Don’t Wait to Send the Letter

I love Proper Letters. On stationery, whether it’s plain, stolen from an hotel, or Sanrio, leaking kitties and wabbits in its wake, trawling glitter irritatingly from the first pull-apart of the envelope.

I love them. I love to receive them. I love to write them. But…I suck at sending them. I’m in the middle of a letter to a dear friend. We text, Whatsapp, email aplenty, but she went to a festival about which I wanted to hear and so I said, hey, write me a letter. She did. It’s fantastic. Full of the details and observations and feelings that get left out of emails all too often; coherent, instead of in little blocks of text or tweet which give you a fraction of the story, but never a beginning, middle and end.

Ten days ago I started a reply to her. Actually, I started one before that, but I scrapped it because I suddenly realised it was utterly illegible. This is a slight problem with being me, and, whilst having to force myself to have cause to pick up a pen, lack of practice with a writing implement is not the problem: I have always had awful, awfully scrawly handwriting. I quite like it, but it’s not exactly useful to others. Anyway, this reply. I got so far in the letter-writing protocol, replying to her letter, discussing minutiae, and then I went to get to my news, my story, the thing I was writing a letter for…and then I thought, eh, but I’ve got that interview tomorrow, so I’ll wait and then I’ll write about that. And then I went to that interview, mentioned in an earlier blog post, and thought, hey, I’ll wait until I hear back, and then I can write again and then it’ll be much more interesting, and it’ll be a letter I need to write.

And that’s true.

But here’s the thing. The letter I would’ve written instead of putting it off assuming I’d be more newsworthy tomorrow would also have been a letter I needed to write. The secret to physical letters is that it’s impossible to write a boring one, or a bad one. You can try, even, but it’ll still have a quirk, a sense of you, some kind of intrinsic value inside it. Over the years and years of receiving letters from my grandmothers, both of whom were great believers in written communication, I learnt that even the smallest comment on, say, what biscuits were in the tin, or how the council flowers were going outside could be amusing, enjoyable, or just worth hearing. I was never sad to receive any of those letters, because of what they were in themselves.

I did Postcrossing for a while, and found it greatly enjoyable – it is a wonderful thing, truly, to get post from strangers thus – but postcards different from letters, and there was always something else I hoped for, but didn’t get. Postcards are usually about themselves. About the picture on the front, the place they were bought or sent from. I love and appreciate all postcards, but a letter…that has to make a different effort. That’s about the person writing it, that’s the starting point, not something or somewhere.

The hardest thing with letters is that they don’t just arrive immediately. They don’t drop onto the mat in the blink of an eye, and you can’t get a reply that night, either. But that cane be nice, too. Sometimes you want to talk, and then breathe, and go and do something else for the evening, think about other things. Letters can take things off your mind for a while – not necessarily bad ones, just the jumble of stuff you keep there in case you need to relate it, or all the things you’ve meaning to tell someone, hopefully the person you’ve written the letter to, at length.

I suppose the point in here is that we should write the letter. Finish the letter. Post the letter. Always send the letter. Don’t wait to finish the letter. Just write another one.

One of my grandmothers, the one that’s no longer with me, wrote letters for everything, to everyone. For almost no reason, for all the possible reasons, from birthdays to Tuesdays, to saw-this-and-thought-of-you, she’d write aplenty. She never waited to send the letter. For her, post was still magical: although she missed being able to post a letter to London in the morning and have it arrive with the evening post, she still found it quite something that she could write to Cardiff on Tuesday and I’d be reading it by Wednesday. I wished I’d written to her more than I did, now. But I always waited to send the letter, always hoped it’d be more interesting if I just wrote another page tomorrow. I have stacks of post from her, accrued over the years. I’d have a lot less if she hadn’t bothered, if she’d thought she should wait. I wouldn’t have the little things. Those little things, those records of the people she met, the thoughts she had, those survive her, and matter to me.

Don’t wait to send the letter. Just write another one.

