Hello again, and goodbye 2019

Hello, strangers.

I’ve not posted in a while. In fact, I was considering stopping this blog entirely and focusing on my novel instead. But since people tell me they like my blog, and it would be a shame to stop after almost a decade, I’ve decided instead to give the blog a fresh look for 2020 and try to write shorter, more manageable posts.

The reason for the unplanned hiatus is that I’ve found the past year difficult. Getting married, uprooting my life to a new city and starting a new job all at once was overwhelming, to say the least. On top of that, I was trying to meet a self-imposed novel deadline, keep my hobbies at the same level they were during my career break, maintain the social life I had in London (which meant getting on the train from Cambridge to London several times a week), and have a full time job. I wanted to be everything to everyone. The result of this was, unsurprisingly, total burnout. So I stripped everything back.

The good news is, 2020 will see me going back to part-time work for a couple of months, and then in March, the end of my work contract and the start of a new, unknown adventure. We’ll be travelling to Scotland for two weeks for a writing retreat, then Japan for a whole month, and then the plan is to move to another new city! After that, who knows what will happen?

I’m excited for all the changes coming up in the new decade. Having secured a job in a new industry after 9 months of travelling and writing, I’m confident I can fall on my feet again, so I’m not too worried about my future employment. In fact, it’s exhilarating not knowing what I’ll do next. Will I go freelance again? Will I work for another university, or in something publishing-related? Or will it be something so different that I can’t even imagine it right now?

Perhaps it’s that excitement, and sense of the unknown, that’s inspired me to update my blog and get back into my writing. And with that, in the spirit of writing shorter blog posts, I’ll sign off for 2019. Happy new year!

 

Writing: intrinsic or extrinsic?

I’m reading Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, which is about looking for the causes of depression in our lives. One of those causes is ‘disconnection from meaningful values’. There are two reasons we’re motivated to get out of bed, intrinsic motives and extrinsic motives. Intrinsic motives are things we do because they bring us joy, while extrinsic motives are things we do because we get something in return, like money or status. Pursuing intrinsic motives is what makes us truly happy, but our economic system is designed to make us believe it’s the extrinsic motives we should be pursuing. This is fairly obvious – we’ve all heard that money can’t buy you happiness – but it did get me thinking about the motives behind my writing. Is writing an intrinsic or extrinsic motive, and is it making me happy?

I’ll be honest: sometimes I’m not even sure I like writing. I hear authors say, “This book was a joy to write!” or, “This book just poured out of me!” and I think, really? I often have to force myself sit down at my laptop. I will then circle around the act of writing to avoid actually starting: reading over previous writing, reading a book to ‘inspire me’, faffing around with fonts. When I finally start, it can be painful. It takes me several hours to warm up, by which time I usually have to stop. I finish my session feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. Other times, sadly less often, it just clicks. I enter that flow state where I’m not thinking about whether I enjoy writing or not because I’m so absorbed in doing it. Do these rare times mean writing is an intrinsic motive? I’m not sure.

What if writing is an extrinsic motive which I pursue because I want something in return? It’s true that I want to get an agent and get published and be successful and critically respected. I want to be able to make money from writing, to sit down at my desk and say, “This is work.” I have these things in mind while writing. But I also know they won’t make me happy, because I see writers complaining of books not selling, of not earning enough to live, of getting bad reviews (or worse not getting any reviews), of missing out on prizes. I hear of hugely successful writers getting upset because they haven’t been nominated for the Booker. It seems ridiculous, but who’s to say I wouldn’t be the same if I became that successful? In that case, why do I even write if it’s the beginning of a slippery slope towards disillusionment?

Perhaps it’s because even though I always have getting published on my mind, this isn’t the only reason I write. Those things are so difficult to achieve I know it would be folly to pin my happiness on them. When I started to write at seven or eight years old, writing was purely an intrinsic motive: I didn’t know what agents were and publication wasn’t a concept to me. I remember sitting in my wardrobe, surrounded by glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars, scribbling stories into a notebook balanced on my knees. I remember loading up our clunky 1990s computer and taking turns with my mum writing the next paragraph of a story about my plastic animal toys. There was no internet to distract me or provide comparisons. I didn’t care if nobody read the stories. I printed them out, drew colourful front covers, placed them lovingly in a shoebox and occasionally took them out to read. I was proud of myself. That was it. Writing was fun, exhilarating, creative, joyful, aimless.

