Highway Star: In which I finally find time for a driving blog post, which seems to require a Deep Purple song reference…

As plenty of you know, I’m currently 32 and learning to drive. Combined with freelancing, looking for contract work, Pilates, training for the London 10K in May, and trying to finish writing a book, also by May. (Doing things by halves, as ever. Might pop over to the IMF later and see if Christine needs a hand with anything….).

I’m now seven months (about thirty hours) into having lessons, and at the consciously-incompetent stage, which is the stage between “Yay, I drove and didn’t kill a child” and “Oh balls, not killing a child isn’t enough to be proud of anymore. I actually have to understand roundabouts and filter lanes, will I ever.” It’s the “I’ve come a long way but gosh, there’s still a bloody long way to go” stage. The stage where thinking about the sheer number of reasons it’s possible to fail a driving test is enough to make you want to move to an abandoned island for reasons other than political…

Since October, when my instructor suggested I book a test for January and I replied “LOL HELL NOPE”, I’ve been putting off having the conversation about how things are going and when my test is actually going to be, in a way that indicates why my longest relationship has lasted months. In the summer I hope, but my instructor is now being as specific as Theresa May on Brexit. Generally the very “best” learners take under 20 hours, the UK average is around 50 and the weakest can take between 80 and 100. His record is 140 hours and counting. I can’t even begin to imagine affording so many, so I bloody well hope that’s not going to be me (Oh, and a tip: Don’t look at online forums for learner drivers. They’re full of teenagers who think everyone learns in under ten hours – I had enough of that circa 2001, thanks). 

The good news about driving is that clutch control – which many dyspraxic people struggle with to the point they’re recommended automatic cars – is dead easy for me and I’m pretty confident using gears (well, except sixth gear which I forget exists and don’t use. Car, you’re a learner Citroen, not a Maserati; get over yourself). I was also taught three-point turns and reverse parking a lot when I was much younger, before moving north to university disrupted my learning, hence I can do those pretty fine, once I’ve mapped out the reference points and remembered which key principle applies to which manoeuvre (I can almost remember how to do a three point turn better than I can remember how to spell manoeuvre, and I’m a copywriter and journalist…).

Driving is also helping me become a more decisive pedestrian because I realise how unnerving it can be for a driver when people hover by the road not sure whether to cross, or nonchalantly stroll out without looking. And I’m better at trusting that people will stop for me when they’re supposed to, even though drivers regularly zoom up to the pedestrian crossing near where I live as though it’s a pit stop.

My nemesis in driving (and life generally, pretty much) is spatial awareness. Although it’s improved a great deal with age, thanks to a decade of walking around with music in my ears, five years of semi-often Pilates classes, and two years of road running, it is still emphatically Not My Best Feature. It manifests as clipping my elbows/knees/ankles on things more than most (although no injuries from running, touch wood). On the road it manifests as being told I’m too close to the kerb quite often, and making a hash of finding a sensible place to pull over beyond the stage when I probably should.

Specifically the most difficult bits for me right now are steering and roundabouts. I’m starting to work out the small ones OK on my own, but the big multi-lane ones are still a salad. I did some of the massive ones quite fearlessly when I was younger, or I must have done because I drove a lot and got quite close to test standard (during one of the worst mental health periods of my life, incidentally). But I had a hairy incident on a busy one last time I learned at 25, so that’s probably stayed with me. The steering issue is just odd. Apparently in my yoof I was not properly taught the proper 12-to-6 steering technique which affects a number of other things. It’s coming, but has taken lots of drilling in.

My instructor has the right combination of pedantry and nonchalance to teach me (He’s dyslexic himself, and I’ve learned to handle his occasional left-right indecision without panicking. (“Take the next road on the left – no, actually right.” “Right. Are you sure?” Yep.” “Still sure?” “OK”)  He works me hard on my weaknesses but equally makes sure I know when I do something well. And he doesn’t indulge me when I’m being a drama-llama, although, vitally, he understands why I am (Understanding anxiety without either playing to it or dismissing it is really important, FYI). I’m trying to absorb his mantra – essentially, be patient and get on with it, try not to overthink  it – even though it goes against my nature in the way that modesty goes against Donald Trump’s

Here’s to the next six months or so. With the emphasis on “or so.”

All driver tips on dealing with roundabouts gladly received.