Read Me Poetry, Please – 4 Short Poems, Spoken By Me

Devil's Lunch

I have never been much of a fan of poetry. Like most people who did English GCSE in the late ’90s, I had a book with a selected slew of poetry which we studied, dissected and ground into meaninglessness, regurgitated arguments and learnt to be annoyed, rather than delighted, by someone’s careful choices of words.

Such is my love for every other form of word usage that I’ve never really re-engaged with poetry. I haven’t tried, I suppose, or found anything I liked, bar the John Betjeman and Pam Ayres that Radio 4 occasionally gifted me with. Because I liked them, I supposed they didn’t count as poetry.

The only significant exception occurred about twelve years ago, I had a dear friend to whom I related my dislike of poetry. When my next birthday rolled around, he handed me a slim green book and said, “I know you don’t like poetry…but I think you’ll like this.”

He was right, as he was about many things. The book was Aleksander Ristovic’s Devil’s Lunch. Ristovic’s poetry, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic, is just…everything I always wished poetry would be, whenever I thought I didn’t like it. It’s been a book I pick up over and over again, when I need something small, when I need to remember that words can go together in all sorts of ways, when I need to smile, or sigh, or breathe syllables.

This entry is inspired by the marvellous Hannah Swithinbank’s call for recordings of beloved poetry. And I thought, I haven’t read a poem out loud since school. And it was a joy and a pleasure and a treat to come home and record four short poems of Ristovic’s even just for myself, but I hope that you too will find something to like. None last longer than a minute, and all, I think, are a marvel of concise and brilliant language.

Without further ado, here they are:

What Would C.J. Cregg Do?

Get to work, really. That’s most likely the answer.

It’s been a difficult week, interspersed with a lot of feelings and panic and wondering how on earth to keep kicking myself onwards. It’s much easier to kick yourself onwards when you’re doing things for a loved one, or working for something you believe in, like, say, Martin Sheen as the President of the United States. I think that’s part of the trick, isn’t it? Having something, someone, for whom you do things that you believe aren’t just worth doing, but that you will do better than anyone else.

I find it difficult to do things for myself. I find it difficult, for example, to believe that there is sufficient universal value in my novel ( The Pulse Buy it here, buy it now! )to promote it in any way less than panicky, flippant and daft. I will, I will, I will try. I do have a plan. And I do think it’s a fine read, I genuinely do. Not for everyone, but for me, and that’s, with the first self-published thing I’ve done, more than enough for me.

But back to the post. I find it difficult to knuckle down and arrange things, fix things, make things that will benefit, in the first instance, only me. Even when I know that in the long run they’ll have an effect on me that will be more than desirable for those around me, I still can’t quite turn away from everything else sufficiently to get on with the Me Things. It took a lot to cut stuff off and write, and in the end I realised that the trick was to be able to write without cutting everything else off. That writing wasn’t one of those superselfish things I did that needed me to behave in a particular way. That writing can just happen, by the by, as and when, that yes, it’s better if I’ve a clear morning and no commitments, but that also that’s when I’m most likely to put the washing on, cook up some food for the rest of the week and do the hoovering.

I wonder what C.J.’s flat looked like? I wonder if she cooked for herself, or survived only on takeaway and whatever they actually have in the White House? I wonder if we just didn’t see the nights she actually got home before midnight and threw on a set of old pyjamas and sat in front of the telly covered in crisps…but I suspect there weren’t too many of those.

When you’re doing something that matters, you’re busy. Your brain’s going. You can learn a thing, do a thing, write a thing, because you have to. Objectively, the world is going to improve when you’ve finished it. Or at least started it.

It’s when you don’t have anything that matters that it’s tough. When you don’t know if something will matter. When you’ve got into the habit of convincing yourself that maybe it’s the next thing that matters, or the one after that, so you’d better give yourself the space to be ready for that thing, rather than knuckling down to this one, which might come to nothing after all.

