The art of becoming an original writer in three days!

We talk about that first ‘bite’ we get as a writer, the first punch of an idea. Something catches our eye – a painting, or a conversation between two people across the room. We watch. Suddenly we start to imagine what they are saying. We picture what one of them might do next – or what the other has previously done; perhaps something they are now withholding. A story begins to form. But then suddenly Reason asks: how do you know this is the right story?


In her book, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter that Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1788 in reply to a friend who had complained of meagre literary production: the ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason on your imagination…It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason make too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in…


If we’re unconstrained, we might be able to sit and examine the painting, or watch these two people, chatting across the room. We remain calm. We observe, allowing ideas to take shape. We might imagine to ourselves: a funeral – two people, talking after a funeral.

Two women – sisters; no, sisters-in-law. One touches the hand of the other, so it is the younger of the two, the blond one, who is the widow. Both wear black. Both have been crying. The widow nods and gives a funeral smile before getting up and excusing herself to the kitchen where the sister-in-law follows and they continue to talk.

But now you might find yourself in the kitchen and think: how did I get here; what am I doing?

Suddenly, you’ve gone from familiar surroundings – the room where the reception was going on: the dim chatter, the smell of the food on the table in the bay window that is beginning to heat in the sun, coming through the glass; the sandwiches are forming a crust, even though the crusts have been removed.

But now in the kitchen, with these two women, you’re not sure.

Why did the widow get up? Why didn’t she simply sit there with the hand of her sister-in-law, providing comfort? The hand certainly was providing comfort. You’re certain of that.

Is it that the widow doesn’t want people to make a fuss; that it’s all too much? That she’s not yet ready to let herself go and is busying herself?

The trouble is that at the first sign of the inner judge, the imagination will become knocked about. From its initial meander, careless, aimless, aim-free – it is now aware that someone is watching. It is now aware that there are right and wrong paths to take. It doesn’t want to fail.


How, once this inner judge has stepped in, can you carry on with the freedom of imagination? Freud was to liken his process of free association – or ‘allowing’ – to that of the poet, during the act of creation. The patient – or poet – must suspend his critical faculties and say anything that comes to mind, regardless of its irrelevance, triviality, or unpleasantness.

When Reason creeps in, inhibiting the story, firstly acknowledge that you are now no longer in the sitting room, wandering the post-funeral reception. See that you are now in your head, wandering your self – your own memories, your own failings, your own doubts, perhaps your own funeral.

In the introduction to his Collected Essays, Hanif Kureishi says: More or less the whole of my formal education was concerned with enforced inhibition and constraint. I had to unfetter my imagination myself and learn to let it run. It sounds awkward to say that you might train your imagination, but you might learn, at least, to hear what it has to say, and respond.

Hanif, since a period when he found that he couldn’t move forward in his work, has used Freud’s method of free association each morning, which he himself discovered – oddly enough – in a writing manual by Ludwig Börne called: the art of becoming an original writer in three days.


Return to the story of the funeral – allow. Put yourself in the kitchen. See what comes. A kitchen that you know? You still have something of before to start you off because you can still hear the voices of the guests. Perhaps there were two boys, playing. Listen to their game – their innocent, high notes, rising above the muffled base of mourners who are taking their job seriously.

You can still smell the buffet lunch. But perhaps there is a new smell in the kitchen so that you can transition from one to the other, using the path of your senses. There are new sounds in the kitchen, allowing you to cross the threshold into a new room. How has the light changed?

Keep exploring these impressions and, at every stage, observe to see when you inhabit the character – the widow – and when you are simply standing back as the narrator. Are you illustrating the setting from an authorial distance, or have you stepped further in to describe from within the character?

It’s best not to jump around too many characters. Don’t suddenly panic and jump into the sister-in-law’s head, thinking: I don’t know the widow anymore – I never did – perhaps I’m not her, perhaps I’m this person instead. Of course, investigate, play around – don’t become too rigid. There’s no point starting a story in one character’s head and forcing your way through – ploughing through frozen earth without allowing yourself breathing space.

Investigate, explore, and know that the inner judge will butt in – even into the more sure ideas. It’s arrival it’s not a sign of fault. The inner judge simply interferes when the other senses, the feeling senses, become faint. When the tangible connection to your imagination becomes fragile, then there is space for doubt to enter – see it as the flailing of the mind when the floor disappears.

But don’t think you have to be absolutely on top of your story, crowding it, so that there’s no room for misgiving to enter. By doing this you’ll lose your perception in another way – by writing in panic. Even whilst floating, a connection can be found. Breathe. If you cannot feel the story, you can at least feel that you, the artist, are alive. Sit with that artist – on the sofa, chair, wherever it is you’re trying to write. Sit with that artist and breathe, and rather than carry yourself away in thoughts, admonitions and doubt, notice sensations – how your chest rises, how it falls, how it clenches, how it releases, how it stutters, how is wheezes.

There are so many things to notice that one never need enter back into the line of thinking – the doubt, the ruin. But if you enter that line of thinking, you haven’t failed either, you are simply walking the artist’s path. It’s like being a pinball in a machine: darting about, setting off alarms, lights, buzzers; sometimes winning a prize, sometimes falling down a hole – nothing won at all.


I spent a very long time, exploring this funeral – and in fact it was a scene that never made it into the final draft of the story, but it was necessary for the process as a whole. The story came about because of a painting I saw in a museum. I was in Ireland for the launch of an anthology a short story of mine had been published in, and was full of inspiration to write another.

To me, this new story was Irish, the sisters were Irish. It was the husband who was dead.

‘The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.’


The painting I saw in Ireland shows a husband and wife, sitting at a table. They have become disconnected somehow.

The painting is called The Consultation, which already gave an idea of a lack of ease and intimacy. But the way the objects are placed suggests it isn’t simply an emotional difference these two people have. It is something greater.

A chair, in the doorway beyond, is empty – conveying absence. Looking at the woman, I felt she was in grief – frozen at breakfast, in her duties. The man is waiting for her, watching. Somehow, although they are separated – by life, by death – although their eyes are no longer level, there is something that has levelled. In this moment, they finally feel love for each other. He, at long last, sees her emotion – the tears – and his heart bursts.

Her sudden realisation is that this breakfast routine, which she’d found so formal, is impossible without him. Even though they never said much to each other, he had always been there, a quiet presence, buttering his toast. She never thought he would leave.


‘It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him. She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs…’

For those of you interested in reading the full short story – The Courting – which was published by Virago, click here for an online version. The piece is less than 4,000 words long – but I wrote many more as I searched for the thread of the tale. Seen in isolation an idea may seem trivial – but do not reject too soon because it may be made more worthy by another idea that comes after. Freud talked of free association as the ore from which the analyst extracts its content of precious metal. Where imagination has freedom, Reason relaxes its watch, allowing ideas to rush in, knowing that the time for arrangement comes later.


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Shockproof shit detector: the editor’s perspective


The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a new kind of fiction, best exemplified by the short story collections of Raymond Carver.

In 1981 his best-loved collection was published. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ recorded the almost dreary lives of middle America, in language that was frugal and yet commanding.

The metafictions, magic realism and doorstopper Great American Novels of the 1960s and 1970s had been challenged.

Writing was now about minimalism – all show and no tell. Creative writing students on both sides of the Atlantic worshipped at the altar of Carver, pruning and condensing in their attempts to imitate his style.

And then, in 2009, Carver’s wife, Tess Gallagher, published ‘Beginners’ – the original manuscript versions of the 17 stories that make up ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. The true extent of editor Gordon Lish’s cuts to Carver’s work was revealed. The bible of minimalism was apparently the work of two authors – writer and editor.

Minimalism was not a style that dripped so easily from Carver’s pen.

A minor literary tempest followed. The original of the collection’s title story was published in The New Yorker – with Lish’s edits. Creative writing classrooms around the globe quivered with excitement: perhaps the struggle for that perfect, showing sentence was not so unattainable. God had been made man; we could all relax.


VS Kemanis’s latest collection ‘Dust of the Universe’ brings to mind many of these debates about editing, K.I.S.S. (‘keep it simple, stupid’), fashion in literature and literary territory.

Kemanis’s ‘territory’ is the American middle class; in this collection, specifically the white-collar, middle-class family (her previous collections have concentrated on ‘women’ and ‘misdemeanour’). And her style is neither minimal nor simple.

‘Dust of the Universe’ sees people on planes, in cars, at home and at work, struggling with the emotional pulls, conflicts and trials of family life. Her characters, most often women, sit at the centre of these domestic dramas, trying, with varying degrees of success, to cope with exterior events while tuning into and processing their interior reactions.

Material then for the minimal treatment. No ground-breaking incidents, magical happenings, or self-referential meta-narrative here. Quiet, limpid prose would appear to be the perfect vehicle for Kemanis’s stories.

Kemanis herself, however, professes an enjoyment of ‘the beauty and intricacy of language’. This certainly shows: she chooses an elaborate style to tell the stories of her ‘everyday people experiencing joys and sorrows’.

Is this wrong? If so, why?

Is it successful? If not, how could it be improved?


Literary fashion since Carver remains minimal. The early twentieth-century modernists and the experimentalists of the 60s and 70s provided the raw material for the blooming fields of literary, critical and cultural studies. Literature that discussed literature – and pulled in psychology, linguistics, politics and sociology – gained a strangle-hold on academia and, crucially, alienated a reading public. No wonder that readers were attracted to Carver’s straight-forward story-telling, his focus on character, incident and dialogue, and apparent lack of pre-occupation with any kind of ephemeral ‘discourse’.

