Last Autumn, I had what can only be described as a wow moment with a portaloo. I`d made a deliberate note to go easy on the cups of tea at the conference I was speaking at, having been warned that the usual facilities weren`t available. But, as I walked passed the temporary arrangements, for the first time ever a loo made me do a double take. “I can`t believe what you`ve done to these toilets!” I told the organiser.
“Oh no”, she said. “They come like this.”
And by like this, she meant with flowers, handcream, a carpet in the sink area. Deodorant. A basket of other nice things I can`t remember because I was too busy blinking in amazement.
This portaloo was better than most ordinary, permanent, plumbed in loos.
One person commented that the only place they`d seen a toilet like that was in Buckingham Palace.
Here`s the thing: sometimes in life you end up in a position that, were you a bathroom, might seem akin to a portaloo. Most of us have had a rubbish, unpleasant job at some point. Been left the person in the team with the worst role. Felt at the bottom of the pile. Find ourselves the one left to clear up all the mess.
But in those times when we have to be the human equivalent of the lowliest of loos, instead of feeling rubbish about it, moaning or getting upset and demoralised, can we decide: “Ok, this is what I am right now, so why not be the best portaloo I can be?”
Why not go the extra mile, above and beyond, defy expectations, chuck in some WOW factor?
For the past couple of months, I`ve been going for a run every Friday morning in woods near where I live. Working at home means spending way too much time inside, so an hour weaving in and out of the trees, dodging butterflies, startling squirrels, often not seeing another person for miles at a time, is so good for me. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually too. Soaking up vitamin D, sucking in gasping lungfulls of fresh air. Cranking out endorphins. Thinking. Not thinking.
And still, every Friday when I wake up, there is this part of me that starts wheedling inside my brain: I`m too tired, I`m way to busy. My hayfever`s terrible today. I`ve been sat about too much this week to try running up hillsides. It`s too cold, too wet, too hot…
Don`t go. Stay in and do something more important.
So, like a patient mother with a cantankerous child, instead of responding with the truth: There is NOTHING I have to do more important than looking after my health, instead I try tricks and bribery:
Just go and see. Give it ten minutes. Walk if you have to. Walk if you want to! As little as you want to. Just get up, get out and give it a go.
And as soon as you want to, come home.
So, my lazy, comfort-loving, can`t be bothered self grudgingly agrees, even knowing the truth. That as soon as I`m out there, ducking in and out of sunshine and leaf-light, pounding my way to the top of the hill, scampering down alongside meadows stretching out far as I can see, I`m suddenly feeling alive, feeling glorious, and for that hour, feeling free of deadlines and emails and oughts and shoulds and musts. I run where my feet take me, in and out and up and down until I somehow end up back at the start again, 5, 6, 7 kilometres later.
And I give that silly part of me that thought an extra hour in front of my laptop would have been a better idea a pat on the head, “There, that wasn`t too bad now, was it?”
Sometimes we have to drag our sulky selves out of the door, whatever door that might be. Boot our lazy backsides out into this incredible world, for our own good. Use tricks and bribery if necessary. Find an hour, thirty minutes. Start with ten. Get up, get out and give it a go.
Writing my current book has taken the longest time and been the toughest so far.
I thought that this writing business would get easier the more I did it. So this has left me at times anxious, doubting myself, doubting the story most of all.
I`ve dragged myself through the mid-book doldrums, fretting that the book would never get finished, and thinking at times like that was probably a good thing.
Feeling the lure of new ideas waiting in my notebook. Wrestling the temptation to abandon ship, and start again with those sparkling stories not yet begun, still shiny and new and perfect in my imagination.
But then, this week, something happened.
I felt a breeze in the air, sniffed land ahead. The plots I`ve been working on, the conclusions I`ve been plodding towards finally appeared on the horizon. I realised that things are going to come together as I hoped for these characters I`ve got to know so well. We`ve been heading in the right direction after all. A story is taking shape…
As a writer, I`m constantly thinking about words, and how we use them, noticing how language and meanings change over time.
So when eating in a restaurant recently, when various flyers and posters invited my family to “pimp our coffee!”, I noticed.
Now, I know pimping is a term that`s evolved to mean making something better or more extravagant. I get that this was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted way to describe adding extras to a drink.
But, really? How did it become an acceptable leap from someone who hires out human bodies, often maintaining control through fear and abuse, to chocolate sprinkles? There`s nothing fun about the sex trade. Or the horrors of illegal trafficking accompanying it.
Maybe I`m overreacting. You might think I should lighten up.
But I believe words matter.
I make a living from the power of words. As does the person in the marketing meeting who decided pimp your coffee was the phrase to use.
The way language changes is surely a mirror reflecting something of our culture, the attitudes of society. As a mother, fighting to raise my children to honour, respect and value women in a culture flooded with invitations to debase their images, if not their physical bodies, I think the sexualisation of everyday language matters.
And I pray for a day when words like pimp are a thing of the past, because selling bodies is just an ugly part of history, rather than something I have to explain to my child over Sunday lunch.
