Sun, sea, and carbon monoxide: avoiding smoke in Croatia

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Not Porto, just FYI. But they do play good classic rock here. (It’s called Sveti Martin.)

Croatia is glorious. Too hot for me, you understand, but that’s probably because I didn’t inherit many of the Portuguese genes from the Brazil side of the family, so I’m about as Anglo-Saxon-looking as a person could possibly be without also having blue eyes. I burn and peel rather than tanning, tend to get very woozy in high heat, spend most of the summers in Croatia asking for glasses of ice in restaurants to hold against my chest and neck, and my position on sun exposure is “skin damage” rather than “much-needed vitamin D”. This is probably why I chose to live in England (not that it stops me from constantly complaining during the Very Dark And Cold Months of October to April). Being about seven months pregnant also means that I find the heat here utterly unbearable, and can’t stand up for very long. 
IMG_4013Nevertheless: I do love to swim. The sea here, ringed by rocks (not sand) and sweet-smelling pine trees, is great, almost surreal – clear as glass, mostly calm, and warm enough to dive into every day – and the evenings here are beautiful. The best time is the hour or two spent outside just as the sun is setting, writing in an unjustly half-empty restaurant called Porto (where Renato and Lorena make probably the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life, right down to the very newest dish, clam carpaccio), on the harbour here in Losinj, the island where my in-laws live. I’m very lucky to be here on holiday, the last time I’ll be allowed to fly before baby C-B makes an appearance at the end of September. And though I can’t think straight enough to write new words in the intense heat of most of the day, those cool evenings – what would be called “very warm evenings” in England – have been a vastly productive time. The second draft of the Witchy Book is coming along very nicely.
The people here are beautiful too – quite literally beautiful, all tall and tanned and slender and gorgeous, and the little kids swim naked and fearless in the sea from an exceptionally young age, leaping off the rocks and shouting to each other happily in the water. Nobody ever seems to get hurt or upset (even a little girl who stepped on a sea urchin the other day was calmed pretty quickly by her parents), and everyone’s terribly social and generous. It’s not exactly a culture that’s kind to introverts, mind you. There’s been a significant culture drain; the public transport is horribly disorganised; and there’s still a lot of corruption here; but the atmosphere is one of a relaxed, gentle lifestyle where most of the summer is spent drinking coffee, swimming, eating, and gossiping. People are fiercely loyalty to their families, and they enjoy food and wine and good company in the most genial way. There’s no rushing about. Everyone laughs a lot. It’s lovely to be a part of it, albeit as an adopted daughter-in-law, someone who sits around trying desperately to understand what’s going on because her Croatian isn’t very good. People are patient with me, and I’m learning the language slowly, a little more every summer. It’s nice. 
The one big, ugly fly in the ointment? Everyone smokes.
Everyone. As in – EVERYONE. It’s like Beijing in 1991. 
Smoking is unequivocally a bad thing to do to yourself, right? It’s even worse to constantly subject everyone else to its products – including one’s own tiny children on a crowded beach, and pregnant women sitting nearby. Passive smoke is more toxic than smoke inhaled directly by the smoker. This is a well-established fact.
And now I have to apologise for the torrent of rage that’s about to pour forth. But it’s been eating at me for days, and I can’t keep it in any longer.
 
There is apparently no escape; no matter where I go – open-air restaurants, the beach, cafes, bars by the sea, my in-laws’ garden – I get smoke blown in my face by strangers and relatives alike. I’ve put up with this for years, feebly making excuses about being a singer, laughing self-deprecatingly as I leave the room or go for a quick walk or wave the smoke away, trying not to think about or mention my grandmother, Gabriella Brazil, who died horribly and slowly of emphysema after a lifetime of chain-smoking, but I’ve suddenly reached the end of my tether. It’s probably something to do with being overheated all the time – it IS summer in Croatia, and patience is running thin in my overheated body. 
 
The trouble is, politely asking supposedly sane adults to stop (adults whose unborn grandchild’s health depends on not being exposed to toxic chemicals through my bloodstream) only elicits looks of disbelief, and protests that “Hey, it’s open-air, it’s fine!” When B gets cross with them and pointedly walks away with me, or insists that really, they need to stop, they’re just baffled. Apparently we’re overreacting.
 
We’re not. I’m so angry.
 
Exposure to cigarette smoke in pregnant women leads to pre-term labour, dangerously low birth weight, and stillbirth, and its effects on small children are disastrous, much worse than its effects on adults. A quick google search brings up the contents of secondhand smoke from the Cancer Research website – horrifying stuff, even worse than my prim American non-smokers’ brain thought it was. 
 
The culture here is wonderful. I love it. But it needs to evolve past its current state, which is one of total disregard for public health.
Until it does, I’ll keep enjoying the brilliant grilled fish and the lovely atmosphere, and I’ll keep swimming (though I won’t linger on the rocks among the smokers). But I’ll think twice about being so polite about secondhand smoke next summer when I bring the baby with us, in (I’m not going to lie – I’m excited about this) a cute little sun hat and (gasp) adorable baby water wings. I can’t wait to play with it in the shallow rock-pool bit of the seaside and dip its toes in the deeper water to remind it of its ancestry and the sea I swam in while I was pregnant with it. But then we’ll leave the beach and go home and read indoors, away from the sun, exactly as we did this summer, before we met. I expect it’ll burn just as easily as I do if we stay out there for too long. And I won’t have anyone smoking around my baby.
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Ludicrously delicious fish and blitva (potatoes and spinach) on the island of Unije, a few days ago. And still, in the restaurant, everybody was smoking. I give up. 

An entirely sentimental, non-factual, totally biased view of Europe on the eve of the referendum

While I’ve only been in the UK eleven years, give or take, and I’m not eligible to vote in the referendum this week, my livelihood, and that of my husband, depends on being able to travel and work freely within the EU.
Every time we travel to collaborate with different orchestras and choirs, we learn something, not just because we’re working with a mixture of the world’s best musicians, but because being in a different country is just very good for your brain – it stretches it and challenges it and makes you see yourself in a new way.
Another thing that’s worth thinking about: families these days are more complicated and widespread than they were in the past. Being part of the EU means, to use a tiny example, being able to easily travel to see Bojan’s parents, siblings, and nieces. If we leave the EU, suddenly it will be prohibitively difficult to go and see both his family and mine.
Paola Cuffolo has written something very, very intelligent and emotionally lucid about what it means to be a European living in the UK, someone who holds only an EU passport but has always lived here, and has never needed to be anything other than a European to participate in, and be formed by, British culture.
If you value the arts, travel, communication, and curiosity, this post is worth reading, regardless of how you’re going to vote. Please give it five minutes of your time.

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So, indulge me for a minute, if you will. Unless you are clinically dead, you will have noticed that in the UK we are about to vote in a referendum about whether or not we should stay in the EU. Well, I say ‘we’. I am personally not eligible to vote: having spent only 27 and a quarter years out of my 28 in this country, rather than going the whole hog of being born here, I am not entitled to an opinion on the matter, but that’s a fascinating argument for another day. Like everyone else, however, I have read countless facts and figures for both sides, but since both sides seem more interested in beating each other than in the actual question, I thought I would throw all those out the window, for the moment. You’ve all read them, so there’s not much point in me re-iterating them…

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20 Books of Summer (two weeks late)

Inspired by Eleanor over at Elle Thinks, and in an attempt to escape, if only temporarily, from the unbearable dreadfulness of this week’s events in the world of politics, I’ve put together a list of books to attempt to read for an event run by Cathy at 746 Books: “20 Books of Summer”. I’m technically behind already (the event officially runs between 1 June and 1 September), because the first half of June was the tail end of several weeks of non-stop singing work, but I’m back in the game now (translation: mostly unemployed again, and thus writing/reading to my heart’s content). The Witchy Book continues apace, and I’ve decided to have my “Summer of Reading” coincide, dates-wise, with the last three months of my pregnancy. I’ve just entered the third trimester today, so it seems like nice timing.

