When is a breakdown actually a breakthrough?

This is totally out of left field, so bear with me. I may be having a tiny breakdown, or a breakthrough, or just….a weird moment of hormonally induced panic.

So, here’s the thing.

A few things have been going on in my life for the past two weeks, big internal discussions and revelations and changes. One of those things has been my never-ending search for purpose. I’ve talked at length about my writing and starting my self-publishing journey, but I’m not sure that writing alone is it for me. It’s my joy, not necessarily my raison d’être.

For a long time now I’ve been really drawn to the idea of coaching. Life-coaching, I suppose; the kind that helps people transform and grow and find inner peace and confidence and do things that bring them joy. But at the same time, the idea of life-coaching has always struck me as a bit…embarrassing? All I think of is that scene from Friends where Rachel’s narcissistic school-friend explains her new job:

Melissa: I wanted to get out of [real estate] and do something where I can really help people, and make a difference.

Rachel: Wow! So what do you do now?

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That’s how I can’t help feeling about life-coaching. Like it’s a job people do when they think they are changing the world, but are actually just being a bit wanky and pretentious.

Nevertheless, my heart is being tugged towards a career of connection and transformation, so I’ve been looking into coaching courses, and wondering if I’m ready to financially (and time-wise) make the commitment.

But whyyyy?

But all the while, I’ve been asking myself this: ‘What do I want to coach people to do? Who do I want to coach? Why?’ For a while I liked the idea of coaching people like me, who are trying to juggle motherhood and finding their own purposeful, meaningful outlets beyond parenting. Maybe even writers, who need to get rid of a lot of mental (and physical) blocks to find the time and confidence to follow their dreams of writing.

I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe it would just occur to me as I trained and researched, and started coaching, perhaps. I’m not one of those people who has an amazing transformational story I can tell to demonstrate the benefit of coaching; I’ve changed, but internally; from the outside my life looks the same as it always did, even if I look at it in a totally different way.

Anyway, these are the things that have been mulling around in my head. So I did what I often do late at night, and asked my inner guidance system to reassure me and give me a sign. ‘I’ll know it when I see it,’ I told myself.

Breakdown?

Then today, I attended a mental health event at work. We had a guest speaker who talked openly about her suicide attempts as a teenager and her transformation from deeply depressed to becoming driven to inspire young people. It was a moving, raw and heartfelt talk.

But that’s not what did me in.

Afterwards, students and colleagues came forward with their own stories of depression, suicide attempts and bleak, black despair. There were so many more than I’d expected.

But that’s not what did me in, either.

When I got back to my desk, I logged into Facebook to share a post about the event with students, and I got side-tracked by a piece someone had posted about climate change. It was a really, really frightening piece. But not full of scare-mongering for the sake of it. I can ignore those. This was balanced and heartfelt, and basically made the point that, in the writer’s opinion, with the havoc we’re wreaking on the planet there’s no way many of us will make it to old age. That’s scary enough, but I have two little girls. Two little, innocent daughters. If I don’t make it to old age… What of them?

Ok, so that’s what did me in.

I suddenly felt overwhelmed with horror. I’m great at burying my head in the sand, but I couldn’t seem to stick it in for enough this time.

It was a tsunami of anger at people in positions of power and influence who should effing well know better, and at myself for not taking enough responsibility myself. I felt an avalanche of helplessness for not knowing where to start. I felt guilty for having chosen to have children, for bringing them into such an uncertain, indefinite world that I’ve not played a positive enough part in saving. And I felt absolutely terrified.

Just before I had my first baby, I had a dream where I was standing on a beach, watching a catastrophic tsunami slowly move towards us. All I could think was that I needed to be with my mum and dad, my brother and sister. We needed to huddle together. After my daughter was born I had another dream, but this time the sun was too hot, and the atmosphere was overheating. The end was imminent, and again, all I wanted to do was gather my family under my wing and huddle.

I recalled these dreams as I sat at my desk and had an unexpected cry, hoping nobody would walk in and see me. In an effort to combat the overwhelming fear, I started looking into groups I could join, or things I could do – anything­ – but it all seemed so hopeless and confusing and shouty.

