one good instructor I had in my youth who made me practice it for an hour at a time. I hadn’t had it on any of the previous tests, so it was likely. Instead, I was told we were going to do the manoeuvre first and do a bay park in the car park –¬†my least favourite manoeuvre and possibly least favourite anything. “God, I’m sorry, I’ve lost this, how many go’s am I allowed?” I said, convinced I’d already failed and strangling the urge to run out of the car weeping before we’d even left the test centre. But then I remembered my instructor’s advice to me umpteen times that manoeuvres are very difficult to fail for. Examiners are lenient with them as most people cock them up simply due to nerves, especially if you have to do one first thing.

The drive seemed a mixed bag. Definitely some comfortable stretches, definitely some Moments. I was convinced I’d failed for at least one other thing, possibly a couple. I faffed about a bit trying to change lanes early on. Later, a car came flying uphill at me just as I’d passed a give way line on the blind spot of a notoriously dangerous winding road where no-one who wants to live should attempt the speed limit. I yelled something plaintive and was told politely but firmly to STFU and concentrate. There’s a small mosque on the outskirts of town and I had to drive up a street rammed with Friday lunchtime worshippers. (No racism from the passenger side, however. Hooray!). Further up, I had to pull in close behind a car because of an illegally parked van obstructing the road and was convinced I hadn’t left enough room or would be marked down for being prompted to reverse back/edge forward/generally stay calm. I knew the point at which we were going back to the test centre, and those last few minutes passed by uneventfully. I waited in the driver’s seat, slugging from my water bottle and trying not to look across. Ian did not seem especially as if he was about to impart good news. He seemed as if he was sweating and wanted to go home, which, strangely enough, I could empathise with.

“Well, Maxine, that’s the end of the test…”

I waited for the “I’m afraid/I”m sorry…”

“And I’m pleased to tell you that you’ve passed.”

I’m afraid it all went very X Factor and weepy for a moment.

“How many minors did I get?” I asked, when I could speak. I got seven, mostly for the bay park – as many as I had in the other three tests combined. You’re allowed up to fifteen minors on one test, the average is 8-10. They’re all indicated on your test report. “Have a look; but no need to dwell on them,” he added – the sign of someone who either knows me too well or not at all.

That was last week. Since then, I’ve had one very jittery little drive with a scared mum and a few much more pleasant little ones with a less-scared dad, where I realised my seat had probably been too far forward the first time (slow clap Max). My instructor left me with two pieces of advice: To self-monitor my dyspraxia (Essentially, don’t drive when tired, angry or hungry. You know, like everyone else on earth) and to push myself beyond easy familiar routes. I’m torn between thinking it’s perfectly OK to be a timid local driver forever, and agreeing with him that I have not put all this time and money into learning just to tootle to Tesco and back. After other milestones – degrees, diplomas, shortlistings – I haven’t always had the confidence to unlock the doors those milestones were supposed to open, and it wasn’t until I ran the Marathon at the age of 32 that I really learned to appreciate the magnitude of something I’d done. I don’t want to repeat the past with driving. Speaking of running, I have wondered whether a similarly methodical approach to driving would help, building up to more ambitious drives in a similar way my training plan built me up to running more ambitious distances.

Next up, I have a motorway lesson in September (I’ve already had one as the law very recently changed to allow learners on), and probably another night lesson as the nights draw in (I’ve driven in darkness before but I can’t even remember whether it was this winter or last…). I am old enough now to know there’s a pattern to my achievements: One, I can go into an anticlimactic slump afterwards. This needs to be carefully contained so that it doesn’t go on for months (Or, indeed, years. Hello 2011-14). Two, I daftly make a mental note of those who haven’t been in touch to congratulate me for it, as well as the 100-odd people who have, including people I haven’t spoken to in decades, and The Dyspraxia Foundation. In this instance, the people who haven’t made contact haven’t because they’re dead (definitely), or on holiday (probably). Nothing much to be done about either, is there? As I said on Twitter recently, I’m not just happy about passing my driving test for what it is. I’m happy because it’s the first achievement in all my adult life I haven’t clouded by wishing someone would and/or could get in touch. At least, not to the point any pleasure is removed from it. This feels rather lovely.¬†Oh, and now I have a free hour to spend applying for this and a spare ¬£162 a month not to spend on lessons and tests. That feels rather lovely too. See you on the road…¬†

Also, if you have recommendations of any advice/resources aimed at new drivers who aren’t teenagers, please sling them my way!


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…?

‚Äď 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).

‚Äď 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…

‚ÄstRicher 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…?

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.