It’s an anxious job, pulling out of the comfort zone

I’m in the bedroom, packing – two days until my flight. I’m filling with familiar sensations. As my body is about to be relocated, it grips the life I’ve been living and through this act I see everything close up: indistinguishable days, become lovable for tiny details. It becomes impossible to believe I’m leaving for a month.

How’s it going? I hear Dan ask from the doorway. I have no idea how long he’s been standing there.

I think it’s all going to fit, I say, taking in his eyes.

We stare at the rucksack. I lay my hand on the folded clothes. Dan shifts his weight from one foot to the other. I try to imagine opening the front door, heading down the street with my belongings on my back, arriving at the bus stop and waiting for the coach to the airport.

Where do you want to say goodbye? I ask Dan.

He looks at me and says: on my bike, chasing after the coach.


I was seventeen when I took my first trip. I went to Paris with my brother and a lad we’d both grown up with, who was another brother of sorts. This was nothing like the family holidays I’d been on as a child. We stayed in the halls of residence with two other friends I was at school with and ate chocolate for breakfast. It was the first time a boy saw me naked, standing up with the light on – a small tabletop fan blowing on my nervous flesh.

We drank beer every afternoon and one night sat around the table in the communal kitchen, doing shots. The lad I’d grown up with was the only one doing vodka – the rest of us were secretly drinking water. He kept downing more and more, trying to keep up. At first, we had to pretend to be drunk, but then he became so bombed that it didn’t matter. I took photos as he threw up out of the fourth floor window onto a car below. This was life, surely?


Dan asks me what I want for my final supper at home.

I tell him lamb steaks and parmesan potatoes. This is a meal Dan and I constructed when we were living in Denmark, WA – our last trip together.

One of the things I’ve noticed about living abroad is that there’s a point I stop looking in the supermarket for all the things I can buy back home, and I start to really see what’s around me and cook for the country I’m in. One of the dishes to come out of the eighteen months Dan and I spent in Mexico was slender chicken fillets coated in coarse ground peanuts and chopped garlic, which I then cooked on a griddle and served sliced in tortillas with a salsa made from finely chopped green chilli, orange and onion.

I don’t know where the idea came from, but it epitomises what it is to give yourself over to another life – suddenly it begins to inform you in a way you don’t notice. It permeates your skin and changes the way you think, until one day you notice that you are moving in a way you’ve never done before. With this realisation comes a powerful, momentous rush. This is the sense of freedom that comes when we are being who we truly are, and we discover that it’s okay – more than okay. Frankly, it’s better than anything.

I’ve tried making my peanut chicken in the UK, but it’s not the same.

In Denmark, WA, Dan and I began a cook-off. I made a table in my diary where we could record who cooked what and score each other. Mostly, we were fair about the points we gave.

I made swordfish, mulberry and apricot crumble, pasta with lemon, courgette and chilli, squash and orange soup. Dan made pad thai, pad thai, pad thai and pad thai…

(We had just returned from a ‘visa run’ to Bali where we’d spent a lot of time eating in a tiny and delightful Thai cafe.)

Each attempt of Dan’s was better than the last and he was slowly making his way to a perfect 10, but then he had a lapse in concentration and undercooked the noodles. He tried to persuade me not to mark him with a 4, because he felt he’d finally found a perfect balance between the tamarind, fish sauce, lime and sugar. I pointed out that despite the flavour, the dish was inedible due to the consistency of the noodles. He accepted 4 as generous. That was when he decided to try a new dish.


The lamb steaks are soft and flavoursome, the parmesan potatoes crispy.

Not as good as in Denmark, Dan says and I smile – I remember giving him a ten for this dish.

How are you feeling? he asks.

This final day, my blood feels as though it’s been invaded, rushing through me, giving an intense feeling of restlessness. And like something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye, which isn’t there when you turn to look, I’ve had a profound sense there is something I have forgotten, which won’t reveal itself. When I think of leaving Dan for over a month, I get a sharp shooting behind my eyes and the world goes blurry until I blink several times and bring it back – the room in front of me, the house I’m abandoning. Sometimes the tears don’t all go back to where they came and one escapes, rolls down my cheek.

We are creatures of habit, Dan and I agree. It’s an anxious job to pull out of the routine, the comfort zone. But something always makes me get on a plane, even though the first few steps – taking my rucksack out of the cupboard, organising my affairs so that I don’t return to a landslide – are a wrench.

So, why do I travel? There is something inside me that wants to search. I feel fear, but at the same time a keen desire to explore the sensation – and in identifying it, understanding more of myself. By travelling the globe I travel my own arteries. Continents are organs. I explore the outer world to know more of within, and in doing so the two become closer until one day I will simply be part of the world – not separate, alone, but the same as whatever is around me.

Planning a trip all works beneath the surface – the fact that I’ve been taking bookings for my workshops, but for some reason not fixing anything in March. Suddenly, this free month is a week away, asking. I take off on my bike and arrive at Trailfinders, sit down at a desk, take a deep breath.


Dan and I walk to the bus stop. It’s drizzling gently. The last two days have been the sunniest of the year. The sudden emergence of Spring has intensified my feelings of leaving. Smells and sounds, which have lain dormant during winter, have provided a sensory banquet – shortcuts to memories, a profound sense of hope so that I have to ask: do I really want to go? But the ticket is booked, and I know that such asking is the body, fearing change. So, I move into the fear, to know it better, waiting for it to become familiar and no longer frightening.

I look up – the sky has closed over again. Spring has had second thoughts. The rain is like a whimpering as Dan and I wait at the bus stop. We think we have ten minutes to amble in our talk, tock the ball of our feelings to and fro, but then the coach appears round the corner. Although it’s indicating to pull in, it’s not slowing down. We’re at the wrong stop.

The two of us gather my bags and run down the street.

The coach pulls in and I make it on board, buy my ticket and have just a moment to jump back down to the pavement to hold Dan for one last time this Winter.

I love you g, he says over and over in my ear.

He holds his hand over his heart as the coach drives away and I watch him through the window, knowing my smile must look peculiar – all twitchy with grief. The world goes blurry, though this time I let the tears come.

But there’s something else too: as I wipe my cheeks, I feel it – this lifting of whatever it was that has been weighing my blood down these last few days.

America, I think. America. Places I’ve never been.

By the time I get to the airport, I am light, alert. My senses – the really keen ones that are put away during every day life – are coming back to me. Now, I’m walking to the gate. I put my headphones in my ears and select D for artists. There are three songs here that Dan has spent the last few days recording – even though he’s had a cold. I press play and after a second of silence I hear him sniff, which makes me laugh. The chords begin softly on the guitar. I can see his long fingers strumming, his wrist relaxed as his hand moves up and down. Here comes his voice: I hear you whispering just out of view…


Worth Checking out

I couldn’t talk about food without mentioning the lovely Sugarness who is kind enough to feature some of my recipes, along with her own wonderful creations.

A huge thank you to Chalkdust Fairy for nominating me for the Sunshine Award. Rebecca’s blog truly is sunshine.

This week I’m reading Paul Auster ‘True tales of American life’, which is stunning. It’s worth buying the book just for the first story!

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

Playful child and iron teacher: the two halves of the writer

I was nine when a new games mistress arrived at my school. She was a grey-haired woman, although she wasn’t old; I could tell because her eyebrows were black. Her bum was boxlike, giving an impression of very little waist. She wore glasses that had a jaundiced tint to them. Perhaps she wasn’t as tall as she seemed, but standing beneath her, I always felt in the shadow of a mountain, afraid of some volatility.

It seems to me that if there are two halves of the writing personality, one of them is the playful, innocent, exploratory child; and the other is the iron teacher, unremitting in her ambitious expectations.

When it is time to write, the iron teacher must step aside, but something I remember is that my games mistress – The Mountain – was such a fearful presence that even in her absence I felt crippled by the thought of her.

Dorothea Brand says that when the two persons of the writer are at war we get the unhappy artist – ‘the artist who is working against the grain, or against his sober judgement, or, saddest of all, is unable to work.’


I know something isn’t right the moment my mother parks outside the school gates. The street is deserted. I race towards the girls’ changing rooms. They are silent. A shoe, kicked across the room, sits like an island on the tiles. I think of not going out, of hiding in the toilet, but then I snatch up my games kit and begin to dress.

Now, I rush out of the changing rooms and down the tarmac slope towards the playing fields. I cannot see beyond the pavilion – a thick row of pines hides the girls’ rounders pitch – so, I hurry on, my arms flailing.

Second deep comes into view first, the red of her polo shirt startling against the grass. I hear a tock. A ball flies through the air. Someone begins to sprint. Already, a few of the opposition are sitting at the edge of the pitch, run or caught out.

The Mountain has drafted in our reserve player who cannot catch, and throws the ball by spinning round, faster and faster, until she decides to let go. You can only pray she will let go at the right moment. Usually, it launches in entirely the wrong direction. Instead of shifting the players round so that the reserve goes in at first deep – the least crucial spot – The Mountain has put her in at first base, which is my position.

This is the sort of thing The Mountain does in order to teach a lesson.

Some of the girls are waving at me now. I’m heading towards first base. The Mountain comes striding over. Her face is taut.

When I’m closer, I say: sorry – sorry I’m late.

The Mountain is motionless. She says: you’ll have to wait until the second half. Her voice is deadly.

I see a dark depth in the blue of her eyes, but I will not give up my shame to that. Even though I’ve let my teammates down, I will not yield; even though the feeling of upset is like my guts have been scorched.
Okay, whatever, I say, and stroll towards my mother, knowing the worst is still to come.


I was at war with The Mountain for many years. Even though I was her best squash player, I signed up for cross-country one season, and ran up hills all winter.

