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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I am the storm.

Ever since I self-published my first book, 100 days of solitude, I’ve been standing at a precipice, high over the world, scuffing at the edge with the toes of my shoes, and watching dust rise up and stones tumble down the slope. One, maybe two at a time. I watch them roll down, gaining momentum sometimes, sometimes dislodging a small rock on the way and taking it down with them. I watch them hit the bottom, the impact they make: another cloud of dust rising and settling again. Again, I nudge, pulling another stone from the soil; I get down on my knees, freeing one more with my hands and setting it loose down the mountainside. I watch. I wait. I start again.

I want an avalanche. I want a landslide. I want that magical, inexplicable something that brings my book crashing into the world with a great, rumbling roar. I don’t want it to be a wave, gently lapping at the shore and pulling back again, to disappear into the ocean. I want it to be a tsunami, a great sweeping mass of words and thoughts and joy, rushing into the lives of thousands. Millions. I’m done being waves and pebbles. I’m done being quiet and small. I want the magic. I want that something, that moment when my book goes from selling a thousand copies to selling a million. Because that’s all it is: a moment. A click that sets it all in motion. That’s all it takes: some magic, and a click.

Perhaps literary agents and publishers have the big, industrial machines that tear chunks out of mountainsides and cause landslides that bury the villages below. Perhaps they have massive ships that cut through the ocean, dislodging the seas, turning waves into tsunamis and drowning coastal towns in their authors’ words. Perhaps they do, and it’s not sinister; it’s just the way it is. But I have no such equipment. I am just a girl chiselling away with my hands, but my words are just as big as theirs, and there’s another way.

The world is changing, and we can make our own magic. We can make our own destiny. We always could, but perhaps we have turned a corner and we can see it, now. Perhaps the dust from their big, industrial works is beginning to settle, and we can see it. Perhaps we’re done being told what we can’t do. Perhaps we’re done waiting. Perhaps we’re done being lodged in the ground, calling out for someone to come along and kick us free. Perhaps we’re done being rolling stones in other people’s landslides. There are mountains enough for all of us, infinite oceans of possibility. We can be our own landslides. We can make our own waves.

These thoughts had been building up for a while, but it was my friend Leo who gave me the word that brought them all together. We were having coffee, and I was trying to explain the magic moment, the click. “Avalanche,” he said, and I saw it. I’d known it from before when, in another magical moment, I suddenly understood, on a level entirely separate from intellect and real-world odds, that this book would go far. I’d known it, but I had no visual, and then Leo said that word, and it all came together and I saw it: the avalanche, the landslide, the tsunami. Sweeping into the world, graceful and magnificent; a natural phenomenon, but not a disaster, because it’s words I’m sending into people’s lives, stories to make them better. Because, as pretentious as it may sound, I really do believe that books can change our lives. And this is a book that’s all about changing, and finding your own path, and finding joy. This particular book has already changed my life. And it deserves its own landslide.

In real-world terms: the landslide, for a writer, translates into lots of sales. Money. But it’s not about that. It’s about having the means to carry on doing what you love, and, for me, this book is the way. Because another thing I believe – another one of my pretensions, if you like – is that we all have a purpose in this life, a gift, a thing we are uniquely qualified to do. And this is mine: writing. It’s what I do, and I do it well. And I deserve the chance to carry on doing it; to try. We all do – whatever our thing might be. And the real-world odds can go fuck themselves. There is another world, where anything is possible. And it is just as real as we make it.

There is nothing noble in stoically accepting the odds, nothing admirable in admitting defeat before you’ve even begun. This gift, this purpose: it shouldn’t be taken for granted. It needs to be defended. Suffering for the sake of suffering is such a wasteful way to live. But if the thing that you love doing can fund doing what you love, isn’t that the perfect way for the world to go around?

I am done with odds. I am done being pebbles and waves. I am done being the tortured artist selling drinks and dreaming of words. I have written a book, and I’m standing up for it. And for anyone who’s ever done a thing that meant something to them, for anyone who wants to, for all the pebbles and the waves, the quiet and the small, slowly gathering their strength against the odds to crash into the world. We can be the avalanche; we can be the tsunami. All it takes is some magic, and a click.

Fate whispers to the warrior
“you cannot withstand the storm”
and the warrior whispers back

You can click here to view 100 days of solitude on Amazon and perhaps add another rolling stone to my avalanche, if you like.