I wish desperately that writing could be that again, because sometimes I feel entering that pure state would make my writing better – more creative, more fun to read, less try-hard. Of course, it’s impossible to go back there, and naive to think writing like nobody will read it produces better writing. I’m sure knowledge of the market and of the rules of the craft has improved my writing – but it’s also made it less fun, more extrinsic. Which is a real shame, because I find writing most enjoyable to read when the author’s obviously had fun writing it.

So, how can I bring the joy back into my writing? I don’t have an easy answer. Perhaps there are ways to make writing more fun while also working towards a goal: practising short, playful writing exercises in-between writing my serious novel; spending less time on Twitter comparing myself to other writers and feeling sad because I’m not as successful or because they got a bad review and one day I might too; writing by hand to evoke the carefree, joyful writing I did as a child. At the same time, accepting that writing isn’t always going to be fun but it’s something I’m always going to do. It gives me a sense of purpose and I can’t not write. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

Normal service has resumed…

That’s it. My wedding is over (a champagne-washed blur of memories of smiling for a million photos, hugging everybody in sight, and shimmying maniacally in a white dress) the mini-moon in Cornwall is behind us (but bigger travels to come!), and normal service has resumed. While I’m enjoying no longer spending hours typing ‘chicken’ or ‘lamb’ next to people’s names in a spreadsheet, reality does seem somewhat mundane in comparison to the excitement, anticipation and fizzing nerves of planning for what turned out to be the best day of my life.

Still, I’m looking forward to settling into Cambridge life and making this place my home, not just my weeknight crash pad. A few people have asked me how Cambridge life is going, and I have time to write blog posts now, so here’s my honest appraisal.

Cambridge isn’t somewhere we chose to live; because of Omar’s work, it chose us. If we’d had the choice we might have chosen to stay in London, or gone somewhere more dramatic like Edinburgh. In fact, if I’d been told a few years ago I had to leave London with its amazing restaurants, bars, theatres, and events, I’d have been horrified. But now I’m here I think moving somewhere I didn’t choose was the best thing for me. It forced me to be open-minded when looking for jobs, for example, and as a result I’ve ended up in a situation I never could have imagined myself in. When becoming a big-shot editor in London was my be all and end all, I might have looked at my future self and wondered what had gone wrong. As it turns out, I’m far happier now. I used to worry my life was taking too predictable a path, and now I enjoy looking back on the unexpected twists and turns it’s taken instead. I hope there are more to come!

Cambridge is picturesque, but not everywhere looks like the set of The Theory of Everything (especially not where we live). Nonetheless, every morning I walk to work along streets full of big Victorian houses I dream of living in, and my office is in the middle of a beautiful garden where I can stroll in my lunch breaks. I’m not brave enough to cycle, but everything I need is within walking distance; I no longer have to cram myself on the rattling cylinder of misery otherwise known as the tube. Cambridge does have a more chilled vibe than London – and of course there are lots of students floating about – but it’s still a crowded city with traffic and noise and big groups of tourists (oh, the tourists). If anything, my few months here have made me want to live somewhere even more rural, more chilled. Spending a few days by the sea in Cornwall convinced me of this even more.

On the downside, it’s hard living away from my friends. No, I haven’t moved to some remote Hebridean island, but an hour’s journey from London is long enough to be a deterrent. I keep in contact with people best I can, but part of being in your late twenties is accepting that you can’t be as social as you were in your early twenties. At 23, I could be out late four or five evenings a week. At 29, I need an extra hour of sleep for every minute I stay up beyond 10 PM (and 9 PM is a perfectly acceptable bedtime). As I move into my thirties, I expect some friends will drift away – not in a neglectful or acrimonious way, but in an organic blameless way – as people move around the world, get married, have kids and progress in their careers. It’s not that I want this to happen with any of my friends, but that’s a natural part of life. I will always have the memories of those friendships, and know other friends will stick around even if it’s just a phone call once every few months. I certainly plan to cling annoyingly onto everybody as hard as I can.