The state I was in reminds me of that tense muteness, which can come down over a writer overwhelmed by the judge of his other half. The Mountain was the critic, sitting at my ear, shouting so that my eardrums ached. I was desperate to be free of her.

When we write, there is nothing more unpleasant than to have the excessively scrupulous, fault-finding voice at the front of our mind. Sometimes, the only way we can be free of it is to not write – just as I felt the only way I could be free of The Mountain was to forego my position as captain of the girls’ squash team. But if our two halves – the creator and the editor – are at war, our mind is the battlefield: every blow we deliver is to ourselves. I hated running up hills – each time I would dream of how much I loved to hit a black rubbery ball up and down the wall. My lungs burned and my soul wept and the hills never cared.


When I was thirteen, I decided to get drunk with a friend.

The Mountain has by now become my housemistress.

My friend and I hide in the woods and drink a concoction made from small amounts of every bottle in my parents’ drinks cupboard. On the way back to our boarding house, my friend has to prop me up. She keeps telling me to shut up. I don’t know what she’s so worried about.

We reach the house and run for cover in the dormitory, flopping onto our beds and laughing. Whenever I try to stand up, I fall over.

There is no critical voice now.

My friend hits her head on the wall and a mauve blotch appears on her flesh like a stain. It’s too hilarious and I wet myself a tiny bit.

I’m aware of someone coming into the room. My friend is at my side, telling me to get up. I look over and see The Mountain, standing in the doorway, but I stay on the ground. I have enough clarity to think, this is strange, but not enough to be able to do anything about it. My friend is reaching under her pillow for her pyjamas. Now, she unhooks her towel from the pegs above the radiator. It is a pretence at being very busy.

You’re to come to my flat, The Mountain says – both of you.

My friend puts all the things that are in her arms carefully on her bed.

The Mountain looks at me and I hiccup.

She comes over, hauls me to my feet and marches me down the corridor. Girls come out of their dormitories to look.

Woo hoo! I shout.

In The Mountain’s flat, I drape myself on her couch.

My friend sits upright on one of the highbacked wooden chairs that are arranged around a small oval table. Suddenly, her head jerks forward and she looks alarmed. A sound comes from her belly and she throws up in her hand.

I glance at The Mountain who is standing in the doorway to her cramped kitchen. The expression on her face makes me burst out laughing.


I’ve read a lot of writers that liked to get drunk before they worked. I certainly would have never been able to behave that way in front of The Mountain if I hadn’t been plastered. I switched my fear off.

The trouble is, the lights always come back on at some point.

The moment arrives when you have to go into your editor’s study and face the shame, just like I did when I woke up the following morning and received the message that The Mountain wanted to see me. My fear came back, gushing, unstoppable.


The playful child and the iron teacher must find their place together.

After the rounders match, I watched The Mountain’s slow, ominous approach. I knew the weight of her presence would force my explanation out of me, in the way a punch to the stomach brings a sharp gasp.

I told that I thought the game started at three thirty.

Her eyes widened behind the sickly tint of her glasses. She licked her lips and said: I would like to know why, when every other match you’ve played at this school starts at two forty five, you would decide this one was different.


I felt a familiar a sucking in my chest at this word, which said: there’s no trust here, no cooperation. It was this very lack of understanding between us, which kept me locked in a frenzy: I couldn’t do anything without being afraid I’d be wrong in some way.

I tried to tell her that I read the time on the notice board.

Show me, she said.

I remember that walk from the playing field towards the main building – the sense of her fury, which I endured all the way. And there we were, standing in front of the notice board. My heart was thumping. I scanned the scraps of paper with lists of names, tennis pairs, cross country runners…there, three thirty. I pointed.

The Mountain leaned forward. It was a while before she spoke.

The annual meeting of the A and B cricket captains? she said, each word clear and separate.

She began to shout. The more her face stormed, the more I felt the surface of my own, stilled, almost slackened by a sense that whatever it is she thought I’d done, I hadn’t. But only I could know that – the fact that I lived in such terror of her, I couldn’t even read a noticeboard accurately.


If the two persons of the writer are at war, they will seek to punish each other, and the surest way to do that is to not write. They will fight for complete, uncollaborative ascendancy. If the iron teacher criticises the other into submission, the result is prose, which resembles the dregs of some tube that has become so caked with self-consciousness that only an emaciated maggot can squeeze out. If the playful child becomes oblivious and over-intoxicated by creativity, the result is pages of indecipherable manure, which is so embarrassing to read your chest aches. Neither writing is worthless – there is always something that can be salvaged – but the rescue mission is often agonizing.

Instead of war, try submission – but both sides must consent. When each agrees to its place, the writing ball tocks endlessly back and forth.


Eventually, the woman who had overshadowed so much of my school life, stood down as housemistress. It wasn’t my fault – it wasn’t any one individual’s fault – though, I suspect I was a contribution. The day I heard of her resignation, I went into her study. I didn’t intend to be stealthlike, but there was a moment where I caught a glimpse of her, slumped and wilting at her desk, before she saw me and straightened up. She gave something of a sigh.

What is it, Gabriela? she asked.

This was the day we became friends.


Successful writing is about being able to observe your playful child and iron teacher and, through that process, move between them in a collaborative way.

It’s an aim, a process. There will be times when you sense a war coming, or find yourself in the midst of one; the trick is to realise that you’re both on the same side.


Good Links

Hear ‘you are boring’ as distant white laundry flapping in the breeze – a truly wonderful book on writing: Writing down the bones by Natalie Goldberg

Please read Chalkdust Fairy. This is a post that has stayed in my mind as a great example of ‘collaborative’ writing where there is freedom, but control.

And a belated thank you to Anthony for nominating me for a very inspiring blogger award. His is a brilliantly diverse blog – here is one of my favourite posts by Anthony on skeleton bubbles




Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments

What happens when a character’s skirt gets hitched in her knickers?

Character is arguably the single most important component of the novel…nothing can equal the great tradition of the European novel in the richness, variety and psychological depth of its portrayal of human nature. David Lodge


When I was ten, I had a Latin teacher with skin like pallid, set jelly, so that she shone beneath the striplights in a clammy way. If I were to touch her with my finger – which I would never have done – there would be none of the firmness of bone, but a squashy, disappearing sensation.

Read the Classics and you’ll find the most common way to introduce a character is to give a physical description, and perhaps a biographical summary. The modern writer tends not to fill the first five pages of a novel with a character’s family tree, their multitude of ailments, the pitiable condition of their barouche, and the fact that they like their reading glasses perched low down on their nose to press at their nostrils in a way that alleviates their breathing trouble.

Modern novelists allow the facts about a character to emerge gradually. They’ve also diversified their technique beyond physical description, to convey character through action or speech. Rather than: Emily was eighty years old, we might read: Emily found the effort of stooping tired her; after taking a cup and saucer from the cupboard, she had to sit for a few minutes before making the tea.


My Latin teacher was convinced I was perfect for an all girls’ school in Dorset. On the rare occasion that I was able to answer a question correctly in class, she would beam at me. I could hear the crackle of her sticky mouth parting when she smiled. Her large teeth had a shell-like gleam to them.

A perfect Sherborne girl! she’d say.

As the words came out, I saw her dark gums.

I’M NOT! I would shout at her.

But it only made her smile broader.


What do we hope to derive from reading novels? Perhaps some knowledge of the human heart or mind? I often have a sense, when I’m reading a piece of fiction, that it must have happened. It isn’t because I find the story so convincing, but rather the characters. They’re unique, autonomous individuals – wholly responsible for their acts – operating as they do not because it serves the plot, but because they exist.

A few years ago, I wanted to write a story about a mistress who walks out on a relationship. The final scene happens at a greyhound track – amongst the heat and dust, and the sickly, foul stench of shit. It was the image of a woman, staring at a man who had suddenly become unknown to her – as he shouts and swears – tearing up his betting slip and walking up the steps to the exit, that made me write the rest of the story. Every scene was geared towards this denouement, but first I had to have the man, turning up on her doorstep at a little before midnight with a suitcase, saying: she’s thrown me out; the mistress wondering why he assumed this would be the place to come.

I took the story to my writing group, feeling very pleased with myself. ‘Mrs Mistress’ it was called.

We don’t believe it, they said.

There was nothing implausible about the plot: a woman ends a relationship that has become claustrophobic. It was the characters they didn’t trust.

Why is she with him in the first place? they wanted to know.

I’d been so focused on making her lover into a man she’d want to leave, I’d forgotten the side she fell in love with. I’d been focusing on plot – the fact that my mistress decides to be a mistress no more. Other than this one detail, I knew nothing about her.

Description in fiction is highly selective, choosing appropriate parts to stand for the whole. This was a short story – there was no place for the lengthy manner in which these characters had fallen into each other’s lives, but there needed to be a suggestion of something, which would allow the reader to imagine the rest.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them…A writer who omits things because he does not know only makes hollow places in his writing. Hemmingway

Characterisation is more than description and voice and mannerism, all of which my story had, it’s a suggestion of everything that has gone before; it is the glimpse of the breakfast laid out on the table with a hint of burning in the air, the fact that the toast has been scraped back from black.

A smile hides a grimace; pain lies beneath flippancy. There is a way to infer motive and also ways in which characters conceal their true motives from themselves. Details can tell more than a character might want. This woman, who originally chose self-sufficiency the moment she walked out of the races, is now revealing that beneath her mysterious mistress persona lies someone afraid of rejection. Now that she has her man, she asks herself if she could ever trust someone who cheated on his wife.


One morning at school, I was walking down to breakfast with some of the girls from my boarding house. Several meters in front was a prefect. The back of her skirt had caught in the top of her knickers. I pointed this out to my friends and for a minute we walked behind her, sniggering into our sleeves. Eventually, I called out the prefect’s name.

