Not Writing

Recently, it’s felt like my life isn’t really my own. For various reasons, the usual things that fill up the gaps between work (and are the places where I feel my living really happens) have disappeared. Not to say that it’s all been bad. Much more time with family has made me appreciate them, and time spent looking after myself without piling on expectations can’t be a bad thing. It’s just been rather odd to face the lack of things I consider to be ‘progress.’ No drumming rehearsals have meant I haven’t got any better (and undoubtedly got worse). No French lessons, no running, all the things that I usually count up over the week and use as a measure of success. And worst of all, no writing. In times where I am struggling to hold onto my frail identity as a writer, I often open up a sticky note on my laptop that counts words completed per day. If nothing else, it means I can do a tally at the end of the week, count up the syllables of success. For a month, this has dwindled to zero.

Even these musings are being done on a train, on the way to do something else. When something has been taken away, you realise how much it meant to you. I wrote an article recently for Wander magazine (check it out if you haven’t yet, beautiful and eclectic magazine). In that, I was mostly concerned with origins, perceptions, nationality, all of the things that are commonly associated with your sense of where you fit in the world. What I’m coming to realise is that my sense of self is incredibly closely tied to my actions. Or inactions. I’ve been feeling adrift, lost in a sea of things outside my control, forced to do the bare minimum of things.

It makes me look at what writing actually gives me. Not financial gain, not fame, but perhaps something more important than I’d given it credit. I started my novel when I did a Masters. I was miserable in my job, had always wanted to write a book, and decided that now was as good a time as any. More an exercise in seeing what I could do than anything else, I wasn’t expecting to have the creation of stories become something so integral, so personal. Without losing myself in a sea of words, things feel greyer. Without imagining new people, places, their thoughts, their feelings, searching for ways to express the pictures in my head, I feel a little less. Reduced, as if the mundane acts of feeding and caring for myself are actions to keep me going, not things to keep me alive.

Writing is hard. On days when I’m tired it feels impossible to create anything. Sitting on the bus, I’d much rather read a book, the news, listen to a podcast, passively absorb something someone else created. But it’s dawning on me that the seeming sacrifice is not the hardship I’ve built it up to be. Or rather, denying myself the thing that seems like a massive effort might just be costing me more than I realise.

Sometimes you forget why you started doing something in the first place. It’s so easy for things to become routine. Even those that started out as fun can end up feeling like a chore, just another thing to do on the list, another thing to make you tired. The briefest of breaks can make large the things you found small, lend an importance and urgency to activities you moaned about doing before.

Some people lack the free time for any of the things I enjoy. Responsibilities, ill health, finances, there are innumerable conditions that keep you from your desires.

No matter how tired, I want to remember how privileged I am to have the time and space to do things. And when that time and space is taken from me, to remember to find tiny cracks within which to wedge those things that are precious when lost.

How to be Awesome

I’ve always been a perpetual starter. So many hobbies, instruments, sports, arts, languages, begun but never mastered. Yet I’ve just finished the third draft of my first novel, and have completed numerous half marathons and two full marathons. I don’t think I started out particularly better at these two things than any of the others, so what’s the difference? I tried to piece together the differences and approaches that have allowed me to reach the ‘end’ of these things, while not getting past the starting point with so many others. What I discovered is that there is a definite pattern to it, and that (in theory) it could be applied to, well, anything.

What are you aiming for?

The nature of the task itself is bound to make a difference. While both my achievements were pretty long (26 miles and 92,000 words!) they do, at least, have an end. And on the way to that finish line, measurable steps. It turns out I’m pretty motivated by goals, and by competition. When I was making a myriad excuses about running (it’s cold, I’ve just eaten, my ankle feels a bit wobbly, my kit is wet, I can’t be arsed) I put together a training table (yeah, I know, loser) that allowed me to tick off the runs I’d achieved, how quick I’d done them, all that stuff. With the book, I did a tally of words that I did each day, then did a weekly/monthly tally – and my March self did significantly better than my January self.

As we’ve been telling the Year 7s this week (being a teacher means you get two goes at having a New Year, when it’s not as cold and you aren’t feeling as fat from Christmas) goals need to be measurable, with a specific time frame, in order to for them to be tangible. And for me, motivational. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started learning the guitar…

How can what you want to achieve be measured?

