Writing in the shadow

A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?

One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.

I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?

Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?

Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.

There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.

So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.

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Highs and lows

It’s been three months since I began my break, and some people have been asking me how I’m finding it. Great, I tell them. Fantastic. The best time of my life. And that’s partly true, but it’s not the full truth, so I thought I’d write a very honest appraisal of the highs and lows of my time out so far.

Yes, there are lows. Some people imagine I’m rolling out of bed at 10am every day, padding around in a silk dressing gown, sitting in the summer house by the lake with my typewriter, languidly producing a word-perfect chapter before hopping on a plane to Thailand. But although I do wear my dressing gown a lot, and do have a shed and a pond that could pass for a summer house and lake if you squint, this isn’t the case. Even if it was, anxiety brain wouldn’t let me enjoy it. (“Can you really afford that silk dressing gown?” it would whisper. “That’s a bit extravagant. You’re quite spoiled, aren’t you? Who are you going to Thailand with, anyway? All your friends are working like proper human beings. Oh yes, and enjoy reading that ‘word perfect’ chapter back tomorrow. Heh!”)

There are some days where I stare at a blank word document, then stare at my bank account, then have a mini panic attack, then have a nap, then feel ashamed of myself for wasting time. But there are also days when I write thousands of words and go to the gym and bake a cake and basically feel like a superhero. I’ve learnt to ride these waves of success and failure, confidence and self-doubt, accepting that nobody goes through life without the occasional embarrassing belly-flop.

High: So this is what not being tired feels like…

I just finished Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which really opened my eyes to how important sleep is. I realised how unhealthy my former routine of waking up at 6am to write before work was. Sleep-deprivation stifles creativity, and when I was stressed and busy I was a terrible insomniac. Now I’m getting more sleep, I’ve learnt what it feels like to not be tired, and boy is it a weird feeling. Initially it’s like being on some kind of stimulant. Everything is so clear and sharp! Your brain is working at 200%! But then it dawns on you that this is what normal is supposed to be. I still have the occasional sleepless night worrying about wedding admin or the latest episode of Love Island (not ashamed), but now it’s not every night, my head is so much clearer when I sit down to write.

Low: I can’t treat writing like a 9 to 5 job.

Occasionally I read an interview with a writer who churns out seven novels per year who will say sternly, “I wake up at five AM EVERY DAY. Then I write for SEVEN HOURS. Then I have lunch. Then I run a marathon. Then I write for SIX MORE HOURS. Then I sleep. EVERY DAY. If I break this routine I give myself twenty lashes. You won’t make it unless you’re COMMITTED to your craft!”

When I was on my writing retreat in Scotland I wrote like that, but that was a special, magical world. Back at home I simply can’t focus on my novel for more than a couple of hours at a time. There is washing to do, and food to make, and a cat demanding attention. Sometimes I get angry at myself because I’m not writing as much as I could if I chained myself to my desk – 3,000 words a day would wrap my first draft up in a month – but then I remind myself that the purpose of this break isn’t to be a slave to writing. The purpose is to relax, have fun and learn to love writing again.

High: The steady onward march of the word count.

Despite the above, I’ve almost written 50,000 words of my novel. Sometimes I’m only able to write a couple of hundred words; on better days, the most words I can write before my brain evaporates is about 2,000. This has always been the case, but now I’m able to write almost every single day and the word count is creeping slowly and steadily up. It’s likely those 50,000 words mostly suck, since I’m refusing to read back anything I’ve written until I write the final sentence, but those sucky words are Second Draft Emma’s problem. Sorry, Second Draft Emma. You probably don’t even have sunshine and Love Island to console you.

Low: Please be my friend. Anyone.

