All posts by Louise Austin

The waiting game

I am not a naturally patient person. I like to feel the illusion of control over my life, to believe my own actions are shaping my destiny. Waiting for others to decide my fate is something I find really tough. I’d love to say something zen about how patience isn’t in the waiting itself but in finding peace whilst waiting, but I simply don’t see it. As far as I’m concerned, waiting is just awful.

I was in the fortunate position of having a long and varied legal career with one employer and I only ever applied for one job elsewhere, whilst exploring alternatives to fee earning that might have worked alongside writing. It has been two years since that interview, in itself rather awkward – I was wearing the same dress as one of the interviewers and was 10 months into maternity leave so lactating and nappy changes had blotted out most of my professional brain. I still haven’t heard back from them. For many weeks I watched my inbox nervously, waiting for a response. I no longer expect one, particularly as I know somebody else was appointed to do the job, but I find loose ends somewhat disturbing, so on occasion it still crosses my fastidious mind that they are yet to reply.

When my husband and I decided to start a family, I hated the long wait until our daughter was finally on her way. Each month was filled with nervous anticipation and ended in bleak disappointment. My difficulty wasn’t with the time it took but with the uncertainty of whether it would ever happen at all. All that hope and fear spilling from weeks into months and then into years. Had I known how things would turn out, I could have relaxed and enjoyed those carefree days before the joys and responsibilities of parenthood consumed us, but instead I obsessed over the future, and wished away the time.

It won’t surprise you to hear that the resounding silence that follows submission to literary agents has not been suiting me particularly well. My working hours have been spent imagining their disgust at my audacity in even contacting them and I’ve been waking in the small hours to torture myself over clunky wording in a cover letter or a missing comma in my manuscript. Not very constructive, nor conducive to writing book two, which I had hoped to lose myself in whilst languishing in the ‘slush pile’ (the somewhat harsh industry term for the numerous lovingly crafted novels awaiting the attention of an agent or publisher). All in all, I was feeling lost in a wilderness of my own creation, filled with self-doubt and far too much self-indulgent reflection.

But, no more. I would love to be able to tell you that mindfulness or yoga had soothed my weary soul or to report that my nerves were unfounded and that agents are fighting to represent me, but the kick in the derrière I so badly needed actually came from my very first standard form rejection. Far from catastrophic, it was bland, polite and inoffensive. It pinged into my inbox unexpectedly, alongside an email from a clothing brand I once made the error of providing my email address to. And the world kept on turning. And I still believed in my book. And I reached out to some local authors in the hope of finding some peers. And I researched more agents, found one with whom I felt a connection, rewrote my cover email with more passion and got back out there. I was relieved the process was working. I felt like I had a new chance to share my book, to try to find an agent who would be passionate about it. It felt like I was doing something.

Tomorrow I’ll be back to the waiting game, but for now I feel like I’ve been through an initiation rite. It may be strange, but I think I’m actually celebrating my first rejection, embracing the gritty reality of life as an author.

Admissions and submissions

In less than a fortnight, I will complete my first year of focussing professionally on writing. Shortly, I hope to send my novel off to seek representation, so my days are currently filled with stalking literary agents on social media and agonising over condensing a 108,186 word book into a two page synopsis. Since completing the first draft, it has been both pruned and expanded, words have been slashed and detail added, until, in the words of my surprised mother, it reads like an actual book.

I do feel a huge sense of achievement for completing it; whatever happens now, I have written a novel. I’m also distracted with excitement about the next instalment – yes, I’m already losing myself in book two; I just couldn’t wait. But I’m also consumed with terror about sending it off for professional consideration. Even whilst seeking clients, agents seem universally determined to prepare writers for a slew of rejections, which is far from comforting. I’m hoping to find a well of gritty determination to draw on; it seems weirdly taboo to confess that rejection is unpleasant, rather than merely character-building, but I’m comfortable to admit it’s not really something I look forward to. Nonetheless, as the anniversary approaches, the main thing I have learned this year is that I love being a writer. And that is what will give me the motivation to keep plugging away; I’ve finally found what I want to be when I grow up!

An end and a beginning

Today I completed the first draft of my novel.

It has left me quite unsure about how to feel; in some ways it is a landmark that ought to be celebrated, but I also find myself conscious that there is still a lot of work to be done and in many ways I am only just beginning. To continue with an analogy I have already over-egged: the baby is born, but the job of parenthood is only just getting underway.  

Over the course of writing the book, its characters have become more real to me and I will need to go back over the parts where I was still getting to know them to add depth that does their personalities justice. I need to sharpen the focus of the book so that it has a punchier beginning, a gripping start that draws readers in. I need to read and reread it to check for consistency, repetition, pacing, phrasing. I want to start on the sequel, mapping out what’s next in greater detail and making sure the first book introduces enough of the characters and concepts that the two feel connected without leaving unsatisfactory loose ends that confuse the narrative of the first. I need to edit and cut it down so that it has impact and feels dynamic but also add details that build richness and vibrance. It needs a title; I feel the pressure for each of those few words to somehow convey the sense of the whole, to carry the essence of the entire book in just a few syllables.

Now it is a complete entity, I am overwhelmed by its scale. Its 111,463 words are an intimidating forest that I could lose myself in indefinitely. I will need to carefully balance the importance of editing and revision with the need at some point to reach an endpoint, to decide it is as complete as I can make it and to have the courage to send it off, to seek representation, to find it an editor, a publisher, an audience. All of this is daunting, which will make it deeply tempting to hide in its depths indefinitely, for there will always be the scope for further tinkering.

