I’ve just got back from my writing retreat and, newsflash, it was beyond amazing.
I met 22 wonderful human beings (15 other participants + tutors/guest readers + Arvon staff), and there was so much to take in and reflect on, and every night I felt I like I could burst with creativity (which would have been awkward, as I don’t think anyone signed-up to being coated in chunks of Alice…at least not before dessert).
With so many thoughts, feelings and emotions running through my head, it’s hard to put into extacting words what the past week has meant to me. From 1-2-1s with critically acclaimed writers, to long walks, to sitting down at a desk (in front of a gorgeous view) and hitting word to paper, my time spent on an Arvon tutored retreat at The Hurst (deep in the Shropshire Hills) has been an incredible experience.
I’ll get something more substanial down soon but for now know this; I’m a very, very happy Alice!
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I’m off this week on a super fancy writers’ retreat (very exciting stuff!) After what feels like a century of isolation, I’m very much looking forward to meeting and working alongside like-minded people at a blissfully rural location in the British countryside.
As per the rural comment, I’m going to mostly be off-grid during my time away but I’ll be back with a new blog post sometime next week.
Now, time to be all Natasha Bedingfield for a whole seven days.
I can see the similarities.
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In response to the frequently asked question “hey, Alice, when do we get to read your book?” here is a list of genuine reasons why I haven’t and why I’m not sorry for it.
My manuscript (at time of writing) is c. 70,000 words and nearing 200 pages. That’s a lot, but I want to make it up to the 80,000 mark. My History dissertation back (in 2014) was 10,000 words and took a year of solid research and writing (with no distractions). Go figure.
I realised three weeks ago at least half of it needed rewriting.
I’ve spent about six weeks working on the opening extract (first 5000 words).
I have a full-time job which I have continued to do throughout pandemic.
Up until mid August, I had only take one day off of my allocated annual leave. One day, in all of 2020.
I have to do human things; shop for food, eat, sleep, poop etc.
Shoot me, I get writers’ block/creative fatigue.
Covid-19. Just Covid-19.
I commute frequently from family home to the actual home I pay a mortgage on. A 1.5 hour car journey will just about sap up any energy you got.
Some days I really can’t be bothered to write.
Some days I really write a load of rubbish.
Believe it or not, I do other creative exploits. All writers need the satisfaction of quick-win completion, which is why I’ve also been writing more short stories. I can’t post these on the blog, because then I’d be unable to make money from them at a later date and/or submit for competitions. A ‘short story’ for me is 2000 words. Nine pages (double-spaced).
Bio: “This week I speak to the new Mayor of Stratford, Councillor Tony Jackson, and find out exactly what it is a Mayor does, and to Sophie from Happy Paws in the Shire, about doggy holidays to the beach and fussing and feeding our feline friends. I also speak to local blogger, Alice, who writes the blog ‘My Housemates A Mermaid’, about her very interesting housemate, and she shares her lockdown poem with us.”
In July last year I subscribed to a Novel Writing course offered by the London School of Journalism. Keen and eager (although somewhat less convinced my idea could hold a story) I penned the first draft of a synopsis in a charming little coffee shop in Ilfracombe, North Devon.
Fourteen classes and twenty-seven written submissions later, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve have completed the course with flying colours. Go me!
This isn’t the end of my creative exploits. Spurred on by the course, I’m continuing in earnest on my manuscript (#AmEditing as the cool cats on Twitter say) and dipping my toe into the world of short stories.
While my love, life and ambition is to turn my manuscript into a fully published novel, I’ve discovered that diverting energy into other avenues is a great way to refresh and experiment. Also a bit of fun! (Which I know for some people must sound weird. The idea of hours of writing, followed by 2000 words of something news.)
Thank you to my wonderful tutor Val Holmes for being a fresh pair of eyes throughout the course and being unafraid to challenge the creative choices I make.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my writing exploits.
Five minutes to type up one review. Wait until that second hand reaches twelve and…we’re off!
Reasons To Be Cheerful (hereafter Cheerful) by Nina Stibbe is the comedic novel set in 1980s Leicestershire. The plot revolves around Lizzie, an 18 year old who is recruited as a dental nurse in a practice and follows her antics as she works in her new position, working under the demanding (and quite often racist/xenophobic) JP Wintergreen as boss. As part of the job Lizzie also gets the use of a onsite flat, offered at a heavily subsidised rent. This opens the story up for several subplots featuring her work and personal life as Lizzie tries to navigate adulthood, including her co-worker’s attempts at getting pregnant, her fledging relationship with well known ‘weirdo’ Andy Nicolello and learning to drive.
Despite the occasional darker moments, Cheerful has all the hallmarks of a British comedy. The underlying humour is there throughout, even if at points it has an awkward edge. You know the characters you’re meant to root for, and those who are (at best) jerks. Given it’s central focus, I didn’t find the details of the dentistry too gory (surprisingly I found the prologue the hardest bit to read!)
