What’s clear is when it comes to Coronavirus is how little anyone knows. But that doesn’t stop us talking about it on every news channel, every news headline, every socially distanced corner. I am trying to wean myself off my current 24-hour addiction to news updates because although it’s hard – especially as I’ve reached the angry stage – one of the things I’ve been realising is that my recovery isn’t just about the body. It seems this virus affects the mind as well. So reading this article  by Fiona Lowenstein in the New York Times was a revelation that came at exactly the right time for me.

I was filled with a strange gratitude that it wasn’t just me who couldn’t ‘bounce back’.

Since then several of us ‘survivors’ have found each other and banded together, exchanging truths and experiences knowing that we will understand things that maybe others don’t or would rather not hear.

Because it’s not pretty.

As Nicholas Coleridge said on the Today programme, coronavirus is like a “very dirty computer virus, infiltrating every part of your system, and contaminating all your files”.

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There’s also an unhelpful feeling – or maybe it’s just me who feels this – that I need to be a cheerleader for recovery, a walking symbol that you can go into hospital with this ‘dirty virus’ and come out happily the other side.  And of course I have, but the truth is that everyone is extraordinary – after all we’re all adapting to this weird normality, getting on with our lives as if we’re not stuck in some kind of horror movie where to touch someone is to potentially kill them.

And while of course I feel lucky, what I don’t know yet is what special gifts the virus might have left for me long-term.

And. Do. Not. Google. This. Trust me.

So when a good friend told me today, ‘be gentle, very gentle,’ the phrase kept echoing round my head. Not least because there are so many good things I’ve loved recently and I don’t want to forget them. In fact, it feels more important than ever to enjoy them.

So here’s a list of five things that have taken my mind off things and brought me pleasure recently, because, let’s be honest, my one attempt at making sourdough bread didn’t quite fill me with sparkles.

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Hmmm…. So here are some altogether prettier things – I hope that you enjoy them too!

 

1.

THREE BEAUTIFUL THINGS. My friend, Clare, has gone back to writing her blog of three small good things. I read these avidly every day, and remember why my whole family call her ‘beautiful Clare.’

2.

GOOD LIFE-AFFIRMING BOOKS. I loved The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, an Australian novel set in 1960s department store, and then moved on to Kate Bradbury’s The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. This is a non-fiction account of how she turned a decked garden in Brighton into a wildlife (sort of) paradise. I think it would be impossible to read this book and not be inspired. I’m now the proud owner of a bee hotel as a result, and if you are the handy type, here she is showing how to make one.

My next book up is Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers. I have it on my Kindle, but via Twitter, I learnt that the Newham Bookshop have signed copies in stock. These videos she has done with her family (including her husband David Gilmour)are pretty special too when there aren’t book launches to be enjoyed.

3.

CHOCOLATE. Of course, of course! One of the really lovely presents I got from someone who knows me very well was this box of special chocolates made by Charlotte Flower full of seasonal foraged flavours – ladies smock, wild garlic, sea buckthorn… I’d show you the actual chocolates but I’ve eaten them all! Charlotte is still making and sending chocolates out at the moment so do have a look at her website. And when we are back to some kind of normality, perhaps we can all meet on one of her workshops?

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4.

ONLINE COURSES. Oh my god, if this isn’t an example of how we all adapt then I don’t know what is. The joy of finding I can still do yoga with my beloved local teachers (turning my camera off so they don’t see me slacking off during plank pose), but there’s also the chance to try things I might not otherwise have been able to. I had the happiest two hours last Saturday doing a herb workshop with Hackney Herbal – oh,  I thoroughly recommend it! I learnt so much and felt afterwards as positive as if I’d been digging bare handed in the soil. I’m also tempted by the courses on offer via the Edinburgh Botanical Garden and Oxford University – at last a chance to drop in, ‘when I was at Oxford’..!

And of course I may do none of them, but just knowing they are all out there and I COULD study electronics or botany opens up the world a little (Also, NOT doing them gives me the same thrill as skiving off school once did…)

5.

GOOD PODCASTS. I know you all listen to so many of these already, but one that’s just started and I’m LOVING is Melissa Harrison‘s The Stubborn Light of Things. It’s uplifting and beautiful, full of the kind of detail that makes you look again at ordinary life. But closer this time, and from a different angle. Also there are only three episodes so far, so there’s that strange but welcome feeling of having to wait for good things to happen. Patience. Patience. Gently. Gently.

 

Oh, and go on one more….

SEEDS. Just look at my runner beans. They don’t know they are starting their lives in second-hand loo roll homes, and heck they don’t care. Because for them there’s a world out there and they are eager to HIT IT. Preferably with red flowers wound through their hair. See the difference in just a week… my babies are growing up fast.

