Earlier this year we had a garden man come to assess the wall that was falling down, which if it did fall down, would let the ground that holds up our house fall away. We were less than keen on this happening.

“The problem really is that it has no foundations,” he said, “so we’ll need to dig down and cement some in. Or rebuild from scratch.”

(You can draw your own metaphors for this part of the conversation – it’s not the part I’m telling you about, because it’s really far too obvious. I mean, if you’re in need of a solid foundation gardening metaphor please go right ahead and take whatever you need from it, but just know that’s not where I was headed. If  you want to call it a bonus, that’s good with me.)

So we dealt with the solid, practical aspect of stopping the earth drifting way and taking my kitchen with it, and moved on to the nebulous area of planting. I come adrift when it comes to planting. I realise that not all plants thrive in all situations (please, use this one too if you need it), and I’ve collated the relevant facts in my head, as I think a real gardener would: faces east, absolutely bugger all sunshine on that side, not ever, clay soil, very claggy, undulating lawn. And I have no idea what to do with these facts, because now I have to marry them to the very arbitrary likes and dislikes I have formed about the plant world, based on nothing more than whether I like looking at them.

Twelve years ago we rented a flat that had a little garden, and I threw myself into ‘gardening’. I went to garden centres and bought cordylines, and heucheras, and hostas, and watched, sadly, as, almost without exception, they died or were eaten.

Last year, our first in our new house, I limited myself to growing some tomatoes, mindful of this past history, and was overjoyed to find it worked. (Nature! Who knew?) We also built a deck, so we could sit out and drink wine and eat sausages. This also worked, not least in driving out the panic of ‘oh god why have we moved into this house because we can’t even fix it?’ days. A good sausage and a cool drink can do wonders.

But this year, I knew that if I spent the second summer in the garden without attempting to claim it in some way I’d not even have the solace of the deck. And so this is what the garden man said.

He said, “So what you can do is come with me to my nursery and we’ll walk around and look at things and you tell me what you like and I’ll tell you whether or not they’ll work in your garden. No money wasted, and no plants you don’t like.”

And I thought ‘this is the best service ever.’

And I thought ‘I do this with words, so maybe it doesn’t matter if I can’t do it with plants.’

It’s much better this way. I like the garden, and I like being in it, but I don’t want to be Monty Don. Mostly I want to look at pretty things and eat sausages. It’s the same with owning a car – nice to get from here to there, but I really don’t want to get into a boiler suit and take a wrench to it. This is why there are gardeners, and mechanics. They do these things because they’re interested in them, and they’re much better at retaining the specialist knowledge these jobs need, because they’re interested in them, and they have the attention to detail because they’re interested in them.

The way I grew up (fairly bloody poor), you did everything yourself, and absolutely did not pay someone to do things, because that would be a waste of money that could otherwise have bought tins of soup and electricity. Now we’re in the halfway house of having some spare cash, but not mountains of it, the idea of using some of it to get things done, by someone who knows what they’re doing already, is appealing but still feels uncomfortable. Is it a betrayal of our past? Is it profligate? Is it lazy?

In the end we did it. The house falling down thing swung it, to be fair. They came in and built a wall, and some steps, and dug out flower beds, and built a new shed, and we went and bought plants, and it was, if not the miracle experience I expected, much better than bumbling about for months trying to do it myself. And even better, because we simply did not have the money to fill the entire garden with plants I have space to gradually add to it for the next however many years. I do not feel in the slightest bit guilty or lazy for having had help.

I don’t need to be an expert in everything, or even want to do everything. I just need to do the things I’m interested in.

Why aren’t *you* writing?

I’ve been writing more in the last couple of months than I have done in recent memory (although, to be fair, my memory is absolutely shot thanks to the joys of not sleeping properly for the last seven years so there could have been some really prolific months in there and I wouldn’t have a clue) but I still need a massive kick up the arse some days to drag my hands to the keyboard before everything else gets in the way.

Here, for instance, are the things I have lost time to today: preparing macaroni cheese for later, taking the car for a service, supermarket shopping, laundry, mopping up cat wee, watching videos of Tom Hiddleston dancing. All arguably fine and necessary pursuits, but not writing.