If this was fiction, the next part of the scene could be written in any number of ways:

Perhaps Gabriela is malicious enough to decide not to help. When she calls out Felicity’s name, and the prefect turns (and the reader thinks they know what’s going to happen) Gabriela might say: have you got the time?

A quarter past seven, Felicity says, turning and going on her merry, exposed way.

Or perhaps Gabriela is a good person – Felicity? she calls and the prefect stops and glares at her.

And then Gabriela sees the numerous times Felicity has given her detention for talking during prep. She wants to tell Felicity about her knickers, but a part of her, hungry for revenge, floats up and takes over.

Conflict is important to create interesting characters. It isn’t enough for Felicity to be a power-hungry prefect. If she was, then Gabriela’s decision would be easy, and the story would be a ‘saw it a mile off’ revenge piece. It goes back to what we hope to derive from reading novels – this deeper knowledge of the human heart or mind, and why character is the most important thing. The outcome of this situation is that either I tell Felicity, or I don’t. What makes it interesting is determined by why I choose to tell her, or why I don’t.

Character can also help you move plot in a way that you might not have seen.

Hey, Felicity! Your skirt’s hitched up at the back, Gabriela tells her.

The prefect stares at her for a second before winking and saying: I know – the boys love it.


We can have characters viewed from the outside by others, characters rendered from their acts, but these characters must be called something. David Lodge wrote about his experience of naming his female protagonist in Nice Work:

I hesitated for some time, however, about the choice of her first name, vacillating between Rachel, Rebecca and Roberta, and I remember that this held up progress on Chapter Two considerably, because I couldn’t imaginatively inhabit this character until her name was fixed.  

I had similar difficulty inhabiting my Latin teacher as I was trying to put her in my book.

My Latin teacher’s hair was bristly. It sat like a triangle. There were clusters of wiry white hairs dotted about her head. Some of them floated, like the last few threads of a spider’s web enticed by the breeze.

We used to call her Medusa.

It was when I remembered this nickname that things began to work loose.

I’d hated her because of that line she always gave me about being a Sherborne girl. Because of that hatred I saw her mouth, her teeth – everything about her – from an extreme perspective.

I wasn’t a Sherborne girl. Medusa didn’t understand me – she was nothing like me. I was due to go to a mixed school – the same one as many of my friends. But my place depended on a scholarship and suddenly in the sixth form I felt under too much pressure. I stepped down from the scholarship class, forfeiting my place. As a result, I had to go to Sherborne.

Medusa had been right all along.

My Latin teacher became less of an archetype as I thought about the person behind the nickname. She must have been aware of what we called her, it was carved into most of the desks. I suddenly saw her going home each evening with that knowledge. And then I began to wonder if there was anyone at home, waiting for her.

I had begun writing that chapter in my book from the point of view of someone seeking revenge. Medusa began life as a character serving plot: the story of the sad schoolgirl and her vile teacher. But neither of those characters were real. It was only when I thought about actions and motives and everything going on beneath the surface that I saw us – Medusa and Sherborne Girl – for who we really were.

We were both labelled, both forced to live out that label against our will. This woman who I’d thought was completely different to me, was not so very different after all.


Interesting Articles

Read Anne Woodman’s brilliant portrayal of her daughter here – and I’m not saying this just because Anne happens to mention that I can do no wrong!

Characters are defined by how they react to certain situations: read Amy Knapp’s wonderful cheese story here.

And for some good solid tips for writers click here.

Posted in Essay, Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 56 Comments

Try to get ahead too fast and you might end up with your trousers round your ankles

When I left drama school, I expected to become a successful actress immediately. I sent my headshot to directors and agents. Every time the phone rang, my heart convulsed, but usually it was my mother, wanting to know about my latest audition.

Finally, I was cast in a production of Everywoman where I played the teenage daughter of a woman dying of cancer. I have sex with the plumber in the bath in order to grow up. Fortunately, we manage to do this without removing our clothes.

One night, there was a casting director in the audience and I wrote to her the following day. She called to thank me for getting in touch, saying she’d enjoyed my performance – it had shown depth. I was glad because my mother had thought I was trying too much in the play: you were doing that thing when you stick your chin out, she’d told me.


I asked the casting director if she had any advice, or perhaps knew of any auditions I might be suitable for.

There was a pause.

This business is hard, she said. Then she told me it was important to get an agent. They’re the ones to find the auditions.

Right, I said, realising that her job was to cast shows – not simply look for any parts, calling for a 5’6” twenty-two year old, with a tendency to overact with her chin.

I said that I’d written to agents, but hadn’t found anyone prepared to take me on.

She suggested I get the up-to-date Actor’s Yearbook.

Do you know any specific agents who are looking for clients?

Go for a big agency, she said, not giving any specific names.

I got more headshots. Sent letters. Heard nothing back. I knew it was important to chase everything up, but I wasn’t good at that. I thought about phoning the casting director again, but she would only tell me to send out more enquiries, make as many phonecalls as possible. Did I want her to come and hold my hand? Probably.

That’s when I decided to go on a quiz show.

Afterwards, I told people I did it for the car.


The first round of auditions had a group of us seated at a large table. We talked about ourselves. I said I’d recently finished a history degree, loved squash and that I’d grown up on a farm.

All the time, I wondered why I wasn’t mentioning the fact that I was an actress.

We had to perform a party stunt. I’d been up late the night before, learning a magic trick, but the whole thing had made me so nervous I decided to do something simple that wasn’t going to make me sweat. I put someone’s cigarettes on the floor, laid my feet out as wide as I could, and then bent at the waist and picked the pack up in my teeth. It was enough to get me on the show.

Normally, I wouldn’t have entered a quiz show because I would have been worried about not knowing any of the answers. But the point of the show was that the questions were easy – the hard part was the amount the contestants were ‘distracted’ when they were trying to answer.

Even though I didn’t believe it at the time, I was lucky. Later shows had contestants, sitting on perspex cubes with a hole in the top for their bare bottom, which had been smeared with peanut butter. There were dogs in the cubes.

What’s seven times three? the host would ask as the dogs licked.


The show was filmed in front of a live audience. We were brought into the studio, shown the stage and then taken back to a small room where we could get ready and meet the ‘stand-ins’.

In case someone has an accident, the producer said.

We were all talking about the brand new, canary yellow Volkswagen that was up for grabs. The week before I’d smashed into the back of someone who had pulled out in front of me on the dual carriageway without indicating.  The producer of the quiz show was very interested in this crash, and the fact that the repairs were deemed more than what the car was worth. He took me into a separate room and questioned me about it. Then he brought me back with the others. I was certain they were going to rig the show so that I would win the car. My life was falling into place!

Drink plenty of water, the producer kept saying. The studio is really dry, and nerves can make your throat parched.

I knew about water. We’d spent a year at drama school, learning the importance of water. Nerves were something I could handle. What I didn’t want was to be answering questions in front of a live audience, having to pee. I took the kind of sips I’d been trained to take, and kept doing throat and tongue exercises to keep the muscles supple.


When we finally got out onto the stage, I couldn’t believe it. The applause was raucous. It felt wonderful to be hearing that crash of hands, standing beneath the bright lights.

The host began to question us. There had been dozens of forms to fill in during the audition process, asking about embarrassing moments, strange habits, things we regretted.

So, the host said to me. I hear that you once threw yourself down the stairs at work just to get out of your shift? The audience laughed.

Yeah, I said, feeling popular and hilarious.

Don’t you have any grandparents? the host said.

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.

What’s wrong with phoning up your boss and saying that you can’t come into work because it’s your granny’s funeral?

The audience laughed again. I began to feel uneasy – though I couldn’t place it.

Yeah, I guess that would have been a better idea, I told him. The studio was quiet – too quiet.

Now, I hear you’re half Brazilian, the host said.

I am! I told him, swinging my hips a little, feeling better as I sensed the energy of the audience begin to rise again.

Okay, the host said, winking and gesturing to his body. Which half would that be?

There was laughter again, too loud for me to bother answering the question – not that it wanted answering. I was standing with one of the funniest men on TV. What did I think? That I would steal the show; have people chanting my name and land a super-sonic agent?

The host was now questioning one of the other contestants. This was a camp chap who wanted to get into musicals. There was nothing secretive about his desire to act. He was now singing the opening lines to a musical he was writing. Again, I felt that sense of disquiet.

Then there was the policewoman whose ex-boyfriend pays her for sex every now and then, and finally the other guy – who I hadn’t really got an opinion on, other than to think he was the last person I’d imagine wanting to come on a TV show: he’d looked annoyed every time I tried to speak to him.


The audience is charged up now. The host has them mesmerised. He announces the first round of questions will begin.

But first, he says, rubbing his hands together – we need to bring on the toilets!

I’m certain I’ve misheard him, but the audience are cheering about something.

I glance at the policewoman who looks like she sucked on a lemon. The side of the stage opens and a four cubicle, toilet block slides towards us. I remember how desperate the producer had been to make us drink. I think of the two stand-ins, and I understand now: it’s not that one of us might break our arm, it’s that we might refuse to take part.

The stand-ins had had this desperate, obsequious air about them, while the rest of us had acted like celebrities: we were the ones who’d been chosen. I pictured them in the wings, waiting for an opening. I know what it’s like when you don’t get chosen, and then suddenly an opportunity comes. They’d be out here, sitting on these toilets, happy to leave the door open, if it meant they had a chance.

I finally realise how shameful all this is, and why I was never able to tell them I wanted to be an actress. I would have been admitting I was prepared to do anything to make it. There’s no Steven Spielberg, sitting in the audience, thinking: wow, that girl has talent! Besides, the talented ones are at home, learning monologues, putting genuine work in.

