1:1 Creative Writing Virtual Tutoring

Lifestyle, Mental Health, Writing

If staying at home is getting you down and you need something to focus your mind, I’ve got just the thing…

I’m offering some one-to-one Creative Writing tutoring sessions for kids, teens and grown-ups! Prices are totally flexible and can be negotiated between the two of us, and all ages are encouraged. At the moment, I’m teaching a handful of teenagers, a couple of ten-year-old’s (adorable) and a few grown-ups as well. So far, everything I teach is focused on writing fiction rather than poetry or short stories as I’ve more experience in that area (but if you’re desperate for a poet, drop me a line and I’ll see if I can point you in the right direction…). I’m currently offering three different Storytelling courses for these ages:

children (8-12)

teenagers (13-17)

grown-ups (18+)

Together, we’ll look at the basics of writing a story; how to create realistic characters, settings, and plots. You’ll have control over how many times we’ll meet (for most of my students, we have between 1-2 hours a week), how long you’d like to meet for (this can be anywhere between 2-6 weeks), and what you hope to learn by the end of the course.

The course is focused on getting you inspired and motivated to write the story that you want to write. For one of my current students, we’re also looking at what to do after her book is written; for example, how to write Agent Query letters and how to network as a writer. This is also something we can cover if you already feel confident in your writing but just need a little extra help with what comes next.

I’m also offering a number of free classes to children (8-12) from low-income backgrounds.

One to one tutoring is perfect for children who enjoy literacy, reading and writing, and who are missing having this creative time without school at the moment. It’s also ideal for teenagers who are looking to improve their writing, or maybe are even looking to continue creative writing at a higher academic level.

Classes will take place via Zoom, so access to a laptop and a half-decent internet connection (as well as a notebook and pen!) are required. ♡

As well as having first class degrees in Creative Writing (BA Hons) and Writing for Young People (MA), I’ve been leading freelance writing workshops for just over 3 years and have been tutoring kids & teens for 2 years with Oxford Summer Courses. I am also fully DBS checked and have worked with young people for many years.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to chat more about courses, dates, prices, or anything in-between. If you’re interested in specific course details, I can whizz my syllabus across (for 8-12s / teens) for you to look over. My email is tomlin.bethany@gmail.com and I aim to respond to every enquiry within 48 hours.

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Update: places are filling up quickly for June and early July, so drop me a line if you’d like to reserve a slot in the next few weeks.

long live the night owl: taking advantage of the witching hours

Lifestyle, Mental Health

It’s one a.m., and you’ve been lying awake for hours. Already, the anxiety of the coming day has started to creep in through the curtains and the racing thoughts are making your body restless. Unfortunately, the only logical thing to do is to lie back and force yourself to get some shut eye… Or is it?

For years I’ve been a self-acclaimed night owl, but it’s only recently that I’ve started to embrace it (admittedly because self-employment often means I can plan for an afternoon nap). I remember during my master’s, I had a job in a bookshop, one doing freelance festival production, and I had my manuscript to write at the same time. On top of this, I really wasn’t sleeping well (looking back now, I’m not sure how I managed). I’d be lying awake at at two or three in the morning planning the next opportunity I’d get to sleep — what time would I start work, get home from work, how much uni stuff did I have to do, etc… Eventually, I just started using those hours in the middle of the night to get stuff done.

I fell out of habit of embracing the night time for a little while when I was working in a cafe with regular hours, because I had time during the day to utilise and get my work done – and I fell into a good sleeping pattern because of the regularity of work. But there will always be periods of my work life and personal life when sleeping patterns are irregular; often I get enough sleep – just not at the same time as everyone else!

Who made up the rule that we have to sleep at night, anyway?

I mean, getting a decent amount of sleep is just common sense. But if our jobs mean our day starts at ten a.m. instead of seven, surely we don’t have to sleep until later either? As long as we get the classic six to eight hours, does it really matter when we do it?

Maybe it does. I’m not a scientist (or a doctor), but my tried and tested theory (albeit on just the one test subject) is that we don’t have to waste hours trying to sleep if it isn’t coming naturally. This isn’t to say that you should be running marathons or taking up a new hobby in the middle of the night, but you can do things that require movement and actually set yourself up for the next day and maybe even wear yourself out at the same time.

I’m writing this in the middle of the night, just for context, so doing a little blog post is my way of feeling productive, getting some creative juices flowing, and hopefully tire my brain out at the same time. Here are some other things that I’ve personally deemed appropriate night-time activities:

  1. Put the washing on. Do you know how nice it is to wake up with a load of washing done in the morning? What’s that, you have a life? Whatever — stick the washing on and wake up to one task crossed off your to-do list. (I’m also sad and find folding and ironing very therapeutic so this is a fun morning activity for me. Shut up.)
  2. Listen to an audiobook — or a podcast! My audible choice this month was the last Harry Potter book (again, I find this super therapeutic and it’s like forty hours long so I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth?) I’m up for podcast recommendations if you have them, but I listen to an eclectic mix. Favourite at the minute is the ten minute TED Talks series on Spotify.
  3. Read a book. Sounds like a boring old classic but it always does the trick for me. I can’t count the times I’ve woken up with the lights still on and a book balancing on my nose. Try to steer clear of the thrillers and pace-y page turners and go for something a little lighter that won’t leave you wanting more. My favourites for nighttime reading are non fiction books because I feel kind of like I’m learning something but, most of the time, I’m happy to put it down when my eyelids start drooping.
  4. Tidy your living space and then sit on Twitter for an hour. Light some candles (not if you’re super sleepy, let’s be sensible), make yourself a snack, curl up with a (decaf) brew and scroll on the internet. Tweet the other people who are still awake. Make a friend. Have an interesting discussion (steer clear of politics if post midnight). Be kind.
  5. Watch the stars. Sorry if you’re in a city. At the minute it’s pretty stormy here and cloudy at nighttime, but I still always have my curtains open (I’m optimistic that the neighbours aren’t creeps) so that I can have a cup of herbal tea whilst watching the moon and pretend I’m in a period drama or something.

You’ll have your own list of nighttime activities, I’m sure. But my point is – under the assumption you live with people that don’t mind a bit of rattling around the house at night, or you live alone – take advantage of the time you’re awake. Don’t lie there and become heavy with anxiety as you overthink every tiny detail of your life. Don’t let your bed – a place of comfort, rest, and Netflix binges – become somewhere laden with worry and fear.

Distract yourself from your racing mind (we’ve all had that if I go to sleep now, I’ll have this much sleep, if I go to sleep now… thought) and do something that makes you feel better. Sometimes it’s nice to just open your window, breathe in the witching hours, and know that you are one of the special few who are awake to witness them. There’s something really magical about being one of the few still awake in the dead of night. Everything is at a standstill – but you.

You don’t have to sleep because everyone else is sleeping — not every night, anyway. The world won’t end because you decided to do your dishes at three a.m..

Anyway… I’ve got tea to drink, edits to make and, if I’m honest, probably a bit of laundry to do, too.

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Comment with your favourite podcasts and audiobooks at the moment — I always need more.

transient vs long-term: redefining friendships as a grown-up

Lifestyle, Mental Health

Over the last couple of days, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with some friends I haven’t seen in a while. With my oldest friends, there’s rarely any awkwardness to stumble over, even if it’s been years since we last caught up. We had time to speak about friendships – and the extra value we’ve started to place on our closest pals as we approach our mid-twenties.

This last year has felt quite a transient one, friendship-wise, with some of my closest friends moving geographically further away, and some of the friends I saw every day turning out to be less reliable than I thought. I’ve started to realise that perhaps, in some circumstances, I’ve set myself up for disappointment by expecting more of people than I should have. Some of the friendships that I’d valued the most last year, for example, I’ve had to re-evaluate this year – asking myself, do I mean as much to this person as they do to me?

On Saturday, I met up with my friend Josie, who has been one of my closest friends since we met in high school, aged eleven. Our friendship has spanned over a decade, and she is one of my most trusted and valued friends. Meeting up with her made me think about the other friendships I formed in high school, and how most of the people I used to be so close to in those pivotal teenage years I no longer keep in contact with. I think the reason behind that is probably because so many of my teenage friendships were based around convenience. I was put in classes, year groups, after school clubs – and if I didn’t get on with at least some of the people I had to see every day, I would have really struggled.

So I picked my friends based on who I liked best from the people that I was stuck with – as harsh as that might sound. And some of those people, the ones I had a real connection with, like Josie, have stayed in my life since we left school and parted ways. Josie and I only really see each other once or twice a year, now (sometimes not even that much – adult life is busier than we’d anticipated it being), but every time we meet, we pick up where we left off. There is no awkwardness to stumble over, no small-talk to tiptoe around; the love is just there.

Even though I’d come to this realisation about my younger self’s friendships, I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into similar scenarios in adult life. Sometimes, the genuine connection with people you see every day is just there, and sometimes… Sometimes, I think I’ve forced friendships that might have been better off as passing acquaintances. I think I’m learning that I’m someone who is quite eager to make meaningful connections with people — and this means I often find myself committing my time and energy to one-sided friendships. It’s time I learnt that not every person who comes into my life is meant to stay. Sometimes, people are just there to teach you something about yourself (or vice versa) that you can take on with you into the next stage of your life.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asking myself questions whenever I feel a friendship might be a little one-sided, problematic or, frankly, not really a friendship at all. Being able to analyse my motives and emotions towards certain situations is a skill I’m still developing, but one I’m proud of. I’ve found it helpful to ask myself these three questions.

~

What does their friendship mean to you?

Sometimes, I can go months and months thinking I’m really close with someone. We see each other most of the time circumstantially, so their friendship is convenient to me. We seem to care about each other an equal amount. Sometimes I find their views and opinions problematic – but they’re always there for me. Then, I’m out of the city for a few weeks. That time passes, and I don’t think about that person once. Chances are, they aren’t thinking about me, either. Our friendship certainly served a purpose, and we were there to be each other’s crutch when we needed it the most – but perhaps neither of us was as invested in our relationship as we thought we were.

~

What does your friendship mean to them?

Are you just a placeholder for when their other friends are busy? Don’t let people use your friendship to pass the time. Do they just see you as a colleague, whereas you thought they were a really good friend? Sometimes it’s hard to recognise that you might only play a small part in someone’s life – someone who has turned out to be quite a big part of yours. Reevaluating friendships like this can often feel like going through several painful break-ups at once, but it’s necessary. It’s unfair for you to be pouring time and love and affection into someone’s life that doesn’t recognise or give back the energy you’re putting in.

~

How easy is it to maintain this friendship?

So many of the people I consider closest to me are the ones that I don’t have to speak to every day. The ones that, when we meet up, regardless of how long it’s been, nothing seems to have changed between us. I feel that the best friendships are the one’s that are relatively low-maintenance. I don’t want to have an argument because it’s been a week and I’ve forgotten to message. I don’t want to feel like I’ve been a terrible mate because I didn’t have time to meet you for a drink this month. I want to feel there’s mutual love and respect between us, even after we’ve grown up and into better versions of ourselves.

~

Friendships, in my eyes, should be the light of our lives. Sometimes, it’s good to acknowledge that we – or they – might just need that light in a moment of darkness. Some friendships are transcient, and that’s okay.

But some friendships – the best ones – don’t just serve a purpose for a little while. They are the ones that stay and bloom and adapt around each other’s changing lives and circumstances. They are the ones that, now, at this point in my life, I value the most.

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I was heartbroken to hear about the death of Caroline Flack on Saturday. Please, take this opportunity to reach out to your friends and check in with them. Tackle the tabloids by avoiding click-bait and celebrity gossip, taking extra care about how you present your opinions online, and – as Caroline would say – #BeKind.

Guest post: ‘LILAC’ by Alex Jones

Mental Health, Writing

A short piece about mental health, self-discovery, and reaching out for help through counselling. Guest writer Alex Jones shares his story in this profound piece of autofiction.

~

“And stay, my dear

stay…

forever, as my quiet song,

in my lilac dawn.”

Sanober Khan, A Thousand Flamingos

~

Lilac by Alex Jones

Every Thursday at 7.30pm, I would climb the stairs of the Cowley Children’s Centre, following my counsellor up to a beige room. I would always very visibly keep my eyes focused down on the way up, I did not want to appear to my counsellor that I had been staring at her bum. That week was the first time I noticed the sign ‘Lilac Room’, a laminated, lilac lettered sign stuck to the wooden door. 

I have been working to rebuild myself for four years now. Mindfulness, counselling and hobbies all in the pursuit of re-finding the identity I had lost under the collapse of my ex-girlfriend’s mental health. Six brutal years of caring had taken their toll and I found myself an insecure shell, shattered and delicately dancing on the edge of a dark depression. 

In the ‘Lilac room’ I found myself sat upright, switching from gently stroking to tugging my arm hair depending on the levels of discomfort I experienced journeying into the folds of my personality. In all the personal delving that was done, I found myself reminiscing on someone who, for a short while when at my lowest ebb, sat at the centre of my world. 

I remember the excitement of sleeping on a dirty brown sofa on a bitterly cold night in November. It was exciting because she was there, and I lay next to her with my face at her waist height. As I needily tried to hug her, probably unsuccessfully, my mind became caught up in the excitement of how I adored this woman. My nostrils seemed to fill with a distracting sweet and heady scent of flowers. The drone of fear my mind was usually preoccupied by had halted for that moment.

Being around her reminded me I was still an interesting person, with passions and an identity that wasn’t just a ‘carer’. It was inevitable that I would have fallen for her; I adored her beautiful dark brown hair and her love of film. I had tried to kiss her a few times, failing miserably. We played a game of pretending it never happened. By Christmas, I decided I had to remain the only possible ‘saviour’ for my much in need Girlfriend. I had chosen to remain alone in a battle for someone else’s survival, at the expense of my own. I concluded that I would purge this wonderful new woman from my company and thoughts.

My approach to that was simple, I hunted out every flaw in her behaviour and amplified them with my general contempt for human behaviour. I remember clearly late on Christmas Eve, sitting up in bed, writing in my little green ring-binded notebook. ‘Not very intelligent – not Oxbridge enough for you,’ ‘she is only friends with you because she is lonely’, ‘she has no friends’. I didn’t believe a word I wrote. 

The words I wrote were bloody useless. The part of me that lay wounded from the previous years craved to be seen and affirmed by her, and come January, I again found myself with her out on a drunken night. This one was to end with a lot of pain and ultimately the unravelling of any closeness we had. 

On that night we found ourselves floating from bar to bar swigging bottles of red wine we had managed to buy barely before the bell of last orders rang. The world spun, I fell off Nelson’s column at one point and eventually we found ourselves in a tourist trap bar on St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square. I barely took my eyes off her or my thoughts away from how to impress her. I didn’t want to go home that night or her to leave.  She didn’t seem to either, but perhaps that was for very different reasons. 

Things went downhill from the point when I had returned from the bar to find her passed out. Panic set in, and I took up the mammoth challenge of booking a cab on my phone with drunken eyes and fingers. I dragged her into a cab and ventured through the orange flashing lights of south London to Brixton. But we didn’t get there before I decided to vomit the contents of my drunken guts into my own favourite leather postal bag. On arrival, the passed out woman miraculously rose from the dead and ran into her house, I just wanted to clean the mess I had made in the bathroom upstairs. 

I was struck by sinking feeling in my gut when the misery of scooping cold sick into the sink suddenly turned to fear that water was no longer going down the plug hole. Time exponentially expanded  as I tried to scoop the already scooped sick from the sink to the toilet. It was chaos. The things covered in sick, including my favourite copy of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast, workbooks and headphones, were bagged up. For the life of me I am not sure why I didn’t bin them, but instead I put them on the side in her bedroom. 

The other housemates approached me just as I was about to finally let this painful night end. They didn’t know who I was, and their housemate was passed out on her bed. The kind smaller Welsh guy tried to counter the aggressive taller guy by explaining why I should consider just sleeping on the lounge sofa. But my drunken impulsive brain only felt only irrational self-pity and accusation, so I stumbled out of the house into a taxi home. I ended the night seventy quid down, hung over and full of existential dread. 

The month that followed that night was painful. The initial thankfulness for getting her home morphed into annoyance about the sink and then finally developed into a confusing anger directed at me. We left it with her messaging me about what to do with my sick covered items left in her room, before she started to act clearly angry at me. I retaliated with my old passive aggressive tactic of ignoring her to her face. The truth was I just felt deeply sad, it was painfully confusing as to why I was being punished. I just wanted to be close to her again. I missed the beautiful dark hair, the exploration of film and art, but most of all I missed feeling affirmed and alive. 