So I went to the toilet and cried a bit more.

Tell me what to do

Then I came back to my desk, stared blankly at the wall, and said – out loud, like a madzer – ‘I’m scared. I don’t know what to do. Tell me what to do.’

Nothing happened, until I realised that I had a blank email open on my screen, and that in the top corner was a little Microsoft lightbulb and a line saying: ‘Tell me what you want to do…’

And I stopped crying and laughed, because that was kind of cool. And then I realised that actually what I wanted to do was stop myself and others from feeling the way I did at that moment. I wanted to be able to take someone’s fear and guilt and overwhelm, and turn it into a positive, optimistic and hopeful plan that might even translate into real change in the world.

Heal yourself, heal the world and all that.

I don’t want to be the party-planner version of a life-coach. I want to help people feel like they have the power to make a difference in the world, no matter how small it may seem from the outset.

I want to help people do it without fear of not being enough, or of failing, and with fun and happiness and lightness. And swearing and smut, if you like – it’s your life, damnit.

So that’s my goal.

Changing the world, though. I mean, oof. I’ve got to start with myself, with my life. And you know what that bloody means, don’t you?

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I’ve got to dig out the re-usable nappies again…

Girl, Wash Your Face (and get out of your pyjamas while you’re at it)

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I’ve only recently got into audiobooks, thanks to a free trial of Audible, and I’ve gotta say, they’re a real game-changer when it comes to livening up housework/playing peek-a-boo, with the baby/drinking wine secretly in a cupboard.

My second ever audiobook was Rachel Hollis’s Girl, Wash Your Face, and I feel that for slightly flustered, confused and inadequate-feeling mothers everywhere, this book has a lot of appeal. It’s read by the author, and she’s got a great, conversational tone. You feel like you’re having a heart-to-heart with her after an inhibition-lowering glass of wine. Plus, she’s so honest. She talks about shaving her toes, for crying out loud, not to mention the many other oft-hidden aspects of being a woman, wife, mother, worker and all the rest of it.

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In Girl, Wash Your Face, Rachel Hollis debunks a number of lies we’ve been told about how we should feel or what we should do, in the hopes that we will shake off the shackles of societal pressures and reclaim our authentic, glorious selves. Hollis is a Christian and refers to her faith frequently throughout, but in a way that I found relevant to people of different or no faiths. (I know a handful of people who instantly go on the offended offensive the minute the G word is mentioned, so I guess for those, this ain’t the book.)

She covers a really wide range of topics with easy-going humour and frankness, touching on sex, relationships, career success, grief, parenting and appearance and much in between. I liked the chapter on achieving your dreams, on being a good writer, and particularly the final chapter: The Lie – I Need A Hero.

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These books often find me at the time I need them most, and I finished listening to this book on a chilly Thursday when I’d spent the whole day at home with my baby, a day when I hadn’t fully bothered to change out of my pyjamas, merely throwing a jumper over my PJ top and scraping my hair back into a messy, unwashed half-bun. I’d managed some writing while Little Pixie napped, but I was doubting my abilities, second-guessing my future and I definitely stank of fish courtesy of a jar of absolutely gross-smelling baby food.

The final line of the book is the titular ‘Girl, wash your face!’ and as I heard that, I realised that’s absolutely what I should have done that morning. It made me determined to do several things:

  • Throw away all of my slobby looking pyjamas-slash-leisure wear, so that I am no longer tempted to pretend that I have actually changed out of my sleepwear. Opening the door to the postie in a pair of flimsy button-down jammies, or a silky nightie, is a line I am not prepared to cross.
  • Wash my bloody face in the morning! I might not always be able to stretch to a morning shower (sometimes I just can’t deal with the crying and whining and baby clinging on to the edge of the bath and screaming every time a droplet of water hits her) but I can splash myself awake, slather on some CC cream and pucker up with some tinted lip balm.
  • Move this body. Writing is not a healthy hobby when it comes to posture and exercise. I bought a book on beginners Tai Chi several months ago with the intention to start in the new year. However, we’re now into February and I’m stuck somewhere in the middle of the book, plodding through a chapter on how to breathe properly. I need to set aside some time to speed-read it so I can stop making excuses and get to the step-by-step actual Tai-Chi bit. Also – I’m weirdly craving some sort of boxing/kick-boxing class. This must be a passing phase – I didn’t really enjoy learning karate that much in my twenties. I think I just want to feel strong and capable (as though I’m not already, after three years of carrying a child in one arm whilst hefting washing baskets up and down stairs).
  • Give my writing the credit it deserves. I’ve come so far, and absolutely no good can come of doubting myself now. My instincts have always served me well (when I’ve followed them, anyway. Who knows what kind of yacht-owning, mega-wealthy influencer I could be today if I’d followed that urge to start a make-up review website back in the early-noughties heyday of personal web pages – anyone remember Moonfruit.com??)