Each toilet has been fitted with a sensor, the host explains. Pee if you know the answer and a red light will come on above your cubicle. It’s that simple!

We’re led around the front of the toilet block. Each cubicle has a pair of swing doors set in the middle, about a foot high. I can feel my bladder, gripping, saying: even if you did need to pee, there’s absolutely no way it’s going to happen in front of a live studio audience. We have to pull our trousers and pants down to our ankles. Everyone cheers when my red, lace knickers come down. I rest my arms on top of the door and bury my head.

 g shame 1 g shame 4

There’s no express train to success. How can we hope to make admirable achievements without putting in the work? I’ve begun to learn the difference between the short stories I send out that get published and those, which barely even get a reply; and the fact that I’m the only person responsible – not the editor, for being unable to see my visionary style, or the magazine, for publishing crap anyway.

These days, when I sit down to write, I try to be honest about what I hope to achieve. If I just want to make some money with this one, get my name in neon lights, I know it’s time to back off – otherwise I’ll end up with my pants down again, full of regret. The days I work for the love of it, knowing that all I’ve ever wanted is to tell stories to people, it’s safe to continue. It’s better not to focus on the canary yellow Volkswagen, but to simply think about the next word.

Worth checking out

An agent’s view on short stories:

Blogging as virtual love-making:

Language is for articulating how we feel now:

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First drafts: allowing the worm to navigate the soils of your mind

I decided to go on a retreat a few years ago. When people asked me why, I tried to explain, but always got a sense I’d left something out; I circled back to the beginning, tried again. Words followed words, my voice grew shrill. I felt there was one piece of information that would clarify it all, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept searching, talking; overcrowding my thoughts with exhausting analysis.

It’s rather like the beginning of a story.

At first, I feel a gentle sense of pressure. I wonder if I imagined it, but no, there it comes again – a jab now. It’s driving me on, but I can’t explain it. I keep searching for answers, starting, having to go back – certain I’ve overlooked the most important detail. But now it’s too crowded – I can’t find my way through.

That’s when I know I need space.

How can writing grow into something if it doesn’t have that?

If we fuss with an idea too soon, then all we have are layers of anxious flapping – all sense of story squashed.


Before I went on the retreat, my writer’s head was solid earth. All I was able to do was make a slow worm’s path through it. I was often worried about missing something in this dense terrain. How could I be certain I was crawling the right path? The story might be over there! But no openings offered themselves, just dark black earth.

I didn’t realise I was jamming my stories up with unnecessary thought. I needed to make space – throw out some earth. But how?

For a while, I tried ranting, splurging on the page – but the writing made me despair. I stopped it coming. Then I felt clogged up again. Finally, I packed up my bike, got on a train and found myself at a house in Somerset with good people who understood the importance of space.


The first time I sat in silence, I had no idea what I was doing. This wasn’t a course, there were no other retreatees, only the ‘family’ who ran the house.

I woke up at 6am and joined them in a large room, which had several pictures of gurus over an alter, including the founder of the house who was an elderly woman I thought of as Mata, because I couldn’t remember her more convoluted name. I sat on a wooden stool with a rug over my lap and spent an hour trying not to fall asleep, move or cough. And then I got so hungry I went in search of a banana I’d seen in the sitting room the night before.

What if that had been a first attempt at a story? Sitting at my desk, fighting everything that tried to come, trying to fit in.

No, I can’t fall asleep!

Doesn’t it make sense that the first time I sit and look inward all I pick up is exhaustion, when I’ve been pushing myself non-stop for years, surrounded by people doing the same? The first attempt at a story will be hard – we’ve not done it before; perhaps others, but not this one.

And what’s wrong with moving or coughing – writing an unsuitable word, or starting with a plotline that splits down the middle?

When I think of a room of monks, I don’t see them fidgeting and spluttering: they’re still and perfectly calm. But even monks were boys once: running around, shouting, wetting their pants.

Does Hilary Mantel’s precise prose make me fear my clumsy first attempts?

‘Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety?’ Hilary asks in her memoir. She’s had her times of spluttering and fidgeting; the difference is that, over a dozen books, she’s learnt her anxieties to the point of familiarity.


How can we progress as writers if we hold ourselves like a statue and allow nothing to come for fear that it isn’t the very best? How do we think the very best is got to? By exploration, surely. How can the worm navigate the soils of our mind if we turn those soils to stone?

I felt like a failure the first time I sat in silence on my retreat. I thought I’d never be able to do it. The trouble was, I didn’t know what ‘it’ was, and therefore didn’t realise I’d just done it.

‘It’ is the act: the act of sitting, the act of writing.

Because I held greatness up as my model – great literature, great enlightened souls – my expectations were far ahead of myself. I wanted to open my eyes and discover I was levitating.

All we can do with a first attempt is allow ourselves the chance to see what happens. A first draft is a quest. How can we hope to improve, if we reject every clue that comes to us?


There was a church near the house where I was on retreat. I was grateful for the clock, which chimed on the quarter. Otherwise, I’d have felt as though I was staring into never-ending time. It was strange to me that when faced with something endless, without perimeter, the feeling was often one of claustrophobia.

Sometimes I’d wait for the chiming, counting the moment I could leave. Other times, I’d spend each 15 minutes lost in contemplation, jumping from one idea to the other: going over troubles, problems, arguments, concerns, thinking about my writing, working stories out, going over dreams, going over past events, thinking about recipes, food, exercise, clothes; aware of my body – feeling my hips tense, my back hurting, my feet beginning to go numb, my ankles stiffening up, desperately needing to move, but thinking, no, no, I shouldn’t make a noise. I was aware of all the other sounds in the room, every time someone moved, sneezed; every time someone left, someone arrived. Aware of it all and thinking that I shouldn’t be, thinking that what I should be was in a state of absolute unknowing, unaware of everything that was going on around me: not able to hear the chimes of the clock, not thinking: I wonder who that is? when they come in the room; not inclining my head and slightly opening my eyes when someone sits next to me. And certainly not – on one particular morning when I’d come to sit, listening to everyone leave the room, suddenly knowing I was alone, and saying: it’s just me and you, babe! to the image of Mata above the altar.

By this point I thought I was a very bad retreatee.

I found a map in a cupboard and went for a fourteen mile walk. I wished I wasn’t me. Then I wondered who I could blame for the fact that I was me. Then I felt angry and pathetic because all I wanted to do was cry.

This was how I used to feel about my writing.

Why? I would wail at a calamitous first draft. How could I have written something that makes no sense?


‘Work out what it is you want to say,’ Hilary Mantel says.

But how can we work that out if we’re too busy berating ourselves?

Later in the retreat, I was sitting in the evening. Something had shifted – though I didn’t realise. I was now in total despair. I thought I’d gone backwards, but actually this was progress: I was giving my feelings attention. Rather than trying to ‘behave’ by staying awake and not squirming on my stool, I was simply sitting there in total desolation. It felt horrible – terrifying – but there wasn’t anything else I could do. There’d been this large deep black pit, tagging along behind me, and I was too tired to dodge it anymore. I wanted the chase to end, so I threw myself in.

At some point, I noticed the strange feeling of claustrophobia had left me. I was no longer holding myself in. This black pit was dark, but spacious – frightening, but not constricting. The feeling of being hemmed in had been replaced by endless sadness. Suddenly, I didn’t want to criticise myself anymore.

In my mind, I saw Princess Leia.

I have no idea where she came from. I liked Star Wars as a child, but I’m not a fanatic. It’s the moment where Luke finds the recording of her in R2D2. He plays it over and over, fascinated. At the end of the recording, she bends over – to press a button on R2D2. That was the moment she came into my mind, bending like that – to me it seemed to represent compassion. But there’s also her message: help me, Obi Wan Kanobi, you’re my only hope, she says – although I didn’t remember that when I first saw the image in my head. That evening at the retreat, when I saw Princess Leia, she was standing behind me, bending over to my ear. She said two words. With Love.


How do you create space? For me, the task has been a dissolving. I started with a head full of earth. Everything was coming at once, and I wasn’t listening to any of it. But slowly I began to pay attention – with love. I took a handful of earth, held it in the palm of my hand, watched it – asked for help.

You’re finding this story hard, it told me.

I continued to watch. Asking, why? would only pile on more soil.

I comforted the person who found the story hard, rather than criticised them. I continued to watch the clump of soil; see if there was anything else it wanted to say. After a few days, it began to crumble. This lump began to break up into fragments, which became specks. They got to the point that they became so tiny they were just air.

These days my head is far less dense. My stories have a lot more room. The process is the same, but now I recognise the fear – my tendency to constrict myself when I’m embarking on a new piece. It even happened with this post, but its familiar now – a feeling of being overwhelmed, out of my depth, wanting to run.

With love, I always remember.

I treat myself how I would treat my favourite author if they told me they were trying to get a first draft out, but finding it hard. I’d make them comfortable and safe. I’d cook them lovely things. Tell them to rest, to take a moment to get outside and look at the sky. I’d reassure them.

The next time you want to wail, put that thought in your hand and look at it. Don’t question it, don’t criticise. Speak it to yourself, whatever it is. At some point, you’ll feel comfort and you’ll have the strength to explore a little further and allow that first draft to come – messy and scrappy but infinitely beautiful for the clues it holds for you to continue your quest.

Interesting articles

Helen Mackinven on Freefall Writing

Chris Barnham on Mining Loneliness

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Throwing away material without a sense of failure

When I finished my Masters in Creative Writing, three agents wanted to meet and talk about my novel. I remember thinking: I’ve made it!