[Disappears to assemble pile]

And here they are!

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Now they’ll probably sit like that on the bedroom floor until somebody (me) trips over them in the middle of the night.

Here are some reasons I haven’t read them yet:

  • being intimidated by their length
  • being ashamed that I didn’t read them when they were a big popular deal [The Goldfinch is a good example] and consequently being too embarrassed to be seen reading them in public “after the moment”
  • being nervous about taking them out of the house because they’re signed copies
  • having started them when I bought them, then getting distracted, and then being too embarrassed to pick them up again, as if they’ll rebuke me when I do. I know, I’m weird. I also used to give my stuffed animals equal time and attention (there was practically a rota) because I was worried about offending them.

The longer they sit on the shelf, of course, the worse it gets.

Here’s the list, in no particular order, with brief notes (some aren’t in the picture; and there are more than twenty, but I’m giving myself some leeway to choose what matches my mood at any given time. I won’t be able to read all of them by the 23rd of September):

  • Kelly Link: Magic For Beginners – I’m pretty sure that Eleanor (Elle Thinks) gave me this after she’d reviewed it. I read the first short story: delicious and dark. Can’t wait to finish them all.
  • Katherine Howe: Conversion – Katherine Howe came to my attention about a year or two ago, probably through writing about witches and also being quite academic; she edited the Penguin Book of Witches, whose delectable cover belies its rather desiccated contents (nothing but contemporary accounts of witch trials, which left me yawning, to my shame). Conversion is a YA novel that’s allegedly a sort of modern update of The Crucible, set (I think) in a girls’ school somewhere in New England. She was kind enough to send me some water-transfer temporary tattoos of the gorgeous cover art because she’d run out of signed bookplates. I haven’t used them yet, but I’ll treat myself when I’m reading this.
  • Neil Gaiman: The View from the Cheap SeatsThis just came out. Unfortunately it’s a signed copy, a late birthday gift from me to B, so I can’t take it out of the house. But I’ve used an Audible credit to buy the pleasure of Neil Gaiman reading it aloud to me. I think that counts.
  • Adam Sisman: John Le Carre: The Biography – my dad sent me this last November after my miscarriage to cheer me up – he knows that I always feel better when the subject of spycraft is on the table – and I listened to the first chapter or so in the audiobook version. It’s a huge book, but I’d like to tackle it properly before the baby arrives (though it might be wiser to leave it for middle-of-the-night feeds from October onwards).
  • Melvyn Bragg: The Adventure of English – I started reading this on a tour to America with That Choir back in 2014 (I think?) and lost it in a worryingly luxurious plantation-reminiscent North Carolina hotel bedroom. They promised to post it back, but never did, probably because they figured out what the postage would be to the UK and couldn’t be bothered. It belonged to my husband, so I hastily bought another copy and… promptly forgot about it. I’ve just started reading it again. It’s delightful; so delightful that I might just start from the beginning again for the full effect.
  • Ann Patchett: State of Wonder – embarrassingly, B gave me this wonderful-looking book as a Christmas present in 2013. It went on the list immediately because of the mounting guilt I feel at not having read it. It’s a signed first edition, which is why it hasn’t yet left the house. Which is why it hasn’t yet been read.
  • Kate Atkinson: A God in Ruins – I loved Life After Life, although I was also extremely traumatised by one of the final scenes. A God in Ruins came out SOME TIME AGO and I bought a copy immediately, because I’m a hardback fetishist. I then exiled it to the Shelf of Shame (unread books) and promptly forgot about it.
  • Ruth Goodman: How to be a Victorian – this was a Christmas present to myself, er, two years ago, when my dad gave me a nice Amazon voucher and I used it entirely to buy books. I remember hearing a review on NPR. Apparently it’s very down-to-earth and myth-busting, and doesn’t shy away from the gross details of Victorian life. Fun.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant – after listening to/reading Ursula le Guinn’s angry response to this book with utter glee, I started reading it and just stopped.
  • Will Cohu: Nothing But Grass – I have no idea why I own this. I think it was in the Christmas haul a year and a half ago, but I’m not sure.
  • Hilary Mantel: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – again, something I bought very quickly after its release and then was too scared to read, because I missed the moment.
  • Anthony Trevellian: The Weightless World – a book published by the wonderful people at Galley Beggar Press, with whom I have a bizarrely friendly Twitter relationship. I also need to finish How to be a Public Author, the wonderful satirical “non-fiction” book from “Francis Plugg”, but that’s another story.
  • Jonathan Gibbs: Randall – another Galley Beggar book, but I have no idea what it’s about, or why I own it. I have a horrible feeling they may have sent me a copy for review around a year ago. There’s something about the black background with splotches of yellow paint on it that’s unbearably excellent as a cover design.
  • A. L. Kennedy: On Writing – I’m currently halfway through this, so it might be cheating to have it on this list, but this is one of the most wonderful, darkly funny things I’ve ever read about the vicissitudes of being an author. Highly recommended. It’s a collection of her blog posts from several years ago.
  • Hanna Rosin: The End of Men – happily, I knew about this from the Slate Double X Gabfest before it was featured on Orange is the New Black. Bizarrely, I’m a little nervous about being seen with it in public. Ridiculous.
  • Philip Pullman: Northern Lights (Three Novels) – to clarify, I’m halfway through the second book, where I floundered (I felt the plot was getting really tedious), and B is not impressed – he loves all three. I’d like to finish them, at the very least, to get a better insight into my husband’s brain.
  • Susan Cain: Quiet – her Ted Talk was so, so good, and I’m all for championing introverts and the importance of recognising the possibility of success and innovation without having to shout and be super popular and the kind of person who, I don’t know, somehow enjoys public dancing or whatever. I started this over a year ago and… maybe it was the teensy typeface? In any case – time for it to come straight back onto the reading list.
  • Simon Armitage: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – another gift from B, a modern rendering by the inimitable SA of the original tale. He was quite cross that I never read it. I like Arthurian things, and I like SA, so I really ought to get down to it.
  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch – Bought it, shelved it, then saw an amazing mezzo I’m slightly in awe of reading it on a plane on a tour we were on and thought, well, I’ve missed the boat on that one – can’t be seen reading it after her. Utterly ridiculous.
  • Edward St Aubyn: Patrick Melrose Novels – ok, so it’s ridiculous to think that I can get through all five of these this summer, but I’d like to at least try the first one or two. I’ve heard people say that the books made them physically sick because of the abuse that’s catalogued in them (they’re heavily autobiographical fiction), but I’m still intrigued; his send-up of the Booker Prize in Lost for Words was wonderfully spiteful and very, very funny, and I got these after I’d read that one in the hope that I could just bathe in his prose a little more. B is ahead of me on this one, having read the first two or three already.
  • Jessie Burton: The Miniaturist – oh God, she’s already releasing the sequel at the end of this month and I still haven’t read the first one? I think this is at the top of my list in terms of Things That Intimidate Me Because I’m Late To The Party. And her website is so cool, and she’s so casually excellent on Twitter. And ugggghhhhh will I ever be profiled in The Observer as a debut author? Extremely unlikely.

On that depressing note, an additional thought: because I’m hammering away at Draft 2 of Witches Sniping At Each Other Amusingly In Oxford (definitely not the official working title), I won’t have time to write a proper review of each of these books, but I’ll try to put something up on each one – maybe short reviews in batches.