My old job seems like a weird dream; my new job is very different both in terms of responsibilities and culture. There’s a lot less pressure, although everybody wants to do their jobs well. Everybody helps everybody else out. The end goal is not to make profit but to provide free education, which is something I can really get on board with. The most important difference to me is that while I care about my job, it doesn’t define me. People’s ears used to prick up when I said I was a Commissioning Editor, and I liked impressing them; but to be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with myself. Now, I don’t mind if people are impressed by me or not. I do my job (and think and hope I do it well), then go home and enjoy my free time writing, reading, cooking, exercising, hanging out with Omar, talking to friends. How did I reach this point? I can’t pinpoint one thing that has made me so much more relaxed and less insecure over the past few years: I think it’s just the journey of life shaping me.

My job is fixed-term, so what’s next? I don’t have a plan, but that doesn’t make me panic as it would have done in the past. I took a risk and landed on my feet, so I’m excited to see what happens next. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the here and now: the leisurely walks to work listening to podcasts, the sun on my face and the flowers blooming as spring arrives in the garden, the writing sessions with my (here it comes) husband (still sounds weird) in coffee shops. So in answer to your question: Cambridge life is good, thank you – but please come and visit me!

What I’ve learned on my career break

There have been some big changes in my life recently.

My career break began in April, and I decided I’d begin applying for jobs in October with the aim of getting something by the end of 2018. I considered this optimistic. Well readers, I only went and did it! I recently started a new job in a different industry in a new city. I don’t buy into the whole ‘new year, new me’ thing, but there is something neat about having a new beginning at the start of 2019.

Over the past 9 months I’ve written a novel, attended a writing retreat in the Scottish Highlands, visited Amsterdam, Finland and Estonia, Vietnam and Jordan, written professional copy, critiqued friends’ novels, rediscovered the joy of reading, practised mindfulness, spent time with my family, planned a wedding and caught up on a lot of much-needed sleep. There have been worries too: that I should have been writing every day, should have stuck to a 9 to 5 schedule, should have gone backpacking around the world, should have spent less money, should have volunteered, should have worried less. I’ve battled with these worries and emerged victorious. In general I’ve become a much less anxious person: more relaxed, confident, assertive, decisive… happier.

Here’s some of the things I’ve learnt while taking a career break.

A break means a break.

This has probably been the only period of time until I retire (when I’m 106) when I’ve had the time to do anything I want. Initially, I believed this meant I had to do EVERYTHING. I felt guilty if I wasn’t writing, or seeking out writing work, or creating a comprehensive filing system for all my banking documents since 2008, which (despite my wish to be a master of productivity) was often because I spent so much time sleeping, reading and catching up on all the Netflix series I’d only half-watched. After a few weeks of guilt I was reminded that learning to relax again, and clear my head of clutter, were reasons why I’d taken this break. When I’m busy with work again it won’t be my writing that’ll be the first thing to go; it’ll be the relaxation, the sleeping, the Netflix, and definitely the pyjama wearing. So why not enjoy those things while I can?

A career break hasn’t wrecked my future.

I was worried I’d struggle to find another job after my break. I thought potential employers would see me as someone who couldn’t hack the 9 to 5 and would subject me to an intensive interrogation insisting I show them the completed manuscript of my novel, all of my travel photos and a 2,000 word essay explaining how I’ve developed as a person over the last 9 months. I’d prepared a justification of my break in case it came up in interviews. It didn’t. I had no trouble getting interviews, and in those interviews nobody asked about or commented on my break. If anything, I felt I had an advantage because I was less exhausted and stressed than I would be interviewing alongside a full-time job, could attend interviews whenever, and had time to properly prepare. Anyway, if a company did disapprove of me taking some time to recharge and pursue my passions, is that the kind of company I’d want to work for?

My self-worth isn’t tied to my career success (or any other kind of success).

I think it’s been established I’m a big-time worrier, but one thing I haven’t worried about (to my surprise, actually) is comparing myself to my friends. Many of them have high-flying jobs with big salaries, or are published novelists, or successful freelancers, or own businesses, or are working towards PhDs, but I determined before quitting my job that I wouldn’t feel inferior to any if them. Conversely, I wouldn’t be smug because I’ve ‘escaped the rat race’. Rather, I’m proud to have such talented and successful friends. I’ve redefined my self-worth as something not based on my career, or anything else external to me, or even – and this is a fairly new realisation – my happiness, since nobody is happy all the time. I’ve tried not to spend much time analysing my success as a human being and just get on with enjoying my life.