I love my Monday morning “team meetings” (yes, the team is made up of me, a pen and paper, possibly a cup of tea). For a long time I resisted them. The urge to get going, get writing, get working on the to-do list continually pressing in. I asked myself what I was doing, after a weekend off, just sitting about.
But I gradually realised that an hour at the start of the week to plan, prepare, dream, wonder. To reflect on how things were going, on how I was doing, to get my priorities straight and my thoughts in order. To lay some things aside. This hour is way more important than rushing into work with a cluttered mind, with half finished thoughts or ideas hovering over my shoulder.
It is a big “Get lost” to that part of me,still trying to cling on albeit with splintering fingernails, who wants to pretend that “more” is always better – that the busier I am, the faster and harder I work, the more important or significant or successful I must be.
What a relief – what freedom – when I accepted and embraced the truth that I need time. Time to refocus, to unravel the tangled ball of wooliness that my brain becomes. To celebrate or correct myself. To pray.
So much of what I do happens in my head, a notebook on my lap, cup of tea in my hand.
And having firmly ejected guilt from the meeting by the scruff of its neck, it`s a pretty wonderful way to spend a Monday morning.
I love editors.
One of the most useful, but at times the most challenging part of writing a book is the editing process. My books go through 3 different stages of editing, with different people looking at 1st the broader story, then the finer details. This can cover anything from a character or a scene that doesn`t quite work, to tiny points about whether dates match up, or individual words need replacing.
Editors offer advice, make suggestions and ask a whole lot of questions. They usually leave it up to me to make the final decision, but ensure everything has been thought through, so it all ties in together and the story is as good as I can make it.
So I`m very grateful for my editors – I love having an open minded, unbiased and fresh pair of eyes to offer feedback. And it`s great to know someone will catch my mistakes before they reach the readers. But, on the other hand – it isn`t always pleasant having other people read the book I`ve worked so hard on and pick up on every single mistake, or weak spot.
And this isn`t just true when it comes to writing…
Most of us don`t find criticism fun. Having your flaws and errors pointed out is rarely enjoyable, or easy.
It takes courage to ask someone – how did I do? What could I do better? Did I mess up? Am I handling this right? Do you think this is a good plan? Tell me, what do you really think about my new haircut?
Especially if you ask the right person, who will give an honest answer.
It can be hard not to get defensive, or make excuses, or let it crush us.
But at the same time, done well, by the right person, it can be so useful. I`ve found the best editors are those who take the time to point out the good, as well as what could be better.
Who help the story stay true to the author.
Unlike a bad editor, who will damage a story, rather than improve it.
Could you do with a life-editor from time to time? Someone who you can ask honest questions about how you`re doing, and they will answer you truthfully, with kindness and respect? Perhaps that`s one way to help our life-story become the best it can be.
The launch party for my latest book, The Name I Call Myself is less than a month away!
It`s at the lovely Malt Cross, James Street, Nottingham, NG1 6FG on Sunday 17th July from 3-5pm.
There`ll be a short talk and I`ll be signing books.
If you want to reserve a free ticket you can cut and paste this link:
Hope to see you there!
I have this white hair.
It isn`t my only one, by a long shot. I`ve been going grey for a few years now, although so slowly that you still can`t spot most of the greys unless you`re looking for them.
Apart from this one, new hair, right near the front.
At first, I ignored it. Then, as it grew longer I considered pulling it out. Why would I leave one, increasingly obvious, frizzy hair that insists on sticking out away from my head like it`s waving hello every time I look in the mirror? Two seconds and it`s gone, no longer reminding me that I`m slipping past what our culture has decided is attractive (i.e. young, or if not young, then at least wrinkle, sag and grey hair free).
But something stopped me. I feel sort of fond of this hair. Friendly. Welcoming. Even a teensy bit proud.
What`s all that about? I asked myself. That hair is not pretty.
Here`s what I`ve concluded:
For most of my life I`ve looked young. When I was 18 I looked nearer 13. When I became a mother, every health professional I spoke to started by asking, “So, you must live with your mum?”
“Ur – no, I live with my husband.”
When I was around 30, people I met often assumed I was at college (some of them thought I was still at school).
And for several years after having my third child (age 26), nearly everyone who heard I had 3 kids would say “You don`t look old enough!” At a conference I spoke at, when the person interviewing me mentioned my teenagers, the audience gasped as one.
How wonderful, some may think, to look younger than you are. This is purely down to genetics – my beauty routine is almost non-existent, and I`ve been this way my whole life. But before anyone starts feeling jealous, just think about it…
Being treated like you`re 13 when you are 18 is not fun.
Being assumed to be a 15 year old mother when in your twenties with a full time job isn`t either. This is not a judgement about young mothers – I was 21 when my daughter was born, wallowing in student debts and a long way from what I would have considered an ideal place to become a parent. I have genuine respect for those even younger than I was, who have to make so many sacrifices while putting up with the frequent snipes from strangers who think because you`re young they can tell you how to raise your own child.
