Being and time

4 01 2015

Spending time with friends is the reason why I’ve not been writing as prolifically as I thought I needed to. During my career as a professional author and teacher I have at times considered spending time with friends to be a luxury. When the time came for me to go deep into a new work then my friendships were rationed, to be indulged only on special occasions.

I splurged on my friends this Christmas and New Year. Instead of buying expensive presents that I could not afford, I wanted to be generous with time instead. If a friend called or texted and asked whether I wanted to meet for a walk or a pub lunch, I replied with an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ and ignored the scrooge voice that urged me to sort out my end of year accounts or respond to work emails. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve committed to a social life that reminded me of how carefree I used to be in my teens and twenties until I got seriously into writing books. Breaking my self-imposed limits has been liberating and has made me appreciate the benefits of keeping friends closer and made me think about how I might live more spontaneously now that the holiday is over.

The temptation is to return to the grind, to fall back into work and lurch towards the next holiday. Teaching in schools encourages this mentality and I know that some of my colleagues will be jokingly counting down the days until half-term. Instead of pushing on regardless, I’d like to create some more room in my life for the people who matter most to me and the people who interest me the most. I realise that this requires an adjustment in attitude. Spending time with great people is not indulgent, it’s a privilege. It’s essential for a full and vigorous life.

I haven’t really understood how not being able to afford time for people is the ultimate poverty. I suppose I just thought that I would make time to catch up when I had more time to give. I now have a better insight into how much more productive and creative I can be when I have spent time in ways that enrich my life, whether that is long frosty or windy walks and talks while out and about with much adored dogs, playing Happy Families after having feasted and drunk champagne at New Year or a lunch at an old-fashioned pub in Dunster when my friends instead of complaining about my lateness simply ordered for me and then navigated our way across Exmoor so that all I had to do was to enjoy their company.

At the start of 2015 I’d like to say a huge thank you to my friends from all elements of my life for reminding me what life is for. And for showing me that the work-holiday dichotomy is a habitual way of thinking. This time has made me realise that I don’t need to ration or be mean with my friendships. The demands of work and other daily commitments will always do that for me. Ever since hearing Jonathan Rée lecture on Heidegger and hearing him say that the greatest gift that anyone can give to another person truly is their time and full attention I’ve understood this intellectually. But I don’t think I’ve fully got how to go about it until now. Allowing myself to actually afford time is the best gift I’ve had in years.

Happy New Year.

Some of my happiest moments from the year were spent working with horses and friends.

Michael leapingBelinda with dusters

Dom with Trixie jumping

Jo with Dragonfly

Horses at Netherton3

Setting up

Doing less to achieve more

23 03 2013


One of the most valuable lessons I learned from working with my acutely perceptive editor Kate Parkin is how to let go of what I don’t need. Over the course of two books, Kate showed me patterns in my writing and made suggestions on how I could improve clarity. As a writer it’s humbling to watch your stylistic tics and idiosyncrasies slither into your work despite your best efforts to keep them out. In my case, some of my habits were tenacious. In early writing, I had a tendency to overdo description because I suppose I felt that I just hadn’t painted the scene in enough. Anything less than full saturated-colour felt lazy and lacklustre. Now I know better how to nail a scene with just the essential details. My choices as a writer have become simpler and more confident.

A good editor, and Kate is more than good, acts like an air traffic controller guiding the pilot author in the right direction so that she can deliver the book and come home safely. Sometimes the editor might have to step in and prevent the book from crashing. That’s not a situation I have yet had to face, but it’s comforting to know that were I to go veering completely off-course, Kate would find a way to gently bring me back.

A good editor, then, is grounding. One of my idiosyncrasies is a difficulty in understanding timing and that includes knowing when I’ve given enough. My tendency is always to do more than I think I need. Some parts of The Beautiful Truth were written at breakneck speed not only because I had a deadline to meet, but also because I was terrified that if I stopped to look up from the laptop and come back to real time I would never return to the scenes spooling across my mind like crackly old black and white news reels.

Knowing that I was delivering first to someone whose critical judgement I trusted before my work met the wide world was enormously encouraging in the same way that I imagine cross-channel swimming is made all the more bearable by knowing that there will be someone with towels and hot drinks ready for when you reach the far shore. Just someone to say: you made it. Well done. It’s enough.

Writing a novel is such a monumental effort of will that it’s hard not to chuck everything at it as you go along. My first two novels were written against the grain of my own resistance and the process of working on them not unlike the feeling of pitchforking sodden clay soil into a wet wheelbarrow. As this is something I do daily, I know how after a few weeks of this my shoulder muscles have packed up. Tired muscles can’t do the work they’re supposed to.

