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.

“Don’t do everything I did…” Some advice for new freelancers.

Six years ago this week I became self-employed full-time for the first time. Going freelance was something I’d vaguely expected to be doing circa my 45th birthday or some mythical point in the future when I had some sort of handle on life. I was 26.5 years old, and trying to convince myself that I was making a positive, go-getting choice, even though it felt like a choice in the way one execution method over another would. The thing is, I’m good at writing, not very good at anything else (as I was emphatically told when I tried to do anything else), and, you might have noticed, there aren’t a lot of staff jobs around for writers. What else could I do?

My preparation for this adventure amounted to a couple of how-to books, a couple of lessons on pitching during my journalism training (four years earlier), and one two-hour workshop in Grays Inn Road run by a couple of experienced freelancers. Despite the ad-hoc muddling through, things were all tickedy-boo for a while. Work built up nicely. Within six months, I was edging towards my former staff salary and being able to support myself. I was beginning to feel a bit pleased with myself – dare I say smug. Then it all changed. By “changed”, I mean “pretty much effing fell apart.”  One of my best friends died suddenly and horribly, and part of me felt guilty for having flaunted my new-found contentment at him. It’s difficult to explain exactly why and how, and this isn’t the place. Suffice to say, there wasn’t a “Dealing With Complicated Freelancer Grief  Not Long After Redundancy” module at my journalism school. Nor was there a “Dealing With Repeat Grief When Another Friend Dies The Same Horrible Way Three Years Later” module. Some things, you just gotta wing…

In recent years I’ve started to get emails from strangers asking for my advice or “top tips” for going freelance. My biggest advice is to be very suspicious of anyone keen to offer you advice. It’s highly unlikely to be anything you haven’t already heard, or that will guarantee you success. Then I realised, the advice you need most is not how to guarantee success but how not to really mess up. And I’ve got plenty of that. So here we are:

