Tag Archives: confidence

Amazing words: amazing women

I was sat on the sofa last night, wanting to write but lacking the words, too tired to drag myself upstairs though I knew I should, when my eye was drawn to a programme on BBC iPlayer: Women Who Spit.

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I’d noticed it before, had idly thought I should check it out to feed my neglected love of performance poetry, but something else had always seemed more important. Yesterday though I clicked the link. And I’m very glad I did.

I hadn’t known what to expect, but here were five stand alone short films, each capturing a spoken word performance from a supremely talented female poet. From the first few bars of the very first poem I knew I’d have to watch them all: it was a bolt of pure inspiring awesomeness.

The words and the rhythm and the spirit and the sass pulled me out from underneath the detritus of the everyday.

I had become buried beneath the very real mess that is piling up on the surfaces of my life, my thinking blurred by the metaphorical steam rising from the watched pots of my first two novels as I wait for feedback from my agent. My notebooks are taunting me with their scrawls of unexplored ideas which keep moving just out of reach as I fail to battle through the seemingly endless tasks that have ranked themselves as more important.

These women reminded me that I need to carve myself some space to wrestle back control.

The first voice which made me sit up and take notice and realise that it was going to be a late night after all was Megan Beech, with her searing analysis of the sexism still ingrained in the BBC and right across our media institutions. I felt recognition, even pride, at her words: ‘I leave the house, get out of bed, because some things need to be said, and somebody needs to be the one to say them‘. I found myself nodding too as she proclaimed ‘we need to stop the laddish, loutish laughter at women displaying their intelligence; their eloquence and elegance and excellence‘. We need to aim high, be role models, get our voices heard.

This was reinforced by Vanessa Kisuule, with her insistence that we, as women, should ‘take up space‘. This resonated with me particularly at the moment because anxiety has been rearing its head again, making me shrink apologetically from the me I know I am deep down. I needed to be told: ‘don’t wait for approval‘, ‘give yourself the space to be fickle … to fluff your lines and make things up‘ and especially ‘don’t doubt the benefit of being the brightest you on the spectrum‘. Because it’s easy to forget.

Cecilia Knapp‘s approach was quieter, gentler, but no less powerful. She spoke of articulately of emotion and memory and the guarded face we show the world because ‘it’s fine, we’re fine, we’re getting on with it‘. Her words wove a tapestry of reasons for why she writes, and I found one of her concluding statements particularly resonant: ‘I write to find a version of myself I’m not at odds with‘.

After this quiet introspection Deanna Rodger‘s poem turned the focus out onto an unfriendly world: a fascinating précis of how the architecture of our cities is undermining our sense of community and duty of care to those who have nowhere to go. Spikes on the edge of pavements, bus shelters that provide no shelter at all, and awkwardly un-ergonomic benches that underline the transient nature of the comfort provided by the urban environment: ‘Sit here for a second it says… Slide here. Don’t stay’.

Finally I smiled and gently hugged myself as I watched Jemima Foxtrot battle it out with her inner demons in front of the mirror, a strong, confident woman longing for the day that we can ‘stop battling the haters on our mission to be free‘ and ‘look in that fucking looking glass and smile‘. Her words captured the ongoing fight that so many of us have to find peace with ourselves and the voices in our heads as ‘we hope together that all of this might be over one day‘.

I have loved performance poetry since I first discovered its power as a newly qualified English teacher trying to get inside the heads of teenagers in East London. There’s something about the lyrical wizardry that comes from a perfect combination of vocabulary and flow that finds its way right to my very core. These films had all of that, and it was reinforced by the visual poetry of beautifully framed shots and synchronistic edits to lend the words and the people who spoke them even more power.

I’m now working on internalising that power to get my writing mojo back. I’m particularly keen to revisit my own spoken word artist, Lili Badger, the heroine of my first novel. She hasn’t found a publisher yet but suddenly it seems even more important that I get her story out there. I just need to make sure I’m telling it right…

If you haven’t seen these films, I recommend you find half an hour somewhere, somehow to watch them. They’re available on iPlayer for two more weeks. I promise you will not be disappointed.