Despite being tongue-tied in one interview, turning up a week early for another, and being paranoid about the third because her office was so impressive – all of them offered to represent me. What happened then was a fretful few days where I tried to allow for this all to sink in and make a decision.

They’d each given me different feedback on my novel, so I was not only assessing each agent as a person – how I thought our relationship would develop – but also the future of my writing, my ability to do what was being asked. I had no idea about anything.

This whole process has a resemblance to the actual writing of the novel – in that I started off with no expectation, but a strong belief it would work, and then at some point I was staring at an overwhelming amount of information with no idea what to do next.

I was lucky in that three talented individuals were prepared to take me on, but I made the mistake in believing the hard work was over, when it had only just begun.


I had a discussion with one of the agents about where my novel should start. The narrative followed two characters, starting at the events that change the course of their lives, continuing on to the moment their lives cross – for an instant – and then driving on to the moment where they will, hopefully, cross once more.

The agent thought the novel should open at the moment of the characters’ first meeting. Or, more specifically, he wanted me to make up an entirely new moment of meeting and start the novel there. In technical terms in media res or, in the middle of the action.

Your start is a slow boil, he told me: it’s asking a lot of the reader to want to follow these two seemingly unrelated people as they embark on new journeys in their lives.

I didn’t sign with him because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do what he’d asked. He had such impressive authors on his books, I felt sure that once he saw I was incapable, he’d lose interest and I’d be relegated to leaving messages for him with his assistant.


I’ve been thinking about all this recently: firstly, where your story should start; secondly, whether this should be determined by the author, or the reader; and thirdly, the experience of starting again with a book!

I spent two years running a literary event in London. Once a month, a team of writers and I chose new talent to read beside an established author. We received dozens of submissions and I found the reading a chore, but can’t deny the learning experience. Too often I’d turn the pages, thinking: this story hasn’t started yet and I’m nearly halfway through! Your reader won’t be interested in the back story, if they don’t know why this history is so important, which can only be revealed by the moment in the present where the past has caught up. This is to do with a skill in structuring, which Alice Munro’s short stories have in abundance. Read any of those in The Progress of Love and you’ll see how effortlessly she starts in the middle of something and manages to continue with that forward impetus, while feeding in the past. Raymond Carver is another master at this. His stories are very different to Munro’s: hers are like miniature novels, their worlds are so complete, but Carver’s are a sketch – powerful for the juxtaposition of acute observation and minimalism.

Carver hated tricks.

‘At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, I tend to look for cover’, he said.

This is most relevant to me in a story’s opening. I can get a sense of when a writer is manipulating an image to ‘lure’ the reader in. I’ve written ‘lure’ like that because often I find that a writer thinks they’re being very clever with this or that device, but what they’re really doing is assuming their reader is dumb. This is where my first two points of discussion converge – deciding where the story starts and how much this should be to do with the reader.

Putting some kind of stunt into a beginning is treating the reader as an idiot: an opening line of description that has the sole purpose of impressing; or a clear indication that something truly, terribly, hideously awful has happened, and don’t you really want to know what it is? Well, if you do you’ll have to keep reading until the very end, thank you very much.

Carver is clear when he says: ‘Any strategy that keeps important and necessary information away from the reader in the hope of overcoming him by surprise at the end of the story is cheating.’


So, how do we go about starting a story and drawing a reader in by good, honest skill alone?

In Aspects of the Novel, E M Forster describes the great age of the narrative:

Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.

If I read a novel that starts with the intention of creating suspense, a part of my curiosity is aroused, but there’s another part of my brain that says (sighing): yes, I see what’s being done here. I’m not enthralled, but merely sidetracked, and I will flick the pages as a matter of course – a means to an end – rather than handling each one with gratitude, turning them as if in a dream, with no means of stopping.

‘Beauty is not a means,’ William Maxwell said. ‘It is not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect.’

Just as it doesn’t work to write a beautiful opening sentence to ‘show’ the reader that we’re superb writers, we cannot open with an intention of creating suspense. What we can do is work out our story, discover it – the parts that are background, the parts that are the important, active present. Once we have the whole picture, we can then choose a moment in that picture and present it to the reader. If we have gone about this with sincerity, we end up with a moment that is rich with history and full of potential. It’s one piece among many: a result, rather than a means.

This is why we don’t have to be afraid of starting again.


Back when I was meeting those agents, I was nervous about reworking my novel because I still hadn’t stopped to think about what it had taught me. Analysis travels back through the story, but I was still the writer – working in the opposite direction. I didn’t want to have to retrace my steps back into my work, along a path that tapered to a microscopic point – that ‘invisible’ influence on which the novel was based. I was mesmerised by the space that I saw opening in front of me. Three agents wanted to represent me – I was now thinking about publishers.

And then I heard from those publishers:

‘I found the descriptions rich and evocative, but I prefer a narrative with more focus and direction. Sorry not to love this one, but I hope there will be more!’ I got from Quercus.

‘It’s a charming story, and I can see it making a lovely film, but I fear we would struggle to make a splash with it in the market, and therefore I’m going to have to pass. I would love to see whatever Gabriela does next, however.’ (Bloomsbury)

I do agree with you that Gabriela has talent though, even if I did find THE SILVER BUMBLEBEE to be a little overwritten at times; and therefore if you don’t sell her this time around, I’d be very interested to see what she comes up with next.’ (Little Brown)

It goes on.

It was time to start again. Throwing away material, recasting characters – these things can come without a sense of failure. We grow by making these evaluations of our work. We are practising the writer’s craft. The difference is that this time round I’m beginning in the middle of the action – no slow backstory as I try to find my way, just all the tools I’ve learnt so far. The most important is that the perfect mood in which to write doesn’t always present itself. It’s the writing that creates the state of mind, a means to move beyond insular thinking. There are days when my spirit is as fragile as a wafer, but by sitting down, trusting, I can feel myself growing, connecting, living.


Last year, whilst I began researching my new book, I launched this blog: I wanted a motivation to write that wasn’t about finishing a novel, worrying about what my agent wanted, or fitting in with what a publisher was looking for.

Several months in, I remembered what it was about writing that I love – storytelling – and I knew I’d keep on writing, no matter what.

In my final year of primary school, the sixth form were given a space in the basement to use as a common room. I’d settle people down in the musty, sagging armchairs, dim the lights and tell stories. I remember how I tip-toed around the room, feeling my audience and guiding them through these tales. For years I’ve taught about the writer’s voice, on and off the page, hosting workshops that look at why we write what we do, and how to bring those words alive for a listening audience.

That’s what we need to focus on as writers – a love of the story, a dedication to telling it without tricks; and we should never be afraid of redrafting, going back to the beginning. A writer discovers what he wants to say in the continual process of seeing what’s been said.


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Trying to submerge a plastic bag with an air pocket

I have several recurring dreams. In one of them, I’m at university, faced with having to find a group to move in with for the coming academic year. But I’ve left it too late. Everyone has already made their plans – none of which include me. I spend the rest of the dream, trying not to cry, whilst behaving as if nothing is bothering me.

In another, I stand on stage. It’s not that I’ve forgotten my lines – this wouldn’t be a problem, it’s always possible to improvise. The fact is, I can’t remember what the actual play is.

In the one recurring dream that (oddly) isn’t that bad – the world is being overtaken by zombies. One bite and you’re infected! Often, I have a weapon – a gun – which I shoot, though my aim isn’t great. Sometimes, I have a stick of wood that I swing at the zombie’s heads. I’m happy to run – the choice is clear and this clarity calms me, despite the surrounding chaos. The other component of the dream is Dan. At some point we become separated, but I know he’ll stay safe for me – that he’ll find me. There’s never any fear the two of us could be lost to each other.


I’ve already blogged about my experiences at Drama School. In my short story called ‘No Drama Whatsoever’, Muriel – the central character – is trapped by her increasing self awareness: able to discern when she’s faking it, but unable to locate the truth – the way out. I’ve a similar feeling in my recurring dreams – of having no way out.

Muriel sharpens her pencil while Clester hands out the photocopied scripts.

Acting, he says. Is an absolute art.

She stares at him as he holds one hand in the air, lightly cupped. He looks along the row of students, his face stretched tight with intensity. Muriel glances away when his eyes meet hers.

Acting, he starts again. Should be effortless.

She tries to focus on that last word, breathing deeply and dropping her shoulders. Rather than ‘hold’ her eyes open, she allows the lids to droop – as they have been taught – but as she watches Clester, with his forced expressions and dramatic pauses, she cannot suppress the suspicion that these classes are his substitute for the stage. This thought comes from somewhere near her hip. She tries to keep away from it, to have faith in Clester and what they’re all trying to do here. She swallows, and exhales from the centre of her body, but it’s like trying to submerge a plastic bag with an air pocket: just when she thinks she’s winning, a corner rises to the surface, defiant.


I’ve been having treatment for a build up of tension around my right hip and lower back. It has never got in the way of my physical activities, but disturbs my quiet moments. I can trace its beginnings to Drama School – over ten years ago.

During my sessions, I began to talk with the practitioner about dreams. I told him that I often dreamt lucidly – even as a child. The dreams that aren’t lucid stay in my mind with meticulous detail. He said I was lucky: Tibetan Dream Yoga is a practice developed in order to make the dream state more meaningful by awakening the consciousness. (I didn’t mention that, when I was little, I used my awareness to go on shopping sprees, grow my hair, kiss famous actors and fly.)

During the course of our conversation, it occurred to me that the tension I felt in my hip was a block – a part of myself I wanted to keep hidden. It made sense, because at Drama School – when the tension began – my self was challenged in a way it never had before: I felt devoid of any depth and didn’t really want to explore that.

