Writer on a Train: You Can’t Do Everything 2


I’ve always done too much. I died when I was 14 and, since then, I’ve tried to cram as much as I can into every day. I go for weeks, months, not getting enough sleep and then collapse into illness that goes to my throat and lungs. Every time I get an illness in my throat and lungs, I think it might be the one that will eventually carry me off. And so, once I’m well, I throw myself back into life with the same urgency.

 That’s why I have not one, but four books on the go. It’s why I have several research interests. It’s why I grew my own vegetables, baked my own bread, have a dog and a cat, became a school governor and a children’s liturgist, external at three universities, etc, etc, etc.

But there are a lot of things I don’t do. I don’t go out much at night. Most writers either don’t go out much at night or don’t get up in the mornings. (There is no earthly use in scheduling a poetry class at nine a.m.)

I don’t do birthday and anniversaries, except for my very, very closest friends and family. I don’t iron. I don’t have beige carpets (in fact, I don’t have carpets at all – I have wooden floors). I don’t follow fashion. I don’t go shopping much. I don’t go to fairs or festivals (except literary ones when I’m working for the university or for myself).

Two writing friends recently admitted that they don’t even dust. I’m not quite that bad, yet.

I don’t watch television series. I don’t keep my nails painted. My skin care regime is skimpy and faulty and, when I’m working, I don’t even know what I’ve eaten…I just see the pile of plates when I’m done. I also don’t get to the hairdresser often enough – something regular readers of this blog will have noted.

I don’t see my friends as often as I should. I don’t write or Skype my cousins as often as I’d like. I don’t go to morning Mass, even though I theoretically could and actually would like to. I don’t pick my daughter up from school. I don’t take her, either. I don’t schedule her into a variety of activities (she has two dance classes a week). I don’t arrange a lot of playdates and sleepovers for her and I often forget when she’s due to do something special at school. I am the parent who is always late in with her permission slip and fee for the field trip.

Because I am writing a lot and reading a lot and I can’t do everything.

Writing is part of every aspect of my life. From the time my alarm goes off and whether or not I can walk the dog to if I can have another glass of wine and how much fervour I put into my goodnight kiss. To do this thing – which includes so many false starts and reworkings and blind alleys it’s an absolutely ridiculous eater of time – it has to be my life’s priority. To remain in a relationship with me requires patience and fortitude I myself do not possess. I am absurdly grateful for how much love there is in my life.

Those who love me, who truly love me, leave me alone to get on with it.

I wish I could show them how much I appreciate it. But you can’t do everything. 



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

It’s Never Too Late


I usually write this much earlier in the day and with cleaner hands.

It’s ten minutes to eleven (pm) and I’ve just finished doing a few things to the front garden by the light of the street lamp and the picture window. Foyle ‘helped’, the rest of the family are asleep.

One of the things I did was replant the big ornamental pot. I put in a small fuchsia bush, two night-scented stocks and some thrift (there was a great sale today at a local nursery). I had to wrestle out an old dwarf conifer and some heather. They’re wrapped up in some plastic to be sorted out tomorrow.

You might think it’s a bit late for gardening. Well, I don’t have much time these days, and I felt like it needed doing. I wasn’t sleepy yet (I am now), so I thought I might as well go ahead and sort it out.

I got a few funny looks from the teenagers who usually have the streets to themselves at this time…but it’s good for them to be disturbed occasionally.

Lots of people want to start doing something new, but they think it’s too late. We get them all the time on the MA in Creative Writing…and it can really mess up their writing if they think they must be published before they turn 35, or 50 or 70. We tell them it’s utter nonsense. It’s much more important to do the best you can, when you can, than to do it rushed or not to do it at all.

A friend of mine was considering doing a law degree in her late 30s. ‘But  there’s no point,’ she said, ‘I’ll be nearly 50 by the time I can practice!’ My husband asked her, ‘And how old will you be if you don’t do it?’

And that’s the thing to think about, isn’t it? I’d still have been awake until eleven if I’d sat on my bum and watched telly with a glass of wine. Instead, I’ve been sipping on a glass every time I pass the kitchen counter, as i’ve been in and out of the house and up and down the path.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the old conifer and heather and think about if I can still use them somewhere. And that happens, too, in a life change…you might put something aside for awhile and then come back to it again. My husband worked hard to become a teacher, and then went back to the wine trade, where he’s very happy and successful. A few of our MA students every year decide that they don’t want to be writers after all. I think that’s a very good use of the tuition money and a year of their lives; they don’t have to think they’re in the wrong job anymore. They don’t have to wonder if they’re squandering their talent.

I suppose what I’m trying to say in this post is that life is short, and that we should go ahead and try things. We might get a few funny looks, now and again, but there’s really no substitute for exuberant experience. Ask yourself Andy’s question if you feel too old to follow your heart: How old will you feel if you don’t????

A Change Will Do You Good


There are some things about being a writer I really love. First of all, and as you know, I love not having to get dressed in order to do it. I love BEING a writer; I went onto campus for a quick meeting and was running late and couldn’t find my sandals, so I went barefoot. Nobody blinked an eye; writers are allowed eccentricities. And, perhaps best of all, you can write anywhere. Including, on a day like this; the garden, which is where this week’s photo is set.

With me, but stubbornly refusing to be in shot, is my writing companion, Dotty the cat.

Big changes are about to happen to Dotty, though she doesn’t know it yet. Tonight, the new puppy comes home. A labrador.

Well, she’s been having territorial problems and our garden and house have been invaded so often that she’s had to go on antidepressants, to stop her from grooming off all her fur. The dog will keep her company while we’re gone and also will protect her from invaders. But I don’t think she’ll realise that when the puppy arrives this evening.

It’s hard to recognise when we need to change. Yesterday I talked to three writers who didn’t really want to change; either what they were writing, or how they were writing it, or how they thought about it. And it’s true that you can only change things so much before you lose the reason you wanted to write something in the first place; but I don’t think that’s the only reason we resist changing our writing.

I think we fear the death of something we’ve created – even if it’s only a phrase we love that everyone else thinks we should cut. There’s a little death in every change; but there’s a little death in every growth, too. The seeds I plant this week will have to die in order to make a plant; if they remain seeds, they’ll die anyway, from rot. The writer who wrote The Saint Who Loved Me is no longer with us – the me I was ten years ago, before I had my daughter, is gone. But that writer could never have written Drawing Together.

Often the changes we resist are the changes we know we need to make. Having a friend or an agent or editor tell us that we need to change something doesn’t feel like news, it feels like a finger pressing on a bruise. We know…we know all too well that it needs changing. We know so much it hurts.

Today, I’m asking you to push yourself a little harder to try and change something you know needs it badly. After all, another wonderful thing about writing is that you can always change it back.

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