Saturday, 4 July 2015

Being Brave

I've been having a few ups and downs in the world of freelancing lately. Ups have included a lovely mid-week trip to Edinburgh; downs mainly involve  narrowly missing out on some work I would have loved to do, and worked really hard to try and win.  Still, life goes on. The scars will heal. The bills will be paid (I hope.)

One thing I've realised is that freelancing is a lot like dating. In the last few months I've swapped contact details with someone who sparked my interest then played the will-they-won't-they-call waiting game; I've had coffee with various people purely so we can size each other up and I've had a REALLY awkward break-up conversation. Someone I know has said to me 'I'm not going to hook up with this person, but I think they're perfect for you. Can I pass on your details?' and I've even, I'm a little ashamed to say, resorted to dodging emails in order to extricate myself from an expired (in my mind, at least) relationship. None of these things had anything to do with my personal life. 

Courting people for work, courting people for romance....there's a lot of overlap. You're constantly presenting your best self to others, then waiting for their judgement. You have to be honest with other people and - the even harder bit - with yourself, about what it is you're looking for, and what you're not prepared to do. You have to be brave enough to say no to things which aren't quite right, and trust that there's something else out there. And when you do find what you're looking for and you fall in love – whether with the perfect work opportunity, or the right person, you have to go and chase after it, without any idea of what the outcome might be. You have to take risks. Constantly.

In both love and work, there are safer options. You can simply do nothing at all (and end up unemployed and alone) or you can take the 'normal' route. Find a regular full-time job, settle down with Mr He's-OK-I-guess-and-it's-better-than-being-on-my-own. These are not terrible options. Plenty of people take those options and there is still, even now I think, a lot of pressure to follow that path. It's easy to see why it's so tempting.

But for some of us - and I think we're growing in number – that's not the right choice. The alternatives might involve doing things which are, quite frankly, sometimes terrifying, but as hard and as scary as it can be sometimes we still know what feels right for us. Don't ask me how we know - we just know. I know I'd rather be freelancing than be tied down to a not-quite-perfect job in much the same way I'd rather be single than settle for a relationship with just anyone. I suspect it's the same something, deep in my DNA, which is responsible for both.

It takes guts though. You need the courage to go against the grain in the first place. And then (and here's the real kicker) you have to keep being courageous, performing little acts of bravery over and over again. It's easy, after a while, to forget that this is what you are doing. Being brave might have become a habit, but doing something habitually doesn't necessarily make it more pleasant, or less painful. Anyone with a regular waxing appointment will tell you that.

In the news we hear stories of great acts of bravery all of the time. People climb dangerous mountains to rescue other people and watch loved ones battle cancer and  fight for what they believe in even under the most extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  Perhaps not as newsworthy, but no less important, are the smaller acts of bravery. The tiny moments of fear which we feel but try to ignore. The times we don't just listen to our heart, but we actually act on what it is telling us. Even though our head is freaking out. The times when we say out loud what we really want, or tell someone how we really feel about them, or ask a question we're scared to know the answer to.  When we finally press the 'send' button on the kind of email where you have to take a deep breath, and hover your finger over the keyboard for ages first, and then when you do press it you feel a combination of relief and anxiety and hope and wishing the internet had never been invented all at once. 

The risks we take in love, in work, in life generally every single day, seem small. We have to tell ourselves that these moments are tiny, and were no big deal, otherwise we'd never be able to cope with the thought of doing them. But sometimes  it's important to remember how big they feel in the moment too. Being brave is hard. Really hard.

One of my friends performed one of those little acts of bravery recently, in matters of the heart. It didn't pay off – or at least, not in the way that she wanted it to - but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth the risk. Regardless of the outcome, those moments leave us with something. They leave us with stories.