For now, my first task is to read it through, to experience the physicality of forming the words in my mouth and hearing it aloud, to follow the story without being side-tracked and to enjoy sharing it with my children. I worry about how others will receive it, but my biggest fear at the moment is whether, after gestating it for so long, I will even like it myself.

Facing fears

Before becoming a writer, I had a number of worries about what taking such a big step might mean. Almost eight months in, I’ve been reflecting on some of those concerns and how things have panned out so far.

  1. What if I become a badly dressed hermit?

I loved dressing up to go into the City for work. A fitted dress and a pair of killer heels made me feel special, powerful, confident. I enjoyed entertaining clients in fancy restaurants on the firm’s tab and team drinks were always fun, especially when held in bars with a minimum spend, where the budget stretched further than the needs of our conservative colleagues and we were left to use it up by drinking champagne that was far beyond our own means. Don’t get me wrong, mostly we were sat in little offices tapping away at keyboards until there was only enough time for a piece of toast and a curtailed sleep before turning around to head back again, but there were little bursts of glamour and excitement that made it feel worthwhile.

I was worried about becoming drab and mundane, trudging the daily school run in whatever comfy mismatched and ill-fitting garments were to hand, losing my sense of freedom and identity, no longer going to the latest restaurants and sipping unpronounceable cocktails in rooftop bars. I didn’t want to lose my social life or the opportunity to eat lobster-sized crayfish and try a glass of Cristal. I pictured myself walking past chic dresses in search of comfy jeans and I cringed at the thought.

Turns out that my fear of missing out has simply evaporated. Yes, I sometimes grab yesterday’s cut offs and t-shirt to take the kids to school and yes I wear pumps or trainers, but I hated tights with a vengeance and heels are far less fun when you’re carrying a 28 month old three miles a day in a sling. I still dress up for weddings but otherwise I have no need to – the people I see aren’t judging me on my appearance (and if they are, I feel no need to impress them) and I no longer need to make myself feel good with clothes. When I worked in the City I needed those moments of feeling like Cinderella at the ball because my job made me feel like Cinderella waiting on her step-family. Now I’m into my happily ever after, I can wear clothes that let me run and play and write without getting in my way; they’re just background. Maybe people see me and think I’ve let myself go, but my skin has a healthy glow from all the time I spend outside and I rarely have those moments of deep stress or anxiety that used to etch themselves onto my face. I don’t have access to a fancy gym but I go to local zumba and aerobics classes. I don’t often eat out but our home cooking has evolved and, despite my heavy-handedness with cheese, is far healthier than restaurant food as well as being delicious (I cheat here by being married to an amazing cook).

As for my social life, I am definitely far more of a hermit than I was, but instead of going to drinks that have been in my diary for a month, I now have an impromptu glass of wine at a friend’s house or sip Pimms in the garden because the sun is out. I can be spontaneous and I have more time to socialise with the people I really want to see, not just the people who are working nearby. I do miss the camaraderie of being part of a team and I was lucky to have been spoiled with amazing colleagues and clients, but I love managing my own time now and having the freedom to simply be myself, not the representative of someone else’s brand. I go out less, but I laugh more. I talk to fewer people, but my conversations have more meaning. It is the opposite of drab; my life is in full technicolour.

  1. What if people think less of me?

This raises the interesting question of whether we define one another by what we do, rather than who we are. If pressed on the point, most of us feel uncomfortable with the idea of the former, but it is incredibly convenient to be able to categorise people quickly when we meet them so we know roughly who we’re dealing with. There was great comfort in being defined as a City professional, it sounds sensible, well-educated, reliable. Being a ‘writer’ is far more amorphous and alarming; after all a writer might start spouting poetry or dangerously liberal views at any moment and cause an awkward scene or, worse still, might simply turn out to be someone unemployable who has angst, considers themselves creative and is breaching that tipping point between quirky and just plain objectionable. Combine that with being a mother (because hysteria and an inability to scroll past a post you disagree with on an internet thread are, of course, delivered straight after the placenta) and I feared people would be instantly dismissive and possibly patronising.

This worry has also mostly dissipated. Turns out if you don’t fit neatly in a box, you end up having much more interesting conversations. Also turns out that the other humans don’t much like lawyers.

  1. What if the book fails?

This was a big one; giving up an interesting career and a decent income to expend a lot of time and energy writing a book that might never leave my laptop. The statistics don’t make pretty reading and even those who defy them often find themselves earning less than minimum wage based on the time they put in.

Failure is still a distinct possibility; the novel is almost 100,000 words long now and I’m excited about it but that’s no guarantee that anyone else will be. I remain very nervous and a bit clueless about next steps once I’ve finished whipping it into shape, but it’s mine and I love it unconditionally and I’m glad I’m writing it, even if only for my own kids to enjoy. I finally understand why some people do jobs they love even though they could find something much better paid; it’s genuinely a reward in itself to be writing and I know I’m incredibly privileged to be able to give it a go. No regrets; however life turns out, sometimes you just have to go for it.

  1. As a writer, I’ll look a complete tit if I haven’t read the classics or if I use a word incorrectly or spell it wrong

Some people care about grammar and spelling, others don’t. It would be embarrassing to proclaim oneself a writer and then demonstrate failures in basic literacy, but it’s unrealistic to expect perfection from anyone. I have found I have a lot more time now to explore the nuance and origin of words and I get a genuine thrill when I find just the word I needed or learn a new one. I’ve stopped clenching up about language now that I play with it so much and I’ve accepted that sometimes making mistakes is the best way to learn. Also, nothing could be more embarrassing than the time I was describing my tendency to talk too much to a group of colleagues and accidentally described myself as having anal (rather than verbal) diarrhoea. There’s really no coming back from that with any dignity.