I don’t need stuff. Okay, I don’t need a lot of stuff. 

I’ve been living off my savings plus a little extra money earned through freelance writing. Given that I worked in publishing for 5 years, I wasn’t exactly sitting atop a mountain of gold, so I’ve had to be frugal. I worked my way through my parents’ collection of hotel shampoos, I didn’t buy new clothes, shoes or make-up, I borrowed books, and I resisted the temptation to buy shiny new stationery for my writing and instead used the 10,000 shabby notebooks languishing in my bedroom. None of this has made me any less happy. The necessity of picking and choosing how I spent my money meant I also discovered the things most important to me; for example, I was willing to make other sacrifices so I could afford a gym membership. Now I have a salary I don’t want to slide back into thoughtless spending (although I did have a frenzied jam-buying spree in Fortnum and Mason upon receiving my job offer, so there’s definitely work to be done there…).

I’m excited to take all these new perspectives I’ve gained into a new year, new city and new job. If you’re considering taking a career break, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly and you should have a plan beforehand, but I’m certainly not going to dissuade anyone who’s in the position to take one. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

 

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.

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!

Happy new year!

Well, 2016 is drawing to a close. I won’t join the myriad voices wailing about what a terrible year it has been. Neither will I join those who make the highly original point that personifying a unit of time as a cackling witch who kills off beloved celebrities for fun is meaningless, and that terrible events are likely to continue to occur in 2017, etc. etc. Instead, I will tell you about my resolutions for next year.

People are sometimes surprised that I make resolutions, because they think I am a deeply cynical person and killer of all joy. The truth is, I am sunshine in a bottle. Ha, no. Actually, I just think that since half-hearted attempts at ‘self-improvement’ abound at this time of year, I may as well join in and suffer through January alongside my friends. If I get something out of it as well, fantastic.

Like everyone in the history of forever, I rarely follow through on my resolutions, but I’ve come to embrace this quality in myself. I tell myself it’s because I’m a dilettante: my resolution to take up watercolour painting will come to a crashing halt when I get distracted by ukulele playing (or, um, Netflix). This may seem like a defeatist attitude but I find it helpful to accept that, even if I did achieve my unrealistic goals each new year, I wouldn’t be 100% happy. It’s like buying a shiny new iPhone and discovering there’s no headphone jack. Human nature means we brood over what we don’t have compared to others, and invest all of our happiness in achieving or obtaining things which disappoint us when we realise those things aren’t perfect. This is what I’d do even if I managed to meditate at 5am every morning, virtuously opt for lime-and-sodas at after-work drinks and casually write poems in my lunch break. All of which will never happen.

That’s why this year I am simplifying things. My aim for 2017 is simply to try and worry less (emphasis on try).

Worry seems like a small, trivial thing, but it’s a big deal. I’m always worried about something, from whether I’m dying of an obscure disease to the fact I’m running low on shampoo. I’m an insomniac because I worry about pointless things; when I’m half-asleep, even a lack of shampoo expands to the size of a major life crisis. I worry about minor plot points in my novel, or that my novel will never be published; I worry about an email I need to send at work, or about my entire career and how I’m a failure in comparison to friends. Worry feels like an external force I have no power over, and knowing that’s not true doesn’t always help me to overcome it. In 2017, I’m determined not to let worry win and to have a year where I just enjoy my life, whatever may come, without comparing my experience to anyone else’s.

It seems a hopelessly intangible goal, but I’m going to try some practical measures to achieve it: good sleep hygiene so I don’t worry whilst unable to sleep; keeping myself busy with exercise, singing, writing and friends; avoiding Facebook where possible so I don’t compare my life to the filtered version of anybody else’s; books, candlelight, classical music and, since I don’t have a bath in my flat, really long showers.

Here are a few more specific things I’d like to achieve in 2017:

  • Read more in general – writing has overtaken reading this past year, but they go hand-in-hand – and especially more non-fiction, so I can learn things about the world and become an interesting dinner party conversationalist and person handy to have on a pub quiz team.
  • Finish my novel, by which I mean properly finish it, however many drafts it takes. Put it out there in the world and see what happens; if nothing happens, pick myself up and try again, and again.
  • Travel to four new countries. The US, Ireland and Poland are happening; country number four is a mystery, which excites me even more. Write about them all.
  • Keep up this blog, but try to make it more interesting and eclectic. It’s been going for about five years now, and even though I don’t have hundreds of followers (which was never my aim), I don’t want it to fizzle out now!