Oh, and just to clear something up while I’m here…

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“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…

The 2016 Lookback

Regular Max-watchers will know I’ve filled in this end-of-year review questionnaire every year of my adult life. I think it originated on LiveJournal, where some of my friends used to blog, or still do. Much like 2014 – which set the ground for some of its events – 2016 is one of those years which started jolly well indeed and collapsed like a flimsy dessert in the second half. But January to April alone was momentous enough to be worth celebrating. Here we are then…

1. What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before? 

  • Was a bridesmaid (twice)
  • Ran a Marathon. I may’ve mentioned it a bit…
  • Walked ten miles across London for CLASP (I  chatted to Norman Lamb MP about the Marathon, and sandwiches. I also underestimated the difficulty of doing the walk, in May, in too many layers, three weeks after said Marathon, and fainted on the wooden floor of a pub in Battersea. But it was all worth it…)
  • Manned a couple of Freshers Fair stalls for the excellent male suicide prevention organisation, Campaign Against Living Miserably, (CALM) talking to students about mental health and such.
  • Tried ballet classes specifically for dyspraxic adults (not really my thing but very fun, and I’d like to try other dance).
  • Started spin classes.
  • Started driving lessons and actually felt I could pass my test.
  • Had a cameo in someone’s memoir, Bryony Gordon’s excellent Mad Girl (I’m unnamed, and it’s not the cheerfullest of subject matter, but very touching).
  • Had my face in Grazia and Glamour.
  • Disclosed mental health matters in a professional situation where the work wasn’t about mental health. Neither a happy ending or a disastrous one…

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

I’ll continue with the one to try as many new things as possible that aren’t natural to me, or return to hobbies I’ve neglected. Once I’ve cracked driving, I want to learn to horse ride, find a choir and possibly go skydiving with my friend’s other half. Having had a crack at ballet this year, if I can find a dance teacher who’ll work with me longer-term, I’d like to try tap. This’ll also be my fifth year of going to Pilates classes, which is a bit like dance with less leaping around…

Also: Feel more secure and fulfilled in my work, pass my driving test and finish my damn book (not that one, the new one…)

3. Did anyone close to you give birth? I’m 32. Probably.

4. Did anyone close to you die? My Oma in Germany. But she made it to 90, which she had wanted.

5. What countries did you visit? Italy.

6. What would you like to have had in 2016 that you lacked? Certainty and money.

7. What date from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why? 

  • The inaugural Mental Health Mates, on Valentines Day, the six month anniversary picnic in July where the BBC London News filmed us, and the Mad Girl book launch.
  • Marathon Day. And my massage at Browns a few days later  – my grandmother’s present to me for finishing it.
  • The two weddings I bridesmaided at.
  • The Mad Girl book launch, on a roof terrace with the other Mental Health Mates and lovely views of summery London.
  • Early September, when my other grandma died.
  • Clomping through Brexity-but-cute Hampshire in a palmed-off size-8 summer dress on the hottest day of the year listening to Thea Gilmore and Christine and the Queens (on Spotify, with inexplicably good mobile reception…), under the influence of a Pimms bigger than my head. Maybe next summer I’ll drive. Without the alcohol, obviously…
  • A photoshoot and lunch in Marlow (another Brexity-but-cute place) with my ace photographer friend, on another very hot day.
  • A long weekend in Rome with my mum.
  • Carol singing with Mind in Canary Wharf. Despite (or because of!) the sadly-lower turnout this year.
  • Ice-skating between Christmas and New Year.
  • Spending a New Years Eve I was meant to be hosting friends for dinner alone with stomach lurgy and barely the brains or the appetite to make a toasted sandwich. But (having apologised and quickly rescheduled with most of the friends who were meant to come, obvs)  actually finding the experience quite alright. When you’ve wasted too much youth seeking approval from people who don’t care about you, there is something quite liberating and fuck-you-ish about a simple, solo New Years Eve with boxsets, music, bland food and a long hot bath. I watched Dawn French’s magnificent two-hour one woman show Thirty Million Minutes on BBC4 – you should too, it’s on iPlayer!