Publishing as therapy


I was going to be a young author: that was the plan. I was going to be one of those twenty-something publishing sensations, wise far beyond my years, and heartbreakingly talented. They would come, the men who decide such things (publishers? gods?), to the pub where I worked, humble but trusting in my destiny, and they would tell me. They would say it out loud, for all to hear, and I, still humble but vindicated, would take off my apron, slowly, and wash the beer off my hands, and I would follow the men out of the darkness of the pub and into the bright lights of recognition.

I was thirty-six when I published my first book. Not exactly over the hill, but I could see its top and how it sloped downwards on the other side. Young, but not in any sensational way. Nevermind that in my head I was still twenty-two and entirely bewildered when people referred to me, politely, as “that lady”; the world saw a thirty-six-year-old in Converse All Stars standing on a hill of average height, slightly out of breath, clutching a book to her chest and trying not to think about downward slopes. All around me, people were climbing mountains. The men were not impressed.

But it wasn’t my first book. The book I was clutching that made me an author at last, on the wrong side of young, wasn’t my first. I became an author at thirty-six, but I was a writer long before that, and I wrote my first book at twenty-five. It could have been my sensational debut; it could have been my passage to the lights, my recognition. It could have been, but I stumbled as I made my way up the hill, and I lost my balance, and I dropped it. And I didn’t pick it up again. And the years passed and we aged, my book and I.

Perhaps I should have been more careful where I put my feet; perhaps I should have worn better shoes. Perhaps I should have seen that the things I stumbled on I could have just stepped over. Perhaps I should have known that balance is within, not without; perhaps I could have had the strength to pick myself up when I fell, to pick up my book and hold it high above my head, for all to see. Perhaps, but I was young. So I wrote my book, my sensational debut, four hundred and fifty pages full of words and little bits of wisdom far beyond my years. I submitted part of it for my Master’s thesis and I passed; the men, the gods gave a little nod. I walked on: I finished it and called it Common People and printed it out, all four hundred and fifty pages of it, and sent it off to the men: the agents, the publishers, the gods of this realm of bright lights. The gatekeepers, but passage was denied. Thank you, they said, but no. I stumbled. My friends picked me up; they read my book and said carry on. I gave it to my boyfriend, the man who would have smiled and held me and held my hand so I didn’t stumble and fall; the man who would have devoured four hundred and fifty pages of his girlfriend’s inner world, and handled it gently, for the precious, fragile thing that it was – but no: he smashed it with his fists. For all the men and all the gods and the rejections they delivered, it was this man who dealt the fatal blow, because he took my book and never read it. Cruelly, unapologetically, inexplicably: he never read it. And I fell. And I didn’t get up for years.

Never use your writing as therapy they told us at university, and this is therapy – what I’m doing now. But I understand what they meant. We write from experience, but writers take that experience – the personal, the subjective – and turn it universal. We write from our preoccupations, we write to exorcise our demons, but we need to dress those demons in clothes that other people recognise and have them speak in words that can be understood. Self-indulgence has no place in literature: that’s what therapists are for. Write your shit out first, they told us, get it all out – only then can you write a book. I understand. But sometimes there are things that hold us back and we don’t even know it. There are demons that lurk, in disguise. An ageing girl, an ageing book, a sensational young author juggling pint glasses in her apron and looking for recognition in all the wrong places. And publishing, this time, as therapy.

I no longer need recognition; that’s one thing I learned from climbing up the hill, to recognise myself for what I am. I don’t need vindication, because there was never anything to prove. I became an author at thirty-six, but I’ve been a writer all along, and I just want to write. But I published Common People this week, my sensational debut, time-travelling to take its place in a line-up of six. I published it because I could, and because, although it has aged as I have, it’s still a book of this time, and its time has come. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it was one of my demons, disguised and fooling me all these years. It didn’t sit there quietly, it didn’t sit forgotten; it was heavy and I carried it, it was a thing I stumbled on, over and over again, and it was taking up space inside of me, a space I didn’t even know was occupied. A space that’s opened up now, all of a sudden, endless and clean and inviting, a kaleidoscope of words and colours and the bright lights that were there, all along, if only I’d known where to look. I didn’t publish it as therapy but I can see it now, how it’s cured me of something, a thing that was finished but unfulfilled, the latent dreams of a young author shaping themselves into regret. But regret had no place here, on my hill; it would only obscure the view.