This sleepy Surrey village ain’t London. If I want to go for a drink with someone, we have to argue over who will drive, or beg my parents to drop me off like I’m fifteen, or take a bus. (The other day I got on a local bus, tried to tap in with my Oyster card and said loudly, “Oh, sorry, this isn’t London!” Nobody on that bus hated me more than I hated myself.) In London I’d see friends every day; now I can go a full week without speaking to anyone except my parents, my cat (who doesn’t have much chat), and the receptionist in the gym, who I’ll probably end up begging to be my best friend and give me lifts to the pub. The upside is more time to write; the downside is that I’m not sure slowly losing it to the point where I shout at flies is good for my writing…

High: A time to think, a time to read.

When it comes to writing I’m a ‘throw myself headfirst in’ person. One thing I’ve been learning from my writer friends is that thinking time – gazing out of the window whilst contemplating difficult characters, thorny plot issues or how to create conflict – is equally as important as words on the page. For me thinking time isn’t just literal time, but also mental space; I couldn’t focus on my novel when my mind was caught up with an unhappy author at work or a lightbulb that needed fixing in my flat. Reading time is important too. Since I no longer have to perform the balancing act of not falling into a stranger’s lap while holding a book on the tube, or fight against someone’s sweaty back to hold my book more than a centimetre from my face, I’m reading much more and finding inspiration for my writing.

Low: WHAT HAVE I DONE???

I’ve always insisted that it doesn’t matter if this novel doesn’t work out, because I’m doing this for myself. I stand by that, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts. What if my idea just isn’t very good? What if I’m wasting this once in a lifetime opportunity? Should I be writing something different, something better? I say I’m not expecting to get published, but how will I feel if I don’t? Are people expecting great things of me because I gave up my job? What do I tell people when they ask what I do? Why do I mumble about being a freelancer or joke about watching Bargain Hunt instead of saying I’m a writer? I’ve learnt to place these self-doubting questions in the back of my mind, where they buzz pointlessly like wasps trapped inside jars, faintly audible but unable to harm me.

Retreating

Late year I was daydreaming at work. The idea had entered my mind that I might leave my job, but I wasn’t decided. I thought that if I did quit, I’d love to go on a writing retreat. On a whim I googled writing retreats Scotland and came across Moniack Mhor, a writing centre in the Scottish Highlands. There were ‘limited places available’ on the May retreat. I booked there and then.

Usually I’d book off holiday from work at the same time, but this time I didn’t. In my head, this was the first stepping stone to making my idea of quitting a reality. I can be stubborn and irrational: now I had something booked, I had to see the idea through.

About six months later I was on my way to Scotland, officially unemployed, remembering that moment at my desk. I’d actually done the thing! I left behind an oppressively hot and grimy London with a pounding headache, but when I stepped off the plane at Inverness the air was damp and bright and refreshing. It felt symbolic of my new beginning in life.

I lingered outside Inverness rail station, waiting for the shared taxi that would take me to Moniack. I shyly observed every artsy-looking person around me: could it be them? I was unsure of the kind of people who went on these retreats. Would they be mega-serious professional writers who would make me feel like a child splashing about in a paddling pool in comparison? Would they be achingly cool, or exhaustingly eccentric? The taxi driver appeared and led me over to a group of people who looked… normal. People like me. I immediately felt comfortable in the presence of other writers.

We arrived at Moniack and were shown to our rooms, which were simple, cosy and most importantly, lacking in distractions. Mine had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, where horses and cows outnumbered houses fifty to one. I lay on my bed for a while, my senses amplified: I could hear floorboards creaking, wind gently rattling the window, Highland cows lowing. It was the most peaceful I’d felt in a while, as if somebody were sweeping out the cluttered contents of my head and filling it with air and light.

In the dining room there was there was wine, tagine and chocolate brownies, and good conversation. We were a mix of novelists, poets, short story writers and playwrights, all there for different reasons – editing, finishing first drafts or starting something new – but we were united by our love of writing, which was so strong we wanted to do nothing else for a week. When I said I’d recently quit my job to write, there were no baffled looks; on the contrary, everybody applauded. I knew I was in the right place.