A year ago I didn’t know this, but my writing muscle needed a good rest. Years of pushing it to carry loads beyond its natural strength had weakened it. I found that whenever I started something new, instead of writing freely I was reaching for sentences that felt easy and familiar. I was also filling notebooks with plans for ever more ambitious projects and spending sleepless nights wondering how I was going to achieve them. I didn’t intend to stop working – I still don’t and will write until I’m ninety nine if I stay alive that long – but something in me made me slow down. Instead of racing into the next project, I let myself have a bit of drifting time. Colm Toibin calls this ‘staying in your mental pyjamas,’ and it is an essential part of the creative process.

I’m a little less drifty now. As spring approaches, I can feel my energy rising along with the urge to get back onto my hard little chair and hammer out another book. But even in my excitement and impatience, I’m trying to remember to take it easy and leave something in reserve.

This time around, I’m going to take another sound piece of advice from my editor and try to do less to achieve more.

Some ways of looking at light

13 03 2013


Learning photography has made me pay more attention to light. As soon as the cloud lifts, I find my eyes drawn to my camera which has been sat in darkness for the past month. My photography teacher is uninspired and so am I. We’ve agreed to put lessons on hold for a while until the light improves. There was a bit of sparkle in the sea today and I felt my spirits lift. The season is turning, and spring is pushing up from the ground. A woman in Turn of the Tide, one of my favourite local shops, noted that the birds are sounding sweeter.  

I bought an emerald green scarf, jewel bright, soft. It’s still too cold to wear it, but I imagine lighter days will be here soon. People seem more open as spring approaches. March feels like it’s the true beginning of the year, the time when light grows stronger.

 I’m noticing lightness in people, too. The young woman in the co-op was only too happy to thinly slice ham for me even though she had never used the machine before. She took five minutes or so to get the slicer going and apologised all the way through the procedure: you must think it’s like being served by a clown. At one point the manager arrived to see how she was getting on. Clearly slicing ham was not part of her job description, but she was happy to have a go and make a hash of it, which was why I didn’t begrudge her the five minutes she needed. Her light-heartedness inspired me to be generous.

It’s only when people are light with each other that true generosity is possible. It’s only when people give up holding on to what makes them heavily important that they become people who inspire. As part of my professional life, I watch many presentations and have developed an aversion to the laboured point, the overly spelled out, the heavy emphasis, the worthy yet dull. I expect to endure presentations rather than enjoy them.

An inspired presentation by a professor from the University of Washington has got me thinking about the nature of shared ideas in scholarship. Too many academic presentations deliver theory like a hard brick of knowledge, built on the foundations of previously cited identical bricks; it is rare to encounter theory that lets in the light and air in the form of an invitation to comment and connect with pieces that may not precisely fit.

Perhaps I’m stretching the metaphor here, but a dry stone wall composed of irregular stones is a much stronger structure than a brick wall, and can last for centuries. Facts and data can always be quickly manufactured and will always feel flimsy. Knowledge built from ideas that have had time to ripen and season can feel like the beginning of a work of art.

Listen and Trust

5 03 2013


One of things I find dismaying about the use of text and, to a certain extent, email is the lack of trust involved. It is easier to issue commands through text, to make your point without concern for nuance or tone, to act in pure self-interest. Each text is a flat communication. I have taken to ignoring texts I find offensive and the effect has been somewhat liberating. My lack of response may indeed seem rude in return, although I have yet to be challenged on my silence.  My response I have decided shall be this:

I’m always happy to talk with you. Please come and talk to me. I will listen.

All communication is a two-way process, a dialogue between those who wish to speak and those who listen to what is said. A text which denies the recipient the opportunity to listen short circuits the communication process.

If we have something valuable to say, we need to ensure that we have someone who is prepared to listen. Every time we write, we open the door to someone to listen. Every time we write and we acknowledge that there is someone out there who will listen, we build trust. Writing even a text without acknowledging the listener is not communication, it is shouting. And shouting erodes trust.


Have you ever been in a situation where someone is trying to make their point by forcing someone else to acknowledge their words? I have. I have witnessed this form of emotional bullying countless times. Unfortunately it has often been children on the receiving end. I shall never forget the visceral disgust I felt on witnessing an autistic teenage boy being yelled at by a senior teacher whose rage was so extreme it reduced all the classrooms in the corridor to silence.  I have had people try to force their opinions on me, and my response, too, has been silence.  

Silence is not the protest of the weak; it is the voice of the strong. Silence is the only response to any form of communication that abuses trust.