That’s the trick of it, really. There’s no better way to make sure that you’ll never make anything, contribute to anything, or do anything important than to not do anything at all. I get stuck sometimes because I worry I need to be ready for the big thing, the important thing, the moment when Martin Sheen asks me to be White House press officer (let us count the ways in which this is madness, for they are many), and the truth of it is that you have to do things, make things, be things, in order for the worthwhile, objectively necessary, brilliant or wonderful things to come along.

If you’ve written five books for yourself, there’s a very real chance that the sixth book, whilst also for yourself, can change lives, by being brilliant in new ways. There’s a chance that you’ll have learnt something that’ll actually be worth passing on. That someone might ask you, for your demonstrated brilliance, or even just persistence, to be a part of something.

I have struggled to try, sometimes, because I’m scared, because I don’t think it’s worthwhile, because I can’t see the end of the project or because I’m worried to put down a first line that isn’t 100% perfect, even if the second and third lines might be, even if I can change it later. I’ve been scared to ask questions I don’t know the answer to, because I don’t, by virtue of the asking, know where that’ll take me. I like to know what’s next, not to ask, or to start out on the unknown road. And that’s another blog in itself.

What would C.J. do? She’d do something. I think that’s the thing. Just get started. I’ve done it before. It’s really time to do that again. Downtime is great, recharging is important, but if you don’t get back on the horse before the fear creeps in, you’ll miss a trick, and then Martin Sheen’s never going to call…

Watching Yourself Fail

It’s a horrible thing.

The thing you think about when you’re trying to calmly drink your coffee and watch The West Wing, and you realise you’ll never, ever, be as awesome as C.J. Cregg. You’ll be lucky to be 5% as awesome in your entire life as C.J. Cregg.

The thing you think about when you’re about to pay for something in a shop, and the assistant asks you “How are you today?” and you open your mouth to reply and say “Fine, good, yes, ” but your brain is capslocking I JUST SUCK I’M SO SORRY PLEASE HELP because it’s had a little flashback to that horrible thing.

Failing.

It’s such a strange word these days, is failing. It can be epic, comedic, brave, brilliant, and pitiful. But the real failure happens in the mind of the failee, the repeat-play, the billions of interconnected, miserable strands of story that weave and knot themselves into that one awful moment where you look around you and realise that you are, right here, right now, not just not doing what you’d hoped to be doing, not just not projecting who you wanted to be, but that you are actually, inside and out, not the person you thought you were.

At worst, you don’t think you’re going to fail. You don’t do anything you know, 100%, is going to fail. And if you do, it’s so something else will succeed. No, you do things – write a book, ask someone out, pitch your dreams, get dressed in the morning – either without hope or agenda because you must, because it’s Tuesday, because you can, or you do them to get somewhere. Learn something, Be something. Move forwards.

I’ve spent ten years of my life thinking I was moving forwards in a very specific sense. I did it because I could. I did it because I was learning. It was hard. I didn’t earn any money. I did have a lot of time. Time to read and write and learn, and to earn what little I could from strange, strange side projects that came and went like the tide, leaving me washed up and exhausted, but glad to have seen the sea (metaphors are weirder in the morning, huh?).

It didn’t work out. It hasn’t worked out for years. I should’ve seen it. Should’ve called it. You can start to see those strands here, in these words. Thoughts and regrets and misery and panic, if I’d done this back in 2007, if I knew what I know now, if I’d tried harder with this, taken that trip, gone for that job…it’s all in there.

It’s taken about nine months (as so many things do) to kick out of that amassed failure. To take steps to move, to try again, to go, as it happens, home, and as that happens, to my childhood home, which is not the cute east wing of our sprawling Surrey mansion, no, it’s my crammed, dusty, 5ft 8″ square old room, and I’m 5ft 8.5″ so, yeah, and yes, I’m an only child so I have ~issues and entitlement and massive, massive privilege in a certain sense, because hell, it’s just me, and my parents are amazing, wonderful people. But, a hideous situation because it just doesn’t work. My parents are old, they’re settled for the first time in their lives, they’re pretty happy, which they weren’t when I was growing up. I am actively spoiling everything they worked for, everything they’ve struggled for. I never wanted to be this…selfish. It’s why I left home at 18, it’s why I didn’t come back any of the times things were at their worst, it’s why I wake up every morning swimming in my own failure, and it’s why there’s a huge clock ticking in my brain every moment I’m here, get. out. get. on. keep. moving. it’s pretty tiring.

