Watching the black of 4 AM turn to indigo, I can’t quite believe I’m awake. I can see the shadow of the trees through the curtains. Morning light is far too early this time of year. My eyes itch and ache. It must have been the thought of the light that woke me, the thought of the birds squawking, the cockerel crowing next door but one. My sleeping anticipated it all and unconsciously decided, ‘hey, why not wake up RIGHT NOW?’ Thanks, body. It’s fine. It’s not like I have an exam or anything important to do today. Oh, wait. I do.
If I were the right sort of daughter – the self-motivated type, the sort parents brag about – I’d be getting my biology textbook out in bed right now. I’d think, hey, I’m up already – why not do some last minute revision? After all, Dad said over dinner last night that he’d read some study about the benefits of last minute cramming. But that was typical Dad, spouting crap from the broadsheets, thinking that had more power than just your nog-standard usual nagging. He thinks of me like a broken bicycle, in need of a good push and a kick to get in gear and climb that final hill.
Well, I’m not a bicycle. And I won’t be pushed.
And I said as much.
I felt sort of bad about it. After all, Mum had cooked her speciality – turkey mince lasagne (sounds sort of weird, but its delicious, trust me). I’m that weird sort of kid who genuinely enjoys sitting down to dinner with the parents, and I killed the entire evening.
Still, I didn’t feel guilty enough to revise Biology.
I decide to take Aristotle for a walk instead. He’ll appreciate the fresh air of early morning, the pavement still cool beneath his little paws. Mum said this latest heatwave might actually kill him. He’s pretty old, but I still hope she’s joking. She groomed his coat yesterday, rolling him over on his belly for a good trim of his excess clouds of black fluff. Poor Aristotle. He gets so hot and miserable.
‘You coming, boy?’ I whisper through to the kitchen. He scampers out of bed, skidding on the tiles. He doesn’t care that it’s 4:30AM: he’s still happy to see me. He nibbles at my PJs as I pull my wellies on. No socks. Don’t care. We won’t go far.
I slip on Aristotle’s lead and he pulls me to the end of the crescent, then up the familiar snicket towards the water. The air smells of impending summer. Full of promise.
The answer is: probably not. Still, I’m going to give it a try, and here’s why:
It’ll be fun.
I can’t go back and edit things forever. What’s done is done.
I might get a draft of something out of it, if not the finest piece of literary fiction known to man.
Dickens did it. Conan Doyle did it. OK, not on a blog, but they wrote serialised stories, and they were pretty good.
So I’m going to give it a try. You don’t even have to pay for it. You’re free to read the trials and tribulations of this experiment, and since it might turn out terribly, I’m certainly not going to charge you any cash. I have no idea where this story will go. I want to be free of a master plan and just see what happens. I’m hoping that my intuition will give it some structure… but it might end up one big old mess. I’m OK with that.
The parts will be short. Super short, sometimes. I think that’s best for reading on a screen. Think of it as something you can dip into on your phone.
Also, I might learn something here. Leave me a comment if you’d like to help. Make suggestions for plot points or improving the prose – that’s fine with me.
Dawn O’Porter has a great fringe. She wears gorgeous clothes and pulls off the whole 60s vintage glamour look without looking (too much) like an extra from Scooby Doo. She used to do a programme on Channel 4 about shopping vintage – and it was a bit of fluff, but an entertaining bit of fluff. She was cashing in on her bit-part in Gok Wan’s fashion programmes, and why not? I also remember a brief stint on BBC3, making documentaries on nudity and lesbianism and other such BBC3-ish topics. Again, mildly entertaining, if lacking the gravitas (and sensationalism?) of more recent docs by Stacey Dooley or Reggie Yates.
That was a long time ago – back when I was in the right age bracket for BBC3 – and Dawn O’Porter has since started her own vintage-inspired fashion empire. She has a baby with Hollywood actor Chris O’Dowd, and they live in LA. Yesterday I came across her podcast, Get It On, in which she interviews celebrities about their emotional connection with their clothes. I thought it sounded an interesting premise. The first guest was Jo Whiley, who I agree with Dawn is the epitome of Glastonbury cool. I listened through a very long-winded and cheesy introduction from Dawn, a Natwest ad… then, to the interview. Conducted via Skype. Needless to say, this crackly exchange didn’t make particularly good listening.