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

  • Running a Marathon, raising thousands of pounds and a heap of awareness for Mind.
  • The comments on the Reader Report that I got for an early chapter of the new book which had won me a New Writing South/TLC bursaried read at the end of 2015.
  • More an awkward relief in a “Ohhh, I seeee…!” and “Stop making things about you that aren’t, Max, you big twat…!” way than an “achievement” as such, but still. In 2015, I sensed that someone was keeping me somewhat at arm’s length, and assumed a particular reason for it. A chance discovery in 2016 seemed to explain rather a lot, suggested my assumptions were off the mark, and made me feel quite daft. Fair point to whichever mid-’80s middle-manager coined the phrase “Assume makes an ass of u…” .
  • Trying new things purely for myself and not because of anyone or to impress anyone.
  • Inspiring other people to try new things.

9. What was your biggest failure?

  • Being 32 years old and feeling less likely to earn enough, meet the love of my life, own a home or have children now than I did five or six years ago.
  • Not being as supportive of various friends who’ve been through redundancy or performance management at work this year as I would like to be.  My own experience is still quite draining to have to relive. Please don’t think I don’t understand or care.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury? A stinking cold during Marathon week which lingered on through and probably added half an hour to my time, not that I cared very much because I wasn’t really running for time anyway.

11. What was the best thing you bought? Driving lessons. Best present was the post-Marathon massage.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration? All my Marathon sponsors and absolutely everyone who supported me through it in any way.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed? 

  • Half the world’s electorateAppalled, angry and depressed.
  • Authors at charity events who use the space to plug their irrelevant books.

14. Where did most of your money go? Train travel and driving lessons.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about? The Marathon obviously. And going to Rome, mostly.

16. What song(s) will always remind you of 2016? Tilted by Christine and the Queens. Walking in the Rain by Grace Jones. Ritual Union by Little Dragon. Mr Medicine by Eliza Doolittle. Let It Roll and Sweet Infatuation by Ladyhawke, The Dirt Is Your Lover Now by Thea Gimore, and her cover of Bob Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine. Everything on my enormous running playlist, especially Kiss and Not Tell by La Roux, Night In My Veins by The Pretenders, What The Hell by Avril Lavinge (SHUT UP), They Don’t Know by Kirsty MacColl, and Heroes by David Bowie. Heroes was a recommendation from a stranger who’d read that I was doing the Marathon in my university’s alumni magazine. It came on at mile 23 and I cried in front of 35,000 people.

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

– Happier or sadder? Generally sadder, although happy about some personal victories and trying to restore hope for 2017 in the face of a bit of a mental health lapse.

– Thinner or fatter? Fatter, I expect, because I was training for a Marathon last year and am no longer doing that. The first autumn-winter after a Marathon is a bit like early puberty when you stupidly feel huge just because you suddenly weigh more than nothing. But I’m probably still half a stone lighter than I was this time two years ago…

– Richer or poorer? Poorer. Which is a problem and a constant drain to discuss. This post early in the year did lead to a very nice but small and one-off project, but other than that I haven’t really made inroads in the direction I was hoping to. Most of my money goes on driving lessons and travel. Before Christmas I had a meeting with a director at a copywriting agency who told me I’m massively undercharging for my freelance work. Which is nice, except trying to get people to pay me even that is like drawing teeth. She also said agency jobs probably aren’t good for my mental health at the moment and suggested I think about doing internal comms for a mental health-related organisation or similarly good cause. I know of places that would gladly have me do it but can’t afford to pay me a bean. This is unhelpful….

(If you think you can be of any help on this front – coffee this month?? Please??)

18. What do you wish you’d done more of? Work that ends with a feeling my life has changed forever. But a) I’ll never be 27 again and b) for everyone but me that’s probably a good thing.

19. What do you wish you’d done less of? Being anxious. But compared to early last year, or this time two years ago…

20. How will you be spending New Year?  See question 7.

21. Did you fall in love in 2016? Only with a pizza from Dan and Angel’s in Clapham Junction….

22. How many one-night stands?  Zero. In the summer I had vague, financially-unfeasible plans for a solo Eurostar weekend jaunt to Brussels channeling my Brexit anger into cheese, wine and hot Eurocrats free of dodgy politics. I’ll probably never do it but may write a play about it…

23. What was your favourite TV or radio programme? I gave up trying to ignore the big storyline in The Archers on account of it being too weird because the wife of somebody involved in it is extremely bad for my brain, and just went with the media frenzy and the tweetalongs. Neither she nor he do social media so it doesn’t matter. And Helen Titchener is free. Hurrah!