Wish me luck, and happy near year!

The horrors of public speaking. Or not.

I recently graduated from my Faber Writing a Novel course (did I mention I was doing a course?). The graduation day was mainly a celebration of the things we’d achieved over the six months and I was looking forward to it, but also approached it with trepidation. Why? Because it involved that horror of horrors: public speaking. We had to read out extracts from our novels, not just to our beaming classmates and tutors, but to a room full of literary agents. Cue sweating, shaking and the sudden onset of pubescent voice-wobbling.

Writers are often scared of public speaking, perhaps because we tend to be shy, thoughtful types. I wrote as a child because I didn’t have the confidence to express my thoughts and ideas in speech. When I put pen to paper the words flowed, but in front of an audience I’d turn red, my lips flapping uselessly around simple words, making embarrassing spoonerisms and Freudian slips. People seem surprised when I tell them this, because they think I have good elocution in conversation (read: ‘you’re posh’). Well, yes, because I’m not utterly terrified in everyday conversations (though I do become ludicrously even posher when nervous, as if doing a comedy accent.)

Nerves are nothing but self-sabotage, and yet although we all know this, so many of us struggle to tell them to get lost. A successful writer is probably going to have to speak in public fairly often – I doubt the ‘mysterious, reclusive’ writer cuts it in our world of media personalities – so I knew I had to overcome my stage fright.

In the hours before before my Faber reading, I started to worry, but I wasn’t worrying about the reading itself: I was worried about the fact I wasn’t worried. Why not? What was wrong with me? I worried that if I didn’t worry beforehand, worry would rugby-tackle me the moment I stood at the podium – ‘Thought you got away with it, didn’t you?!’ – and as I blathered barely coherent English I’d wish I’d practised my piece 700 more times.

Except that worry never showed up. The reading was fine; enjoyable, even. I’m not sure what changed me, but I put it down to a few reasons.

Firstly, growing confidence. I’m bad at many things – using tin openers, for example – but I’m confident I can write well, and don’t believe I’m being arrogant when I say that. Trusting my writing would speak for itself took the pressure off me speaking for it. All I had to do was make my voice loud enough to be heard. I‘ve also come to realise the value of my own writing; I have something other people want and enjoy. The agents didn’t turn up to do us all a favour, or because they were bored and wanted something to do. They’re all already incredibly busy, but they took time out of their days because they wanted to look for new talent among us. That talent could be me.

Secondly, practice. As an editor, my day job doesn’t involve public speaking, but it does involve presenting book projects to our publishing board. That means putting together a convincing presentation and not bungling it when I read it out to a room full of people who decide whether my book sinks or swims. There’s a level of personal investment, although admittedly it’s not the same as reading my own prose, which feels rather like doing an intellectual strip show. The first time I did a book presentation, I was timid, hesitant, dithering. Now I go in and say: here’s my book. I think it’s great. Do you? And they always do. I don’t think practice makes perfect, because perfect isn’t a thing human beings can achieve, but practice makes much, much better.

Thirdly, this TED talk. I found it a few days before my reading when I was listening to The Guilty Feminist podcast. One of the presenters, Deborah Frances White, mentioned how she never directs anyone to her TED talk because she hates her haircut (and feels guilty about this because she’s a feminist and shouldn’t care about her hair). Hair aside, I thought it was a great talk. I love it when she talks about how,when you’re speaking, you shouldn’t worry about how your audience perceive you: you should focus on what you have to say that will change their worlds. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t go, ‘Er, guys, is it, um, OK if I tell you about this dream thingy I had, maybe? *cough*’ He said, ‘I have a dream,’ and people listened. Obviously you don’t have to believe you’re Martin Luther King Jr. – you’d be deluded if you did – but you have to believe that you’ve got something worth saying, or you won’t be able to convince anyone else.

I’m just going to say it: I think my novel is worth reading.

Or it will be, once I’ve finished it.

Finally, the room was full of supportive friends. I know I’ve said this ten times before, but as soon as you realise other writers aren’t out to get you, and that they want you to succeed, everything becomes so much easier. I focused on them. Surround yourself with people who love the same things as you do and all will be well.