Thursday, 27 February 2014

Hurry Up and Wait

Next week I will be visiting a couple of schools to help mark World Book Day.  I've been doing this for a couple of years now, ever since I sat with a careers coach in my final couple of weeks at Microsoft and she asked me "What do you really want to do?".  I told her that I really wanted to write stories for children at which point she asked me the killer question "What do you need to do then?"  Oh the the sheepishness of my "get writing" reply.  So write I did, in a nice A3 notebook where I scribbled pictures and words and enjoyed myself.  After a while I had a nice little bank of stories which I would take in to my local school which entertained the children and gave the teachers ten minutes peace so they could grab a cup of tea while I soaked up the experience of thirty little faces grinning (or picking their noses, or asking if I drew my own pictures, or saying "that one was boring").

Having had 'Reasons to be Cheerful, Part One' published I then became very excited.  "Ooh" I thought, "Now I understand this publishing thing, I can get one of the children's stories published and take a real book into school rather than my notebook."  I set myself a target of getting the book ready for the visits and busied myself in getting it done so that I could then offer copies for sale after the talks.

So what happened?  Where is the book?  Well the proof has arrived's just not quite right.  The cover isn't as good as it should be (and as Tony who created the RtbC cover art will tell you "it's all about the cover"), the illustrations on the inside have got a few formatting inconsistencies and so I don't feel happy to show it to the world just yet.  

The thought crossed my mind to postpone the school visits but as I was about to type an email to that effect my conscious gave me a big bash on the head that made me stop.  When had these school visits become about a transaction?  

Now, I do want people to read my work and of course ultimately I would love to see Waterstones stocked with stories I have written, but does it have to be now?  Right now?  The simple answer is no.  Do I want to rashly put something out there that I don't feel proud of for the sake of a few £4.99 sales?  No.  Do I want to miss out on the opportunity to entertain these children and have their responses help me further improve my work?  Hell no!  It's been around two years since the tale in question was committed to paper and in that time it's grown and become stronger than I thought it could be thanks in no small part to the feedback of some very direct five and six year olds, an extra few months is not going to hurt.  Who knows, it could be the making of it.  

So come next week, off to school I will go, with my notebook and its hand-written stories.  I will tell my tales, enjoy the responses of the children free of the need to be a sales person, and come back all the more richer for it.

Soundtrack: Hurry up and Wait - Stereophonics

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Flood

Well the children are back at school after half term and as well as major flooding in the village where I live and the surrounding areas, there is a torrent of words flowing from my fingers as I unblock the dam of being at home over half term with the children and deciding not to work.

This is so different to when I had a 'normal' job.  During holidays there would have been some grey fuzz in the back of my mind about emails that might need to be responded to, or meetings I'd have to attend, but now my passion has become my profession I have discovered there is no 'off switch' when it comes to writing and I must learn a whole new way to work.

I have three clients I'm writing for this week and whilst I am only just starting to create their content today, over the past seven days my brain has been constantly collecting and curating words that I might use for them.  I have been spinning sentences and moulding word-forms on top of jabbing song-titles for this blog into my head like pins into a cushion.  It has caused me to grind my teeth at night which has led to an appointment with the dentist for a gum-shield - amazingly unattractive but hopefully I will get a more peaceful night's sleep and not wear my great big teeth down to tiny little stubs as I figure out a way to ride these waves of words.

It is thrilling and rewarding to be able to do something I really love for a living and the plump, indulged child in me wants to be able to spirit myself away to a writing shed like Roald Dahl, returning only for an occasional gin & tonic whilst all of the day to day stuff gets taken care of by someone else.  And then I remember that I really like having a family and being married and that I would like it to stay that way, and that I am not Roald Dahl.  

So how to make it work?  I cannot write to the exclusion of everything else and I am yet to find a way to successfully manage to take a clear step back without feeling like everything I want to write will drown me in my sleep.  I don't want to tame the passion but I need to be on the crest of the waves and not caught in the currents if I am to truly enjoy the experience.  

Having checked the calendar, there are but five weeks until school breaks up for Easter, so as the flood waters (hopefully) subside from our countryside, I'll be breaking out my boogie board and figuring out what to do when things get gnarly - surf's up!

