Every so often you receive an opportunity in life to experience something remarkable that you never expected or went out to find. Something like the perfect job when you weren’t looking for a chance in your career, or a great love that comes when you had no intention of making room for another person in your life. But these are the big ones. Other times some of the greatest opportunities come disguised, giving you no indication from the outset that saying yes will give you the chance to experience something great. For me this opportunity came when I was asked to donate a couple of books to a silent auction.
My official author email address is pretty much available anywhere my face appears on the internet, and so I get quite a lot of random emails. Many of them get deleted because they are spam, irrelevant, or perhaps even offensive, but last month when I received a request for a book donation I took it seriously. It struck a chord with me because it was from the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Centre in Philadelphia. I have long held a great interest for learning about the war, something which intensified after taking an Auschwitz tour just over ten years ago, and so the idea of donating to such a cause was appealing to me. I never expected anything from that decision other than the momentary satisfaction that I had donated to something of value. I fired off an email offering some signed copies and thought that would be that.
However, a few days later I received a reply from Jackie, the lady who had first contacted me to ask for the donation, offering to set up an educational Skype meeting with a holocaust survivor. I was taken aback at the chance. I’ve watched hundreds of documentaries, read many more books, but to sit face to face with, and learn from a person who had lived through the holocaust; well that was something else entirely. I very quickly said yes, and we set up a date.
Beforehand Jackie sent me some information about David, the man I was to meet, and the life he lived. Reading it gave me chills, and made me a little anxious about the prospect of meeting him. It felt a little like I would be picking over his life’s details, and I wondered if he would be unimpressed at my relative nativity. To think that a boy who in 1939 when war broke out in Poland, would go on to experience all that he had in the earliest years of his teenage life, left me feeling in some way inferior. So, I did what any writer would do in advance of such a meeting. I read. I read whatever I could about the time period, the camps, and the life experiences there. And although I hoped that I could in some way ready myself to sit and chat with David, my research in no way prepared me for the experience of finally meeting such a remarkable man when he took his seat in front of the camera.
While I felt a little awkward at first, there didn’t seem to be any nerves on his part. He sat down, rested his elbows on the table, and asked me what I wanted to know. And what I went on to realise is that he was at ease because he had done this before; educating a school in South America only a couple of weeks before, and many more before that. In fact, last year he spoke with over 13,000 people, many of whom were school age in a hope to share his experiences. His willingness to share his life’s story gave him an air of comfort in spite of the difficult facts he was sharing, his recollection of which were sharp and faultless, stopping only a handful of times when it seemed to me that a personal detail had struck him that he wasn’t sure he wanted to recall.
I had a list of questions that I wanted answers for before we sat down together, and yet by the end of the conversation I found that I had asked none of them. Instead I found myself quietly listening, not wanting to interrupt, not wanting to push in the wrong direction. I was aware that everything he had to say was as valuable as any answer I was seeking. During the hour and fifteen minutes we spent together we talked about his life, what he experienced, the jobs he had done since, and the fact that he liked my cat when he unexpectedly jumped up onto my desk. In a conversation about the hardest years in Polish history, and undoubtedly the hardest period in his personal life, we found the space to laugh and share humour as two people who perhaps in another place and different circumstances might have gone on to become friends.
As we wrapped up the conversation he joked that normally people only got forty-five minutes, and then offered to send me a signed copy of his book. It is a gift I will always treasure. Then after we said goodbye I sat with my husband to tell him about David’s life. Even an hour later, as I climbed into bed, my thoughts slowly returning to my own life, I found that I couldn’t leave David’s story behind. I kept thinking not only how lucky I was to be able to speak with him as I had, but how lucky I was in general with my life. I found myself thinking that perhaps it was that same luck that had kept David alive during the two years he spent in Auschwitz, or during the 370 mile cattle train journey in the middle of an Austrian winter. When you think of the many millions of people who died, surely luck must come into it somewhere. But not only that, he also left me with another impression. He spoke of many small opportunities throughout the war that in hindsight where much bigger than they seemed at the time. Like the time he was hauled in front on the Commandant of Auschwitz for having a half-eaten sandwich in his drawer. When faced with what could have been certain death he took a chance, summoned all his courage, and demanded to be sent back to work. Some might have said that was foolish at the time. He seemed to recall it as such himself, yet with a smile that suggested he would do the exact same thing again if he found himself facing the same dilemma again. Yet it was taking that chance, along with many others throughout the war, that kept him alive where perhaps to survive was against the odds.
Eight years later David has dedicated much of his time to taking these small opportunities, offering to educate those who would dare to learn about one of the bleakest periods in twentieth century history. He does so in the hope that it, and what happened, will never be forgotten, because he understands that sometimes the smallest opportunities create the biggest impressions. Sitting down to talk with David Tuck will always be one such opportunity for me.
When it comes to expectations vs reality, reality always wins. I have long believed that expectations are the root of all disappointments, and when it comes to motherhood and time management across a busy summer holiday, never has a truer word been spoken. Because the reality vs expectations balance during what I thought was going to be an idyllic few weeks of family bonding, inevitably turned into a countdown to when school started again. And I’m guessing based on the smile my daughter had when we pulled up outside school today, it was true for both of us.
