Actually, I do care.

Writers are a very strange species. Observe: stooped creatures, often nocturnal, that dwell in small rooms or corners of rooms, hunched over keyboards, muttering to themselves. Gnarled fingers and slit-like eyes as dark symbols appear on glowing screens. If you approach them during this process, if you violate its sanctity, this may elicit a grunt, a growl or a passive-aggressive rebuke. They may tolerate a hand on their shoulder, in passing, but rarely being spoken to. Words don’t mix with words, and they are busy creating spells to summon worlds into existence. They live in their heads, where the words are kept and sown and harvested, and as the words tumble out, as the dark symbols line up on the glowing screens, these creatures, these creators, are all-powerful. The outside world, the one that you inhabit, is merely a distraction, an inconvenience. And yet, it exists. Stubbornly, relentlessly, it exists.

In the outside world, we are as powerful or as powerless as the rest of you. In the outside world, we are exposed. Writers are, in their majority, introverts; it is no accident that we choose an occupation that demands isolation. An occupation that means, for all the support we might have, for all those gentle hands resting, briefly, on our shoulders, we are alone. And it is something to think about, it is almost schizophrenic, that the work we do, if we do it right, results in exposure. Over-exposure. That, by putting our work out there, we are practically inviting dozens of people, hundreds, thousands, into our small rooms and into our heads. To admire our neat stacks of words, to pick them up carefully and examine them, or to trample all over them, as they choose. We are inviting the outside world in, and leaving ourselves no place to hide. The outside world where we are as insecure as the rest of you, as vulnerable, powerless now to control the words that come our way.

And they come. Relentlessly, they come. It is no accident, because by putting your work out there, by saying “here, look, this is a thing I made”, you’re inviting judgement. You’re asking to be judged. Yet none of us, writers and humans, like to be judged. Unless we’re judged worthy; unless we’re judged good. It’s schizophrenic, but there is no way around it: once a thing is out there, it’s fair game. Except it’s not a game. Not to us. Once you cross over from writer into author, you’re no longer playing.

Until I published my first book, I’d never given much thought to reviews. I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond clicking “publish” and watching my book appear on Amazon, as if by magic. Beyond “look at this thing I made”. But reviews are the words that come our way; reviews are the judgement we invited. And it’s all fun and games until you get a negative one, and the world you carefully constructed in your quiet room comes crashing down, and strangers that you invited in yourself trample all over the ruins. Relentlessly and sometimes – even worse – casually, as if it means nothing. And writers, strange creatures though we may be, are just as vulnerable as the rest of you. There is a person behind the thing, and you can hurt them. And you would think, as writers, that we’d know of the power of words, how they can create or destroy, cut or heal, but no: paradoxically, we step into the outside world unprepared. To be lifted up high by praise or be casually shredded to pieces. Sticks and stones will break your bones? Words are much more lethal. And ratings, like ninja stars aimed at the soft, fleshy parts of our souls.

You’d think we’d know. But we cross over from writer into author, unprepared, and then we have to learn. That the thing we put out there is a target, not a shield; that it’s fair game and people will play by their own rules. That we cannot control the words that come our way. We have to learn not to care. But what inconsistent, schizophrenic creatures would we be, putting ourselves out there to be judged, if we didn’t care? Let me be the first to tell you, if you haven’t heard it before: actually, I do care. I may get better, with time, at picking up the pieces, I may get quicker at smiling and shrugging it off, but I will never not care. Good or bad, the judgement that I invited will always mean something. Just now, I cried at a lovely review that thanked me at the end. I care. This is not a game to me.

This is no sob story. We reap what we sow, and if we don’t like our harvest, perhaps we should choose another field. But if we insist on growing these crops, if we insist on peddling them to the world, we must do it with as much care as we can muster. As much vulnerability. We must tend to them, relentlessly. We must nurture the soil and tease out the weeds. We must stack up our words as neat as we can, so that they may withstand the judgement, even if we can’t. We must inhabit our worlds fully before we invite other people in. So that when we step out of our little rooms, stooped and slit-eyed, and say “look at this thing I made”, we can be sure that it’s the best thing we could have made. This is the best that we can do: as writers, as humans.

We can’t blame the seeds or the soil or the weather for the fact that not everyone likes tomatoes. Of course, there is something to be said for not going out of your way to trample all over someone else’s vegetable patch, but that’s judging other people by our own standards, which is exactly what reviewers are invited to do. We can’t blame them for the place where they started, or how high or how low we appear through their eyes. We must learn how to come down from the heights where praise lifts us, and how to stand up again when we’re tripped up, or fall. And we must care. Even when it hurts, we must care. Otherwise, we might as well stay in our rooms, playing at being a writer, and growling every time we are approached, and shrugging off every gentle, supportive hand that’s placed on our shoulders.