Publishing as therapy and it’s now that I’ve gotten all my shit out; only now can I move on. My twenty-five-year-old self is a published author. I’ve done right by her and her words; I’ve set her free, and she can make her own way in the world, into the space that’s opened up. And I can make mine, at last, without looking back, because I can see it now, from this place I’ve reached in my Converse All Stars at age thirty-eight: that over the hill are other hills, and also valleys and mountains and forests and seas, and we can go to any of those places. Or just stand still for a while and enjoy the view. Waiting for no one and with absolutely nothing to prove. Trusting in our destiny, humble but certain that we can make our own bright lights.

Common People is available on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.


Why am I doing this, again?

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It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot since I launched my second crowdfunding campaign this May, almost a month ago now. It’s a question that’s been asked silently or openly, mostly with interest, sometimes with bafflement, a few times with aggression or disapproval. It’s a valid question, applicable on many levels: why I am doing this? It’s a question I’ve asked myself, over and over, since this whole thing began.

Because I’d said I wouldn’t do it again, and then I did.

The simplest answer is because I believe that everyone deserves a chance to do what they love, and we live in a society that is geared towards doing what you can, to survive. A society that ostensibly values creativity and development and fulfilment, yet places so many conditionals on how we achieve that, and issues so many warnings against failure that we’re essentially paralysed with fear. But ask anyone, and you will find a dream in storage or on hold, an if only and a one day, buried deep or floating just below the surface, scraping away at our efforts to be content with what we have. We are not fulfilled.
    I was the same, for too many years. Until my one day exploded on me, and I decided to take a chance on myself and become what I’ve always been: a writer. And from this exciting and rewarding and terrifying process came a book, 100 days of solitude, which, in turn and completely unexpectedly, became an inspiration for other people to go after their dreams. To consider the possibility that they actually could. Everyone who’s read it has found something in there to motivate or uplift them, to turn a bad day into a slightly better one, to give them a glimpse of how things could be, if only. It’s not a self-help book, and it isn’t theoretical: it’s real. It’s what I did; it’s what I’m doing.
    So this is why:
    – Because this book needs to be out there, being read.
    – Because I need money to advertise and reach more readers, and I don’t have it.
    – Because this is what happens when these readers are reached. (These are screenshots of an ad I’ve been running. Read the comments. I’ve never met any of these people before.)

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But then comes another why, more complex, more controversial: why am I doing this, again? Why am I always in people’s faces and on their news feeds, asking for things? This is where it gets tricky; this is the part I struggle with, myself. Because all of this – the marketing, the advertising, the PR, the asking for money; anything other than the writing – makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. I am a child of this society, and I’ve been conditioned not to ask for help. I am a background person; I am a person designed to linger in the sidelines, listening, watching, not standing in the middle of everything and shouting to be heard. This does not come naturally to me but it comes, it seems, as part of what I’m doing. My boyfriend asked me recently if I was selling myself on the internet and yes, I suppose, I am. I have become an advocate for a way of life that I believe in, for a book that represents it and, I guess in part, for myself. And what sort of advocate would I be if I crawled back into my cosy little corner and let it all fizzle out?
    I cannot. I will not. I’ll just have to stand here, in the middle of everything, and shout to be heard for as long as it takes. And I hope you know that you can tune me out if you want to, and only listen if you’re interested in what I have to say.

I don’t think I’ll be doing this again. Crowdfunding has taught me some invaluable lessons about human generosity and kindness and brought some amazing people into my life; it’s challenged my beliefs and forced me to be braver and bolder than any of the things I’ve done that have been described as “brave”. It has moved me and it’s shaken me up, equally, in so many ways. But it’s a test, of strength of character and integrity and faith, and it is stressful as hell. And I look forward to the day – this Friday – when it’s over, and I can disappear off everybody’s news feeds, or just go back to posting pictures of cats, like normal people do. When I can curl up my corner and make myself little and unobtrusive and comfortable.

But I will crawl out again, if I need to. If that’s what it takes, I’d do it again.

I’ll leave you with some more screenshots. Because, for all my being “good with words”, these people can speak for what I’m doing better than I ever could. And if you’re listening, because you’re interested, there is still a little time to back the project on kickstarter, and spread the message wide.

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