  • Be sensible. The first few months of self-employment can feel a bit like being a giddy student again with your own money (acutely so in my case, as one of my writing subjects was higher education, and I wrote for my undergraduate university’s alumni magazine, among other places, from national newspapers to teen pop fan annuals…). But just because you can drink wine at three in the afternoon and call it a work meeting, doesn’t mean treating your job like a paid Freshers Week is a good idea.
  • Make a crisis plan Stable work can take the edge off the worst personal tragedy. Work instability can add to one enormously. Remember the D’s (Debt, Divorce, Death) and be prepared for situations that might mean a big drop in productivity or earnings. Obviously don’t start dividing up your wedding crockery or writing obits for all the family, but do some quiet mulling over. It’s not just events that can affect you in themselves, but getting back into work after time off. Taking time away from a business in the first year is like starting from scratch, and a safety net of savings can store up trouble for later. Beside the obvious lack of sick pay, holiday pay or compassionate leave, something else incredibly important, and not widely known is that it can be much harder for self-employed people to get financial help from the state if work dries up. To be entitled to Job Seekers Allowance (a.k.a “the dole”), you have to be able to show that you’ve stopped working, and that this is for reasons beyond your control (i.e, due to market conditions, not that you’ve just packed it in one day because you’re bored). If you’re self-employed this can be much harder to prove, and given the dystopian lottery of the system in any case, don’t count on it.
  • Make a spreadsheet If numbers aren’t your friend (*cough*), get someone numerate to set it up for you. It doesn’t have to be fancy; it does have to make sense to you. Keep a separate sheet within the same document for a budget.  Work out a minimum disposable income by subtracting your essentials from your most reliable source of income. If you’re single, until you’re on more than about 40-50K, you probably don’t need an accountant. If you’re married and want to stay married, you probably do.
  • Manage your expectations about what “contacts” can do for you  If you’ve ever spent time with jobbing actors, you may’ve noticed they seem to hang around with all sorts of fancy-pants people but it rarely seems to help their career much. If you’re self-employed, especially in a competitive field, you’ll constantly hear “It’s who you know.” and about how “So-and-so got a job from a tweet”. Reality’s a bit more complicated than that. It could take months or years, if at all, for a new contact to win you work. Yes, a “gissa job” tweet or blog post could turn into one of those “How-I-Got-My-Dream-Job” magazine features. But it’s much more likely to win you a small project worth a few hundred pounds that takes months from first contact to payment. Even if you meet someone really “successful” or famous, unless they’re in a direct hiring position it’s unlikely they’ll be able to help you quickly. They’re also difficult people to build lasting relationships with as they’re so busy and so inundated with communications. It’s best to think of big-hitters in your address book as a boost to your confidence rather than your bank account.
  • Get used to a new relationship with time It’s extremely difficult to work to a specific time when there’s no-one there to care. It just is. You’ll probably never manage to be at your desk at 9:30 sharp. Rather than get locked into a miserable battle with yourself, accept it and be flexible and realistic. Instead of setting a specific time to start or finish work, set a window, e.g “Between 9:15 and 9:30”. and you’re more likely to stick to it. (N.B: This advice only applies to working on your own, not to things involving others. Respect other people’s time and deadlines if you want a) work b) to be liked in general). 
  • Don’t meet people at stilted “networking events”. Just meet people I’ve never been attracted to anyone on anything called a date, or met anyone useful to my work at anything called a networking evening (At one I went to, I met an unemployed male graduate posing as a Woman’s Hour producer. I sensed something was up when he hadn’t heard of the Wonder Stuff, which a BBC radio producer really should have…). Go to a couple of those things at the beginning, so you can tell everyone who suggests it that you’ve done it. Then just go to what moves you and meet people while you’re there. Conferences, talks, panels, workshops, museums, theatres all have interesting people in them. Books about networking I keep meaning to read and haven’t but that perhaps you should: Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed, and the Underconnected by Devora Zack and Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
  • Do your due diligence Sadly, people you meet in business situations aren’t necessarily any more trustworthy than random people you meet anywhere else. When you’re self-employed, you need to think like a journalist, even if you aren’t one. It’s not creepy, it’s sensible. Being taken in by someone can cost you time, dignity and work. Public records are public – use them. Look people up and be prepared for awkward discoveries. Do basic fact checks and background checks before you share things online. Before you follow or meet new people online, do a basic sweep of their recent activity and who else they follow on social media (Despite thinking I’d learned these sorts of lessons embarrassingly a long time ago, I nearly got into some bother again just the other week…)
  • Know your “Night Twitter” if you’re working late… #JustSaying  Everything you were warned about late nights at the office applies to Twitter. As does everything you’ve ever been told about talking to strangers in pubs and on public transport. Social media after 10pm is like London after 10pm: it contains a lot of people whose relationships and emotional health are precarious. Very precarious, if they’re retweeting from those inspirational quote accounts run by spammers in Honalulu. (Incidentally, a good general life tip: if someone quotes: “Don’t promise when you’re happy or decide when you’re sad,” expect them to do both…)
  • Yes, talking to yourself when you’re alone is normal, don’t worry An old colleague of mine who’s recently left her job posted a Facebook status asking this question and the responses are the largest thread of solidarity and reassurance I’ve ever seen…
  • Yes, you will get past “That Stage” soon, don’t worry… Ahh yes, Mitchell and Webb’s “working from home” sketch* – referenced with a wink by many a tipsy freelancer. (*Polite warning: Not suitable for kids, workplaces, or people who aren’t on rude-jokes terms with me. Hi mum, go away…)
  • When you’re asking for free advice, know where acceptable ends and taking the mick begins Be brief and specific; ask politely; don’t ask people who can only tell you what you know already. And only ask people whose advice you’re actually interested in – if you’re just sticking a pin in Google, it shows.
  • If you pay for a mentor or coach, make sure they’re actually going to be any use  You can take general advice from anyone at all (hi…!) but you should only pay for advice about making money from someone who has it. I once used money from my savings to pay for someone so expensive and so useless I felt I’d been pickpocketed. Before you hand over a bean, you should know these things…:
  1. Have they actually worked in your field or something close enough? (In this decade…)
  2. Do they earn enough from it to support themselves on their own full-time? (if that’s your aim). If not, what portion of their income do they make from it, and where does the rest of their money come from? Have they made more money from giving advice than actually doing the job? What help from family, a partner, savings, investors, loans or bursaries have they had? You don’t need a half-hour accounts presentation, but you do need some basic honesty about this.
  3. Are they just going to tell you things you can read for free on the internet?
  4. Are they just going to tell you what you already know from university/training?
  5. If they’re passing on contacts, how sure are they that these people can actually help you, or are they really just doing it to fill time/cheer you up?
  6. If you have a disability or health condition, do they understand anything about it and what it means for your work?
  • Remember, remember, remember, that “success” is never the whole story  Self-employment is often a giant smoke and mirrors game and the people who you think are “successful” are probably hiding a lot. Nobody heavily in debt, living off loans or living off somebody else is ever going tell you that.
  • Be prepared to become a lot more cynical. And a lot more excitable. Sometimes at the same time “You see the best and worst of human nature” is a true cliche of many jobs. I was never a rose-tinted specs woman. I am now so cynical Halfords could bottle me and sell me as battery acid. But, I am also capable of finding joy in tiny things like pepper mills and parmesan cheese dispensers. (Which, for a writer, is a pretty useful skill. You’re lucky if you get paid to write about something a lot of people find exciting…)

Phew, that was a long post. But come on. It’s January. We’re both waiting on inboxes to ping here; you probably needed the distraction didn’t you…

NaNoWriMo, anyone?

Me, a few days ago: “Hmmm, if only there was some sort of external structure that would help me finish my book’s first draft and make it a less lonely process.” 

Present me: “OH MY GOD! NOVEMBER! NANOWRIMO!”

In all human history, has any professional writer (in the loosest sense of anyone who’s ever been paid anything to write some words) actually successfully completed Nano? If you have, feel free to share your experience!

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.