Well, the above is obvious, but for a while now I’ve been ‘learning French.’ What that means, in reality, is that I chat with my boyfriend when I can be bothered (not that often) make promises to go on Duolinguo every day, that I then don’t keep up with, and then get annoyed with myself every few months for having had a French boyfriend for over a year and a half and still have the French ability of my sixteen-year-old self. So yes, dammit, I’m making a table. Something I can tick off, like engaging with the language for 10mins every day, even if it’s just reading a French website, having a fortnightly tally of conversation practice and at least one dull grammar exercise. Hopefully, my January self will be ‘le merde.’

So break down your goals into manageable and measurable chunks, and let the awesomeness commence.

What are your incentives?

It’s all very well to want to get politically active in order to be a better person, or to want to learn the guitar because you think you’ll look bloody cool, but just like measuring how to get there, you need to know what success looks like, in a tangible way, otherwise you’ll give up before you get there. Another of my fantastically vague goals is ‘I want to be a writer.’ But what the hell does that look like? Here, I reckon simple carrot and stick approach is the way forward. When I finished my first marathon, I ate an enormous steak and drank a lot of Prosecco (champagne was 100 Euros) and felt bloody marvellous. If you’d give your six-year-old a sticker or a gold star, why not try the adult equivalent? Choosing a measurable point of success (being able to have a ten-minute conversation with someone in French without swearing and getting annoyed) and assigning something pleasurable will make it far more likely that you’ll get there. In fact, I haven’t really assigned something for my rather large milestone of finishing my novel, and as a result have been floating about feeling vaguely anticlimactic all week. Should have had another steak.

Write down the thing you want to be able to do, the date you want to do it by, and what the reward will be. Through this method, you’re more likely to reach your target, and be happy about getting there.

Are you being realistic?

For me, this is a very important question. I’m a terrible ‘should-er.’ On the (rare) occasions I waste time, I’m consumed with huge guilt at what productive, life-affirming, healthy, wonderful thing I could have been doing rather than watching Netflix or pissing about on Buzzfeed. Take now, for instance. It’s 8pm on a Friday. All sensible people are in the pub by now. I’m writing a blog post and making granola.

If your goals are too unrealistic, they will be unsustainable, and before you know it you’re berating yourself on the sofa, having once again failed to learn Chinese/the piano/how to make an origami frog. And at the same time, give yourself a break. It’s a fine line between slacking off and resting, but do allow yourself days off (I made the mistake of scheduling in a load of Sunday tutoring when I first started. Terrible idea. I hated everyone). That way, you actually want to do the things you’ve given yourself time for.

What are you waiting for?

I could write some life-affirming claptrap here, perhaps a motivational quote, but you probably get that stuff so much on Facebook you don’t need it here. You get the idea; you’re brilliant, seize the day, etc.

Having achieved one of my goals for the week (more regular blogging – this is my 45th post!) I’m off down the pub. Achievable, measurable goals, with positive incentives once they are achieved. I could get used to this.

Encouraging Thunder

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Blogging sometimes feels like throwing a pebble into a tunnel/cave (insert metaphor of something large and dark). You tap away, have a flurry of excitement each time you put something up. Dutifully read by friends and family of course, but you’re never entirely sure that it’s reaching anyone else. However, it would appear that the little rock I chucked in has indeed bounced off a train (not sure about this now) as the wonderful Annika Perry has nominated me for this award. You can find her blog here, a plethora of posts including poetry, short stories and reviews, all helping her to hone her skills on the way to, like me, completing her first novel. She’s won short story awards and you should go and check out why – a fantastic writer.

So a little bit more about the award:

‘Thunder creates a powerful addition to the blog as an awesome blog award. Raymond, encouraginglife.co founder, was bestowed upon a thunder medallion by the great nature so he can create a powerful spell Encouraging Thunder to grant powerful protection to other bloggers. It’s a special spell that only bloggers who has true purpose in their life can master it.’

‘As other bloggers are granted the power of thunder, he or she has the permission to post the power of thunder on their blogs as well as sharing the award with other bloggers.’

With the Encourage Thunder award you can

  • Post it on your blog
  • Grant other blogs

The dos and donts of the award are:

Do not

  • Abuse or misuse the logo
  • Claim that it is your own handmade logo

Do

  • Enjoy the award
  • At least give thanks via comments and likes and or mentioning the blogger who gives the award.