I love books, but I also have other interests and I simply haven’t read everything. I’ve learned not to apologise when I don’t know what someone is talking about; now I simply ask them my many questions with enthusiasm. I’ve also discovered that most people, on hearing you haven’t read a book that they’re referring to, will become hugely evangelistic about it and sometimes even look you out a copy. This is a fantastic way to discover new books and somebody using a reference I don’t get is now something I look forward to rather than dreading. When you admit to not having read a particular book, there will of course always be people who look at you as if you’ve just announced you have anal diarrhoea. I think they mostly like to feel cleverer, more cultured or better educated than me and I’ve come to realise that’s not actually about me at all.

  1. What if my brain atrophies?

I was concerned that I would miss the intellectual challenge of work, the academic rigour and the commercial practicality of practising law. In the office I was surrounded by bright, busy, hard-working people I could bounce ideas off, debate with and learn from. I pictured myself sat at home, hunched in front of a laptop and isolated from the world and feared running out of inspiration and drive.

I think colleagues are definitely what I miss most about my job, but now that I’m not working, all the headspace and energy that was spent on clients is now freed up for reading, for researching, for writing and for living. I don’t miss the work because now I can turn my mind to whatever I want; I can challenge myself and learn new things because I want to, rather than renting my brain out. And although a book might be something everyone believes they have somewhere inside them, not everyone can get that book out; I certainly don’t find myself underemployed or lacking a challenge.

  1. What if it changes me?

Change is not something that I look forward to; I generally adapt to it pretty well when it comes, although I find the anticipation of it pretty unsettling. But challenging myself has always helped me to grow, even if that has been in ways I hadn’t expected. Becoming a writer has definitely changed me, but it has felt like growth and has been gradual, subtle, gentle. Life does not always follow the path I anticipate and I don’t have any idea where I’m heading, but I’m finally living for the moment and loving where I am right now. I’ve never had a coherent five year plan, but for the first time that doesn’t worry me at all.


The long goodbye

Grief is a very profound experience. My grandmother passed away almost three years ago, and we had been losing her slowly over many years before that, as dementia slowly stole from her every precious memory she once held dear. It has been about a decade since she was fully herself, and yet last night, I awoke in the night and sobbed because I still miss her. I hope I always will.

Dementia can seem the stuff of nightmares; before knowing any sufferers, there seemed something terrifyingly insidious in a disease that steals the very identity of its victims. Moments of lucidity in a sea of confusion giving glimpses of a person much loved but rarely there. Torturous self-loathing at the many petty frustrations caused by the limitations of a diseased mind. A shared joke being a shaft of hope, a taunting but fleeting moment of precious connection in a relationship that is faltering and fading as pathways in the brain are eroded forever.

As dementia took hold, Granny made her home on a carousel of memories that was slowly shrinking and spinning ever faster. The endlessly repeated thoughts, turns of phrase and stories that she could still safely stroll through were her only refuge, as the rest of the world whipped past her in a confusing blur. We would jump on a perceptive comment, one from outside that monotonous cycle, hoping it was a sign of improvement, but knowing deep down that her only progress would be into oblivion. We would try to coax her from the roundabout, hoping to guide her safely down a crumbling pathway before it was eroded forever, but that was wishful thinking. There came a point at which she was simply no longer able to validate shared memories, they had become ours alone. She lived in a world we couldn’t possibly understand because it was formed not from any recognisable reality but from disjointed fragments of past realities glued together with desperation.  

The emotions of missing her while she was still here were hard to process. The living breathing person who shared a physicality and a few personality traits in common with my warm, creative and strong grandmother was both her and yet not her. We couldn’t mourn what we had lost, because she was not yet gone, but we couldn’t spend time with Gran either, because she wasn’t really there any more. We found ourselves in a strange limbo and one that I was ill-equipped to deal with. Her dementia frightened me. Selfishly, I saw my possible future in her and sprinted desperately through my own precious memories, breathing them in, clinging to their solidity even as I watched her floundering.

But she also gave me great hope; even as the disease consumed her mind, Granny’s unshakeable positivity and kindness remained. Although her mind and body faded, her smile was a constant. Although she couldn’t remember the branches of her ever growing family tree, she long retained a sense that we were somehow hers; we could still feel her love and show her our own. Although she would not remember that we had visited, the emotional glow from spending time with loved ones would stay with her and sustain her in the strange world she made for herself inside her ailing mind. I wish I had known more about dementia and been less afraid of it, because the woman we loved was still in there and sometimes photographs, music, smells, spending time in the garden or visiting old haunts would help her to connect with shared emotions or simply bring her joy. Much of the fear I had of her illness was my perception of what she had lost, when I should have taken more time to appreciate what remained, to visit her in her new reality.

Gran’s funeral was a heartfelt tribute to her and I think she would have loved it, all the family gathering round her, as we so often used to do in her home. After years of missing her, we could finally mourn her, and I had never before attended a service where the love in the air was so palpable. The relief of being able to savour our precious memories of her and to laugh and cry over them was almost unbearable. While she was ill, each of us had bottled up our anguish at watching her slow decline; it had somehow seemed obscene to talk of missing her while she was still alive, but we had missed her so often and in so many ways.

Gran was not just an old lady who rambled in confusion. She was a child who lost her father when she was young, a wartime teen, a young teacher, a woman in love, who kept the sweet and touching letters my grandfather wrote to his fiancée, a member of the church choir, a mother, a farmer’s wife, a talented embroiderer, a loving friend, someone who delighted in meeting strangers. To remember her only as she was in her decline would be to dishonour her dreadfully.