I was supposed to be great. Not objectively. Probably at something. I have attributes. I have odd attributes, sure, but there are things I am brilliant at. They’re strange things. Planning. Strategising. Criticising. Advising. I can be wicked enthusiastic, driven, dedicated. I can see things, fix things, think not just outside the box, but outside the whole sodding system. I can’t sell myself though, much as this paragraph might look like I’m trying to.

I had a job interview last week. I used to be so damn good at job interviews. I loved interviews. I got every job I applied for, for years, whether I wanted it or not, whether I should’ve got it or not. I was just so sure that I would be worthwhile. I could convince anyone to take a chance on me.

So last week I sat there and tried to answer standard questions and all I could see whilst I was doing it was a murky flood of misery and anger and missed years and missed opportunities and I was not prepared, not at all, for all those feelings. I watched myself fail to get a job I’m not, tbh, sure I ought to have had, because I couldn’t do what I used to be so good at doing, pulling myself together and being honest and explaining why I could do things and being right about that. I started out that interview thinking of myself as well-dressed and bright and full of possibility, like someone who was in control of themselves and was going somewhere, was taking the right steps…and I finished up with a bright smile and a handshake on the outside, as my insides dived into a bucket of woe.

I look at the last ten years and I can brightside it wonderfully, I can, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in so many ways and I am grateful, I am, but I don’t compare. It’s not that I envy my friends’ careers (although I do, from time to time, whilst acknowledging that I could never accomplish them myself), but that I have so much mess going on here, I don’t know how to explain it, I don’t know how to…get rid of it so that I can get on. I don’t know who or what I turned into, but it is not the girl I wanted to be. So I tried to take the leap. I jumped off a high thing, and I’m in mid-air, trying to straighten everything out at once, trying to find/make money so I can try to find/make space to find/make myself.

The failing keeps repeating around my brain, kicking my heart and pulling on my nerves, stamping on my chest and whispering in the middle of nothing, are you really this stupid? I am.

I did a lot of things for a long time for the right reasons, and I have come out of that time in one piece, yes, just about, but I left something behind and I need it back.

I am here, at home, trying again not because it is my only option, but because it is everything, everything I want. I am trying to make Plan A work, from nothing. I started with Plan C, went onto Plan B, and they were all pretty grim in the long run so here I am, going for Plan A, following my heart, doing all I can to bend this tiny corner of the universe into the shape I really, desperately want it to be. I have lived more of my life for other people than I can even convey or admit to almost anyone, and for the last month I have been working incredibly hard on the inside to live some of it back for myself.

This was supposed to be a vague blog, more non-disclosure, something that didn’t look so very, very typical and grim, and yes, I’m still vague on the important details, the things that make me into a whole story and not a miserable statistic because I have to be, because they’re not my details, but they are the explanation. I don’t look good from the outside.

The failure, though, the flashbacks and circularity of falling feelings, the web of missing parts and the way I never went for the things I needed, that doesn’t look good from the inside, either.

On the plus side, I can’t give up. It’s all too far in, now, and what I want, what I could have, with the confluence of just a couple of other things, with just a few more hours, days, weeks of trying, writing, working, being better, trying harder, digging up all the dirt inside myself and throwing it behind me, it’s too good. I know what my prize looks like. As much as the failure is pawing all around me, the carrot of dreams (yep, yep) is shiny and bright and just there, right there, so close.

So here’s hoping that in the next interview, the next transaction with another human, the next chance I get to move forwards, I am better prepared to be myself. It is much, much more pleasant to watch yourself succeed.