On Doing Stuff We Think We Can’t Do

Photo on 2013-04-30 at 11.44If you had asked me this morning, if I could ride my electric bike up the steep hill to campus without the electric bit working properly, I’d have said no.

You’d have to understand: Firstly, when I died in a car accident, it made my breathing tube very small…I can’t pump air in and out quickly enough for a game of tennis or a run around the block. Then, you’d have to know the bike. It’s a second gen electric bike. It’s mainly steel and it weighs about five million pounds. The battery itself weighs two million. I never bother to lock it up. I just take the battery. If someone steals it, I’ll find it…about ten feet away. The thief will be nearby, holding onto their legs and gasping.

Then there’s the hill.



Here it is, looking lovely. It always looks lovely when you are looking DOWN the hill. Like all horrible cycling hills, it starts with a long, slow gradient that gradually gets tougher and tougher until it is the horrible hill you see in the photo. Then you have a moment and then another gradient begins. It’s like Capability Brown, the Regency garden designer who landscaped Newton Park, thought to himself, ‘One day, people will use bicycles. Let’s make it really hurt.’

So, anyway, halfway up the gradient part, the engine stopped working. I could get it to work for little ten second spurts, but then I’d have to get off and resettle the battery to get it to go again. With a student waiting for me, I had to think strategically…by spurting and then pedalling the beast without help and then just walking/hauling it up the worst bits and then resettling the battery and etc, etc, etc, I finally got to my office.

When I’m out of breath, the scar tissue in my throat makes my breath VERY noisy. People offered me inhalers (they always do). People laughed (they always do this, as well). People looked at me with scorn, as if to say ‘how could you let yourself get so unfit’ (they always do this, too). Sometimes people offer to give me lifts. Sometimes people ask if they should phone an ambulance.

God, it’s humiliating.

But trying hard always is. If you try something you’ve never done before and try really hard to do it, kind people will advise you to stop, or maybe to get professional help. Less kind people will laugh or be scornful.

But it will be you that, eventually, gets to the top of the hill.

Mind you, you might need a little break once you get there…



Long Time Gone

Photo on 2013-04-04 at 12.15 #2


I balance my literary life with my other commitments. Of those ‘other commitments’, the largest are work and family. I’ve been away because of family.

In three months, both of my in-laws have died. My husband is an only child – and so I’ve been helping with…with all the stuff that you have to do when someone dies. In a way, there’s a lot of it and it takes forever. And in a way: Poof! It’s all gone.

Death. We don’t talk much about it anymore. When I was a kid in 1960s America, we lived closer to death than we do now. Coffins were open, old people stayed in their families and their neighbourhoods. You saw people decay…you saw the inevitability of what happens. An attractive woman would become ill, age rapidly and still do her shopping and water her flowers and then you’d see her stagger in her garden and then it was her funeral. I remember being led up to open coffins and peeping over the edge, disappointed by how undramatic it was, how normal the deceased looked.

I’m writing about my own death again. When I was 14, I died in a car accident. Of course, I came back! I wrote a memoir about my injury and recovery. Now a publisher wants me to fictionalise it, for a larger readership. It was hard to write and it’s still hard to write…I feel like death is all around me right now, like I can hear a long scythe being sharpened just behind my left shoulder.

Being conscious of our own impending death is, some people say, the main defining characteristic of the human. It is the root of all our neuroses and also of our altruism.

It’s also a great motivator. I’ve got four books on the go at once and I really need to finish some of them, get them out, get them published and let them go. I have other ideas. I have other things to do. And I’m not getting any younger –  none of us are. So I’m starting to wake up just that little bit earlier and work just that little bit longer. As my Irish grandmother used to say, ‘There’s plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.’


Photo on 2012-12-10 at 19.08

Most of my friends aren’t writers. I know and am fond of a great many writers, but I live in a small market town. My best mates do all kinds of things. We do the same things, too. Most of us go to my church or live on my street or our kids go to the same school in Bath. And they are, frankly, better at all the things we do the same. I’ve been trying to paint my hall for months – one of my mates has almost totally renovated her house in that time. All the mums at school keep saying, ‘Are you all ready for Christmas?’ The answer is no, not at all. Even though I’ve put all my church commitments in my diary, sometimes I forget that I’m meant to be reading or doing something else for the parish. I’m a trial to my great mates, the ushers at the Sunday morning Mass.