There are so many ways I wish to be more like her. Gran’s hugs were never cursory or insincere; she would gather me up tightly in her arms and plant kiss after kiss on my forehead and I knew she truly meant every one. She always made time for each of her eight treasured grandchildren; even when we piled into her bed at 6am we would be welcomed with boundless love and enthusiasm. She encouraged us to use our imaginations and would make treasure hunts and take pretend trips with us around the world. She was an excellent cook and a keen local historian with a beautifully tended garden, and she genuinely sought to share those passions with us; she knew, as I often forget, that inspiring a child is far more beautiful than uniformly chopped carrots, unthumbed family photo albums or pristine rows of flowers.

Despite impacting so very many lives (one in every six people over 80 suffers from it) and its cost to society, not only emotionally and socially, but financially (for every person living with dementia, the annual cost to the UK economy is over £30,000), dementia research has limited funding and too few clinicians and researchers working to fight it. It is one of the unfortunate causes that is tainted by taboo; far easier to make light of memory loss and confusion than to face the terrifying reality of clumping tau proteins and the build-up of amyloid plaques, which kill the nerve cells in the brain and cause hippocampal shrinkage and ultimately whole brain atrophy. Nobody wants to imagine their brain wasting away but that is what is happening to 50 million people around the world.

It makes me sad that Gran never confided in us about her failing memory. She bore the burden of that fear alone, while we all hoped desperately that it would simply go away, that it would somehow resolve itself, that perhaps we were imagining things, that perhaps she was just becoming forgetful. I spent the disease’s infancy in denial and its later stages filled with guilt, as I realised the physical reality of its progression. There is still such reticence to discuss mental illness in any of its guises, be they dementia, depression, eating disorders or anxiety. Until we can overcome that sense of awkwardness, we won’t be able to face them and help put a stop to them. I live in hope that there will be progress with halting dementia before another generation faces the grim reality of losing their brain tissue. And if there is not, I hope at least that there will be greater understanding, openness and acceptance in society to help them through it and to value each individual as they are, disabilities and all; to look past what has been lost and see what remains.
Facts and figures taken from the Alzheimer’s Society and the World Health Organisation:

But it’s about a girl…

I can’t get too frustrated with my children as they sneak an extra five minutes of reading time instead of brushing their teeth, or sit on the toilet with a book after lights out, because I understand their desperation to read just a little more, just one more page, just to the end of the chapter, just to the end of the book. Engrossed in the adventure, enchanted by the brave, funny, talented and quirky characters and lost in another world, I feel cruel dragging them away for something as mundane and sensible as basic dental hygiene or a good night’s sleep. I can see them falling in love with the protagonists, wanting to be them or know them.

My eldest dressed as a certain beloved boy wizard for world book day, complete with scar, a handmade replica of his wand and the copy of Salazar Slytherin’s locket housing a note from Regulus Black that she penned herself. She knows those books inside out and every tiny detail is important to her. As she marched proudly to school, we all gasped as one when a wise bearded eleven year old Gandalf emerged from his house en route, for we are reading the Lord of the Rings together and the fellowship has just left the mines of Moria.

In my own writing I hope to evoke those amazing connections with characters; the ones whose wisdom and strength makes you feel safe, the selfish ones that infuriate you, the irreverent ones that make you laugh, the powerful ones that make you quake and the struggling ones whose bravery you admire. Despite being set in a dystopian world, I want readers to wish themselves into my book to share in the magic, to dream themselves into the garb of the characters, so that they themselves form part of the fabric of the world they create inside their own minds from the words on a page.

As my book grows and develops, I can hear the voices of my characters before I write their words. As I put them in different scenarios I can see the indignation on their faces or their eyes lighting up with glee and my job is simply to describe it. They have eccentricities and foibles, friends and adversaries, strengths and weaknesses and sometimes their flaws are what I love about them the most. They are complex blends of a thousand different traits, some admirable, some not, and are motivated by their own ambitions, hopes and fears.

Reflecting on the characters that have most drawn me in over the years, there are certain qualities they have in common; the ones that spring to mind are determination, loyalty, bravery in the face of adversity, kindness, inner strength, humour, integrity, diligence, a willingness to stand up for their beliefs and to protect those they love, humility, trust. Whether displayed by hobbits, humans, anthropomorphic animals, wizards, elves or aliens, these characteristics are universally admirable. Some characters transcend their fictional worlds and we take them into our hearts, they can inspire us, amaze us, impress us, leave our hearts racing, make our cheeks ache from smiling or leave our faces damp where tears have rolled silently down our cheeks.

One factor that has never been of relevance to my admiration of a character is their gender. I lived the journey to Mordor with Frodo and Sam with my every heartbeat; swapping them for Freda and Sara would not have impacted my ability to put myself into their hairy feet. I have seen a lot of excellent articles about the lack of strong female characters in books and how this is poor role modelling for girls. It would be ideal to find a wide range of inspirational characters, of different genders, races, backgrounds and abilities. But what sickens me far more than the lack of strong female characters is the inclusion of women and girls who lack any aspirations or meaningful character traits of their own; I can look up to a man as a role model, but I find the plethora of vapid female characters offensive and confusing.

Perhaps as a result of the significant existing gender bias in children’s literature, girls who are avid readers are encouraged to read and enjoy books with male protagonists; a book about a boy can be marketed to all children. Very often in these books, the story is not about gender and thus the main characters being male is fairly incidental. If I were to gender swap the characters in many children’s books, the newly female characters would often make near perfect sense. The questionable personalities would be the newly male peripherals who are jarringly subservient and whose lives revolve entirely and inexplicably around the women. In my opinion it is those roles that most need to change; two dimensional people don’t make sense as men and they don’t make sense as women either.