All in all, Jo Whiley was interesting – it was Dawn who really annoyed me. Principally, with just one phrase from her intro.
‘I’m principally a writer…’ Or words to that effect.
It bugged me because I’d read her terrible YA novel. Paper Aeroplanes was published in 2013, while I was busy writing my final project for my MA in Creative Writing. I bought the book after seeing her tweet about it (@Hotpatooties makes an interesting follow, if you’re into pics of fairly normal-looking, yummy food – which I am). Her novel, like mine, was focused on the friendship of two teenage girls. It was set in Jersey, which was unusual and sparked my interest as we’d gone on lots of holidays there when I was a kid. If anything, though, Paper Aeroplanes taught me how not to write a novel. I actually cited it in my MA commentary, pinpointing what I didn’t like about it and how I tried to avoid her mistakes. This probably sounds really bitchy, but the plain fact is she’d got this book deal because of her media presence. And her lovely 60s fringe. I saw very little evidence of any literary talent, though this might be because of an urgent deadline, because the whole thing felt incredibly rushed. By the end of it, the clumsy pieces of this book were barely hanging together.
Now, I’m sure she’s written some lovely columns in Glamour. But the idea that she’s principally a writer really, really annoys me. She’s a media personality. Maybe that’s not a job title as such, but that’s what she does.
It’s infuriating that she has another book out in 2017. If anyone without her media presence had written a book as terrible as Paper Aeroplanes, there’s no way they’d be given a second shot.
I feel full of energy today. It’s lunch time and I’ve already rattled off 1200 words of decent writing. Yesterday I met with my writing group and I shared my great master plan – the outline for the novel I’ve been dabbling with for four or five years.
Writing a book never feels like a real thing when it’s just a mess of Word documents on your Dropbox, only ever read by you. It feels like a pipedream. Just an indulgence, perhaps. Is it merely something I comfort myself with when I don’t feel interesting or clever enough? These are the doubts that can seep in.
Today, though, this novel feels much more solid. I encourage myself with the thought that all writers are just human beings, and every piece of literature starts life as a bunch of notes and scribbles. All writers write rubbish. Even F Scott Fitzgerald. Even Harper Lee. They’re just humans – but their genius came out because THEY KEPT GOING.
This was the main message I gained from writing group yesterday. I value this group of people so much… there are twelve or so of us, all alumni of the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes. We’re a mixture of men and women, all ages, some with children, some with grandchildren – perhaps a rather disparate group of people, apart from our interests in literature. I’m not a fully fledged published writer, but many of them are. I’m talking deals with the big publishers, but also small presses, poetry magazines, and self publishing. Whatever our levels of experience, theirs an equality and supportive atmosphere in this group. My fellow writers’ advice is just as thoughtful, detailed and practical as the guidance our university lecturers gave us. They’re well trained. They’re experts, each of them. We all read different things, have different life experiences… and this is all so valuable.
Now, I’m conscious that not every writing group is quite as wonderful as mine. I’d suggest that if you’re serious about writing, and you want to surround yourself with others who are properly serious too, then something like an MA or an Arvon course is worth the money. This isn’t because of the ‘teaching’ – it’s because of the peers you’ll meet. If they’re paying for the experience, you know they value writing as much as you do.
I’ve never tried to sign up to a more casual writing group, but I’d be worried about doing so. What if the other writers are not up to the task of giving vigorous feedback? What if I spend most of my time correcting their grammar? I do enough of that in my day job. I wouldn’t have the patience to support newbie writers who were just dabbling… and maybe that’s selfish, but it’s true.
Still, paid writing courses are expensive, and not everyone can do it. Maybe it could be worth a shot. I’m intrigued by poetry and short story slams. There are artsy bars and pubs that do that around here, and I’ve heard of local libraries doing it too. Anything that makes you read out your work and feel it as something real has got to be of some value. I’ve read out my work in public a few times now, and it’s an amazing rush.