The month came to ahead when we ended up, despite actively avoiding each other, sat next to each other at work drinks. We sat back to back to each other, and did not speak until we realised we had decided to get up and leave at the same time. As we walked to London Bridge tube station, our mutual anger grew in to a shouty argument. I can’t remember everything that was said that night, but I remember her back against the entrance wall, looking into my eyes and saying something very odd and out of place. “I guess I am just too stupid to get that, Alex!”. The argument travelled down the Dantean layers of the station, it would develop into a point and then she would run away to the next layer and shout something like “This isn’t a movie, Alex”. By the time we reached the platform, where we would part for the tube home, I begged her to tell me what I had done wrong. Her tone changed and her frustration changed to something more vulnerable…”

“You don’t get it, do you?”. 

“I don’t get what?”

“You don’t get it…”.

“Then just tell me…” 

“I read it Alex, I read your notebook….”

I cringed as the words I had written that Christmas Eve shot back into my mind, along with the memory of putting the notebook safely in my brown postal bag. Fuck.

The truth is I have never told this story to my therapist. It never really felt relevant to things I was working on in sessions. This is not to say that this person was not part of the 26 weeks of exploration and healing, of course they were. But this has always been a story better to tell new friends in the pub; you get to enjoy the notebook shaped penny drop in their eyes, whilst letting the humour misdirect them from asking how I really felt about this awful time.

The reason this story really matters to me is not because of the drunken antics, the story’s notebook punchline or even because it was a night out with the woman I desperately wanted to be with.  But because of the path that this ruinous time in my life put me on. At the same time the drama of this story was taking place, by some coincidence, I was really into Jeff Buckely’s album Grace and listening to it on repeat. Track 4 was Lilac Wine, a beautiful song about being intoxicated with the memories of a lost love after drinking a heady lilac wine. The meaning of this song became more and more pertinent as I also became intoxicated by the memories of a lost love that I wanted back. 

One afternoon, I went with the dark haired woman to explore an exhibition at the National Gallery. I felt completely engrossed by the unusual feeling of excitement and fun I was experiencing from joking and playing around the paintings with her. Suddenly, and very unexpectedly, we were joined on the staircase of the gallery by someone I felt I knew. He was attractive, fun, very curious and passionate. I found him entirely likeable, and not just because it was determined by the neediness of those around him. He was stirring to be around, and yet just like me he was surrounded by unending destruction. It occurred to me that perhaps I used to love him. 

She and I eventually stopped hanging out, but he stayed around. His presence turned into intoxicating nostalgia, and acknowledgement of my painful present. Being with him was powerful, and I allowed him to be with me more often, to care for me, and to guide me. First he encouraged me to start learning mindfulness and to enter into a short therapy course with the NHS. These built the foundations that led me to a longer term therapy, where four years on he was still there holding my hand in the ‘Lilac room’ as I struggled through. I had regained my lost love, he was I, and in remembering and not letting him go I started to care about myself once again.  

Therapy recently came to an end, and I no longer have to worry about averting my eyes on that staircase every Thursday. When I left the Cowley Children’s centre, walking to the bus stop for the final time, I reflected on everything I was taking away with me; an education on self-care; a brighter world to inhabit and a story of progress worth sharing. I boarded the number 5 bus, climbed the stairs, sat down and as I continued to reflect on therapy I reached into my bag and found a small bunch of lilac flowers. I proudly pinned them on to my lapel, decorating myself like a Victorian widow intent on being reminded of a love lost. In that moment I decided I would wear lilac every day, for never again shall I forget that I am someone worth loving. 

~

I really love this piece by Alex. I think capturing experiences that mean something to you and managing to pin down past emotions on paper is a really powerful therapeutic tool. One of the things that makes this piece so evocative is Alex’s sheer honesty: his admittance of the mistakes he made and his ability to evaluate the situation – after time – to have a more objective view. ‘Lilac’ really does explore the positive impact that counselling, therapy, and being brave enough to reach out for help can have. Throughout the narrative, it’s clear that the once hesitant, second-guessing voice of Alex develops into someone who knows themselves. Who trusts their own voice. And, as Alex says, someone who is ‘worth loving’.

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seeking permanence in creativity

Lifestyle, Mental Health, Writing

For most people, deciding on a career path will often determine their physical location – or at least give them a nudge in a certain direction. If I was pursuing a career in nursing, for example, my location might be determined by which hospitals are closest to me geographically, or maybe which institutions, regardless of distance, had vacancies. With writing, it feels a little different. Particularly freelance writing, or writing when you haven’t yet been published, means that – as long as you’ve got somewhere to write and something to write on – it doesn’t really matter where you’re based.

Hence: impermanence.

It’s the same kind of deal with freelance writing (or, let’s be real, any kind of freelancing): there isn’t often permanence when it comes to steadiness of work or financial income. Most of the writers I know in this situation, myself included, pin down a few different jobs a year in order to support their creativity. But since these jobs often come second to writing, the permanence of part-time work is often not really necessary.

For me, impermanence is something that I’ve struggled with for about a year now. My housing situation is rarely secure (I’ve stayed on countless friends’ sofas and even when I had my own flat it was short-term), my financial situation is rarely secure (between cafe work, festival work and teaching, I don’t often know when the next load of cash is coming in) and my creativity is not always reliable (I sometimes have weeks when words just… don’t work). But permanence – however temporary – is really important in order to have a baseline for good mental well-being so that we can juggle everything else life throws at us.

So, how can we seek reliability in something which is, for the most part, pretty unpredictable?

Something that I started doing this year (new year, new me or whatever) is trying to create some kind of accountability for myself and my writing. Each Sunday, my friend Callen and I (Callen is a wonderful writer and one of my closest friends) are sending each other a weekly email. Our weekly email updates mean that we’re constantly creating a structure for ourselves and keeping each other in the loop with our writing progress. This doesn’t mean that we have to have written a hundred thousand words every week, but it does mean that we have to have done something that contributes to our creative work. For example, this week Callen sent over a really beautiful mood-board for one of his characters, and I sent back a blurb and a couple of chapters of a new project. Knowing that every week I’ll be telling Callen what I’ve been up to means that I’m mindful during the week. When I have a spare couple of hours, I feel more motivated to get something creative done, because I know I’ll be catching him up about it on Sunday.

Finding friends in similar situations and staying in regular contact is one way I try to find some stability in my writing and my creative life – but it’s not the only way. Setting realistic goals is also a great way to create creative structure. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘x amount of words a day’ approach, but looser goals that involve less pressure and more motivation. For example – I want to have at least 2 hours of creative time a week. I can spend my creative time planning or doodling or writing – being creative in whatever form I feel like on that given week. Finding writing competitions to enter or setting time aside to read books that have been on my list forever are also ways of managing my creative time.

I guess the thing I’m trying to change this year is my own mindset towards how I feel about my creativity. Maybe writing will never bring me financial or geographical stability, but there are ways I can make it a constant driving force in my life. I can afford to work five days a week as long as I have time to commit to my creative life. I can afford to say no to going out for a drink if inspiration strikes, as long as I’m managing my creative and social life well. For me and so many others, my mental health is dependent on having a handful of constant things that make me happy and bring out my inner passions. I feel motivated and committed and more like myself when I’m writing: surely this means I should make time for it among all the other things life demands I make time for?

Let me know how you’re finding permanence and structure in your creativity this year. (On another note, tune into my Instagram to join my girl gang and fight against toxic diet culture / the patriarchy / whatever else I feel like rioting about).

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where the heart is: re-imagining the concept of home

Lifestyle

Picture this: I’m on a train from Glastonbury to Oxford. Having been away for a few months, I’m finally heading home. I have no contract on a house – no roof over my head to return to – though, somehow, things don’t seem daunting. I’m heading home.

Isn’t it strange how a place can feel like home, even when you’re not necessarily returning to a bed in a room with material possessions? A few weeks ago, I was sitting on that train with a bursting-at-the-seams suitcase and a backpack twice the size of me, knowing that I’d spend the next few weeks on the floors and sofas of my friends. Even though the concept of being without a physical home was, at times, terrifying, I was so ready to be back in the city I love, surrounded by friends that feel like family.

It’s safe to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own concept of ‘home’ recently.

I suppose, for the last few years, physical ‘homes’ have always felt quite temporary to me. I mean, I lived in a tent for a little while – one of my favourite homes so far – but I always knew that it couldn’t last forever. It was a great few months, whilst the weather was good and our jobs permitted us to travel, but then it ended. After a rocky transitioning period of maybe-living-in-a-caravan and maybe-ending-up-sleeping-above-a-pub-in-Witney, we finally found our little studio flat. Even then, though, Beth and I shared such a small space, and I stayed on a pull-out bed on the floor; that home, too, felt temporary.

Maybe that’s how physical homes always feel, though? I’ve always been a little jealous of friends that still have parents that live in their childhood homes, because that idea feels a little more solid to me. A little more permanent. I had one main childhood home, but from the age of fourteen, we moved house a bit – always in the same village, but still different houses. When I moved to university, my family grew with my mum’s new partner and his daughter, and they rented a few different places before buying the house they now live in. Sometimes, I’d go home for Christmas to a house that I hadn’t even seen before.

Yet still, when I say I’m going back to see my family, even though I’ve only been to their new house a handful of times, I say I’m going home. Because home is not a physical place for me. It never has been.

If I’m heading back to the North to see my family, I’ll always be going home. I have connections to every village neighboring the one where my family now live: school days in Chorley, sixth form and nights out in Wigan, day trips to Manchester, iced coffee on park benches in Bolton… When I head back to Bath – the city that I lived in for four-and-a-bit years – I say I’m going home. Of course I am, because there are still people I love there. Maybe if I go back to Glastonbury next festival season, that will feel like going home, too – because of the people I met and the connections I made there.

Bunkabin living: a metal box in a field that my sister made cute and cosy for us

Edinburgh is a city I’ve always been to alone; a city where I finished my first book and found so much of myself in the cobbled stone streets and teetering stacks of well-read books. It will always feel like home, maybe not because of the friends I made there, but because of the characters I created, the scenes I painted, and the conversations I wrote whilst travelling on my own.

Maybe I’m fortunate enough to have left pieces of my heart in cities all over the world.

So, here I am. Back in Oxford. I’m home. I’ve been sofa surfing with some wonderful friends for a few weeks, and I’ve finally found my own flat. It’s a one bedroom apartment in a building due to be demolished (not in the near future, don’t worry), so I’ll be a property guardian, which essentially means the rent is cheap and they can give me a month’s notice -as can I with them. It also means I have to commit to 16 hours of volunteering a month, something I’ve been wanting to do for a while anyway, and I can decorate however I like.

It’ll be the first time I’ve ever lived alone, and the first time I’ll have the freedom to paint and decorate and furnish my own place. I can’t invest too much time or money into it, because I could be given my months notice at any time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make it my own. It will be temporary, like all of my other homes so far, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the time I have in it. I can make it cosy and unique and a place where I can relax and write and grab a few hours of peace at the end of a long day.

I’m slowly learning that just because things are temporary, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them.

Another example of something temporary but wonderful: a two-week creative writing course I led with these talented young writers

If I’m only in this flat for a few months, that’s fine. It’s impermanent, but still special. Time will pass and things will change and I will still have a home. I will still always have a home, because I don’t just have one.

My homes are in the company of those I love, scattered across cities where I lived and loved and left and came back.

Home is where the heart is – and my heart is, truly, all over the place.

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#FreedomFriday vol. 1: SELF-CONFIDENCE

#FreedomFriday

In this issue, we’ll explore three practical ways you can build your self-confidence, accompanied by beautiful artwork by Michael Harkness.

We are works in progress: 3 tips to build self-confidence

I’m sure we’ve all felt that pang of jealousy when we meet someone self-assured and unfazed by other’s opinions. We’ve all been excited about an idea or opportunity, only to have our inner critic tear us down once again. So, what is self-confidence, and how the hell do we get our hands on it?

Self-confidence is defined as having belief in oneself. It’s being able to trust in your own abilities and judgments; to be aware of your capability and resilience. Self-confidence is important because it, essentially, brings happiness. When we’re confident in ourselves, we have a better sense of self-worth, and freedom from self-doubt, fear, and anxiety.

For many of us, fear really does hold us back in many areas of our lives, even when we don’t consciously recognize it. But I’ve been hitting the books (naturally) and the world wide web (duh), and I’ve learned some stuff about self-confidence, and how we can nick some for ourselves.

  1. Practice courage

This one seems to crop up a lot, but it seems like a really important way to learn more about yourself and to build your self-confidence. Trying new things, pushing back the barriers, and jumping out of our comfort zones is a way of proving ourselves to… well, ourselves. If you can push yourself to do something you never thought you could – or something you’ve just never considered doing – you gain confidence in yourself. Hence, self-confidence. Expand the limitations you’ve set for yourself, and feel that little glow of pride start to grow inside of you.

Beth’s top tip: Start by setting a small challenge, like talking to a stranger. This could be a casual meeting at a bus stop, an opportunity to buy a homeless bloke a coffee, or a nice chat with your early-morning barista. One way I’ve been building my self-confidence is by trusting that I’m capable of holding interesting, intelligent conversations with friends and strangers.

2. Give yourself permission to be a work in progress

This self-confidence malarkey won’t happen overnight. It’s a journey, and that journey might take a long time. What matters is that you care enough about yourself and your self-worth to take yourself on that journey.

Failure is inevitable: sometimes, you’ll try to push yourself out of your comfort zone and it won’t work out. You might be embarrassed or overwhelmed. But, hey, imagine if you did that thing you’re so afraid of for the second time, or the third, and something amazing happened? Imagine that swell of self-confidence as you realize you’re capable, worthy, and strong. Sometimes visualizing yourself as successful is the biggest motivator for change.

Trust that it’s okay not to be perfect. Nobody is.

Beth’s top tip: I like art journalling as a tool to learn more about myself and ground myself in my current situation. It’s like writing a diary, but a little more creative. Start by creating a background on a page, then try some mindfulness techniques to help you feel grounded in your body and mind. Write about your day – or just draw what comes to mind. You’ll love looking back on entries and seeing how far you’ve come.

3. Speak kindly to yourself

‘Don’t do that, you’ll make a fool out of yourself…’, ‘You’re not as good as they are at that’, ‘Don’t express your opinion – you’re probably going to make everyone hate you…’ … Anyone else guilty of these thoughts? Because I certainly am.

It’s time to change the inner-dialogue. Practicing self-compassion is the new In Thing (in my world, anyway!) and it will honestly change how you feel about yourself for the better. Be kind to yourself – if you’re struggling with this, picture yourself as a young child or teenager. Would you be telling that child that they weren’t worthy of success? Would you be telling that teenager not to speak out about their struggles – to keep it all bottled up?

Challenge your inner critic. They’re not all they’re cracked up to be. A friend of mine sent me this great TED Talk the other day called ‘This talk isn’t very good’ – it’s only ten minutes and it’s wonderful if you want inspiration to start to combat the little negative voice inside your head.B

Beth’s top tip: Try to be mindful of when your inner narrative is taking on a negative tone. Try to reword certain phrases that you’re repeating to yourself. Practice makes perfect, and if you can build up your own internal confidence, what other people think of you will matter less and you’ll start respecting yourself and valuing your own thoughts and opinions more. If you’re struggling – fake it til’ you make it. I spent a long time standing in front of a mirror telling myself how RAD I looked; these days, I almost believe it.

Take care of yourselves and start making changes to build your self-confidence. You deserve it.

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by Michael Harkness
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Thanks for all of the love and support that you guys have shared for volume 1 of #FreedomFriday. Volume 2 begins March 1st 2019 — send submissions over to tomlin.bethany@gmail.com!

andante, andante: notes on recovery

Mental Health

It’s been nearly two weeks since I took the plunge into honesty, and I want to continue sharing my struggles and successes with you all. Though recovery will never be completely rainbows and butterflies, this week I’ve found love and laughter in unexpected places.

Back on the EDU last year, one of the nurses told me the average time it takes someone to recover from an eating disorder is seven years. At the time, I thought she was depressing and disheartening. Now, I realise she was just trying to warn me: there is no quick fix, and even when your physical health stabilizes, there will always be emotional issues to tackle. It’s never as simple as ‘just eating’: it’s a long, winding road of learning and un-learning thoughts and behaviours.

This being said, the last week has been a good week for me, recovery-wise. After the initial sharing of my story for the first time (which was equal parts terrifying and liberating), I started the week positive and motivated. I’m currently on a 16-month waiting list for one-to-one therapy (tell me NHS budget cuts don’t exist, I dare you), but I’m lucky enough to be in regular contact with the EDU here in Oxford, and I’ve found their support really helpful so far.