On the first day the light woke me up at 6.45am, and weirdly I didn’t want to collapse back into my pillow and sleep for another hour. Not being tired was strange: I was light-headed, dizzy. I went out to the straw bale studio in the garden for some morning yoga. Yoga takes on a new dimension when you do it in front of a panoramic view of the Highlands amid silence sprinkled with birdsong. In Surrey I’ve adapted to the constant roar of the nearby motorway, and so true silence was unnerving; the only roar I could hear was the wind through the trees. By the time I was lying on my back watching gauzy clouds drift past the porthole in the ceiling, I was used to it. I could have laid there all day – but there was writing to be done.

And done it was. From 8.30 to 5.30 every day I wrote almost constantly, pausing only to read, eat or walk, and after four days I had over 12,000 words. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about retreats before I came: why not just hire out a cottage for a weekend and make your own? Actually, Omar and I did this once, and we did do some writing, but we also spent a lot of time watching films. There’s something different about a formal retreat – something in the combination of the scenery, the lack of distractions, and the inspiration provided by fellow writers – which creates the perfect space for productivity.

I’d begun the week worried about what the other writers would be like; I ended it convinced that my fellow writers were the best thing about the retreat. My group were the perfect balance of hardworking and sociable. Whenever I was lagging, someone would motivate me. On the last night we ate haggis and drank whiskey, listened to bagpipes, and even contemplated an impromptu ceilidh (although after the whiskey, it’s probably good that didn’t happen), which was great fun. It was wonderful to meet writers working on such different projects, and to grow my writing circle a little larger.

I’m so pleased I made that spur-of-the-moment decision to book onto a retreat, not only because it inspired me to make an important life change, but because it was invigorating, relaxing and extremely productive. It also gave me confidence: I now know the novel idea I spent months brewing in my head while wrapping things up at work might just have some mileage.

In the month since the retreat, I haven’t quite managed to replicate my 3,000 words a day, unfortunately. I know that’s only natural, but still, I’m wondering… when can I go on my next retreat?

Learning to pass time

I’ve just read David Graeber’s new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which expands on his essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (found here). The book’s theory is that a large proportion of jobs today are pointless make-work and don’t benefit society (and the person in the job knows it). It’s a provocative argument, and some people will disagree; putting that aside, though, I found the book useful in challenging some of my natural assumptions about the value of work, and this has helped me to overcome some anxiety I’ve been feeling about my career break.

For example, Graeber believes our deeply-ingrained attitudes towards time and work are one reason many people accept their bullshit jobs rather than searching for greater fulfilment. In some BS jobs, he claims, the employee doesn’t have enough to do – perhaps because their job only exists to tick a box or make a manager look impressive by boosting her number of underlings – but since it’s taboo to acknowledge this, they’re given pointless tasks to perform. (I once had a summer job in a shop where in the absence of customers we were expected to walk around with an air of purpose, moving displays one centimetre to the left and dusting spotless shelves.) Why not let the employee spend their downtime doing their own thing? The answer is that during working hours the employee’s time belongs to their employer, and so time spent on non-work activities is essentially considered theft.

But Graeber explains that the concept of a person’s time as a commodity to be bought hasn’t always been the natural way of looking at things. In past societies you could own the goods made by a person, or you could actually own the person, but the idea of owning their time would have been bizarre, since time is an abstract concept. This changed because of economic but also religious reasons; the Puritanical mindset that hard work is virtuous and character-building whereas idleness is sin pervades. Our modern conception of time as money means that instead of talking about simply passing time, we talk about spending it, wasting it or losing it – language that I’ve used without ever giving it a second thought!