 

Which is all pretty splendid. Just yesterday I found out that I didn’t make the shortlist for the award that is part of my Masters programme. I can’t deny the competition is bloody impressive, and I would find it very hard if I were in the position of the agents, as there are so many persistently talented writers on my course. And of course, it’s a subjective opinion, it’s only based on a snippet of the novel, and lots of things that I’ve been repeating to myself in the last 24 hours to try and cheer myself up.

But the truth is, it’s a judgement. Someone, somewhere, compared my writing with someone else’s and decided theirs was better, or at least better suited to their purposes. Which is pretty tough to take. You only have to do a tiny search online to see just how many bloggers, writers, journalists, vloggists (is that a word?) that are all trying to make their voices heard and turn their passion and creativity into something that can be shared with others. So I have to maintain the faith that there will be other agents (my tutor reminded me there are 58 other agencies in London alone) that will share my passion and enthusiasm for my work, and want to support me enough to take me on.

Until then, people like Annika remind me that there are many ways to be appreciated and rewarded for doing something that is ultimately, incredibly personal and emotionally risky. Thanks.

And to that end, I nominate the following blogs:

Riley: rileyreedauthor.wordpress.com

Assia: https://assiashahin.wordpress.com

Writing Onward: https://writingonward.wordpress.com

Alysha: https://alyshakaye.wordpress.com

You all give me inspiration, I love the stuff you write and more than anything it helps to know we’re all in this together. Keep rumbling.

 

Wasting Time

Sometimes it feels like the more time I have, the less I get done. I’ve had an erratic work schedule for almost two years now, doing everything from paternity leave in a school which took up five days a week, to doing nothing but evening and weekend tutoring to make ends meet while I write a book and complete my Masters. It’s a strange sensation, not having fixed work hours, a fixed income, a steady schedule to take you through each day. It also ups the pressure at the time I’ve allowed myself to write. With sometimes just a few hours, sometimes a whole day, suddenly I have a word count to get to, deadlines to fill and a blog to write. I set myself deadlines to help motivate myself and encourage me to work, but the problem is that I’m asking my creativity to appear at the drop of a hat. There are days I get 2,000 new words written in a couple of hours, and other days where I have an entire day just to edit and I only get 600 done. I’ve been experimenting with the way I spend my interim time, in order to find out which tends to result in a more creative and productive process.

One of the problems is, I’m not exactly a relaxed person with my time. In between completing my MA, I set myself the target of blogging once a week, entering short story competitions, running three times (at least) a week and spending at least fifteen minutes a day learning French. Once you add in the boring ‘life admin’ of washing, cleaning, gardening, cooking and shopping, that doesn’t really leave a lot to experiment with. Still, I look at things like time spent eating (yes, I don’t like to waste even that), evening pursuits and the odd half an hour in between all this other crap. Of all of the things I’ve filled this time with, I’ve split it into roughly ‘intellectual,’ ‘enjoyable’ and ‘wasted,’ and had a think about the effects each of them had on me.

Intellectual

I decided that this was anything that actually taught me something while I was filling time in between other things. This could be while eating lunch, stretching after a run, having a break, chilling in the evening, that sort of thing. My time filling here included TED talks, radio podcasts about interesting things, reading informative books and articles, and watching documentaries.

I felt so smart. Every day I could give some little anecdote about something I had learned on TED, or I could approach my writing with a sense of purpose as I knew something more about the theory behind it, or I just had a little ‘ooh’ moment when something piqued my interest. The main problem was, it didn’t really feel like a break. Watching a TED talk or two while eating lunch made me feel like I needed another break afterwards so my brain had time to reshuffle things.

Enjoyable

The criteria for this category was anything that I was genuinely looking forward to doing. This could include watching a film or an episode on Netflix, reading a novel (rather than anything informative per se) or going drumming. These worked as a great incentive. Giving myself something to aim for if I managed to finish my word target for that day, or I’d managed to sort a plotting problem out, so I was allowed to sit and do something fun, really meant that I wanted to work hard in order to earn them. I suppose the possible problem with this one was that if it was too enjoyable, I spent too much time actually doing that than the thing I was supposed to be working on, so ended up lowering my productivity. It also sometimes lead to a simple ‘word drop’ because I wanted to get to a certain goal, which I then had to edit, rather than anything decent.