 

Muddled Manuscript
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Taking stock

I’m in a bit of a ‘non-writing writer’ phase at the moment, and I’m not sure I like it very much. There is only so much time and energy left over from parenting a toddler, and at the moment most of mine is being spent on campaigning in the run up to election day. I’ve been grateful for my way with words as I’ve developed the campaign on social media and in local meetings, but it is giving me a little bit of an identity crisis.

The two manuscripts I have written are still out there in the ether, and I’m feeling guilty for not giving them enough attention. They are to some extent in the hands of my agent, but I’m getting the niggling feeling that I really should be doing something more…

I am a writer. A novelist. But my novels have not yet been published. And at the moment I’m not actually writing anything.

Not exactly confidence-inspiring is it?

Hmmm…

On the upside, this impasse I have found myself in has prompted me to find the time to read more. When my days are filled with writing or editing I find it hard to shift my brain into the different world of someone else’s novel. So whilst the last few weeks have been ridiculously hectic, leaving no time at all to write, I’ve been grateful for the snatched moments where I have been able to lose myself in prose.

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I loved the twists and turns of I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. The first half of the story is powerful enough, a woman rebuilding her life after a tragic accident. But then revelations are shared which cut through everything you thought to be true. And then it turns out that even that new understanding of the character is deeply flawed. There was much in the central theme of a woman being undone by a manipulative man that resonates with me and the novel I’m (hopefully) close to submitting to publishers, and it definitely gave me food for thought where that’s concerned.

Then there was The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer. A devastating exploration of mental health and how our society deals with it, told through the layers of grief which follow the death of the protagonist’s brother. The protagonist himself is utterly compelling, despite (or maybe because of) his tenuous grip on reality, and whilst his journey as a psychiatric patient is central to the novel you cannot help but reflect on the arbitrary definitions of ‘normal’ that so much of our world rests on.

This theme was strong too in The Girl with all the Gifts, a zombie story with a difference by M.R.Carey. An increasingly small cast of characters takes us deep into a post-apocalyptic world which, like most good science fiction, questions many of the facts we take for granted.

And now I am onto The Children Act, the latest novel by Ian McEwan, the arrival in paperback of which I have been eagerly awaiting. I’m close to finishing it actually – and as much as I was tempted to do precisely that (instead of writing this) during Arthur’s nap I am just as happy to draw out the pleasure of reading it for a little while longer. I love McEwan’s prose, casual and yet important in its tone, easy to read and yet dense with emotional truth and careful observation.

It is his body of work that I aspire to most, though I know that is setting my bar absurdly high.

There are baby steps to be taken first. The steps that will let me discover if the two novels I have written so far can find a home in the publishing world, and through that home the readers I long for. I have been thinking about those novels a lot this week – both the latest one and my first, Lili Badger. I still think they have an awful lot going for them, but this period of inaction is making me doubt their potential in the marketplace. I’m beginning to wish that, as a writer, I was drawn more clearly to a particular genre. Although really that’s absurd – I never have been as a reader so to attempt to create something for the sake of marketability alone would surely be doomed to failure.

So I will keep on going on with the words and ideas that are mine, and together I’m sure we’ll get there sooner or later. In the meantime I really should carve out a little bit of space to write something new this week I think, if only to satisfy that part of my identity that knows, deep down, I am a writer.

 

Writing Bubble

Writing, and belief

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By the time I hit publish on this post, I will have begun the process of reworking the second draft of my manuscript.

I’ve been laying the foundations for the redraft over the past couple of weeks: getting my head into gear, taking on board the feedback I’ve been given, reading some awesome novels for inspiration and filling my little grey notebook with strategies for moving forward.

The crux of the problem with the novel as it stands is that there’s still too much there which makes it not quite believable. The main characters don’t quite ring true. The plot is not quite watertight. My prose does not always fully command the reader’s attention, giving them small but vital opportunities to notice the edifice of my craft.

I’ve written a lot about confidence in recent months, but I think again it is my belief in myself that I must examine here.