So when one reads a story such as Kemanis’s ‘Nothing Intentional’, in which a middle-aged lawyer contemplates an extra-marital knockback and his position in the world, it feels rather over-written. Is this because of fashion – is this because one expects such a story to be revealed through quiet imagery and language? Or is it because Kemanis is a self-published writer – albeit an experienced one? Does this story need a Lish-style edit, cutting it back to its bare, white bones?


A comparison with another story in the collection provides some insight: ‘The Zephyr’ records the turmoil an eight-year old girl feels in the face of her reconfigured family situation. Staying alone with her mother in a motel named The Zephyr, and visited on weekends by family members, new and old, she develops a powerful fear of the creature she believes the zephyr is, conflating it with the prematurely developed daughter of the motel manager.

This is probably the best story in the collection. It is the most moving, thematically and symbolically the best integrated, and is executed with great success. What marks it out from Kemanis’s other emotionally astute tales is the difficult literary trick Kemanis manages to pull off: she writes an adult story using the eight-year-old Debbie’s voice.

Writing in a child’s voice does not entail writing childishly or even with Carveresque simplicity; writing from a child’s point of view can be both subtle and sophisticated. In ‘What Maisie Knew’ Henry James sees everything through Maisie’s eyes, but, choosing to write in the third person, he is able to map refined, urbane language onto undeveloped thought patterns. The title of the novel indicates both the novel’s subject matter and its status as a technical exercise; James, creative genius and master technician, combines the two in one of his best works. And anyone who has read a single James sentence knows he is perhaps the ‘anti-Carver’.

Writing from the first-person point of view of an eight-year-old girl is even more of a challenge, but in ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis manages to avoid both any kind of jejune tone and any overly sophisticated commentary. The author is present, but the reader is only very faintly and pleasantly aware of her because of her choices of observation and image.

Kemanis has achieved this by giving her own work a strong edit. And she has done this, perhaps, without even realizing it – rather, her choice of voice has demanded such precision. In an interview with the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway famously said ‘The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector’. In ‘The Zephyr’ Kemanis’s point of view choice has turned her detector up to eleven – any sign of age-inappropriate language, analysis or view is absent. She has been her own Lish.


Perhaps then, for the self-published writer, the absence of a sensitive agent and a hard editor means being your own Lish and turning up the volume on your shit detector are essential skills.

Kemanis manages this in a number of her stories. To make this a truly good collection, she needs to sharpen her blade and carve out from her quantities of promising material the ideal forms of the rest.

In the title story of ‘The Dust of The Universe’ – a brief, heart-wrenching piece of writing – we do not need to know that Kip is ‘still hard-muscled from workouts at the gym’, only that he is big and his is his wife’s tucked position in bed is un-natural to him. Neither does Kemanis, once she has described Kip seeing ‘thousands of white specks danc[ing] about like atoms at boiling point’ under the covers, need to mention in the next paragraph the ‘boiling atomic particles’. Taking her knife to her prose in this way would increase the power of her imagery and make it serve her subjects even more effectively.


Not every writer can or should be Carver. Not every editor can or should be Lish. Lyrical, indulgent language is part of the pleasure of reading – and writing – but to adapt Lish himself, five lush, beautiful words can, by their clarity and precision, be better than fifteen.


The Editor’s Perspective features once a month
For those of you keen to have your ebook given a review by West Camel, please leave a comment or pingback below and West will hunt you out!

A big congratulations to VS Kemanis: ‘Everyone But Us‘ is currently a deserved semifinalist in the short fiction category of the 2013 Kindle Book Awards!

Thanks Britt Skrabanek, Chris Barnham and Catherine McCallum, West has been enjoying your blogs and ebooks…but who will be up next?

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Balls, heartbreak and the real Jane Austen

The fire throws its warmth across the room and one of the guests has stretched out on the sofa to sleep. Though Miss Bingley has a book in her lap her attention is on Darcy as he reads his own. Every time she makes some inquiry of him, he responds, but quickly returns to his page. Miss Bingley stifles a yawn at her book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, and declares that there is no enjoyment like reading, watching Darcy for his reaction.

He makes none. Nobody speaks. She throws the book aside.

Now, her brother begins talking of a ball he plans on hosting at Netherfield.

Charles! she says, wanting to know if he is quite serious. She is certain there are many to whom a ball would be rather a punishment than a pleasure.


I was 12 when I went to my first ball. I had recently broken my wrist. My unease at going to this ball – aside from concerns about not being pretty enough, and fancying boys that weren’t interested in me – was the cast on my arm.

My best friend suggested I try my dress on to see how it looked. The crushed velvet, elasticised fabric did fit over the cast, but the arm appeared chunky; my hand seemed to be a claw, set in the fibreglass as it was.

We decide to cut it off.

I’ve been in plaster for three weeks and with only one more to go I’m certain it will be fine. After we manage to hack everything away, and I spend a few moments inspecting my pale, sweaty wrist, it begins to throb.

Crap, that was definitely a bad idea, I say.


I end up back at the hospital, getting another cast fitted. The doctor acts solemn – a deep crease at the bridge of his nose, implying that what I did was galactically irresponsible.

At this age, anything serious makes me think of murder. I feel an awful heaviness. Despite this, I am unable to stop giggling, when no one is looking. Perhaps this is my defence against the solemnity of death – laughing away the cloud that keeps swelling above me.

There, the doctor says – triumphant – adding one final hunk to the palm of my hand, which I cannot close my fingers around.

This cast is nothing like the first one. Originally, it had only gone halfway up my arm – a knitted fibreglass bandage impregnated with polyurethane, which was light and compact. Now I have a plaster of paris club, which weighs a great deal. The cast reaches my elbow, all lumpy and misshapen. I’m certain the doctor has done this on purpose.

The dress still stretches over, but I look like something out of a zombie movie. Even if someone did want to dance with me, I’m not sure I could with this anvil hanging off my body.


Catherine longed to dance, but she had no acquaintance in the room. Mrs. Allen did all she could do by saying: I wish you could dance, my dear—I wish you could get a partner.

Catherine felt obliged to her for these wishes; but they were repeated so often, and proved so ineffectual, that she eventually grew tired.


My friends and I had the same concerns – not being able to approach boys and ask them to dance. At least my two girlfriends were pretty. I knew it would take a stranger the courage of a lion to cross the room and make an offer, and my looks were never going to inspire that. This didn’t stop me, dreaming of having the kind of face that might encourage such an act, searching for the boy who would be the one to roar, bound to my side and offer his paw.

We were dependent on our dates: three boys from school. I was in love with all of them in some way. But my best friend was only in love with one of them, so he had to be hers – not that I had to concede anything to her, beautiful as she was. It was a bit heartbreaking because this boy was the most intriguing of the three, though, I was terrified of him, of passion. The second boy was a mystery. He was sporty and, even though he was a total pin up, he didn’t seem interested in girls yet. But who knew?

Certainly not us.

And then there was the lad I’d grown up with who was always fun to be around.

We wondered if the boys would dance. We were scared they wouldn’t want to, or how it was all going to happen. Would we dance in a group? Or would we all pair up? And who would pair up with whom?

We came up with every scenario: all the boys wanting to dance with the same girl, the wrong boys wanting to dance with the wrong girls. What to do if certain songs came on. What to do if we saw each other dancing with a boy – which song to quickly request. For me it was No Woman No Cry.

How would we slow dance?

How would we dance in general?

We planned humorous things to say, secret signals to make if we needed to be interrupted, or rescued; a time schedule, including moments we would convene, go to the toilet, check in, update.

This is how we wiled away the time. It was our consolation for the agony of waiting; our substitute for the real. Just as it had been for Jane Austen: I hope we shall meet next week to talk this over, she writes to her intimate friend Martha – till we have tired ourselves with the very idea of my visit before my visit begins.


I grew up before the advances of social media. There were no mobiles at school, just a noticeboard outside the dining room where you could leave and receive notes. At home, with my friends in the school holiday, talking about boys, we couldn’t go online and stalk their facebook page, we simply had to console ourselves with words, stories, dreams. News was everything.

I shall be extremely anxious to hear the event of your ball, and shall hope to receive so long and minute an account of every particular that I shall be tired of reading it, Jane Austen writes to her sister.

Flower Collage

There has been much debate at the quote (‘I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading’), which will accompany Jane Austen’s portrait on our £10 because it comes from a devious character – said falsely, merely to impress. But the scene from which it is taken reveals so much. Writers seek ways of showing characters – their temperament, their idiosyncrasies. For Jane, reading was a way to experience a world she couldn’t in person. To be disingenuous about the importance books was a folly she wished to attribute to Miss Bingley. Truly loving a book was a sign of authenticity.

But even Jane recognised that they were not to replace the real thing when the real thing could be got.

You distress me cruelly by your request about books, she writes to Martha. I cannot think of any to bring with me, nor have I any idea of our wanting them. I come to you to be talked to, not to read or hear reading; I can do that at home; and indeed I am now laying in a stock of intelligence to pour out on you as my share of the conversation.

Some have accused her work as superficial, even dull, but although the world of her stories is limited, I cannot fault her meticulous observation. As a young girl, reading her books made me feel less alone.