Before I became a mother, I had certain expectations of what a life with a child might entail. Michael McIntyre has a wonderful sketch about this, which basically sums up the way I used to think: it was going to be perfect. My life, post child, was a vision of calm, joyful moments, home-baked food, and long lazy days on the beach. And while I wouldn’t trade the life I have now as a mother for any of the moments before, this season I discovered that when school is out for the summer, sanity and routine go out the window too. Because what I always forgot to factor in when I thought about summer with a child, was that while school stopped for her, work didn’t stop for me.
I like to think of myself pre-motherhood as somebody who was well read in the art of being a parent. Sort of booksmart, but when booksmart is used in a mildly derogatory way; read all the books, yet still had no blinking idea of what was ahead of me. And summer takes everything you think you have learned since becoming a parent and turns it on its head again. I love my usual daily routine, a mix of motherhood, parenting, cooking, running, and reading, but in summer with Leli at home I couldn’t do most of that. I usually like to get up earlier than everybody else in the house, but after a week when we all shared the same room on holiday, the concept of my bed and your bed ceased to exist. Even if I’d been able to have the alarm on because a miracle had kept my daughter in her own bed, I wouldn’t have got up when it went off, because I’d been up six times in the night making that miracle happen.
So, summer became a task in managing my expectations vs reality. My main priority is always to make sure that my daughter is well cared for and looked after, but it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that I still have a to-do list and deadlines that need to be met. And as the first days passed in a stressful blur I began to come to some realisations. And what I found was that there were a few simple strategies that made our days that bit easier on both of us.
The first was having realistic expectations. Before the summer began, I had each day planned, filled with new activities. I thought the busier the better, but what I soon realised was that the days when I had nothing organised were always the easiest. And best. My daughter does not like being rushed about and nudged out of the door according to my time planning. Turns out, neither do I.
After coming to the understanding that my working day no longer existed in its usual form, the guilt that I wasn’t at my desk between the hours of 9 am and 3:30 pm began to fade. There was no way to achieve that with a little one at home. But on the days when she did sleep and I managed to get up early, I worked then, instead of doing what I’d normally do at 5:30 am. I also worked during nap time, and in the evening or the weekends when I had help around. But, what I didn’t do was cram work into every sleeping moment. That is a recipe for burnout, which I tried last year without success.
At the same time as scrapping the normal working day, I also decided to shred my to-do list. There are always more items to do in an average working day than there are hours to do them. And this is especially true when working from home during the summer. I chose only the most important tasks, or even one task for the whole day, and just focussed on that.
But perhaps more useful than any of the tips or tricks that I read about online before the summer began and implemented as summer progressed, was the decision to simply be kind to myself. I stopped stressing about whether she had watched half an hour or an hour of television. My summer holidays as a kid were all about television, and nobody thought it was weird, or that my mum was a bad parent. I stopped worrying about whether there were dried up plums on her dress, or whether she was in bed bang on time. I stopped fretting that potty training was taking too long, and decided that my expectations were the only things driving my motherhood anxiety in that department too. Because while societal expectations of what it means to be a good mother might be a heavy weight to carry, they are perhaps no heavier than those expectations we give ourselves.
After managing to leave my computer at my in laws’ house I decided it wasn’t possible to write a blog post yesterday. But as it'll be another day or so before I get the wayward computer back, I have decided to write this post on my phone as I travel in the back of the car, returning from a trip to Ikea. As usual, although we only went for one thing our car is full, along with some other stuff in our friends’ car too. If you saw my previous post about reclaiming time, and how I was moving towards minimalism, you might wonder what this trip was all about. But two-year-olds don’t understand the concept of owning but a few things, and at that age it is entirely possible to outgrow your bed. Tonight will be the first time that she sleeps somewhere other than a cot. It feels like the right time, mainly because she is trying to climb out on a regular basis, but I am aware that it could be a disaster resulting in no sleep for anybody. Is there a way to avoid potential catastrophe? But more to the point, is there a way to know when the right time really is?
I like to think of myself as an organised person, but the truth is that I'm not really that on top of things. I'm better than I used to be, but regularly let things slide, or the the proverbial ball drop. The one place where I usually manage to keep on track is work. As a newly qualified cardiac physiologist in the NHS too many years ago to mention, in order to not mess up, I carried around a little notepad crammed with what I considered essential knowledge; departmental processes, physiological ranges, and from where I might be able to reorder printer toner. Now that I write books full time the biggest challenge is getting words on paper. I like to be ahead of the game in this respect, and when I delivered my edits for Little Wishes, the rough draft manuscript for Hidden Treasures was already written. But my next project is proving a bit more elusive.
This week I was listening to a podcast with Camille Styles, and one of her messages was that she was working on being a better procrastinator. Sounds counterproductive, right? But her point was that leaving a project unfinished kept it alive in your mind, and therefore amenable to change and improvement. This struck a chord with me, as I have two half-written books on my laptop, both seemingly excellent ideas when I began writing them. And yet they remain half-finished. The first I let sit when I came up with the idea for Hidden Treasures, sure that it would be a better follow-up to Little Wishes. The second book is what I have been writing up until last week. I thought it was going well but the separation from it during my recent holiday has made me seriously reconsider it as a project since I came back. I'm not sure I care about the plot or characters enough to spend the next year and a half with them, and therefore have taken a break.