A few days ago, I had an appointment with my new dietitian. It’s always nerve-wracking meeting a new member of my key support team, but she was a cracking lady; really supportive and down-to-earth. We had a ten-minute conversation about our shared love of sourdough, so that was great. I thought it’d be helpful to share some of the processes that I go through with my recovery – for those still suffering who have yet to seek help. Seeking help for your ED is the first step – and the hardest one – but I’d like to raise awareness of the fact that, although it’s scary, it’s vital in order to get the freedom you deserve.

So, my appointment with my new dietitian lasted about two hours. This is totally normal for dietitian appointments, though sometimes they vary and can be a little shorter. Usually for this kind of thing, I’ll be expected to go up to the eating disorder inpatient unit – though some units will have separate buildings for outpatients, and sometimes I might meet my dietitian at the main hospital. We talked about my current situation and how we could work together to make small changes that would benefit me in my recovery. While I’m still waiting for psychological support, it’s important to have a steady intake and sleep schedule, and to try and drop some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms my little brain has been clinging onto.

Because I’ve made some progress with my diet and weight over the past few weeks, this meeting was different from the others I’ve had. My dietitian has given me some timetable-come-meal-plan sheets that I have to use to keep track of intake and compensatory behaviours, and I’ve also been given a little CBT hand-out to help me remember the ‘new rules’. I thought it might be helpful for you guys to see:

You may find it totally bizarre that there are times when anorexics are ‘not allowed’ to eat – but this is a big thing in recovery! Even back in group therapies, we weren’t allowed any food or drink (aside from water) inside our sessions. There’s always been a huge emphasis on eating at the *right* times, and this is because a) it’s important to get into a good routine, for physical things like your metabolism, as well as psychological impact and b) it allows you to listen to your hunger signals.

Hunger signals are another big thing, let me tell you. For your average non-disordered person, they will feel hungry around lunchtime, and they’ll eat. For someone with an ED, feeling hungry is almost constant; sometimes we might feel hungry even after we’ve eaten, and sometimes we’ll feel so hungry that this can lead to periods of ‘bingeing’ which damages our stomachs – constantly shrinking and swelling – and our minds. So, until we’ve learned to train our minds and bodies to expect food at certain times, we’re unable to trust when we’re hungry and when we should be eating.

As you can see from the handout I was given, there are rules about the flexibility of mealtimes (1hr max), using compensatory behaviours (that’s a no-go) and eating outside of these set times (totally forbidden). So, my new rules are pinned up in my bedroom and I’ve jumped head-first into trying to achieve my goals. Also, my dietitian has clocked on to my competitive-ness and is definitely trying to provoke me in any way she can. She’s a smart lady (I hate that).

Another thing you can expect when recovering with the help of ED services is a lot of scans and blood tests. You kind of get over the needle thing after a little while! This week I didn’t have any blood tests, as I had them the week prior, but I did have a good old ECG and a DEXA scan.

So, for those who don’t know – an ECG is where you go (to your GP) and they stick lots of sticky pads all over your body and measure your heart rate. This is because those with ED’s will often have heart irregularities, like a heart-rate too quick or too slow. Deep in my disorder around fourteen months ago, my heart rate was very slow due to over-exercising (yeah, that can happen!), but this time, it was looking pretty healthy (#winning). It’s important to ask for an ECG if you think you may have an eating disorder – even if you feel you don’t ‘look underweight’, your heart can suffer from lack of nutrients, and it’s important to keep an eye on it.

A DEXA scan scans your bones to check their density. When people develop ED’s whilst their bones are still growing and developing (aka teens – twenties), it can lead to osteopena and osteoporosis. DEXA scans are super quick and easy – you lie on a table and put your legs on a raised block. It takes maybe ten minutes, if that. It does not involve getting in a tunnel. But, if you’re very lucky (and you forget to wear a non-underwired bra), you might get to rock one of these cool hospital scrub gowns.

My radiologists were hilarious and super interested in my writing: in fact, both of them jotted down my name and book title to ‘buy it when it’s published!’. So, uh, I guess I have to get it published now, if only to save me the embarrassment…! It’s always lovely to have good chat and banter with hospital staff: they make a routine check-up an actual enjoyable experience.

So, that’s my week for you! Lots of appointments, kind, friendly nurses, and laughter with some rad radiologists. It’s been wild; and I’ve mostly stuck to my new plans, so I’m calling this week a Recovery Win.

I also just want to throw it out there that my diagnosis of Atypical Anorexia Nervosa means that for most of my disorder, I was not underweight. A common misconception – and one that AAN sufferers often internalise – is that you have to be underweight to be ‘actually sick’. This isn’t true. If you can relate at all to what I’m talking about, I’d urge you to seek help. One of the nurses at the Bristol EDU once told me that AAN can often be more dangerous than other eating disorders, because your internal organs are suffering, but you might not ‘look the part’ and therefore not seek treatment. There’s a reason it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. You’ve nothing to lose by speaking to your GP. Trust your instincts and find freedom through honesty.

Thank you so much for your comments on #FreedomFriday’s COURAGE issue, it does – and always will – mean the world. As always, questions and feedback can be shot my way at tomlin.bethany@gmail.com – as can submissions for #FreedomFriday.

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#FreedomFriday vol. 1: IDENTITY

#FreedomFriday

In this issue, we have more beautiful poetry from Danny Steele and stunning artwork from Sophie Victoria Rowe accompanying a heartfelt essay from Finn McCarty about body image, being transgender, and fighting to find who he truly is.

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the death of an old story

you sit now. right here with my friends, blame, shame and fear
they are here chatting away
you should know they talk a lot, they will do all day
love them all.
embrace them all.
The light of all is the soul of one,
the soul of one is the one i am
Embrace death, the death of an old story
with a smile with acceptance and grace
for it’s not often we look at death and laugh squarely in it’s face.

by Danny Steele

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‘S E L F L O V E’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe 
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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Mirror

I wake up on an island, completely isolated from the world I thought i knew so well. I’m looking out onto the horizon, and when the fog clears, I spot a silhouette in the distance. I try to call out, but it feels as if my voice has been chained to the bottom of my constricting throat. After wrestling with the sinking sand for an eternity, I spend another falling to my knees. The silhouette of the man I should be plunges into the water with me, and when I open my scorching eyes, he cracks a wicked smile and whispers, “You will never be me.”

I’m beginning to lose count of how many times I’ve stopped and questioned myself. How many times I’ve shot out of bed with my heart in my throat and my body a shaking mess because I couldn’t slow down my train of thought. I couldn’t stop it from going off course and plummeting straight into the inevitable. I can never seem to shake off this feeling of static, especially when I’m in front of a mirror. If I let that train run too long, like when I think about the inevitable, I begin to crumble. I’m constantly obsessing over those curves and edges- ones I know so deep down shouldn’t be there at all. 

I spent most of the seventh grade trying to mimic what the girls in my school were wearing. My grandma had previously given me a bunch of her old makeup, and from time to time I would dreadfully attempt to apply it in a way that was similar to the trends I had noticed. It was as evident as a zebra on a horse farm that I had no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it. I felt like an idiot down to every last moment. I was jealous to the core of how natural it was for the other girls to walk around flawlessly and with ease, as if they weren’t fighting back tears when they wore dresses. I was trapped in this void of lost dignity, and little did I know that I wasn’t alone. 

Come eighth grade, I was still as lost as ever, but getting my first super-short haircut made me the most confident I had been in a while. But of course, being the intensely negative person I was – and sometimes, still am – it eventually came crashing down on me. When the daily bouts of extreme depression and anxiety dawned on me, I would push my dark purple dyed hair over my eyes and pray for eternal sleep. I sunk lower and lower in my ocean, and soon enough I was hitting the bottom. Soon enough it was the one horrendous day when I held a knife in my hand and sobbed as I scratched the surface of my skin.

The realization struck me right there and then, when I began to cut at my breast tissue: I was not a girl.

When I’m asked about it, there’s nothing I can do but put on a fake smile and say, “I’ve always known.” I never talk about the years of pain; the pain I still feel from time to time. The fear of rejection. The universal fear of the unknown. I still fear that I will never reach my goal to this day. All I want is to be the man I was meant to be, before my time on this puzzling planet is up.

But lately, as I’ve been slowly swimming my way back to shore, I see millions of my brothers and sisters trapped in the wrong body. I am not alone, and neither are you. We are who we are, and what we look like on the outside makes no difference.

No matter what body I’m in, I am Finn. And I am a boy.

by Finn McCarty

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I saw you today

I saw you today
I saw your aliveness today
you’re alive with aliveness
you who i see on the bus, a face in the clouds
your voice in the raindrops that fall on my face
the heat of the sun and you are there
i see your soul when i look inside myself
i feel your heart
you are there and yet….you are not
you, who has lived many lives
you who will continue to do so
i miss you darling


by Danny Steele

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‘C L I M B’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe

Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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Thank you for reading this week’s issue of #FreedomFriday. To submit your words or artwork for next week’s issue ‘SELF-CONFIDENCE’, please email tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

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#FreedomFriday Vol. 1: COURAGE

#FreedomFriday

In this second issue, we have poetry from Danny Steele, artwork from Sophie Victoria Rowe, and I talk openly for the first time about creative writing and mental health recovery.

every time with you matters



I wonder what it’s like for you
I say wonder as sometimes i don’t know
or can’t hear
or don’t hear
or won’t hear

I carry on, like an elephant trampling through the wild grass
thinking ahead

time waits for noone
spending time as us has been toxic,
‘us’ has become toxic, reactionary, defensive
the kryptonite cutting through the ice, a blackened flower wilted in the heat.

rage
pain
rage
repeat

in this, in this there is hope, there is potential through the pain:
There is always room for celebration, there is always room to hear what is really being said

growth
love
growth
repeat

every time with you matters
you are important, we are significant
i enjoy it most when we just be

by Danny Steele


‘G A L A X I E S’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart

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Writing yourself well: my creative journey

It’s so easy to lose ourselves. There are always things that need to be done, relationships we need to maintain, responsibilities we just can’t escape. Not to mention, holding on to the essence of who we are is becoming harder and harder as technology develops. We create different versions of ourselves to present on social media, to our bosses, our friends, our parents. So how can we find the courage to be truly ourselves in a society that tells us who we are isn’t good enough?

I struggled with my identity for many years. I was such a perfectionist, and so desperate to be equal parts successful and likeable in whatever pursuits I chose, that I created so many personalities I couldn’t keep track. At work, I wanted to be a loveable colleague and a valuable employee. At university, I wanted to be effortlessly successful and get the highest grade I was capable of. At home, I needed to be a perfect daughter and sister, always available to help and love and support.

But I was spreading myself too thin with all of the things I wanted to be. I’m a perfectionist anyway – a risky trait that I’m still trying to work on – and maintaining the high standards I’d set for myself just wasn’t realistic. My mental and physical health was suffering, and I had to find a way to get back to myself before I forgot who I was completely.

At nineteen, I was diagnosed with depression and began to develop an eating disorder. It started subconsciously, and without any effort to lose weight, but soon began to snowball out of control. Because I’d have periods of restriction and eating normally, my weight fluctuated, and this made it hard to ever admit that I had a problem. Somewhere inside, I knew I was grasping at control by using food and exercise, but I never fully understood why. As long as I wasn’t stick thin, I didn’t have to admit to myself – or anyone else – that there was in issue at all.

Over the next year, as my University workload increased, and I pushed myself to continue getting top grades in every assignment, I became more restrictive with my eating. People began to congratulate me on my weight loss, and this only fuelled my disordered thinking – leading me to believe that this was something else I was succeeding in. Every day, my disordered behaviours were more prominent, and the illness felt more and more like a part of my identity.

I continued my cycle of revolving personalities until I couldn’t anymore. A friend convinced me to go to the doctors, where I was diagnosed with Atypical Anorexia and assigned weekly weigh-ins, blood tests and ECG’s to monitor my physical health. But there was no psychological support available, and this lack of resources only convinced me I wasn’t ‘sick enough’ to receive treatment: something that I realised, much later, was a common belief in anorexic and bulimic patients. I was put on a waiting list for a specialist treatment program. I waited eleven months and was underweight by the time I was admitted.

It’s my first time writing about any of this, and terrifying as even most of my family and friends have yet to hear my story. It’s strange writing about a time when I was so unhappy, when to the outside world, it probably didn’t seem that way at all.

The ten weeks I spent on the program at an eating disorder unit in Bristol really were beneficial. The girls I met there were incredible, and I’ll always treasure our heart-to-hearts at the end of every session. Group therapy was something I’d never done before – in fact, I’d never done any kind of therapy before – and I was surprised to find that most of the sessions involved writing of some sort.

Spoiler alert: the story is less depressing from here on out.

Almost every group therapy had us writing something. Sometimes it was letters to our future selves, to our bodies, to each other – but the biggest piece of work we produced was our Life Map. Each week, one of us would present our life to the rest of the group. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write (harder than this post, even!), but after reading my story to the rest of the girls, it was like a weight had been lifted that I didn’t even realise was there.

The treatment ended with us writing letters of encouragement and support to each other and taking home a little envelope of kind words. I still have mine now, and I hope I always cling onto it. At the end of the day, that envelope holds more than just kind words: it holds hope for the future, for all of us.

Figuring out that I could use writing as a form of therapy was an epiphany for me. The end of treatment was scary and isolating, but I had something that I could take with me and use in my recovery. This will sound like greeting-card levels of cheesiness, but I really did get back to myself through writing. Having that initial courage to explore my emotions and problematic aspects of my personality on paper was the hardest part, but once I’d started, I never stopped.

Around the time I finished the program, I had just started my Masters degree. Had it been a few months earlier, the anorexia would have been pushing me to get perfect grades, never hand in anything that would get less than a First, attend every lesson… As it happens, I started my manuscript for the course with one thing in mind: to get back to who I really was.

I started with an exercise that I now teach in my writing workshops for mental health recovery: splitting the self. 

When I was starting my Masters, I was still clinging onto my eating disorder. If there was one thing I learnt in hospital, it was that eating disorders develop for a reason, and often that reason is to help you cope. They are helpful, in a twisted way, and that makes them hard to give up. Writing about my disorder was still too raw – and I knew, somewhere, that it would do me more harm than good. So, I took my writing in a different direction: not autobiography, but fiction.

Exploring yourself through fiction is great. Honestly, it’s wonderful.

I began by taking two identities I had: Beth, who, let’s be real, I was kind of losing sight of, and this disorder. I took them away from myself, separated myself completely from them, and made them into two different characters: Etta, and Violet.

My manuscript I AM ETTA was born. I began with a writing exercise that I’d encourage you to try yourself, if you’re looking to do a little soul searching. 

It starts with picking an identity. 

I am a daughter.

I am a writer.

Et cetera. Pick your identity, and split it.

I am a good daughter, and I am a bad daughter.

I am a motivated writer, and I am a lazy writer.

You have two different identities now, but they’re so much more than that. They are two different characters. The good and the bad. Or, as one of my students described it, “Myself, and my shadow self.”

The next thing you do is give your two identities names. They aren’t you anymore. They are completely separate. It’s important to humanise these characters, and to make them into fully independent, fictional beings – because it’s hard to examine our flaws on paper. It’s hard to admit that we might not be so great in aspects of our personalities, but when you think about these characters, you will start to realise that there is a motivation behind everyone.

Even the worst parts of yourself have joys, loves, goals. Every antagonist is the protagonist of their own story, in a way.

Once I’d given my characters names, I started to jot down some words, images, and phrases that I could associate with each of them. I made two little tables, looking something like this:

Etta – “Well self” Violet – “Ill self”
Childlike curiosity
Stacks of well-read books
The colour of the sky
Kindness
Chalky poetry on pavements
Bravery
An unexploded bomb
Manipulative
Hailstones on bare skin
A cloudy sky before a storm
Flashes of manic laughter
Neon colours that hurt your eyes

Do the same for your characters. Think carefully about emotions and descriptions.

With my writing workshop groups, I usually get students to put their two characters into different scenarios. Where might they meet? How might you think about bringing them together through a narrative? 

What might they learn from each other?

Writing I AM ETTA helped me to explore my own emotions and motivations through a completely separate and fictional narrative. More than that, it helped me paint a picture of recovery for myself. I walked with Etta through her darkest moments, cried as I wrote about her suffering, but then I brought her up. I watched her grow. I was right there with her as she started her first steps towards recovery.

Through writing my manuscript, I was able to write myself well again.

I brought the focus that was on my eating habits onto my writing instead. Through nourishing my body, I had more time and energy to put into honing my craft. I graduated my Master’s degree with a Distinction, and feedback that I AM ETTA was a deeply moving and publishable piece of work.