The stories of these tiny-but-huge moments are the ones we tell ourselves the next time we need to do something scary. We use them to remind ourselves that we know how to be brave, that we can be brave, because we've done it before.  When they have happy endings they provide concrete evidence that sometimes risks are worth taking. And when they don't end the way we wanted them to, they can give us comfort. We know that even if something terrible happens, we've been through something similar before, and survived. They help us remember that no matter what happens as a result of the crazy, hold-onto-your-hat-and-just-jump leap of faith we're about to take, we'll be OK.  

Those stories are what make us brave enough to be brave again. And again. And again.  They provide an extra boost of courage, just when we need it the most, and give us tiny scraps of faith we can cling on to. They are what make the difference between thinking and doing, acting and not acting. Being proud that we tried or regretting the fact that we didn't. 

Small moments, powerful stories.

The best thing about bravery is that it's contagious. Talking to my heroic, kick-ass friend the other night reminded me of that. By sharing her story, she passed a tiny nugget of courage on to me, too. I haven't done anything with it yet but I absolutely intend to. And when that tiny-but-huge moment does arrive, it is going to find me waiting. Still terrified, still wondering what I'm about to let myself in for,  but perhaps with enough courage now to go and find out. 

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Not to worry

You can read in full  F Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful letter of advice for his 11 year old daughter over at the equally wonderful Letters of Note website.

My favourite part is this list of 'things not to worry about':

Don't worry about popular opinion
Don't worry about dolls
Don't worry about the past
Don't worry about the future
Don't worry about growing up
Don't worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don't worry about triumph
Don't worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don't worry about mosquitoes
Don't worry about flies
Don't worry about insects in general
Don't worry about parents
Don't worry about boys
Don't worry about disappointments
Don't worry about pleasures
Don't worry about satisfactions

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

I am feeling a bit sheepish.....

It turns out I joined a dating site a while back, and then completely forgot I had joined a dating site.

The forgetting bit isn't why I'm feeling sheepish.

I have had a chequered history with dating sites, and have dipped in and out of a few of them over the years, with the last couple of years definitely veering more towards the 'out' side of the continuum.

If memory serves the thing which enticed me to try out this one, when I signed up at having-drunk-most-of-a-bottle-of-wine-o'clock late one night, was the fact that it was aimed at 'creatives'.  I know, I know...that term makes me cringe a bit as well, but let's face it. As far as dating website specialisms go,  I'm much more likely to meet the man of my dreams (or a man with whom I can at least stomach the thought of spending an evening with which, at this early-slash-horribly-awkward-slash-really-quite-petrifying stage is all I'm really hoping for) on a site marketed at creatives than somewhere like sugar daddies dot com or uniform dating.

And do not even START me on Tinder.

Anyway, I signed up to this site, and thought no more about it, until months and months later, notifications began to appear in my inbox. I was receiving messages from members of the site.  Messages which began like this:

hi you so attractive my lady
My dearest one!
hello you look pretty . i am looking for true and real love
Nice photo sweetie.
Hello pretty angel how are you doing??
I must confess that you are a sweet and lovely looking lady.
Hello my beautiful friend with radiant smile. I would not trade any of that smile

Let me clarify something:  I wasn't receiving these sorts of messages in among the normal ones.  THESE WERE THE ONLY SORTS OF MESSAGES I WAS GETTING.

I was a bit annoyed.  I didn't  reply to any of them, which felt rude, but I didn't know what else to do because in my head the replies I had composed looked like this:

hi you so attractive my lady

Hi you person who can't compose an actual sentence. 

My dearest one! I know you? 

hello you look pretty . i am looking for true and real love

Of course you are. But only with someone who looks pretty? Meanwhile, I am looking for someone who knows how to use capital letters.

Nice photo sweetie.

SWEETIE?  We haven't even met.

Hello pretty angel how are you doing??

Again - what's with the nickname?  WE HAVEN'T EVEN MET.

I must confess that you are a sweet and lovely looking lady.

Well.....if you must. I mean, don't make me force your arm or anything.