I spent last week brainstorming for a new idea, a distinct cross between the two half-written manuscripts. And what I found is that I returned to an idea that has been with me in some shape or form for as long as I've been writing. But I also know that unless I give myself some room to work on it before actually beginning the process of writing, I'm never going to know whether it's a good idea or not. I've written the first half of two books and they aren’t right, so this time I'm going to sit back and let my thoughts marinate for a while before I commit to writing. For a while I'm going to practice being a better procrastinator and hope that helps me work through the issues.
Whether my new idea is the right idea, I don't know. But I know that if I don't try writing this new book, I will regret it. So, with that in mind, as I pull up outside home and get set to unload the boxes with a new bed inside, I'm preparing for a disrupted night ahead. Sometimes a period of being unsettled, allowing patience to pave the route at its own pace, is necessary. Sometimes, just like with the bed, you have to give in to the process. Will she sleep? Will she stay in the bed at all? Will my new book be the right book? I have no answer to any of these questions, but unless I take a chance on what I think is right, I'll just never know.
I’m always looking for ways to improve my productivity and concentration, and right now I’m working on the implementation of a daily morning routine. It’s born from some degree of necessity, because what I used to like to do after taking my daughter to school is no longer possible. To go for a run in Cyprus at 8 AM in the summer is just too hot and humid. So, despite being less than certain about my ability to stick to it, I started setting my alarm and getting up early.
While I never would have described myself as a morning person before the change in seasons forced my hand, I found I quite liked the reality of getting up before most of the world was awake. There’s a certain peace to be found from being productive when other people are sleeping, at least in my part of the world. I love following Rachael Hollis on her various social platforms, and she always insists we are made for more. I always could get on board with that idea, but felt somewhat certain that I was not made for mornings. But since I’ve been getting up early and running on the regular, I find the idea of getting out of bed is not only no longer a chore, but that I even started waking up without my alarm.
Whether it is a coincidence, or the possibility that my radar has been tuned into the idea of early rising, but since I started this practice I’ve realised that there is some sort of movement towards early rising in the wider population as a tool for improving success. During my recent holiday a friend’s poolside reading was The 5AM Club by leadership expert Robin Sharma, who ‘introduced the concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity’. That’s no small promise for a 5 AM wake up call. The concept is that you get up early, dedicate an hour to exercise, goal setting, and reading, and you divide your time into twenty-minute time blocks for each activity. If you head over to Robin Sharma’s home page you are instantly reminded that ‘winning starts at the beginning.’ Now if it’s true, that all my dreams are achievable on the other side of an early morning wake up call, you can count me in for running to the tune of the dawn chorus every single day for the rest of my life.
In truth, the holiday I recently took in Rhodes has quite a lot to answer for. Not only did I come back with renewed enthusiasm for following a minimalist lifestyle, but now I’m also planning to start waking up at 5 AM. I did plan to start as soon as I got back, but a few sleepless nights with my poorly two-year-old put paid to that. But with the start of a new week I set my target for today. I decided not to try to wake up at 5 AM from the get-go, and instead I set my alarm for 5.45 AM. That’s half an hour earlier than my usual time, and it did not feel good. For those first few seconds upon hearing the alarm going off I wanted to take the idea of the 5 AM club and stick it somewhere where the sun was only just beginning to shine. But I powered through, and by 6 AM I was on my yoga mat flexing into what is a far from pretty, downward dog. Twenty minutes later, I was meditating. Next was goal setting and planning my day, and finally I snuck in twenty minutes of reading; a book about how to throw away your things which quite frankly left me feeling a little depressed for the person who wrote it. But by the end of that hour I felt awake, ready for the day, and as if I’d already achieved something important for myself.
Tossing my belongings aside, the rest of my day has been pretty productive, and I have approached it with a level of commitment I don’t often manage to muster. It’s coming up to ten in the evening, and still I’m writing the rough draft of this blog post because that’s what I planned to do. I’ve accepted that I want to shake up my manuscript and have done lots of mental planning. I read another two modules for a diploma I am studying. Besides not getting a key cut, I did everything I wanted to do. All in all, it was a great day, and I haven’t even turned on Netflix.
Do I think I can muster the strength for a 5 AM start in the near future? The truth is that I just don’t know. I like seven hours sleep, and my baby doesn’t go to bed until 8 PM. After that I need to eat, and I often have work left over, be it for writing or cardiology analysis, an ongoing responsibility from my previous life. But perhaps if I can do a few days at 5:45 AM, and then a few days at 5.30 AM, maybe I’ll give the 5 AM club a try. I have visions of myself a bit like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, only less attractive with inferior hair. Either that, or maybe just asleep at my desk. But if it really is the key to success, it has to be worth a try.
I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that each year when it came around my family watched the London Marathon. I’m not sure why we were so keen on it as none of us were that sporty, not at all in fact, but without fail we watched and cheered as people set off, and then again as they crossed the finishing line. I remember, without any real concept of what a marathon was, feeling a sense of wonderment over these people who had been running through the capital, decked out in costumes, looking absolutely shattered as they crossed the finishing line with their arms raised triumphantly in the air. And with the absolute naivety of childhood ambition, and without any clue as to what it might take, I said to myself that one day I would be one of those people.