Of particular additional concern to me, first as a children’s writer who aspires to be published but also as a person who would like to live in an equal society, is that a book with strong female characters is often not perceived as a book for children at all, but as a book for girls. The main protagonist of my first novel is female, and yet it is not a book for girls. It is a fantasy adventure story, with dragons, magic and danger; it is a book for people who like fantasy adventure stories and the gender of the reader and the main character ought to be irrelevant to anyone’s enjoyment of the story. I have not yet reached the stage of discussing publishing or marketing the book, but already I have had feedback that there ought to be a boy as the main protagonist in at least a few chapters, or boys won’t want to read it.

Boys won’t want to read it, because it isn’t about a boy. That statement may not seem shocking or offensive, but I think our society needs to move towards finding it so. It is not only girls that need strong female characters that they can relate to, but boys as well. What message does it send to boys if books with women or girls in them are perceived as somehow beneath them, somehow less exciting, less worthy, less interesting. Like so many of my favourite stories growing up, my book is not about gender at all, and I hope that every character would stand up to a gender swap. At the point where that is achieved, the only objection to reading a book with a girl as the main character is an objection to girls in principle. And if my generation of women has looked up to strong men, I would like to challenge the next generation of boys to look up to strong women as well as strong men.

In an equal society, we would not even need to think about the gender of our mentors or role models, for the characteristics we seek to emulate are not usually sex based. Why would I insist on keeping my main protagonist female, you may ask, if it may well impact the book’s potential sales significantly? Because in an equal society, books aimed at all children would have a balance of male and female protagonists, with children reading the stories with content that appeals to them, rather than limiting themselves to books where they have genitals in common with the people who happen to feature most prominently. Of course we all want role models that look a bit like us and to whom we can more easily relate, but we can also admire and appreciate those who don’t. In an equal society, having a female protagonist would not impact sales at all, they would come down to whether it was a good story and well written. But to get there, we need to make plenty of those books available and encourage both boys and girls to read them so that we all get used to a world where there is no debate about books starring boys and books starring girls, just people seeking stories that inspire and move them.

The Lost Art of Disagreement

Our opinions are formed over a lifetime, a set of beliefs, principles and preferences that we continue to tweak and hone every day. Political persuasion, religious conviction and how to raise our children, through cats versus dogs and cheese course versus dessert until we get to the tiny decisions, should jam be kept in the fridge or the cupboard, should the dishwasher go on in the evening or wait until after breakfast. The wider importance of the issue does not always correspond to the fervour with which an opinion is held; the causes that prompt our passions or enrage us the most may even seem petty to others who are inflamed by very different issues. Some people support their football team or their love of cats with a passionate evangelism, others spend every free minute campaigning for reducing plastic waste, animal welfare or women’s rights, yet others may feel their strongest convictions relate to cheese and wine, collecting antique clocks or accuracy in punctuation or grammar.

Some strongly held beliefs will stand unchallenged regardless of any outside influence, others seem to shift direction with the breeze and are always open to reconsideration in the light of new information or argument. Which stance is praiseworthy seems to depend on the convictions of whomever is judging; where a like minded judge sees a steadfast and committed supporter, one with conflicting views might see a dogmatic bigot who simply won’t listen to reason. Where a fellow believer sees a flimsy lack of dedication, an opponent may welcome an open-minded debater who will listen as well as speaking. The perceived merit of the underlying argument seems the key factor in whether devotion is laudable, which becomes rather circular.

One might think that the most passionate believer would make the most successful advocate and sometimes that can indeed be the case, for there is something inspirational about the truly devoted that can sweep the uninitiated along in a sea of enthusiasm and fervour. But sometimes those who are most dedicated to their cause can alienate those who are open to hearing about it because they may simply dismiss even the notion of an alternative viewpoint. To the undecided or the questioning there is something much more attractive in considering the possibilities and reaching a reasoned conclusion for themselves than in submitting themselves for indoctrination.

I have been fortunate over the last few years to find a range of political views across my social media bubble, perhaps a sign of my own indecision about how the world ought to work, but nonetheless a potential asset in trying to form some sort of worldview. But engagement is very difficult when arguments descend into ‘them and us’ and ‘good versus evil’; very few people cast themselves as a villain and the debate is quickly lost in point scoring and name calling, leaving those who want to follow any thread of rationale frustrated and both sides more entrenched than ever. I’m often desperate to find rounded debate, that explains the issues within their wider context. Very often a view on one particular political issue will be heavily impacted by one’s view of how the world ought to work. Very often compromises have to be made that satisfy neither side, leading to frustration all round.

Take, for example a group of four students sharing a house. Two are politically ambivalent and open to persuasion, they are dressed in grey. The third dresses head to toe in blue and has a right wing bent, believing that each housemate should be responsible for themselves and that only essentials, such as heating bills ought to be funded through a common account to which each contributes, that way each can prioritise for themselves where to focus their resources. The fourth is politically left wing, wears red and believes that the cost efficiencies and time savings of combining resources will help all of them, both financially and practically, with a common fund being useful for a wider list of everyday essentials, toilet paper, cooking oil, bread, milk, butter and cleaning products, with people choosing where to prioritise their funds over and above those which are common to all (or most) of them.

A house meeting is called because of a toilet paper situation. After a debate and a vote, toilet paper was included as a house wide expense and the grey students have each taken their turn purchasing a large multipack of soft, strong and puppy embossed roll for their facility. Now that it is the turn of the blue student, a cheap and uncomfortable single ply has been provided. The grey students would not have called a meeting over such a small matter, as they can still use the toilet adequately, although they are mildly irritated about the poorer quality paper. Red is outraged and rants about the cruelty and selfishness of blue, who has the deepest pockets and yet has been stingy in selecting the communal paper. Blue points out that red is by far the biggest consumer of loo roll, being both the most lavish user and because red’s partner regularly stays at the house and makes use of their bathroom. Blue considers it outrageous that the others in effect subsidise red, particularly given that blue would never choose to spend money on luxury paper and sees no reason why red pays only a quarter, whilst being the one who benefits the most. Red is outraged because hemorrhoids mean that the paper provided by blue is unusable and argues that really they all ought to buy luxury quilted roll to soothe this affliction. They declare each other selfish and storm off leaving the greys at a loss.