Hearing my fellow writers discuss my characters and themes like they’re in a real book felt a bit like magic, and I’m still going on that energy. I feel much more confident now that I have a bit more than a bunch of notes. I have a novel. I’ve had one for a while, I’ve just not had the confidence to crack on with it. Today, the process of writing felt different: I felt myself just getting on, without thinking too much. I stopped second guessing myself. I just went with it. I have a plan, I know roughly where I’m going… but there’s a freedom and joy to that too.
It’s back to school next week, which will make it harder to keep going… but I must. I’m going to find the discipline to write as often as I can, and I’m going to keep going to my writing group. Even when I’m tired, and I think I don’t have the energy… because stuff like this gives you the energy. It’s going to be so much fun.
Yesterday was open morning at my lovely school. As much as I like my new job, there’s never going to be much appeal to going to work for three Saturdays a year, even when we’re bribed with top-notch French patisserie at 9.30 AM. I was in the drama department for the morning, and was prepared for lots of repetitive conversations with prospective parents about drama provision, school plays, how we support kids with less confidence, and all that jazz. I still feel a bit of a fraud giving the spiel, considering I’m so new at the school, I’m comparatively inexperienced at teaching drama, and none of the department’s achievements thus far have anything to do with me. Still, I gave the spiel. That wasn’t the memorable part of the morning, though. The unexpected joy was watching upper-sixth students rehearse for the school musical.
I’m not a performer, I have no desire to be a performer, and even when I did play an instrument and sing in the choir at school, I was never any good. I do love music, though, and especially musical theatre. The kids were preparing a particularly intricate and brilliant Stephen Sondheim number – and three weeks away from performance, they’re already brilliant. I teach the two leads, and because they’re clearly such good friends, their rapport on stage was perfect. They got the dark humour and the energy of the piece, seemingly effortlessly, though of course they’ve already been rehearsing for months. I felt weirdly jealous, not really of their talent, but of the fun they were having with it.
I went to a school where there were no school plays, just lots of (quite boring) concerts. Annoyingly, when I was in sixth form and it was too late for me to properly feel involved in it, the school got ‘arts college status’ and suddenly started doing loads of drama and musical theatre. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I were a few years younger, and I’d got the benefit of that. Would I have studied A Level Theatre Studies? Been brave enough to audition for school plays? There’s no way of knowing. It’s kind of weird that I accidentally became a drama teacher anyway. I suppose it would just be nice to have that experience as background to what I do now. It’s assumed that if you have background in English, there’s a natural link with Drama… but the subjects are so wildly different. In some ways, a background in Music is more beneficial. Sometimes, the physicality of Drama makes it more like teaching PE. I love teaching Drama, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I know enough, or feel that ease and confidence that I feel about teaching writing and literature. I watched the rehearsal yesterday with wonder and enjoyment, not quite understanding how it all works, and how on earth you get kids to bring the intricacies of a Stephen Sondheim score to life like that. It’s a wonderful mystery to me.
The interest in drama and music was always there. I watched old MGM movies with my sister religiously. As bored kids on a rainy day in the summer holiday, we’d happily watch three films in a row. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, On The Town, Summer Stock, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as British ones like Oliver! and Half a Sixpence. Dad recorded us loads of films on video off the telly, sometimes three on one tape – sometimes with the first five minutes missing because he’s just caught them being broadcast and snapped the VCR into action. There’d be a weird mix of not just MGM stuff, but Elvis films, animated stuff, and our favourite – the Beatles film Help! I have the Blu-Ray now, but somehow it seems wrong that the end credits don’t cut to the opening of Home Alone.
So it’s fair to say that my education in musicals was pretty informal. I’ve never had a singing lesson, and I’ve never even been in the chorus of a musical… but I could give you a fairly accurate timeline of MGM thorough the 40s and 50s, of the impact of the war, of the tragedy of Judy Garland’s career.
The first cassette albums I owned were the soundtracks to The Wizard of Oz and Beauty and the Beast. I have a vivid memory of my Mum taking me to WH Smith in Telford, and helping me spend some money I’d had for birthday and Christmas. I was six, or maybe seven. I don’t ever remember not having something in my room to play tapes on. When I was about ten, I’d inherited a huge 80’s style music centre from my grandparents – no CD player – but a double tape deck so I could make my own tapes. I suppose I’ve pretty much always felt out of kilter with contemporary music, but there’s a brief period, say ’97 to ’02, when I listened to the top 40… a period of which which I still hold weirdly encyclopaedic knowledge. It was a golden age: the tale-end of Britpop, the Spice Girls, so many boybands and then the more grown-up indie I listened to in sixth form. Go on, ask me about All Saints album tracks, or that time I saw B*Witched in Stafford town centre. Oh, and Billie Piper. Remember when she was a pop star?