The manuscript now sits on the desk of my agent, awaiting feedback, but it won’t matter to me if a publisher doesn’t decide to pick it up. Writing that book was the therapy I needed; a piece of writing that healed me in ways I might never fully understand.

The point of this essay is not only to shed light on a story that I’ve kept in the dark for so many years, but to show others that writing might be the way to wellness for them, too. Now several months into my recovery from depression and anorexia, I’ve been running workshops in Oxford on writing for mental health recovery. I’ve received wonderful feedback from students on all the different ways they’ve found pieces of themselves in their writing, and I’ve hope for the future that I’ll find more ways to heal myself and others through the simple act of creativity.

You can read the blurb for I AM ETTA on the Bookshelf website here, and in February 2019 you’ll be able to read an extract from the first few chapters of the manuscript.

Thank you for reading my story. It took courage to write, but that’s the whole point of #FreedomFriday. If you have your own story, poetry, artwork or creative writing to share, contact me at tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

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‘L I V I N G’ by Sophie Victoria Rowe
Instagram: @sophievictoriaroweart
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7 new year’s resolutions (that don’t involve losing weight)

Lifestyle, Mental Health

It’s January; the dreaded ‘diet season’, and the worst month for those of us already struggling with negative body image. But guess what? It’s not too late to make New Year’s Resolutions – and we can resolve to ignore society telling us that shedding a few pounds is the only way to have a great 2019.

So, here are some resolutions to make this year that might actually change your life because, trust me, losing weight won’t change a single thing.

  1. Stray away from routine. When your body is bored, your brain is bored. Walk a different route to work in the mornings. Go to a different cafe for your morning coffee (and, as a barista, I’d recommend going to your local independent, rather than your local Starbucks!). Change what you have for breakfast every day: there’s more out there than toast and cereal, I promise.
  2. Keep a journal. I can’t stress enough how much writing can benefit your mental health. It’s something I’ve been studying (and practising) for a few years now, and I’ve found that sometimes, even just scribbling down a few lines about why I’m so irrationally angry can really help me find rationality. Writing your feelings down validates them on paper, and suddenly makes this invisible emotion visible again. And if it doesn’t work for you therapeutically – it’s always funny to read back over and wonder what the hell you were thinking…!
  3. Try something new each week. This is a classic resolution for me, but it’s a great one. Similarly to straying from routine, trying something new once in a while stimulates your brain and keeps you from falling into dull, repetitive actions. Trying new foods, reading new books – even buying a new item of clothing. Keep life exciting by keeping it unpredictable.
  4. Speak to strangers. I’ve made some great friends at bus stops. You’d be surprised by how many people are quite happy to be spoken to – and actually how many people’s days you can truly improve with a simple hello. Working in retail and hospitality can be a great way to do this (hear me out – every cloud has a silver lining…). Barista-ing is such a nice way to have an excuse to talk to people. And let’s skip the ‘how’s your day going?’ and start asking more interesting questions. Where’d you buy your shoes? What’s your favourite dairy alternative? Etc, etc…
  5. Listen to more podcasts. Podcasts are a great way to learn things without even trying. I’ve started listening to podcasts instead of music before I go to sleep, now, and every so often I’ll play one on the bus into work in the morning. Some of my favourites are Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place (great inspiring, funny conversations with celebrities on real-life topics) and The Guilty Feminist (hilarious, motivational – give it a go!).
  6. Revel in your independence. See the latest #FreedomFriday for an expansion of this – but really, you are your own person. You could change your life in a single day if you wanted to. You are in charge of every decision you make – and you should enjoy every bit of independence you have. Be proud of the choices you make. Try not to second-guess yourself. Be brave.
  7. Realise that the only person who needs to think well of you, is you. I’ve spent most of my life so far worrying about what people think of me, and trying to get people to like me. Recently, after moving to a new city, I decided to see what would happen if I just let myself choose, what to do – rather than let others’ opinions of me decide. Let me tell you; I’ve been wearing the same pair of dungarees for weeks and I’ve ditched all make-up aside from my eyebrow pencil – and I feel great. If you feel most confident when you take time to do your hair and make-up in the morning, then start setting your alarm earlier to make sure you have time to feel good instead of rushing around at 6a.m. If you feel good about yourself and your appearance, that’s all that matters. Nobody really cares what you look like, they all just care about what they look like to others; but you only start to truly realise when you stop caring, too.

Be kind to yourself this January. Ignore everything you’ll see this month that implies your self-worth is based on your weight. You’re fine just how you are, and your confidence in yourself is both radiant and contagious.

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#FreedomFriday Vol. 1: INDEPENDENCE

#FreedomFriday

In this first issue, E.F. McAdam talks ditching the career job to benefit her mental health, Alice Bethan Thomas explains how CBT helped free her from anxiety, and we have fresh, emotive artwork from Dayna Ortner‘s latest exhibition – as well as top tips for first-time solo travellers.

Breaking free: the dreaded Career Job
by E.F. McAdam

I got a job in an office, because that’s what I was supposed to do.

I went to my sixth form because that’s what my parents wanted. I went to university because all my friends went; Bath Spa to do Creative Writing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and met some amazing people, found my independence and grew up a lot, but I didn’t really need to go.

Either way, when I graduated and moved to Manchester, I was looking for office jobs. Nothing in particular, and I was given a job within a company doing invoices.

It was boring as hell. And I was told that was normal.

No one likes their jobs.

It’ll lead somewhere.

It’ll get better.

But it didn’t get better. It slowly got worse, making me spiral into depression, until I finally realised;

What am I doing this for?

So I quit. Commence the first stigma I faced – unemployment.

It’s one thing to face a bit of worry from family and close friends, but a whole other to have peers telling me I was a ‘leech’ to the system, even when I didn’t even go on the dole. I didn’t want to – I had savings and very supportive family to help me out for the few months I didn’t have a job.

Of course, I found another easily enough – in the service industry. Enter the second stigma – that a service job isn’t a ‘career’ job, an ‘adult’ job… a ‘real’ job.

Where has this come from? Who decided that the service industry was lesser than the regular 9-5 office job? When did working eight to ten hours a day, on your feet, helping people, smiling and serving food and coffee, become lesser than sitting on your arse and answering the phone?

Who did I help in my office job? A handful of people who happened to use the company and wanted a refund, or to tell me the invoice was wrong, or to tell me I was useless and unhelpful and want to ‘talk to my manager’.

In my current role, I make people smile. I give out free drinks and make someone’s day. I spread a smile and happiness and good food. I haven’t met an angry customer. My team are my friends and my managers super supportive. In the few months I have been here, I have been told how great I am, how smiley and happy, and have been put on progression pathways.

Still, my friends and family think my job lesser. How? Why?

I just don’t understand. Our generation is stuck in service industry roles, and I get that it’s not for everyone. I get tired, I get fed up of it. But to think of my time in an office, the monotony, the upset, the feeling that I just didn’t want to get up in the morning – I’m better off.

And it upsets me when people say that they have to get an office job. Like it’s the only way to progress. To ‘move forward’. To ‘be an adult’.

What I say is – think for yourself.

I’ve found I work better on my feet, meeting people and having a changing environment. By all means, if an office job suits you better, do it. Just don’t follow the conventions and dismiss something as ‘going backwards’ or ‘beneath you’ because that’s what you’ve been taught to think.

Do what you love. Be independent. And please, be supportive of those who feel differently from you – we’re all individuals, after all.

E.F. McAdam

http://www.efmcadam.com

instagram: @e.f.mcadam



No! by Dayna Ortner. Instgram @winnow_by_day

Just don’t follow the conventions and dismiss something as ‘going backwards’ or ‘beneath you’ because that’s what you’ve been taught to think.

E.F. McAdam

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Independence from anxiety: a journey through CBT
by Alice Bethan Thomas

When I say I have anxiety, I mean that I wake up every morning with a ball of tangled thread for a brain. I don’t know what will unravel when I choose a string to pull on. I don’t know what else will be caught up in that mess. I don’t know what I’ll be afraid of today.

Well, it wouldn’t be that hard to take an educated guess. There are often a number of repeat offenders in there.

You are not enough

                                It’s your fault this terrible, awful thing happened

You never do the right thing. Everything you do goes wrong

It’s taken me years to understand these are anxious thoughts, because they weren’t always this little voice in my head telling me how terrible I was. They looked more like this:

                I’m not good enough

This awful thing is my fault. It must be. I did something to make it happen

                I never get anything right. I always do the wrong thing

There’s only a two letter difference from the word ‘I’ to the word ‘You’, but it changes everything.

When there isn’t a separate voice taunting me, but an echo that looks like my conscience observing, these thoughts begin to sound like the truth. They master the art of imitating me until they’re near impossible to separate from the actual truth. And I believe them.

I have believed them for most of my life, not realising it was not myself speaking but an anxiousness instead. I thought I must just be the worst person in the world, and nothing I tried would ever change that. I thought I deserved to feel this way, that it was normal, that I was fine. This is just what it feels like to be alive.

If you’re far enough from the shore, drowning can look like treading water. The chains around your ankles – well maybe they’re not weighing you down but holding you in place.

So, sticking with the water metaphor, how did I learn to swim?In real life it takes time and patience, a good coach on your side cheering for you, and it’s probably best to start in the shallow end.

The first step I took in defiance of anxiety was admitting it existed. I accepted it was there, and I had a mountain to climb. And then it took me far too long to accept I also needed to ask for help. My GP referred me for cognitive behaviour therapy. CBT is a talk therapy; you talk through your negative patterns, find the roots and triggers for them and learn new techniques that rewire the way you think and react.

One of the worst parts of anxiety can be the lack of control you have. You cannot control what thoughts come into your head, or the physical way your body might respond to it, or the things you’re unable to do today.

However, CBT did help me see that I had a choice over my reaction, and how I chose to treat that thought when it took up residence in my head. To be honest, not everything I learnt in anxiety helped me and I don’t remember all that I should. I wasn’t in the most stable place when I started therapy, so probably wasn’t fully prepared to begin recovery properly.And in all honesty, it didn’t ‘fix’ me, or send me back home anxiety-free.

But, slowly, word by word, it did start to help me. I learnt that everything that had made a home in my head did not belong there. I understood that I had the power to remove what should not be there, and to write a clear line between truth and lies.

One of these sessions became the forge where I built my most effective weapon against anxiety. It was an exercise called ‘Judging Thoughts’. This kicked off a visible shift in my recovery journey; I left feeling the change for once, feeling that I wasn’t just going through  the motions, stuck in whatever cage anxiety had chosen for me that day. I had dug down into the dirt and found a key.

My therapist described this exercise as putting your thoughts on trial. In a court of law, the side defending and the side prosecuting will each present their arguments, with credible evidence to back up their claims. Based on these arguments the judge or jury present a verdict.

And this is what I did. We created a table with whatever hideous thought that was plaguing me in the first column. Next, I had to present the evidence for this thought being the truth. It couldn’t be a feeling or a ‘just because it must be’. It had to be solid and actual fact. Next we thought of the evidence against this thought. I had to grade how much I believed the thought, then based on the evidence whether this was a truth or not. If it was not, I had to amend it for the actual truth.

The more you do this exercise the quicker you’ll get at it, to the point that you won’t need to write them down and can just judge their worth as they appear. But the effect of seeing the words I had accepted as absolute truths discredited beyond doubt, to see them written down next to a stark, white ‘Evidence For’ column was life-changing.

This is not my truth. This person whose skin I have lived in for so long is not me. I am free.

The biggest question the universe can ask you is probably ‘Who are you?’. It’s all we ever look for, the light we chase from ocean to ocean. It’s why people have passions, why they move cities, why young adults leave their parents and home behind. The search for independence is an act of finding yourself, or at least the version of yourself you most want to be.

But I had no chance at finding independence while I was a prisoner to anxiety; it didn’t want me to learn who I should be. Anxious lies latch as closely as they can; they will find a truth and nestle beneath it, they will bite it apart and take some of it to wear as a coat. Hiding in plain sight, they pass as a truth.

CBT was difficult and scary, but it was also a torch I was able to throw into the dark places of my mind. The more I used it, the more the lies began to splinter and run. The more real truth I uncovered, the less hold anxiety had over me and the easier it became to spot.

I know what anxious thoughts sound like now. I can catch them and judge them before I begin believing them too deeply. It’s no longer allowed to speak to me in my voice; and it’s so much easier to tell an independent thought to shut up than yourself. With a calmer mind, the reality of who I am whispers clearly.

I’m no longer paddling in the deep end; I’m walking towards the shore.

Alice Bethan Thomas

http://www.alicebethanthomas.com

twitter: @ofboatsandbees



Cleaning by Dayna Ortner. Instagram @winnow_by_day


The biggest question the universe can ask you is probably ‘Who are you?’. It’s all we ever look for, the light we chase from ocean to ocean. It’s why people have passions, why they move cities, why young adults leave their parents and home behind. The search for independence is an act of finding yourself, or at least the version of yourself you most want to be.

Alice Bethan Thomas


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Travelling alone for the first time: tips and tricks

Whether you’re planning your first little solo holiday, or you’re ready to jet off travelling by yourself for a few months, make sure you’ve planned ahead. I’m all for spontaneity, but travelling alone requires a little more thought than when you’re off out with the squad.

  1. Check the safety of your location, especially if you’re female. I know, I know. It’s 2019 (!) now, and us ladies shouldn’t have to take extra precautions. But we do. If you’re off alone – particularly if you’re off for the first time – make sure you do some research online. The first time I travelled to Italy, I was totally naive about the *cough* forward-ness of Italian men. I didn’t realise British girls are immediately targeted and flirted with – and at 18 it was quite scary. The second time I went to Italy alone, I had already memorised how to say ‘I have a husband’ in Italian, and I felt so much safer and in control.
  2. Try and master the basics of the language beforehand. Following on from before: a few key phrases can put you back in control when you’re by yourself and feeling vulnerable. Learning the phrases for ‘No, thank you’, ‘How much is this?’ or ‘That’s too expensive’ could save your life in a crowded market, when vendors try and get you to buy things you don’t want. We often feel guilty when we’ve no one else with us, and it’s easier to be backed into a corner. A firm ‘No, thank you’ in any language should get them to back off without you feeling rude.
  3. Pick activities & places that will help you grow. When travelling with friends, we have to go sightseeing and shopping and make sure everyone has okayed all of the days itinerary. When travelling alone – it’s all up to you. This means you can pick things that will not only look good on instagram (because, really, who cares?), but will make you feel good. How amazing will you feel if you manage to climb that mountain, or explore those caves? Plus, if your plans fall through, and you’ve no mates there to say “Let’s just head back to the hotel, then…”, you often have more adventures. You have to figure things out for yourself. It opens up a whole world of opportunity.
  4. Talk to people. Talk to strangers. Talk to everyone. People love it – and once you’ve jumped over that initial fear, you’ll love it to. The biggest boost to your confidence in your own independence is randomly speaking to someone and making a friend by accident. In a small mountain village, I heard two Australian’s chatting, and they were the first people speaking English I’d heard in days. I started chatting to them, we had lunch, then spent the whole day together. In Venice, I asked some Americans when the bus was, and it sparked a friendship that is still going now.
  5. Be brave. When you’re alone, you need to grow ten times more courage than you already had. There’s no one you know looking out for you, so you need to be aware of where to go for help, should you need it, and you need to be confident enough to ask for it. Speaking to people you don’t know can be hard, but one of the good things about travelling alone is the fact that nobody is there to watch you fail. It’s harder to be embarrassed when nobody knows you, or will ever see you again! Be brave, have fun, and speak up. Ask someone if you don’t understand something, speak to the group of people who look like they’re having a good time, and feel liberated by your independence.


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Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to be confident – just do it, and eventually that confidence will follow.

Carrie Fisher

Make it your new year’s resolution to feel independent this year.

Feel good about the decisions you make – not guilty. Take chances that effect only you, and do things that will benefit your mental health and personal development. 2019 is the year to become your own person, and feel confident in the choices you make.

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Thank you for reading this first volume of #FreedomFriday. Contributions are welcome every single Friday – from essays and articles to poems and artwork. Any creative work can live here. Just email it over to tomlin.bethany@gmail.com.

Big thanks to the wonderful fierce ladies who contributed to this week’s theme of INDEPENDENCE. Next week’s theme is COURAGE on the 11th of January. See you there!

#FreedomFriday: a new movement on quills & coffee

Mental Health, Writing

Calling all writers, bloggers, and people who have something to say. From January 2019, I’ll be starting #FreedomFriday here at Quills & Coffee. Here’s a bit of info on what it is, and how you can get involved.

What is #FreedomFriday?