I considered the dreams I have, which aren’t lucid: my recurring ones. I’m trapped in a distressing world, and because I believe that world I have no ability to break free. What was preventing me from seeing that the world was a dream?

I began to think more of the dreams. This is a technique to bring about lucid dreaming: compare your dreams to waking reality and know what it feels like to be conscious. What I began to realise was that I didn’t know what it was to be unconscious, or unaware. It began to dawn on me that I had a state where I cut myself off. A state of denial.


Acting, Clester says. It all about the effect your actions have on another. He points at Muriel and Steven and says: off you go!

They come to the front of the class and sit. Steven has blonde highlights, but claims emphatically that they’re natural. There’s nothing effortless in the way he makes this claim, despite the fact that it’s an act.

Steven delivers the first line.

His lips have no creases in them. They’re all pumped up. Roz the voice coach is always going on about how gorgeous Steven is, to the extent that Muriel has begun to wonder if there’s something wrong with her because she, most insistently, does not feel the same. Despite the level of insistence, this opinion feels effortless.

Play! Clester says, circling them.

Muriel knows that if she takes the word into her brain she will become sidetracked by what it means, rather than how it feels, so she stares at the script in front of her and tries to absorb Clester’s advice through her skin.

She slumps down in the chair. She says a line as if trying not to laugh, as if she doesn’t care; even though she really truly does. She slumps further as the scene progresses. She makes enormous gestures with her arms. She notices Steven has a tan line around his eyes from those goggles they make you wear on sunbeds.

When they finish the scene, everyone claps, which Muriel thinks is generous, considering what a turnip she feels. Clester nods and says: keep playing!

Does that mean she’s already playing, or does the fact she doesn’t know mean she didn’t come anywhere close? Muriel waits for Clester to say something else, but he doesn’t. She can’t think how to keep playing – any more slumping and she would have slithered off the chair. Maybe that’s what Clester means. Maybe she should have thrown herself onto the floor. But would that have been effortless?


The blog posts I’ve been reading this month, have an air of energy about them – hope, resolve, fresh aims – which I love. Thank you bloggers! January is a time of leaping clear of bad habits. I haven’t had a new year’s resolution for some time – I don’t need any more boundaries to hem me in! But I realised something at Christmas when I took time off: just because an added resolution seems excessive, doesn’t mean I don’t need to look at how to better my self. I saw that deciding to take time off is a worthwhile resolution.

This year, I’m unpacking myself, and learning that letting go, giving oneself space, isn’t easy, but it’s such challenges that will take me to deeper delights.

I’ve been holding myself in for over ten years. That point in my hip is like the nozzle on an air mattress. Mine is fixed in place, taped over and then secured with a padlock. What am I so afraid of? Why is the thought of deflating so terrifying?


In my final recurring dream, I’m losing Dan. There are various settings – the last one was an industrial port, but instead of a city on the shore it was a wasteland: sodden stretches of clay-like mud. A castle floats on the water; its walls made of shipping containers. Dan is fascinated by another woman. She’s the wife of someone we vaguely knew in Mexico: dark, oily skin; thick, bleached hair. They’re talking, but the sight upsets me – the way he listens to her, leans in to her. I fly away, up onto the shipping containers. But I realise I cannot bear to leave them – allow them a space, which they may fill in a way that distresses me even more.

I have to follow them, but I can’t see where they are. I fly down to the muddy ground and then I go into the castle, which is now a cargo ship. I’m on deck, walking through an area with tables and chairs. A little boy sits on his own. I know this is the woman’s son. He leans slumped on the table, abandoned. I’m scared. Why would they leave him? Why would they need to be so alone – without the boy?

He looks up at me. Seeing into his eyes is painful, because of what I feel he knows.

I continue on, going into the ship. No one is about. I listen for sounds – I do not want to be caught.

A giggle comes through the ship and I know they’re together, behind a door. When I get closer, I see Dan’s long, slender feet beneath the door. They stand facing a pair of patent leather stilettos. A pain grows from my centre, expanding, aching.

Suddenly, the feet move to the door. I leap and cram myself into a small space in the wall of the ship as they come out. I can’t see them. The only way to end my pain is to prove it, but I’m afraid of being caught if I peer out.

In the end, the pain is greater than the fear of being seen – the promise of truth more powerful than the strength I have to keep myself hidden. I look out from my hiding place, and then I wake.


I was just wondering, Muriel says.

The rest of the class turn to look at her and, even though this is perfectly natural, Muriel can’t help sense a shift in the atmosphere. The air in the room becomes heavy: it presses up against her as the one who can’t do it; whatever it is. It makes her continue with: soooo, I totally get the idea…she trails off because this has now left her stuck.

She backtracks: well, I sort of get it.

The proximity of sort of to not at all makes her shiver.

What I mean is, she tries and then sighs.

Clester holds up his arm and rubs his thumb and forefinger together for a moment, before opening his hand and letting it flap away like a bird.

See? he says.

Muriel screws up her nose.

First you feel it, Clester says. And then you allow it.

The rest of the class nods.

Thanks, Muriel says. She opens her notebook and spends some time writing the date.


The other night, I took a new step in my dreams. Again, it was the one where I feel I’m losing Dan. Instead of standing by, miserable in my sense of helplessness, I said to him: I hate it when you do that.

When I woke, I realised what I’d done. I also realised that the object of his fascination, which threatened us – a woman with short, soft, golden curls – was me.

Haven’t I read somewhere that every character in our dreams is a version of us? It explains why, in that dream on the cargo ship, I never saw who came out from behind that door with Dan. I’ve been hiding from myself.

I spent a lot of time at Drama School, looking for someone to blame for my disquiet. What if I’d stopped for a moment and taken ownership of my block; seen that I’m my own worst enemy – that the words ‘I hate it when you do that’ can be directed at the mirror. No-one can trap me tighter than myself?

This is a year for breaking patterns, letting out the air.

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The boy whose butter I ate: writing from the inside out

When I was fifteen, I wanted, with a desperate force, to fall in love.

This desire was mirrored over a decade later – though it wasn’t love I was urgently wishing for, but a career as a writer.


In the course of my history studies, I’ve grown to like the archaic usage of the word without. ‘He thought he felt the fresh air from without the castle walls.’

It means outside, as well as suggesting the absence of something. Feeling my way along the path of these definitions is like my journey as a writer.

I see my desire to fall in love at fifteen as being outside or without myself. It came from the influence of pop songs: dancing to A-ha’s ‘Take on me’ and fantasising about Morten Harket. It wasn’t so much the lyrics, but the uplifting sensation of the opening keyboard sequence – I felt dreams could come true. Then there’s the deep note Morten hits when he begins the chorus, full of gentle, loving masculinity – I fell in love with the person behind that fragile note, and from then on needed someone to feel the same way about me.

I became obsessed with a boy who played bass in a band that did Beetles covers. I named my diary after him, and began recording moments I’d seen him around the school, or the long despair I felt at a day without a single sighting. I concocted scenarios in which he’d finally become aware of my existence. A favourite was to put myself in his path as he’s walking to lessons. I pretend to faint so that he’s forced to catch me as I slump. He lowers my body down to the ground, my head in his lap.

Alone, I’d enact the moment I come around, lying across pillows, rising up slightly, opening my eyes and saying, oh! in a perfect combination of irresistibility and abstraction.

After lunch one afternoon, I announced to my friends that I’d stolen the boy’s sachet of butter.

For some reason I can’t recall, it was someone’s duty to sit by the conveyor belt where we stacked our trays, and collect unused butter sachets in an old ice-cream tub.

I felt the jerk in my heart as the boy approached, watching his hand as he took up his butter and dropped it into the tub in my lap. I stared at the golden rectangle, lying with all the others, until he’d moved out of sight, and then I snatched it up and put it in my pocket.

My friends were listening to this, their expressions beginning to come loose. Perhaps if the story ended there, they might have been able to bear it. But, I then peeled away the golden wrapping and ate the butter.

I’d been oblivious of my friend’s worry. It was only now, when they sat me down and gathered around – a hand on my knee, one on my shoulder – that I saw their concern for my sanity.

It was clear that I was very in love, they said, but I had to be realistic. How could I hope to be this boy’s girlfriend when we’d never even spoken? He didn’t even know I existed.


It requires a great deal of motivation to write. But how do we inspire ourselves?

On the cover of The Sunday Times Style magazine this Sunday was an image of a woman in hotpants and a cropped halterneck top, bending over to do up her roller skates, of all things. She looks over her shoulder with an expression of abundant sexual desire. Her soft, blonde curls tickle the tops of her breasts. Beneath is the headline: the fasting diet.

Am I inspired to write from a place within; or am I looking at an image in a magazine, motivated from without? The latter reminds me of that anxious form of desire I had at fifteen where what I wanted was based on a need that both pained and drove me, and would ultimately prove exhausting.


Faced with the cruel but necessary ‘advice’ from my friends, I decided the cause of their concern had to be addressed, and fast. The boy and I needed to speak.

I found his number in the school directory and phoned him up in the holidays. I put on my best Australian accent, which I felt was the most sustainable one I could do, and asked to speak to him when his mother answered. There was a longish wait, during which my armpits grew sodden. And then I heard his voice.


Hi! I said, all excitement. How’s it going?!

There was a pause.

Who is this?

It’s Cody! I gushed. We met in the pub last night.

There was another pause and then: um…no.

Oh my god, how embarrassing! I think I’ve got the wrong number, I screamed, throwing the receiver down. I felt deeply disgusted with myself, but also strangely exhilarated.

My friends thought this was quite funny, when I reported back, but still tried to persuade me of the futility of my mission.