Trust begins when we can listen without fear of manipulation. Trust begins when we stop playing status games and start to listen.

In order to listen to others we must listen to ourselves. I realise that when I’m with a person who is determined to make their point without acknowledging my role as a listener that I get defensive. Instead of listening harder to myself, I start to lean in harder to what they are saying. In this way I become deaf to my own voice, my own thoughts, my own ideas. Rarely in my professional life do I meet someone who is truly interested in my ideas – most people talk because they want to share their ideas. A lot of people talk to writers because they think the writer can help them with their own writing project.

I’m getting better at going quiet on people who stop the communication process. It has made me realise that the people who value trust have the most to say. 

Making a mark

26 02 2013


Over half-term last week I went for a walk with a friend to check on some calves. The animals heard us coming and called down to us from the high path. It was bitterly cold and not the sort of weather for standing around even though we were protected from the worst of the wind by some sheltering trees. It was a short walk, but one I wished were longer because my friend asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

‘What motivates you?’

At the very least, that’s a five-mile question. My friend had already mentioned the idea of legacy and that had got me thinking about what I would wish to leave behind once my life is spent. A legacy is different from a memory, from merely not being forgotten. A legacy is more than a single act. A legacy requires something like a body of work, or at least consistent effort in that direction.

When I first started to write professionally, I didn’t think about what it would all amount to. I just poured all my energy into the current writing project and came up for air months, or more often years later. Since I completed my last writing project, I’ve given myself a bit more recovery time than usual because I now want to write only when I have something worthwhile to say. I’m no longer interested in writing for the income alone. I now feel that whatever I write next will be written out of passion.

‘Passion motivates me.’

All the books I adore, all the art I love, all the films that mean something to me, all the people I admire have passion. I’m reminded now of another friend who lost her art a few months ago and has spent this winter working on new beautiful, intricate, extraordinary work, in an ecstasy of relief that she is still able to find the motivation and the heart to not reproduce but fully recover her art. I, for one, can’t wait for her first exhibition because I know that the work has been created through passion. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said when she showed me her work. ‘But I just love it.’

Loving what you do is a legacy as long as you love it and practise it even when you feel disheartened. Even when you feel that no one is listening. After the walk to see the calves, we settled down in front of the fire with a pot of tea and some fudge brownies. We talked about philosophy. One of the benefits of my job teaching philosophy is that it immediately encourages people to talk about big stuff.

A theme emerged: how to find meaning in life. No matter how far you stray in philosophical enquiry – and it is possible to wander quite far and get lost in the woods – this theme turns up nearly every time to guide you back to what’s important. What life is for is the ultimate philosophical question. Socrates built his career around it; Plato was preoccupied by the best way to organise society and Aristotle was keen to find the answer to lasting happiness or eudaimonia, a state closer to well-being or what we might call fulfilment.

What fulfils us also brings us closer to well-being. The difficulty lies in finding a job or a cause or a way of life that allows us to become fulfilled.

‘It’s just so difficult to get heard.’

This from a teenager who was joining in the fireside debate. Already he recognises how hard it will be to make his mark in his chosen field of engineering. Here is a teenage boy with a passion to build something great. Does it matter if he doesn’t get heard?

I think his point about competition is sobering, but only part of the story. If you choose to build or create one of the first things you must do is to ignore the competition. Not because you don’t care what has gone before, not even because there is plenty of wonderful work out there that totally inspires you, but because you are creating your own legacy. When you are ready to build, you will find people who are ready to listen.

Under Pressure

22 11 2012


I spent most of last weekend driving up through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Birmingham and across to Leicester and then out the other side to Rutland, Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire before motoring my way back to the South West.

It was a very long journey. I used the motorways. Picking my way through A roads would have been beyond me. I took what I thought would be the quickest, easiest and most efficient route. Before I set out on my epic journey, I topped up my battered old car – part VW Polo part tractor- with oil, water and screen wash. I adjusted the tyre pressure and even gave the mud-splattered headlights a wipe. When I got underway I felt confident I would make my destination in five hours.

Three hours after I thought I’d be enjoying a nice glass of cold cider with my sister, I was still trying to cross Leicester. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a map. I did, but I couldn’t see it in the dark. My sister had given me precise directions – several times – I had visualised her instructions and knew that all I needed to do was to find the big roundabout in the centre of Leicester with the Holiday Inn bang in the middle of it and head out of the city towards Peterborough and then pick up the road to Uppingham and I’d be on my way to Oakham.

Why then did I keep heading towards Hinckley? Why could I not access the part of my brain that knows how to navigate?