I actually can’t wait – it’ll be so good, so wholesome, somehow, to get back into reading after having slid into the mind-corroding habit of being on my phone all the time because I’ve been commuting between gigs. In the meantime…

Are you doing 20 (or more) Books of Summer? Share your list!

EBx

Summer; the witchy book; singing vs writing

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Wedding-present roses in our garden. They smell strong and sweet and boozy-syrupy.

It’s summer now, and the weather is (finally) reflecting that: last week I was still sporting my winter coat (which I can just about still zip up with Baby C-B in tow, stubbornly facing the wrong way so that we STILL don’t know its sex, and kicking happily at every opportunity), but it was genuinely hot today, nearly shorts weather [gasp], if I were the sort of person who owned or wore shorts. Caveat: it was only hot by my standards, a neat 24 degrees Celsius while I was at work in London today. We’re getting to the point where, in the UK, the days are so long that it feels surreal: the sun is well and truly up by 5am, and as I sit here and write this on the couch at 9.46, it’s raining, and there’s lightning and thunder outside, but the sky is still reasonably aglow; the sun has only recently set.

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything. I was a little (very) overwhelmed by the heart-rending and generous response from everyone who read the miscarriage piece I wrote in January, and for some reason that meant that I stopped writing here for a few months. Back in early May (or possibly late April), I wrote a very grumpy post while sitting in a hotel room in Bangkok, mostly about how hot it was and how I couldn’t deal with the heat at all, and how I was very dispirited about my singing work and couldn’t figure out what my job was. Because the wifi in the hotel was so bad, the blog post didn’t load, though I thought it had and checked back a week later to see if it had got any views, only to discover it was still in drafts. By that point I’d cheered up and decided to stop complaining, and was grateful for the glitch.

At that point, just over a month ago, I’d stopped feeling sick all day, but I still wasn’t quite having a fun time with my pregnancy. I wasn’t really looking pregnant, as far as I could tell, just moderately fatter than before; and in more existential arenas, I couldn’t figure out who I was. I was waiting for feedback on the first draft of the witchy novel, and I was on a trip to Thailand and China with B, who was working and had brought me along as a plus-one. I knew almost everyone in his orchestra; being around them, though they were all incredibly welcoming, made me feel like a weird non-working hanger-on. It was amazing to be back in Asia, particularly with someone I love, but I was worried about the one reported case of Zika in Thailand, and I was too hot, and the food was making me sick.

Worst, I hadn’t worked properly for a while, and I was beginning to lose sight of my identity. Was I less of a singer if I wasn’t bringing in enough money to even pay my half of the rent? Was I more of a singer because I’d made the decision that it wasn’t morally tenable to keep working for the group I’d just left? Was I a writer? I was certainly spending all my free time writing, or thinking about writing, or making notes for a new book, which (fortuitously, given the trip) was set in China. But being in writer-limbo as I waited for feedback on my book made me uncomfortable, and (well-meaning, lovely) people kept asking about it, and I had nothing to tell them beyond the following stock responses.

“Yes, I think I did everything I could to it. I was pretty happy with the manuscript when I sent it in. But I was also sitting on my couch for three months writing it and trying not to puke the whole time. So…”

“No, I haven’t heard back yet. I don’t know why I haven’t heard back. But the London Book Fair sets agents’ schedules back by many weeks.”

“No, I’m not editing it right now, because I want to wait for feedback… Yes, I’m working on something new. No, it’s not a sequel.”

And, most irritably:

“No, I don’t know when I’ll be published. I don’t even know if I’ll be published. No, I don’t have a book deal. An agent is reading the first draft. That’s it. She’s just a nice woman who’s agreed to look over it for me and give me feedback, and she’s very busy, and no, I haven’t heard back, or I’d have told you by now. Who’s been telling you I have a book deal?”

Things are better now. I’m starting to call myself a writer more regularly, which, if you’ve ever dithered and agonised over whether you can do the same, you know is a strangely hard thing to do. After all, there’s no money coming in… but isn’t that the point? How many people get paid to write while they’re also working on a novel? Actually, please don’t answer that if you know someone who does – it’ll just make me feel worse.

I’m still a singer – but that’s winding down, not least because I cancelled a year’s touring when I resigned from That Choir in January, and although the last few weeks have been frantic, the other work that was planned around the year of touring will come to an end around the middle of June. Soon it’ll be baby o’clock. I have maybe two or three projects scheduled for between mid-June and my due date, which is is 23 September, in case you’d like to pester me on Twitter around then with “ANY BABY YET?” and other such questions. (I jest – I’m sure I’ll still want to talk about it, even then.) After that, nothing until April 1st next year. But it’s ok; I’m not panicking. Here’s why.

I had the sort of beautiful, fulfilling day today that I haven’t had in months. I rehearsed with a group I never thought I’d be cool/famous enough to work with, the Early Opera Company, for a concert tomorrow of Monteverdi and Rossi. I spent time with colleagues whose work I love and admire, and who are wonderfully good company, and I sang well, which was a relief after having lost my voice last week due to a new and exciting symptom: pregnancy-related, voice-destroying acid reflux. I’ve made my peace with crunching antacid tablets in large quantities, because hey, they make them in mint flavour in this country! So that’s good.

On the way home, I read a lot of opinion pieces about NBC and the AP pre-emptively calling the nomination for Clinton, and got annoyed, but quite enjoyed it. I’m actively looking forward to the primary race being over, but I’m also deeply (perhaps foolishly) optimistic about Bernie’s chances of getting the nomination in the case of a California win and a contested convention. It’s weird to feel so good about something that’s been shouted about so loudly and nastily over the last few months, and which I’m genuinely tired of hearing about, but I was in a very calm mood about it today. I’m just looking forward to seeing what happens.

There’s something that ties all this together, my feelings about the election and about singing: as I’m about to give up on both things, I’m becoming much more serene about them. Today I proved to myself that I’m still a good singer, that pregnancy can’t stop me from being well prepared or expressive, that I’m still a good colleague – and what my teacher once called me, in a slightly backhanded compliment, a “conductor’s singer”, someone who’s highly attentive to conductor and orchestra, and whose first priority is making collaborative, intelligent music, not Acting And Being A Large/Loud Personality (nobody there today was that sort of singer, but they exist in large numbers, and we are of Different Schools Of Thought). I’m happy about these reminders of who I am as a musician, and they’ve give me the strength to leave music for a while and become a person who primarily writes in the lead-up to the birth. Because I’ve been reminded of who I am, I know I can come back to singing with my identity intact – which means I can leave for a while without freaking out.

Similarly, just as the Sanders campaign is (almost certainly) coming to an end, I’m feeling better about it than ever. It’s been good to have a real progressive in the race, and for him to have lasted so long in spite of all projections to the contrary. He’s changed the party for the better – that’s undeniable. I’m proud of him. I’m proud to have supported him. I look forward to the direction the party takes once this is all over, because I know so many new people, and not just young people, have been energised by the message of social change and social justice. I can feel it happening: people just want the world to be more fair.

Things end; that doesn’t mean they didn’t have value while they lasted.

My favourite thing today was morally suspect, in that it was enjoyment derived from someone else’s inconvenience. I spoke to B on the phone after work (he’s in Glasgow) and he was grumbling about his concert this afternoon having been messy because they hadn’t been able to rehearse properly. Why not? I asked. Because, he said, they had to share their rehearsal space with a coffin, complete with occupant, because there was a funeral planned for the break between the rehearsal and the concert. The coffin was gone by the time the concert started, of course, but it was too late (SO SORRY FOR THE PUN): in the rehearsal, they hadn’t been see each other properly, and the correct set-up was impossible, so the concert didn’t go terribly well. The real kicker is that they have another concert tomorrow, in the same church, and there’s another funeral scheduled at the same time, so the same thing is going to happen. Tee-hee.