End-of-week rant: Not everyone can wait for “success” to disclose a health condition

Very recently I saw a prominent writer and journalist tweeting about trying to get a diagnosis for a neurological condition often found under the same “umbrella” as dyspraxia.  My first thought was: “Cripes, here we go. She’ll be accused of doing this for attention;” the standard trolling line thrown at any well-known person who discloses anything personal. My next: “Well, isn’t she lucky she got to write about plenty of other things before she had to tell anyone about that…” 

That probably came off as more snarky than I want to sound. I have nothing against the writer at all. I really like her writing on some subjects, and I empathise with what she was tweeting about how her condition affects her (it’s not the same as dyspraxia but there are overlaps, especially around the effect on mental health). A neurological condition or mental illness doesn’t stop when you’re on top, as I well know having met a few prominent writers in the same “league” as her who live with various ones and struggle the same as anyone. And we all know that – tragically – “successful” people can take their own lives (some of whom in any case probably didn’t have quite the careers they portrayed…). “You can’t suffer from X because you’re rich/famous” is an ignorant and dangerous belief. But it’s also important to point out that not everyone with a health condition has had the chance to build a dream career before they have to tell others about it. For some, a full disclosure to Occupational Health is the only way they’ll ever hold down any job. Many more never disclose for fear of losing one.

I went public about my dyspraxia, not when I became a famous writer with millions of Twitter followers (you’ll notice…) but because of an experience in my first full-time job, which had been advertised as a writing job but was 95% admin, i.e not my best suit. Whilst I was hanging on in there, I contacted a firm who specialise in career coaching and workplace needs assessments for disabled and neurodiverse employees; mostly in government and big biz. The director said that under the circumstances I seemed “a very together lady” (I didn’t feel like one whatsoever, but was grateful). A year later, she asked me to speak about my experience of dyspraxia in the workplace at a conference in London she was giving to some managers of large organisations. From there, very gradually, came more speaking and writing gigs. Selflessly I did it because I wanted to help others not go through what I did. Selfishly I also needed money and experience, and after two years in a well-paid admin job it was the only way I could get paid to write. When I applied for staff jobs (the few that there were at the height of the recession) the response mostly amounted to: “Lol, no, you’re in what’s basically an admin job and you’ve hardly done any journalism for two years; get lost, love.” I think having a good education and training, plus work experience going back years followed by admin made me seem more suspicious somehow. My CV seemed to be asking: “Aye aye, what’s gone wrong here then?”

I tried to write out-of-hours as much as I could during my full-time job (often for free, even though I was 25 at the time and had been writing for audiences since my late teens). Unfortunately this had the unhelpful consequence of irritating my boss by strengthening his belief that I was in the wrong job and should leave and do what I was actually good at, rather than cocking up admin and threatening his Belsize Park mortgage application.

After I left the job, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about dyspraxia, and a few more for the national press. Consequently, I am “the lady who writes about dyspraxia. And sometimes mental health.” I’m very honoured to have been given this opportunity; to have family and friends who are by and large understanding and have supported me emotionally and financially through difficult times. It’s heart-warming to get an email from a stranger saying I’ve helped them or made them feel less alone (just the other day, a Westminster PA told me sincerely she thought she recognised dyspraxia in herself). I wouldn’t swap what it’s done for me for the world. I’ve met lovely, fascinating people everywhere from assembly halls to the House of Lords. Surreally there was even a thread about me on Mumsnet – a nice one. As I’ve said recently, in the light of events of the last few years, I specifically want to move my writing more directly into the mental health field.

But all this is not how I planned my life. I would rather have written about dyspraxia, or anxiety, or depression, after becoming a theatre critic, or a political correspondent, an education correspondent (one of the most interesting and life-changing things I’ve done in journalism is write for my uni’s alumni mag), or goodness-knows-what else I wanted to be ten years ago when I was 22. These days, if I apply for anything not disability or charity-related, I’m usually politely told something which translates as  “You write well but your experience doesn’t fit with our brand.” If someone wants an article about dyspraxia I can reasonably expect to be chosen to write it. If I pitch a general piece about – say –  relationships, consumer issues or careers; well, there are plenty of better-known writers who can do that. So, I can only move about within the quite small and cut-to-the-bone sector I’m in. I did manage to break the mould for a while back in 2011 (my freelancing glory days…) and do a bit more arts/generalist writing, but the shock of my friend’s suicide halfway through the year took me away from that. The only way I feel I’ll ever become more versatile now is by turning my media experiences into a book and trying to make it as darkly funny as my life will allow (Someone else agrees with me: I won an Arts Council/New Writing South/TLC bursary just before Christmas and am working on it now). Meanwhile, the trollumnists who occasionally like to bemoan people getting rich out of “the disability lobby” or “the social justice industry” might like to have a look at my bank statements from last year and see where I live.

Bottom line: Talking about conditions that affect me wasn’t something I did after I’d achieved enough in life to do it safely; it came from trying to do the best I could under limiting circumstances. Celebrities and public figures absolutely should raise awareness of neurodiversity and mental health, and it’s fantastic that they do. But we should remember that the less-famous sometimes talk about it because we have to as much as want to.