Flower Collage

Catherine began to feel something of disappointment – she was tired of being continually pressed against by people…all of whom she was so wholly unacquainted that she could not relieve the irksomeness of imprisonment by the exchange of a syllable with any of her fellow captives…

…when at last arrived in the tea-room, she felt yet more the awkwardness of having no party to join, no acquaintance to claim…


At some point in the ball, we wonder where the boys are. We’ve arrived, come into the main room where disco lights panic across the floor in various colours. A few people dance at the edges – lucky girls with boys. Soft drinks sit in paper cups on the bar. People lounge at tables, talking. Others stand in nonchalant poses in the hallways.

We decide to see if the boys are outside. No. We search the shadows of the large room. We even look on the dancefloor, thinking: well we’ve been everywhere else, so this is the only place they can be.

We ask boys coming out of the toilets if they’ve seen them, make another circuit, take in the corridors, the entrance hall, and then we say quietly to each other: maybe they’ve…gone?


We gather at the payphone and ring them.

The lad I grew up with answers the phone. Nothing in his voice suggests there’s anything amiss – the casual way he says, yes? when I blurt out his name.

But you’re at home! I say.


You’re supposed to be here with us at the ball!

Oh, yeah, he says.


Well…it was boring.

But you only gave it half an hour, and you just left, and you didn’t tell us.

Yeah, well, we didn’t want to bother you.

Hang on, I tell him, consulting my friends. We decide that we have to persuade them to come back.

When I get back on the line it’s the sporty boy.

Who’s this? he asks.

It’s me – Gabs!

Surprisingly, something about the telephone begins a new energy in motion. We all take turns talking to each other, going through all the combinations. We grow bold.


We tell them how dumb they were to leave, because now it’s really got going.

It’s gone insanely wild, I say, suggesting various things that are happening in a vague way so that they’ll just have to come and see for themselves, won’t they?

Flower Collage

The company began to disperse when the dancing was over – enough to leave space for the remainder to walk about in some comfort; and now was the time for a heroine, who had not yet played a very distinguished part in the events of the evening, to be noticed and admired.

Every five minutes, by removing some of the crowd, gave greater openings for Catherine’s charms. She was now seen by many young men who had not been near her before.

Not one, however, started with rapturous wonder on beholding her, no whisper of eager inquiry ran round the room…


We ended up going home early when the boys didn’t materialise, feeling bad for not seeing the ball through; we’d only managed to dance for a few songs – the three of us in a small, self-conscious circle. When I explained what had happened to my mother, she was outraged. The boys were in big trouble.

Although this was pleasing to me, it didn’t resolve anything, or undo anything. Yes, they would be told off, but this didn’t supply me with what I’d wanted.

With all my heart I had longed to dance with a boy under the ruby glow of disco lights.

Gabriela Blandy

Relevant Links

Catherine Morland is the heroine of Northanger Abbey – a useful book to read for Jane Austen’s earlier style, showing more of the self-conscious writer than later works.

For more of my thoughts on characterisation.

My best friend now runs a rather beautiful online shop for bespoke, vintage and antique furniture, which is certainly worth a peek.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

The conundrum of being ourselves

During my second term at drama school, we had to face Shakespeare. All the students were frantic as agents from the RSC would be in the audience, scouting for new talent. There were tears after rehearsals. The toilets stank with the remnants of our nervous stomachs.

I was cast as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Here I am, entertaining my husband’s best friend, who I feel at ease with: he is jovial, whereas my husband is serious. I am pregnant and suddenly my husband gets it into his head that the baby isn’t his, but his friend’s. I’m put on trial.

My lord you are mistaken, I say.

Each time in rehearsals, the director would shout: stop, stop, you’re being too cautious. Be innocent, not defensive!

But I didn’t know what it was to conduct yourself on the conviction of your heart in the face of an accusation. My whole life I’d been pursued by teachers, headmasters, headmistresses – told I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I was being wilfully disruptive. I had no power against these charges. It never crossed my mind, as a ten year old, to say – but this is me, not naughty, not wayward, simply how I am, trying as best I can.

Instead, I nodded, said I was sorry: I would try harder. When the scolding finished, I staggered away, the muscles in my body, tightening to contain whatever was wrong inside me. I didn’t know how to work harder, or concentrate more. All I could do was to stop being myself.

 Gabriela Blandy

All through rehearsals of The Winter’s Tale, I can’t get it right.

Wait! the director says, her nostrils wide and dark. The friend of your husband is someone you feel comfortable with – relax with him.

I try again.

But don’t flirt! comes the next instruction – you have to simply show great ease and hosting skills.

A deep, historic anger is growing inside me. I begin to hate the director – simply to look at her makes me livid. I want to perform the final show appallingly – even though this is my one chance to act in front of representatives from the RSC.

 Gabriela Blandy

Guiltless! the director shouts, the skin on the underside of her chin, quivering.

Stop trying! she hisses, and I stare at a drop of spit, which has settled on her lip.

Read the speech again! she says, clicking her fingers and I imagine walking right up to her and slapping her across the face, slapping the world for putting me in a box I didn’t belong for so much of my childhood so that now I’m unable to be who I want.

 Gabriela Blandy

The other week, I was bending down to get something out of my rucksack when my back went into spasm. This is often the way it is for me – shaking my hair after a shower, lying down on a picnic rug, suddenly feeling a sharp twinge in the lower part of my spine, above my right butt cheek. It’s like a pod of fear.

What’s wrong with me? it wants to know.

It came at university as deadlines loomed and I feared my coursework wouldn’t be good enough. Suddenly the pressure on the base of my spine becomes too much – it is not simply my upper body that I am supporting, but expectations that are beyond me.

The stage was a place I felt free – a source of happiness.

But at drama school this was shattered.

I had to be true if I was to become a great actress, but I was too caught up in the notion of being something I wasn’t – something more. Once again, I was getting it wrong, but the way I had survived in the past, wasn’t working. I had to be myself, but this was a person I hadn’t visited for so long, I didn’t know how to find my way back.

I tried, as if playing a game, fitting shapes into slots, hoping to find something that fit. This great conundrum.

Hard to understand that being ourselves – which should be the most natural thing in the world, simply a case of opening our eyes, breathing, being – is so difficult. What is it that gets in the way?

For me, I’d grown up burdened with expectations – those of my parents, my teachers. They saw something in my future, but they never noticed the girl in front of them. Only I could see that. But I was unable to decipher what I observed.

Each day at drama school, I was followed by an echo. I took a step, delivered a line, followed an instruction, and the echo was the same: am I doing it right?

I became desperate because of my inability to answer the question. It’s only now that I know the echo is not the real me talking, and doesn’t need answering. Maybe one day it will fade entirely. Though, I suspect that to actively strive for that silence is to follow a wrong path – that of struggling, rather than simply allowing. For now, when the question comes, I remind myself words are not important, only the feeling beneath them, which is where my true self lies.

Gabriela Blandy

When the day of the performance arrived, I finally became Hermione. I felt the audience – their energy, their thoughts, their emotion. It was all in the atmosphere. And just like guiding a seed-head through the air with your hands, I held their attention in my pauses, my gestures. There was this tiny moment where I felt my fear, because the part was so challenging – and the director’s voice was in my head: no, stop, again! but I felt my impulse to open myself up so that I came from my belly, unimpeded.

I was chosen by the RSC scout to come and audition for them.

My head floated up high above my body in a way I never thought it would – feeling for so long that I had been failing at drama school, that I wasn’t the actress I’d been made to believe I was.

Then I discovered that I had to sing a solo for the audition.

I couldn’t sing and already I knew I wouldn’t be chosen.

Gabriela Blandy

When my lower spine went into spasm, I stood up from my rucksack and undressed to my underwear as I was sweating badly. I lay some cushions on my deck outside and tried to relax.

After an hour, I decided to get up, but the pain was so acute I couldn’t even sit. I tried turning onto my side. Fire rushed through my pelvis and I flopped back down, staring at the sky. This bright blue summer we’re having, which has changed the mood of everything. I looked at the branches of the eucalyptus, bowing in the breeze, and I thought to myself: can I really not get up – is it really so painful? For a moment I wasn’t sure who was making the decisions – the real me or the frightened child. Eventually, I began to need the toilet so I tried again. That’s when I knew. Despite really having to get somewhere, I still couldn’t move.

I thought about what I tell my students in my public speaking workshops – all you have to do is breathe. So, that’s what I did. I took deep, long breaths. The pain was there – catastrophic, but I just tried to focus on the breath. I managed to make it onto all fours, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand. I crawled to the bathroom, and at this stage I was fairly desperate. In the last few moments I dragged myself up, onto the seat, and just about managed to slide my pants to the side so I could pee.

Afterwards, my breath came in shudders, in and out – flames at the base of my spine, in my pelvis, my legs shaking – my chest full of emotion, the ache of tears in my cheeks. Still, I asked myself: is it really this painful?

I moved just an inch to try to stand up – but the pain was so bad I made a long sound, wailing.

I tipped back, holding the toilet seat, supporting my upper body weight. I sat there. Staring at myself in the mirror. Several minutes went by. I thought about the hurt that started in my back when I was at drama school, which contained one word.


Why can’t I do this?

Beneath that was a whole life of blame – blame for everyone who hadn’t allowed me to be myself, for everyone who had misunderstood my actions. Who interpreted my love of life, adventure, my need to explore, for wilful disobedience. I was so busy blaming and asking why, I didn’t realise that the only way to be myself is to be myself. Nobody is stopping me, but my own misconception.