In writing news: I came home this evening to a message from a long-lost acquaintance, asking me to be one of the teachers on a creative writing course for high school students to be held in Oxford this summer. I’ve never been more flattered in my life, or felt more simultaneously excited and imposter-syndrome-ridden. But I’ll pour everything I have into creating afternoon workshops for these kids that will make them love telling stories. It was only a tentative enquiry – I still have to send in a workshop plan and talk to the organisers officially – but it’s exciting to think that this is a small step to building up a portfolio.

Oh, and I’ve just realised I never gave you the promised update: I did get feedback on the witchy book. It was good. We had a really productive discussion about the direction for the second draft, and I’m working on it now in the moments between rehearsing and travelling and losing my voice and devouring antacid tablets. Progress is being made. From mid-June, when my singing hiatus begins, it’ll be full steam ahead. I have to credit my dear friend, the wonderful novelist Harriet Smart, who listened patiently to my panic when I’d had an email back from the agent detailing the issues she had with the book, and gave me (over the course of a two-hour phone conversation) some of the best and most generous advice I’ve ever received. She kick-started my imagination, which had sunk into stasis because I’d stared at that book for too long. She is a genius (and also writes some of the yummiest Victorian detective fiction ever).

I’m going to get back into reviewing books again soon, too, as a guest blogger over at Elle Thinks, the internet-home of the divine Eleanor Franzen. She’s one of the best and most intelligent writers (and poets) I know; go and check out her blog for a real treat.

That’s all for now. It’s good to be back in the land of electronic over-share. I’m sorry this isn’t more focussed and topic-specific, but I’m getting back into the swing of things (and it’ll be better once work calms down). Onwards.

We Need to Talk about Miscarriage

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I had a miscarriage in November. It was “early”, which meant it left me feeling completely devastated but also oddly undeserving of my own grief; I had barely been pregnant before it was all over, but we had already told our parents and siblings.

I’m not writing about this because I want attention or sympathy, although some might cite my chronic tendency to over-share, or my love of medical statistics (and they’d be right – pregnancy is fascinating, but reliable, non-anecdotal advice can be hard to find, so I’ve become obsessed with seeking out good sources of information). The reason I’m writing about it now is that the only thing that made me feel better afterwards was hearing other women’s stories of their own losses, or talking to people whose partners had had miscarriages, and being reassured that a loss is a loss, no matter how early. I want this account to exist so that others can read it and (I hope) feel a little bit better.

My first instinct was to mourn; my second instinct was to feel guilty about mourning, because other people had reached eight, nine, twelve weeks, eight months, even, and I had only reached five weeks. How could I be sad when I’d suffered so much less? I also wept with fury when I received, exactly a month after my own miscarriage, a pregnancy announcement from close friends. It wasn’t their fault; they had no idea. But I raged, and sobbed, and was a mess. B was disappointed with me: weren’t we their friends? Shouldn’t I be nicer? How could I react like that when I should be happy for them? I tried to explain that yes, I was happy for them, thrilled even – or at least I knew I would be, soon; just not at that particular moment.

It’s a tired trope of the time we live in, but it’s worth repeating: your feelings are real. They might be selfish, or inappropriate, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Allow yourself to be sad if you need to be sad.

***

I knew I was pregnant long enough to construct a potential person in my head, a really clever, charming child with funny mannerisms who liked being taken to the Ashmolean Museum and then for cake in the cafe downstairs. Until November I had only been interested in girls’ names, but as soon as we found out, I felt like I was pregnant with a boy (although studies show that when women claim to “just know” the sex of their child, they’re right at about the same rate as chance: 50% of the time). We wandered around an exhibition of Venetian drawings and talked happily about the fact that there was just one name, that name, and it was perfect. It was so perfect that I couldn’t imagine it being a girl any more. My lack of symptoms worried me a little, though. It didn’t quite feel real.

I began bleeding a couple of days later, painlessly. It was the weekend, so I rang 111, which is the UK non-emergency number, and asked what I should do. They told me that painless light bleeding in early pregnancy was nothing to worry about, but that I should call again immediately if I experienced strong cramping, or began to lose large blood clots. They scheduled me in for a scan at a nearby hospital two days later. At about 3.30am on the morning I was due to go in, I woke up in a lot of pain, barely able to speak, and knew exactly what was happening. I followed the other, grimmer instructions they’d given me: save any tissue you lose, put it in a clean container, bring it in to your appointment for analysis. “We need to know if you have an infection,” they’d said. “Oh, I’ll be fine,” I’d responded cheerfully, trying to push my fright back down my throat.

I could barely look at it when it did come out. It was just a sort of dark red sac. At that stage the embryo inside was still effectively just a blastocyst, barely even an embryo, the size of a small red lentil. All I could do was say oh my god, oh my god, over and over. B put it in a tiny tupperware box, swaddled in the white tissue I’d caught it in, and put it in the fridge as we’d been instructed, which seemed so horribly sensible. The next morning I put it in my handbag, unable to decide whether or not to treat this thing as something, or just a medical object like a urine sample. I was alone; B was in rehearsals all day. I took a cab to the hospital, but there was a terrible traffic jam near the entrance and I had to walk what seemed like miles to get to the place where they’d scheduled my scan. My back ached.

When I got there, I walked through a large waiting room full of very pregnant women, looking tired but content, and eventually reached my destination: a smaller, silent waiting room. There were two couples sitting in it. The women were crying quietly; neither was visibly pregnant. The men sat holding their hands, or trying to get them to agree to coffee. I had a couple of bananas in my bag and offered them up; the women jumped at them. They’d been sitting there for some time, they said, and were starving, but their partners didn’t feel they could leave their wives to go and get food in case their wives were called in while they weren’t there. Sharing food is an extraordinary thing, even if it’s just bananas. Suddenly we were all friends, tenuously, in spite of the fact that we were all very close to tears. Everyone talked about their pregnancies, their bleeding, their hope that in fact it was probably ok, even though everyone knew it wasn’t. We expressed optimism for each other. I think we all meant it.

I was called in; they did a pregnancy test on the urine sample I’d been asked to bring in. It came back negative; my hCG (pregnancy hormone) levels were so low that my body didn’t even think I was pregnant any more, but I’d known this would happen; since the bleeding had started I’d been obsessively taking cheap pregnancy tests, and they had all been negative. The worst part was having to sign a”release of foetal tissue” form. I cried a lot. The nurse explained to be quietly that since the pregnancy test was negative, they wouldn’t be doing a scan; there was no point. I was definitively not pregnant any more.

The doctor I spoke to later that morning was compassionate but matter-of-fact: “I know it probably doesn’t help to tell you this, but miscarriage at this stage is extremely common,” she said. “Go home and eat some iron-rich foods: spinach and steak. And have some orange juice to help you absorb the iron. And try again as soon as you feel ready. I’d be delighted if you conceived in the next cycle.” She gave me a leaflet from the miscarriage association. I went off to teach someone conversational English, then had tea with a priest. I told them both, which was probably inappropriate. They both expressed horror at the fact that I was going on with my day as planned instead of being at home in bed. I went home, reading my leaflet on the bus. It was comforting at first, but when I got to the part about “commemorating your baby”, I started crying again. It was too much. I put the leaflet firmly away in a dark corner of my handbag and read political commentary with fierce concentration until I forgot what had happened.

That night B brought home the most expensive steak he could find, and a really nice bottle of red wine. He also brought a friend who was staying the night on her way home because of bad weather. She did some Reiki on me, which made me cry a lot more, and made up Bach flower remedies which I took on tour. I wasn’t sure if it had made a difference, but the utter compassion of her actions was overwhelming. I was getting tired of crying, though.