I’m good at finding my way around. The way it usually works for me is that I get into the car with no preparation whatsoever – I don’t really believe that my tractor-hybrid needs petrol as it does seem most of the time to run quite happily on mushed-up leaves – and I drive around and then I’ll find it: the place I’m supposed to be heading for.

This point and shoot method of going anywhere has worked for me for years. I’m not saying that it is efficient or quick, it’s not. But it is interesting. I’ve become so blasé about ‘getting lost’ now that I factor it into all my journeys, especially ones in the dark.

But on Saturday night getting lost in Leicester was not fun or interesting. I tried to convince myself that it was, that I was enjoying the cinema show of groups of young people swaying on high heels under glittering lights, but after the third trip around St. Nicholas Circle I was ready to give up.

The trouble is that when you are really lost you can’t give up. You can’t turn around to yourself and say: right let’s get home. You have to keep going.

I kept driving on Saturday night. At one point I was worried about my state of mind because I really did think that I had lost the bit of my brain that understands roundabouts and slip-roads and multiple signs. It reminded me of being eleven and having to do maths homework and not being able to: the terrible stifling feeling of being buried under a carpet of numbers and symbols that might have been Japanese for all the sense they made to me then.

But I have come to understand that it’s not numbers or even brackets (I found these particularly worrisome as a child) that causes some areas of my brain to fold in on itself, it’s having to use this part of my brain when I’m under pressure.

Under pressure I literally cannot think straight. I go round in circles. This is what humans do when they are lost.  If I had been in a desert instead of central Leicester I would have been circling the same thorny bush instead of the taxi rank just off the lanes. Going around in circles is an instinct, and if we are not careful it could prove fatal.

What I learned on Saturday night is that there is another part of my brain that works when I need it. I was aimless and unfocused in my drive around the roundabout because I was hypnotised by the whole drama of being lost again.

 I broke the spell. I concentrated properly, shifted my focus and on the next roundabout I found the exit. Nothing to be proud of: most people never go through such convoluted journeys, they travel smoothly from A to B.

I came to the conclusion that heading out with no plan is not romantic or interesting but wasteful. My next question is: does this apply to writing?

It does, but rather than plunge in with something fast and ill thought-out – my energy tank is running on empty – I’ll think about this over the week and make it the focus of my next post.  

By the way, the cider tasted wonderful. 


25 09 2012


When I started this blog I doubted that anyone would read it. Now I see that I have readers in India, the Philippines, America, Sweden and Switzerland. My doubts have been proved wrong. Even on days I do not post, people are reading.

When I started writing fiction I doubted that I would get published. My first novel came out and people enjoyed it and made a point of telling me that they felt it had been unfairly overlooked by the literary press. When I wrote my second novel I doubted that it was any good. The reviews were entirely positive, but I was still surprised by them. This weekend I met someone at a party who said her reading group had thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Juliet; one or two people had even said that it was the best novel they had ever read. I thought of this again today and I still do not believe it.

While I was working on my most recent novel The Beautiful Truth I doubted that I would finish it. I doubted that anyone would be interested in reading it and I doubted that it was any good. I didn’t doubt the ideas, the characters, the subject matter, the setting or the themes; I doubted only my part in delivery of them.

I couldn’t write without believing that I have something to communicate – what I cannot do is escape doubt.

It strikes me that doubt is integral to working on anything that matters. The Beautiful Truth mattered to me more than any book I’ve written and it was composed under thunder clouds of doubt. When I finished it, and saw that it worked, I felt immense relief. I had emerged from the storm and into the light.

Doubt is the cynical observer in the hoody that stands on the edge of the playing field muttering disapproval. When acknowledged, it will offer free coaching advice on other games it thinks I’d be more suited to. Sometimes it is so contemptuous of my performance that it doesn’t bother to show up. I have to go it alone then and push my ball about in a vast white silent space, which is somehow worse than working under its scornful gaze.

If writing without doubt feels so lonely, does that mean that doubt is a useful companion on the long-haul flight of the novel? Does doubt motivate? Certainly it gives me something to push against. It stops me spooling rubbish. It stops me from becoming complacent. It acts as a brake on my enthusiasms. It urges me to go carefully. That’s when it is controlled. Out of control doubt is crippling, as I know.

I won’t eliminate doubt. It’s been part of my working life for too long, and I can therefore accommodate it.  It is a sometimes entertaining passenger even as I cringe from it. The trick is not to let it anywhere near the flight deck.