 Gabriela Blandy

As I sit on the toilet, unable to move, staring at myself in the mirror, I remember the song from that audition – how hard I tried to ignore the fear I wasn’t good enough.

With my pelvis as tense as it is, my belly hardly moves. When I try to breathe, my diaphragm only shifts in miniscule increments so that my lungs barely fill. I pant in short bursts. But I sing. The sound comes out weak, quivering, but I don’t hear what’s wrong. All I hear is the truth, which is that I’m in great pain. Singing like this isn’t about being excellent, it’s about expressing something: agony, the edge of tears, home alone, stuck on the toilet.

If I’d gone to that audition and embraced how I truly felt it wouldn’t have mattered how I sang, because they would have seen someone who knew themselves – able to connect to whatever it is inside them, good or bad, perfect or imperfect. Maybe then I would have got the part.

I was so busy trying to get it right that I never gave myself a chance to say: but who am I really?

I was acting like all those teachers had acted my whole life, expecting something, rather than seeing what was actually there – trusting that would be better than anything.

This is all I am, just this.

I am no more than this.

 Gabriela Blandy

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments

The wisdom of funk and soul, baby

The day before my fifteenth birthday, I’m on the bank of a river, attempting to have sex with a boy I hardly know. He’s a year older and would be the first person who came to mind if I heard the name Rumpelstiltskin. This is partly to do with his gnomish qualities – the shortness of his body as compared to the largeness of his head and features – but also to do with a sense of trickery.

Though, of course, we’re both drunk; we both had agendas at the party that night.

 Gabriela Blandy

A mixture of noises from the house party fill the background so that the river seems to flow without a sound – a ghost. The night is dark, but the moon comes through the trees, laying silver beads on the ground around me, which twist and spin in my drunkenness. I’m trying to take my trousers off without having removed my boots – a stupidity that makes proper sex tricky.

Proper sex. What is that?

Certainly not something I know the answer to at age fourteen. Yet, here I am, yanking at my trousers, aided by a boy I’ve spoken to only a handful of times, wriggling and laughing with him on top of me.

 Gabriela Blandy

It was the summer holidays. I’d arrived at the party late, coming into the garden on my own. A bonfire blazed – dozens of kids, sitting round with their faces shimmering orange. I was in my favourite purple jeans, Doc Martens boots.

I suppose I still see these two items of clothing in my mind because they featured highly that night. I don’t remember what else I was wearing, only that I stole someone’s top later in the evening, mortified, desperate to cover myself with as many extra layers as possible.

I approach the fire. There, with his arm around another girl, was my supposed boyfriend. He’d chased me only weeks before, finally persuading me to go out with him. But then the school holidays had come.

How stupid I feel to have thought we’d both remain faithful. I want to run, but the only thing I can do is keep moving forward.

As people make way for me to sit, my boyfriend looks up and sees me. There, above the flames, our eyes meet, with the fact of this other girl between us: a girl who is delicately boned – deeply pretty in that feminine way. She is a fairy and I suddenly feel like a mule.

My boyfriend’s arm remains on her shoulders. There isn’t even a flicker in his features – in fact, he looks presumptuous, smiling to me about his predicament. His expression says: go on, do the same, with someone else. As well as that, his face contains an element of self-admiration. Aren’t I fair? his chin says, rising up high above his neck.

What can I do with this pain, sliding into my heart, needle-like, yet accompanied by a very powerful instinct to act like I don’t care?

I sit down and wait until someone says something funny, and then I laugh as loud as I can.

And now, I’m talking to a boy. He seems to like me, and I can’t quite believe my luck, so I decide to ignore the fact he looks like a gnome.

 Gabriela Blandy

This was twenty years ago, before the internet, facebook, twitter. Today, school kids’ most tender experiences can be broadcast to the world before they’ve had a chance to process them and realise that they do still like themselves, despite their mistakes.

I found it hard enough imagining what Rumpelstiltskin would say to his mates about what occurred on the river bank –  what if I’d been able to read the conversation online; the words or phrases they used to describe me?


I walked away from the water, back to the house – or perhaps I ran, because I do remember how I was hit by a sudden understanding as I lay on that damp, river bank. I passed no one. The house was empty, desolate almost – with the whole party still going on outside in the dark. Screams and laughter. People coupling up and slinking off together. My now ex-boyfriend with his new girl.

I stood in the sitting room, with only the furniture around me and wondered what I was going to do. I already felt as if everybody knew. A weight of shame, that was surely beyond my own, was bearing down on me.

If this had happened now – this weekend – instead of writing this blog post, I might be scrolling through photos on someone’s facebook page. There’s my drunken body in the darkness with a boy I hardly know, the two of us, running away with ourselves – no idea of responsibility, of what comes next.

I spent most of my time at school, fearful that people would know my deepest embarrassments: they were often so crippling it was hard to believe they weren’t visible to the world. But what if I was certain the whole world could know them, simply by clicking on a link? This story might have been criticized while I was still vulnerable, not strong enough to take the opinions of others, which are often soaked with their infinite agendas.

 Gabriela Blandy

Last week, I was at a funk and soul festival. As I lay on the grass, listening to the music, I was struck by the bravery of all those artists, standing up on stage. It was a contrast to the week before when I’d been working with a group of teenagers. I watched these fragile school kids. I read their inner lives through their movements, the sound of their voices, and I tried to create enough safety so that, for a moment, they could open themselves up and experience what it is to let your soul grow large.

The headline act at the festival was Candi Staton. Suddenly, a tune I know so well started playing.

Young hearts run free.

I was thinking of Romeo and Juliet – Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, fighting above everything to be together; fighting so hard they kill themselves, so strong is their desire.

I’m not that wayward fourteen year old anymore, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to feel your heart so powerfully that you do whatever it says, with no room for thought of the cost. I suspect poor Rumpelstiltskin was just as mortified as I was, although I wasn’t level-headed enough back then to consider that.

I’m always inspired by how unbound youth can be, but I also remember that it’s hard to be young. Growing up, I felt I was the only one going through what I was going through. I didn’t know how to talk – there were no words to match my feelings.

Through my travelling and writing, I have reached a point of contentment. I love the opportunities I get to teach people some of the little I know – honoured that my amazing students value what I say. But, I wish I could give everybody a magical charm that could help.


This weekend, I suddenly realised something. Towards the end of Candi’s set, she finally sang You’ve got the love.

I felt passion, rising up through my legs, strong in my chest and then finally the lightest, blissful feeling in my cheeks. After the song, the band continued with the melody and Candi began to talk over the music. Tears were running out of my eyes.

She knew.

She knew what it was to be deep in difficult times, and her answer was simple: you’ve got the love.

We all have the capacity to care for ourselves – to be the best friend we’ve always wanted. Strange that we find it so hard. We’re too busy being hard on ourselves, I guess!

I was guilty of this – walking away from that boy on the river bank, hurrying towards the house to find some privacy.

I had allowed the sight of my boyfriend with his arm around another girl to make me hate myself – I wasn’t pretty enough to keep me safe from pain. So, I embraced the opportunity to sneak away from the fire with Rumpelstiltskin. When he asked me if I wanted to have sex, it felt wrong through my insides, but I couldn’t express myself in words. The alcohol was running through me so that I wasn’t there, it wasn’t really me.

I don’t want BABIES! I managed to say, giggling.

But it was okay, Rumpelstiltskin had a condom.

There my excuse went, floating down the river, leaving me with nothing else that I could articulate. My confidence was so shattered that a simple, no thanks never even occurred to me.

After I finally decided that yanking at my trousers, and having him struggling on top of me, was beginning to be a total pain, I stood up.

This is lame, I said, doing up my belt and turning to go.

Hey, Rumpelstiltskin shouted. What about me?

Do it yourself, I told him and walked away.

But as I went, I thought: he’ll tell people I can’t satisfy a man. And already I was blaming myself for the truth of that.

Gabriela Blandy

I wasn’t able to see I shouldn’t have been there in the first place – that actually I’d done the right thing, which is whatever you have to do look after yourself, to be yourself. And when you make that choice, life suddenly goes the right way.

There I am, standing in the house, trying to find something warm to wear, picking up a hooded top, wrapping it around me, thinking: how can I have enough layers to cover up this awful feeling? And then I hear a noise in the gravel driveway outside.

I move to the window and the security light comes, shining on the figure of a boy I’d known since I was three – a wonderful, honorary brother. He’s in a pair of wellington boots, an old smoking jacket of his father’s, and a pair of crumpled boxer shorts.

I run outside.

What are you doing here? I squeak.

He tells me he heard the music from his bedroom and finally decided to check it out.

I got stopped by the police the first time, he says. So, I went back to the house and waited half an hour and set off again.

I can see his eagerness at arriving, how he looks over my shoulder, attempting to catch a glimpse of something – forever curious.

What’s happening? he asks, about to swing himself off the bike.

I touch him on the arm.

Listen, I say.

What’s wrong?

Nothing, but…can you take me home?

As his eyes meet mine I glance away, still too raw to be looked into.

Sure, he says. Let’s go.


A big shout out this week to Vincenzo who has been trawling through my blog posts with admirable dedication. In his words: ‘The beauty of an imaginative soul is the power to visualize vitality even when reality is insipid and cold.’

For those of you interested in what I wrote about the Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul last year – when I was lucky enough to have an actual conversation with the main man himself, Monsieur Craig Charles – click ici.