The next morning I had to go on tour. I cried for eight hours on a delayed train to Edinburgh, feeling like something had been stolen from me. I spent a lot of the next month crying.

***

The thing that is supposed to make you feel better is that, if something goes wrong at five or six weeks, that potential person you spent so much time imagining was never viable in the first place. A lot of people told me that this miscarriage was my body “getting ready for the real thing”, which helped, and then made me angry. Why shouldn’t it work the first time?

Early losses are categorised as such if they occur before twelve weeks, and most are due to chromosomal abnormalities, in which case there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop the body rejecting something that wouldn’t have survived anyway. Behaving moderately “badly”, i.e. behaving as if you weren’t pregnant before you knew you were, probably won’t have an impact, so feelings of guilt about an accidental glass of wine at four weeks can be assuaged. As Emily Oster points out in her excellent book “Expecting Better”, at that stage of development, if a cell is killed off because you drank three glasses of wine at a party, it will simply be replaced by another cell, with no damage to the blastocyst. If a much larger number of cells die, there is no pregnancy: it’s an all-or-nothing situation, but at that early stage you probably wouldn’t have known you were pregnant unless you were trying. To kill off enough cells to actually end a pregnancy at this very early stage, you would have to binge-drink, or use a lot of recreational drugs.

There are varying statistics on the likelihood of miscarriage at various points in pregnancy, but it is useful to know that while about 25-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, the vast majority of losses happen before twelve weeks; and of those, most happen at around the time mine did, at five to six weeks. A friend with a robust six-month-old baby told me she took great comfort in this website while she was pregnant, which gives the daily odds of miscarriage from three weeks and zero days onwards. Watching the numbers drop so steeply was reassuring, she said. At three weeks, the risk is 33%. Almost no one knows they’re pregnant at three weeks; that’s a whole week before a missed period. By five weeks, the risk has dropped to 17.3%, and by seven it’s a glorious 3.9%, and thereafter it drops rapidly to 2%, where it stays for the duration of the pregnancy.

***

Some things I wish I had been told before I started trying to get pregnant:

  • Often, if you’ve been on the pill for a long time, your first pregnancy will end in an early miscarriage.
  • The rate of miscarriage at five weeks is higher than you might think, somewhere between 17% and 30%.
  • Having had one miscarriage, or even two, probably has no impact on your likelihood of having another one (although there is disagreement on this; some studies suggest having had one miscarriage actually decreases your chances of a second one, and some suggest the opposite).
  • Twelve weeks is not a magical cut-off point; the likelihood of miscarriage drops rapidly, but in a smooth curve, up to the twelve-week mark. There is no perfect time to break the news of a pregnancy; there is no “safe zone”. Stillbirths (much later miscarriages) still happen, although they are rare.
  • Some people have “missed miscarriages”, in which the foetus dies without the mother’s knowledge, often after an early scan at which things appear to be developing normally. Because this sort of miscarriage is not accompanied by dramatic bleeding, the mother may go several weeks until finding out.
  • An anecdotal fact: almost everyone I talked to who had children had also had a miscarriage, sometimes with their first pregnancy, but often in between healthy pregnancies. Before twelve weeks, chromosomal abnormalities are the overwhelming cause of miscarriage, and there is nothing you can do about them.
  • Molar pregnancies and ectopic pregnancies are rare, but scary. They can result in positive pregnancy tests. They never end well.
  • Miscarriage will knock you out emotionally and physically in a way you’ve never experienced before. You might not be a very nice person for a while. You may just want to stay in bed for a week. You may become clinically depressed.
  • Probably related: having a miscarriage raises the likelihood of divorce.

***

In a way, I was lucky: it was early. A friend recently miscarried at five and a half months, and when I found out, I couldn’t stop crying: for her, for her husband, for the idea they had built, for the utter cruelty of it. They were so far past the “danger zone”, the socially agreed-upon 12-week mark at which announcing a pregnancy is considered “safe”. She might have felt that baby kick. I have no idea what the circumstances were, but she would have had, in some sense, to give birth. What happened to me was at least quick: waking up in agony in the middle of the night, unable to speak except to wake my husband up and say “pain“, knowing exactly what was about to happen, running to the bathroom, and then losing something that was definitely something, but wasn’t in any way recognisable as a baby.

There’s another way in which we are overwhelmingly lucky. As I write this, I’m just over seven weeks pregnant. My life has become dominated by nausea, and I can’t seem to get anything done except write, and read, and pick half-heartedly at crackers and omelettes. I’ve become obsessed with sorbet ice lollies (mango flavoured ones are a winner). Even looking at my phone makes me feel sick, but that’s reassuring: only about 5% of women with nausea miscarry in the first trimester, compared to around 30% of women without nausea. The statistics are on our side this time. At seven weeks and one day, the likelihood of miscarriage has now dropped to about 3.5%. This is so close to the 2% risk at 12 weeks that I feel able to share the news openly. Also, I’m tired of feeling sick all the time and not being able to complain.

***

I conceived again just six weeks after I lost the first pregnancy. They told me this would be likely to happen; after a miscarriage, your body is in “fertility overdrive”, and conception is even more likely than it would be in normal circumstances, where even under ideal conditions the chances are about 32% the day before ovulation.

The traditional advice used to be to wait until six months after a miscarriage before trying to get pregnant again, but new evidence says the opposite: in fact, the likelihood of a second miscarriage actually rises after six months of waiting.

A week ago, looking for a pregnancy vitamin that isn’t the size of a horse pill (my gag reflex, already strong, has gone into overdrive), the man in the shop asked me if I was pregnant.

“Yes,” I said. “Six weeks.”

He looked at me sideways. “Hmm. Don’t people normally keep it quiet until three months?”

I took a breath. “Yes, but I had a miscarriage in November, so I’m telling people about this one. I want to enjoy it while it lasts. And I want to tell people so that if it happens again, I’ll have their support. But everyone’s different. Some people are happier not saying anything so they don’t have to give bad news after they’ve given good news. Anyway, the rate of miscarriage risk drops really dramatically between five and twelve weeks.” I swept my finger downwards in the air, drawing an invisible graph. “Currently I’m at about 7%.” I beamed at him.

“Right. So how many months would your baby have been now? You know, the first one.”

I froze, staring at the shelf of pregnancy vitamins. He had surely meant it as a harmless question, but to me this was a monstrous thing to ask, a reminder of something I’d very deliberately avoided thinking about now that I’d moved into my second pregnancy. I didn’t want to be one of those women who kept track in their heads of how old their baby would be, or dreaded the original due date, even though I knew some of that was inevitable. Couldn’t I be allowed to let go of the first pregnancy and just be happy in the current one? Had I brought this on myself by admitting to a previous miscarriage and opening up the topic? What gave him the right to poke at my grief just as it was starting to fade?

“I don’t know,” I said slowly. “I was due in July, last time. With this one I’m due in late September.” I paid for some ginger candy to quell the nausea, and left.

***

B can’t stop telling everyone he sees at work, especially his colleagues who have children. It feels real to him, too – my queasiness is affecting what we eat, my previous enthusiasm for complicated cooking reduced to a strange fervour for antacid tablets and leftover cold porridge, and a pathological fear of all cooking smells, particularly spices. And the people he tells have been so delighted and helpful that I think he wants to keep hearing their reassurance: That’s so brilliant! Congratulations! Don’t worry, people much poorer than you have managed to raise perfectly fine children. 

I can’t stop telling people either (and this post constitutes the Big Reveal, far ahead of socially acceptable schedule). It feels so sunny and exciting to be pregnant again. My due date is the 24th of September, the (Catholic) feast day of Our Lady of Walsingham. Sound.