For years I’ve loved photography, but I doubted that I could understand how to use a proper camera. My new Nikon stayed in its box for over a month. This morning I went out to see what the harbour looked like through my lens. The water was sparkling and calm. As I focused on my shots I lost all sense of doubt. I simply pressed the shutter. I know that is the key to writing well.

I simply write my sentence.  


Style: the hard way

28 08 2012

Part of the territory of being a writer is working with the imagination and the senses on hyper alert. That means sensitivity toward the style of others. As I mentioned , I looked to other writers to act as stylistic role models; I sought out writers who could make words hum, who could set up some vibration, some rhythm that I could tune into. I read critically and then went out to try to make my own music.

For years it was heavy going. I felt like a six-year-old with a bulky guitar in my lap; there were sounds in there, I just couldn’t make them come out, not in the way I wanted.  I strummed along anyway, and on the days when the guitar made my wrists ache, I leaned it up against the wall. Maddeningly, it refused to stay silent. Whenever I brushed against it, a vibration could be felt.  I almost always took it up again and tried to pick out a new tune.

Was there a turning point, a moment when I composed something and thought: not bad? I can’t say there was. I think that I simply grew tired of hearing the same old tune. I wanted to write as if I were playing flamenco. I wanted dazzle, excitement, passion. I wanted writing that felt like the best adventure for that was why I had got into it in the first place: to explore the world.

All the way through my twenties I wrote for newspapers. I clocked up writing air miles on local papers and then papers in the Arabian Gulf. I excelled at landing front page stories and developed what is known in journalistic terms a ‘nose.’ It was easy for me to sniff out a story and like an over-enthusiastic Springer spaniel I adored the rewarding pats on the head from my news editors. Had my nose for news not lost its sense of smell, I might have continued to earn my living as a journalist.

I left my job and rented a room. On a bare table facing a wall I put my typewriter and began to write observation pieces and stories. I hated the room; the landlady had left me in charge of her three nameless, incontinent cats who stole my food and who I renamed Fuck Off, Piss Off and Bastard. I sprayed my room against the stench with Christian Dior’s Poison. It wasn’t the fault of the three curses that they were neglected and with me around at least they had plenty to eat. At night I read Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, so you can tell what kind of time it was.

Of course I returned to the newsroom. There were some adventures. One was covering the poll tax riots for the Sunday Correspondent, door-stepping Salman Rushdie on the release of the fatwa was not. In the words of the Sun journalist who let me share a bag of chips in his warm car: ‘the last effing place he’d be is at home.’ In between newsroom shifts, I wrote my own stories, but they lacked lustre and I fell into a creative coma. I could compose sentences; without compositional skill, I wouldn’t be published. I knew that I could carry on writing dutifully and competently and even profitably, but I wanted something more. I wanted to make a world out of words. Other writers could do it. The question was: could I? No, the question was: dare I?

There is a mystery to fiction writing and that makes it compelling. That’s not to say writing is a magic circle, admitting only the initiated. Good writing, I believe, is there for anyone with time and patience to discover for themselves. I used to believe, however, that effortless writing was a special power, one that usually bypassed the space where I happened to be sitting at my desk, waiting, always waiting for a day when I would receive enough of a power injection not to stutter and falter and choke over my first few paragraphs. It didn’t seem fair that other writers could butterfly while I was still floundering in the shallow end with my arm-bands blown up as hard as they would go.  I was usually out of breath after even a width.

How then did I develop the endurance to go the distance of the cross-channel crawl that is the novel? I trained hard. I found the right coaches. I paid attention to people who had made it before me, and then, there is no other way, I plunged right in.

The first mile was exhausting. I thought I would die. My lungs were bursting and my eyes were stinging. I made the mistake of looking back over to the shore and thinking: I haven’t got very far. I did this so often I convinced myself I was writing a short story or a screenplay or a prose poem, anything but a novel. I convinced myself I could always turn back. It wasn’t too late to return home. Some cosy newsroom would welcome me back with a cup of strong, sugary tea.

Halfway through an early draft of my first novel I found what I was looking for – my writer’s breath. It came after a particularly exhausting bout of printing stuff off and weeping at the atrociousness of what I’d composed. I sat down on the edge of my bed with the typescript in my hands and I asked myself: what do you want to do now? You can stop and be done with it, or you can carry on, but, if you decide to carry on, you have to stop floundering; you have to stop trying so hard and just get out there and keep looking where you are going. Punishing the struggling writer you are won’t make you a stronger writer. Punishing the struggling writer you are will only slow you down and eventually drag you under.

I got my second wind and finished the novel. Inevitably, it wasn’t a smooth passage to victory, but I’ll save this for the next instalment.

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