While I am still to run any kind of marathon, or indeed be anywhere close to being capable of doing so, running has been a part of my life for well over a decade now. From the time I first joined a gym and had my session with the personal trainer I knew that there was only one machine for me. Running, whether it’s outside on the road, or on a treadmill in the gym, is always my exercise of choice. There is something about the structure of a run that lends itself well to my personality, a person who loves competition and yet simultaneously hates to lose. Because with a run, while there is no winning as such, there is also no losing. The battle for the run is fought against oneself, from the moment the alarm goes off at 5:30 am, to the relief of crossing the finish line, whether that’s on The Mall, in Central Park, or through my own front gate. Any competition is found within the mentality I bring to each time I decide to lace up my trainers and head outside. Each corner I turn, each kilometre I track, is a decision in the direction of success. But when it came to hills, that was always a different story.
For years I avoided the hills. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to improve, but because simply I found it really, really hard. After running my set distance only to be faced with a massive incline before the finish was always my worst nightmare. I always needed to prepare myself for it, and if ever I tried a new route and found an unexpected hill, I would often divert for the easier path. But when I moved to my current house, located in a valley and surrounded by hills, in order to run I had little option but to face a hill both at the beginning and at the end of my run.
For a long time I struggled. It was a problem of both mental and physical fitness. Before that I’d schedule my runs along an easy coastline, so I wasn’t conditioned for the challenge. It took weeks before I could ascend the hill that left my house without having to stop. I hated every one of those runs. Surely there had to be a way to make it easier?
Just like anything, running doesn’t become easier by taking a magic pill or by wishing for it before you go to sleep. I only noticed my abilities improving when I committed to getting out at least every other day. But the physical commitment was only one component. My mental state also needed to change.
At first, I faced every run with a sort of resignation. Kind of, here we go again, almost as if somebody was forcing me into it. I looked at the hill as if it was my enemy, and I was setting myself up to fail each and every time. But halfway through a run a few months ago, when faced with an unexpected hill after deciding to push my distance on a new route, I changed my mentality. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and very much happened organically, as if mentally I’d had enough of being beaten before I’d started. A thought rose within me, and it totally changed the game.
There is no hill.
Now, of course, there was a hill, and I wasn’t suddenly in The Matrix. And the hill in question was a beast. But I told myself it wasn’t there, and I nailed it. I was exhausted, felt sick until I got home, but I did it. And the next time I left my house I told myself the same thing, there is no hill, and no lie that run was easier still.
I was thinking about this today because I am facing a challenge like this in my writing. I have 40,000 words of a new manuscript written, and 17,000 of another story that I’d started before that, which I shelved when I wasn’t sure it was right. And now, after another challenging day writing/editing, I feel like this second, 40,000 word manuscript isn’t right either. I feel like I’m writing for the sake of it, not sure whether I believe in the characters or the story. And yet that 17,000 word manuscript that I shelved keeps calling to me. I just read its prologue, and know that ultimately, it’s better. It tells a story that I care about in a way my newer manuscript does not. Yet is it the right genre? Perhaps not. Could it become the story I want to tell? I think perhaps it could.
Right now I feel like I have a huge hill in front of me, and none of my previous experience feels as if it has conditioned me appropriately to tackle it. I know that somewhere in the words I’ve already written there is the story I want to tell, but perhaps right now, neither of those manuscripts are doing just that. But just like when I was training myself for my running, I have to find a way to where it becomes easier. I guess I’ll just have to keep telling myself the same mantra in order to get the job done; this might go on to become my first marathon, but there is absolutely, definitely, no hill.
The idea of mindfulness is something that I consider most days. As a concept it seems to have gained a certain mystical celebrity over the last few years. It takes only a limited exposure to social media to understand that there is a group of people who seem to have achieved a higher state of awareness that we should all be searching for when we are not working or binging on Netflix. But yet, in a life when we all seem to be striving for more, pushing ourselves at work and in the gym, and making sure our Insta feed is as perfect as we wish our lives were, that same enlightened bunch of people are telling us that living with less is the new more. Some of us, myself included, go out of our way to consume this message, voluntarily filling our feed with images of clear surfaces and capsulated wardrobes. The truth is, I am a fully signed up member of the less is more club. Even now as I sit at my desk, I’m looking at the shelves to my left and wondering which books I can get rid of without too much trouble. But if having less stuff is supposed to make us happy, how are we supposed to know what to replace it with once it’s gone?
It’s been a long time since I took what I would call a proper holiday. And by that, I mean a good seven nights in a nice hotel, where somebody cooks a selection of breakfasts and pops in before you sleep to turn down your sheets. Last year, with a small daughter who had a penchant for eating sand, we didn’t take a relaxing holiday. So this year, joined by friends, we checked into a nice place with a decent buffet, sun-loungers a plenty, and a programme for aqua gym with some very enthusiastic entertainers. Beforehand I had that true holiday feeling, that excitement the night before of an impending trip that I had been anticipating for months. Now, sitting at my desk on my first day back at work, I really do feel ready to go. Because on that holiday, without any of life’s daily interruptions, I did find something in that space created once material possessions and daily routine were left behind. When I took this photo, waiting for Leli to wake up in the car, I was parked on a beach with no phone or 4G signal. Not even any WiFi. It was an alien feeling, used as I am to being connected. What was it that I was missing out on for that half an hour? Nothing, not really. It felt good to be there, alone, and totally quiet from the rest of the world. So instead of what I was missing out on, the question should really be, what was it that I found?