You’re right, I said, wincing a little when they brought my attention to the fact that although we’d spoken, we hadn’t really spoken. Then we all got sidetracked by why I’d chosen an Australian accent, and who was Cody?


Just as I wasn’t able to speed up the process of love, I try to be patient with my writing. It’s not something to be manufactured. I have to be myself – come from within. If I wanted to be that sexually voracious blonde in the roller skates, then I would surely be running from the pain of the realisation that I wasn’t, at the same time as I was trying to ‘be’. Wanting something because I like the idea of it – to write, to love – is not the same as just writing, or loving. How can I do either without myself? Self is not just a person’s essential being, but also the way in which we differ from others. If I try to write in the absence of my self, motivated by something outside of me, I not only lose touch with who I am, but the qualities that will make my work unique.


One evening at school, I went down to the music department. It was dark, and I was just walking, feeling a deep sense of sadness. I came in the front entrance and heard a loving tune. I followed the sound to the main room where concerts were held. Sitting at the grand piano was the boy whose butter I’d eaten.

I went in, sitting a few rows up with my hands in my lap. He played for some time. Then he stopped and came and sat next to me. I didn’t know what to say. ‘That was amazing’ seemed a bit corny. It wasn’t that I felt the pressure of the moment – the fact that, after all the months of wanting, he was going to hear my voice – I just wanted to say something real. I was too tired for games any more.

Do you know that thing you can do with bananas? I asked him.

He squinted at me for a second and shook his head.

You cut the bottom off, and then you look to see if there’s a Y there or just a blob, which is a no.

He nodded and thought about it.

Then I said: whenever I do that, I ask a question about you.

I didn’t feel embarrassed, or stupid, I simply felt the relief of truth, finally.


We were together for a year and a half. He was a few years older and the last months of our relationship were conducted by letter, while he was at university. He was like a photo on the cover of a magazine, promising something, which I went for forcefully, and which I then discovered couldn’t make me happy, because it was only an idea of something and not real.

After I broke up with him, he wrote me letters full of hatred, incongruously on the same neon orange stationary that he’d written letters full of love. He called me a child. But that’s what I was. It was only tragic for him because he’d fallen in love, and I had only been playing at love.


For a long time I played at being a writer.

One night, nearly a decade ago, I was lying in bed with Dan – someone who I was beginning, for the first time, to love from the inside out. I began to tell him of the house I’d always seen in my mind. It’s mostly wooden, squat – the walls made up of long stretches of glass. Curtains blow in the wind. The view is of the sea as seen from a high cliff.

He asked me what I’d do there.

I don’t know, I told him. I’d probably have to be a writer.

Get on it, then, he said.

That house was my magazine pinup, my motivation, yet not the soul of my desire. I began to write for that mysterious dwelling on the cliff. Then I was writing because I was failing at writing and I needed success. Need. Another ‘without’.

I liked the idea of that house. Now, I think I’d go mad there, so isolated. I realise also, that in all the times I’ve seen that image, the sun has never been shining. The sky is always bleached-out silver. Melancholy. Like need can be.

I’d like to be able to write from the inside out every day – to sit at my desk and feel free of all the external motivations that each bring a dose of pain, a needful ache. But I also think that to want something like that, which is a form of perfection, is going to hinder me in so many ways. It’s yet another version of aiming for the ideal.

I think there will be many shifts, as I continue to write, each day, moving more and more inside. Though, there are also the times I move backwards – sometimes even finding myself entirely without myself again: all idiosyncratic qualities gone, and replaced by a consuming desire to be someone other than me. But this isn’t quite back at the beginning – because I’ve trodden a path out of here once before. I just have to find the opening and walk it again – back to where I’d got to. In these times, I will retrace my steps patiently, because to rush can lead to states of denial: where I make myself believe I’m on the path because, let’s say, I’m having difficulty locating it. Truthfulness is important.

For years, I would sit in sessions with my writing group, surrounding myself in denial.

Yes, but… I would often say to a comment.

‘I found your main character quite elusive.’

‘Yes, but, I want her to be elusive!’

The fact was, I was defending myself from having to rewrite the story, because that would mean looking at how I managed it in the first place, which wasn’t something I knew. How can I write a second draft, when I have no idea how I wrote the first?

Then there was the day I grasped the importance of the centre of a story – the within – the point from which it’s written. I saw that my writing group’s confusion at, say, the ending, was also my own confusion: the centre of the story was currently without my understanding. What I had to do was work at getting the story’s centre as close to my own truthfulness as possible. This happens in steps – each draft drawing closer, until I get from without understanding to a point inside, a place of compassion and insight – and then I am with the story and with myself.

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This is the year to land on your feet!

New Year’s Eve 2011, Dan and I are on a bus from Mount Barker to Perth. It’s full. People are already drinking, even though it’s not yet midday. Outside, the sun is vivid, passing through the window with ease, warming a narrow strip on my leg. I can smell the chocolate brownies I baked that morning, which sit in a paper bag at my feet. They are a gift for the friends we are spending New Year with.

Dan and I flew to Australia for their wedding a few months ago. We’d been at school with the guy who is now living in WA – working at Perth Royal, in the Intensive Care Unit. I’d only met his fiancée once before the wedding (when they came to the UK for their engagement party), but I could see how happy he was, so I loved her too.

Now, we know her well and can’t wait for the bus to arrive in Perth.

You guys have a way of landing on your feet! she’s always telling us.

It began the day after the wedding, with Dan and I in the back of the happy couple’s SUV, trying to be inconspicuous: it just so happened that the one place we’d planned to visit during our three-week trip to Western Australia was the same place they were going for their honeymoon.

Once they dropped us off at Dan’s uncle’s house in Denmark, I told them we didn’t expect to see them, but they were adamant we should come over for dinner three days later. Already by then Dan and I had been offered an empty house to live in. We worked out that by renting our place back in the UK we’d be able to stay in WA for several months, so we changed our flights.

You see! the wife said, once we gave them our news. Flat on your feet!

She already knew the story of how things had worked out for us in Mexico. I was forming a plan of setting up a brownie business. The only problem was that I needed to buy ingredients in bulk, which was going to be tricky on the bus, which didn’t stop anywhere near the huge supermarket I would need to get to.

After watching the sunset with a couple from New York that we’d just met on the beach, I asked if they wanted to come for dinner. Dan made quesadillas. As the night was falling into its deepest part, so quiet and thick and black, they offered me the use of their car so that I could stock up on all the supplies I needed.

It was a constant source of amusement for my friend’s wife – the eighteen months I’d spent in Mexico, selling brownies on the beach. After I discovered she made hers from a packet, I decided to share my recipe.  I’ve only done that once before when a lady in Mexico got down on her knees in the sand and begged. For New Year, I’d decided to surprise her with a batch. When I told her that Dan and I were able to make it for the party, she said she’d ask around to see if one of her friends could put us up as they had family staying over the holiday.

It’s all right, I told her. We’ve met someone in Denmark who has a flat in Freemantle – he said we could use it over the weekend.

She laughed and said: sounds like you guys have done it again!


When we arrive for the New Year’s Eve party, one of the first things my friend’s wife says is: I’ve made your brownies and I think they’ve come out all right!

That’s great, I tell her, thinking she won’t want my gift now and trying to keep the bag hidden behind my leg – hoping she won’t notice the rich smell.

Dan and I laugh about it when we finally take a taxi back to Freemantle in the early hours, saying that we’ll just have to eat them all ourselves. It had been a great party. Our friend’s parents had been there from the UK. The last time we’d seen them was nearly four months ago at the wedding.

You’re still here! they said.

It was hard to describe how we couldn’t leave. Both Dan and I had been snagged on something we couldn’t articulate.


The following day, I go for a wander in Freemantle, giving Dan directions to the park near the church where he can meet me later. I check my emails and do a small search about a convict that escaped from the prison in Albany a few weeks ago.

On the prison website is a list of names with photos, beneath the heading: less than 5 years. There’s another heading – more than 5 years – which I click on. There are no pictures. In fact, there’s very little information at all: eye colour, height, distinguishing features. I notice a date of 1983 for an escapee. He’s home free.

I think of the prisoner from Albany. Since hearing about his escape, I have imagined him running through the forests along the coast – the freedom he must feel surrounded by so much land, and the trees as tall as they are, reaching up to the sky as if nothing could stop them. It’s a freedom Dan and I feel too, something we can’t leave.

I sit on a bench in the park by the church and read while I wait for Dan. He’s ten minutes late, fifteen minutes late. I decide to walk to the crossroads and look down the street the apartment is on. As I cross the park, I hear my name. Dan is jogging towards me. He has a queer distracted aspect.

Bad news, he says. I’ve locked us out.

You plonker!

I wasn’t thinking, he tells me. I’d just woken up. I’d been watching tennis, I was a million miles away, thinking about art, zoning out.

I’d actually given Dan the wrong directions to the church – one block too far – but, as it turned out, a lucky error. The road he turned down had a fire engine, cruising along. Dan flagged it down.

This is a long shot, he said to the man driving. You see, I’m completely screwed – I’m not from here and I’ve locked the keys into the apartment I’m staying in. It’s on the third floor, but the balcony door is open.

The driver thought for a moment and said: you didn’t hear this from me, but if you telephone 000, tell them you’ve locked yourself out and left the oven on, I’ll be the guy they send out.

We’ve got to get back to the flat, Dan tells me.

As we run down the street towards the apartment building, we see the fire engine coming the other way. There’s a father with a young toddler, watching.

Look, the father says. A fire engine!

But no fire, I think.

Two firemen jump out of the cab, one of them stocky, but broad, the other grey-haired and lean.

Are those the guys? I ask, but I can’t hear Dan’s reply.

