Time For Some Serious Dreaming // #2

(Read the first part of this narrative here.)

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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.

Aristotle took his usual route down the canal tow path, tail in the air, nose close to the ground. I followed him, passing the usual hotchpotch of houseboats. I noticed Greg already on his deck, smoking, eyes on a book. He’s wearing two jumpers, both with holes in them. He looks such a mess that I barely think about the fact that I’m in pyjamas.

Everyone on Moseley Crescent knows Greg. Dad pays him for maintaining our garden, and other odd jobs. He’s handy. There’s a sculpture on the roof of his houseboat, a fox; he made it himself out of scrap metal. It sits among troughs of homegrown veg: carrots, turnips, potatoes.

‘Morning, Miss Murphy,’ he says. I think he me calls this because he can’t remember my first name. ‘A bit early for dog walking, isn’t it?’

‘A bit early for reading, too,’ I say. ‘Hey! Aristotle! No – drop it!’

Aristotle is trying to eat a cigarette end he’s found on the tow path. I rush over and prise it out of his teeth.

‘Ugh. So disgusting. Is this you, leaving fag ends everywhere?’

Greg shrugs. ‘Sorry, Miss Murphy.’

I have no idea how old Greg is. He hides behind a beard and a layer of dirt. He could be in his twenties – he could be much older. Something about him makes me feel like he’s not a proper grown-up.

We continue down the towpath. My feet are getting sore in the wellies, though, and when we reach the common, I let Aristotle run around without a lead, and I sit on the stile for a while. I’d briefly forgotten about my exam, and now I’ve remembered, my stomach starts to flip about like a fish.

 

Should Dawn O’Porter call herself a writer?

Image result for dawn o' porterDawn 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.

Freedom Thursdays and Why I Don’t Envy 20-Something Hipsters

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Hipster girls in coffee shops… I no longer envy your youth, your hair, your fancy laptops. Fact.

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.

Stationery Addicts Anonymous

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My desk. It’s messy, even though it’s been recently tidied (honest). As you can see, it’s laden with marking. It’s hard to prioritise the crazy fictional worlds in my head when there are very real children who want to know what I think of theirs. Who said becoming an English teacher paves the way to being a writer? A crazy person. At this rate, my students will be published before I am.

I wonder if a desk tells you everything you need to know about me. Maybe it just tells you I buy more pens than I need.That I crowd myself with distractions. (There’s quite often a cat under that lamp, too: she thinks it’s her own personal arse heater). It tells you that Paperchase is basically my crack dealer: I’m addicted to Lamy pens and cutesy pen pots.

I’m moving house soon, and I shall miss this little hidey-hole, my perfect little home office. The new house is smaller, so I’ve been buying boxes for every last item of stationery. I have a post-it notes box. I have a delectable selection of teacher stickers. My Pilot pens are organised by colour. What can I say? They’re important to me. I’ve been obsessed with this stuff since Santa put Scotch tape and a mighty fine stapler in my Christmas stocking (so it’s my parents’ fault). Does stationery make me a better writer? A better teacher? Of course not. But life’s too short for economy paper and scratchy biros. You know that smooth, satisfying feeling of a new gel pen on high-GSM paper? That’s heaven to me.

Writer Friend

When I got married last year, four of my bridesmaids were my friends from high school. In fact, I had attended playgroup with two of them, and one of them had been to primary school with me, too. We grew up together in a little network of villages, sharing all of our significant milestones, whether it was our first horror movie, first boyfriend, first awkward experience in a nightclub. We did our exams together. We became especially close in the sixth form, discussing and analysing every aspect of our lives between learning our French verbs and writing another essay for English Lit. We grew up together.

Ten years have passed since leaving school, and I still love our social gatherings. They are certainly more sedate than they were in sixth form or uni: less vodka, fewer occasions for fancy-dress, but more quality chat and undoubtedly better food. There have now been hen parties, spa days, weekends away. It’s all very civilised and it’s like having a second family. I feel very lucky to have such loyal, kind and fun people in my life.