My love affair with minimalism has long been a feature in my life. Even before I moved into my first home I was certain that a space without things or door handles was the way I wanted to live. And yet throughout my twenties and soon-to-depart thirties, I lost my way a number of times. Six months, maybe even a year could go by without buying any new clothes, and then I would find myself at the mall in a fug of reaction spending. I’d be lured by sales, gadgets, and essential equipment for activities I was unlikely to stick with. It is almost as if I was uncomfortable in the place I had chosen for myself, uncertain whether a minimalist lifestyle was actually right for me. And these boomerang behaviours occurred in various other parts of my life too, like organising my clothes and cleaning my house as if I was practicing a religion, only for a single object left on the side to begin a decline into a mess that could have got me onto TLC. Reading ten books in a month and then nothing for three. Last year I built a capsule wardrobe, only to spend most of this year spending to replace things I’d thrown out. It seems that although I know what I want, I have never yet quite found the balance. So is that perhaps what I’m supposed to be searching for in the place of things?
Returning from my holiday I would say that balance is the closest way of describing what I feel. I feel realigned with the things I want, my hopes, and plan for the future. With all the things I need to do for work. And so I suppose by definition what I am also saying is that before my holiday I must have felt, if not unbalanced, the absence of it. In fact, a couple of months ago I secured a new book deal, and two foreign rights’ deals, and yet somehow didn’t find the time to celebrate that. I didn’t even write about it on my blog, even though it was what I had been working towards professionally for the best part of twelve months. If there isn’t the time, or space in life to celebrate those sorts of achievements, what is it that I’m doing with my time?
And so, perhaps in all my efforts to be mindful and clutter free, that is what I’m really searching for; not balance as such, but the time to find it. When I look around my house and see piles of stuff, what I see are demands on my time to clear them away and organise them. When I look in my wardrobe and feel overwhelmed by a choice of what to wear, it’s time that I’m losing while I try on ten different things. Time that I could have spent doing something that is important to me. When I don’t manage to celebrate a new book deal, it’s not the will or excitement I’m lacking, but time that has been lost elsewhere, eaten up by a task that I care about less. After my daughter arrived in my life, I used to think she was the reason that I no longer had time for the other things that mattered to me. Although that might have been true in the first instance, because let’s face it, first time parenthood is a task no human is ever truly prepared for, I don’t think it counts as an excuse anymore. I’m the adult, and I make the rules, at least fifty percent of the time. So surely it’s up to me to organise us in a way that makes us both happy and that leaves space for the things we truly enjoy.
As I move forward with the new book deal, and the process of writing another as yet uncontracted manuscript, I’m going to try to remember this idea when I think of what it means to me to be mindful. When all the clutter is gone, what I’m left with is time. And instead of trying to fill this reclaimed time with new things and expansive to-do lists, or load my daughter’s programme up with new activities to keep her entertained, perhaps what I should be doing instead is simply enjoying the time we have together. Surely, minimalist or not, there can be no better way to live my life than that.
This week I haven’t been running at all. I keep telling myself that I have too much work on, but the truth is I have the same amount of work as I did the week before, and I managed to get out four times then. I feel 100% better when I’m running regularly, and yet somehow I still slip into these periods of abstention when I don’t make the effort. Sometimes putting on a pair of trainers and shorts, especially now it is at least 30 degrees by the time I drop my daughter off at school, is just one hurdle too far.
It was the same when I first started writing. I really wanted to be a writer, but couldn’t seem to get past the first few notes of a story before deciding it was a bad idea. In the hospital where I worked as a trainee physiologist there were several blocks that housed the different departments, all of which were connected via a set of underground tunnels which had the atmosphere of an old spooky asylum. Trundling along those corridors with the sounds of the air filtration system whirling overhead was far from reassuring. Yet I always volunteered for the jobs that took me through these tunnels because the twenty minutes it took me to reach my destination was time during which I could think about books. By the time Friday came around my white tunic pockets were filled with post-it notes of half-shaped ideas formed during those underground trips.
But taking the step of turning one of those ideas into a book took a while longer to materialise. I knew most of those ideas in my pocket weren’t good enough, and some of them might well have been outright plagiarism for which I would have been served with a lawsuit along the lines of King vs Adams. But I persevered until I came upon an idea I thought would stick. After that, I sat down and began to write. Six months later I had a book. But what was it that made the difference? What behaviours that helped me then could be applied to my occasional aversion to running, and get me up of my backside?
Hurdles are something we must all overcome in some form throughout our lives, be it professional or personal. If you are working on becoming an author and sometimes need a boost in motivation, here are a few things that helped me take the step from hopeful scribbler to working writer.
Believe that you are a writer and you are
When it comes to my running, I always think of the reasons I avoid it, namely the injuries I’ve had in the past and the outside temperature that Cyprus is currently baking in. I tell myself that my shin splints will kick in, or that I’ll sprain my ankle again. But the truth is that this is all nonsense. If I just believed I was a runner, I’d be out.
If you want to be a writer, the first thing you need to realise is that nobody can tell you that you are a writer. You must believe it for yourself. And besides the initial boost it will give you, the representation of an agent or a publisher won’t make a scrap of difference to your inherent self-belief. Tell yourself you are a writer, and you are one.
Set a routine
They say it takes thirty days to form a habit, so what if you could give yourself just one month? I took to meditating last year, and now, almost without fail, I practice every day. Where at first it felt awkward to try, now it feels as if I’ve missed something if I don’t manage it. If you could carve out twenty minutes from your day you could probably write 300 words in that time, right? Well 300 words, five times a week is 1500 words. Do that for a year and you have a 78,000 word manuscript. And that’s if you keep up the same pace as day one. My first twenty-minute runs soon shaped up into half an hour, and it only took me a few months before I was heading out for an hour at a time. Would you exchange twenty minutes of your day for a finished book by the same time next year? If so, what are you waiting for?