In summary – if you are a woman, and you ever doubt yourself or are holding onto any resentments over your past, your body or your abilities, then this is a really uplifting, honest and inspiring book. Run a bath, pour a glass of wine and listen to it on your bluetooth speaker. We all need a bit of tough love and gentle truths.

 

Writing, parenting, everything: it’s only ever about the journey

I find it so hard to exist in the moment sometimes.  Especially when I’m writing or sleep training or staring at my boring white walls; I want the end goal now, damn it!  I want the novel finished, edited, enrobed in a glossy cover and out there making money for me!  I want my children to be sleeping through the night and not waking every few hours for no reason!  I want to be able to embrace the ‘dark walls’ trend without having to go through the ‘living-room looks like a bomb-site’ bit!

Who was it who said that being alive is basically just dying a little bit more every day?  I don’t think that was my brain, though I frequently think similar thoughts.  But it’s true; wanting the end goal in any situation is a bit like saying ‘I want to just get it all over and done with and do the being dead bit now, please, because all this bit in the middle is just a bit tedious.  I’m impatient, you know?  I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything.’

It’s a really weird way to live.  We all do it, but it’s fundamentally flawed.

I’m starting work on a new story at the moment, about a woman who wants to relive her teenage years because she felt that her own were such a disappointment, but when she does get to experience teenage life again, she realises it’s a total mind-fuck.  (That wasn’t the word I was going to use, actually, but it slipped out.)  Anyway, I wrote the outline this morning and then wrote the first couple of scenes, and then thought, ‘Ugh.  This is going to take a long time.  I’m still working on the first novel and I technically finished that two years ago.  Why can’t it just be done already?’

Then I caught myself.  What?  Why would I want the thing that I most enjoy doing to be over?  I love the act of writing. I love coming up with ideas and pulling almost-tangible characters out of thin air to go and live these adventures.  I bloody love putting words in people’s mouths.  I’d put ’em in yours, if I saw you.  So why on earth am I wishing it was all over already?

Then I realised that what I actually wanted was the freedom to keep doing it.  Even whilst I was doing it, I wanted to be doing more of it.  The money fantasy…it’s great.  It’s unlikely, but it’s a lovely dream.  But even if I never made a penny I’d still write, I just love the idea that someone one day might pay so that it can be all I do.  But it’s strange to fantasise about doing the thing you are CURRENTLY DOING.

I saw something on Instagram a while ago that captured that feeling of having a beautiful moment, and whilst you are still experiencing that beautiful moment (like a kiss in the rain, or a breathtaking sunset), you are simultaneously experiencing nostalgia FOR THE SAME MOMENT.

I guess what I’m basically saying is we are all screwed up and strange, wanting what we’ve already got but ignoring the magic of it at the same time.

I woke up the other morning and for a second, felt really excited.  Like something amazing was going to happen.  Then I remembered it was just a random Tuesday, nothing exciting was going to happen.  But THEN (I know, it’s a rollercoaster of emotion in my head before 9am) I told myself: No!  Something amazing COULD happen!  Anything could happen!  This is a brand new day, which you are alive to witness, influence and create, and damnit you SHOULD be excited!  Every morning!’

This was meant to be a few words to say: let’s all stop being so focused on the end goal and just enjoy the little moments, shall we?  They don’t all have to be amazing.  Having my hair pulled by my 6 month old isn’t enriching for the soul.  Scraping Babybel wax out of the rug isn’t invigorating for my well-being.  But in every moment, anything could happen.  Everything could change.  It might not.  But it could.