This was really helpful to me. I’ve always seen life as a race against the clock; if I don’t have any deadlines set for me by other people, I’ll pointlessly impose deadlines on myself. I claim this makes me more efficient, but really, am I just trying to prove to myself that I’m not a waste of space? Why do I feel the need to prove this? In addition, if I miss those self-imposed deadlines, or don’t complete my to-do list, I’ll feel not only that I’ve wasted time but that I’m somehow morally deficient. What a bizarre and needless way of punishing myself…

Now that I’m not in paid employment, it’s all too easy to think of myself as a slob, an unemployed loser, a spoiled brat who can’t handle an office job, and so on. Yes, I’m working on my writing, but since nobody’s paying me for it and I’m not sitting in an office doing it from nine until five, I can fall into the trap of thinking it’s not ‘real’ work but a self-indulgent hobby. For the first three weeks of my break I spent an awful lot of time in my pyjamas, feeling bad about my attire. I’d look at myself in the mirror, still in my dressing gown at midday, hair askew, and think: what am I doing? Isn’t this meant to be my golden age of creativity? Is this what a great writer of the future looks like?

Now, though, I’m thinking about things differently. My time belongs to no-one but myself, and I’m choosing to pass the hours – not spend or lose them – being creative without any self-condemnation. (I’m not complacent, though; I appreciate that I’m very fortunate to be able to have this break.) I’ve stopped trying to calculate how I can justify my own existence, and am focusing instead on how I might use my writing to express things that are important to me. And there’s nothing in the rule book that says I can’t do that in the comfort of my pyjamas.

I worked hard at my office job for five years while trying to write a novel, rushing from one place to another in a hectic city, and burnt myself out. After all that, it’s okay for me to want to sleep in occasionally, to take a long bath, to sit in the garden listening to the birds. Ironically, removing that mental roadblock of self-judgement has meant that over the past few days I’ve felt more inspired, and been more productive as a result. I’ve learnt and grown a lot through the various jobs I’ve had, but I think this new phrase in my life is going to be the most ‘character-building’ of all.

A new beginning

Last Friday, I walked out of the office for the last time; walking away from a job my twenty-one-year-old self would have considered her dream (had she been able to see into the future, she would have rugby tackled me to the ground screaming). It felt strange, as if I were simply going on a longer than usual holiday, and I half-expected someone to email me on Monday morning asking me to filter a spreadsheet by my name and fill in column D. At no point, however – not even now, when I’ve spent the day reorganising the food storage container drawer – have I been in any doubt that leaving was the right thing to do.

It’s not that I hated my job; not at all. But it took me a while to realise that hating your job or getting a better one aren’t the only two reasons you’re allowed to leave.

Last year, as was well-documented by this blog, I wrote a novel after completing Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. The course was a turning point for me, as it made me think about myself as a ‘proper’ writer for the first time, but afterwards I became obsessed with finishing my novel as quickly as possible. I saw it as my get-out clause from the mundanity of a nine-to-five office job, and gave it my all: waking up at 6am to write before work, staying up late, turning down social invites. After three drafts, I was so utterly exhausted that I decided my novel was as good as it was ever going to be, and sent it off to agents. I got closer than I ever have to securing an agent, but nonetheless, my inbox filled with (polite, encouraging) rejections.

I still believe the novel was good, but it wasn’t good enough. That might be because it just wasn’t the right novel for that time, or because my exhaustion led me to be too hasty. Either way, I was pretty broken after those rejections. I’d worked so hard. I’d built up my hopes. I’d led myself to believe that this could be it, this might be the one, despite knowing that most writers face hundreds of rejections before they get that ‘yes’. It’s good to be optimistic, but I’d pinned everything on this novel getting published. Of course it was unlikely to end well.

I crashed and burned. I said I couldn’t do it anymore, that I was giving up writing. I became bitterly cynical about the literary world, avoiding Facebook and Twitter because I didn’t want to see people posting about their brilliant agents and their amazing cover designs and their awesome book launches. You don’t want this, I told myself. Doesn’t the struggle continue after you get an agent, after you get published? Do you really want to play that game? I confused the healthy belief that there’s more to life with completely turning away from my passion, and having been so focused on my writing for so long, I felt purposeless. There were days I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t see the point. Some of the symptoms of the severe anxiety I suffered at university began to resurface, and when I noticed this I knew something had to change.