Overcome the hurdles
I don’t know when it will hit you, but it will. There’ll come the day when you can’t be bothered, when Netflix calls, or when pretty much anything seems better than sitting down with your manuscript. Still happens to me now. It’s a bit like when I first moved to Cyprus. It was a remarkably easy decision and process at first. Sometimes the big things are easier than the small hurdles that crop up when we least expect it. That was what happened to me on the fourteenth night of living here. It all started to feel a bit strange. I got in bed that night and realised that was the longest I had ever been out of England. I wasn’t going home. I reminded myself that Cyprus was where I was living now, that this was my new home, and knuckled down and got on with it.
Push through that first difficulty, and all subsequent hurdles will feel easier to deal with.
The truth is, that if you want to be a professional writer, either with an agent and publisher, or working for yourself as a self-publisher, you must take it as seriously as you take your job. If you only rocked up to work on the days of the week you fancied it, you’d soon find yourself out on your ear. You have a set time to be at work, and if you want to write you need to give yourself the same structure. Maybe a writing group, or a friend can help keep you in check if you can’t do it for yourself. Perhaps an app that counts your words or time. Find what works for you, and stick to it.
Maybe you can’t write every day, but perhaps you can find yourself two sessions a week. Maybe you could listen to one less podcast, or write 1000 words on your commute. Maybe when you eat lunch, you do it while thinking about your next writing session so that when you sit down you are ready to go. If you’re lucky you work for somebody or somewhere with a bonus system, or at least some tea-room benefits. If you hit your writing target, why not give yourself a bonus, too.
Find your community
I like social media in the capacity I use it, but I don’t like all social media. I enjoy writing this blog and interacting with people on Instagram. I like twitter too, especially for things like talking about Game of Thrones with like minded nerds. Facebook not so much. If you want to write, find your community by connecting with like-minded people. This could also help you be more accountable. If you’re like me, you'll feel the pressure of stating your intentions to the public. Get out there and tell people you want to write, and it becomes much easier to do so. There is also a theory that you are a product of the people closest to you in your life, so hang out with writers and immerse yourself in the culture of books, and the benefits will start to wear off on you too.
They say that patience is a virtue, but if so, it’s a virtue that I lack. I’ve always known it, could feel it running through me like a Faultline in the ground. I remember sitting in the interview for my first proper job, the one that was linked to the university place that I really wanted. They asked me, because I’m not a Millennial and it was OK back then, what was my very worst characteristic. I said I had no patience and their eyes widened because I was applying for a job in a hospital that involved the sick, crying children, and the elderly. I tempered their fear by saying that my lack of patience was only with myself. It was at least partly true, and fortunately convincing enough to get me the job.
But I never had any clue back then of just how much patience I would need to find while waiting to secure the most important job I would ever do in my life. I had no idea how difficult it would be to achieve. I truly believed it would be easy to become a mother, despite the fact I knew I would never carry a baby in my womb. Adoption, I thought, was to be taken for granted.
The waiting started right at the beginning of the process. I arrived in a somewhat depressing government issue waiting room, and tentatively, in my best Greek, asked to speak to somebody about adoption. They looked at my abdomen, wondered how long they had. I tried my best to communicate that I was interested in the process from the other perspective, that I had no baby to offer for adoption, and so they sent me away with instructions to write a letter of interest. Three months later, we hadn’t heard anything in response.
Each day after that felt as if it would be the day they would contact us. When they finally did, I was sitting writing My Sister, and John Legend was playing on the radio. We were being invited to our first interview in another two weeks’ time. Never mind, I thought. What’s another fourteen days?
The home study took us nine months. People talk about how intrusive it is, and I suppose it is if you have something to hide or are anxious from the off. But we didn’t and we weren’t. Our social worker explained to us that there might be a long wait at the end of the home study because there weren’t that many children waiting to be adopted in Cyprus. Nonsense, I thought. She was just playing it safe, and didn’t want to get our hopes up too soon. All in due course, I thought.
On the day we went in to get the approval we already knew we had been issued, I kept that advice in mind. Still, even though we’d been told there weren’t that many children waiting it was hard not to get excited. I’d cleaned our bedroom, checked prices for Ikea furniture, and cleared my work schedule. I sat in the chair and waited for the good news. When it didn’t come and it became obvious that the meeting was wrapping up I asked her, so what do we do now? She shrugged, suggested we look abroad, and be prepared to wait.
We waited for two years. During that time, we received one phone call from social services to invite us for another meeting. When we arrived we waited in another miserable corridor on hot plastic seats, dressed in clothes too smart for the weather. Inside they regurgitated the same advice, asked us the same questions. Just an update. When we left that meeting we realised there were two other couples waiting for the same interview. Never had things looked so bleak to me. And I began to wonder whether motherhood was something that would happen for me at all. I pushed the thought aside, tried not to give it space to grow.