Wasted

This was all the stuff that I consider to be useless. That includes Facebook, Buzzfeed, looking at funny videos, all the stuff that can start off as a minor distraction and end up taking hours of your life. The problems here are obvious. They ‘waste’ your time twice, because you’re not doing anything productive, but neither are you doing anything necessarily enjoyable, and you’re not learning anything (usually). However, it turns out that this mindless time might actually be a good thing. Research has shown that these short, mindless activities often allow for your brain to tick over more important things in the background, so you might end up solving that problem more quickly than if you had used that time in a meaningful way.

The results? A bit tricky to say. It was much harder to stick to the intellectual things, and I think I went less than a week of a TED talk a day. Maybe if I slowed these things down to once or twice a week they might become more meaningful and less of a chore I’ve inflicted on myself. The enjoyable ones worked as a good motivational tool, while the wasted ones could potentially improve my productivity, although they are the most dangerous at spiralling out of time control.

What I did notice is that I never do nothing. I started looking at Facbeook and Twitter while I was stretching after a run so it wouldn’t feel like ‘time wasted.’ If I spend more than half an hour on lunch I get grumpy with myself and can end up spoiling my whole day. Even when I go and experience the lovely nearby parks, I’m doing it by running through them, not by walking through them or sitting, without a book, without my phone. This is the problem with working freelance and trying to be a writer. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. I schedule blog post writing on the train, I take photos to go on my Twitter feed on the bus, my brain never shuts off.

This is where the change is really needed. I was on holiday the other week. A whole ten days in a very quiet area of France, milling about, eating food, having a chat, doing not much of anything. All of a sudden, I had an inspiration for a short story. I grabbed a pen and paper in the car, scribbled down some notes, and wrote pretty much the whole thing on the Eurostar on the way home. That never happens to me. I’ll have a short story competition deadline coming up and I will literally stare at the world, thinking ‘I need an idea for a story,’ for hours, with nothing appearing in my brain. Interesting that when I actually just stopped, inspiration struck.

So I think what I need to add to my schedule is some big chunks of nothing. Time where I don’t saturate my brain with anything at all, but just sit back and watch the world go by. If I can fit it in…

The View from the Other Side

I’m trying to write a book with a dual narrative. It seemed like a good idea at the time. When I found myself wading in a sea of post-its, spending three hours on a Thursday afternoon shuffling them around to try and figure out how to intersperse the two stories I’d written independently of each other, it didn’t seem like such a good plan. It’s so much more complicated than I realised. The first go was simply to figure out what happened where, to whom, and when. The next phase was to figure out what the reader knew or understood at each bit, and how hints about things that are coming later (across both stories) could be dropped in, to add a bit of tension. At the moment I’m trying to think about how to misdirect the reader, so they think a certain thing is going to happen, and then surprise them when it doesn’t. Oh, and trying to pose questions in one narrative that get answered in the other. I have cue cards with a five-colour key, a timeline with scribbles and events all over it, a definitive ‘this is what happened’ file so I can tick off the bits that I’ve revealed or hinted about. Rather more complex than just trying to create two separate ‘voices.’ So why bother? More popular books like Gone Girl have shown the mass public the appeal of the dual narrative – a way of sneakily keeping things from the reader and popping out and surprising them later. But there are lots of other benefits too. I read two books recently that used multiple narratives to great effect.

I’ve recently read The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (2010, Quercus). A book that was put on my reading list for my MA, and I can see why. It has eleven (yes, eleven) different narrative voices, all interwoven as the book progresses. Simply managing that would be a feat in itself. I think one of the reasons this book is so great is the wonderful strokes of character that are achieved with so little work. A few lines about their clothes, an action that they do or the way they see something and a clear character is deftly created without the need for lengthy description. Each chapter is only about thirty pages long, and yet in that space we get a sense of the history, emotional drive, idiosyncrasies and foibles of each of the eleven characters that are connected to one newspaper. The fact that their lives are then interwoven as the book progresses, in different time-frames, is even more impressive. At times it felt a little more like eleven beautiful short stories rather than a connected novel, and there were times when the exact matching of the place things occurred in time were a little unclear. Possibly he could have done more right at the start of the novel to make this shifting more apparent, but the reader gets used to it as you go along.

What it offers are truly touching insights into tiny portions of people’s lives. While this is perhaps unusual for a novel, the sense of narrative is carried through the newspaper itself, acting as an overarching story that pins all of the separate pieces together. I can only imagine the level of organisation it must have taken to keep this length and breadth of time and character in his head.