And a final standing ovation for Johnny at The Boathouse Pub in Tewkesbury for his winning seabass, well worth the trip for anyone in the area.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , | 45 Comments

Which Window? – Point of View in The Valley Walker

Written by West Camel
For those of you keen to have your ebook given an editor’s review please leave a comment or pingback below and West will hunt you out!

Gabriela Blandy

In his preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of A Lady, Henry James describes the ‘house of fiction’ as having ‘not one window, but a million’, at each of which is an author, looking over the scene outside.

This metaphor demonstrates the ‘consciousness of the artist’. All the authors in the house are looking out at the same field – ‘the human scene’. But what a particular author sees is governed by the size, shape and position of the window he stands at; and how he sees the view is determined by his unique take on life.

The image is invaluable to writers at all stages of the creative process. It has them think about how to communicate their stories to readers, forcing them to ask the question, ‘how do I describe what I see from this particular window?’ and to appreciate the importance of point of view.

Gabriela Blandy

In the case of T.W Dittmer’s debut novel, The Valley Walker, it is tempting to set the author and his readers outside the ‘house of fiction’ and have them look inside. This is because Dittmer, rather than seeing ‘the human scene’ from a particular angle, has created whole world – a world which resembles a room packed full of objects. The array is varied and fascinating, though it is sometimes difficult to know where to look, wanting to look at everything at once.

The Valley Walker is filled with Laotian mysticism, deep knowledge of the Vietnam War, details of the procedure and function of the US drug enforcement system and multi-faceted characters. The plot is intricate, pulling its various elements together into a single, tight rope, where everything pulls its weight as the reader is taken to a dramatic and emotional climax and resolution.

However, Dittmer encourages the reader to look at all this bounty through several windows at once. If he were to stand on the lawn outside, confidently holding the reader’s shoulders so she can only see what is bounded by the window frame, even drawing her attention to what is an important object and what is intriguing wall-paper, the experience of reading what is a truly unusual, vividly imagined novel would be much easier and more powerful.

Gabriela Blandy

Literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the useful term ‘focalization’ to describe what most writers would call perspective or point of view. Literary theory can sometimes be an un-necessary and unhelpful barrier for writers, making us too concerned with the structure of our own work and dousing creativity with analytical cold water. However, Genette’s neat tabulation is useful:

Zero focalization is when the narrator knows more than her character: think how Jane Austen knows more than Emma, despite Emma’s cleverness.

Internal focalization is when the narrator knows exactly the same as her character: think of how Hilary Mantel only seems to know what Thomas Cromwell knows in Wolf Hall, despite its being an historical novel.

External focalization is when the narrator knows less than his character: think how Dr Watson knows less than Sherlock Holmes.

And now think about how these examples create completely different reading experiences: the reader knows that Emma is meddling and blind to her own romantic situation; the reader sees the events of Henry VIII’s reign through the eyes of a clever, low-born, civil servant; the reader only knows what Watson works out, not what Holmes already suspects and needs to prove.

Gabriela Blandy

In The Valley Walker it seems that Dittmer is aiming for zero focalization. To return to our adapted Henry James image – he is inviting us to look through several different windows at the ‘room’ of his story. We see through the eyes of Special Investigator Teri Altro of the Drug Interdiction Task Force, her boss, retired army Colonel Bill Mallory, the drug lord they are fighting, CIA spooks, the members of a shady agency, and many other players in the globe-encompassing plot. Most importantly, Dittmer inhabits the consciousness of the Valley Walker himself, John Michaels – a Vietnam veteran who has a profound connection with the Hmong people of Laos and channels the mythic, all-powerful ‘Dragon’, protector of the Hmong and bringer of justice. Dittmer also delivers parts of the plot and gives his opinions on aspects of history and culture as a distant third-person narrator.

There is, of course, no problem with the omniscient third-person point of view, with moving between characters and seeing a story from many different angles. As E.M Forster says in Aspects of the Novel ‘a novelist can shift his point of view if it comes off’. But how do we writers make sure ‘it comes off’?

We need to be aware of what we are doing when moving from one character’s point of view to another. We need to know what each character knows and when they know it. And we need to be aware of who and where we are when we are between characters. To return again to Henry James: when we are between characters, we are most likely to expose to the reader our own consciousness, ‘the posted presence of the watcher [at the window]’.

Writers have been aware of this challenge and seen the difficulties it presents since they first started writing novels. This is why so many eighteenth-century and nineteenth novels take the form of memoir, letters, journals, and accounts of events told to a listener. Frankenstein is principally told by Frankenstein himself to Captain Walton in the Arctic; Wuthering Heights is primarily related to Mr Lockwood by Nelly Dean over the fire. The author disappears behind a created character.

There are writers confident enough to take on the role of authorial god, but most often they adopt a particular stance towards their story and their characters. Austen and Dickens, mistress and master of the ironic tone, appear to be balancing on the narrowest of beams as they write, choosing exactly the right register in which to mock, sympathise with, understand and relate their characters’ stories, all while maintaining a certain confident distance from the events they describe.

Some authors even address the reader directly: George Eliot, at the opening to The Mill on the Floss encourages the reader to follow her creative process as she sits in her writer’s chair imagining a bridge over a river, from which she sees the mill of her story.

Gabriela Blandy

The Valley Walker would benefit from such consideration of the challenges ‘zero focalization’ or omniscient third-person narration presents. Dittmer could, potentially, adopt a particular stance towards his story, but must be sure to maintain it.

Another option, which would suit the type of complex, event-driven work The Valley Walker is, would be to see the whole piece from just one or two points of view. The most rounded and interesting character in the novel is Special Investigator Teri Altro: aggressive, successful, with a traumatic past and powerful professional and emotional drives, The Valley Walker seen solely through her eyes would add a whole new layer of mystery and discovery – akin to, but not exactly the same as, a crime novel or police procedural.

Dittmer could also gain a lot from his foray into the perspective of Bill Mallory. We spend some time with him as he sets up his new Drug Interdiction Team. However, when his past impinges upon the mystery at the heart of the book, Dittmer drops his point of view. Having been inside Mallory’s head, we want to know how he feels when he realises what is going on. Without this insight, Dittmer has us brushing up against that most challenging point of view – the unreliable narrator. Any author adopting this technique needs to be sure he knows how to use it.

Seeing the novel from, perhaps, a combination of Mallory and Altro’s points of view would be to follow two interesting characters as they discover some disturbing and unlikely truths about international crime and about each other.

When it comes to John Michaels/The Valley Walker/The Dragon, Dittmer invites us to take an enormous imaginative leap: we actually inhabit the consciousness of a man taken over by a mythical entity. The language and tone work – it is not difficult to accept that his is a supernatural and mystic experience. And it is no surprise that when the possession is seen through Teri Altro’s eyes the moment is also very effective. Not so successful, however, are such moments shown from other characters’ points of view. When The Dragon is seen through the eyes of his victims – or simply from the point-of-view of the third-person narrator – the effect is rather flat.

What would be truly effective, and for this reader would be the best option, would be to tell The Valley Walker from the perspectives of Teri Altro and John Michaels. It is their interactions that are the most authentic in the novel. Their relationship is tender, cerebral and spiritual, and Dittmer’s touch in the few scenes they are together is well-judged: he seems to trust and believe in these two characters, feeling and thoroughly inhabiting them. Approaching the whole novel from just their points of view would be a serious challenge – much exposition would have to be ditched or developed in a different way, and Dittmer as the author would have to withdraw from the text – but his faith in his own creations is strong enough that I believe he could manage it, and would probably find the work rewarding.

Gabriela Blandy

The struggle with point of view is one all writers face: it is a rare blessing when story and point of view flow together without too much effort. This is why so many writers describe how their work ‘takes off’ when they find the voice the story they want to tell demands. These voices sometimes call from afar, and on rare occasions speak close to the ear. It is when writers listen to them that they are able to stand at their windows and confidently relate what they see of the human scene.

Relevant links

For all those Jamesians who want the full ‘house of fiction’ quotation and the whole preface here it is.

James Woods is great on point of view – read his How Fiction Works.

A short, and possibly too prescriptive summary of points of view  – read this for interest, not to accept as absolute truth!

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What’s the problem with being up a mountain with no phone signal or orienteering skills?

It has begun to rain. The wind comes in cycles – building, building – so that at its peak my body wobbles and I contemplate the steepness below me: images of tumbling headfirst down lumps and bumps, through sharp grass.

I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here.

My phone is on the red bar of battery – not that there’s any signal up here. Nobody knows where I am – in Wales yes, but not on the side of this precipice. As I grow fearful, I begin to question the wisdom of this undertaking. I conclude I’m an idiot, and wonder if I should turn around.

Beneath me, the slender path I’ve trodden shows as a lime snake in the deep green of the mountainside. Each step back will take me closer to safety, but rather than bringing a state of peace, I suspect it will encourage feelings of failure. The wind gathers once more and I brace myself. My waterproofs rattle and here comes the shudder, moving through me as though my blood were water in a glass on a trembling table-top.

Bloody hell! I think, and carry on up.

Gabriela BlandyUndesirable as my current state is – this is why I’m here: to take myself through new doors into unknown rooms that will show me more of myself.

I come to a small sheep pen, which makes me sing because this is marked on the map, which so far I have been struggling to read. Sheep huddle against the far wall. They look at me, bleat, and move as a group in one direction and then the other, until they end up where they started. They watch as I scale the stacked rocks, some of which shift beneath me so that I go: errrg! with images of falling backwards – the whole wall, landing on my head.