I know that they often wonder why I’m so…rubbish.

It’s the reading and writing, of course. And they forget.

Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t know when you do it all.’ And no, they don’t. Because they don’t understand. The writing…and the reading (which takes even more time) doesn’t go around the other elements of my life, like other work would. The reading and writing are the centre of my life. I am, mostly, made up of text. It is how I interact with the world, it is my primary essence. But that’s invisible to my friends. They may notice that there are piles of books everywhere in my house (as well as occupying the whole of one room and three other walls) but they don’t see me reading. They don’t see me writing.

My family knows my dirty secret. My daughter always used to draw me with a book in my hands. My husband calls up the stairs, ‘Mimi! We have to GO. Stop READING!’

It’s not my leisure time. It’s my life. And no, my tree isn’t up, thanks for asking.

Current ms; Hospital High, Blazing Heart

On Stretching ‘Till It Hurts

Photo on 2012-12-04 at 11.48 #3

I like my hair white. God is making my hair white, but he’s too slow. My hairdresser tells me it’s too dangerous and she won’t help me. And she’s right. I regularly destroy the ends of my hair and have to cut them off. And I often burn my scalp, bleaching my hair. I bleached it for two four-hour sessions yesterday and destroyed the ends. (I cut them off this morning.) And it’s still not really white – there’s a bit of yellow left in places. I’ll need to do more purple shampoos before it goes the colour I like.

On the other hand, it IS utterly fabulous.

My daughter, aged 10, is an ambitious dancer. She likes to see The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden (we get cheap seats and book the train months ahead of time). She fully expects to be dancing that well in ten years’ time (although she really is interested in becoming a choreographer). She’s just started training at a Russian Ballet School in Bristol, as well as at our local dance school. The Russian Ballet ask for a great deal more extension than my daughter has, and she’s been stretching assiduously. One day, in P.E. at school, she pulled an adductor muscle in her right leg. She’s having physio on it now, and off dance for the rest of the year.

On the other hand, her ballet has really improved.

Sophie has been in talks with a publisher I very much like, about Hospital High. They’d like me to make it more fictional than memoir, for me to ‘base it’ on my life experiences, but not conform to them. They’d like more about my relationships and about the 1970s setting. It’s a stretch. I might hurt it if I try to do that to it.

But on the other hand, it could be absolutely amazing.

To be amazing, you have to risk. To get better at something is to leave the way you’ve done it before completely behind. You don’t know it will work: you might lose, you might get hurt. But that’s art: being injured is almost guaranteed in ballet. Failing, regularly, is almost guaranteed in writing. You can live in the safety of what you know and do what you always do, I suppose. But it doesn’t sound much like living to me.

Current Manuscripts: Hospital High, Blazing Heart


With Love, From Me To You

I know, I look tired. In my job (I’m a university lecturer, as well as an author), if you don’t look tired by the middle of November, you aren’t doing it right.

I do it right. I love my students. I mean, I genuinely care about every single one of them; even the ones whose names I can’t remember. Even the (perhaps especially the) horrid, difficult, spiky ones. I have about 95 students I’m teaching directly this year and another 100 or so that I either tutor, mentor or pop in to see and speak to occasionally.  And I love every one of them, even the first-year-boys-who-smell-of-pub.

And they love me back. I give them my energy and they give me energy. Sometimes I get more than I give. Sometimes I give more. It’a not useful to keep track.

It’s the same way in my writing life. I got a nice forward last night.  Someone who I really respect loved something I’d written. They said that word, ‘loved’. And suddenly, I’m full of energy again for my current project. The reader had felt the love I’d put into my writing and had responded to it. My love had gone to her, and so she sent me some back. I feel like I got a good deal out of that exchange and I hope she does, too.

When I wrote that story, I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. I felt alone and very vulnerable when I wrote it. But I put the love in, anyway, like a message in a bottle. Because, really, what are we doing when we write, if we don’t? What good is it to anyone if we save our energy for ourselves and don’t spill it out into our texts, willy nilly?