I do stop and wonder about the ‘friends’ we didn’t stay in touch with, though. Well, let’s not skirt around the issue… there’s only one particular girl I give much thought to. I first met this girl when I was a toddler. We lived within a mile of each other, which in the countryside meant we were practically neighbours. We went to primary and secondary school together, and I was always at her house for sleepovers, parties, or just hanging out, not doing much. As a young teenager she was vivacious and bubbly, keen to impress boys. I was quiet, self-conscious, more concerned with my school work. Still, we were a partnership, and I was fiercely loyal towards her, even through the usual ups and downs of female friendships at that age. She had a tendency to fall out with other girls, usually over boys. I took her side instinctively. We’d been through so much together that I felt I owed her that.

She’s the girl who I would have called my best friend when I was eleven, fourteen and seventeen, and certainly a prime candidate for the bridesmaid at the crazy fantasy wedding my teenage brain concocted. We used to talk about our future weddings, of course. We had some truly awful ideas – ostrich feather dresses, Burberry print bridesmaids – I shudder now at our teenage tastes! We basically liked anything baby pink or powder blue, preferably with a fur trim. What can I say? Our formative fashion years were circa 1997-2000. That’s right: the heyday of the Spice Girls. Think pigtails, crop tops, leopard print… oh, and lots of denim. We had matching patchwork jeans. We thought we looked like the girls from Irish pop sensation, B*Witched.

Clearly, that was an age ago. The dark days of dial-up internet, hair glitter and knee-high socks are far behind us all, but while I’ve stayed in close contact with most of the girls I knew then, I don’t so much as tweet my so-called ‘best friend’.

She doesn’t speak to any of us.

She was such an important part of our social group, and, well, damn it, my whole childhood. I still feel annoyed, sad, and a little hurt that we’re no longer close.

It feels worse because I know how much we had in common. She was a writer, too. Because of social media, I know she’s still writing. and I know we’d have so much to talk about, and yet there’s a terrible distance. It’s frustrating. I don’t send her messages on Twitter. She defriended all of us from Facebook years ago. Yet I can’t help but have a quick look at her Facebook profile picture. I read her blog. Is that pathetic? Perhaps even intrusive?

I couldn’t tell you specifically why we stopped being friends. I remember still speaking to her on MSN when I was at uni. I kept hoping she would visit, and I was hurt that she kept making excuses. I met up with her a couple of times in my home town when I visited my parents, but it was awkward. She didn’t want to hear about uni life, because she chose to stay at home. She talked so much about herself and how great her new job was, that I felt she was self-absorbed. I can see now that she was feeling insecure. She didn’t want sympathy for being the only one of us not to pursue a university education. Then she broke up with her long-term boyfriend, and she certainly didn’t want sympathy for that. I’m sure she was proud. So she isolated herself. I didn’t see it this way at the time, though: I thought she was ‘dumping’ me, and I was really hurt.

I’m sure she found me annoying. I can see now that even towards the end of our school days, we were drifting apart. I was so driven towards academic success. I suspect was becoming a bit of an intellectual snob. A bit of a prude, too. I pretended I wasn’t as interested in boys and getting drunk because it was easier than being vulnerable. I did it to protect myself, because I didn’t think I was as pretty as the other girls. I knew I wasn’t as charismatic as her. But I was finding that part of her annoying too – she was becoming so loud, so extroverted. She wanted to talk about sex all the time. I thought she was just trying to embarrass me. She got drunk a lot. At parties she ingested so much cheap wine that she couldn’t stand up, and I got tired of being the one to prop her up.

And yet, ten years on, I think we’d be friends. We’re doing the same sorts of things. We’re both still writing. I’ve studied the craft at university (twice over, in fact), and she’s taught herself. She’s a Mum now, and clearly loves children. I’m a teacher, so we’ve both taken on similarly caring, child-centred roles. How easy it would be, to slip back into that easy friendship, the one we had before exam stress and crazy hormones got in the way. I feel a sense of loss, you know? Like something actually died. Though it’s possible it’s just nostalgia. We have some things in common, but would we really feel like we knew each other if we met up now?