***

For many people, miscarriage is an intensely private experience, but I found it isolating and disturbing to keep it secret, so I began telling people, one by one. First my family, then my friends. I wanted them to understand why I was so wretched, why I might not want to hear about pregnancy announcements or births for a month or two. The support that followed the revelation was overwhelming and immensely touching, and I’m glad I told people. Every time I told someone I felt I was healing a little bit; every expression of sympathy and concern was like a dab of ointment on a raging wound.

I want that network if it happens again, which is why we’re not keeping it a secret this time. But the main thing I’ve learned is how different it is for each person, just as every pregnancy is vastly different; grief affects people in different ways. And none of your feelings, if you have experienced a loss, are wrong or inappropriate: anger, jealousy, disbelief, sadness, exhaustion – these are all real, and allowed. Keep it secret if it hurts to talk about it. Share it if that’s what you want; there will be sympathy and support from kind people when you need it.

We shouldn’t treat miscarriage as though it is shameful or embarrassing. In any other situation, if someone is ill or bereaved, they let people know, and they allow people to help, or at least to understand why they’re not available any more, or why they’re not themselves. A miscarriage is essentially an illness and a bereavement wrapped up together, making it doubly hard to recover. And yet when I had my own miscarriage, I did feel somewhat ashamed of it, in spite of my strong beliefs about openness, that sharing information and demystifying these things makes our society more compassionate. The only thing that helped was to talk. It’s a painful subject, but if nobody talks about it, newly-pregnant women won’t be prepared when it happens to them – and it will. Let’s keep talking.

 

That Is Not Your Office! (A Brief Rant)

Venice-Basilica-di-San-Marco

Yes, I know San Marco probably has office staff. But that’s not the point. 

This is a short one. But it’s something that’s been bothering me for a long time. It’s mostly about musicians, and isn’t meant to cause offence.

So: my pet peeve of 2015 is when someone posts a picture of a gorgeous cathedral or concert hall and says “My office for the day!” or equivalent. It makes me crazy.

I used to have a 9-6 job at a research firm, and I’ve never felt more psychologically and spiritually downtrodden in my life than I did during those few months – because I wasn’t cut out for it. That’s why I became a singer, to get away from what my brain reacted to as crushing monotony.

Some people are cut out for those jobs, though, and they love them. They do meaningful, crucial things like working on dictionaries (shoutout to my friends at OUP), and cancer research; they teach (I can’t even begin to say how important teachers are, and how undervalued); they do freight theft investigations; they write for websites that help women talk to each other about Stuff (shoutout to Eleanor); they run construction companies; they respond to pleas for help from constituents, or refugees, or people at the other end of a suicide hotline; they translate. Some of them do things that would seem really boring to other people, things that are still incredibly important. People in these jobs are really lucky to have benefits and a regular income, and the freedom to see their families and loved ones every day, because they’re not on the friggin’ road all the time.

But creatives are lucky too, because we’re able to make a living doing the thing that we love, even though it periodically makes us tired and miserable just like everyone else who does a job. We have freedom of movement and a regular change of scenery. And we make music, or art, or words at a high level on a regular basis, things that move people and change their lives or the way they think.

But musicians shouldn’t pretend that a cathedral is an office, because it’s an appallingly self-regarding kind of humble brag that belittles people who work in regular jobs: “Oh look, poor me, off to the daily grind in the Leipzig Gewandhaus/Bath Abbey/Insert Name Of Stunning Building Here etc! It’s just like any other job, haha! #soblessed #sohumbled.”

It just makes me feel a little sick every time someone does it. Acknowledge how lucky you are, take a picture, be a little smug that you got to see the back end/vestry/whatever bit of the place the public normally wouldn’t get to poke their noses into — but don’t call it an office. People who actually work in offices might love seeing those pictures and hearing about your exploits, but they might also be dying inside, just a tiny bit, because they wish it was them doing that job. Maybe they’re the version of you, in a parallel universe, that stayed in a full-time job because you couldn’t afford music college or art school, or didn’t have family who were willing to let you live at home until you’d made it in the arts.

That is not your office. Please stop it.

And finally, I know that nobody who does this is doing it maliciously. I’m overreacting SO MUCH. Apologies.

 

 

 

Review: The Ecliptic (with big spoilers)

I originally intended for this review to appear on Quadrapheme. I left their staff recently for reasons of social conscience a couple of months ago. This review should have appeared on the website in September but got lost; so I thought it would be best to publish it here, since we were parting ways in any case.

So here it is, with apologies to Benjamin Wood for tardiness. I got my copy of the novel after the launch party, which I want to say was sometime in late summer this year, so the review should have appeared a long time ago. But perhaps it’s a good thing it hasn’t gone up sooner; it contains very significant spoilers.

The Ecliptic, by Benjamin Wood

ecliptic

SPOILER ALERT: this review contains important plot details that will absolutely, unequivocally spoil the main thrust of the novel, and ruin a very satisfying surprise at the end. It’s a brilliant, gripping read, so you’ll burn right through it. If you’re at all interested in it, I suggest you pick up a copy before reading this review. 

The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood’s second novel, is set on Portmantle, a Turkish island retreat for creative types who have lost their ability to make art. Knell, the narrator and protagonist, is a painter who specialises in large-scale murals. In the first third of the book, she spends her days socialising in a desultory kind of way with her long-term inmate friends (an architect, a novelist, and a playwright): gossiping, eating, playing games for trinkets (they are not allowed to bring anything onto the island beyond the barest of personal effects), and sniping at the “short-termers”. Nothing much happens, apart from the arrival of a teenager whose artform is uncertain, and who seems intent on causing problems.  

Then, just as the first part of the book ends, Knell shifts the setting dramatically: we are plunged into her own past. Suddenly the pace picks up; we discover that she is in fact called Elspeth (all Portmantle residents must adopt pseudonyms to free them from the pressures of their original identities), a diamond-in-the-rough Glaswegian painter with a shining future and an eclectic, disturbing style. After she leaves art school, she works in London as a dogsbody to Jim Culvers, a moderately famous (and more than moderately alcoholic) painter with whom she is unrequitedly in love. She is more talented than he is, and is quickly discovered by one of Jim’s supporters and drawn into the toxic postwar London art scene.

One of Elspeth’s first sexual encounters is with an art critic who rapes her, and this results in a pregnancy which ends in a dramatic miscarriage onboard a ship bound for New York. Following the trauma, unable to fully process her experiences, her ability to paint uncanny, original work diminishes, and she sinks into depression. While on medication, she is at least able to work steadily, churning out “collectible” pieces that she despises, but she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her work, and yearns to recapture the obsessive fugue-states that brought about her most meaningful paintings.

Eventually, given total freedom to produce her largest commission to date, a huge mural for an observatory, she is defeated by the problem of how to depict the “Ecliptic”, which is the imaginary path of the sun across the heavens as perceived from earth (we are well into the second half of the book by the time the concept that takes the novel’s title, as it were, wanders onstage, jazz hands akimbo). Having failed to finish the painting and retreated to Scotland to attend her first mentor’s funeral, she stumbles across the long-lost Jim, who disappeared years ago just at the moment when Elspeth began experiencing commercial success. They begin living together in a quasi-romantic relationship, and she watches him paint while obsessing over the possibility that he might abandon her again. His paintings are somehow more vivid, more meaningful than his earlier work, and he tells her that he recovered his ability to create by going to a mysterious place called Portmantle. By this stage Elspeth is in a state of psychological collapse, and Jim insists that she should go to Portmantle herself in order to rehabilitate her talent. We pick up where we left off, with Elspeth/Knell back on the island many years later, and the tragic events that closed part one begin unfolding towards a shocking conclusion.