The greys don’t really care who is right or wrong, they just want everyone to stop shouting at each other. In blue’s ideal house, everyone would buy their own paper, allowing blue to purchase a value option and exercise frugality in its use to save up for things blue considers a bigger priority. In this scenario, blue would be happy for red to buy super soft quilted, use a roll per session and invite a partner to do the same. Blue just doesn’t want to help pay for it, as each housemate has limited resources and each would be happier if they could decide on their own priorities. In red’s ideal house, most things would be communally funded, everyone would be spending less and having to shop less often and even if blue is benefiting less than others, overall blue should still do better than buying things alone because of the overall efficiencies in clubbing together, not to mention the improved atmosphere of equality and sharing in the house. The greys could live relatively peacefully in either house, but they are upset when red accuses blue of deliberately inflaming red’s piles because blue is a selfish and cruel housemate and blue accuses red of trying to sponge off the rest of them to fund red’s partner, an obsession with quilted rolls and a four pint a day milk habit, even though he knows one of the greys is vegan.

What the greys really want is for blue to concede that the majority want decent quality communal toilet paper, because having four loo roll holders is impractical and for red to accept that nobody else likes quilted paper and that perhaps red’s partner ought to chip in every now and then if staying regularly. But neither of them dares to speak up because of the insults and anger flying around the house. Having the conviction and the energy to fight for your beliefs is an amazing gift, but in doing so, the passionate need to remember not to disenfranchise the undecided and the greys stuck in the middle by castigating their opponents, for it halts every hope of reasoned debate. Those of us who are afraid to speak up need to do so; if we all disappear when the debate turns to hatred, how will any of us move past it.  

Today is International Women’s Day and I must confess to a fear of sharing my feminist views online because of the backlash I so often seen when people do. To me feminism is about equality, it is not about hating men or promoting an exclusive and angry agenda full of blame and hatred. It is about working together to make sure that a child can fulfil their potential regardless of their gender. And at the moment, the main gender barriers in our society predominantly impact women, and we all ought to work towards addressing that.

There are many things that feminism is not about. The fact that it does not seek to address every injustice in the world really ought not to be held against it. Nobody criticises a charity for dogs for failing to help injured whales. Feminism is about gender equality, advocating for women’s rights to bring them up to the level enjoyed by men. Most feminists would happily acknowledge that there are issues that impact disenfranchised men, but feminism is simply not a cause set up to address their concerns, it is there to address the numerous ways in which women have been disenfranchised for years. That does not mean that we are trying to trample the rights of those men; wanting women to be paid the same as men for doing the same work does not do those men a disservice, unless you consider that they ought to be paid a premium simply for being male. Nor does it mean having no sympathy for causes such as addressing the high male suicide rate or bias against men in the criminal justice system and in family law; one can be a feminist and support addressing these causes too, much like you can donate to the British Heart Foundation whilst applauding those who do the same for Anaphylaxis Campaign or Macmillan.

I do not want my eight year old to feel that she cannot stand up for herself because it isn’t ‘ladylike’ to be decisive or insightful. I don’t want her to sit quietly to one side and ‘let the men talk’ because her views are seen as somehow less valid because she has two x chromosomes. I don’t want her to see countless adverts that tell women that they ‘deserve’ skin that has been drenched in expensive moisturisers, foundations and concealers, highlighted with bronzers and blushers and photoshopped until it is no longer skin at all. I don’t want her to see TV shows where women are decorative or where their only conversation concerns men and how to look beautiful to earn them. I don’t want her to be ashamed of her body hair or to anguish over her blemishes instead of running on the beach and playing in the water. I don’t want her to hate her body, her own physicality, because of how society tells her she ought to look; I want her to enjoy her life, to eat good food, drink nice wine, to dance, to feel no shame in physical pleasure and feel no pressure to indulge somebody else’s if she doesn’t want to. I want her to live her life an equal with men, to choose a career because of her talents and her passions without even considering that her gender might be a hindrance, to walk down the street without fear of being objectified or dismissed because she has breasts and a vagina.

So many inspiring and dedicated women have done so much to further equality for women, and often against backlash that seems unbelievable to modern eyes. When I first heard of feminism I thought it was historical, that women had got the vote and access to the contraceptive pill and now had the same opportunities as men. I was informed that it would be ‘political correctness gone mad’ if people were told that ‘man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ suggested strength and courage were a male preserve and that ‘crying like a girl’ or using ‘woman’ as an insult might belittle women. Little girls are routinely greeted with ‘oh, don’t you look beautiful’ while boys are complimented on their fast running or their bravery. Girls are praised for sitting quietly and showing nurturing behaviour, while boys are forgiven more boisterous play, even if another boy is hurt by it, and encouraged to challenge themselves. This gender stereotyping causes problems for everyone – girls are taught that their value is in their looks and in being compliant, boys are taught that they should hide their feelings and that their value is in their strength and leadership. None of these qualities is itself bad, but I think it is damaging if we are measured against a stereotype to assess our individual worth.