Now, I’m crossing the pen with eight eyes glued to me as four, fat, woolly bodies quake. I know what to expect with the wall on the other side, so when the stones shift I think: yeah, yeah! feeling like a bit of an expert. But then I come to stand on a narrow bank with three prongs of a river, frothing by and I’m back to: errrg!

Lower down, the prongs become one – the river like a giant’s fork, resting on the mountainside. I knew it was here from the map, but unfortunately I didn’t know these delicate, blue lines would be racing with urgency, or that the rain would make the rocks glisten with treachery, so that thoughts of stepping across are interrupted with flashes of flying headfirst into grey, whipping water.

Gabriela BlandyI look back at the sheep who bleat and reposition themselves, then I come to edge of the bank and glance down at the first prong.

Hi there, I say.

It has stopped raining, but that doesn’t change the fact that this river is making me feel uncomfortable. Am I being reckless, or pathetic? Is this simply about not wanting to get my feet wet, or am I in real danger?

Who knows? I think – but I’m concerned I should know.

I begin to pace up and down the bank, waiting for inspiration. I begin to hum and then I see a thick, sodden branch, lying in the grass. It’s heavy, and perhaps it will break in two when I put my weight on it.

Perhaps not.

Gabriela Blandy

I move to the narrowest point of the river, focusing on the first glistening rock, which pokes out of the water. As I make my first step, my humming turns to full on opera singing. I jab the branch down, feeling a very specific moment in my heart, like a held breath, where I wait to see if it will: snap in two, become caught in the current and pull me in, or do its job. It wobbles, I wobble – my singing grows to its loudest point – and then I’m across.

Each prong is noticeably easier to navigate, so much so that as I make the final jump to land I’m already beginning to think I’m a drama queen. What’s the problem with being up a mountain without phone signal and no orienteering skills? Isn’t that life?

CIMG4016I continue higher, to a narrow ridge with a view of the valley below, giving a sense that the land does what it wants: dropping and rising with no attention to health and safety. Here, I wonder if the worst part of fear, or doubt, is not the sensation itself, but how we react to it.

In the epigraph to the first volume of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne has a phrase in Greek, which translates as: ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about things.’

If I am lead by my judgment of fear – this is not the same as being guided by the original instinct.

Feelings, or instincts, are easily drowned out by the mind’s clamour. For months before coming to that mountainside, I’d felt the lure of an isolated place, a challenging landscape. I followed my heart, moving without thought towards a silent sound, which encouraged my soul the closer I came. But as the wind raged, the state of my phone made me contemplate my isolation. Thought shut my heart tight so that I lost my guide and fell into unknowingness.

The way we react to doubt makes us desperate for one thing – to be out. We think, we rationalise, we ask ourselves why we’re feeling like this – but each line of thought takes us further from instinct.

The solution came when I returned to my heart, and sensation. To ask what the hell I’m doing up a mountain, in the rain, is to abandon the feeling that got me there in the first place: I wanted to be challenged, to fear, so that I could move into a greater place of knowledge. My thoughts say: turn back! but my body tells me I’m capable of climbing a little further up.

Gabriela BlandyI begin my descent, which takes me into a forest, forcing me to use my compass. This leaves me with even deeper feelings of uncertainty – but rather than judge these sensations, I’m able to say to myself: oh, this again! – nerviness, panic, the sense I’m on the verge of getting it wrong.

I hate these feelings – they’ve been there my whole life. I wish I never had to have them. But that wishing makes me run from them, into my head. Every time I do this, my feelings remain unexplored. If I can delve into them, when I face them again it’s with understanding, which enables me to remember my sense of humour.

Gabriela Blandy

I’ve been exploring fear and doubt a lot as I teach writers about the difference between positive and negative motivation. I’ve experienced periods of manic writing – running from the dread of not writing. It comes like a shiver in my heart, which my shoulder tries to hide by tensing in a way that’s barely perceptible. I follow these sensations, trying not to get carried away with my thoughts – which are all judgements on this state.

I sit in my garden, among my plants, and feel the pressure I put on myself to be more than what I am. I rest on a cushion in my bedroom, playing with my breath, feeling my need to get it right, to do it right. For brief moments, in between all this noise, I sometimes catch a glimpse – like the wondrous dart of a stag between the trees – which is the feeling that we are amazing enough as we are.


On that mountain, I was frozen with the dilemma of turning back or going on – fail or continue? until I realised these were simply thoughts. All I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other and see how I felt.

It’s the same with writing. I can do away with thoughts, concerns, and simply follow my heart. The doubt doesn’t cease – it’s just that when I hear it, I remind myself I don’t need to add another opinion on top.

The discomfort of fear and doubt makes us want to jump free – as if escaping flames – but such a reaction starts us along a path of one rushed decision after another. We end up crossing the river without care, leaping blind from one rock to the other. Chances are, we fall in the water and end up at the bottom of the mountain, wet and bruised.

When you feel doubt, go carefully. Find a log for support. Your thoughts will rush at you, but keep returning to the body, the sensation of lifting a foot and then the other, carefully placing each one down in a secure spot.

This is the way to move out of the discomfort of doubt – careful extraction, like my slow ascent on the mountain, navigating each step, weighing each moment, slowly moving back to a point at which I am realigned with my intuition. Close to your heart like this, there is only one feeling – that of happiness.


Watch out for the next post by my excellent editor who writes under the name West Camel. Each month will feature a new essay on a self published book – from an editor’s perspective!

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Worry – what’s the worst thing you can imagine?

The year I turned eleven, I joined all-girl choir that my music teacher ran. It was called The Julia Singers. We met once a week for rehearsals and, each term, put on a show. There’d be a tea party beforehand – every member of the choir was responsible for contributing to the spread. We gathered in the school gym, with our mothers, and stuffed our faces – at least, this is what I did. Then the girls assembled on stage and the concert began.

I was in the back row, right at the end. This was probably because I was one of the weakest singers: placing me on the periphery meant I could do the least harm to the overall quality of the group. I’ve always wanted to be a better singer, but I have to be grateful, now, that I wasn’t at the front.

 Gabriela Blandy

For a lot of people, the thought of delivering a speech before an audience brings feelings of deep apprehension, which is one of the things I am always trying to address in my workshops. This apprehension often acquires a supernatural element: the mind is no longer preparing for logical occurrences, but extreme situations that aren’t likely to happen. Fear multiplies for the very fact that the future promises to be beyond our capability.

I wasn’t nervous about singing that day – I was too busy gorging on cakes and biscuits. Standing up in front of an audience was familiar territory for me; my mind had no need to work through possible threats, trying to resolve them before they happened. This is the adaptive function of worry, allowing us to go over something, so we can avoid calamity. Our imagination enables us to time travel: we contemplate the past so errors aren’t repeated; visualize the future to ensure we’re primed. The mind’s eye is the greatest tool we have – everything that exists on earth that wasn’t created by God or nature first began in someone’s imagination. But if we don’t know how to use this tool it can make our lives miserable, always seeing the worst, preventing us from ever living in the moment.

Gabriela Blandy

As I help myself to another slice of Victoria sponge, slowly licking at the sugar crystals on the cake’s golden top, I am entirely immersed in the present.

Now, we gather to mount the steps onto the stage, moving in a neat line – song sheets held at our sides. The back row stands on two long benches. The girls in front are on the worn, wooden boards of the stage. Gradually, the chatter in the audience drops away. Mothers find a comfortable position in their seats. Someone clears their throat and the piano starts. One bar of music, two bars, three – and on one triumphant note the choir begins.

Halfway through the second song, I feel a sharp ache low down in my stomach. I shift my feet on the bench, take a deep breath in, waiting for the pain to diminish, but it doesn’t. My skin becomes damp. I swallow and shift again, using one hand to press at my tummy, but the pain is growing – beyond something temporary into something urgent. Suddenly weak, I begin to mouth the words. Now we are starting the second piece of the recital. There are four more to go. I feel agitated, pulled apart by a profound sense of boredom and distraction.

I need to fart, to drive out whatever pressure is building up inside me. With the music no one will hear. I’m not worried about the smell – my desire to end the pain in my belly is my only point of focus. I let go and push. For a moment, the ache is diminishing in the wind, but then I feel something warm, gooey. I cannot stop, only stand there with the music going on around me as my pants slowly fill.

I close my eyes. I’m still mouthing the words, but thoughts are pouring into my head, escalating between sensible ideas and the instinct to scream.

 Gabriela Blandy

What I find intriguing with my students is that most of them experience a fear of laying themselves bare when they think of standing in front of a crowd, reading their work out loud. But this very dread, when understood, can guide us. An awareness of exposure kept cavemen alive, stopping them from wandering outside when there were wolves or bears nearby. It prevented me from bursting into tears and wailing that I’d crapped my pants as the rest of the choir launched into the third song.

Instead, I looked right, into the wings, stepped off the bench and crept into the shadows. I made straight for the stage door, into the corridor. Despite my rampant thoughts, I was being held together by something more robust – instinct – which was leading me to a place of refuge.

I continued past the notice boards, through the recreation room with its pool table and comfy chairs. The girls’ toilets were at the other end of the school. I still had to navigate the distance of the dining room. At every moment the worry function of my imagination was conjuring the worst: my pants giving way, a hot leaking down my legs; a brown stain at the back of my summer uniform. Like a computer program running through eventualities, the images came steadily.