So, I took a break. I didn’t write a word for six months. I filled my days with other things I enjoy – reading, singing, playing my piano, yoga, running, spending time with the friends I’d neglected – and started seeing a therapist, learning mindfulness to help with my anxiety. Eventually I felt the urge to write again, and began to chip away at a short story. I started to see my experience with my latest novel in a different way: I’d learnt so much on the course, made some wonderful new friends, and had got to the point where several agents wanted to read my whole novel. All of those things were achievements to be celebrated. If I wrote something else in future, applying everything I’d learnt on the course and with the advice and encouragement of my new friends, what else could I achieve?

I even came up with an idea for a new novel, though I restrained myself from rushing to start writing. Patience has never been one of my virtues.

The culmination of all of this was the realisation that I had to leave my job. For a long time I’d been waiting either for success with my writing, or for some amazing new career to fall into my lap. Neither of these things happened, and so I’d been waiting, waiting. But why not just take a leap of faith? I had enough savings to dedicate some time purely to writing, but had always been afraid: it seemed reckless, stupid, privileged. For once in my life, though, why not do something unexpected, something not involving a detailed plan? There was also the fact I’d gotten engaged and planned on moving to Cambridge, and therefore away from my job, anyway. Wasn’t the year before getting married the perfect time to be a little bit irresponsible?

The more I thought about this plan, the less crazy it seemed, and the more like the most sensical thing I could possibly do. Even my parents agreed, because they wanted to see me happy.  All that remained was to hand in my notice (I’d told enough people of my plan that it would have been embarrassing not to!). That part was scary, but everyone at work was not only completely understanding, but excited for me; they thought it was a great decision.

As I write this now – loving the fact I actually have time to write a blog post and am not cramming it resentfully into my one free evening – I’m inclined to agree.

It’s my second day of unemployment and so far I’ve spent my time (when not reorganising plastic tubs and putting things in boxes) making a plan for the coming months: I have several holidays booked, plus some freelance copywriting and editing work, and then of course there’s my plan to write a new novel. My first trip is a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, where I plan to throw myself headfirst into this new idea (after careful plotting, of course). This time, there’s no expectation to get published or be a success: I’m doing this for me.

I’m excited for what the coming months have in store; plenty of surprises, I hope. I’m also excited to restart this blog so I can keep my friends updated on my adventures and share my thoughts on my new writing journey. Initially I wanted to set up a new blog – a blank slate – but actually, I decided it’s best to keep on updating this one. I want people to see the journey that’s led to where I am now as well as my journey going forwards.

I hope that in the future, someone might read this and be inspired to take a leap of faith too.

Goodbye for now

Firstly, I’m not writing this under the illusion there are thousands of people who are going to be weeping and tearing their clothes at the news I’m taking a break from blogging. I’m just writing this for the few people who I know do read and who might be wondering why I’ve stopped posting regularly.

Secondly, I’m not closing down this blog. I’ve been updating it regularly for about six years now – posting at least once a month – and I’m really proud of that. I may not have gained a huge following or gotten a book deal out of it, but that’s never what I wanted. I just wanted a place to write. June was the first month in years I didn’t write a post, which was horribly anxiety-inducing and made me realise that I’m just not able to keep up with posting the way I used to. A blog I’m choosing to write for fun should not be stressing me out. That’s what has prompted me to go on a temporary hiatus.

To be honest, writing a novel utterly exhausted me: physically from the 6am mornings, but emotionally too. I poured so much time and energy into it that my blog posts became less and less inspired – just another chore I had to do to keep up with my once-a-month quota. Because I wasn’t reading as much, or going to the theatre or exhibitions or art galleries, or generally living my life as much, I struggled to think of interesting things to write about here. Perhaps that lack of enthusiasm has showed in some of my recent posts.