Then somebody contacted us regarding a private adoption. The biological mum was eight months pregnant and we had been chosen to adopt the baby she thought she couldn’t care for. We got excited again, made provisional plans, then spoke to our social worker to get the ball rolling. But three weeks later she changed her mind, kept the baby. We decided to look abroad, and began an application to adopt from Armenia. The cultures were similar we told ourselves. We could parent a child with Armenian roots. We translated documents and witness testimonies in a script we couldn’t understand, and met a wonderful Armenian lady who offered to help us when we were in country. We sent off the paperwork and began to hope. We were still waiting but we felt in control. We were blindsided during that time when my dad got sick, and we had to put things on hold. After my dad’s passing I found it hard to think about moving forward with the adoption, and we took a couple of months to regroup before starting the paperwork trail again when the authorities in Armenia requested more information. This time it was slow, the translations even slower. Finally, in May 2017 we sent them off. I hoped we were close, but that voice inside that told me it might not happen was gaining ground. I told myself that I might have to accept that we would never get to be parents together. It was the first time I had ever allowed the thought to take space in my mind, and it was the hardest idea to conceive. But three weeks later we got news of a baby in Cyprus who might need us.
Without any more information, I knew. Maybe it was naivety, maybe desperation, or maybe something altogether wonderful like fate. But I had a feeling. I knew without being told that the baby was a girl, and I knew, really knew beyond doubt, that she was mine. So I went home, cleaned the spare room. I couldn’t clear my work schedule this time, but I didn’t care. I cancelled a trip to Harrogate festival just in case. I was convinced. That girl was ours, and she was coming home.
I called the social workers every day trying to convince them. They told me that nothing had been decided, that they didn’t even know if she would be available to be adopted. So I begged to register as a foster parent, told the social worker that she needed a family, that if she wasn’t ready to leave hospital they had to let me go to her instead. I told my husband that this time it wasn’t about us. I told him I was prepared to give her a home, even if it wasn’t to stay. I was lucky he felt the same and we signed the forms to foster and continued to hope.
It’s two years ago next month that we first heard about our daughter. It’s over a year since the adoption was finalised. Today I sat waiting in the dentist’s chair while she had her first ever dental check. All that waiting that at the time seemed so fruitless. But yet we were waiting not for a form to be signed, not for a letter to be read, or for somebody to make a decision; we were waiting for our daughter. If we hadn’t waited all that time we wouldn’t have been ready when our daughter was ready. We had to wait, because when we thought we were ready, we weren’t. Our daughter hadn’t been born yet.
Sometimes waiting feels as if it’s the most pointless waste of time. Finding the patience for it is tough. But waiting, while it might be the hardest thing, is sometimes all you can do. Everything happens in due course.
Eight years ago when I moved to Cyprus, I knew that I was leaving behind a life that I thoroughly loved. I had a great job, supportive colleagues, and a bunch of friends who I relied on. I enjoyed hiking at the weekend and climbing at the local gym. When I could, out on the rocks of the Peak District. From a professional perspective I knew it was going to be hard to move to Cyprus, but I was prepared to give it a try.
When I arrived in Cyprus, I decided something for myself as I went forward; that I wouldn’t try to recreate the life I had in England in a new place that I knew nothing about. I knew that climbing, the hobby that I loved, was out of the question; honestly, where was I going to find a new person whom I trusted to hold the rope from which my life dangled at the other end? I knew that I would have to accept a period of not having a clue what was going on in everyday conversation until I had made some progress with learning the Greek language. I accepted that I wouldn’t have close friends, at least for a while. These were all things for which I was prepared to compromise. But there was one compromise I wasn’t prepared to make. Although I knew it was going to be difficult to find employment in Cyprus, my job was the only thing that I wasn’t prepared to leave behind. I loved my work, and I valued the contribution I made to our household. For me, working was non-negotiable.
And then I arrived in Cyprus.
The job I thought I had disappeared into the ether before I’d even started, and I spent five months without employment or a salary. I found it almost impossible. Eventually I found a job, not the same job but a job nevertheless. But thanks to the international financial crisis that was a short-lived adventure. Left with little option, and faced with the looming fact of my redundancy, left both myself and my husband with a thought. What if we created something for ourselves?
Being an entrepreneur was never something either of us intended. It’s not exactly the mindset created by working for over ten years in the NHS as we both had. But we duly set up a medical practice, and it was during the down time in this new position when I remembered that I had another dream before I moved that I was no longer pursuing. Writing. The entrepreneurial mindset was already sparked, and that position in which we found ourselves gave me the freedom to believe that just maybe this time I might be able to make it work.
Those early decisions were the foundation for how I managed to pursue the loftiest of my professional ambitions. The worst moment in my career became the seed from which the best could grow. In the UK I always wanted to be a writer, and even wrote my first book while I was working in the NHS. But being in Cyprus allowed me to dedicate time to finding my voice as a writer. I found the time to dedicate to reading and honing my craft until I eventually wrote the book that snagged me an agent and a publishing deal. I learnt what it meant to be entrepreneurial, to decide for myself when and how hard I needed to work, and how to manage that work when I had no boss. And slowly over time, I found friendships with people that supported the idea of working for myself too.
During the time I lived in the UK I’m not sure that I knew anybody who owned their own business. But now once a month I have dinner with two girlfriends, both of whom are entrepreneurs. They are building their own businesses too. The dinner is about three friends getting together and doing whatever friends do when they drink wine and eat good Japanese food. We talk about our life, our homes, and whose kid managed to pee on the potty or slept through the night. But these dinners are also about supporting each other in our ventures. We discuss how things are going, who’s had a success, and maybe who has experienced a failure. We offer each other support and guidance, even though none of us really know the minutiae of each other’s work. We cheer each other on and encourage one another when we need it. These friends mean so much to me, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I’m embarking on a new venture now too, a passion project for which I’m currently doing the necessary training and development. They both offer the words of encouragement I need to move forward.