So it helps to have a couple of tricks up your sleeve to make yourself sit down. Doesn’t it? Yes, it does.


Sand Timer

Yes, that picture is of my actual sand timer. I like the pomodoro technique, which advocates concentrating fully on one thing for 25 minutes, and then having a break. It’s a good thing to use when your brain has been fried by too much telly or time with a toddler, because it will encourage you to learn to concentrate again. (It’s a skill. It needs practice.)

Pomodoro devotees use a kitchen timer, or an app. I found out that I’m not a fan of ticking, so instead invested in this rather lovely 20 minute sandtimer. (Really, I wanted the yellow one from School of Life, because I’m easily marketed to, but the price! My god, the price!) The thing I like most of all about the sand timer is that there’s no audible way of telling that the time is up – if you’re really lost in something, you just carry on doing it.

Yes, it’s sneaky. Yes, it works. It’s the whole reason I’m managing to write this blog post.


No, not in a Mel Gibson sort of way (though if you have the urge to yell out in a bad Scottish accent, don’t let me be the one to stop you).

Freedom is a nifty piece of software that effectively locks you out of the internet for a time, the length of which is specified by you. I have the old version on my laptop, but it seems to work online now. I have no idea how.

Let me tell you, the first time I used it, I was a bit freaked out. “You mean, my laptop is now just a computer? I can’t look up new chairs on Ikea? I can’t look at twitter? What can it do then?” What it can do is just be a computer – let you input and store words in a word processing program. It’s so 1995.

Incidentally, my solution to things I want to research while I have freedom enabled is very old school – I write them down on a notepad, and look them up later.

The list of reasons not to is really really long.

This is my last, but most important, practical tip. You can go back to the beginning of this post and see the kind of things that I lose time to. In reality the list is longer, much longer. We all have a list like this.

Try ignoring it.

If you ignore it for just twenty minutes, and do some writing, you will have so much more time to do everything else. This is partly because you’ll free your mind from thoughts like ‘I haven’t done any writing today’. Kill your resistance right at the beginning, and you’ll find you magically have more time for everything, including more writing.

Don’t dread, do.

A Common Spot Of Bother: dealing with endings

I’ve taken to writing short stories lately. Perhaps I should always have been trying to write them, I don’t know, but they suit where I am right now, as a writer, and as a person, and, strike me down for saying so, but I’m enjoying the play again.
The story under consideration the last couple of weeks has been tricky. I only felt comfortable with the voice after rewrite four, and then had to change a million other tiny things to make it sit right. I read it aloud, I read it on paper, I read it on the screen. I fiddled with tenses, and commas, and words. In the end I was mostly happy. It felt mostly right.
So I compiled it as a pdf (nothing says ‘finished’ like a pdf) and sent it to a writer friend, and then another, and then some non-writer friends, and listened to their responses. For the most part I’d managed to convey what I wanted to convey, and left them with thoughts, and images that lingered. So far so good.
But it niggled at me still.
It’s the ending. In a short story you don’t have room to bag out, and bring the ending slowly into view. Like a snake eating its own tail, the ending feeds the reader’s understanding of the beginning, and the title is the tongue that can pull the one into the other. And the writer can often (and I think in short stories should) leave a little work for the reader to do, even if the ambiguity can prompt more questions than an author might expect.
So what to do?
I re-read the story. I read it with the original ending, and then again without the last four sentences. Part of me is ok with it as it is, but there’s another part, saying that yes, I should cut those last sentences, and then rewrite that new final sentence.
I open the file again. Read it. Close it again.
I do this for three days.
This is the fourth day. I’ve had insomnia this week, the kind where I fall asleep fine, but then wake up four hours later, jaws clenched together, grinding myself a hefty dentistry bill. And then I’m awake for two or three hours, so what else to do but wonder about those last few sentences? I turn it over and over in my mind: end it here and it is one thing, or end it there and make it another.
Even if I do decide to change it, I’m not convinced that will quiet my mind entirely. All I can do to stop the circus is compile it once more, and send it off somewhere, for someone else’s consideration. When it comes back to me in a few months, maybe then it will be clearer.
But I’m not counting on it.