A constant from about the age of six has been the music of Elvis, Abba… and the Beatles. My sister collected all the Beatles albums on CD. We both listened obsessively – not due to our parents, because even they were too young to remember 60s music firsthand – but perhaps because we felt we were discovering something important. There were no downloads yet, no Spotify, and the only way to access the mammoth double album The White Album was to buy it in HMV for £29.99. When I saw the recent film, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, the cinema was packed with grey-haired baby boomers. Still, I felt like this was a nostalgia trip for me, too, and it made me cry.
It seems my own music education and been an informal hotpotch, a self education… mostly. Yesterday I found myself thinking back to being 14, and what it felt like to consider doing GCSE Music, and where that might have led. As I said, I was not talented – but I was a good student, and I could have worked at it, if I’d wanted to. At my school, they had a policy that every child was given the opportunity of one-to-one tuition in an instrument. You just didn’t necessarily get to pick which instrument. I’d fancied a flute or clarinet. Something elegant. Instead, a got a bassoon that came in a huge suitcase that eleven-year-old me struggled to carry, and felt ashamed to take on the school bus. Because I was tall for my age, and I had naturally long fingers, my musical education took a weird turn. I ended up hating that cumbersome instrument. It was so heavy, and didn’t sound nice on its own. If you’ve never heard one played solo – and let’s face it, why would you – it’s supposed to sound like an oboe in bass clef, but also, when played badly, resembles a fog horn. We were forced to do solos in Y8 – in front of the whole year group, and our parents. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I remember my sweaty fingers sliding on the keys. The imperfect sound, because a good sound on a double reed instrument needs you to be relaxed. I hated it, hated it.
Playing in orchestra and concert band was better, and because I played an unusual instrument, I was guaranteed a place. The downfall of this was I had to do it before I was properly good enough, and the music was really hard. Not good for your self esteem. I carried on playing until Y11, though more out of a sense of duty than actual enjoyment. I didn’t practice much at home. I did a couple of grade exams – again, two of the most frightening experiences of my life. So I suppose it’s no surprise that I didn’t do GCSE Music.
I did Art GCSE instead. I was good at painting, and it came easily to me. I did painting and drawing lots in my spare time – practically every day – and of course I became better and better at it. I remained mediocre at music and eventually gave up playing bassoon because it was assumed that all sixth formers did solos at the annual school concert, and there was no way I was putting myself through that shame. If I’d had a different personality type – a so-called ‘growth mindset’, as it’s called in teacher-speak – maybe I would have kept Art as a hobby, and picked Music as a challenge instead. Maybe I would have matured more quickly, and gained confidence from it. Or maybe I’d just have miserable from the failure that can be so obvious when you’re performing music.
Then there’s another question. What if I’d attended a fee-paying school like the one I work in now? What if I’d had free pick of instruments, and played something less embarrassing – a guitar, or the piano. I’ve never been much of a singer, but a fee-paying school would offer one-to-one lessons in singing. I could have got better. What if I’d had the chance to be in a school play or musical every year? What then?
Well, there’s no way of knowing, of course. I’d still have been shy about performing. I’d still have the same mediocre ability. Maybe I’d still have drifted towards what came easily – taken Art GCSE, and given up the instrument. Still, I feel a bit sad about it. When I read a book or go to an art gallery, I feel inspired, knowing I can give it a go myself. When I go to the theatre or watch someone singing, it’s an entirely different experience, because I know I can’t do it – I can only watch. And I do love music.
It’s been a while since I’ve sat in public with my laptop out, like some pretentious would-be hipster (but I’m too old and nowhere near cool enough). It’s a Thursday, my day off, my indulgent day off. I’m 31, I have no children, and I work part-time by choice. Why? Well, because I’ve learned that I’m 1000% happier when I have breathing space in my week to be by myself. It’s costing me a painful 20% of my salary, and if I think about that too much I start to feel very tense and guilty about it. I could really use that money. But then, I would be sacrificing more than just a day off once a week.