The more I write, the more I’m impressed with books. In the past I have been rather scathing about those that have seemed obvious, not developed character well enough, gone for cliches, not provided a good ending. What I’m discovering is that even getting to the end of the damn thing is hard enough in itself. Which is what makes a genuinely excellent book like this impress me all the more.

It’s an exercise in specificity. The minute details that surround each of his characters and bring them to life is inspired. And inspiring. If you are having trouble make a character leap off the page, have a look at the way it’s done here and see if you can reference a meal, a glass of wine, an item of clothing, a way of walking, something that seems so inconsequential, but suddenly makes your character erupt, fleshing him out and spreading empathy. There’s a beautiful sketch of a father and his daughter, literally a page or two long. The sense of loss I felt when we discover, after the fact, that she’s died, is just as if I had read a whole narrative with them in it. That’s good writing. It’s also a good example of how close third can actually be just as personal as first person – something I definitely need to work on. A book that will be on my ‘writing table’ (the one you look at when you can’t figure out how to do something) for a while, I feel!

The other is Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (1974, Vintage). What’s interesting that I didn’t even notice that the male character was written in close third and the female characters are written in first person until I flicked back through it. While reading it, I certainly felt more distant from him, and the fact that he seems to be someone on the autistic spectrum who is only truly engaged with the world when he is producing art, certainly fits with him. The voices in this book are so starkly different. The first chapter is in a voice we never hear again, yet she is so forceful, it seems as if she will dominate the entire book.

I think one of the cleverest things she does is play with the character’s perceptions of themselves and each other. When we are in a particular voice (there are five altogether) we of course see the world through a slightly distorted lens. Their view of the world, their losses and histories, all are used to create an empathetic bond with each of the characters. It also creates a filtered view of everyone else (most of the book is set in the same house, with all the characters living there). When we shift to a new perspective, perhaps of a character we haven’t been particularly encouraged to like, we suddenly have a whole new appreciation for them and the reasons behind the actions we have judged from another point of view.

What this allows her to build up, gradually, is a sense of tension and frustration. It’s wonderful, yet infuriating from the reader’s perspective. We see characters making decision based on what they think, the words they say, and are unable to correct the false impressions they have of themselves and of each other. As things start to fragment, the reader alone is the only person aware and enlightened enough to sit everyone down and give them a good talking to, but alas we are absent, and so must watch the fumbling figures in their dances of disappointment as they take the wrong course.

This is of course how narratives work. A book wouldn’t be interesting if the protagonist suddenly realised they were doing the wrong thing and insightfully steered a straight course. No fun in that. But the opportunity to present the true face of their misinterpretations through split perspectives is what elevates this novel out of being a reasonably good book to a subtle exploration of character and emotion.

Which is why, trauma aside, I’m ploughing on with my dual narrative. If I can take anything from these wonderful books, it’s that offering your reader a range of perspectives can make your book shine. Here’s hoping.

How Does a Completed First Draft Feel?

It is done. The very last words of the first draft, complete. What a…well, I’m not sure really.

In the first case, it’s not actually the first time I’ve got to the ‘end’ of it, so to speak. I did that a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve read back through the whole thing and jiggled it about, written a surprising number of new scenes (this is what happens when you change your structure half way through) and generally moved stuff around a lot. But in this process, there are several things I’ve learnt about this process, and about the person doing it.

1. It’s all about plot

Yes, I know, a book is primarily a story, but in terms of just putting something together that makes any kind of narrative sense, I didn’t realise how long that would take. I’d changed names, had scenes happening on a Friday just after a Sunday, had the sun shining when it was supposed to be February. And those are just the little bits. More importantly, key scenes in the character’s journey were all lumped together, rather than spread out over the book, pulling the story forward. The beginning was a whole load of mush, floating about in the story space and not really dong anything. My re-writes, my shuffling, it was all about producing a coherent and sensible plot. The other stuff has to come later.

2. It’s hard to acknowledge it’s no good

Everyone tells you that first drafts are terrible. From Hemingway to Gaiman, they are simply telling you what should be obvious. But it’s still a little galling to have poured so much of your time, energy and brain power into something that is, essentially, crap. The theory of course being that now it’s all there, I have something to work with, rather than inventing stuff out of thin air. Now that does sound like a more appealing prospect.

3. I’ve barely begun

This might account for the lack of jubilance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited and happy that I have got this far, and not given up, but it’s difficult to think that I have scratched the surface in terms of producing a final manuscript. At the moment I hate my characters, think my story is stupid and each line grates on me because I’ve read it endless times. Distance, I think, is the key. I’m not going near it for at least a week. And even then, I’m going to focus on the opening for a bit. Shifting and changing my attention should allow me to get to the end with a workable piece.