Benjamin Wood is obviously interested, as all artists must be, in the mystery and frustrations of the creative process, and one of the great strengths of the novel is that it exposes the unglamorous side of making art. We see Knell sweating for days on end over each painting in her raw, inspired, and hectic early years, surviving until the work is done on canned foods and very little sleep. Wood skewers the art world to great effect, mercilessly caricaturing its insincere gallery-owners, promoters, agents, investors, and collectors.

Possibly the most wonderful thing about Wood’s cynical and clear-eyed portrait of the artist’s life is way he debunks the myth of artistic freedom. Elspeth is at her most productive precisely when she is given limited time to paint or draw, and vice versa. The huge commission for the observatory, with its distant deadline and conceptual freedom, makes her panic about minor details; and on Portmantle, with apparently limitless years ahead of her and no financial strain, she is unable to do anything but obsess over method. I stress this not least because the embrace of limits is crucial to my own writing (see this post for more on that).

[SPOILER AHEAD]

I was smitten by the virtuosity of this novel; its beautiful writing, the moving depiction of the artist’s struggle with imagination and craft and dedication, the search for the elusive muse. But Portmantle itself, which should be the centrepiece of the novel, left me cold, and this dented my appreciation of the book as a whole. To have it revealed as having been all a dream at the end is rather disappointing, but this seems to account for the fact that the descriptions of Portmantle, and its inhabitants, seem thin on first reading. Elspeth’s friends on the island, as well as the provost and the various serving staff, are shadowy figures whose personalities are never fully developed, and this made it difficult to engage with the first part of the book.

The celestial Ecliptic is imaginary, hence Elspeth’s struggle with depicting it; and so, too, is Portmantle. Was Wood struggling to depict that, too, because he knew it didn’t really exist? Or was his depiction deliberately unclear? For me, the great frustration of this novel is in the way Wood plays with the idea of imagination. Has he been unbearably clever and intentionally made an imaginary place difficult to get to grips with so that the reader is neatly set up for the big reveal at the end, and can look back and laugh at how funny it was that Portmantle was hard to believe in? If this was the intention, it seems awfully cynical. Somehow, I doubt it. 

Because of Wood’s obvious craftsmanship and skill, I am sure that Portmantle is exactly as well developed as he intended, but the place as it exists in Elspeth’s mind is simply not the satisfying illusion I needed in order to maintain my interest through that first section of the novel. Going back into Elspeth’s visceral, energetic artistic past in part two, I felt as though I was getting into the real novel; and of course, in a sense, I was being strung along, since Elspeth’s past is the only real story here; everything that predates Portmantle is real, since Portmantle exists only in Elspeth’s mind. Perhaps it seems disappointingly thin on detail, and its principal characters (Elspeth’s companions at the retreat) blur into one because Elspeth herself can’t fully imagine it — and if this was the intention, it’s all terribly clever. But in spite of the gasp of pleasure I let out when I reached the end of the book, realizing that the whole thing had been a mirage, I was left feeling that the joke was ultimately too elaborate. I needed Portmantle to exist fully, if only in Elspeth’s head; it’s every artist’s dream, a beautiful illusion that needed more colour to do it justice. If I had believed in it more fully, its destruction would have been all the more devastating. As it was, this was a novel that moved me only with its central portrait of Elspeth in the real world. It is rare that emotional intensity and virtuosity can coexist at an equally high level; Bach does it, but I can only think of a few writers who do. I look forward to Benjamin Wood’s future work, excited by the promise of The Ecliptic; Elspeth was an exquisitely compelling character – when she was being truthful in her recollections. 

Back to basics: a writer’s guide to remembering you’re a writer

  
In a bizarre reversal of the sunk-cost fallacy, I’ve been nervous about updating this blog; the longer I left it, the more awkward it seemed to start writing again.

I was probably jump-started into action by going to Writers’ Circle last week (also for the first time in ages). Excuses: I’ve been away singing a lot; the novel has taken over; I’ve got a new part-time job as administrator for an Oxford-based orchestra – but I really needed to get back to the aspects of my writing life that gave me the confidence to do novel-related things in the first place. They’re still important. 

If you need a boost, or can’t quite use the word “writer” to introduce yourself at parties because you have another job too, try one or all of the following. In combination, they’ve slowly whittled away at my imposter syndrome. 

1. Start a blog

When people ask me what I write, or where my stuff appears, I always talk about my novel-in-progress, but I mention my blog too as a way of taking the pressure off the novel. I don’t set a particularly good example here (when exactly was the last post?), but having a public blog is a great way of introducing people to the idea of you as a writer. And it keeps your hand in; by maintaining a blog, you can desensitise yourself to the terror of actually showing people what you write. 

2. Start reviewing

I owe a lot to Eleanor over at Elle Thinks – she commissioned my first review for Quadrapheme, and encouraged me to start writing for Shiny New Books. I’m not a regular reviewer, but it’s another small aspect of my writing life that’s public and searchable, and of which I’m enormously proud, especially because reviewing led to feature writing. I’d like to do more. Reading with intention (and attention) the way you need to for reviewing makes you so much more aware of what you think, and makes you question your assessment of other people’s work. Invaluable.

3. Find a writer’s group near you, and join it 

This doesn’t need much explanation, but I want to say two things: first, Meetup is your friend in this scenario (that’s how I found the Oxford Writers’ Circle), and also, meeting up with other people who are on this weird, lonely quest is incredibly reassuring. Which leads me to…

4. Go to a festival for writers, a workshop, a retreat, or a class

Ok, disclaimer: I am about to get very effusive about a particular festival, so bear with me. They haven’t paid me to say these things; in fact, I paid them quite a lot to attend all three days (food and lodging included, which must have been a significant proportion of the cost). But by God, it was worth every penny. 

In September I went to the Festival of Writing in York. It’s hard to describe how surreal it was to arrive on campus at York University and walk up to the conference centre. I have never, ever felt that way except in dreams, just at the point where they become lucid and I realise nothing’s actually there. I was convinced it wasn’t real, even at the point where I was pinning my nametag to my sweater and going into the first seminar. But suddenly I was surrounded by four hundred other writers who wanted to figure out how to give themselves a better shot at publication, and it was all so warm and reassuring that I woke up for the next two mornings with a sense of profound happiness that I’ve rarely experienced before. It helped that I made friends – they say you will, and you don’t believe it, but then you do – and I came second in a best opening chapter competition in the second night, which brought about some good connections that now mean I’m working on my novel with a renewed sense of urgency. Above all, though, I can commend this sort of thing because it means surrounding yourself with people (agents and editors and book doctors) who not only empathise, but are actively interested in finding and fostering talent and helping you get ahead; and it makes the whole endeavour seem utterly real. Not imaginary. Real, and achievable.

5. Get a notebook you like, and drag it around (with a pen)

Now on to the greatest joy of all – stationery! Just kidding (except I’m not. At all). 

I may be alone in this, but I type too quickly to produce a useful first draft. The act of writing by hand forces me to slow down significantly; although I can still quite happily produce several A5 handwritten pages in a sitting, writing by hand means they’re invariably of higher quality than they’d be if I had bashed them out on my laptop. Also, as irritating as it may be for me to make this point, notebooks don’t need to be charged. They can be dropped without getting wrecked. They can even be dropped in a puddle without getting (completely) wrecked. They can be crammed into a bag quite successfully and live to fight another day. Admittedly, you can’t back them up or upload your content to the cloud without sitting down and typing everything up periodically, but the process of typing up is a brilliant way to self-edit a rough draft without too much effort; you automatically adjust and tweak and improve as you type stuff up. 