The very word ‘feminism’ can seem off putting and part of me wishes that the word itself were more gender neutral to make it more appealing. But feminists do have an agenda, and I believe that it is justified and that we oughtn’t to have to apologise for it. Is feminism the most important of all causes? Not to me, no. If I could choose between curing Alzheimer’s or cancer and resolving gender inequality, I’m afraid they would definitely trump feminism. But being a feminist does not mean championing women’s equality at the expense of everything else, nor does it mean fighting for every cause that every feminist has ever mentioned. It simply means working towards equality for women. And although my opinions are still very much a work in progress, I am firmly behind that. Happy International Women’s Day to all the incredible women in my life, you inspire me and give me strength.

I’d do anything

Whether you consider it hyperbole or a simple truth, this turn of phrase is often used as an expression of devotion. It suggests a deep and unbounded passion that eclipses everything else that we hold dear and takes its place as the foremost of our priorities.

It sounds rather lovely, but I am suspicious of it. Perhaps most importantly, it seems patently untrue to me; even the purest love, most impassioned commitment to a cause or most fervent ambition ought to be tempered by reason. It may not be romantic to listen to rational argument, but it is sensible to at least consider it in the light of relevant circumstances and other competing priorities. ‘Anything’ is a pretty broad category and in holding oneself to such a profound promise it is not hard to imagine a growing list of caveats that would need to be added to it to make it true, unless one is prepared to cross the line into extremism.

As well as being untrue, I think it ought also to be seen as unappealing. Perhaps the speaker intends only to express a deep love or commitment, but if they genuinely do mean to declare that they would commit any atrocity in pursuit of it, I see not steadfastness but insanity or, at best, naivety. Nonetheless, when a parent professes that they would do anything for their child, the expected response is to agree wholeheartedly; it would be socially awkward to retort that I wouldn’t, however true. It may sound callous, but I would not do ‘anything’ for one of my children. If one of them needed a transplant I would sacrifice myself but I would not run over a number of potentially matching children in the locality in the hope of finding a donor to save her. There are, in my view quite rightly, limits to what I would do for those I love. That does not render those deep bonds meaningless, it simply means acknowledging that they are not completely boundless.

Quite often, and even more irritatingly, the phrase is used as a very thinly veiled criticism: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring in any cakes. It can be hard when you’re busy, but I’d do anything for my colleagues/kids/church/charity.’ In this case the phrase is not so much directed at the speaker’s deep commitment but at highlighting your lack of it. But even dedication that would go so far as doing ‘anything’ would surely not be a commitment to doing ‘everything’, otherwise the phrase becomes even more ludicrous. It also ignores the relative importance of everything else in your life; your first priority may be your children, your partner, your job, your faith or your cause, but not such that anything done to that end, however small, trumps everything else in your life. If a friend called from hospital needing urgent help, would you ignore them to bake for the fundraiser or to attend a child’s school play?  

But perhaps none of this matters – it’s just a turn of phrase after all. Except that I think that what we say does matter. I don’t think it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ to try not to say offensive things. Similarly, I don’t think it’s healthy to say things that we don’t really mean. I have a tendency to worry too much about what others think, and it’s exactly this sort of phrase that recommends dedicating oneself entirely to something or someone else and suggests that doing so is in some way noble.

We need to balance our priorities and I include within that the importance of looking after ourselves. Not only for our own wellbeing, but also to set an example. I love washing up to pop music and usually enjoy a little salsa-style shimmying when ‘Rockabye’ comes on. But there’s one particular lyric in it that always makes me feel sad: ‘she tells him “your life ain’t gonna be nothing like my life, you’re gonna grow and have a good life, I’m gonna do what I’ve got to do.”’ This concept of constant self sacrifice in the hope of giving our children a better future is a potential vicious circle, for it demonstrates to them the importance we place on giving up our own hopes and dreams to further those of the people we love. Expecting our children to then wander into a Utopia where they will find happiness that we have never shown them, seems naive. Needs must sometimes, but if we have a choice, surely we could be demonstrating that improving our own wellbeing can also enhance that of those around us; that investing in ourselves energises us, makes us better partners, parents, employees and friends. The best way to teach our children happiness is to go in search of it.

And so, to protect my children, I’ll be letting them know that, although they are my top priority in this world, I can’t promise to do anything for them.

Not the Done Thing

When I was eleven, the most exciting feature of my secondary school was that it had an animal house. After eating, we could spend our lunch hour playing with guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas. We had never had pets at home and I can remember running from the lunch hall because I simply couldn’t wait to get there. Until one day, when I overheard some older girls wondering why the year sevens ran everywhere and I realised it was not the done thing. From then on, running was only undertaken reluctantly as a form of exercise or to catch public transport.

When I was twelve, we each had to give ten minute presentations to our English class as practice for public speaking. My first was on land reclamation in the Netherlands and nestled comfortably between a lengthy and evangelical presentation about canal boating and a very detailed overview of a local football club. By round two, the tedium was hard to bear and I asked if the speech had to be factual; it didn’t, so I had great fun making up a fictional world to talk about, thinking about its culture, ethics and government. Until it came to questions, when the main one seemed to be ‘why are you so weird?’ and I realised that imagination was not the done thing. From then on, assignments were for blending in and being instantly forgettable.

When I started university I had a whole rainbow of corduroy trousers and lots of quirky tops that were bought in Camden Market and didn’t always hold their colour. I loved browsing the stalls for something new, something I’d never seen anybody else wearing and pairing it with something unexpected. Until one day some friends were talking about what they were going to wear out that evening, and one commented that the conversation was pointless as they always all wore the same thing. And that night I noticed that they were all dressed in blue jeans and black tops, like a uniform, and realised that quirky was not the done thing. From then on, although I couldn’t resist a splash of colour, I chose clothes that looked (at least approximately) like everyone else’s.