4. It’s mostly important to you

My family and friends have been amazing. So much support, so many words of encouragement, no complaints as I once again moan about it, or talk through my plot (again) to try and figure out how I can make it work. But the final outcome, is only something for me. No-one else is really going to see it (apart from my tutor) and nothing will happen with it. I used to be a full-time teacher. That’s stressful, and draining, and all-encompassing, too. But when you finish, you get results, or levels of progress, or a class of people that know more stuff than when you first met them, or at least money. I’ve got a massive document full of my own words. Yeah, ok, that is pretty cool.

5. It’s a change

At about this time of year, two years ago, I decided to pack in my full-time job, take a Masters, and write a book. As far as targets go, I’m doing well in that area. Yes it needs more work, but I do at least have a first draft to work with, the prospect of getting my stuff in front of some agents, and a whole new group of friends. But it’s so different. In the build up to getting my first draft in, I spent 10 days straight (apart from one day of work) at my desk. Writing, editing, reading, going back over, covering my dining table with post-its, writing some more. It’s a draining process. I found conversation tricky. Yesterday I sat on my sofa and read Harry Potter. For hours. I couldn’t cope with anything else. Being inside your head for so long is tough. So is this what I want to do, full time? I don’t know yet if I will be given the option, but it does show that achieving the thing you always wanted to, is not necessarily what you thought it would be.

Now I have chance to take a breath, lift my head up and look around, I have to start making the slightly more scary decisions. Do I continue to put faith in my words, carry on tutoring and never have a lot of money? Do I go back to what I used to do, say ‘that was a nice break’ but nothing more? My reaction to those two statements definitely pushes me more one way than the other, but I have a feeling that a 9-5 of writing wouldn’t fulfil my need for people enough. We shall see.

In the meantime, it’s possible. I can do it. I’ve written a first draft of a novel.

You can too.

Myself and I

I’m reading Margaret Atwood On Writers and Writing. It’s lovely to read an author musing on being the very thing that they are without sounding too grandiose or other wordly. Long have we been exposed to the accepted narrative that The Writer operates on some higher and more noble plane than mere mortals, and it’s pleasantly comforting to hear such a great writer talk about the insecurities her young self felt when treading out into these rather murky waters. Something that really struck a chord with me, was the notion of the writer having two distinct sides to themselves. I don’t know if people are surprised that the novel I’m writing is quite bleak and violent. Certainly I’m a cheery person, not one to dwell on the negative side of things, yet clearly someone in there is more than preoccupied with the darker side of humanity. And I’ve noticed her a lot more of late. Mostly because of all the time I’m spending on my own. As any teacher will tell you, time for quiet reflection is hardly a feature of the job. While you do feel isolated from your peers (a group of teenagers doesn’t have quite the same vibe, although they can be fun) it’s rare that you feel truly isolated, rushing as you are from one lesson, observation, plan, assessment, book marking, Parents’ Evening, data entry and so on until you are gasping for breath at the end of each half term.

What I’ve noticed since clambering off that particular roller coaster is that I spend a lot of time truly on my own, with a good stretch of hours in front of me, cleared away for the task of writing. Which is when she comes out. I find that I get delighted with altercations, minor catastrophes in the street which would usually upset me, or at least produce an empathetic reaction. I’m much more likely to be scribbling down some notes or thinking about how to perfectly capture the abject look of sorrow on the face of the girl opposite me on the tube than offer any sort of support. It’s unnerving. Not only this, but I can’t remember ever having been so silent for such long periods of time. With my money-paying exploits taking me all over London (private tutoring, to be clear) I spend an inordinate amount of time on trains, buses, walking, and even when I get there it’s a one-to-one conversation with a pupil, not a cacophony of voices heard streaming out of a Year 8 class last thing on a Friday. I like talking. A lot. In fact it might be that my writing has got more dialogue-heavy the less I’ve found real conversation happening in my life. If you happen to be the person I encounter that evening, I do apologise for the ear-bashing you’ll get for a good forty minutes, but I hope you understand.