Hello my beautiful friend with radiant smile. I would not trade any of that smile

We are not friends. And I am not entirely clear which part of that smile the other people  the ones who would trade any of it in -  might be willing to trade. Three teeth? A bottom lip?

I'm being harsh, perhaps. But it began to drive me nuts.  These sorts of messages came once a week or so, and NO OTHER MESSAGES CAME and it got to the stage where every time another notification arrived I rushed to check it, hoping to find the exception to the rule.  Surely not everyone on the site can be this shallow, I thought to myself.  A site which is marketed at 'creatives' must attract a small number of people, at least, who can use punctuation.  Where are THOSE people?

Eventually I began to get quite angry.  After all, I'd spent time writing a profile to describe myself, to communicate some of my interests, my values, my attributes....and all that these men were prepared to comment about was my appearance - and my appearance in a pretty ropey headshot at that. (What I haven't even mentioned yet is that most of these messages went on to request private contact details and at least half of them asked if I had Skype.)

Tonight another notification arrived (from Mr 'Hi you so attractive my lady') and I was so mad I decided to review the profile which these idiots (and I'm sorry, but they DO seem like idiots) have all steadfastly been ignoring.

You can probably guess what's coming next.

Yup. Somehow, I had completely forgotten to fill that section in. So here I've been, cursing this stupid website, and these stupid men for the last few months, when it turns out I'm the kind of girl who just slaps up a photo (and a pretty ropey head-shot at that) and then sits back, waiting for some attention, as if her appearance is all that matters.


So I have decided to do a little experiment.  I've now written a brief, and very honest profile.  Instead of spending hours agonising over the perfect combination of words to present myself in the best possible light I just wrote down all the things I thought  I'd want someone to know about me early on.  It looks like this:

Ah...turns out I had forgotten to fill this in.  OK.  Well, I'm originally from Australia but pretty settled in London now, after living here for 13 or so years.  Work involves doing a mix of things mostly in the (primary) education sector - I work freelance and do a bit of teacher training, create education programs, write teaching and learning resources and occasionally run workshops for kids. I also write fiction and love stories of any kind...whether in print, on the big screen, or just on the telly.

Other interests involve food / cooking / eating , travelling, music and comedy....I've just realised what a generic collection of hobbies that sounds! But the fact remains, those are the things I like. 

To be honest, I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here....but do any of us??!  Would definitely be up for a chat or drinks with someone who is down to earth, can have a laugh, and shares similar interests....

It's nothing special, but it will be interesting to see if anything changes as a result.  To be honest, I'm not holding my breath, but I would quite like it if all the things I have been thinking about this site, and about men in general, turn out to be wrong.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Lucky Larry

I found myself wondering about the origins of the phrase ' as happy as Larry' today.  Mainly because I wanted to use the phrase 'as happy as Larry', and had one of those odd born-and-grew-up-in-Australia-but-now-live-in-the-UK moments where I realised that people might have no idea what I meant.

Those moments happen a lot, by the way.  I've lived here for so long now that most of the time I  genuinely forget that it hasn't always been the case.  But every now and then I'm jolted back to reality by a cultural reference I completely miss, or one I try to make and find it is missed by everyone else.

Anyway. Larry. No one knows for sure who he is but the top contender is Larry Foley, an Australian bare-knuckle boxer who was supposed to become a priest but took up boxing instead, married twice (both times to a woman called Mary, which must have made things a lot simpler, especially since his mum was also called Mary), had eight kids and retired at the age of 32.  He remained undefeated during his career but only because his last fight (against an opponent much bigger and heavier than him) had to be abandoned before it was finished, after a group of his fans stormed the ring.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Three things which have made me smile this week

1. This street graffiti, on a housing estate in Brixton

2. This story about a 7 year old girl who has invented the best superhero comic EVER.

3. This video of a 102 year old dancer seeing herself on film for the first time.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

I'm back. Maybe.

Gosh. It HAS been a while.