 

 

 

I have just finished working with the most wonderful group of writers on a Reading and Writing Short Stories course with the University of Kent. Writers we looked at included Janice Galloway, Jamaica Kincaid, David Foster Wallace, Tobias Wolf, Helen Simpson and so many more. Teaching a course like this is the chance for me to push my favourite writers! And to sit reading short stories for a day and call it work.

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Below is a copy of the sheet I gave out at the end of the course, which I hope some of you may find useful. Do feel free to add more resources in the comments. This is just the start of a happy exploration for us all.

Websites and newsletters to find out more about the short story:

https://shortstops.info/

https://theshortstory.co.uk/resources/

https://commapress.co.uk/resources/

 Monthly visual prompt for writing:

https://visualverse.org/

Fairy stories and folk tales:

http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/

and on twitter – #folklorethursday

 List of magazines publishing short stories:

https://www.neonbooks.org.uk/big-list-literary-magazines/

And if in London, it’s worth visiting the National Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall (has all the literary magazines free to read):

https://www.nationalpoetrylibrary.org.uk/

For women’s magazine writing:

https://womagwriter.blogspot.com/

For short story workshops/readings/prompts:

http://www.thewordfactory.tv/site/

 To read short stories:

https://bookriot.com/2019/03/19/free-short-stories-online/

http://eastoftheweb.com/

And to listen to short stories:

https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/fiction

Finding new short story writers:

https://electricliterature.com/electric-lits-15-best-short-story-collections-of-2018/

https://www.standard.co.uk/shopping/esbest/books-dvds/best-new-short-story-collections-a3879791.html

Each one of the links above will lead you to many more, so have fun exploring!

 

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”― Neil Gaiman

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It was a real privilege to be allowed to stand on that famed circle of red carpet last weekend as part of TedX Royal Tunbridge Wells. ‘One for the bucket list’, a friend commented and indeed it was. Friends who know me well will know that this was a BIG THING for me, getting up on a stage and talking (let alone to over 1,000 people). But if I did it, then so can you. So if you’re ever tempted to do something like this here are some of the things I learnt and that helped me prepare, and which might help you too …

1. Do have an idea that you really do want to share. I don’t think anyone should want just to do a public presentation, they should need to share something, and it can be anything – we heard about flesh eating parasites, the power of climbing trees, and the importance of bearing witness to grief. However each of the talks had a point to them, they weren’t just a meditation on a subject.  Thinking hard about the one thing I wanted people to do as a result of hearing me speak – to realise that the words we use everyday can have an impact – really helped me prepare. To be honest, my first draft was just a lecture about dictionaries.

2. Read a book. YAY! Who even needs an excuse?  The two how-to books I found particularly helpful were Viv Groskop’s book How to Own the Room and Caroline Goyder’s Gravitas. There’s also the ‘bible’ – Chris Anderson’s TED talks.

3. Do voice exercises as part of early preparation.  I’m used to reading my work on stage but even so, I always find that my breath goes higher and higher up my body when I get nervous so I end up squeaking even more than usual. What worked for me most was when my actor friend, Michael Shaeffer, suggested I concentrated on the consonants rather than the whole words. Amazingly something as simple as this helped stop my words running into each other AND made me feel more purposeful. It’s so strange how it works, almost as if Michael knows what he’s talking about. We also practiced reading in different accents, the more ridiculous the better. Laughing took away some (not all) of the panic because it felt playful, and this playfulness helped to give me back my voice.

4. Edit, edit, edit so your script is easy to understand. One of the useful points made in Gravitas is to make sure you know exactly how your points link to each other. I’m used to writing for the page so I found I twisted and turned all over the place in my first draft, coming back to certain points again, digressing into others. That’s OK on the page because people can refer back to the paragraph before, but not when it’s being spoken. And when I found myself freezing, it was always when there wasn’t that clear link between one point and the next. I also took away several of the million points I felt I absolutely had to make and guess what – I didn’t miss them.

5. Make the language fluid, and fluent. Reading it out aloud (not just in my head) was the best editor I could have had. I kept asking myself, could I make this easier for myself to read? And every time, I could. I wasn’t quite at ‘unaccustomed as I am to…’ levels but my early drafts did get perilously close to a sermon written by the most pompous vicar you’ve ever heard.

6. Use all the resources available. I was so lucky because the whole team behind Tedx RTW are AMAZING. Just knowing I could call on them was such a comfort, so if you’re doing a talk, then make the most of what the organisers of the event are offering. They are the professionals, they know exactly what they’re doing – and when to do it!

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7. Respect your audience. Imagining the audience naked or on the loo doesn’t work for me BUT thinking that every seat was occupied by someone who wanted me to do well was a great help. I think there’s a temptation, especially when you’re nervous, to imagine you are about to enter a gladiator ring with the audience baying for blood (!) so instead I concentrated on how I might explain it to my mum instead, knowing she’d be interested and on my side but still needed to know what it was I was actually on about. She wouldn’t have let me get away with just mumbling, and  besides I wanted her to know what I was saying.