There are a couple of key ways in which I think the lack of this might be holding my novel back. Firstly, I think I’ve become a bit too tied to my own experience – like a safety raft if you will. There is a lot of me in this novel, the mistakes and insecurities of my younger self. That gave me the confidence I needed to write the early drafts – I knew there was a truth underpinning my words that made getting them onto the page seem worthwhile, important even. There is plenty in the plot that is entirely fictional, but I think I got a bit trapped in my depiction of the emotional worlds of my characters. And now I think it’s time to branch out – to have the confidence to paint with broader brushstrokes, to allow my imagination a bit more freedom, to trust that I can create new emotional truths not just replicate the ones I know.

Secondly, I want to be a bit more daring with the details of the plot. To take more risks as I bring the story to life, to take conceits and events to their logical conclusions without worrying if the results of that appear at first to be far-fetched.

Thirdly, I want to loosen up when it comes to my actual prose. To let myself open up the inner workings of my main character rather than worrying about stating the obvious and hoping people will guess what’s going on in her head from the clues I’ve left them. To immerse myself more fully in scenes rather than telling them from the outside. To trust that what’s happening is interesting and worthy of deeper exposition, rather than just trying to brush past things to get to the main events.

There’s a lot of ‘more’ here I realise, and I’ll need to be ruthless in my cutting to create the space for it. But again this is an issue of trust – to believe that I can communicate the mood I want to in fewer words, that spelling out every descriptive detail doesn’t necessarily make a world more believable.

I think, if I pull all this off, then I will have a manuscript which is much tighter, much more engaging, much harder for my readers to put down. And if I don’t – well, it’s just another redraft isn’t it? I will get there in the end.

 

Muddled Manuscript

The gift of feedback

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I have realised this week how much I absolutely love getting feedback on my writing. Compliments are nice of course, especially useful for storing up and peeking at when confidence is low, but ideas, advice, opinions – they’re like gold-dust.

I’ve had some incredibly useful feedback this week. Some interesting thoughts about the opening of my novel (if you haven’t seen it then I would love it if you’d take a look), and also a long and detailed email from a novelist friend of my agent who was kind enough to read my second draft.

There’s a sense of pride that bubbles up as I read what people have to say about my writing. It comes from the fact they’ve read it, for a start, which is pretty awesome in itself. But then they’ve thought about it, and applied a critical eye that’s so, so hard to do to something I’ve written myself, and offered up their own ideas about what could make it better.

Even if I don’t agree with everything they say the feedback is still invaluable. It starts a chain reaction in my mind, a network of ‘what ifs’ that cuts through the editor’s block that I find so much more insidious than its first draft counterpart.

I have to admit that after the cautious optimism I felt this time last week I’d actually hit a bit of a wall. I felt overwhelmed by the task of once again picking my manuscript apart, and began to doubt whether I was capable of it.

But then the new wave of feedback came in, and alongside that I was asked to write a post for Faber Academy about why I write, and I remembered that it is all about pushing my comfort zone, about confronting my fears and daring to do it anyway.

And so I will.

 

Writing Bubble

 

Independence

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There is no denying it: my little baby is growing up.

Since he turned two ten days ago, it is almost as though a switch has been flicked. He wants his own space, to do things at his own pace, in his own way and his own time.

It’s almost left me feeling lonely this week. Leigh has had a crazy week, having to stay up in Exeter for two consecutive nights because of shift patterns and deadlines. Arthur has generally been great company, but he’s been utterly determined to eat alone, sitting at his little blue table on his little blue chair.

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He clearly loves the autonomy of it, taking advantage of it at times to get up and wander around. I’ve watched him from my seat on the big table, missing my dinner companion in his highchair.

He has been testing his freedoms at bedtime too. We took the side off his cot a week or so ago, once it was obvious that he was perfectly capable of climbing out.

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After the first couple of nights where he was still exhausted from his New Year sickness, passing out quite happily and staying asleep whilst he rolled onto the floor, I invested in a Sleepyhead Grand – kind of like a pregnancy cushion for toddlers which cocoons him safely on his bed.