There’s no safety in the game of writing. You either do it, or you don’t. And doing it means doing it with…well, there’s no other word for it…love.

Current ms: Blazing Heart

Word Count: 82,945


Out of Control


My hair…

I went for a walk in a rainy forest and it’s completely out of control.

So is my manuscript. I told Sophie I’d have it done by the end of summer. I told myself I’d have it done by Christmas. I’ve been writing it three years. Right now, I don’t know if it will ever be finished.

I have a first half I love and a second half I quite like. I’m trying to write the first half to meet up with the second half. But it won’t go. It won’t do it. My characters keep doing other things, instead.

And this, this maddening state of affairs, is actually a good sign. I finally finished that Graeme Greene book about General Omar Torrijos (I read a few novels in between chunks). Greene talks about talking about characters that begin to do things you didn’t plan, and how it’s a good sign. He was chatting to a girl when he remembers talking about it…which goes to show you. It’s so true, it’s nearly a cliché.

So, it’s a good thing. I keep telling myself. It’s a good thing.

But when I look in the mirror, or when I look at the first part of the second half of my manuscript, I have moments of despair.

Manuscript: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 75,692

No Hindrance – Writing tips from a Zen master…

Twenty years ago. I am sitting on a cushion, opposite a Zen Master.

‘No hindrance,’ he says. ‘Don’t make good or make bad.’

‘But…’ I say. The day before I had told him that I had just remembered a horrible childhood memory, while I was sitting the morning four hours of meditation. Now, I want to ask him how I am supposed to live with the damage and pain I have just seen inside myself. I look at him, and he smiles at me. He pats my hand.

He says, ‘Don’t make bad. Just is.’

‘But…’ I start to say again. Quick as a flash, he whacks his stick on the table. It’s a big stick. The ‘crack!’ is so loud I can feel it in my sternum.

‘No hindrance,’ he says. I bow and leave. The interview is over.

Down I walk to the dharma room. I’ve been sitting uneasily on my cushion, ever since I remembered the horrible thing. I have found it hard to keep still. I’ve  been choking back tears. I enter the room as the bell rings for the next student to attend an interview. We pass each other at the door. I bow, and settle back down onto my cushion.

As soon as my breathing settles down, I start my practice. But again, I think about this horrible thing. Then, suddenly, I understand. I don’t have to think about it. I can just feel the pain and keep in the moment. I don’t have to go back and back and back to the horrible time. I can just stay here on my cushion and do my practice. That’s what I was here to do, after all.

I sit like a rock that afternoon. I acknowledged that this memory had come up. I felt the pain of it. But I was there to do my practice. It was no hindrance.

The Olympics are on, and you know I love watching world-class sport. I will have three job interviews this summer. My department has a new head and  new staff coming in. I still don’t have a publisher for Hospital High, and the puppy is being quite naughty. My daughter is off school and my husband has been home with a virus.

But I am here to write. And so I sit down and I wait for my breathing to settle and I travel into another person’s body, in another time and I put down one word after another.

No hindrance.  CRACK!

Project: To Hide Her Blazing Heart

Word Count: 10,357

You can find our more about where I got my Zen training here: http://www.kwanumzen.org/

Writing – Making Space In Your Head

Here I am on the train to Portsmouth.

I’ve looked at perhaps half a million words of marking this week, and it’s only Wednesday. But I’ve also written four thousand words.

The writing is going well.

Why this week, and not the week before last? I was just as busy then, but the idea of opening up my manuscript and working on it was… ridiculous, ludicrous, laughable – take your pick. Utterly unthinkable.

But why? I’ll look at and evaluate some million words of student work this week. Brunel for Monday, Portsmouth for Wednesday, Derby for Friday. I’m working nearly around the clock on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, and travelling at least three hours every other day, still looking at work on the train. It’s more work than I marked in the weeks before. It’s bigger, tenser meetings with people I don’t know and who don’t know me.

But the writing is going well.