I didn't make a deliberate decision to stop writing this blog, but that's sort of what seems to have happened. Life got in the way, I guess, and by life I mainly mean work.

More specifically, I mean becoming a full-time freelancer again. It has been much easier this time around, which is both good and bad news; the good news is that I haven't been short of work, and I've had chances to do all sorts of things I hadn't expected to find myself doing.  The bad news is that it hasn't left me with much time for anything else.

It's not just here I haven't been writing; the short story collection I had planned to finish last year is still a work in (very slow) progress, and I made a foolhardy attempt to embark on a NaNoWriMo project  back in November, but gave up  - for the first time ever -  within the first week.

And of course it's easy, once you've stopped doing something, to keep not doing it.  A few days of not doing something turn into a week, and weeks turn into months, and suddenly it's a year between blog posts, and you're not entirely sure how it happened.

So this is me trying not to stop. Or, more to the point, trying to start again.  Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Writer's Process Blog Tour

Huge thanks to the lovely Lisa Goll, who invited me to take part in this blog tour. Lisa runs the London Writers' Cafe, a London-based writing group I'm a member of and which, if I'm honest, I would be quite lost without. It's a lively, friendly community with regular meet-ups, events, guest speakers, workshops, and if you are a writer who lives in (or near) London, it's definitely worth checking out. You can read what Lisa had tosay about her own writing here, and now it's my turn to answer the same questions.......

What am I working on?

I have a terrible tendency to flit between lots of projects at once, which means that nothing ever gets finished. So this year I'm trying to focus on just one of those things and am compiling a collection of short stories. (Of course that means I still get to flit between several different projects, just much shorter ones.  Sneaky, isn't it?)  I'm working from a short-list of about fourteen stories – some finished, others less so – but I'm not sure yet if they'll all make the final cut.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think (or hope, at least) that I've started to find a distinct voice. The stories I have gathered together are all quite old fashioned in tone - they're generally written in the third person, with a very distant narrator, and although the settings are contemporary, the content is fairly old fashioned too. They are full of love triangles and plucky underdogs and people who are too proud or vain or selfish or so on getting exactly what they deserve. I'm a bit nervous about using the term, but one way to describe them would be as modern day 'morality tales'.  They are set (for the most part) in the real world but it's a reality where slightly fantastical things sometimes happen. Not quite often enough to be classed as magical realism, probably, and I don't stray too far into the realms of the supernatural (there are no goblins or dwarves), but I think it's fair to say that  there's a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed sometimes.

Why do I write what I do?

It happened completely by accident. When I first started writing I formed a writing group with some friends I'd met through a creative writing class, and we would met once a month or so to share our responses to a particular writing prompt or task. The thing I struggle with the most is plot, so when it was my turn to set the prompt I cheated and suggested that we all try and write a modern version of a fairy tale. That way, I reasoned, I wouldn't have to worry too much about a plot because I could just pinch one.

The story I ended up with contains some shoes, but apart from that it bears very little resemblance to Cinderella, which it was going to be based on. I strayed completely away from the original plot, and eventually wrangled one of my own into submission instead. Writing a fairy tale didn't solve the problem it was supposed to, but it gave me so much more than that. I discovered I loved playing with the form and found myself trying to sound like a storyteller would, breaking away from the story every now and then to make a wry observation or share a joke with the reader. That same tone carried over into the next story I wrote (about a love triangle which is resolved with the help of a terrible cup of coffee) and it is something which has stuck with me ever since. It's a useful excuse for a multitude of sins – I can be a bit wordy, for instance and get away with telling instead of showing more often than I wouild otherwise. So I do have have to keep mysef in check occasionally and make sure I'm breaking the rules for effect, rather than just being lazy. It' a fine line, but one I really like trying to tread.

How does my writing process work?

Gosh. I've tried to write this down before – one of my stories was published by Arachne Press a couple of years ago in a collection called Stations, and I wrote this 2-part guest blog for their website, trying to capture the process I went through to write that particular story. I'm not sure how well I succeeded.