The above image was created in response to an Amazon review which compared reading my book 100 days of solitude to watching paint dry. I ran it as an advert for the book, with the headline “Cheaper than a tin of paint”. I don’t know if it sold any copies, but it kept me amused for a while. It was my way of shrugging it off.


You are invited to judge me on Amazon, or on facebook.

We are all of us magicians in our realms

My dad called me this morning, 9 am. This is unusual. I was on coffee number one and still a bit groggy.
    ‘Did I wake you up?’ he asked.
    ‘No. I’m having my coffee.’
    ‘Me too,’ he said – then: ‘I need your help. Will you help me?’
    ‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If I can.’
    ‘You can.’
    What my dad wanted – needed – help with was an essay entitled “On Translating Shakespeare” that he was about to send to King’s College, London, for publication. And he wanted me to edit it.
    I said: ‘Um,’ with all the eloquence this poet-father has passed on. I gathered my thoughts. ‘Sure,’ I added. ‘But do you really need me to edit your English?’ The emphasis of incredulity in this sentence being you need me?
    ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘If you have time.’
    ‘I have time.’ I was about to sit down with my book-in-progress and agonise over unfinished chapters but, for this, I had time.
    ‘Send it,’ I said. ‘But I’m sure there’ll be nothing.’

My dad: the poet, the editor, the literature scholar, the man who translates Shakespeare into Greek and then casually whips up a 12 page essay on the topic, in perfect English; this man needs me? I was flattered, yes, and eager to be helpful, to prove that I was worthy of this compliment, this trust. But nervous as hell. Because, seriously: me? Who the fuck am I to mess with this man’s words, this man who gave me all the words I have, who, as far as I’m concerned, is the keeper of all the words? This magician with his pen, reaching into a hatful of words and pulling out entire worlds. How am I even qualified to comment, let alone edit what he writes?

I loaded the document onto my computer, determined to find nothing. Out of respect. Out of fear of disturbing the subtle balance of things, the hierarchy that keeps my understanding of this world and my place in it the right way up. Out of a reverse kind of pride: my humble skills and how proud I am of this poet-dad who far outskills me. It would be hubris to put red marks on his work. I’d do my duty, and find nothing. But we are all of us magicians in our realms.

When your web designer makes images appear at the top of your page like you asked him, that’s magic. When your massage therapist puts her hands on exactly the right spot along your back and eases the pain; when the plumber bends over your toilet and mutters and it no longer overflows when you flush it; when the gardener knows that your soil is too acidic and how deep to dig to sow tomato seeds: those are all magic tricks. When M, my boyfriend, the electrician, fearlessly reaches into a snake’s nest of live wires and makes the lights shine again, he is performing magic. When my sister stands up in a roomful of stressed out Londoners and gets them, with just her voice, to lie down on yoga mats and close their eyes and relax, she’s putting them under a spell. When my dad takes the poetry of Shakespeare – the metre, the meaning, the rhymes – and coaxes it into another language: how the fuck? And when I write, yes, that’s a kind of magic too.

The fact that something has been granted – a talent, an ability, knowledge, a healthy beating heart – doesn’t mean it should be taken that way. Our humble skills, the things we know, are someone else’s magic. Our nothing can be everything if it’s the thing that someone needs. Once we have learnt it, we forget, the time, to toil it took to get there; we forget that we’ve earned this qualification. Once we’ve mastered it, the glamour fades, and we just shrug it off as nothing, as unremarkable as having toes, or making a cup of tea. But we’re magicians in those things that we can do, the wands we wave so casually to make magic happen, like functioning toilets and thriving tomato plants and making words rhyme and finding small errors in a poet-father’s work.

It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t a lot, but there were little things here and there, a word that jarred, a letter forgotten, an extra space between sentences, a z where an s should be. That’s all: ten marks, maybe, over twelve pages, ten tentative comments in red, the little things my dad had missed. And I had found them: me. The writer-daughter, hierarchically confused but qualified to comment after all. My dad was right. He may be the keeper of the words, but something of his magic has trickled down to me, and I – without noticing – have made it my own. And it’s another kind of magic now, a different trick altogether. I cannot translate Shakespeare but I can help to make an almost perfect essay a tiny bit better. Not casually: I agonised over those marks, just like I agonise over every single word I pull out of my hat to make a sentence, a paragraph, a story you might want to read. Just like my dad agonised over writing this essay that conveys the agony of translating Shakespeare. It may look casual, the way we perform the magic that we own, but it took time and toil to own it, and that’s what makes us qualified. That’s what makes us magicians, all of us, in the things that we know.
    ‘Thank you,’ my dad wrote when I sent him my suggestions.
    ‘It was nothing,’ I replied. But we both know it was a lot more than that. Nothing and everything; as remarkable as having toes.


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