That’s what makes great stories.  That’s what makes great lives.

Off to peel stickers off my laminate wood flooring now.  #livingmybestlife

X

 

The Value of a Beta-Read

Whew.  It’s been ages since I felt like I could justify blogging.  In my absolute dream life, I picture myself floating serenely out of bed (before a few laps in my heated, indoor pool, natch) and heading down to my beautiful library-slash-office, and writing from 9am until 5pm, at which point I’d close the computer and cherish my family time.

I guess some writers – good, established ones, or at least the rich ones who can afford to – do do that.  But for me, writing is never-ending.  I do it as soon as I get up.  I do it while the baby naps.  I do it while the toddler watches TV.  I do it while my husband takes the kids to the shops.  And when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing.  I wake up in the night to jot down plot points or dialogue or just things that come to me and which might be brilliant, might be a pile of shit.  I can’t risk it; I write it down.  So when I’m not physically holding children, I feel like I should be working on my novel.  Blogging just falls behind the wayside, because it’s non-essential.  But not blogging makes me feel a bit weird and guilty, so….

What’s wrong with us?  All of us, I mean?  Why do we always put so much pressure on ourselves to be doing something that we are not currently doing?  Sigh.

Anyway, onto the topic at hand.  I recently sent my completed novel to be read by a professional editor.  I paid for the service, but I’m really glad I did.  Before she read it, I think six other people had read it – and I’m so grateful to them all.  Their feedback was lovely, and really encouraging, but they are my friends and family and as every writer is continually reminded: They Will Not Tell You If It’s Shit.

So, before I pressed on and self-published 130,000 words of crap, or gave up altogether, I took the plunge, checked my bank balance (a mistake) and sent it off.  It took my beta-reader about a month to get around to it, but she sent me a four page write up of what worked, what didn’t, what could be cut, and the areas a traditional publisher would likely want changed.  It was brilliant.  She told me some really positive things, most importantly, that she really enjoyed reading it.  I mean, that’s all an author wants, right?  That and a million pounds?  Totally standard.

She also gave me some very useful – and not at all discouraging – criticism.  Characters needed to go.  My main character needed to grow a backbone.  My love interest needed to be a bit more….loveable.  (He’s a killer – it was a tough re-write).  The whole thing needed to be significantly shorter.  My baddie needed to be less like a James Bond ‘mwah-ha-ha’ villain.  All things I can work on (and have worked on – I attacked the third draft like a beast).

The main sticking point she mentioned – and which I have always suspected was going to be difficult – was putting it in a particular genre.  It’s romance, but a bit of an odd duck of a romance.  The hero, Maxwell, is a very non-standard sort of romantic hero, in that he doesn’t want to have a relationship.  Or sex.  Or any kind of friendship.  Then there’s the themes in the book – murder, suicide, bullying, references to domestic abuse….  I genuinely didn’t have ANY OF THOSE THINGS IN MIND when I started to write it.  I don’t know where they came from.  I don’t know where the story came from, all I wanted to write about was Nina and Max, but I needed something to hang them on and….  Poor Nina.  Poor Max.  Anyway, the themes meant that my attempts at a romantic comedy were a bit off the mark, but it’s not quite a thriller…  And it can’t be ‘Women’s Fiction’ either (that catch-all genre) because in order to make it so, I’d have to lose Max’s point of view, and that would break my heart.  I love him (even if nobody else does).

So.  I guess it’s closest to a romantic suspense, and that’s probably where I’ll pin it for now.  In the future, I’m going to make sure I know what genre I’m writing in before I start writing.  Also my advice to other aspiring authors.

My beta-reader was amazing, though, is what I’m saying.  Not only did she give me amazingly clear direction, she also gave me back my confidence and love for a story I’ve been dragging along for 2 years, and was starting to lose faith in.  Many people in writing communities don’t pay for beta readers, they just share critiquing favours, and that’s amazing.  But I don’t have that network yet, and in my case, paying an editor was well worth the money.  Once I can scrape together the money to pay for it to be properly edited, I’ll do another round.  (You pay per word, another MASSIVE incentive to cut it down!)