I shall count my blessings. I have my other high school friends. Their company is so easy and fun – so much doesn’t need to be said, because we know each other so well. I have my husband now, and we’re best friends. He’s my fellow writer, my first reader, my confidante. There’s isn’t a gap in my life that my former friend needs to fill, and maybe that’s the key thing here. We grew out of our friendship… we didn’t need each other any more.

The Ideas that Float Away and Die…

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I haven’t so much as looked at the Word document that could potentially be my life’s best work in, ooh let’s see: over a fortnight. Work has been crazy: I’ve had a gazillion deadlines and a job interview (I got the job! Woohoo!). I’ve been super busy, but that doesn’t mean I ever stop thinking about my stories.

I get ideas for characters and plot lines in the most mundane places. I was writing sample sentences for a Year 10 grammar lesson… out of nowhere I got into this deep, detailed description of the contents of a guy’s pockets. I went for a walk with my family to see an ancient stone circle… suddenly snippets of from that YA fantasy trilogy I always intended to write are flashing in my head, sparking, wanting to ignite. I listened to The Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts for hours yesterday, and suddenly a connection was made: YA fantasy trilogy – dark matter – string theory – the multiverse! OK, OK, Philip Pullman’s already done that one, but maybe I could do it differently. After all, are there really any truly original ideas left? Now there’s a good title – In Search Of An Original Idea… 

These are the thoughts I remember, but what happens to the ones I don’t?

I get ideas all the time. A lack of ideas is definitely not the reason why I haven’t written my novel yet.

What if I’m remembering the wrong ones?

I know, I know… I should keep a notebook. It’s all about a good working routine, isn’t it? I suppose my life as a teacher is a bit too full of routine. I get bored of thinking I have to do something at a certain time each day. Still, I know this is my problem. To be a better writer, I need better habits. I have libraries of notebooks, most of them empty save a few pages… maybe it’s time to dig them out and use them. I have a new smart phone, so perhaps I will try using one of the notes apps – at least I know I won’t leave that at home, lose it, or decide it’s too heavy for my handbag. I really need to get better at catching my own ideas before they float away and die.

Writing in Coffee Shops – Pretentious or Productive?!

I write to you today from a branch of Caffe Nero, large hot chocolate at my side (with cream, naturally. I don’t  believe in starving myself in January). I’ve decided to try to get on with The Novel. I need to stop moaning about not doing it. And just do it. I can. And I will. Yet 2015 be the year of The Novel. Wouldn’t that be something wonderful?

I love writing in coffee shops. I’ve mentioned this in creative writing classes, somewhat embarrassed, knowing how pretentious it sounds. Yes, I like to write with an expensive drink at my side. I like the murmur of people around me. I actually find it less distracting than a quiet room at home. I’m not tempted to start doing the ironing, or check out Netflix. I feel I have purpose here. It’s nice to see other people with their laptops, even if they’re just watching videos of cats, or stalking their ex-girlfriends on Facebook. I can pretend they’re fellow creative types. Maybe I do like being a part of that tribe… You see them in cities, with their big geek glasses, their Macs, their trendy Urban Outfitters garb. Maybe they’ve plonked a hefty tome next to them, a heavily-thumbed copy of Dostoevsky or Sartre or the complete works of Coleridge. What a fashion statement.  I don’t look nearly so cool, but then I’m in a quiet suburbany backwater, so nobody else does either. We can pretend.

Leave my silly aspirations of life as a trendy intellectual aside. I’M GETTING STUFF DONE. This happens so rarely! I have IDEAS and everything. It’s wonderful. Definitely worth the price of a large hot chocolate. So, without further ado, I’m going to get the hell on with it.