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He loves it – his ‘new cosy bed’ he calls it. As soon as bedtime is mentioned he’ll make for the stairs, keen to get up to his room. But then once we’re there he’ll take full advantage of the fact that he is no longer trapped by the bars on his cot, climbing in and out never mind how exhausted he is – or we are for that matter.

It felt endless the nights I was on my own with him. I have even more respect now than I did before for the parents I know who are doing this solo. It’s almost 10.30pm now, and I can hear him chatting away to Leigh as I type this. I know he’s tired, and he normally would have been asleep for ages by now, but the novelty is clearly still too much for him to handle.

I’m trying to encourage his independence – to give him the freedom he needs to test these things out. It’s hard when he pushes boundaries in a way I’m not comfortable with, but I don’t want to knock him down, to damage the trust I’ve been carefully building up over the last two years.

I have a feeling we’re entering a whole new zone of unchartered parenting territory. For the first time in ages I’ve been scouring Amazon for parenting books, looking for advice on how to continue the attachment approach that has worked so well for us up till now into toddlerdom and all the fresh challenges it brings with it.

It’s exciting, and just a little bit scary. But Arthur seems to be facing this new phase with confidence and relish. And ultimately that is of course what matters most.

 

My Word of the Week this week is Independence, linking up with Jocelyn at The Reading Residence

Now you are two

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Dear Arthur,

A year ago today I wrote my very first post on this blog: a letter to you, a week and a day after your first birthday.

Reading back over those words now it is hard to believe that only twelve months have passed – and at the same time I wonder where that time has gone, where my little baby has disappeared to.

You are still my baby of course. I suspect that will be the case for many, many years to come. But there is no denying that you are growing up.

A month or so after that first post you started walking. Unsteady on your feet at first, you soon leapt in confidence. You are so strong and fast now – running around on your tiptoes, a look of glee on your face. You have finally learnt to jump: you worked on that for ages, such determination as you squatted down and pushed upwards, not quite understanding why your feet wouldn’t leave the ground. Gymnastics has taught you to be increasingly comfortable in your body in many ways – walking backwards and sideways, rolling and balancing and climbing. I reckon it’s going to be a pretty active year ahead!

There’s swimming too. You’ve loved the water since you were little, but in your second summer, with the help of your float suit, you began to move yourself around in the pool and the sea. It made me very glad to live where we do, that there were so many opportunities for swimming in the open air feeling the breeze on your skin and the sun on your hair, looking out over our beautiful bay.

But the biggest steps you’ve taken this year have to be in your language and communication. You had a handful of words by your first birthday, and as you learnt to use them and discovered where they could get you your vocabulary snowballed. I stopped counting back in April as your list of words neared one hundred. Since then you’ve picked up many more from your books and films and conversation and just listening. You can put them together in simple sentences now, ask questions and express your preferences. Your definitely starting to do that rather a lot: I love the clear-minded and strong-willed personality that is emerging.

Your independence takes me by surprise sometimes. You still like your booba, and cuddles in the sling, and the moment in the night when you come and join mummy and daddy in the big bed. But none of these things are stopping you from developing your own sense of self.

You like to sit on your own table at mealtimes now – the blue table with the blue chair. You feed yourself with a fork or spoon, still wolfing down porridge and pasta. You love fruit too, especially bananas and satsumas and pears. And salmon – well, all fish really. Especially if it comes with chips. Though potatoes in general are pretty popular.

We took the side off your cot this week, and you’re very excited about your ‘new bed’. You like to be able to climb in and out. That was the problem with the high cot side in the end – it was a good thing daddy was there to catch you! You haven’t quite mastered staying in your bed when you’re asleep either, but you’re very close to the floor. The last couple of nights, when I’ve come in to check on you, you’ve been fast asleep on the mat we laid out to cushion your fall. I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it, and for now I can’t help but find it super cute, especially since rolling out of bed doesn’t seem to wake you.

If you do wake in the night then more often than not daddy’s songs will soothe you back to sleep. You definitely still love your music – dancing and singing, playing piano and drums and your little ukulele. We actually had to replace that finally last month – it’s taken a bit of a battering with all your enthusiasm. Definitely worth it though.