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn’t hate this time last year? Nope. Pretty consistent on that front.

25. Do you like anyone now that you didn’t like this time last year? Nick Clegg. More than I’m comfortable with.

26. What was the best book you read? At the moment I’m reading….

  • The Stuff Of Thought, a book about linguistics by Steven Pinker.
  • The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson, set during the Russian Revolution.
  • Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El-Feki.
  • Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsnea.

This year, I’ve liked….

  • Friendship, a turning-30 friendship novel by Emily Gould, set in contemporary New York and The Clasp by Sloane Crosley (similar theme, with an art-history slant).
  • I was given The State We’re In by Adele Parks in a free ebook promotion – I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon thinking it’d be some breezy sub-Sophie Kinsella type-of-thing and it had me weeping like a jilted bride…
  • On professional advice “to enforce confidence in your own [considerable] abilities”, I read the memoirs Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham and I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley. Apparently my writing is reminiscent of theirs. Sloane Crosley is great. Lena Dunham alternates between being interesting and a bit of a prat but then, so do I….

27. What was your greatest musical discovery? Probably not as “great” as if I was 20 and at Durham doing a Gender Studies Module, but Christine and the Queens.

28. What did you want and get? To finish the Marathon in one piece.

29. What did you want and not get? To finish my book. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo in November, but that immediately got swallowed up by work and money woes.

30. What was your favourite film of this year? I don’t think I had a big favourite.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you? 32. Family dinner. Beaconsfield. Midweek. Brasserie Blanc does a good vegetarian tagine, if that’s your shimmy.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying? The possible answers to this are either too dull or too incriminating to print. And one of them involves an alternate universe…

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016? A twig in a long dress.

34. Who kept you sane? If you’ve read this far, consider yourself among them.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most? Nobody I can remember or want to admit to.

36. What political issue stirred you the most? Brexit. Trump. Syria. The murder of Jo Cox.

37. Who did you miss? People who weren’t here. Seems obvious.

38. Who was the best new person you met? Bryony Gordon and all the Mental Health Mates, of course.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016

  • Someone who wants you to be happy and someone able to make you happy aren’t always the same thing.
  • Having things isn’t how you grow up. Dealing with losses is how you grow up.

40. Quote a song lyric that sums up 2016:  

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

(I don’t think many lyrics can truly sum up any year. But Thea Gilmore is a lyrical genius, so there you go).

And: “Though nothing will keep us together, we can be heroes, just for one day…”

(David Bowie, obviously).

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.

Five years.

Saturday was the fifth anniversary of a dear friend’s suicide. I still winced slightly typing that word and it still feels slightly as though I shouldn’t by now. The last time I saw him in person – in the same week that I also last saw a separate friend who more recently died the same way – means more to me personally, but as we had quite a few mutual friends, I go along with others. I had to go to exactly the same charity AGM I went to on that Saturday five years ago, which felt a bit Groundhog Day-ish, in the worst manner. I wouldn’t have gone, had there been a choice, and for the first hour I was fairly desperate not to be there, but by the end I was glad I went. I’ve also written to his parents, which I hadn’t since the first Christmas. They’re probably the last people on earth not to know I ran the Marathon and it seemed like they should…

According to received wisdom (and the writer Julian Barnes), five years on is a milestone in wanting and acquiring distance from any significant or traumatic event. It makes sense; I can remember feeling this way during my graduation year about things going back four or five years then. A smattering of people have affected me probably more than they’ll ever know or would wish, and grief is the very ultimate manifestation of that. My feelings ebb and flow. There are good and bad days, weeks and hours. At best, I make big plans, run long distances and remember how to go out just for fun or buy something just as a treat, which had become vanishingly rare since 2011 until about the end of last year. At worst, I worry the good stuff isn’t tangible enough, worry about money, doubt myself to the extent I need reassurance that past events took place even when I know they did, and take other people’s distance personally when it turns out their reasons aren’t personal at all and they’d probably think I was loopy if they knew I’d thought so. But running the Marathon taught me the importance of always having something to aspire to, which in the post-Brexit hellmouth of news I’m trying my damndest to keep in mind.