I think it’s because it doesn’t really matter what you do for the rest of your day; it’s how much of yourself you invest there. I’m naturally keen that I accurately judge the processes of my colleagues at other universities; I’m not slacking on my work as an external. But it’s not as draining as trying to help hundreds of students achieve their best work.

Teaching, if you do it right, is fulfilling and exhilarating and wildly exciting. But it’s also draining. It takes up lots and lots of space in your head. There are all those young faces, looking at you, hoping you will help them to learn something about which they care desperately.  Those young faces get in the way of the other people in my life, the characters in my books. Two weeks ago, they made it hard to see the little huddle of people in my abbey; the people that are, in the midst of terrible challenges, trying to make a life for themselves and their children.

Now that fewer people call me back to the real world, I am able to spend more time in theirs. I have space in my head, and they move back in. That’s where they live, and act out the story I will tell.

Current manuscript: To Hide My Blazing Heart

Stage: Complete Rewrite 1

Word Count: 11,290

See you in the sky

I’m happy. I’m happy because the Vice Chancellor has just come in to see my Creative Enterprise students’ work. I’m happy because I’ve spent all week in this room, talking to my students in their viva voce exams.

It’s inspiring.

It’s inspiring to hear all their new ideas. It’s inspiring to hear them talk about their ethos and morality and their own sense of aesthetic. And it’s simply lovely seeing young people succeed at something they put their hearts and souls into. When I get out of this room every afternoon, I feel like I could fly.

So, I thought I’d share them here, and let you be inspired, too.

Here’s Kara Rennie’s amazing blog about costume design: www.onscreenfashion.com

Here’s Nina Camacho’s inspiring upcycling blog: www.sohouseproud.com 

Here’s Tom Gill’s sports journalism: www.beyondthedugout.co.uk

and Eve Beddow’s work to raise awareness and funds for Lupus UK: http://kalauk.org/  

and Claire Holmes’ amazing event: www.playgroupfestival.com

I wish I could show you more…you’re missing out on some wonderful people and amazing projects. And what it does for me is amazing, too. I just want to run out of here and make things; make whole worlds, write and write and write. There are points, during the year, when I wonder why I do this work. And then I get to this week, and I know. My spirits soar and I just take off into the sky.

Some of these students were nothing special. Some of them made marks in the 50s and 60s and tootled along the university system. And then they get just a little encouragement to try something of their own and they…well they fly! I’m giving out a 90 this year. I’m giving out two other marks above 85%. And for a university culture that calls a 70% an A, that’s pretty darn mega.

What does that mean for you? Two things, I think. Listen to the young people around you, firstly, and try and hear what they are doing. Sometimes, with a little tiny bit of help, they can do so much more. And also, notice what happens when you get some support yourself.

I’ll see you up in the air.

How We Talk About Ourselves

I just saw a post from one of my home-town buddies. She was an amazing songwriter in the 80s and 90s and someone had written a retrospective of her career, because she was the judge of a songwriting competition. She posted the retrospective on facebook…and then ended up talking at length about how and why she’d lost the same competition, 25 years ago.

I mean, here was this great write up but she just couldn’t be positive about it. That’s what my husband says I do – ‘you talk yourself down’ he says. Maybe that’s just the Midwestern girl in me. Garrison Keillor once said that the proper way for a Midwestern man to announce to his friends that he just bought a fishing boat is to sigh and say, ‘Well, I guess I’d better start looking for a trailer.’

The whole issue of writerly promotion is fraught with difficulty and peril. My colleagues and I have been emailing about it all day. Truman Capote said, ‘A boy must peddle his books,’ but I’m not sure we all want to, or in fact can, peddle. I can sell anything to anybody, but I get terribly embarrassed talking about my own work. And because I’m embarrassed, I’m not all that great at it, I don’t think.

And the whole Publishing industry is in such flux… I’m not sure anybody knows anything right now. I don’t know if pretending you’re the greatest thing is all that useful to people worrying about their jobs.

I think I’ll stick to writing the stuff, and see where that gets me. Oh, and if you’re at a literary function, you’ll find me by the onion dip, if you want to talk. I’ll be looking all confident and happy, but don’t let that fool you…