The other thing you love, more than anything at the moment, is trains. You have a wooden train set which was added to this Christmas and birthday with all sorts of new and exciting bits of track. You could happily sit and play with it for hours. We’re lucky to have the steam train so close – we went on it for your birthday again this year, remembering that life-changing trip two years before when my waters broke at Paignton station. You love to watch trains too – Thomas is becoming a firm favourite, but you’re just as happy with the hours of footage on YouTube of steam trains all over the world, chugging and choo-chooing along with them as you sit on daddy’s knee.

There is so much more than this. Sitting here now trying to capture you at two years old is really quite overwhelming. I know that as this year unfolds you will blossom more and more – finding the words to express all the increasingly complex concepts swimming around your head, growing in strength and dexterity, playing with more and more purpose and absorption as your imagination opens up a whole new world.

And so, just for a moment, I will hold you close and breathe you in, savour the magic and wonder of your existence. And then I will take your hand and let you lead me into the next year of our adventure.

All my love for always, Mummy xxx

 

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Out on a limb

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I’ve never been one for doing the obvious. If there’s been something out there that tests my boundaries, that alters peoples’ preconceptions of me, then that’s the route I’ve always taken.

Tell me I’m shy? I’ll throw myself into acting. Tell me I’m not sporty? Well then I’ll take up trampolining. Tell me I’m sheltered? I’ll forge a career as a teacher in challenging comprehensive schools.

I haven’t done any of these things by halves either. Winning a place at drama school, competing in trampoline competitions at a national level, heading up an English department: all things that involved taking risks, going out on a limb, and pushing myself way outside my comfort zone.

When I was at university I came across a quote:

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

It’s not a new idea, or a particularly original one, but it really resonated with me and how I wanted to live my life. I didn’t want to take the easy route, to do what was expected of me. I wanted to feel that frisson of excitement as I met new experiences head on: I wanted them to make me feel alive.

Looking back on it all now though I wonder if there wasn’t something else I was even more afraid of, something that held me back from doing what I might be truly good at, what I knew in my heart would make me happy.

Don’t get me wrong: I love all the different directions my life has taken me in so far. I honestly feel like I’ve stretched myself, achieved things I never would have thought possible. But I wonder whether doing the unexpected was a way of sidestepping an underlying fear of failing in the one thing I wanted to do but never did.

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to write. I lived and breathed stories as a child, would read beneath the covers until the early hours and tell my own tales to anyone who would listen. In my little village school in Llancarfan I spent a whole week working on my sequel to Ted Hughes’ ‘The Iron Man’. I was asked to write a story as part of my entrance exam for the school I moved to in Birmingham and wouldn’t stop – I spent the whole afternoon in thrall to the characters I had created.

But then not long after that the whisper of self-doubt began. I started to take risks, but wouldn’t go back to the thing that had always made me feel safe. I always said I would – I talked about wanting to be a writer, but was seemingly incapable of actually doing the one thing that could have made that wish come true.

In my twenties I tentatively penned poems and short stories, my confidence growing through nurturing young minds in the classroom. I had ideas for novels, but never moved beyond scrawls in a notebook. I told myself I didn’t have time. That one day I would do it, but that I wasn’t ready yet. I dreamed of moving out of the city, having a child, and finally being able to write.

And now suddenly I’m doing it. Every day. And it’s terrifying me, every single day. In the eighteen months since Arthur came along I’ve written two novels, and since January this year I’ve poured everything else into this blog. I don’t know if what I’m writing is any good, I don’t know if it will ever catch the imagination of a publisher and be read further afield than the small circle I’m reaching out to now, but I am writing.

It’s strange that the one thing I always felt I could do was the thing I never did. That I could pride myself on pushing myself to my limits but resisted the urge to write that was burning in my core. I am very glad that after all those years of wondering I am finally getting the words out of my head and on to paper – and I hope that in the not too distant future what feels like the ultimate risk will bear fruit.

Thank you to Sara at Mum Turned Mom for inspiring this post with her prompt: “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” (Mark Twain)

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