Soundtrack: The Flood - Take That

Monday, 17 February 2014

When I Grow Up I Will Be Stable

Over the years I have had my fair share of hysterics.  Hysterical crying, hysterical laughing, hysterical throwing of a phone or shoe (but never a plate, despite the satisfaction I think would come with the smash it would make).  Sometimes it's been brought about by stress, sometimes by sadness, sometimes by being kept awake for four or five nights in a row, sometimes by a million tiny things building up into one almighty meltdown.  

Photo credit: Ezio Geneletti/Getty Images (via The
Happily, I have also over the years been taught lots of different ways to deal with this: exercise, walking away, mindfulness, meditation, switching off the damn phone for a minute.  Some of this came from working at Microsoft where, as stressful as I sometimes found the environment, I am forever grateful for the well-being courses that I had access to (including one with Nicholas Bate that was life-changing), some of this came whilst speaking to a doctor a couple of months after the birth of my daughter where a routine chat turned into a full on 'tell the next patient I'm going to be a little while' session, some of it has come from sharing stories and experiences with friends.  Sometimes getting a good listening to or simply hearing 'me too' puts things into brilliant perspective.  

Reflecting on my own experiences of dealing with stress had begun to form a bit of knot in my stomach when it came to thinking about what will happen when my children start becoming the beneficiaries of full-on hormonal surges.  We've had the initial blips and lightning flashes associated with growth spurts and the 'having to do homework' that comes with starting school but oh god, what about when they become teenagers?  How the hell will we cope?

And then I realised something.  Something that should really have been blindingly obvious but I was too wrapped up with trying to find ways to encourage my children to do homework that didn't result in someone wanting to inflict damage on the nearest inanimate object.  There I was, someone who had been taught all of these ways in which to cope with stress, to acknowledge anger and upset, or simply to connect with the world in a way that isn't about endless lists and obligations and I wasn't passing them on to my children - what a waste!  I thought that by making sure I kept my own stress levels in check that by return my children would not be stressed.  Wrong.  They are experiencing their own stress, relative to their own world, and part of my role as a parent is to help them figure out their own way to deal with it.  The homework won't go away, puberty is going to happen, they will have fights and fall-outs with their peers and the best thing I can do is not do their homework for them, infantalise them or fight their battles, it's to instead give them the tools to help them deal with these things themselves.  

This was evidenced the other night when my daughter was struggling to get to sleep because her brain was very much awake with a million thoughts and I told her about a technique I was taught where you work your way from your toes to your head, tensing your muscles as you breathe in for three seconds, hold for three seconds, then breathe out and release.  To my surprise to listened.  To my amazement she gave it ago.  To our joint delight, it worked.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Kissing with Confidence

When we are small, we are (hopefully) showered with kisses from our foreheads to our toes; tickled, cooed over and snuggled into warm embraces, where our parents inhale the smell of our hair and revel in the warmth of our skin.

As we head towards secondary school these expressions of love become more than a little embarrassing and our parents must settle for a cheek turned upwards to receive a peck, and cuddles reserved for snuggling on the sofa in front of a film where they can be secretly enjoyed without looking uncool.

Then at some point we become curious about what a lust-filled kiss might contain.  Desire and confusion collide and we find ourselves wading through a mire of revulsion, rejection, collision of teeth and wondering if we're ever going to kiss someone where it doesn't taste weird, involve dribble or feel like a tongue-fight.  Eventually (and again hopefully) we find someone we can get it right with.  

There's a natural order here, from being a recipient of joyous, love-filled fluttering lips, to the sheer excitement of a great snog that - who knows - could end up with a little one to shower your own kisses on one day.  

Where is doesn't quite work is when it comes to the small matter of colleagues and new friends.  Kissing people as a greeting or goodbye is not yet programmed into your average British person's DNA.  Some do, some don't, some try and get it spectacularly wrong.  Like the former colleague who attempted to kiss me on the cheek, misjudged it, and pecked me on the mouth.  I was stunned, he was mortified, his colleague was crying with laughter.  