By the way they greet him, I assume they must be. Two more men turn up in a smaller fire truck. They are younger and could be brothers with their identical, dark hair. We gather on the pavement. The firemen are looking up with grins on their faces.

Have you had to put out any real fires? I say.

When, today? the stocky man asks. He seems really moody.

Sure, I say.

He shakes his head and begins saying something to the ‘brothers’ and then all of them disperse, to their respective vehicles. A moment later the moody fireman comes back and explains that they’ve called a third truck with a longer ladder. He then asks if we would mind not alluding to the fact that this isn’t a serious situation.

Oh, god, I’m sorry – that was so dumb, I mumble.

He smiles and says: that’s okay.

The third truck turns up. It takes over ten minutes to make the preparations to lift the cherry picker. Dan is persuading the firemen to let him go up. Meanwhile, I go to the bar across the street to get a couple of six-packs for the firemen.

When I come out of the bar, I pass a cluster of people.

Locked their keys in, one of them says.

Hell of a lot of trouble, another adds.

Actually, I tell them, butting my head in, trying to look grave. The oven’s on…and the hob!

Oh, right, they say, looking sombre.

One of them points at the cherry picker, asking: but what good is that?

The balcony door is open, I explain.

That’s lucky, one of them says.

As I turn, I feel a sickening feeling. I’d gone out onto the balcony that morning. The door was unlocked from when Dan had been out the day before, but hadn’t I locked it again?

It’s too late now. Dan is in the cage, rising up. He’s waving at me.

Get a photo! he calls down.

All the while the cage moves up, I try to remember. Had I locked it?

Dan is now at the balcony, holding onto the rail and swinging his leg over. He moves out of view. Time passes. He’s taking too long, I think. If the door was open he would have given the thumbs up.

But then he appears at the balcony edge, grinning and cheering.

I tell the firemen I’ve bought them some beer, but that I’m sure they won’t want me giving it to them on the street. They ask if I would bring it to the station. I tell them Dan and I will be along in a little while.

I go upstairs to the apartment and see the bag of brownies on the kitchen counter.

Hey, I say to Dan. Why don’t we take those as well?


We make our way to the station with the beer and the brownies. The firemen don’t know what to say when we arrive.

You’d be surprised how few people bother with gifts, or even thanks, one of the firemen tells me.

I ask if they had any emergency calls over Christmas.

Boxing Day, comes the answer, but by the look on the man’s face I can tell he doesn’t want to talk about it. I feel a shiver of the dead then.

The firemen who look like brothers come in and the stocky one says to them: look what the poms have brought! One of the brothers takes a brownie and looks at me.

Is this what was in the oven? he asks.


Here’s to 2013 being a year for you all to land on your feet!

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All a writer can ask

The first Christmas I remember, I was four. My dad was working on a project in Malawi to develop coffee production for those with smallholdings. My mother took me and my brother out to Africa for the holidays. (This is not the only hot winter I’ve experienced, but it was the first.) We stayed in a resort – the four of us living in the same room. I slept in a camp bed at my parents’ feet. My brother was across the room against the wall. Each morning, my mother would take us children into the dining room for breakfast. Dad was already at work. There was a table covered in glass jugs, each filled with a different coloured liquid. I was fascinated by the flavours of these juices. Grape was my favourite. I loved the dark maroon, the various layers of taste, which ended on something I couldn’t define, and seemed to represent the ‘blue’ component needed to gave the drink its purple depth. In my mind, the rest of the dining room is empty, save for an elderly gentleman in a safari outfit who is always thrilled to see me and my brother. He always manages to draw us into some exotic, new tale.

On Christmas day, I am involved in a production of Noah’s Ark. I play a lion. My face is painted. A black circle shines on my tiny nose. Strips of yellow and orange tissue paper have been glued to a length of string, looped under my chin and tied at the crown of my head. I am in my blue bathing suit. My belly protrudes with a happy innocence.

A photo lies on the desk beside me as I write. I am not looking into the camera, but stand side on, scratching my back. The fluffy end of my tail is just visible, poking out from behind my left knee. I can see the shadow of the person taking the photo. I assume it’s my mother because Dad does not appear in any of my memories of Malawi.

The only other man I remember – apart from the safari storyteller – is Saab. He was in charge of children’s entertainment on the resort. A wiry, young man as dark as an aubergine. Noah’s Ark was his mastermind and, in fact, he appears in the top right corner of the photograph. It is just the bottom half of him – his dark, lean stomach, and a pair of black shorts. His body is painted with the marks of a tiger.

I remember him leaping and moving on the stage – the fascination I felt for the way he had turned his body into something else, something quite feral and unpredictable.

In my most vivid memory of all, I am crossing the lawn to the stage at the dress rehearsal. There are the thick, stubby blades of tropical grass, but something else too: the lawn is covered with pine needles – though I wouldn’t have known what they were then. I walk, barefoot, and every so often catch myself on a sharp point. The distance to the stage becomes distressing with these unseen perils. I am upset that I’m not wearing my flipflops, frustrated at my helplessness.


I find winter in this country vivid. Running along the towpath the other morning, the river was an astonishing spearmint green. I think the dark emerald of algae had mixed with the reflection of a bleached sky to throw up this new and fresh shade. The water moved in a languid way – the icy temperatures, making it thick and sluggish. The current showed in clear ripples on the surface in the way that the skin on hot milk bunches up when you blow across it. The wrinkles had a muscular quality to them. I imagined the depths of the canal, working hard against the day’s frostiness, crawling with determination over the riverbed, using rock and rut to pull and then propel onwards.

The trees had their glistening white winter coats on – beautiful to see, but a bitter load for them to bear, this icy weight. Most of the leaves have fallen now. These delicate skeletons suit the pale blue of a December sky. Summer’s work shows clearly – each slender growth, stretching out and up from the thicker boughs. Naked like this, the trees are the perfect display of life – how, fed, everything will grow, swell, spread.

It is a love of observation that makes travelling such a pleasure. I can feel these impulses as I walk foreign paths, revelling in the differences I see, drawing in new scents and sensations. Of course, at four, the traveller in me was only just beginning. But those memories of my first Christmas hold every experience of how I feel to go abroad. There is the wonder of new flavours – those fruit juices that intrigued me enough to remain in my mind; the moments of challenge as I navigated that lawn littered with pine needles – feeling unprepared and upset at the conditions around me; and finally the intrigue of new and unusual people – Saab’s dazzling white smile sits with me now as I write.

Writing this blog has given me similar pleasures. I have been able to make the most of my love of observation, and I can go in my mind to all the wondrous countries I have visited as I write. Sometimes, I have felt a flicker of panic as I press ‘publish’, but I love these sensory challenges. I see them as information, not to be suppressed, but explored, mined, for insights. But, most of all, are the people I have met, whose blogs I have happened upon, or who have happened upon mine. To be told that a comment of mine has made someone’s day, or have a message by one my readers that they like to put time aside to read my posts, are some of the greatest privileges I think I have experienced. It’s all a writer can ask.


Some of my readers have been generous enough to nominate me for awards. In return, I am supposed to talk a little about myself. But I do that enough! I would prefer instead to mention those people who have nominated me and why I have enjoyed following them.

Ramblings from a mum in her typically prolific way has nominated me for more than one award! She has been following me from quite early on. I always look forward to her comments; such constant generosity makes my heart feel rich. It makes me laugh to see her on my reader – as I said, she is prolific. I’m afraid to say that I can’t read every one of her posts, but there’s always a wonderful glimpse in the morsel the reader gives – her struggles over a title, often a hilarious photo. She is unashamed, thoughtful, hilarious and compassionate.

Writing by the numbers nominated me some months ago. I love Anne’s blog. Her posts are always filled with memories that appear like a secret soft centre in an already delicious chocolate. Anne’s commitment to her novel has impressed me, but so has her humour, her relationships with those she blogs about, which often come with comical insights – there was the hungry little girl she was chaperoning on a school trip who hadn’t had breakfast: you smell like food, she kept saying, sniffing away at Anne’s neck!

Go taste is a clever foodie and his nomination came at the perfect time for me – just the boost I needed. His posts have a similar fortuitous air. His recipes often arrive when I need to be culinarily inspired. His food is colourful; simple enough to lure you in to trying, but complex enough to provide layers of good flavour. His latest is pan fried Toman filet with lemon cream sauce, which I shall try over the Christmas holidays with Snapper, which is a good alternative for those who can’t buy Toman. Danny also makes promotions. I have seen a couple that he posted – artistic clips with sparkle and calm. But he has recently won a Promax award (Promax is the Oscars of TV promotion) for a trailer promoting a run of Bruce Lee movie specials. Check it out – this is a wonderful funny promo, and just like the many levels of flavour in Danny’s food, this clip is another side to him, which I am thrilled to see.

Deborah Brasket has also been kind enough to nominate me. She is a comparatively new follower and I am just getting to know her lyrical writing. My favourite post of Deborah’s so far is: The Deer’s Scream, My Mother’s Eyes, and a Ripe Strawberry. This is writing at its best – vivid, sincere, going where we fear to go and delving right in.

Finally, my pretzel logic was the first award I was ever nominated for. I thank you Neil for that initiation. This site has been a little quiet recently – I miss Neil’s gorgeous poems, images and video clips. What I love about the pretzel logic blog is the sense of community. I know that this comes from Neil’s poems – the fact that they speak to many of us, and in our appreciation of them we find kin. Here is my favourite.


So, this is my Christmas gift! Thanks to those who nominated me, and an equal thanks to those who follow. In this world, everything is interconnected. Without your appreciation, I wouldn’t be writer, I would simply be a lonely soul, saying hello? and waiting for an answer. Enjoy the holidays. I shall be back in 2013 with plenty more words.

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