Broken Things

The day before I was due to pack up the car and leave Hay, I went browsing in a little shop I love. I’ve been going in for years, and have bought lots of lovely things. I was very aware of the enormous rucksack on my back, and trying not to break things by spinning round too fast.

So instead I dropped a small ceramic pot and lid straight out of my hands, onto the floor, where the lid snapped cleanly, sharply in two.

broken thing

The nice shop man came up the stairs to see what had happened, and I promised to pay for it, and he said no problem, and I should still look around, and so I did. I had a little cry while I was at it, because of the shock I thought, but then I went down to pay, and started to weep. I cried so much that the nice shop man wondered if he should offer me a cwtch, and I paid, and he wrapped it up, and I continued to cry, and I took the bag from the shop and walked to a bench outside the library, and I continued to cry.

For half an hour.

For half a fucking hour.

I wept on a bench, with my broken thing in the bag next to me.

I’d say I’m not given to weeping but that’s a bit of a massive fib.

This was something else though. This last year has had its fair share of stresses, and my week away was something just for me; the other me that does the being, and noticing, and thinking. Not the me that does the laundry and the wiping and the paying of bills. I would be free of everything but myself for one week. I chose my events, I packed all the shoe types, I mistakenly wiped my playlists off my phone so the car journey wasn’t as fun as it could have been.

Anyway. Like one of those mystical things I don’t have much truck with, all the talks I went to, the books I was drawn to, the people I spoke to, the book I read daily (A.L.Kennedy, On Writing), everything and everyone seemed to be bringing me back to the same things: kindness, generosity, openness. Love.

Not one thing in isolation but all of those things at once. After a year of holding everything together so tightly, every day gave me another hint, a nudge that now was the time to let it go, and open up again.

Yes, I know how it sounds.

But I also know how it feels, and you can’t write anything worth reading while you’re bound up like a golf ball.

What am I writing for anyway? To step into the mind of another person, to transmit my idea of what it’s like to be a walking, breathing, feeling human directly into someone else’s mind. How do I do that? I pretend to be inside the mind of another, made-up person. I try to understand the things they do and why they do them, why some things matter, and others don’t, why, how and what it is like to love, or be rejected, to be lonely, to lose, to win, to survive. But why do I want to do it? Why make this effort? Because in doing that, if we do it well, we’ve said to our reader, “I’m here. I know what it’s like. We’re not alone.”

I’m fending off my own loneliness.

I’m fending off yours.

It’s what all art is an attempt to do. Send out little tendrils of pure human experience, hope that they touch someone else, and make that connection. We feel the same. We love the same. We hurt the same. It’s the best we have, however we feel driven to express it – words, pictures, song. Spending a week opening up that part of me that is capable of attempting this connection to all you other humans was bound to end in tears, if only because it reminded me how lonely it is when you stop trying.

And so I wept. I’d wept the day before over my book. I wept over broken things. I wept later on that same day at Amanda Palmer, singing about art. I wasn’t sad. I was less alone.

The Books by the Bed

My bedside table is much like any other bedside table. It’s wooden, has two drawers, is home to a lamp and a coaster and a photo frame. There are a couple of books on top usually too, perhaps a notebook and pen as well. So far, so so.

The floor beside the bedside table? Well, I’ll be honest, it’s a mess.

Since I’ve discovered that I’m incapable of keeping less than eight books beside the bed at any time I’ve also discovered that the room looks much neater if I pile them up on the floor rather than on the bedside table. It’s the mirage of housework. The downside is that sometimes it’s a bit precarious to physically get into bed, but I can always climb in from the other side.

I’ve tried not to be messy. In many rooms, all over the house. I’ve tried putting the books back on the shelf as soon as I’ve read whatever it is that I pulled it out for. I’ve tried reading one book at a time.

The problem is that the process, the thinking, still needs to be going on. And to keep it moving I need to see the physical evidence of the thoughts I’m trying to chase. The books I want to reference. The ideas I want to include. The shape of the work I am trying to make. If I put the books back, then the thoughts go back in too, and I have to dig twice as hard to get them out.