The other huge advantage of dragging that notebook around all the time is that it normalises the practice of writing down your thoughts in spare moments, and (crucially) in public. Someone once said writing should never be done in front of other people, likening it to a bodily function, but I disagree. By all means avoid writing in front of people you know (family members, principally), because that’s sort of weird and antisocial and distracting for everybody, but get used to writing in front of strangers and I guarantee you’ll be more productive over time. Ten minutes here, five minutes there. Half an hour on your commute. The more I write in public, the less self-conscious I become, and the more ingrained the daily writing habit. Human brains love habits. Why not develop one that will help you get your novel/screenplay/poetry collection done?

So that’s it (for now). Consider trying some of this stuff. Even if you just start with a notebook, it’ll help get you out of a non-writing rut. I’d advise against those really fancy ones with embossed covers (I’m looking at you, Paperblanks – who thought jewelled covers were a good idea?), because it’s easy to feel paralysed by a high-expectations exterior. But equally, maybe go for something mid-market rather than a flimsy perforated job; you’re in this for the long haul. Sturdy and plain is good.

Don’t just do these things once, either. Keep reminding yourself why you write, and once in a while, reassess your commitment to it. Does it bring you joy? It’s not homework or a chore – it should be a delicious, if somewhat exhausting, escape. 

Practise. You’ll never be perfect, but habits make things easier. Remember, if you don’t actually write, you’re not a writer. Everything else is window-dressing. 

What did I leave out? Let me know in comments what you do to keep yourself on track as a writer, through productive and unproductive periods alike. 

Don’t Let It Burn Down: Parliament Article Over At Quadrapheme

  
About a a week ago I had an article come out at Quadrapheme. It’s on an extremely urgent subject, and the more research I did into it, the more anxious I became about the whole thing. A précis: the Palace of Westminster is in a terrible state, particularly as far as its electrical wiring is concerned. There are a huge number of other problems, but the chief concern is that it could burn down tonight, or next week, or next year. This is not a joke. Refurbishments are long overdue, and will cost more than £7 billion over 25 years if done around an operating Parliament; if everybody moves out, it’ll cost half that amount and take five years. The infuriating thing is that Parliament isn’t due to even vote on what to do until April 2016. 

this is how you should feel about this.

 
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather that the 1,000 years of cultural history housed in that building were saved from catastrophic fire damage than that it be left to chance any longer. They need to deal with this problem now. 

Anyway, here’s the article, which has pretty extensive background on the previous fire in the 19th century that destroyed most of the original mediaeval buildings, as well as information on what can and should be done now to save Barry and Pugin’s masterpiece and its priceless contents. Please re-blog, tweet, and generally share this around as much as you can! 

The Trouble With Writing Retreats

Beth Maiden talked on her blog last week about a great writing retreat she went on recently – It was in a secluded, peaceful place where she could be utterly alone, away from the demands of her business, emails, and social media, and she got lots done – much more than she could have achieved back at home in her “regular” working environment.

That’s the idea, isn’t it? Our lives are so busy (especially freelancers whose attention is inevitably pulled in several directions by things that claim equal time); carving out space for long-term creative projects is imperative lest we keep allowing other things to get in the way. The writing retreat seems like the perfect solution.

Last week I went on my own writing retreat. I normally work very badly in my own house, so I thought that getting away would provide the required jolt of novelty to get a few new chapters done, or at least I’d be able to thoroughly polish chapter 1 to send it in for a festival next month. I called a very dear friend who lives in Yorkshire, organised to stay with him for a week, and trekked up to Settle with my husband.

The plan was to have seven days in Settle, with the middle four spent entirely alone. Just me, a log fire, and my laptop. The first two days I was with my husband and Stephen, who owns the glorious house, but then they went in different directions, leaving me to my own devices.

Inspirational view

I imagined the perfect schedule: up early, a hearty breakfast, perhaps a quick jaunt into town to the butcher’s or greengrocer’s; then three hours of writing, a break for lunch, and a walk in the Dales. Then back home for a few more hours of writing with the wood-burning stove crackling before me, and some nice baroque music on Stephen’s superlative hi-fi. After a simple supper, a glass of wine, and a glance over the astonishingly moving and humorous new work I’d produced that day, I’d be in bed by 10pm.

Ambitious, yes, but I’d say that even compared to a much more reasonable schedule, the week was an unmitigated disaster – I hardly got anything done.

This was entirely my own fault. For the first two days, Mr Č and I hung out with Stephen, went to the farmers’ market, and cooked extravagantly. I thought of the days yawning emptily in front of me and wasn’t worried that I hadn’t done any real work in those first two days. They both left the following morning, very early, and it rained hard all day. I didn’t really know my way into town, so I didn’t leave the house at all. I went on Facebook too much (whatever happened to my once-a-day rule?!), found a series of Buzzfeed videos I liked, did about two hours’ editing, and went to bed outrageously early. Although I didn’t realise it, I’d set the pattern for the rest of the week.

I wrote for maybe three hours on the second day alone, but I was overwhelmed with loneliness by the third, and horribly listless and unproductive. By the fourth day I was actually depressed. I was eating a lot of omelettes, taking a lot of baths, and writing for an hour or two, at most, each day. I wasn’t cooking properly, or writing very much at all.

On the final day, coming home from the grocery store in the rain, I saw somebody who looked like my husband from behind, lost the plot, and called him in tears. I was so lonely that I felt sick. He reminded me that Stephen would be back that night from Walsingham and I’d soon be having a jolly evening, and that I just needed to write a little bit more that afternoon and it would all be over.

So I went home and instead of writing, started baking: first almond and orange zest biscotti, then chocolate brownies, then a whole ham. Large-scale oven-related activities are a pretty good sign that I’m feeling a little manic, or very sad. In any case, it was all delicious, and at least I’d been productive in one way while I was there. And once Stephen got back that night, I was fine. It helped that he really, really liked the brownies.

But I had to admit to myself that the writing retreat had mostly been a failure. I’d achieved barely a fraction of what I’d thought I would.

These experiences aren’t without their uses, though. You have to fail to progress, sometimes, because failing teaches you what doesn’t work – and that knowledge brings you closer to figuring out what does.

I’ve noticed that I’m exceptionally productive when I’m given limits: I can write almost a whole chapter in longhand during my commute between Oxford and London – in fact, that’s how most first drafts have been written. Limited time gives me a sense of urgency. So does limited battery life. If I take my laptop to a coffee shop I don’t really waste any of that time, because I know I’ll have no choice but go home in about an hour. Sitting at home, or in someone else’s home, with unlimited time, spells absolute disaster, because there’s always something else to do before you really get started, right? Answering one more email. Watching one more Buzzfeed video. Designing one more version of those business cards you so desperately want to order from Moo.

Atmosphere helps, too: to paraphrase something my Dad once said, being shamed into productivity by the productivity of others around you is the best way to get writing done (and again, this works for me, but it might not work for you). In a cafe, surrounded by coffee smells and the urgent tapping of keyboards (they’re usually owned by earnest, industrious American exchange/grad students), I can get a huge amount accomplished. Peer pressure: sometimes a useful tool.

Ultimately, though, there’s no correct formula for everyone. I’m glad I’ve figured mine out at last: I need people around me, limited time, and an atmosphere that’s pleasant but definitely not holiday-ish. Being alone in a silent house is not for me, because it makes me look for noise and company (if only by watching a lot of YouTube). It does work brilliantly for a lot of people, though, so don’t rule it out if you’re trying to figure out how to finish (or start) your novel. But for me, working in life’s short gaps works best – in the company of others. As long as those others aren’t actually talking to me at the time.

And next time, I’ll be wise enough to know that a visit to Stephen’s glorious house should be an opportunity to drink wine, catch up, and absorb the Dales scenery with him and Mr Č. A place like that, with such fine company, is too good to waste by trying to work – and sometimes you just need to have a holiday.