Being repeatedly told you aren`t old enough to mother the number of children you have doesn`t do great things for your confidence either, if you aren`t careful. I needed counselling to sort that one out.
And having reached the grand old age of thirty-nine and fifty-one weeks, I have no problem with being regarded as such.
I am happy to be credited with forty years of life experience.
So, I guess that`s why I`m keeping the hair, for now at least.
When I see that hair it speaks to me of four decades of living. Challenges met, fought and lost, and the lessons and strength gained from both of these. It reminds me of achievements earnt, as well as mistakes. That I have loved, and known how loving wholeheartedly can bring agonising grief, as well as overwhelming joy. It reminds me that change is always happening – the slow everyday passing of time as well as the sudden earth-shattering or heart-soaring moments that leave your world upside down. And yet, that some things stay the same – life has its seasons, fashions come and go but at the end of the day people are people, none of us perfect, all of us valuable.
My grey hair is a testimony to the confidence that crept up on me throughout my adult life. That a woman who once struggled to say hello can now speak to hundreds of strangers and not beat herself up later about the bits she messed up. That I have learnt something of who I am, why I`m here, what I do well and what I`d rather never do again, thank you very much.
That hair reminds me that I`ve reached four decades and can look myself in the mirror and feel blessed about what I see – a body that is healthy, for the main part, still working as it should. That carried me this far.
There is not one part of me that wants to be any younger than I am. I am thankful for every precious day that brought me here. For what I know. Who I am, and who I am becoming. So, I`m keeping the hair – for now – to remind myself of that.
Having said that, please don`t stare or feel obliged to point it out if we happen to meet face to face…
As a mum to 3 teenagers, I`ve been to a lot of school parents evenings. Had the glowing reports, the odd showdown. It even took me ten minutes once to realise I was talking with the wrong teacher.
At my most recent parents evening, the recurring theme was this: my child is a dreamer, who needs to get focussed.
By the time the 4th or 5th teacher asked them “What am I going to say?” (usually as an opening statement) my child didn`t need to get focussed to know the answer.
Now, I`m a mum – I can get defensive when my kids are criticised. But I know as well as anyone that they aren`t perfect, and this wasn`t what started to get my goat.
I began wondering why being “a dreamer” was presented as such a negative thing.
Not one teacher suggested dreaming could be useful.
Even the science teacher who admitted to being a dreamer himself.
As a writer, and a leader of a charity, my job is to dream. It`s how I make my living, help the charity find new ways to support people. And I know it`s not just me.
There are billions of you out there – inventors, visionaries, artists, entrepreneurs. All of you who ever ask that question, “what if..?”
After all, without dreamers, where would the human race still be?
Yes, we need doers
Action people, who focus, work hard, organise, get ‘A’s on every test. I do my fair share of doing too.
But I`m excited to have a child who`s a dreamer. Who wonders and imagines and asks “what if?” He may sometimes appear to be doing nothing, but how much of what we enjoy, take for granted, couldn`t live without, started with a dream?
And if we need dreams, we need to encourage our dreamers.
So, for you doers out there, it`s worth remembering to give us dreamers a bit of space to do our thing.
And for you dreamers, make sure you find some time to dream – and when you dream a good one, have a go at doing something about it.
Are you a dreamer, or a doer?
Do you dream for fun, or for work (or both?)
What are you dreaming about at the moment?
I`d love to hear from you!
Well, after a busy year I`m thrilled that my next book, the Name I Call Myself will be out this July. Hopefully just in time for people to pack in their suitcase for a holiday read.
I`m sure all authors think this about each new book they write, but this one is definitely my favourite so far.
It`s the first one I`ve written where I actually laughed out loud while I was writing it (and again, when editing).
And I even managed to shock myself with some of the darker elements of the story (my husband didn`t know what to make of some of the creepy stuff my brain came up with this time).
Like always, I wrote about a woman who`s a survivor, but, as Faith`s best friend tells her, is “learning to become a conquerer”.
This is what else is in there…
All Faith Harp wants is a quiet life – to take care of her troubled brother, Sam, earn enough money to stop the wolves snapping at her heels, and to keep her past buried as deep as possible. And after years of upheaval, she might have just about managed it: she’s engaged to the gorgeous and successful Perry, is holding down a job, and Sam’s latest treatment seems to actually be working this time. But, for Faith, things never seem to stay simple for long. Her domineering mother-in-law-to-be is planning a nightmare wedding, including the wedding dress from hell. And the man who killed her mother is released from prison, sending her brother tumbling back into mental illness. When secretly planning the wedding she really wants, Faith stumbles across a church choir that challenges far more than her ability to hold a tune. She ends up joining the choir, led by the fierce choir-mistress, Hester, who is determined to do whatever it takes to turn the motley crew of women into something spectacular. She also meets Dylan, the church’s vicar, who is different to any man she has ever met before.
Publisher: Lion Hudson Plc
You can pre-order it now from the usual bookshops!
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