If I had to be critical, I’d comment that a lot of the 1980s references were lost on me (I was born in 1992) and a subplot story about a three-legged dog didn’t make much sense to me (in my mind it didn’t add to the plot). However, with a few surprise twists and turns, on the whole Cheerful is an easy and enjoyable read to work through. It wasn’t until afterwards I realised this is actually the third book in a series, however I was very easily able to read this as a stand alone and not be held back by lack of character knowledge from Stibbe’s previous work.
Every morning I roll out of bed and stumble the 1.5 strides to the bathroom. I look in the mirror and study the damage; one new spot since yesterday, five new eyebrow hairs, a shade darker under the eyes. I toy with the idea of doing something to remedy this, but then sigh and do little more than splash water from the sink lined in dirt and limescale. If it’s a ‘treat day’ I might apply a thin layer of face cream but today, like most others, is nondescript so tepid water will suffice. Pasty skin ready, I grab one of my face coverings from the coat hanger, rubber gloves from the box and go out into the big, dangerous world to stand in a queue. “Just another day in paradise” plays solemnly through my headphones, a Phil Collins track which I long to change, but my unisex latex gloves are two sizes too big and even if I could, touching the screen would only defeat the point of preventing the spread of germs. I leave him be.
Here I am, starting another 24 hours in a string of days that end in the letter Y. Dull, predictable and dragging, welcome to the human face of lockdown.
If you haven’t already got the gist from recent posts, in March (2020) I made the choice to move fully back in with my family, days before the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown.
I own a house, a car and a job in the same location, but with the job reduced to working from home and my ability to travel limited to as far as the curb-side wheelie bin, it seemed more logical to return northwards.
At 27, the novelty of spending an extended period of time with my family felt like a throwback to the days when home was a refuge from exhausting summer jobs or algebra homework. But now the family home represents my safety and my imprisonment. I am denied my freedom and, some days, forgetting what it feels like to be a fully accountable adult at all. I’m turning into a woman-child.
Three weeks I thought this would last, three. But now we’re speedily heading towards twelve and to be quite honest, I fully expect it to last longer than that. I normally work out of an office populated by a large number of employees. I can only imagine what social distancing will look like if I am, ever, mandated to five days a week in that environment.
Can you imagine the first day of everyone being back? A three hour queue to get your pass reactivated, followed by at least two trying to fix some technical fault with laptops (always tends to be that way). Everyone will take an extended lunchbreak (by which point the only option will be a cheese sandwich) and then there’s just enough time to go around hugging as many people as possible before it’s home time. Michelle is given an out of date bottle of wine from the store cupboard for something she won twelve months ago and then it’s off to the car park for gridlock congestion.
That reminds me, I think I left behind a large stash of snack bars in my locker before I left town. Damn.
I’ve gotten slightly off topic, but then again, I always do. Can you really blame me, when one of the few excuses I get to spend time away from my family is to find one of the few quiet spots in the house and type on this blog? Mumma B is forever demanding new blog post, Papa B is forever blissfully unaware of them (but then sending a text to dad has a likelihood of receival on a same level of attaching a letter to a dove in a hurricane).
I haven’t dyed my hair since January. I guess originally I saw it as a form of resistance, the idea that I wouldn’t colour it until we were out of lockdown, but that idea faded as quickly as the shade of my roots. Resistance turned to indifference, colour fading with every wash, and now I’m reunited with a shade of brunette I haven’t seen in years. It could almost pass for stylish, a layered multi-tonal style.
Makeup? What are these expensive alien products of which you speak? I’ve almost forgotten how to apply what little I used to wear. Mascara is a challenge, the smudgy black fluid streaking up my eyelid and smearing across my fingers when I try and rub it off. I’m a toddler experimenting with these curious substances, playing about with pencils and powders that used to mean something to me. The woman I recognise in those summer holiday pictures, how can I look like her? How can I wear lipstick like she once did without turning into a clown? But then, what’s the point?
Now you can’t exit the house without having to cover up. Facial coverings and gloves have swept across the globe, marking the creation of a new religion with its own dress code. The irony, the racists and xenophobics who used to speak against religious coverings are now the same people yelling that face and hand covering should be made a legal requirement. Next they’ll be demanding the use of headscarves to prevent spread, whilst splashing and gargling in the sea. Society has been united (be it on a surface level) by new codes of conducts and coverings. We have no way to object to the world around us, voices blocked by sheets of fabric, we can only go along with the rule of government. By law or by fear, the faith of the fatigued marches on in varying gaps of social distance.
The highlight of my week is now the Saturday morning food shop and the lowlight is getting back from it. That feeling of exhaustion from exerting myself more than at any other point in the days leading up to it. The rub of the fabric mask, the feel of rubber residue that sticks to my fingers long after I’ve taken the gloves off. In the world I live in this is one of the few excuses I have to leave the house, my world is now so tightly tethered to that of my family. I have no friends to see, no places to visit, no errands to run that can’t be handled over the phone.
Fun is now reduced to comparing the length of supermarket queues week-on-week and counting the number of times we’re reminded to keep two meters apart over the tannoy. The buzz when tinned foods are taken off restrictions, the disappointment when when they’re reapplied the following week. Three tins of soup per customer, a luxury. And yet, the Saturday food shop is the one thing that reminds me time is passing at all. Time is reduced to the little-wins, twice daily teeth brushing, hair washes every other day, changing bedding every few weeks. The mundane activities that make milestones of hope; another week towards a vaccine, another week towards normality. And not just a new one, a true one.