I made my way down the steps into the dining room where a dozen members of staff were sitting at the central table, having their own tea. At no point did I make eye contact. I walked with short, fast paces with my legs as close together as possible. The worst part was climbing the stairs at the other end, having to lift my feet up and imagine what might happen as my thighs separated. In my mind, the entire table of staff were staring at me as diarrhoea rained from the sky.

I made it to the door at the top of the stairs and hurried through. I was in the boot room now, which led into the girls’ changing room, so I could hurry unrestrained. No one was about. As I passed the washbasins, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror – overjoyed to see that my summer dress was clean. But what struck me more, was how normal I appeared. Despite everything that had happened, I looked exactly the same as I always did.

If, before the concert, my mind – through worry – had conjured an image of myself crapping my pants on stage, I would have been a wreck before the show even started. There’s no way I could deal with such a situation, I might have told myself.

But I did deal with it.

And – even more than that – no one noticed. Not even my mother. This isn’t because she’s neglectful – my mother was there for every concert and play, every squash and tennis and rounders match I ever had at that school. It’s just that in her world, there was nothing to notice.

The way our mind focuses, in extreme situations, gives a sense that the whole world is watching, knowing. Whilst this is deeply uncomfortable, it also enables us to act beyond ourselves due to this magnified threat.

Gabriela Blandy

When my students talk of how crippled they get with nerves, it reminds me how in fraught moments we are so acutely self-aware that we feel unbearably exposed, but I also know it was those very feelings that held me together. When those sensations come in our imagination – lying on our bed say, trying not to think about the presentation we have to give at work – we are consumed by how awful they make us feel. This is stress – our physical response to a threat. Out of context, it’s an overwhelming experience. That’s because these bodily sensations are designed to enable us to fight or fly. They are not premonitions, which is often the way they leave us feeling.

In the second I realised my attempt at a fart had gone horribly wrong, I never thought I’d be grateful for the experience – I certainly never thought that the invention of something called the internet would allow me to tell this story to people I’d never met. This is the difference between the worst as we imagine it, and genuine reality, which is never really as bad.

Gabriela Blandy

Useful links and shout outs

For those of you who found the ideas on worry, stress and imagination interesting, I suggest taking a look at this lecture by Martin L. Rossman on ‘worrying well‘.

A big thank you to the honest and poetic Phillip for nominating me for an award: ‘always there if you need me’, and for other bloggers who have been checking up on me, during my hiatus.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 53 Comments

Shouldn’t I be able to use all my published books as furniture by now?


I have recently been on a hunt for Alice Munro.

When I reached the Canadian border the other week, a lady in the passport control booth asked me where I was heading.

Goderich, I told her, grinning ludicrously about my mission.

Why on earth are you going to Goderich? she said.


You can draw a small triangle between the towns of Wingham, Goderich and Clinton – the first being where Alice grew up, the last where she lives now. I chose Goderich because I read she has a favourite restaurant in the town square. I planned to eat lunch there each day, and keep an eye out for my much-loved writer.

Simples! as the meerkat would say.


I was originally going to call this post, ‘The world’s greatest way to get a million dollar book deal – true story – works every time!!!!!’ because I’ve been thinking about how much we love a quick fix to our problems.

Follow these steps to an easy life…head to your writer’s favourite restaurant and hey presto!


When I arrive, I discover Goderich suffered a major tornado in 2011. In the town square, Alice Munro’s favourite restaurant lies blown to the ground.


I started blogging in the summer of 2012, but I’ve been writing for a lot longer. For some time, I was reluctant to tell people how long, thinking: surely I should have more to show for my efforts than a small collection of anthologies?

I need books with my name on the spine, fanned out on the coffee table, that I can gesture towards at key moments.

I want to be able to build a coffee table out of my books!


It’s hard to pinpoint a moment of change – the exact second when we switch from one way of thinking to another. But I know that I’ve stopped being a person who looks for quick fixes. I’m no longer ashamed to tell people I’ve been writing for ten years. That’s how long it takes.

This isn’t to say I don’t feel the lure of, ‘Guaranteed publishing deal, no gimmicks!!!!!’ But I’m able to monitor those needs; just as I learnt in Canada that my pilgrimage to find Alice Munro was not about the final goal.

For a lot of us, when climbing a steep mountain to success, there’s a moment we might start to desire that success in a debilitating way. This is when we need to take a short rest.

I’m driven through life by powerful surges of excitement, which look for an outlet. If that outlet doesn’t come, the excitement turns sour and festers, leaving me lethargic and dissatisfied. It’s a loathing of that miserable place that gives my ambition need. Each day, I set off once more up the mountain, but I always have to check how badly I want to reach the top. Do I badly need to reach the top (to save me from a fate I dread)? Or am I climbing, knowing that eventually, if I maintain my course, I’ll get there?

If I begin to feel my unanswered ambition whinging – then I know I have to take a break, shake my hips around, have a good time, before carrying on. It’s like giving an ice-cream to a child who is about to have a fit. Stopping, on a hard course, might seem counterproductive or difficult for any number of reasons, but it’s the act we’re most in need of when we feel tired.


Before I reached Canada, I took a train from New York to Rochester, Minnesota. It wasn’t just the price, which made me choose that option: the journey would take me thirty hours – I wanted to give myself that experience.

On the train, I spent much of my time, looking out of the window. Boredom is a challenge, but it can provide rich information. Each moment is there to be negotiated. I feel lucky in that act of negotiation, which is always an instructive experience. Rather than force myself to endure a situation – blocking out sensations of discomfort and frustration, which results in an overwhelming need for that quick fix – I’ve become accustomed to my feelings, and can sit with them for some time – even though most of them are lame, tedious, childish or just plain loud.

During this thirty hour journey, I read Natalie Goldberg’s ‘Long Quiet Highway’. It mentions something her Zen teacher said about questioning our life, our purpose:

It’s like putting a horse on top of a horse and then climbing on and trying to ride. Riding a horse by itself is hard enough. Why add another horse? Then it’s impossible.

Natalie says that we add that horse when we constantly question ourselves rather than just live out our lives, and be who we are at every moment.

At some moments I have been able to take that extra horse away. I’ve experienced not only the pain and stupidity of trying to ride two horses at once, and the incapacitating self-criticism for finding such a situation hard, but also a moment’s release from that. Self criticism often inhibits me from taking the second horse away. In the face of chastisement, it always feels pathetic to back down. But why is lightening the load, accepting defeat?


I’m in Goderich, staring at this gap where a restaurant once was, thinking: okay, what now, you complete dumbass?

I wander through the town, probably needing the toilet, and eventually reach the lake where I sit at the top of a child’s slide and watch the sun come down, feeling agonisingly alone. I take a couple of crap photos and sense how close I am to tears. I am also, no doubt, making a martyr of myself in some way.

Wow, I think – observing all this self-castigation and misery. Wow.

Seriously intenso, I say to myself.

Okay, I have to take everything very slowly. I need to find an available exit from this situation, but I also need to give myself the best chance of finding it; I don’t want to take the door that looks like heaven, but actually leads to a really filthy, stinky toilet.


I head back to my B&B, one foot in front of the other, noticing which is the part of me riding the horse, and which is the part trying to put another horse on top of that. When that extra burden comes, I breathe in so that I can feel it a bit better, and then I breathe out to let it go, because I do not need it. Simples!

I let myself in to the B&B and stand in the porch, observing the pot plants, the view of the street. Aware that I’m behaving in a parody of misery, as well as being miserable. I see a rack filled with leaflets. There’s a booklet on hiking trails, which I pick up, and then I carry on through to my room.

I can feel how every part of me wants to race towards making a decision because this limbo is scary. In this limbo I’m a failure – I’ve wasted my savings on a futile impulse. But making a decision so that I no longer feel a failure, is not the right motivation to make a decision.

I collapse on the bed and at some point that feels like years later, I realise that this feeling of failure is not actually complete agony because it’s not half as painful as, say, a broken arm.

I sit up and slowly flip through the hiking booklet. On page thirteen I read, ‘The Menesetung trail’ and my heart pops.


‘Meneseteung’ is one of my favourite stories by Alice Munro. There are many online notes and summaries and reading guides for this work. One talks about the title, which is a river in the story. The writer thought the name was made up – they felt it had something to do with menstruation, and how that ties up with the theme. But here I was, actually looking at the trail. I could actually go there.

And I did.

Rather than sitting in a restaurant each day, reading, staring out the window, I spent my time hiking through the snow.

I would wake, feeling the pressure of being alone, of being on a path that had gone awry, and I would sense a nervous energy in my blood as I ate breakfast, gathered my things for the day.

I drove out some place, knowing I had to take care of myself, seek kindly, find the way, and then I began to walk. It was a little like walking in sand, feet sinking into the crunchy white. My butt and lower back felt the effort. Each step I took, thoughts rushed through my head: questions, reproaches, desires, longing. I needed to pee. I was hungry, thirsty. A bird appeared, now the sound of something inexplicable. More thoughts. More concerns: hunger, butt, bird, thirsty, dick-head, tired, futile, bird, pee…

Through all this cacophony, my feet kept going. One step, then another. I was able to keep walking and breathing, and at some point, that progress – slow, determined, dedicated, faithful – allowed everything else to drop away. Because I walked this path, steadily, onward, it became clear that this was all that mattered. The cacophony didn’t stop. It just ceased to bother me.