It’s a surprise to find out how crucial the visual is. Over the summer we decided we should sell our flat and buy a house, and that meant I had to clear The Wall. I’d been sticking post it notes across the big white expanse of wall in the loft room where I worked, since we’d never got round to putting any pictures up. They were colour coded, for character, events and plot points, and formed a timeline from the beginning of the work to its end. I added printed maps and articles to the edges, stuck up hasty plot summaries in felt tip. If I wanted to feel I was making progress on a really bad day I just looked at The Wall, and the little cogs kept churning.

But you can’t sell a house with a Wall. So I took everything down and put it in a drawer.

And just like that, the work stopped.

It took me a while to identify what had happened, because the days were also filled with a hitherto unknown level of dusting and cushion plumping, which distracted me from the more serious problem that the words were just not coming out anymore.

My time for ‘doing’ is limited, and irregular. We all have this problem with the clock. So any hour that I spend trying to get back to where I was before is still a wasted hour. I need those little visual jolts to help me keep my place. I need to let the books lie around and push me into thinking, even if it’s just a little bit, every night before I go to sleep. I need to not tidy up.

Waving, not drowning

When is not writing actually writing? When it’s a raven.

(I’ve been trying to solve that riddle since I was five. It worms its way out at odd moments.)

Over the last few months, while I haven’t been here that much obviously, I’ve been over at my other site, PracticeWriting, rolling along in regular practice. I was also taking a short story course online, and wrestling with the novel idea that took hold of me. Around about November time I’d successfully carved out enough of a routine for myself so that when it collapsed in December (sewing nativity costumes, present wrapping, major dentistry) I missed it.

A lot.

When writers are not writing, they’re a little bit weird. Weirder than they are normally. They get snappy and irritable, and are prone to moaning about the inadequacy of their jobs, clothing, lunchtime sandwich, choice of life partner, none of which is really at fault.

It’s the damned uncomfortable urge to write. That’s what’s doing it.

It’s like a magnifying glass held over your brain, burning a small, non-destructive but painful hole in your everyday life. Every day spent not writing, the hole gets a little deeper, and the writer gets a little more unpleasant to be around.

Doesn't this look satisfying?
Doesn’t this look satisfying?

The only way to move the glass, to scratch that itch, is to write, but without a project, or even a regular routine of practice, it’s sometimes hard to justify the time, and the effort it takes. Why sit at your desk uselessly staring at a screen or notepad, when you could be pairing socks, whitening the grout in the bathroom, or rubbing beeswax into the banister*?

But the words don’t write themselves and you have to write sometime, so you might as well just shove the pile of socks in the drawer and deal with that little ordeal every morning. It is better than having the itch.

So January came along, and I really haven’t done much writing. But I haven’t had the itch either.

I’ve discovered research.

My project is historical, and so I knew there would be some research involved, but I had naively confined this in my mind to the scientific things at the centre of the novel. I read about them. I made some timelines. I sketched some bones of a plot. I wrote twenty thousand words.

And then I found myself googling wigs.

And what I found out about wigs at this specific time in history made me laugh out loud with joy. I could see how it fitted in with my characters, and served me, the writer. I made a note of it. Then I thought of something else I’d quite like to know, and so the day went on.

This is how January has been. A little research, a little note making, a little planning, a little shaping. I’ve never written in this way before, and I find I like it. I’m creating a net for myself, and hopefully it will support me a bit better than “the seat of my pants”, which is what I was using before. You know, for those days when it feels like the entire project is DOOMED.

It feels as if it might be a back and forth process. Research a little. Write some more. Identify holes in research. Research a little more… I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ve got a shiny new pass for the British Library and I’m not afraid to use it. Daunted, maybe, but not afraid.

*In the bizarre world of writers’ logic, these will become legitimate procrastination techniques once a project is underway and being a bit difficult**

**In searching for a suitable image I was completely distracted by a tutorial on making your own beeswax polish. I can do this! I have beeswax in my cupboard! No. Best not ask.