It’s a project I’m starting that I’d like to begin in the New Year. The basic concept is, every Friday, a blog post will be published on Quills & Coffee about something free and liberating. Feminism, mental health, and global activism are some great topics to start with, but all-in-all, I’d like to have a collection of personal stories and articles that will encourage, inspire, and motivate others.

How can I get involved?

If you have an idea for a story or article that you’d like to share, drop me an email outlining your idea, and we can chat more about featuring your writing on Quills & Coffee. Alternatively, if you meet one or more of the following criteria but don’t have an idea for a post, email me anyway and we’ll brainstorm together!

If you…

  • are a young person (17-25)
  • are able to write about independence (solo travel, finding a job, your take on university life, your struggles & achievements as a young person)
  • are interested in sustainability (talk to me about your sustainable lifestyles, from upcycling to veganism)
  • are a feminist (talk to me about being an advocate for equality, tips for those who aren’t sure how to speak out, stories from women about injustice they’ve faced, stories from men who are helping to fight the good fight)
  • are able to speak about mental health (particularly interested in stories of recovery, volunteering and raising awareness, or personal essays that are able to invoke strength and courage in others)
  • have something to scream and shout about (this is #FreedomFriday for a reason. What is that burning topic inside of you that you need to tell others about? There are no limitations here, as long as you write honestly and with kindness and intelligence. It would be great to hear stories that are able to bring out a fire in your readers. Anything that can make people feel something is great. Want to start a revolution? Your time has come.)

The deadline for dropping me an email is 20th December 2019 for January’s #FreedomFriday’s. After that, submissions will be taken on a monthly basis.

As a side note: if you are creative / artistic and have poems, artwork, photography, or flash fiction that you’d be interested in displaying on #FreedomFriday – I would love to see it.

Once again: tomlin.bethany@gmail.com . I look forward to hearing from you soon…

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Mental Health in YA: Top 5 Picks

Mental Health, Writing

I’ve had a lot of time to read this week (whoop! Unemployment!), and with my shiny new library card, I’ve been scouring the shelves for some beautiful, funny, and searingly honest YA reads to share with you. Unemployment ends soon (hopefully – keep your fingers crossed for my trial shift tomorrow…) as my bank balance is seriously dwindling, but hopefully I’ll keep finding time to read some of the wonderful YA that’s being churned out left, right and centre.

Side note: there’s so much great young adult fiction that’s being produced at the moment – a lot of it focusing on mental wellbeing – and I haven’t yet found the time to read them all. These are some of the books I’ve read recently that I loved – but don’t doubt there is so much more out there to be explored.

  1. Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? by Holly Bourne

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“I think real kindness, real compassion, is having the strength to stop and try and see where another person is coming from. To try and work out why they’re being the way they’re being. It takes time and patience. It’s not as easy, but that’s real kindness.”

Holly Bourne has been one of the big names in YA for many years now, and is really a spectacular writer who brings so much knowledge and experience of young people to her writing. I loved reading It Only Happens In The Movies a few months ago – so much so that when I was working as a bookseller, I was constantly recommending it to young girls. I’ve heard so many great things about Are we all lemmings and snowflakes? that I was a little wary going in to read it; but trust me, I wasn’t disappointed.

Now, I’m a big fan of ‘summer camp’ narratives. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because, as a kid, it always seemed like such a far fetched, American thing (look, I went to Brownie camp, but it really wasn’t the same, okay?). The novel follows Olive as she heads to Camp Reset; a clinical trial aiming to benefit those suffering from mental illness. Olive’s narrative is so easy to get wrapped up in; I found myself empathising and hugely relating to her. One of my favourite things about Olive – and this whole novel, if we’re being real – is that her symptoms, behaviours, and thought processes are not glamorized in the slightest. This is a raw and honest novel about inner turmoil and overcoming psychological boundaries – and it’s also going to make you laugh ’til you cry. I was super emotional when I finished this one; it truly deserves it’s Bestseller spot.

 

2. What I lost by Alexandra Ballard

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“You have been through a war. And you’ve won.”

Here’s what Elizabeth has lost so far: 50lbs, a boyfriend, and her peace of mind. Then, she’s sent to a mental health unit for young people with eating disorders. Obsessed with being a size zero, and constantly influenced by her mother’s own eating difficulties, Elizabeth is in a constant back-and-forth narrative when it comes to her recovery. I think this whole narrative was hugely accurate when it comes to disordered thinking, particularly about food and weight, and it’s written in a very sensitive way.

After completing my MFA dissertation on eating disorders in young adult fiction, I’ve done an awful lot of research on this topic and was excited to read this one and really see how the author had chosen to approach it. Elizabeth is a relatable and fully-rounded character, and the other girls in the hospital were all so likeable and became some of my favourite characters. The only flaw in this novel would be the lack of diversity within this kind of environment – something I also researched into last year – but I don’t think this takes away from what this novel has achieved at all. The major demographic for eating disorders (particularly AN and BN) is young, white, women – and this is what we see in this novel. I’d like to see more diversity in the future of YA fiction exploring more men and BAME demographics: but Ballard has written a beautiful novel here. It’s heart-wrenching but often light-hearted; equal parts delicate and fierce.

 

3. Colour me in by Lydia Ruffles

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‘No such thing as just friends,’ says Mizuki. ‘Friends are more important than anything else.’

I know I don’t have to bang on about good old Lydia, because The Taste of Blue Light is still one of my all-time favourites and I know I’ve raved about it plenty to you guys. Needless to say, when I found out Ruffles had written a second novel, I snatched that UPC right out of the Waterstones staff room quicker than you can say, well… anything. Colour me in is such an important read – particularly  for lads, for once (down with toxic masculinity!) and I would recommend it to any teenage boy in a heartbeat.

We start the novel with unemployed child star, Arlo, who is living far away from his mum, and with his best mate. It’s clear from the get-go that Arlo is struggling mentally; he seems to be falling back into a pit of depression, but he’s desperate to keep up appearances for his fans and family. The only person that seems to understand is his best friend, but when he suddenly dies, Arlo is left alone. Grieving and mentally unravelling, he catches the next flight to wherever, and ends up on an unexpected adventure.

This one’s about friendship, and talking openly about mental health, and learning to ask for help, and letting go. It’s so very moving, and Ruffles’ descriptions and dialogue are as flawless as ever. It’s definitely worth a dabble (and look at the gorgeous cover!).

 

4. After The Fire by Will Hill

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“Bad and good, False and True: they’re the opposite ends of a whole spectrum of behaviour, not the only two things a person can be. Because life just isn’t that simple. People aren’t that simple, even though I’m sure things would be a lot more straightforward if they were.”

Okay, hear me out. This one isn’t technically focusing on mental health at all… But it’s about a girl who has recently left a cult, and trust me, the girl has got issues. From Chapter One, I was utterly confused about what had happened to poor Moonbeam, and this feeling will stay with you for quite some time. Determined not to give anything away to her new therapist and the FBI agent that accompanies him – the ‘Servants of the Serpent’, as she calls them – Moonbeam is constantly arguing with herself in her head.

This is a story about breaking free from what you’ve been conditioned to believe, and that’s why I think it fits in well with the list I’ve compiled here. This is a story about a girl who has been following the words of a false prophet for so long, she can’t distinguish between what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. The supporting characters as well – particularly Luke – are all so realistic, and haunting in their actions and beliefs. This book opened my eyes a lot, and I think it’s important, uplifting, and empowering. After The Fire is Moonbeam’s story, and her journey to, finally, finding herself.

 

5. The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

A friend of mine read this a while ago and wouldn’t stop singing it’s praises, but it took me a long time to get round to actually picking it up. When I did, however, it was finished within the day. Because… well. It’s pretty incredible. If you pick up this book and read the blurb like I did, you’re likely to be confused by the concept (I definitely was), so I’ll do my best to explain.

Protagonist Mikey lives in a town that seems to be affected by weird supernatural things. So much so, that everyone is just kind of used to it. There’s references to this ‘vampire outbreak’ they had last year, and weird things are always happening, and there are the “Indie Kids” (think, the “Chosen One’s” of Mikey’s town) who are running around fighting battles. But Mikey isn’t one of the Chosen One’s. He’s actually pretty normal – or he wants to be anyway. One of my favourite things about The Rest Of Us Just Live Here is that there’s an equal mix of contemporary, honest, deteriorating mental health plot, and supernatural, ‘we’re off to save the world!’ plot. It really helps lift the darker parts of the novel, and also offers so much in the way of subplot that there isn’t a single sentence in the novel that isn’t pushing the narrative forwards.

The idea of this book is: if you’re not the chosen one, and you’re kind of on the side-lines… what’s your story? Mikey’s story is full of obsessions and compulsions and heartbreak and sibling bonds and this desperation to just be good enough. I personally think this is Ness’s best book yet (fight me), and I think the characters and their delicately intertwining lives have been masterfully created.

The thing I took away from this book is: we are all the chosen ones, really. Even those of us blending into the background will always have a story to tell.

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Reminder: if you find yourself in Oxford, my ‘Mindfulness Writing’ masterclass runs every Saturday until December 1st at Common Ground Workspace, Little Clarendon St.

Dealing with disaster: mid-week reflections

Lifestyle, No Fixed Abode

I think it’s safe to say that our move to Oxford didn’t go totally to plan. For those of you who haven’t heard about the madness we’ve endured this week: saddle up. I’m about to re-live the whole thing…

So, it’s Sunday. The day of rest. Beth and I set off on our five hour drive from Cornwall to Oxford, on the way to our lovely little caravan. We’d been liaising with our soon-to-be landlord for months; she’d sent us video tours of this beautiful two-bedroom static, pitched on what seemed to be private land attached to a residential property. £400 a month between us, all bills included, no council tax… In hindsight, we should have known it was too good to be true.

We drove through some beautiful little villages on our way to the caravan, and kept commenting about how we felt like we were going to drive right up to Hogwarts. We were getting more and more excited: until we actually reached the site. Then, we realised what we’d got ourselves into.

The ‘private land’ we’d thought the caravan was pitched on was completely ruled by Irish travellers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. There were hundreds of caravans, all encircling the walled-off area that ours was situated in. To begin with, we couldn’t find our pitch, so I hesitantly got out of the car and wandered over to ask someone. I was then told by a lady that this land was ‘family only’, and even when I tried to explain that we’d planned to rent this for months, she was adamant that we wouldn’t be staying there. It was clear from the get-go that we were absolutely not welcome.

This might be a good time to mention that Beth and I both have family histories of travellers. We’ve got heritage way-back-when, but I think our combined accents were enough to put them off and let this particular clan know that we were outsiders. But just so you know – neither of us are prejudiced against the traveller community, and I actually don’t think I would’ve felt so threatened, had they not been so… uh, threatening.

Finally, we found the lady we were renting off, who was lovely and charming and very sympathetic when I told her I didn’t feel safe staying there. She wasn’t a traveller herself, but knew the other residents and just kindly explained they were ‘set in their ways’. This did nothing to reassure me. Beth and I sat in the caravan, listening to the ruckus of the site around us, and knew for a fact that we wouldn’t be safe staying there. As of that moment, we were homeless.

With very little money, and no other plans of accommodation, we hastily checked in to the nearest (and cheapest) inn, on top of a pub in Witney. We called our parents, sobbing and feeling utterly useless as adults. We couldn’t believe we thought it might work out – and Beth started her Master’s degree in only three days time. We had no plan. Nothing. So, we did what we do best – went downstairs to the pub and ordered the largest glass of wine they could offer.

That night, we met a lovely lady called Bernadette; her daughter had just started at the same university as Beth, and she’d come all the way from Paris to help her move. She’d also had a few days from hell, and we all wallowed together, then met up for a hangover breakfast the next day. One of the ladies that worked in the pub overheard our conversation about being homeless, and offered us live-in accommodation if we went and worked there. It was a lovely offer – and a great back-up plan – but with Beth completing her degree as well, it might not have been ideal.

So, on Monday morning, after waking up with both hangovers AND stomach bugs (which we’re now, finally, at the tail end of), we set off to find a home. Never has a task felt more important before. We went around every letting agency Oxford had to offer, and were told time and time again that our options were slim. Every two-bedroom flat was either a minimum of £1500 a month, too far out of the centre, or – because I don’t have a contracted job yet – would need the rent for the year paying upfront.

By midday, we were hopeless. As a last ditch attempt, we went to the university and told them that unless we could get a flat sorted, we’d have to go home. A wonderful, wonderful lady there found us a studio flat in about an hour. Probably assuming we were a couple (who doesn’t assume we’re a couple these days?) we were given a studio flat with a double bed, but I popped out and bought a single as well so that we don’t have to be that much of a couple. We have a bedroom, a bathroom, and, after months of tent living – a kitchen. With a fridge. 

One more night in the inn with our new friends, and then we moved into our flat on Tuesday. Safe to say, everything worked out in the end. Today is Beth’s first day of her MSc, and while she’s at her seminars, I’m blending in with the Brookes students by chilling in the library and getting on with my work. My final submission for my own Master’s degree was signed and posted yesterday – so that manuscript has now gone off, too! Both of my book babies are awaiting judgement from publishers or marking tutors, so it looks like I’m going to have to find something new to write soon…!

In the meantime, this Saturday will be the first session of my Mindfulness Writing Masterclass, at 3pm in Common Ground, Oxford (in case you’d forgotten). Today, I’m doing my finishing touches and getting some handouts together, so I’m excited to finally get started and start building a life here in Oxford.

What a week! I’m so thankful for all the support we’ve had from friends and family to get us through. It was a minor disaster – but one we overcame. We might be back in halls again with all the eager first-years – but I guess it’s alright being those ‘two old lesbians upstairs’…

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If you’d like to come along to my course on Saturday, go and grab your free ticket here on Eventbrite.

The next step: Oxford bound

No Fixed Abode

As everyone knows by now, we’re not in the habit of staying in the same place for too long. That’s why, on this sunny Cornish morning, we’re saying goodbye to Bude and heading off to our next stop: Oxford.

This has been on the cards for a long time, so it seems kind of (understatement) surreal that this is actually happening now. Ever since Beth was accepted onto her master’s degree months ago, back when we were in Bath, we’ve been preparing ourselves for this day. It was the event that prompted our decision to move into a tent to save money – the whole reason we’ve spent the last few months travelling around and trying to stay afloat. And now the day is here – and we, as always, feel pretty underprepared.

Logistically, though, this move has all the right ingredients to go smoothly. We’ve planned for the five hour drive thoroughly (aka we have snacks and a cracking Spotify playlist), we’re prepared for the worst case scenario (aka Beth finally joined the AA), and we know where our next home will be. Spoiler alert: it’s not a house. But you could’ve guessed that already, right?

Staying true to our vow of not having a fixed abode, we’ll be moving into a static caravan in one of the villages outside Oxford. It’s hard to tell at this early stage whether we’ll transition well into caravan living (definitely a step up from a tent, though!), but I’m excited to see how we get on. We’ve only seen pictures so far, and a five minute video tour, but we’ve been liaising with our new landlord for a little while and have high hopes that this little mobile home will suit the two of us well. I’m just excited to scope out our new neighbourhood – and neither of us have actually even visited Oxford before, so it’s a whole new experience for us both.

We’ve had such a great time this past couple of months in Bude, and I’m so thankful to Beth’s family for making it so wonderful. Her mum welcomed us onto the campsite that she lives on, and when it was too windy and rainy for camping, her dad and step-mum invited us to stay with them. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and we’ve never gone without food, water, and a roof over our heads. It’s given Beth a lovely opportunity to spend time with her family, and given me chance to get to know new people (and also lots of time and headspace to write!).

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I’ve managed to pop back to Bath for a few days, where I finished writing the manuscript and did the majority of my edits and re-writes. It was great to just hole myself up in a hotel room and really have no distractions from my novel – and it’s also great to know that the hard work paid off. I squeezed in a lovely couple of nights with my wonderful friend Elysia, and then popped to Portishead to stay with my other wonderful friend, Jen. Once again, I’m always humbled by the amount of people, near and far, that are so willing to have me stay with them. I know I’m probably a bit of a whirlwind to have around (particularly in deadline season!), but I’m so grateful for the brilliant friendships I have. I hope one day (maybe when I have a house…?) I’m able to return the favour.