Some Good Things…

First: I’m quoted and pictured in this month’s Glamour magazine, for the lovely Bryony Gordon‘s piece about how she started the wonderful Mental Health Mates, which has introduced me to a group of fantastic, galvanising women. I slightly regret mentioning that I’m single, which makes me sound as though I’m pathetically desperate for a boyfriend and went to the group to try and pull someone – not at all the case and not at all going to happen, FYI. They’ve printed my occupation as “Proofreader” because having too many writers and journalists in it would’ve made it look too incestuous, but I’ve done more proofreading and web-editing work than anything else this year because it fitted best around Marathoning and running a fairly large house virtually single-handedly, so I can’t really argue. I was also in Grazia back in May with some of the other girls from the group. I blogged briefly here about the very first MHM meetup back in February and have been meaning to write/blog about it again for a while but I didn’t want to look as though I was trying to steal Bryony’s thunder – as if I could – so I will hold off on that a bit longer…

Second: I was commissioned by a health and public sector comms agency recently, along with a researcher from a leading UK university, to write an online pamphlet on how to support a friend or colleague who has been affected by someone’s suicide. This was in line with wanting to use some of my insight and experience from the last five years in my paid work and, as they say, Give Something Back. The brief was to highlight why the right support is so important, and give suggestions of what to say or do (and what not to); backed up by quotes from interviews the researcher has done with bereaved people. Her research bears out some of my experiences in terms of how a suicide can affect those left behind. Mental health dips in the aftermath are quite common in those with a predisposition to anxiety or depression, and even those without. I’m very lucky, though, that people around me have generally been very supportive and said and done the right things. Sadly, this is the exception more than the rule. I hope the leaflet will be useful to those who want to support someone they know but aren’t sure how to go about it. It should soon be available online as a PDF though relevant agencies like Cruse and The Samaritans – I’ll link in due course…

Third: I want and hope to be able to go abroad alone for the first time this summer, even if just a city break for a day or two. I have my eye on a boutique hotel somewhere that would annoy Nigel Farage. The family atmosphere post-Brexit is still fairly awful but that’s a whole other post…

Thinking of everyone who misses someone. Xxx

How could you?

You know when you were little and your mum comforted you after you’d had a bad dream? I had to do that to my mum this morning. She was crying. And the “bad dream” was real…

I’ve stopped reading social media today and probably for a while because I feel too sick and sleep-deprived to bear it, and if I have to see that hideous braying turd-on-legs Nigel Farage and his stupid grinning victory face again I will probably put my fist through the TV.

But I’m writing this because I find it pretty poignant that the final certificate confirming the £2,261.79 I raised running the London Marathon for Mind, arrived in the post today of all days.

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I have rarely ever felt so proud, so elated, so optimistic and full of faith in human kindness as on those days I stood outside supermarkets in High Wycombe and Gerrards Cross with my Mind tin collecting coins towards my Marathon fundraising total. People of all ages, backgrounds, genders, races and probably different political stripes came to me to donate, pulling over and fishing their last change from deep inside coat pockets, telling their stories, congratulating me for being there and buying me hot drinks. I raised £400 towards my total and filled both tins.

And, as an Anglo-German, I have never felt sadder, angrier and more unwelcome in Britain than I do today. During those supermarket collections I saw people here at their very best: caring, generous, tolerant.  Today I see them at their worst: ignorant, bigoted, short-sighted: where being educated and well-travelled is seen as something to be feared. I am sick, I am numb. Like my mum, I want to cry.

What I would really like right now is to sit down with someone who I know supports Leave and who I know is not a Ukipper or a racist pig and hear them explain themselves. But no-one in that category that I’m aware of is here to do it. All I can do is stand incredulously with the 99% of my friends (many also dual-heritage) who voted Remain and are in bits right now worried about what’s going to happen to their lives and jobs. Thank you very much to those who have sent kind and supportive messages this morning asking after my mum; I know she’ll appreciate it.

When I’ve had enough sleep I’m going to apply for a German passport (mum’s already done it and the soonest available appointment at the Embassy is August FYI). But I’m not leaving here without a fight. I want this country to do what Germany did in 1945 and take a long, hard look at what’s happened to get us here. I’m tied to this area until I’ve passed my driving test, which, as this is me we’re talking about, will be at least another year.

Meanwhile, I will go for a lunchtime run today looking at the passers by and thinking “Which of you doesn’t want me and my mum here?” 

And that’s really not a very nice feeling at all.