The phrase ‘new normal’ has grated on me since first time it was used by politicians who know about as much on what ‘normal’ looks as Chairman Mao knew of peasant struggles during the 1960s famine. New normal implies that this is the first time normal has changed, but what about the invention of the internet? Or the Industrial Revolution? Or when we started hunting with metal spears instead of stone? In which case, what are we headed into? New Normal Version 9999998767.8?
Instead of new normal, I’ve adopted a different phrase, ‘My Normal’. The way I see it, you have to embrace and adapt to what works best and safe for you. In lieu of coffee shops I’ve taken pleasure in making my own coffee and enjoying the views I’m lucky to have. I miss the noise and hubbub of activity, but sometimes I think it’s easy to romanticise an experience. Countless times in life I’d find myself trawling from coffee shop to coffee shop to find space, only to find it too noisy to focus or hold a conversation.
I write a hell of a lot more now than I used to. Whether the quantity results in quality is yet to be seen but regardless it feels, well, good. But I’ve also dropped the stupid targets, I’ve moved away from expecting myself to have produced the next best-seller. I’ve realised that I get bored, I procrastinate, I live with three other adults who seek me out if I go three hours without doing a tea run. I’m human. One day I’ll spend an evening working solidly on a manuscript, another I’ll decide to do something unrelated to writing; I might watch rubbish TV or read my History Magazine. My lunchbreaks I might donate towards researching the publishing industry or even find myself so done with taking myself seriously that I turn to this blog to remember that deep down I am still the kooky person I’ve always have been. No lockdown is going to stop me being me.
Do I scrap with my family? Of course! Even when I was living here as a teenager and my parents were working jobs we didn’t see each other as much as we do now. There have been plenty of times I wanted to get away from it all and return to life where I had my independence and my freedom. But the benefits of being in a space where I feel safe and wanted outweigh having to ‘go it alone’. I am incredibly lucky to have the family I do, even if they do all drive me insane.
And here’s something potentially controversial; I’m actually more content now than I have been in years.
Gone is the pressure to look a certain way or to live in a certain location (e.g. London). I don’t feel the pressure to be in a relationship, in fact, as time has gone on and the faked perfection has slowly disappeared from the internet, I’m left wondering what it must be like those couples, the unstable relationships built on sand and Snapchat filters.
In just under three months my life has, once again, changed enormously. And there was I thinking living in London was the biggest shake-up to happen to me. Moving back into the family abode is shifting my perceptions and five-year goals more than any office manager or two-day Excel training course ever did.
Those lamenting that office work is as extinct as the dinosaurs need to get real and understand that people will always crave social interactions. There will always be a queue for my office car park and when the doors open I will be at the front of it.
Like everyone else I worry for the future economy, my job security and the health of those I care most about. But of all that I worry most about what we will become. More than once I have woken from a nightmare, to discover it was only a more warped version of the life I used to lead before. I fear that when this is all over and the generation moves on behind us, we will horrify or romanticise this event like it’s our version of Vietnam. The youth will never understand, will never appreciate what we went through, when in fact we were the ones who returned to 45-hour weeks, we were the ones who were so desperate to recoup physical loses that we forgot the gains we made on our front door.
But more than this, so much more, is the reassurance that this will not last forever. One day I will return to the town where I live and work. My mum will go back to cooking for two, not four, my sister will teach in schools and my dad will be able to work in customer’s homes without wearing a mask. None of us will be the same, but we will have future hope. One day we will all be reunited and will laugh; back when we thought this would all be over in less than three weeks.
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The Sun describes this title as “Bridget Jones with knobs on” and initially you can see why. Like Bridget Jones, Lorna works for a national paper, has multiple calamitous oversees trips (hints of Edge of Reason) and experiences tonnes of supposedly awkward mishaps. This is setup against a background of counselling where gradually Lorna comes to unearth and overcome personal challenges, from deep-rooted peer envy to relationship closure.
Expect a lot of monologues in this book. I didn’t have a problem with the first-person narrative but took issue to her friends who all happen to be phycologists. The author knows a bit about the topic and goes to almost unbearable lengths to use it. I ended up skimming these segments when girly nights out with countless bottles of wine turned into soapbox-speeches on the pros of Freudian methodology.
I also struggled with the approach with wooing the love interest. Two examples (of many) include this 35 year-old woman writing lengthy, one sided, emails about her life and then shocked when he doesn’t reply and another interaction where she bluntly states he can only get her number if he acquires it from a friend. Only a week later (and sans calls) does she internally ponder her tactic. I’m left questioning why the author feels the need to labour this storyline beyond the realms of realistic.
Not the ending I was expecting and, to be honest, a little bit disappointed by this title. It tries to be Bridget Jones in Glasgow but somehow never makes it out of the starting block.
UPDATE: I’ve just done some digging and discovered this is actually a true account of the author’s own experiences in therapy. Awkward…