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Although Beth obviously has plans to start her master’s degree on Thursday, I haven’t lined up a job yet, so I’m apprehensive to see what line of work I’ll end up in once we arrive in Oxford! Regardless, I’ve always maintained that my career is my writing, and I’m happy to work little side-line jobs in the meantime to make ends meet. I always seem to end up doing jobs I could never see myself in – so who knows where I’ll end up! So far, I’m feeling prison guard… or possibly ushering in the local cinema…

One plan that I do have, though, is my writing course that starts this Saturday (22nd), and I’m really excited to get cracking with it. I’ve had some great responses on the event pages so far, and since it’s something I’m so passionate about teaching others, I’m hopeful it’ll turn out well! If you haven’t heard about my course yet, have a look at the Facebook event page. It’s focusing on using writing as a mindfulness technique and a form of therapy – and tickets are absolutely free for the first introductory session. Grab your free tickets through this Eventbrite link and pop along if you’re in Oxford this weekend!

In the meantime, one of my manuscripts is currently sitting on the desks of five editors at children’s publishing houses, and the other one I’m due to hand in in a few days time. So I’ve a few last minute edits to be getting on with! Please send all your good vibes to the two of us as we try to navigate moving, our new city, getting jobs and finishing / starting our degrees. As always, there’s a lot on our plates…

But it’s always better to be busy than boring, right?

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Interviews with Aspiring Writers: Charlotte Rhodes

Aspiring Writers Series

Young writer Charlotte Rhodes talks to us about where she finds inspiration, her own writing process, and her brand new blog, Teacup Chapters.

Firstly, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing?

I’ve loved stories for as long as I can remember, whether that’s reading them, making them up in my head, or actually writing them on paper. I always knew that writing was something that I wanted to pursue, so that’s what led me to my current degree in English Language with Creative Writing.

My writing style has changed slightly over the years, but my intentions have always been the same – to uplift the reader in some way and hopefully make them smile! Reality has a habit of being grey sometimes, so if we’re given the opportunity to create brand new material, why not make it positive?

I do of course, for realism purposes, touch on sad topics too, but when I do I try to end on a positive note as a reminder that there is always a sliver of hope to hold onto, no matter how small.

What was the last book you read that you really loved?

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai. I picked it up on a whim when I was using Waterstone’s as an escape from uni stress (the best way to select a book), and it exceeded all of the expectations that I never had. It’s set in the future and is essentially about time travel, which was completely new reading territory for me. I was wary that it might be far-fetched or unrealistic, but I can honestly say that it is written so beautifully and flawlessly that every word is believable.

Can you describe your writing routines and how you find inspiration?

The best inspiration usually comes when I’m not looking for it. And it can come from anywhere. You know when you watch a film and there’s a minor character in it who’s just brilliant and you kind of wish you got to see more of them and how their story pans out? Or they hint at a storyline but you don’t actually get to see it happen? I might take these seedlings of ideas and turn them into their own story. Or it could also be as simple as a stranger who gives me inspiration for a character, a name that I overhear, or maybe I see a kite in the sky and decide to use it as a symbol in a story.

Ideas usually start as a cluster of words, (I use Google Docs on my phone to jot them down), and I slowly develop these into a loose plot outline and eventually a piece of writing.

Reading also plays a huge part, particularly if I’m lacking the motivation to actually begin a piece. I can spend hours reading, usually material from the same genre that I’m writing in, (e.g. articles if I’m doing a blog post). Watching films/TV shows about writers can also give me a boost to start writing. It sounds like procrastination but I consider it research.

Where do you feel most inspired?

I like to be somewhere with a window. My flat at uni last year was the perfect spot because my desk was right under the window overlooking a lovely canal. If I got a bit lost with a sentence or couldn’t find a phrase then I’d just sit and watch the trees and the water for a while. Sometimes I’d open the window too so that I could hear the birds and the leaves rustling – it was the perfect set-up.

What piece of advice would you give to other young aspiring writers?

Don’t worry about making your writing too ‘ordinary’. I can get struck with some pretty random ideas, and I used to fight them off for fear of people not understanding or thinking that I’m weird, but it turns out that they can make for great stories. I once wrote a love story about a clown and it developed into one of my better pieces. If you get an idea that you think is a bit odd – run with it. If anything, it will keep people intrigued.

Finally; you’ve recently set up a blog and I just loved your post How to be alone without being lonely. Could you tell me a bit about the blog and how you’ve found the process of starting it?

The blog is very new so I am still getting the hang of things, but it’s something that I’ve been wanting to set up for the past year or so. I was waiting for the right time, the right name, the right content, but this summer I decided to just set the plan in motion!

Choosing the name was the most gruelling process, but everything else seemed to click into place after. I had already written a couple of articles for Society 19, so that somewhat prepared me, and I knew that I wanted my blog to be quite a positive space to share my creativity, so I took that idea and went with it!

A big thanks to Charlotte for this wonderful interview – she really is a young writer to keep an eye on! Head over to Charlotte’s blog Teacup Chapters and have a little explore, you won’t regret it.

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‘Selfish’ and other swear words

Mental Health

Here’s a hard pill to swallow: I’m not interested in how amazing your life is. I don’t care how many novels you’ve written in the time I’ve been trying to write one, how great your boyfriend is, or how your wonderful holiday was. Getting ready to call me bitter and a terrible friend? Hear me out first.

In hindsight, these past few months feel like some sort of sick social experiment I was playing on myself. It began by being bullied into joining a group chat with everyone on my course, to ‘keep in the loop!’ and ended with me having a breakdown over my Twitter feed. I’ll slow down, shall I? Let’s really walk you through why I’ve come to the end of my tether.

It’s a tough truth to learn, but sometimes people don’t always have your best interests at heart. Sometimes people will do things (inadvertently, often not because they’re the devil incarnate) to undermine you, because it makes them feel better, somehow. Whether people realise they’re doing this or not is not the point – the fact is, we all do it, or have done it at some point. But it has to stop.

This isn’t an attack, trust me, because I have been one of these people. Remember that girl who did really well in your high school English lit exam, and came out on results day asking everyone else what they’d got because she knew she’d beaten them? Yeah, that was probably me (or some other weedy, bushy-haired lookalike). But then, you know… I kind of grew up. Even now, I’ve had so many big things I’d love to announce to the world – on Facebook or Twitter or something – but not because I really want to. Just because my successes don’t feel like successes anymore if I’m not sharing them publicly.

Anyway – back to the story: the worst writing months of my life. I’m usually very committed to my writing; I treat it like a job; I set goals and targets and I sit down and write every single day. Yet, over these last few months (months!!) I’ve likely only sat down to write about five or six times.

“Why?” I hear you cry. Well, reader, because of the pressure.

The pressure that isn’t usually there, because I’m not usually so obsessed with what everyone else is doing. It started with the damn group chat, where people (wonderful people, who I imagine just genuinely wanted to support and share with each other) would post how many words they’d written, how many great writing days they’d had, etc… But then, when there weren’t messages waiting for me on my phone to tell me that everyone else had done more work than me, I was compulsively checking Twitter to see what everyone else was doing. Are they writing today? Does that mean I should be writing today?

I watched everyone else’s word counts climb up to our 40,000 goal, ready for our September deadline, and I was stuck on 12,000. I was hurt that some of the people so willing to remind me how well they were doing knew how well I wasn’t. The rest of my peers were swimming off ahead, and I was just bobbing on the surface, fighting to keep my mental health, university work, two jobs and finances afloat. Soon, I was drowning. And even when I reached out to peers and reminded them that hey, I’m not actually doing that well, I think I’m going to go AWOL for a bit and just focus on me, I was in turn reminded of how selfish that decision was.

So here’s my plea: can we stop considering it selfish to, uh, focus on yourself? In fact, scratch that, let’s call it selfish if that’s what it is. Maybe it’s not a bad word like we’ve been pretending it is. But don’t demonise people for wanting to take care of themselves. I’ve lost months of writing time, right before my deadline, because I allowed myself to care so deeply about everyone else’s successes. I had forgotten one very important thing:

People rarely post their failures online.

It’s true, right? Let’s take this out of a creative setting for a moment, and just all focus on our Facebook timelines: on all the wonderful things happening in everyone’s life. Sure, sometimes, we get something a little more truthful, but most of my time is spent scrolling through everyone’s vibrant successes and allowing myself to forget that these people must have other things going on. We do it all the time, but let’s be real: nobody’s life is that absolutely cracking all the time.

I don’t think this is the fault of our friends and family. I think we’ve been conditioned to behave this way. It often feels like (fight me on this because it’s true) if something isn’t posted publicly, it doesn’t really count.

Why did I type and retype and then delete the I have an agent now! status that I really wanted to share with my friends and family? Because I knew how self-centred it sounded, and although it was something I’d worked really hard to achieve, I kind of thought that maybe people would think I was just lucky or that I didn’t deserve it (Imposter Syndrome, much?). Which, hey, might’ve been true. But I could have shared that status and made the rest of my writer friends feel like shit, if I wanted to. I didn’t. You know why? Everyone that I wanted to tell could be contacted either by phone or face-to-face.

This is a hard point to argue, because there are certain things that we want to share on social media because it’s important to us, we don’t have any other way to contact people, we need to promote something, etc… I have nothing against it. Hey, I love seeing pictures of your new babies. Your beautiful weddings. The picture of your first book, shiny and fresh off the print – really, I love it. But I think we can all tell when someone is just boasting, brass and insensitive, about everything they’ve achieved. We can just tell.

I’ve come in circles a bit here, so maybe this is more of a rant than a post with a goal, and I’m sorry for that. But this is my PSA: I have to focus on myself now if I want to achieve my own goals. It’s doing me no good reading about how great your life is, for the time being anyway. The frustrating thing is, I know certain people are jealous and bitter and are literally trying to make me feel this way, and I know I’ve kind of let them win by wasting all of this time obsessing over how far ahead of me they are. But not anymore, pal. We all need to be more selfish once in a while, and take time to take care of ourselves, first.

The era of bragging is over. There are exceptions, of course, and sharing your success and allowing others to celebrate with you is rarely a bad thing (in fact, it’s a beautiful thing). But boasting for the sake of bringing yourself up and everyone else down is, to be frank, really bloody nasty.

Be kind, be creative, be selfish once in a while.

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From Bath to Bude: another day, another tent

No Fixed Abode

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written anything on here: I’ve been off in Dorset working as part of a festival production team, spent a few days back home in Manchester seeing my family, and now I’m back with Beth, living in Cornwall for the summer.

It was so strange being in the north again – not because of where I was, but more because I was spending the night in a real life house for the first time in what felt like ages. Sure, I was staying on my mum’s sofa, but still being in the confines of four walls felt totally bizarre! Even when I went to work on Larmer Tree festival, I was staying in a tent, so it kind of felt like a home away from home. Still, it was wonderful being home for a short time and seeing everyone again!

Even though it felt like nothing had changed in Manchester, it was weird to go to the same places I’d always gone as a teenager and see nobody at all that I knew. I went back to the town I went to school in, and didn’t see a soul that I recognised. How times have changed! I reckon everyone has moved on by now. Even my Nana had popped off to Skegness when I went back…

I managed to squeeze in some coffee dates with people that were still hanging about – like my best friend Josie who has just come back from backpacking around Indonesia (seriously, I’m so jealous!) and my ex-teacher and wonderful friend Fran, who gave me bags of writing advice and life-coaching, as usual. Recently, I feel as though I’m even more appreciative of the friends I have that I don’t see all of the time: even though our meetings are few and far between, the love is always stronger than ever.

My oldest younger sister, Lauren, and I, spent a lovely evening in a hotel in Manchester (a stay-cation, if you will), where we had dinner with her boyfriend, went out for some drinks, and I got another cheeky tattoo. I had a wonderful time seeing everybody again, and then I hopped on a seven hour train journey to meet Beth in Exeter, where she picked me up and drove me to our new home.

So now we live in Bude – for the time being anyway – which is probably one of the prettiest seaside towns I’ve ever visited. We’ve spent the last few days popping in to see all of Beth’s family (I really do feel like I’ve been meeting the in-laws… When you share the same tent and get invited to family barbeques, it’s no wonder people think you’re together). She’s taken me to some beautiful places (including an old, haunted church…) and every member of her family seems to want to feed us all the time, which is great for the old bank account (and they’re all super lovely!!).

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We’ve even managed to swing a great deal at the campsite we’re living on, where we essentially live for free by doing work on the site like cleaning, feeding animals, social media stuff… So, everything is lovely down this way! The weather has been perfect so far, but apparently we’re expecting some thunderstorms over the weekend. I’m so excited – I’ve yet to experience a thunderstorm in the tent and it’s bound to be wild.

Meanwhile, I still have that novel to write, so I’ve been working on my manuscript for a few hours each day, and I’ve also been thinking about more writerly things… I’ve had a lot of time to commit to this over the last week or so, and I’ve launched my plan into action today.

So I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be running my own writing workshops from September onwards! My very first workshop will being Saturday September the 22nd in Common Ground, Oxford (UK),  and will be titled Mindfulness Writing. I’ve never publicly spoken about my experiences with mental illness, and it still doesn’t feel like the right time, but what I will say is that I have absolutely used my writing as a form of therapy these past few years, and I’m ready to pass on what I’ve learnt to others.

If you’re interested in coming to my very first adult workshop (suitable for ages 14+), and you happen to be around Oxford in September – or you know someone that might be interested – you can have a little look on the facebook event group, or keep up to date with this blog for more information.

Anyway, Beth’s lovely mother is cooking us dinner, so I must dash. It’s a beautiful Cornish evening here, and I hope the sky is as blue wherever you are.

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2 weeks of tent living: things we’ve learnt so far

No Fixed Abode

Today marks the two week anniversary of our transition from city-living to, uh living-in-a-field living… Here are some things we’ve learnt so far.

Washing clothes is hard

You might think it seems simple. You have a bucket, some water, and some hand-washing detergent from Sainsbury’s. They did this in the olden days, right? Only, it doesn’t seem so simple when you can’t get all the detergent out and your white T-Shirt is tinted blue, or when you’ve scrubbed your clothes but they still smell vaguely of sweat and grass… Drying your clothes is a whole other kettle of fish: I washed a shirt a couple of nights ago that was still soaking the next morning. I ended up holding it out of the car window on our commute to work, praying that mother nature would be my tumble dryer, and it was still kind of damp when I got there…

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Finding things is… also hard

How does everything get lost so quickly? It’s just one tent! Yet somehow – even when we’ve tidied – it’s a chaotic pit of shampoo bottles and plastic cutlery. Where is the hairdryer? A pen? Those earplugs you lost last week? We may never know.

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Don’t. Leave. Chocolate. In. A. Hot. Tent.

Seems obvious. Let me tell you, it’s easy to forget you’ve left that bar of Lindt under the table. (Though you do then get the absolute joy of watching your friend try and lick it all off the packet).

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Always put the bug net up

I can keep telling Beth but she’ll never listen and, at this point, I’m as bad as she is. Remember to put the damn bug net up or you will spend half an hour of your evening trying to chase a cricket out of the tent (it’s hard. They jump a lot).

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Learn to shower with spiders

It’s not that bad, really. They just want to hang out. Side note: don’t get attached to the spiders in the bathroom and start giving them names and saying hello to them every time you go in. Some other camper will squish that spider and leave out his body in a grotesque display of power. It will break your heart.

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There are many different ways to make salad

For reals. You can put salad with anything, and you’re going to want to make lots of cold evening meals to save you having to struggle with the gas cooker. (Beth chants Quiche! Quiche! Quiche! in the distance).

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Ear plugs are your friend

I did not realise this was a thing, but Beth gave me a pair last week and I’m never going back. Don’t get me wrong, the campsite is beautifully peaceful and quiet — but there are noises that seem much louder when you’re trying to sleep. Sheep, for example. Cows. Birds. Nature in general gets pretty indignant when you’re trying to catch some Z’s.

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Make friends with other campers: they might have dogs

Campers come and go all the time on our little site, and I would say a solid 90% of them have brought adorable doggos with them. If you want the opportunity to cuddle with someone’s cute dog, you make friends with them. Simple.

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Take lots of reading material

I finished my last book (it was so wonderful it barely felt like reading at all) in less than a week, then Beth finished the same one in a few days. So, now we’re out of reading material and have to actually talk to each other in the evenings (ugh, gross). The struggle is finding a book that was just as good as that one… Recommendations welcome.

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Do not expect to be satisfied with city living ever again.

We moan a lot, but it’s wild really. I love living in our little tent in our beautiful corner of the Mendips, and I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to living in a house in a bustling city again.

Luckily, we haven’t made plans to do that anytime soon…

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I learnt to drive in a field (and other fun things that happened this week)

No Fixed Abode

It’s still about thirty degrees and we haven’t seen any sign of the promised thunder storms yet. I swear, Beth and I have spent our days moaning about the weather like typical Brits, unable to accept that the weather won’t actually do what we want it to. It’s almost like the world doesn’t revolve around us or something.