If a green pepper is offered, eat it, Natalie says in her book. If it’s steak, devour it. If it’s something indigestible – a turd, a cement block, a shoe – figure out what to do with it, but don’t back away.

It is the same for writing. Some people write for fifteen years with no success and then decide to quit. If you want writing, write under all circumstances. Success will or will not come, in this lifetime or the next. Success is none of our business. It comes from outside. Our job is to write, to not look up from our notebook and wonder how much money Norman Mailer earns.


What I experienced in Canada was a profound sense of luck – the idea that everything that was happening to me was happening for a reason. It was as if I was following a trail of breadcrumbs – I didn’t realise they were taking me closer to Alice every day.

The sense of serendipity came because I was able to understand the importance of every small thing around me. My life is made up of endless components, each as relevant as the other. The only thing that makes a component good or bad is how I respond to it. By observing it, and therefore allowing myself the chance to learn from it, every moment becomes charmed. We have all the answers. That advert, offering the secret to a million dollar publishing deal, doesn’t know half of what we can know ourselves, if we allow it.



Thanks for all your lovely messages this week. So many hard workers out there, but here’s thinking of you Mayumi and Jen! Not to choose favourites, but sometimes comments and support come just at the right moment, or say just the perfect thing.

Posted in Essay, Memoir, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 43 Comments

Don’t let fear keep you tied up

My trip is over. It’s hard to return from travelling, shifting from spontaneous movement back into a more fixed routine. But it’s a treat to know how much I’ve been missed. Thank you followers for all your wonderful messages!


I set off at the beginning of March with a month return to New York; an unusual choice for someone who loves remote places, big countryside, quiet. But something had pulled me to the city. There was a desire to witness streets and buildings I had grown to know through cinema, and also the fact that my mother’s sister lives there.

I have seen Ruthe a handful of times, growing up. There she is, one Christmas when we lived on the farm, putting up my hair in bright clips she’d brought all the way from America. Suddenly, a fuss is being made. It turns out I have nits. Ruthe and my mother are flapping and talking in their wonderful Portuguese.

Some people say it’s an angry-sounding language, but to me it’s the crash and jingle of open expression. I stopped speaking Portuguese when I started school in the UK and began to learn English. This suited my mother because leaving Brazil had been heartbreaking: to only speak English in the home was another way to forget the country she’d left.

I have always seen Ruthe as the one person that can draw out my real mother. I love seeing them together. This is when I catch a glimpse of Sonia – the woman who grew up on Copacabana beach, who says what she thinks and loves to laugh.

Since my father retired from his overseas travelling, I’ve finally been able to discover the real him and, through that, the side to me, which until now has felt alone, without source. I wanted to see Ruthe again to try to understand the other side to me – my mother’s side: Sonia, the part she left in Brazil.


The wonderful thing about Ruthe is that although I’ve only seen her a handful of times, I love her from my whole body – not just my heart, but in all surrounding blood too. I think of her and feel every cell of oxygen in my veins reply, without condition.

It was the same for my mother when Ruthe first came to live with her and my grandparents. Mum was an only child and my grandmother warned Ruthe about her jealous nature. But the first thing my mother did when she saw Ruthe, was hand over her very best doll.

Sonia has never done anything like that, my grandmother told Ruthe.

New York gave me the chance to see how much Ruthe loves Mum. She forgives her everything in that, for her, Sonia has nothing to forgive. As Ruthe and I sit out on her porch in Queens, we giggle together about how Mum starts laughing, and then cannot stop, and then wets her pants a little, and then starts coughing. It’s the most hilarious display, but one that Ruthe has seen more than anyone else; only with Ruthe does my mother truly forget herself, and her worries, and laugh.


Ruthe was nine when she came to live with my grandparents. My mother was sixteen.

I ask Ruthe why Mum was different with her – I remember my mother’s stories of how she was always trying to read with her cousins, whining, asking her to come and play with them.

Go away, she would tell them. Stop bothering me and let me get on with my book!

But if Ruthe wanted something, Mum would drop everything. She taught Ruthe to read, put her through college. I love to hear the way Ruthe often says to me: oh my god, I owe Sonia everything!

Mum was a lawyer in Brazil, but when she came to England her degree meant nothing as it was based on the Napoleonic code. Then she fell pregnant and my father knew he had to find a home for them. He took a tenancy on a farm in Salisbury, and then he left for a project in Africa. He was away for two months. My mother hadn’t even got her UK driving license.

Ruthe came to visit us on the farm one year. My father was absent, of course. She told me that Mum had to go out and left her with my brother and I. We were upstairs playing. She was in the kitchen.

My god, Gabriela – the silence! she says, touching my arm. It was unbearable. I had to put the TV on. I don’t know how Sonia coped with it.

As for my brother and I that silence is something we’ve always known, something we love – but we didn’t grow up in Rio de Janeiro; we didn’t give up everything for fields of wheat, blowing in the wind.


Ruthe told me something about my grandfather one evening as we ate a meal in a Brazilian restaurant in Manhattan. Eurico was a man I never knew. Mum often tells me about the books and chocolates he used to bring her when he came home from work. He once danced with Eva Perón.

I asked Ruthe about when he died and she told me that he had become very afraid, of life almost, so nervous was he of dying. He used to be in his study while Ruthe and Mum were getting ready to go out, saying he was fine, and then suddenly he’d call Ruthe and say, please stay with me here – sit and read to me.


At times, I think I’ve felt what my grandfather did. A nervousness of something. For me, it doesn’t necessarily come with a foreboding of death, but I feel rigid when I’m in this state – as though I’m looking out at the world from my body, which has become a cage, keeping me held fast in a desperate attempt at safety. But counteracting this fear has been a desire to burst free, travel, perform on the stage. They don’t necessarily work that well together these two forces! In the beginning, one holds the other tight, and neither are very happy – but then the dam breaks.

This time, the water surged as I booked a flight to New York, thinking: I’ll start there and see where I end up.

As I write this, I smile at the places I did end up: on the subway, wondering why these seats aren’t taken until I sit down, realise the stink and watch the estuaries of piss, winding around my feet as the train snakes along the track. Then there was the beauty parlour! Me, with both legs in the air, naked from the waist down, having the best wax I’ve ever had from a gorgeous lady called Fernanda. Or, on a train for over thirty hours, crossing America while a man on his mobile behind me says – listen, you fired your gun, but it’s not like you actually killed anyone…


And, suddenly, I’m in a carpark in Buffalo, sitting in a hire car.

I’m humming to myself, this nervous, trilling tune because I know I have to drive – even though I only ever really cycle places, and normally in my own country. I’ve driven a car a few times this year, but I think the fact that I’m positioned on the left – hoping I can pick up how to use all the gadgets like headlights – is making me uneasy.

At some point, I just have to start the engine and go.

A little over an hour later, I’m watching the water crash down Niagara Falls as the sky begins to darken and snow falls gently. I am alone. The wind is icy and I can see the spray from the waterfall turning to slush in the air. At moments like this, I’m grateful that my fear of life cannot keep me tied up – that something greater pulls me out, draws me onwards. I have a bed for tonight, and tomorrow I’m going over the border into Canada where I’m going to drive until I hit Lake Huron. Like the thoughts of sitting with Ruthe, having my life opened up a little more, Huron County calls to me. This is Alice Munro territory. Her writing kept me going over the years I struggled to find my own voice, and now it’s time to see where her stories came from. I know Alice still lives in the area, close to where she grew up. I’ve read about her favourite restaurant in Goderich, the wonderful secondhand bookshop there. Who knows, perhaps I’ll run into her…


For now, though, it’s time to get back to work, and another year of my workshops. Currently, I’m busy with the students at City University, preparing for City Nights. The third Monday of each month they will be reading to agents at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell.

I am also running a 5 night residential writer’s workshop on 15th July with the gorgeous Anita Lewis, providing fresh, exciting food and an accepting space to explore creativity. Anita and I will be looking at how to guide your ideas from those first, messy feelings of inspiration to a tangible form that others will enjoy. We will be exploring creativity through movement, breath, food, conversation, laughter, silence, fun, rest and writing. Please feel free to email if you have any questions.

Have a look at my day workshops in Oxford, which are going to be a lot of fun this year. These include: sorry, but remind me why I’m following my breath, and it’s a writer’s life, don’t we know it!

My mentoring work with freelancers and writers continues, whilst I prepare for the Guided Retreat on the Masters programme at Oxford University where I will be teaching this year’s writers about public speaking.

I am also opening up a ‘library’ on my blog where, with help from a very accomplished colleague, you can browse ebooks. At the end of each month we’ll be discussing a new title, looking at what works with the writing, what doesn’t, and seeing what we can learn. It is part of my philosophy that a writer needs to read in order to learn to write, and also that the advice of a good editor is invaluable. Do please let me know if you are interested in having your ebook put under the microscope!


I’ve come back with new eyes, new feelings and a greater sense of my own history. The rest is up to Spring. Let’s see what grows in the coming weeks!

Worth checking out

A huge thanks to Laura’s Mess for nominating me for an award. As you know, I don’t quite follow the rules when it comes to these, but it always gives me a good opportunity to mention other lovely bloggers. This site is particularly gorgeous with it’s lush recipes and stunning photos.

Also have a look at the wonderful Nina – with words that flow like water. Her enthusiasm is unboundless and her blog a real pleasure – full of treats from super quotes to great short stories!

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