And then, maybe early next year, I can finally publish this little baby of mine.  I’m excited and also terrified, but most importantly, I’m motivated.

How to write a novel when you have kids

As a parent, there are a million things that seem to take priority over writing.  Playing with your kids, feeding them, putting them to bed (which currently takes us about 4 hours), cleaning the house, looking at Instagram, just sitting with your eyes closed for ten precious minutes…  It just seems so difficult to commit to carving out time to write.  But if you want to be an author, as opposed to just a writer dreaming of writing, then commit you must.
I don’t have any easy answers, either.  You have to make sacrifices and you frequently won’t want to – but hey, you’re a parent, sacrifice is your new middle name.  I’ve become more and more determined to force at least one book of mine on the world, for entirely selfish reasons.  And so I’ve had to figure out ways to do it that still allow me to be a good mum, partner (bit iffy on that one, actually) and family member.
Here’s my advice.
Be flexible about how and where you write. On your phone while they are drifting off to sleep, in a notebook while they are playing, on the reverse of your toddlers colouring book, wherever you can – if you wait until you have unfettered access to your laptop and an uncluttered desk you may die at 97 with your novel still inside you.  Embrace file sharing apps like Dropbox to make syncing across devices easier – I use Evernote (the free version) so that I can easily copy notes from my phone across to my laptop when I get to it.
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Rather than have a dedicated writing desk (there’s no space for one in my house and in any case, my girls would NEVER let me sit at a desk when they are around) it might help to have a dedicated writing ‘dumping ground’ (maybe a drawer or box) where you collate all the scraps and notes and scribbles that will eventually contribute to your novel.
And for the love of God, write that idea down at 2am.  It may well be mind-blowing, but you almost certainly will not remember it in the morning.
Make your peace with sacrifice.  If you fight it, it will make you resentful and frustrated.  Just accept that if you really want to follow your passion and make this book happen, you’ll have to give up things like early nights, fancy mealtimes (toast crumbs on your keyboard, anyone?) and your favourite TV shows.  Not forever!  But for now. It’s tough, but if you can’t write when your kids are around then your options are pretty limited.
Set short, sharp bursts of time.  Put the timer on, tell the children you are writing your stories, set out activities for them, and go at your writing hell for leather for 15 minutes. Your kids might allow you longer – mine need my attention after about 15/20 mins of solitary playing.  15 minutes of writing might not sound like it amounts to much, but think about how many 15 minute chunks of your day disappear without you doing anything.  If you set a timer for a little burst of writing 4 times a day, then it feels like a game for the kids (if the activities are fun/you use your best showman skills to sell ’em on the idea) and you get about an hour of writing a day.  That’s 7 hours a week, and that, my friends, is a whole day’s work.
Get your kids involved. Depending on their age, you could tell them a little story about your main characters and draw them a picture of them (or their pet, car or outfit, depending on what your kids like) to colour in whilst you write.  OBVIOUSLY if you are writing steamy romances then the details you share might be limited.  ‘This is Darcy.  She lives in a dungeon, wears an eye mask – yes, just like Batman! – and enjoys…horse riding.’ Whatever, if you can, just let them into your writing life a little bit in whatever way works.
Don’t give in to guilt. Guilt is insidious and utterly pointless. You love your kids, they know you love them, so cut yourself a break when you need to crack on with your own thing. Imaginative play is what sparks the desire to write, draw and create in the first place – and encouraging children to play alone for a few hours each day isn’t neglect! It’s positive for your children to see you working hard on something you are passionate about and equally positive to recognise boundaries – you are their parent and their rock, not their eternal playmate.
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Highly symbolic photo of smiling rock-parent by Creative Designs on Pexels.com

Above all, just do what you can.  I’ve read success stories from authors who have written bestselling novels in 15 minutes a day whilst on maternity leave so it’s definitely possible, even if it’s definitely not easy.
I make sure that I read my kids plenty of stories and I hope that one day they will want to write their own alongside me, but until then, I’m just doing my best to do what I love whilst still showing them I love them.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have any tips and advice for sneaking in precious writing time – or any kind of ‘me’ time – around looking after children!
Love
C x