Despite the weather driving us mad, we’ve found time in between bitching to do some interesting things this week. One of those being Beth attempting to teach me to drive on our little campsite. I, personally, think that I did quite well. Having only just gotten my provisional license at 22 years old and never getting behind the wheel before, I’m still not sure I fully understand what a clutch is or what it’s supposed to do.

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Still, I managed not to hit anybody’s caravan. I was very proud of being able to drive between two picnic benches like an absolute pro without totalling Beth’s car; though I did end up pulling up next to somebody’s campervan in a panic and then watching with despair as they waited patiently for me to get out of their parking space. You win some, you lose some.

Another wonderful thing that happened this week is that I finished the book I’ve been reading and have popped it on my Top Ten Books of All Time list – whic9781784294007.jpgh is really saying something. If you haven’t read Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill, you really, really ought to. It’s so beautifully written and interesting and current and feminist. Only Ever Yours is just amazingly reflective of today’s society and the pressure that is put on women to act, look, be a certain way. I can’t stop raving about it. I finished the final chapter last night, curled up on the floor of our tent, gaping at the page and muttering incoherent thoughts at Beth and then re-reading the chapter again. It’s very rare that I am so profoundly impacted by a book that I want everyone to read it, but yes. Wonderful. Bravo, Louise.

36469019_10212082063595800_3202880257929510912_n.jpgOn another note, we have now had Quiche for our dinner four (five?) nights in a row and are still not bored of it. Did you know there are, like, a million different types of Quiche? And you can just put some salad with it, and it’s a meal! We love it! Perhaps we will have to stray away from the Quiche soon, though, as to not wear it out… (Or not. We love Quiche.)

A few new tepee-style tents have been put up on our campsite, which has thrown a bit of change into the mix. Usually we spend our evenings on our little picnic bench, watching people walk their dogs around the field and passing comment on the outfit choices of our fellow residents, but now… Now we have something new to watch. We have been speculating about the use of these mysterious yurts, and we think they have been set up to house people at a festival nearby this weekend. Apparently, the tents will be packed up on Sunday. We will see.

The cows were pretty loud last night. The poor bastards in the yurts probably didn’t sleep a wink. Beth and I thought maybe they were being taken for slaughter, but the mooing commenced at about six p.m. yesterday and was still going at seven thirty this morning when we left for work. I have never heard anything like it. I am buying earplugs today.

Anyway, I got exciting news yesterday that my book is ready to be sent off to publishers, so today I am madly writing my synopsis and author bio ready to send out! This afternoon, while Beth is working, I’m going to walk back to my old road (I can’t believe we don’t live there anymore!) and see my lovely neighbour Kath, so that we can have lunch together like the good old days.

Enjoy the weekend sunshine while it lasts. I’m betting on a thunderstorm very soon.

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the wednesday wind-down: day 6 of tent life

No Fixed Abode

It’s the sixth day and, so far, nothing terrible has happened (touch wood). The weather has been glorious – almost to the point of being suspiciously glorious – and Beth and I have managed to navigate this country-living thing pretty smoothly. We’ve figured out what time we need to leave in the morning to both get to work on time (the crack of dawn, by the way), how much time we have in the evenings to cook, shower and wash up before the sun goes down… Our days revolve around how much light there is, and it’s a surprisingly peaceful existence. If I’m honest, I expected our new lifestyle to be one of those things that gets real dull real quick. Like, camping holidays are fun, but I thought that as soon as we moved into a tent, it would kind of take the fun out of it.

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This is what I expected, anyway, but it isn’t even the case a little bit. Driving onto our little field at the end of a busy workday is such a lovely feeling, and being able to sit outside and watch rabbits run around your home is pretty darn cool. I think both of us got so used to this busy, repetitive, city monotony, that we almost forgot how quiet the countryside can be.

Not only is there physically nobody else there (aside from the other campers, of course), but there’s mentally fewer people there as well. Back in our house, even if it were just the two of us there, we’d be thinking about paying our gas bill – or the electricity, or water, or council tax… – there’s always someone who needs something from you. Out here in the wilderness (I’m so dramatic – we’re not that isolated), there’s only the campsite owner to pay once a week, and petrol to put in the car. Our minds are clearer, the streets are quieter, and there’s a whole lot more sheep.

Of course, there are always a few things that you totally forget to factor in when you’re doing the ‘hey, let’s move into a tent!’ thing. For example, we had a mad and wild panic the other day about leaving our electrics on, and now we have to make sure we turn the electricity off at the socket before going to work. Lighters can’t be left inside the tent, in case they, uh, explode… We had a great experience the other day where we left some butter in an empty lunchbox and came back to a nice oily mess. But we’re working our way around it. The chocolate we bought last night is currently sitting in Beth’s fridge at work, so that we can properly enjoy some solid food later.

We’ve learnt ho36326970_10212063864180826_1268439322957185024_nw to make salads interesting – and so far have made three or four different varieties for our dinners. Buying just enough fresh ingredients for the both of us on our way home from work is so much easier than trying to cook hot food on our gas stove (though we do still have that as an option!). As always, Beth cooks and I do the washing up — which is a perfect arrangement; if I were in charge of food, it would be far less impressive than some of the masterpieces Beth creates.

Another thing that tends to slip your mind when you’re spontaneously deciding to live in a field is washing. We briefly discussed the concept of washing our clothes before we moved here, and picked up some hand-wash detergent from the supermarket to keep in our supply box, but we didn’t really have to face it until we both ran out of underwear. Then we were digging around for plastic tubs and figuring out the best way to hang our knickers out to dry whilst still maintaining some dignity…

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Last night we met a lovely couple (and their adorable puppy, Sky) on site whilst filling our kettles, and they gave us lots of helpful advice for when we move to Oxford. We’re likely to be the campsites longest standing occupants, so it’s nice to see the other campers come and go, and hear all about their travels. Even nicer when they have cute dogs for you to spend your evening cuddling.

On another note, I’ve discovered I’m much more of a scatterbrain than I originally believed myself to be. Three days in a row, I’ve forgotten to take my bank card out of the tent with me, I’ve walked to the shower block only to find I’ve left my shampoo behind, and I struggle finding my toothbrush every single morning. But, to be fair, I think I was like this before we moved into the tent. Maybe I didn’t notice my disorganisation as much when we were in an actual house…

We’ve gotten into the swing of things over here in the Mendips – and I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of sitting out with a brew and watching the sunset each night. If anything, I’m kind of disappointed that we spent four years miserably throwing a grand and a half a month at a private landlord, for a house we were only in a few hours a day… when we could have been living like this the whole time.*

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*Maybe not in the winter months. That’d be daft.

Goodbye Civilization

No Fixed Abode

It’s going to be a summer of tents, caravans, sofa surfing and – hey, quite possibly – maybe a couple of nights in a cardboard box. But since we reached the end of the tenancy on our house in Bath and decided to renounce city living altogether, we have truly committed to having no fixed abode. The first leg of our unconventional journey began yesterday, when we packed up a three-story house and moved into a tent instead.

It’s no surprise that we were fully unprepared for the amount of pure crap we had to move out of our home. We happily went swanning off with our friend Olly to go out for dinner, blissfully unaware of just how much needed to be done. I think it’s safe to say, our smiles faded when we arrived home at 9pm to pure mayhem. We spent the next five (six? seven?) hours cleaning, throwing stuff out, finding more stuff to throw out, running out of bin space, seriously considering fly tipping… Random junk from tenants previous suddenly became our responsibility to get rid of and it took us a long time (and a whole lot of recycling) to finally get the house to a good standard.

The next morning, packed and ready, we awaited the arrival of the new tenants for the momentous Key Handover. Despite having lived there for the last three years, I still don’t think it’s really sunk in that we don’t live at number 25 anymore. We loaded half of our stuff into the car (because that’s all we could fit in the car) and left the other half to pick up later in the day. It seemed like a great plan until we got in the car and it felt like the vehicle might just crumble under the weight of our two-tonne tent.

And so, we said goodbye to number 25, and hello to… well, a field. It’s important to me that everybody knows that on the tent instructions, it said the assembly time was 3hrs 30mins. We put up this bad boy in 50 minutes (coffee & lunch breaks included).

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It was a work of art. We were thrilled. Finished assembling the tent by 3pm, we then battled traffic to get back into Bath and pick up the rest of our stuff – stopping off on the way for ‘supplies’, aka lots of bottled water, custard creams and minstrels. It was definitely one of the hottest days we’ve experienced this year, and we were in a field with no shade, so there was definitely a whole lot of sweat and sunburn going on. We organised the inside of our casa – until it looked like the most adorable and civilised living space – and then went to scope out the campsite showers.

There are only two toilets and two showers on our site, both in little adjacent cubicles, so Beth and I have now taken our friendship to a whole new level by maintaining conversation whilst showering and peeing.

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After freshening up, we received truly adorable directions from the campsite owner to the local pub. Those included ‘cross the field, climb the style, and follow the church spire until you see it’. We’re only half an hour down the road, but this feels a long way away from city life in Bath.

The weather is glorious, and even though we had to wake up at 6.30 this morning to get ready for work, our morning commute was really beautiful. Time to get to work now, but I’m sure the day will be easier knowing I get to go back to my little tent at the end of the day. I have never known a place to have so much birdsong and so little light pollution!

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To keep up to date on our adventures, follow on Instagram or go like Quills & Coffee on Facebook!

Emptying my house: a voyage of discovery

Lifestyle

For those of you that don’t know, my tenancy for my house in Bath is ending in a couple of weeks, and my wonderful friend and current housemate, Beth, and I will be moving. Where to? I hear you ask: well, we’re still not sure. But we’ve bought a tent and we’ll take it from there.

Beth and I are polar opposites of each other when it comes to collecting physical ‘stuff’; she’s very minimalistic, whereas I am a huge hoarder. There is clutter in my bedroom that I can’t even remember the significance of, yet still seem to have some emotional attachment to. But because we don’t know where we’ll be moving to, or for how long – and we know we’re likely to be living in a, uh, tent… Well, I’m having to be firm with myself on how much actual ‘stuff’ I can take with me. So, I’m clearing out.

I wanted to write a blog post about all of the interesting things I’ve found in my bedroom so far, but I’ve just chosen a couple of them to write about today because it’s late and I have a lot of packing to do. Beth and I have been living in this house together for three years now, so I didn’t actually think there’d be many surprises. But wow. The underneath of my bed is a treasure trove of well-read Creative Writing textbooks, socks, and cereal bar wrappers. There was a whole draw in one of my cupboards that I’d completely forgotten about, and I somehow managed to discover some kind of weird parallel universe of old matching pyjama sets.

Amongst all of the absolute rubbish, though, I have found a couple of gems that I’d like to share with you. The first: a diary from 2014. This diary is absolutely brimming with weird dreams I’d had – I must’ve been in a phase of writing them down – so it’s been interesting to read through how gloriously disturbed my mind was back then! I was also far more creative than I am with my notebooks now (there are lots of pretty quote pages… I was probably procrastinating.)

IMG_0739As well as those, I found a piece of writing from when I was stuck in Tamworth station on Christmas Eve, waiting for my delayed train home to Manchester. I remember I’d been in this station for hours and there was still no sight of the train. It was getting close to midnight. I was at the end of my tether. Here’s a little snippet:

My day has already stretched over sixteen hours. I’d take a quick nap, but I know the minute my eyes close, the train will come. It’ll be like that episode of SpongeBob, where he’s waiting in the rough end of Bikini Bottom for a bus home, and every time he goes to get a snack, a bus goes past. I think it must’ve mentally scarred me as a kid. It’s all I can think about, staring at the vending machines opposite me. If I go and put a quid in the machine, a train will pull into the station and leave without me, I’m sure of it. The twix isn’t worth it.

Another wonderful find is the soft toy I grew up with: Tutu. Tutu is a little pink monster that I used to carry around as a kid. I don’t know why she was in my wardrobe or how the hell she got from Bolton to Bath at some point over the last three years without me noticing, but we were happy to be reunited.

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There’s so much more that I’ve stumbled across during my ‘clearing out’ and I am absolutely useless at throwing things away (how am I going to reduce my room into just a few boxes? how?) but I haven’t time to write about everything. Stay tuned and keep up to date with the blog to read about the whole process: moving house, living in a tent and, uh… living in a tent.

Things are about to get wild.

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Turn your ‘should’s to ‘could’s: and see results in your motivation

Lifestyle

Research for my latest novel has me delving into therapies, recovery activities and exercises for motivation. One particular activity I was introduced to yesterday was, “Write down your rules for life.”

Your rules for life, so to speak, are not necessarily rules that you stick to all the time. Your rules can be things that you feel you should be doing, or maybe things you feel guilty if you don’t do. Here are some examples:

  1. I should go for a run every day.
  2. I must not be selfish
  3. I should always text back straight away
  4. I must never be late for work
  5. I should always put make-up on before leaving the house

In my research environment, we were then told to change these negative, authoritarian words like ‘should’ to something that was kinder to ourselves. I thought this was a really interesting phrase to use, and noticed that many of the others in the environment were changing their rules to more tentative words: I could, I can, I might…

After speaking to my housemate later that evening, she pulled up an article she’d read about the impacts of using the word ‘should’. As the article says, although should’ may occasionally give good guidance, more often than not it “induces guilt, and decreases the desire to do something you might otherwise want to do.”

In this article, psychologist Susan Heitler suggests to use the words ‘could’ and ‘I would like to’, rather than ‘should’ – and the more thought I put into it, the more it made sense. Even from a simple, stripped-back perspective: if you tell yourself you would like to do something, rather than you should do something, you’re surely more likely to do it, right? It just makes more sense.

Similarly, if you use the word should when addressing others, you’re very likely to make them feel guilty for not already doing said thing. Therefore, they’re less likely to feel motivated to do said thing because, let’s face it, nobody likes being told what to do. Telling others that they should be doing something is appealing to that little bit of rebel we all have inside of us: the voice saying, “If I should, then I ain’t gonna. Don’t tell me what to do.”

For example, if I said to my housemate (which would never happen, by the way, because she is far cleaner than I am): “You should have done the washing up today. You should really help out more.”

(God, it felt weird even writing that.)

She’s not going to do it. Actually, she’ll probably be pissed off that I’m telling her to do something. But if I said, “Could you do the washing up today?” I reckon she’d be more likely to pick up the sponge.

Using the word could implies that you have an option. You could do the washing up, but there’s no pressure. You could also not do the washing up, no biggie. Similarly, if I’m speaking to myself (happens a lot), I can change I should go for a run every day, to I could go for a run every day, if I feel like it. Hey, no pressure. If I don’t feel like going for a run, I’m not going to bother, but I have the potential. I totally could, if I wanted to. But I don’t need to feel like I should be going for a run, even when I don’t want to. I tried this technique out on myself this morning, because I have a whole host of things to do and very little time to do them in. I wrote myself a little list of things that I should be doing / have already done, but used the phrase would like to instead.

Things I would like to get done today:

  • Finish off my publishing portfolio
  • Edit my manuscript submission
  • Write another synopsis & query letter

Things I could also do, if I want to:

  • Email various people waiting for work and thank them for sticking with me while I’m busy
  • Call a lady about renting a tent pitch

Just seeing these little lists already makes me feel like I’ve no pressure to complete any of my tasks – but that makes me want to do them even more! Not because I should, but because I could – and why waste that potential?

Susan Heitler’s article Should You Use This Word? on Psychology Today explains this concept far better than I can, so go and give it a read. Also thank you to my housemate, Beth, for pointing this out to me! It was too helpful of a concept not to share.

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Reckless & resourceful: powerful women in young adult fiction

Writing

I loved celebrating International Women’s Day yesterday, but let’s face it – one day just isn’t enough to celebrate all of the strong and influential women that help mould our lives. In honour of International Women’s Day and – hey, why not? – just women in general, I’ve picked out three female-oriented and wonderfully written young adult novels to celebrate with you guys.

These three young adult novels hold such a close place in my heart, and I wanted to share them with you all. Each of the following novels was written by a talented female author, with intricate and beautifully written plots and equally intricate female protagonists.

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The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles

This novel is Ruffles’ debut, and it’s written in such an incredibly visceral way that she’s bound to have set herself up for a successful authoring career. The story follows Lux – a student at a prestigious art school in London, who has recently developed synaesthesia, a condition that makes her taste, feel and smell colours rather than see them. The narrative of this piece is so disjointed and often disturbing, but never so much that the reader can’t follow Lux’s journey. Through Lux’s panic attacks and repressed traumas, Ruffles really captures the reality of mental health conditions for young people.