Usually, I start with a tiny idea. This might be a character or a place; a vauge concept, a snatch of dialogue, or a situation..... just about anything really. Those ideas can come from anywhere. I'm constantly eavesdropping on other people's conversations, and scribbling down things which grab my attention; I tear interesting looking articles from magazines and newspapers and I borrow from other sources quite a lot. I've written a story based on the classic 'Two Guards' puzzle (the one where one guard always lies, and one tells the truth) for example, and another where the main character's life is controlled entirely by Beatles songs.

Once I have a vauge topic or idea I often do some sort of research. The internet, of course, is great for this - I've learned all sorts of things, from how lighthouses work (it's quite complicated) to the best conditions for keeping jellyfish (curved tanks, otherwise they get stuck in the corners). This part is fun – I like finding things out, as a general rule, and I'm not really looking for answers to specific questions, so I can read the things I find interesting and ignore the things I don't. I also make lists, and ask odd questions on Twitter -any kind of information gathering which might help spark some ideas.

Then, at some point, I start to write things down. Getting started is hard. Really, really, REALLY hard. I have huge arguments with myself which go like this:

“But that's going to sound so STUPID!”
“Well, write it anyway!”
“But I can't!” “Yes you can. Just do five minutes.”
“Maybe I'll just clean the shower first......”
“....and there's this ridiculously complicated recipe I've been meaning to try.....”
“Really? You're going to cook that NOW?”
“....and now there's all this washing up.....”
“Fine. Oh, God, this is so awful I think I'm going to DIE!”
“No it's not. You'll be fine. Remember what Dave Eggers says.”

and so on.

I do start writing eventually though. And more often than not, it's that pesky Dave Eggers quote which does it. I keep it pinned above my desk, and what he says is this: “People can't read what's inside your head. They can only read the words you put down, with great love and care, on the page.” It's obvious, when you think about it, but it's painfully true.

I don't always start at the beginning, and what I write down tends to be a mix of the actual words which might eventually end up in the story, and notes about things which might happen, which I need to go back and write. At this stage, usually, I still don't know what the actual story is but there are all sorts of ideas and bits and pieces swirling around in my head, and those are what I'm trying to capture. So I just keep writing little bits of scenes which might fit here or there, or even nowhere, and moving them all around, and skipping over some bits while rewriting others. This can take place over the course of several days, or weeks, or even months and as I'm writing things I notice or read or think about slip in as well and suddenly, before I know it there are a few thousand words on the page.

Eventually, if I'm lucky, there is some sort of shift. It's hard to explain what I mean by this; it's sort of my 'Eureka' moment, except it's not quite as dramatic and it doesn't often happen in the bath. But something suddenly falls into place and I realise what it is I'm actually writing about. Once that happens I can filter through everything I've got on the page and start making decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of, and usually there are lots of gaps left to fill in. Then it's a case of editing and polishing and tinkering around until I'm happy(ish) with the result.

I write on a computer, usually, in boring old Word, but (and this is crucial) in a very specific font. I have no idea why -  I guess it's the digital equivalent of always writing in green pen, or on a particular type of paper.  I save as I go and if I've made major changes tend to save a new version, which means I end up with folders containing 20 or 30 'drafts'. That sounds like a lot, but those aren't full, finished versions – it's just whever I got to the day before, or the week before, or whenever I was last working.

So there's my process. Of course, that 'Eureka' moment doesn't always happen quickly. In fact, a lot of the time it doesn't happen at all, which means I can spend ages working on something which doesn't end up going anywhere. So it's not the most efficient process.....but it's the one which works for me. Sometimes.

And now it's time for me to pass on to two other writers, who will tell you what works for them. Yakinamac and Mr Phipps who are both regulars at London Writers' Cafe, have agreed to take up the challenge, and their posts will be online next week.