So I’ve decided to take a break from it all: writing, blogging, Twitter, Facebook, the lot (sorry if I forget your birthday – I’ve become terribly reliant on Facebook for that). I want to give myself some headspace and regenerate my inspiration. Of course writing is a part of me and I can’t just stop doing it, so I’m sure I’ll carry on, but in more of a fun, relaxed way – jotting down paragraphs in my notebook, perhaps writing the occasional piece of flash fiction or a short story. Who knows, I might even attempt to write a poem, which I haven’t done since I was fifteen and wrote a poem called ‘I Hate You’ about a friend I fell out with in my emo kid notebook.

At the same time, though, I want to explore my creativity in other ways. First and foremost, reading, the best way to find inspiration. Dusting off my piano and learning to play a few pieces again. Going to some art classes. I’ll keep up my regular exercise, yoga and mindfulness practice (which I’ve gotten very into, as it helps massively with my anxiety). I also want to learn how to write code. But – and this is a key but – there will be no pressure for me to do any of these things or become good at them. I’m trying to get past the mindset that I need to be doing, achieving and progressing all the time, exhausting myself and getting frustrated when it doesn’t result in recognition or material gain. Instead I’ll see friends, travel, relax, and try to be creative for creativity’s sake along the way.

To put it simply, I just want to be for a while.

I’m sure I’ll be back in a few months, feeling refreshed and inspired and ready to put things out into the world again. When that time comes perhaps I’ll even reconceptualize this blog and do something different with it. See you then!

Emma’s 2017 adventures part four: Boston

A few weeks ago I went to Boston for work and then play. I preferred Boston to Denver in January, but this may have something to do with the fact Denver was minus seventeen degrees and Boston was thirty, or that in Boston I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. Also, Boston’s speciality is clam chowder and cream pies, while Denver does great beer: all nice things, but one leaves you feeling much worse the next morning if you overindulge.

Instead of boring you with typical tourist things you could read about on TripAdvisor, I’ll share my favourite five things about Boston.

The seafood

I’m not that into seafood, because anything with pincers, tentacles or suckers should not go in my mouth, but when in Boston… The must-try dish is the clam ‘chowdah’, which is how a Bostonian would pronounce it. I tried it in a place called Legal Seafood – a chain, but apparently a good one – and it was creamy and salty and warming and oh so good. The crab cakes were excellent too, and I’m sure the lobster is something else, although I didn’t try it because pincers.

Cannoli

I know you can get cannoli, a delicious roll of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta, in many places, for example Italy, which I’m willing to bet does better Italian food than places that aren’t Italy. Boston’s cannoli is famous, though, and the place to try some is either Modern Pastry or Mike’s, both in Little Italy. There’s a heated debate between which establishment does it better (my friend insisted on Modern), but I didn’t really care so long as I got to stuff cannoli in my face. Which I did, and my face was happy.

Outdoor reading spaces

I’m no longer so obsessed with doing every tourist activity in a place at the expense of actually relaxing. In Boston I spent hours reading in the sunshine, as there are so many green spaces: the Public Gardens where there are swan boats and a decent busker on every corner, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which was created after a highway was rebuilt underground to reduce congestion and create a greener city. On a side note, the book I was reading was Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, about a demagogue who becomes US president and introduces a brutal totalitarian regime… hmm.

Art

I’m always momentarily shocked when I go to an art gallery or museum in another country and have to pay to get in. London has spoiled me. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in is worth the entrance fee, though, because I spent a good five hours there. They had an impressive range of exhibitions from Matisse’s relationship with objects to Botticelli and faith to Henryk Ross’ photos of the Lodz Ghetto. The exhibitions were really well-curated and easy to follow and understand: unpretentious without feeling dumbed-down.

History

As a Londoner used to seeing centuries-old buildings every day, I appreciated Boston’s sense of history. Walking the Freedom Trail reveals cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings, like the 250-year-old house of Paul Revere (AKA guy who rode a horse really quickly during the American Revolution) and the Old North Church. Next to the latter building there’s also a Historic Printing Office where you can see how the Declaration of Independence was printed; we got a demonstration from a man who seemed to love his job more than anyone I’ve ever met. I know very little about the American Revolution, so found this aspect of Boston fascinating.