8. Rehearsals are for failing. During the proper technical rehearsals on Friday, I froze, couldn’t remember my words on my first attempt, and actually walked off stage during my second. Reassuringly we were all the same. However, on the actual day everyone was fluent and got through without stumbling – I’m sure there was some magic involved.

9. Practise, practise, practise. I’ve never learnt a script like this before, and for weeks I have been walking around mumbling to myself. I’ve woken up reciting it, recorded myself as I’ve run, performed it to friends via Skype. Only to find that half an hour before I went on stage I COULDN’T REMEMBER ONE WORD. Not one. I thought I might actually die. But muscle memory is a marvellous thing – as soon as I was on stage and I’d said my first sentence, the next came. And the next. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I do know it was as a result of all that mumbling. No amount of practising is ever too much.

10. Remember it’s you speaking, and that you’re enough. As I said, my first draft was a rather turgid lecture albeit filled with hundreds of ‘interesting’ facts other people had found out, and with very little of me in it. Thinking how I would say this to a friend I’d just met up with was helpful – did I really need to go through the whole history of every word ever spoken in order for her to believe me? So once I had my ‘bones’, I went back through and added as much of ‘me’ in it as I could, even if it meant giving up the ‘expert’ role. There is a terrific vulnerability in that. I went through hours of sweating over all that unhelpful ‘who am I to say this’ stuff that the inner critic loves so much. But, going back to point 1 here, ‘Do have an idea that you really do want to share’ made me see that just getting across why I loved and cared about words was enough.

And because of all this, to have people share their own words later made me cry because yes, let’s really make a better word for 2019 than last year’s toxic. We really do deserve better. And on that note, welcome to my TED talk…

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shopping

ONLY THREE SHOPPING DAYS LEFT BEFORE CHRISTMAS…. but I had the loveliest free present this morning: a dear friend, John Prebble, recorded himself reading one of the shopping poems from my collection, Transaction, and sent it to me. He read it so beautifully it took me some time to realise it was my own poem! Enjoy the recording just below…

And here’s the poem….

Transaction

If it’s going to be too sudden,
then I’d rather it didn’t happen.
if there’s not going to be any tenderness,
I’ll just leave now before we both regret.
If we’re not going to try to share,
laugh about it, make it something rare,
I won’t do it. It’ll become too hard.
But if, when I hand over my card,
in that moment of flesh brushing flesh,
meeting of eyes, cheeks burning fresh,
if in that moment, I feel the waves
inside subside, no longer a slave
but a master, all bad thoughts funnelled
into this, then it’s worth it. I’m lulled,
everything that’s gone before a sign,
and it’s more than perfect, it’s sublime.
I’m already longing for the next time.

John and I met properly through The Poetry Exchange, so do listen to some of the podcasts there if you are longing for some poetry discussions over Christmas!

So lovely to hear Jilly Cooper on the radio this morning, talking about dogs, OF COURSE! It made me nostalgic for discovering her books for the first time, just getting lost in a book that didn’t make me cry, for once. I wouldn’t hide her books now, that probably said a lot about the pretentious moi of that time, so here’s a poem I wrote about her last year.


A love letter to Jilly Cooper

Angel Gabriel left me cold, all that too pure
for second hand goods stuff, and don’t get me started
on Jude. Keats felt like those boys who’d write my initials
again and again on their desks but never talk to me,
And was Shakespeare real? I was never quite sure,
but Heathcliff came for my heart every stormy night,
I could have been the one to cure him.
I think you understood that, which was why I chose
that book to hide yours in when I first found you.
I wasn’t sure what these books were. Were you
supposed to actually laugh at novels? And could
women get things so hopelessly wrong? And still live?
Admittedly I saw it happen all around me:
my parent’s friends getting drunk, my mother laughing
on the phone about it all, and then there was hair
drama, tennis matches, car prangs, second GandT’s,
children hugged too tightly or left too much alone,
chocolate bars missing, diets started, abandoned,
fistfuls of waist compared, good intentions started.
But that was real life. In novels, women either got it
right or died, on train tracks, or in rivers,
or were left to rot in dusty houses in the country
with husbands curiously maimed. But not your women.
No wonder I hid your books, they were my secret map
to a future, partying in London with dark haired men
who’d reach across to stroke my cheek laughing
when I got things wrong. I liked it. I liked them.
I wasn’t quite ready just yet though,
which made you even more delicious. I cut your photo
out of newspapers, read the gossip pages enough
to know that you were every one of your heroines
and possibly the heroes too, and not only were you
still alive, you were laughing about it all too.
How I loved you, pretending it was your books
I loved, but knowing all along it was you.