2016 was a tumultuous year, and not just because of the insanity of UK and US politics, or the number of celebrity deaths. On a personal level, the year started very, very badly for me. I was stuck in a job I hated, a job I knew was not going to get any better, and was really messing up my mental health. I took time off for stress – twice – and still felt there was very little support there for me. Every day was an onslaught of terribly behaved classes, hours added onto my usual working day because of inspections and the absence of an official Head of Department. For the first two months of 2016, I was at home, off sick, feeling very sad and scared for my future. I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher any more. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and we’d just moved to Oxford, the most expensive city outside of London in the whole of the UK.
So I signed up for supply teaching, and things got slowly better. I was reminded that I’m actually a highly competent teacher, and I have actually built up a huge amount of knowledge since qualifying in 2008. I thought everyone hated supply teachers, but it turns out that’s not the case when you really know your stuff. I enjoyed turning up each day having done no planning, because that’s how supply work rolls. I couldn’t build up any sense of apprehension for the day ahead. I worked with some really difficult kids in an FE college with a distinct lack of funding and resources – in some ways as challenging as my previous school – but I was enjoying it. Perhaps because I was no longer in a middle management position, and I could concentrate on lessons alone; perhaps because there wasn’t the pressure of results that you feel as a permanent member of staff, especially since the introduction of performance related pay. Plus, supply work can actually be really rewarding. You can fly in to a kid’s life for a few weeks, build a relationship, and give them that extra kick right before their exams. Long term, though,I realised it was not going to work. I would be permanently teaching kids who were retaking English and held a very negative view of my subject, and that’s not why I became a teacher.
Almost on a whim, I applied to a private school that I assumed was way out of my league. I don’t know why I thought this, in retrospect. Was it a class thing? Probably. Was it low self esteem? Yes, probably. Anyway, I got the job, even though I was up against five other interviewees – and that was a huge confidence boost. In fact, getting this job has been one of the best things that’s happened to me. Ever.
2016 started out terribly, but by the end of it, I was doing a job I genuinely enjoyed and felt fulfilled by. I realised I’d never gone to work before without a feeling an unreasonable level of dread and stress. At this new school, a tiny school with a wonderful ethos and wonderful kids, I felt relaxed. I felt a sense of belonging almost instantly. I loved teaching my lessons. I was teaching 50% drama again, which has its own challenges, but has less marking, and less pressure than a core subject like English. AND I got a day off mid-week to take the pressure off.
Why did it take me until I was 30 to find this gig? A job I love, a job that gives me genuine happiness? I suppose some people never find that, actually. I am truly blessed.
So it’s Thursday, and I’m feeling very uncool in a branch of Leon, surrounded by twenty-somethings, most with Apple Macs and lattes. Two very young, very beautiful black girls were in the queue for breakfast muffins, and I was stunned with jealousy at their beautiful clothes – both in fur-trimmed vintage style coats, thick-heeled Mary Jane shoes, floral midi skirts. One had a 40s style red hair net over her natural afro. Both just gorgeous, fully made up with winged eyeliner and statement jewellery. It’s like they’d walked straight out of an Instragram filtered pic, or a street style page in a magazine. The jealousy lingered for a while, and I was suddenly very conscious of my slightly dowdy raincoat (well, it was raining) and my bare face (I associate make up with work and rarely wear it on days off). Still, I found the strength to silence my self criticism. Yes, those girls were gorgeous, but they probably spent hours getting dressed in the morning. They’re younger than me, probably students, and while the blissful naivety of student life is certainly fun, I thought about all the shit they still have to learn. And I don’t mean academically. Sure, you look good in your 20s, but it’s such a painful, stressful time – establishing relationships, scraping by on crappy entry-level jobs, or going through the torture of professional training and making all the inevitable mistakes you make when you’re new at something. This is why I’d never agree to go back in time and be 21 again: there’s no way in hell I’d repeat my PGCE, or even the toil of my first three years of teaching.