Part of me is relieved that I had these realisations and learned to fit in. But then I see my eight year old, who chose black and green trainers for school sports, and is upset because the other girls think it odd that they’re not pink or purple. Or my six year old who likes to dance through the house in a flailing whirlwind of limbs but will very soon realise it is not the done thing and instead walk around demurely. These ‘corrections’ will help them to fit in, but will also take from them something of themselves.

Fitting in can make us feel safe and part of a community. But it can also stifle our identity and even stop us from seeking help or support when we need it. Although it is important to understand the rules that those around us live by, there are circumstances when we really should try to break them. We should be able to talk openly about miscarriages and fertility. Marital problems should not be the preserve of the divorced; many happy couples have had their troubles but it is not the done thing to talk about it. Mental health issues should not attract stigma or embarrassment, nor should physical symptoms or differences.

When actually examined, many of the ‘rules’ that we take for granted make no sense at all. When talking to a colleague or client, why must we pretend to be one-dimensional to seem professional? A more genuine connection would improve those relationships and everyone’s experience of the workplace. Why must we dress in shoes that are entirely unsuitable for walking or tie strips of silk in restrictive knots around our necks? These traditions are impractical and uncomfortable as well as reinforcing traditional gender roles and limiting diversity. Why is it perfectly acceptable to talk about skin cancer but not anal cancer, to confide in a friend about having trouble with eyesight or hearing, but not with the vas deferens or fallopian tubes, let alone our mental health? This squeamishness can add embarrassment and loneliness to an already difficult situation.

Today is Time to Talk Day and even if it’s not the done thing, perhaps we could make the effort to speak out or be available to listen, taking the first steps to changing the rules that bind us all.

Lessons learned

It has now been three months since I committed to becoming a writer and I still have a lot to learn. I am yet to finish a first draft of the book, and although progress has been good, I am conscious that it is far easier to open up storylines than it is to conclude them satisfactorily without being trite. I have not properly researched literary agents and publishers, as every time I google it my stomach lurches and I have to calm myself with an episode of ‘The Good Place’ or a rerun of ‘Gossip Girl’. As that is not conducive to actually ever finishing the book, I have embargoed those searches for now, but that is a temporary solution while I deal with the hundreds of smaller hurdles that need crossing before submission is even close to needing serious attention.

There are many challenges ahead, but I thought this an appropriate time to reflect on what I have learned so far.

The draft is just a rehearsal

It is far easier to edit a poorly phrased idea than it is to sit in front of a blank screen and come up with the perfect turn of phrase from scratch. Trying to get the content, the phrasing, the pace, the characterisation and the ambiance all as I want them, as well as ensuring continuity, variety and interest in my language is simply not a one stage process. I am learning to forgive myself when a first draft looks like a draft and to view a session where I splurge story from my brain as the very first stepping stone to what a chapter will look like when it is finished.

There are a lot of rehearsals

Nothing compares to the feeling when the story flows from my fingertips as they race across the keyboard and my characters are confronted with disaster or delight. But although the narrative might be there, the words are usually not; sometimes not one remains after an editing session. There is not the thrill in tweaking words and worrying about nuance that there is in taking an idea and giving it form for the first time, but without that labour, the story is easily lost in distracting repetition, inconsistencies or clunky phrasing.

I have learned that my editing process requires a little distance – if the story is still bouncing around my head all fresh and exciting, it feels very raw to take a scalpel to my work. Equally, if I leave it too long before editing, the volume of prose becomes simply too arduous to wade through, so I have to mix up the writing, research and editing to keep the process interesting and maintain focus. Each time I read a passage I focus on a different aspect of it and I seem to be constantly tinkering. As the book grows in length (54,000 words and counting) a full read through has become a somewhat more significant undertaking and I like to have two versions open, one to edit and one to search (how anybody handwrites a book and manages to keep track of everything I have no idea; electronic searching is my crutch) alongside a notebook covered with lists, diagrams, tables and timelines. It can be a time consuming process, but the polish is what makes the story shine.

It’s hard not to blur the lines

My job used to bleed into my personal life through my blackberry, but it always felt very clear what role I was playing at any given time. The line is far more blurry now; I think about plot lines while cooking dinner or singing lullabies and I clear my head after an hour of writing by doing some laundry and listening to the radio. On the whole I like that my worlds have collided and I no longer need two separate personas; I can just be me.

But the mask of the professional is not just a disguise for our quirks, it is also a shield. If a partner critiqued my work as a lawyer, I would stand before them in my demure Hobbs dress and Karen Millen shoes, armed with a pen and paper for taking notes. I was there in my capacity as a lawyer and so my heart was locked safely behind the trappings of corporate life. But feedback as a writer can be far less formal; a comment from a friend or relative while I’m playing cars with my toddler, wiping down the kitchen worktops or eating lunch. Without my guard up, a suggestion that will later prove helpful as I sit at my laptop writing, can pack a painful punch. I need to find a way to take the sting back out of constructive feedback, as I genuinely want and value it.

Every book needs research

To most people this may be stating the obvious, but I had not really imagined that a children’s fantasy novel set in a fictional world would require much research, after all, it’s just made up… But the physics, the biology and the chemistry have to be internally consistent as do the history and geography that provide the context for the story. I want the setting to feel real and that can involve a lot of work for what is sometimes a very minor detail that will pass the reader by quite unnoticed. Fortunately the internet enables me to easily find and read detailed analysis of the obscure, although I expect my google history would now make very odd reading.

I am happy

The writing process is far from easy, but it is a challenge that excites me every day. I never have that ‘Sunday evening feeling’ any more and I love having the head space to be creative and the time to simply sit and write.