I've seen teenage school-friends kiss each other goodbye where it's been unbelievably awkward - it's bad enough trying to control the flailing limbs of a body you're not sure about, without the added weirdness of trying to figure out the 'correct' way to kiss goodbye the friend you with whom you've shared nothing beyond tutor group, and who you're going to see again in the morning.  I'm certain that it wasn't a thing when I was a teenager, I'm sure we just said 'see ya' (oh yes, I was classy even then).  

I am guilty of this as an adult.  In spending too long wondering if the person that I want to give a hearty hug to is going to be happy to receive it, the moment is lost and I am the awkward teenager which just makes the whole thing odd - although thankfully I am yet to accidentally kiss someone on the mouth.  

So how to get it right?  The people that carry it off, that do it best, are the ones that just go all out and do it.  I have a friend who gives everyone the warmest kiss hello and goodbye and I'm not talking about a vacuous 'mwah'.  You may have known her a month or a lifetime, but the greeting is the same.  You can't help but be charmed or cheered up by it, and I've yet to see anyone turn away because it's absolutely her.  Another friend offers languorous long-armed hugs that wrap you in and make you feel centred.  One lady I know ends her emails with 'love and light' and when you meet her you know it's always meant.  They are open, accepting and authentic, and they encourage me to do the same.  So whilst my greetings are sometimes awkward, I hope you'll find in my writing my confident kiss.

Soundtrack: Kissing with Confidence - Will Powers

Sunday, 2 February 2014

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

As a teenager, one of the hot topics for me and my girlfriends was whether your boyfriend would say "I love you."  It was a very keenly contested prize and something that caused us to ceaselessly badger our boyfriends for confirmation that they did indeed 'love' us.  Nevermind that they wouldn't hold our hand in public, preferred playing computer games to being with us, or had only decided to go out with us as a means of not being left out when their mate brought his girlfriend to the park.  

The words 'I love you' were quite enough to sustain us in a state of bliss at having a boy whose balls hadn't quite dropped saying it to keep you quiet. It was something that could never be trumped, until one of my friends presented us with her boyfriend who not only said "I love you", but also had a car.  We stepped back in awe and allowed her to bask in the twin glories of romance and transport.

Back then, when days were spent imagining what our signature would be if we were to marry one of our idols, and when being bought a cuddly Garfield holding a heart was the height of romantic gestures, I'm not sure what we thought love was actually about.  Given that until then our experience of love was that of our families, how were we to learn about 'grown up' love?  We took our cues from our parents, Clinton Cards, Neighbours (oh how I wished for the Charlene and Scott wedding!) and perhaps ill-advisedly from Dear Deirdre's Photo Casebook in The Sun, which positioned stockings and suspenders as either the cause of, or solution for, all relationship issues.  If it wasn't the husband being caught with someone in suspenders who wasn't his wife, then the wife was in her suspenders with a man who wasn't her husband.  Very occasionally the husband had them on.  Marriages were built and destroyed by them.  Why no-one ever wore a nice comfy pair of tights I don't know.
Love, love, love

Fast forward a bit and 'I love you' is used more sparingly, and meaningfully.  What may have begun as a mass of hearts and flowers, or a setting down of friendship roots that took time to bloom into love, has mellowed into something more familiar that ebbs and flows and continues to grow at a more leisurely pace.  Not easy and not always exciting, but not taken for granted either.  Grown up love has to withstand the daily grind of washing-up, putting out the bins and too much time in each other's company.  The ceaseless sweeping of floors and petty annoyances of toothpaste in the sink and clothes on the floor.  But that's ok because the moments that stand out shine all the more brightly.  And for me at least those moments are not when the words 'I love you' are uttered.  Sometimes it's a look (like the way my friend Lucy looked at her husband on their wedding day as he wept during the speeches - check out 'The Look of Love' in the book), or holding hands in bed at night.  Sometimes it's being hugged fiercely as you let out great heaving sobs, sometimes it's about really being listened to.  Sometimes it's about bloody well biting your tongue.

Once I would have chased declarations of love in order to feel secure, felt unloved if I didn't hear those words each day but I guess that's the common ailment of being in love with a vision of love we are sold.  I still like a card, a heartfelt verse, and flowers are never turned down, but my experience of love can't be captured by a bear holding a sign that says 'I love you', it's a bit more grown up than that. 

Soundtrack: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - Dusty Springfield