OK, I don’t look as pretty as they do, but I have more than they do. I have the confidence that comes with being in a career for nine years. I’ve learned the self awareness that I lacked so badly at their age. I’m very happily married, and because I’ve been with the same lovely man for ten years, I’m lucky enough to have completely missed the tyranny of the Tinder era. I’m also old enough to know it’s ridiculous to have your life dictated by the need to post perfect selfies, or to ensure you fit inside a size 8 pair of Topshop skinnies. I’m lucky in so many ways. Maybe it’s not luck, though: maybe what I have is the wisdom and rewards of 31 years on this planet. OK, I don’t have Mary Jane shoes as cute as theirs, but I have a nice job, I HAVE A DAY OFF, and today I can do whatever I like, and if that’s not a fucking glorious luxury, I don’t know what is.
I read this book back in the spring after hearing it mentioned on all my favourite podcasts. I listen to a lot of podcasts. Book podcasts, feminist podcasts… This book crossed into both. Sara Pascoe seemed instantly likeable and I liked the idea of a feminist polemic with a scientific angle, whilst still being readable and entertaining.
I’ve read a few of these sorts of books – autobiographical in nature whilst still trying to tell us something wider about what it means to be female in the modern whirlwind of changing sexual identities, gender fluidity, everyday sexism and all manner of feminist campaigns and hashtags. Lena Dunham’s books, Not That Kind Of Girl, is brilliant. It’s raw and beautifully written. I’m a big fan of Girls and Dunham’s book offers more of that special quirky energy, weirdness and arresting honesty. I love that Dunham is brave enough to be so openly weird. We all pretty strange individuals with our own neuroses, health quirks and awkward sexual histories, but Lena just puts it all out there. And she’s such a good writer. Her voice is a compelling read.
Then there’s Caitlin Moran. When I read How to be a Woman when it was first published in 2011; five years ago, it felt so fresh and new. People weren’t calling themselves feminists then – at least not in my everyday internet wanderings and conversations with friends. Fourth wave feminism existed, but I wasn’t aware of it. How to be a Woman was an approachable read, a funny read, one that widened the consciousness of why feminism is important. I did a women’s life writing course at university, and yet I don’t think I’d ever read about periods, breasts and abortion before. I was 25 at the time, and as Caitlin Moran was ten years older than me, it felt like getting advice from a very honest, very funny big sister. I loved it. It genuinely changed the way I thought. It was when I started thinking of myself as a feminist.
So I read Animal by Sara Pascoe with these two great books in mind. Two books I loved. If I’d read Animal first, when I was about fifteen, I think I would have loved it a whole lot more than I did as a married thirty year old who already read a lot about this subject matter. Not that this is a bad book: it definitely isn’t. I just wasn’t sure I was the intended audience.
Reading it, I definitely learned interesting things about new discoveries in science regarding gender and sexuality: Pascoe has definitely done her research, and in that respect, this book possibly had more weight than Moran’s. I learned that a lot of preconceptions about female sexuality are Victorian constructs; evolutionary principles were established by male scientists in a very conservative age, and thus their theories on women and even female animals were shaped by deeply embedded societal views. Women are delicate, nurturing and not as sexual as men, for instance. These Victorian ideas are still floating around right now in the media, in films, in the books we read. And yet there’s so much evidence that these ‘gender norms’ are a load of rubbish. But we knew that, right? Even if I didn’t know all the science, I still felt like I already knew the principles of this book. Having said that, the science of hormones was really interesting, and something I felt I should have found out about earlier.
Maybe I’ll pass the book to my teenage niece. Maybe this is what this book is about… passing the torch. She’s a typical sixteen year old, interested stalking minor celebrities on Twitter, pouting for Instagram selfies and collecting Mac lipsticks. Just as I felt at her age, her peer group is everything. She might well be very happy in performing this particular internet-age brand of femininity, but what if she’s not? She’s just left school, she’s going to college and thinking about university. This is a crucial age for deciding your own identity, and experimenting with it. Perhaps this book would be a helpful voice in helping her understand her own hormones, her first relationships. Sara Pascoe writes so honestly about her own difficult teenage years: an eating disorder, an abortion at 16. It’s not sensationalist or extreme, because everything feels pretty extreme when you’re 16. Yes, I wish I’d read this book earlier. I would have learned a lot.