Eight years ago, I thought the only thing I wasn’t prepared to accept losing in Cyprus was the career I’d worked hard to achieve. As it turns out, now that I no longer have it, I don’t miss it at all. But as for the support of trusted friendships, I wouldn’t want to trade that for anything. Not again.
About two months ago I came up with an idea for a new book. It arrived a bit earlier than was expected or required as I was nowhere near finished with the book I was writing at the time. Usually an idea comes to me as I am working on my final edits, almost as if my conscious and subconscious are working in unison, dishing out a new idea idea when I need to move on. But this time it came in so hard that I almost stopped writing the book I was working on. Fortunately for my sanity, I managed to hold off, and got that book wrapped up first.
Ideas for new books come to me in various stages of completion. Some charade as fully formed characters, others as snippets that need a lot of fleshing out. I’ve heard it said before that one good idea does not make a book, but it does usually constitute enough to get me started. Sometimes it’s the overarching plot or a particularly poignant scene that I imagine, maybe even an opening line. In this instance it was an opening line twinned with a reflective closing statement that got me all fired up, which would, I felt, unite the 90,000 words in between. So, a couple of weeks ago when I finally made a start, I couldn’t wait to get writing. As I worked on the idea I came up with a structure, a plot to tell the tale, and as I got the early scenes laid out on paper I thought it was all looking pretty good.
Then two weeks into the writing process, with roughly 14,000 words written, I had what I can only describe as a lightbulb moment. Other creative types will know the sort, and I suspect many others in professions of which I have no understanding will be able to appreciate the concept; a moment when you are so damn sure that you know exactly what you need to do, that you can’t ever imagine the outcome being anything other than perfect. Perhaps for a lawyer it is that breakthrough moment in a case, a final piece of evidence. For a surgeon that moment when she clips the right vessel and the bleeding suddenly stops. It’s that pivotal moment in time when you are sure that what you have just experienced is universal serendipity. For me as a writer it is what looks like the perfect idea, as if we were always meant to find each other and live happily ever after as New York Times bestsellers.
But the trouble with these fancy ideas is that they make your sturdy, stable ideas seem just that little bit less. They make you feel as if to stick with the original plan is playing it safe. Maybe as a surgeon or lawyer that’s a good idea, but let’s face it, somebody in my profession never wants to be accused of that. So, I spent the latter half of Friday morning mulling over my flashy new idea, trying to make it work. And when a couple of hours later I was still convinced it was the best idea I’d ever had I set about restructuring the whole novel. Of course it will work, I told myself. It’s amazing, I thought, certainly enough to tweet about. It was, I was sure, the perfect lightbulb moment. But do such moments ever really exist?
I didn’t work much this weekend, in part because we had a lot going on familywise, but mainly because in order to make my new idea work I had so much reorganisation to do in terms of my plot that I fancied instead just revelling in the idea for a bit longer. But yesterday morning when I came to sit down at my desk to do all that new planning and research, to find ways to incorporate that idea into the new manuscript which was barely out of nappies, I realised I couldn’t make it work. Not without losing everything else I already had. And without everything else, all that I had left was a flashy idea, and without the groundwork to hold it up, it didn’t even look that tempting anymore. I was left with a twist, and that on its own is nothing. What value is a novel concept, if it comes without substance? I’d hazard a guess that it’s not worth very much at all.
So yesterday I spent the best part of three hours doing not all that much in terms of writing. I had to work through the idea, test it from every possible angle in order to see it for what it was; a distraction. It was a major disappointment. But this time was necessary because it was what I needed to understand that what I had already planned really was the book that I wanted to write all along. The other, newer idea, was just a blip in the road. I’m sitting back at my desk now feeling much more comfortable that I’ve worked it through, with the knowledge that my new idea isn’t going to work. And in doing so I see the merits of what I have already done.
Changing focus during the writing of a first draft is always part of the course. This is my eleventh manuscript to date, and I feel like I have learnt quite a lot during that writing time, about what it means to see an idea through, and perhaps what it means to leave an idea behind. In my first books I took whatever idea I had and ran with it. This new idea would have without doubt ended up as a full-length novel. There was little planning to my work at that stage, and I would romp through whatever first draft came to mind and celebrate the completion of 80,000 words irrespective of what they were or what story they wished to tell. But writing isn’t about a word count. It’s about carefully manipulating an idea into a story that has meaning. A novel isn’t about a twist. Just like in real life, the moments that really count are never the extravagant gestures or carefully planned surprises. It’s the quiet interactions between people who care for one another that matter, the simple experiences shared between loved ones. When people look back at their lives it’s not the wedding they remember, but the acts of love and support that create the map of a shared life together that are cherished. The big moments are the foundations, but it’s the everyday experiences that help paint the picture of that life.
Moving from one idea to the next and trying to make things work in fiction never gets us very far. Working on something until it’s good? Now that’s where the true moments of magic are found. Rushing through to the end only leads to disappointment. My new book idea looked for a moment like it was everything I was looking for, but after taking the time to work it through I found myself back on the right track. It was an idea that looked too good to be true. But then again, most things that look that good usually are.
Sometimes I come up with ideas and turn them into books. This blog is about everything else.
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