“If Sylvia Plath wrote a novel for young adults, The Taste of Blue Light would be it… Beautiful. Visceral. Gripping. I loved it.” – Louise O’Neill

Lux is strong, resourceful, and often too independent to accept help and support from others. As readers, we’re very much in Lux’s head as she tries to come to terms with her condition, uncover the mysteries of her past, and navigate school and home life. One of the more refreshing elements of The Taste of Blue Light is the supporting characters: Lux’s wonderful female friends that never waver in their support, even when they aren’t sure how to help, Lux’s teachers, her mother – the women around her that hold her up, even when she doesn’t think she needs holding.

I can’t recommend this novel enough – there are so many lines throughout the novel that are so poignantly phrased that they may as well be poetry. You can purchase the novel online here. (Content warning: Lux is a complicated girl, and the book does include depictions of drug use.)

 

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Clean by Juno Dawson

I’ve always been a fan of Juno – a female writer who is a huge advocate for the LGBTQ+ community – but I think she’s really outdone herself with Clean. Protagonist Lexi has grown up living the life of a celebrity, hanging out with Victoria’s Secret models and her father’s limitless credit cards; then her heroin addiction lands her in an exclusive rehab facility in the middle of God-awful nowhere.

It’s only in rehab that Lexi learns about her addiction and can grow into the person she truly wants to be. Everyone she meets in the facility is struggling from their own addictions, whether it be food, sex, or drugs. The supporting characters – particularly the females – in this novel are just as inspirational as Lexi herself becomes. The female owner of the centre is strong, successful, and has turned her grief into something beautiful with all that she has achieved. Kendall, a transgender girl suffering with anorexia, teaches Lexi the values of being non-judgemental and open to support.

“Compulsively readable and touching – I loved it.” – Marian Keyes

This is a novel that is as deep and gripping as it is light-hearted. There are tear-jerking moments, but Lexi’s sarcastic nature will always leave readers feeling warm. I was given an ARC of Clean, but it will be out in stores April 2018, and it’s worth pre-ordering! (Content warning: those currently suffering with addiction might want to avoid due to triggering situations. Mild drug use, anorexia, binge eating disorders, abuse and death are all mentioned in this novel.)

 

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We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

Firstly, I think we can all agree that the cover art for We Are Okay is overwhelmingly stunning. Can I pretend I didn’t buy this one just for the cover at first? Anyway, LaCour has published many novels for young adults now; another favourite of mine is the novel she co-wrote with David Levithan, You Know Me Well. This novel, however, is one of the best young adult novels I can think of for female YA readers.

Protagonist Marin is at college in New York, far away from her old life on the Californian coast. It’s winter, and every other student has gone home for the holidays – except Marin, who doesn’t have a home to go to. When she is visited by her best friend from her old life, Marin has to face up to some truths and confront her past.

Short, poetic and gorgeously written. . . . The world LaCour creates is fragile but profoundly humane.” — The New York Times Book Review

The entire novel is set over the space of a few days; Marin and her friend are snowed in, alone, and forced to explore their past relationship and why they’ve both been so distant with each other. This is a novel about sadness, grief, loss and love. And it’s the right time of year to read this one – We Are Okay is a novel to read while you’re curled up with a hot beverage and snow is falling outside. Perfect for readers looking for realistic and sensitively written LGBT fiction. Buy it here. (Content warning: grief, loss, death.)

Buy, read, enjoy. Although I’ve attached Amazon links to the above novels, please support these wonderful authors by buying through your local bookshops if you can!

 

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An interview with ‘The Doll House’ author, Phoebe Morgan

Writing

Phoebe Morgan, debut novelist and author of psychological thriller The Doll House talks writing, editing, and her advice to young authors with Niall Cunniffe.

Could you give readers a brief introduction to what you’ve published, and what you’re currently working on?

My first book, The Doll House, was published last year. It’s a psychological thriller about two sisters who find themselves the target of a stranger seeking revenge. I’ve just sent my second book to my publisher after doing a structural edit with my agent, so it’s all quite nerve-wracking! It’s another psychological thriller, but the title hasn’t yet been confirmed as yet. Watch this space!

You’re a commissioning editor for a trade publisher by day. Do you think this has helped you improve your writing or editing process and, if so, how?

Yes, definitely. I’m an Editor first and foremost. I work with a long list of authors, so I see both sides of the process. Working as an Editor in publishing has given me a wider understanding of the commercial market, I think, and seeing it from both sides helps me empathise more with authors, and gives me a different perspective. I’ve found comfort in the fact that I know how the publishing process works, all the ins and outs that go into making a book and getting it into readers hands. There’s a lot of work involved!

Do you think aspiring authors should get some experience in the publishing industry to help with their writing and career?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary. I would suggest they read widely and read around their chosen genre. They should keep an eye on what’s doing well and becoming successful – and figure out why certain books are more appealing or gripping than others. But writers should always be true to themselves, too – the market is an ever-changing beast so you’ve always got to keep your own voice and write what you love.

Do you think it’s becoming increasingly common for writers and authors to also have a full time job nowadays?

I think this depends on what stage of the journey they’re at, really. I know a lot of writers who balance writing around full time jobs, some of whom have children as well which is awe-inspiring! As a general point, writing isn’t always the most financially rewarding career in the world, so it’s very common for people to juggle multiple jobs, especially when starting out. I love my job – I always wanted to be an Editor, and I wouldn’t want to simply write on my own, I think I’d go mad! Of course, some authors do write full time; I think it’s a very personal choice.

Do you have a place you always go to write, or somewhere you feel most inspired?

I can write anywhere, though I’ve got a new desk recently which I’m really excited about. The shelves above the desk have some little reminders – a plant my agent gave me, a poster with an inspirational quote, my books about publishing. It’s really nice to have your own space to write, so I guess I’m lucky. However, I wrote most of The Doll House while babysitting in the evenings, or sitting in cafés at night.

How much planning and outlining do you undertake before beginning to write your novel?

I don’t plan at all, to begin with. I find it really difficult. I did write a synopsis for my agent and publisher for my second book, but that’s the extent of it. Everyone works in different ways. I prefer to get the first draft done and then edit it. I’m not one of those writers who can plan out a whole novel with sticky notes and spread sheets. I probably end up writing more drafts. I’m an editor by nature, so I’m most comfortable editing a lot than extensively planning.

Do have any other hobbies and passions, outside writing and publishing?

I’ve very passionate about the Society of Young Publishers; I’m co-chairing the London branch this year. Writing and publishing are where my main interests lie – I’m fairly terrible at everything else! Although I am trying to learn how to cook… with mixed results.

If you have one piece of advice to offer to young aspiring authors, what would it be?

Be persistent. You have to keep going. It’s a good idea to perhaps have your writing read by other people and be prepared to take editorial feedback. Focus on your own journey, and make sure you’re doing the best you can. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others – just keep your head down, do the work and make the most of every opportunity.

Keep up with Phoebe’s journey on her website, where she frequently posts about writing, editing and the world of publishing. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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A big thank you to Niall for organizing such an insightful interview with Phoebe! Keep yourself in the loop with Niall’s work by following him on twitter and checking out his blog.

 

 

 

It’s okay to be a total flake: reassurance from a total flake

Mental Health

Recently, it feels like there’s always someone who needs a bit of my time. There are emails to be answered, appointments to be made, catch-ups and study-sessions and coffee dates to be scheduled… I’m starting to understand why my lecturer’s always seem to have their ‘Out of Office’ automated emails switched on.

It isn’t a bad thing when this happens. I feel very loved and grateful that there are so many people that want thirty minutes of my time, but there aren’t really enough hours in the day for me to do everything I want to do as well as everything I need to. So, if you’re one of the people who feels like I’ve been ghosting you or being one of those friends that forever says, “We need to catch up, it’s been too long!” but is never actually available: I’m sorry. I’ll get round to you, I promise. In the meantime, I need a little time.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog will know that I’m currently trying to juggle a Master’s degree, a part-time job in my local bookstore, and getting manuscript edits sent to my agent so that we can try to sort the novel for publication soon. There are always things on top of this happening as well: meetings with lecturers and authors and doctors that I really can’t postpone. So, yeah, I’ve been terrible at replying to messages, and equally bad about re-arranging our catch-ups to later in the month when I’m convinced I’ll have a little more free time. It even took my mother a few days to get a call back from me. It’s not just you.

But the point of this post wasn’t for me to rant and bitch about how much work I have to do and how annoying it is that I have so many friends – trust me. The point of this post is to call out all of the flakes and ghosters and say hey, it’s cool. We need time for ourselves, time to recuperate, time to think and reflect and pretty much just get our acts together.

It’s really easy for me to catch myself in a web of guilt when it comes to my friends, family, and other commitments – and I’m sure I can’t be alone. Sometimes I’ll spend an evening writing, Netflix on in the background, wondering how I’ve managed to turn down so many plans with people when this is all I’ve ended up doing. I feel like I’m prioritising the wrong things, neglecting friends to stay at home, trading in human contact for the company of my laptop screen… But I have to remind myself: some people work nine to five in their careers, and this is mine. I don’t have your average working hours, but as a writer I have to find time to commit to my writing. It’s so important.

I have to remind myself that when friends message at six or seven in the evening and want to go out for drinks or just come round for a coffee, that’s kind of the middle of my workday. And alongside my career of writing, I’m also having to support myself by working part-time and also do, that, uh, university thing we’ve talked about. I can’t let myself continue to feel guilty because I’m working doing the thing I love most.

“But, Beth,” I hear you cry. “You need time to socialise – to have a life!”

I do, I promise you. I tend to schedule my phone calls and quick catch-ups in my lunch breaks at work or on the occasional evening, but if I haven’t found time for you, please don’t be offended! Please understand my lack of time and total disorganisation! I know I always end up neglecting my friends that live far away, but that’s only because I’d have to commit more than an hour to come see you (and, in some cases, a fair bit of cash that I don’t have either). I’m so grateful for the friends that understand I’m useless at keeping in touch; the friends that are fully aware of my busy life and accept the fact that I care about them, I’m just a big ol’ Cadbury’s flake most of the time.

And I’m grateful to my mum, for coming to terms with the fact that I’m probably alive and well regardless of whether I answer her phone calls or not. Probably.

So here’s a message to all of my fellow flakes: you’re not alone. We all do it, even those of us who seem like they’ve nothing better to do with their time than spend it with you. Every so often, everyone needs time to just go MIA. Ignore your phones, turn on your ‘Out of Office’ emails, and try not to feel too guilty about it. Your time is valuable and it’s always, always, up to you how you spend it.

Stay flaky,

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laughing on the outside: rainy day writing, manuscript soundtracks & more

Lifestyle, Writing

When I was doing my A Levels, my best friend Amy would send our group of friends an email every single Friday wishing us a good week and linking us to The Cure’s Friday, I’m in love. That was my soundtrack this morning, when I was cleaning my house; I danced around with my mop and vacuum and thought of how simple life was back then… As it stands at the moment, I have edits to do on one of my novels, plotting and writing to do on the other, a part-time job, and a Masters degree to contend with. Oh, younger Beth, you really did have it easy, kid.

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After blitzing my house (a regular past-time whenever I get a day off work), I escaped to my nearest coffee shop – which is now, amazingly, about three minutes walk from home. God bless Costa for opening a store on every street corner. My laptop is fully charged, which is a miracle in itself, and I’m armed with notebooks and iced tea – all the necessities for a good writing day. My background music for today is the soundtrack of The End of the F**king World, which, by the way, was a pleasure to watch. I’ve already stolen several songs from the soundtrack to add to my own manuscript playlist…

Speaking of, manuscript playlists are something that I find hugely helpful when writing. My current work of progress has very dark vibes and a confusing and fragmented narrative, and I find it so much easier to get into the head of my protagonist when I’m listening to music with the same kind of twisted undertones. I’m forever trawling through Spotify and YouTube for more songs to add to my playlists: I always feel better when they’re 2+ hours long, so that I’m not distracted by hearing the same songs over and over and can focus on my writing.

Yesterday was deadline day (hooray), which means the first five chapters of my latest novel have now been submitted to my manuscript editor for review. I don’t have to think about edits for that one until the end of February now, so in the meantime… I’m writing. Beginning a novel is always my favourite part of the process: probably because I’m not really a planner so when I’m writing, I tend to have little to no idea of where my characters will be taking me. A little uncertainty is always fun.

Anyway, I’m 14,000 words in at the minute and really enjoying the motifs that keep cropping up and the characters that kind of seem trustworthy to start with and are slowly becoming less so as the plot thickens. I’m hoping to reach around 70,000 for this particular manuscript, as it’s for a YA audience. My first draft of my first novel ended at around 55,000, but now I’m discovering that I have far more words to play around with and probably should have written way more to begin with – while I was in the flow of that particular story.

I’m thankful I headed to Costa when I did, because it’s just started pouring down outside and I didn’t bring a coat. It was sunny earlier! Unpredictable British weather. You’d think I’d have adapted by now to living in the South of England by carrying an umbrella or bringing a spare jacket or something, but that rarely happens… I think when you’ve come from the North, there’s a certain element of pride when it comes to cold weather. Duh, I’m from the North. I can hack it. Brolly?? ‘Course I don’t need a brolly.

I should probably get back to working on the manuscript. I hope everyone has a great day! It definitely feels like a day to be creative, if you’re that way inclined. Enjoy.

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Avoiding the void: staying social as a writer

Writing

I think it’s safe to say that most writers would consider themselves quite solitary people. Let’s face it – writing is a solitary activity, there’s no getting around it. But nobody ever made a bestselling novel by holing themselves up in their room for three years. As writers, we need the support and inspiration from people around us to feed our writing – and there are so many different ways we can keep in touch with the outside world while still focusing on our works in progress.

One wonderful way to stay in the loop without even leaving the comfort of your home is social media. That’s right: get tweeting people. I find that Twitter is one of the more useful platforms for writers. Set yourself up with a profile if you haven’t already, and really delve into the different writing hashtags that crop up every so often. For children’s authors in particular, Twitter is invaluable for showing new and upcoming writers what agents and publishers are looking for. There are different conversations happening all the time, and sometimes there are scheduled chats that you can get involved in. There’s always room for new ideas – and sending your opinion via a tweet is so much less nerve-wracking than if you piped up in person. Get involved!

Beth’s Tips: Children’s and YA authors should try looking out for #ukyachat #MSWL and #manuscriptwishlist!

Another great way for us writers to stay in touch with the dreaded ‘outside world’ are writing groups. This can be a terrifying concept for some people, but the only way to find out if you like a writing group and the dynamic the writers share is to go and find out. Try out a few different writing groups and see how you feel, see if there’s anyone you click with, anyone who’s writing similar stuff to you, anyone who couldn’t be more different but seems like a laugh… Writing groups are really wonderful places where you can seek manuscript feedback before sending your work out to agents. If an agent is given a manuscript with spelling or syntax errors in the first few pages, they won’t be looking much further into the piece. This is why it’s so important to be involved with the writing community to get support editing and beta-reading your work before it’s sent off!

Beth’s Tips: Rather than relying on Google, UK writers should check out Writing Magazine for tips on what writing groups are available in their local area.

Writer’s festivals are also a wonderful way to meet like-minded people and off-load all of your writing problems. When I visited my first Writer’s Festival, I was blown away by the amount of people who swarmed together to complain about all things writer-ly: the amount of celebrities taking over the children’s book market, the uselessness of Scrivener, having to waste their lives at boring jobs to support their writing… Writer’s know how to complain, and it warms your heart to be able to share in it together. Festivals are also great places to attend inspiring and motivational lectures and seminars, and to share your time and experiences with writer’s who are in a similar position to you. So much knowledge and advice is exchanged at festivals – there really is nothing like it!

Beth’s Tips: My favourite UK writing festival is the Winchester Writer’s Festival – I had a wonderful, inspirational time when I attended last year. Scholarships are available worth £400 if you’re between 18-25 and passionate about writing. Find out more on their website here.

Finally, the support network that is already in place – your friends and family – can be a great way for you to avoid slipping into the dreaded void of loneliness. Schedule breaks in your writing to give your mum a ring, or meet up with a friend. Something I regularly do is make plans to have a coffee with a friend at about 2 in the afternoon. This means I have the whole morning to write, I can then walk twenty minutes to town, have an hour or so chilling with my friend, walk twenty minutes back and get right back at it. Be sure to always give yourself breaks when writing – the moment it starts to feel like a chore, the harder it’ll be to get those words down.

Beth’s Tips: When you have a designated ‘writing day’, draw yourself a cheeky timetable the night before so you know which chapters you’re supposed to be focusing on every hour – this way you can also schedule in some time with friends or family to break up the day.

I hope you found this article helpful! If you’d like to add any other ways to stay social as a writer, please do leave a comment below. Happy writing!

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