According to quite a few people out there, I might be doing myself a favour. Apparently, spending time truly on our own is one of the things we’ve lost in the modern social networking age, and might be one of the things we need in order to simply process the amount of information we’re overloaded with on a daily basis. But also, to be happy. There’s something to be said about staring out of the window for a few minutes. Even if, as in my case, it’s in the search for an interesting way of describing something mundane. We could all do with a bit of time getting to know ourselves, however many of us there may be.

New Year, Same Trousers

This was the first January I’ve managed not to feel guilty in possibly my entire adult life (the exact beginning of this is debatable, but still).

Having said that, in previous years, my guilt was always tainted with annoyance. It is grossly unfair that merely days before the very same media who were shoving cake, cream and alcohol down our necks are suddenly chastising us for being fatties. Christmas and the surrounding months are such a strange time of year – maniacal enthusiasm, sparkly tinsel and the mulling of everything (of which I am most definitely a fan) followed by complete abstinence and endless adverts for gym membership. In this most schizophrenic of seasons, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and constantly lagging behind.

But not this year. At the risk of sounding smug, I actually went for a run on Boxing Day morning. Admittedly, my good deeds didn’t go as far as restricting my cheese and wine consumption that evening, but at least I started out well. What I might finally have achieved (it has only taken 34 years) is sustainability. Because ultimately, that is the issue. I read this week that over 50% of people gave up on their healthy resolutions by this week, with another 20% predicted to fall off the wagon next week. These are not encouraging statistics, particularly given the UK’s standing in terms of obesity across Europe. The most cited reason for giving up was the lack of ‘difference’ it made. For this, part of the blame has to go to Reality TV shows like the awful Channel 4 series that pits fat people against each other, or the endless weight loss foods and programmes we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It’s all quick fixes and fad diets, many of which I’ve tried over the years. I had to stop the 5:2 fast diet because I was so irrationally grumpy on fast days. Not only were they unsustainable, they also ceased to have any effect as soon as I stopped.

My other concern is that they mostly focus on diet food. I’ve long been dissatisfied with the low-fat diet products available on the market. The fact is that if you take the fat out of something like cake or yoghurt, you have to replace it with something. Usually, it’s sugar, or artificial sweeteners. But then no-one is going to tell you not to eat processed food, because they make billions in taxes each year. The world’s healthiest diet can apparently be found in Iceland. Not because of a magic ingredient or biscuits being illegal, but simply because they mess around with their food a lot less. It’s simple – from food to mouth, the less that’s done to it, the better.

That’s not to mention the fact that the main focus is more often than not, only based on diet. Of course, what you eat makes a massive difference, but the impact exercise has on your entire body and mental health just can’t be substituted. So what’s my secret? It is beautifully summed up in a conversation a friend of mine had in the gym:

“You look great. What’s your secret?”

“I don’t eat a lot of junk food and I exercise regularly.”

“Oh.”

Exactly what people don’t want to hear. Ultimately, only a change in lifestyle will lead to any lasting effect on your body.

About seven years ago, I started running. My family was never particularly sporty, so I basically gave up all forms of exercise after PE stopped being compulsory. Also, as I’m incredibly competitive but pretty unskilled, I quickly got frustrated with squash, netball, hockey, or anything where I couldn’t quickly get to a level where I at least had a vague chance of beating someone. With running, I’m only competing against myself. Which I do. Having an app that measures distance and speed, and sends me little encouraging emails, I can easily improve on goals and set targets. Interestingly enough, I haven’t lost that much actual weight. Probably less than a stone. I’m still a size 12. I am however, very differently shaped. Much more toned, leaner and stronger. Also, FYI, going for a long run on a Saturday morning is a great way to pre-emptively avoid a hangover, and makes a Sunday roast not just appealing but necessary to replace lost calories and proteins. It’s also changing the way I see my body. I’m losing the association of lighter=thinner=better. I love that I’m able to run for the bus, play netball with my nieces and nephews and have an impromptu game of badminton without getting out of breath. I finally see what my PE teacher at school was talking about! I am able to see my body as an amazing, strong tool for achieving things, not just something to look good.

For some people, the idea of taking up regular running is about as appealing as pulling out your toenails. And hey, a few did drop off when I had shoes that were too tight. But the boring news is, a healthy, fit and fabulous you will not emerge in three weeks. Or even three months. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that it isn’t worth striving for. It’s difficult, it takes practice, but it feels pretty amazing when you get there. If you need motivation, check out this fantastic campaign: http://www.thisgirlcan.co.uk

What are the things that help you feel strong and healthy? Post below!