Category Archives: Opinion

Different reads for different needs: my top 3

I have at least one book on the go in every room of the house. An easy read next to the bed, something unsettling in the kitchen, a few laughs in the living room, a dip-in in the office, a page-turner in the toilet. Think about it, you don’t always need the same thing from what you’re reading. To me, only reading one book at a time would be like only watching Workin’ Moms: not enough diversity or depth.

Since today is Book Lovers Day, I thought I’d put together a short selection of books that are great to pick up for different needs.

Inspiration or a creative boost:

A new point of view:

A change of scenery:

A bit of perspective:

Good company:

Real life:

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments… I’m always looking for a good recommendation!

And if you’d like to read some fantastic books with a group of brilliant people, check out Bucket List Book Club.


Happy World Emoji Day! 🎊

Just before bed last night, I remembered I had to send a message to my brother, who, thanks to the time difference, would already be celebrating his birthday in Australia. I typed a ‘happy birthday’ message, followed by a string of emojis: a balloon, two beer glasses and a cake with candles. 🎈🍻🎂

Pretty straightforward stuff. My brother got the message – that I was celebrating with him digitally and would, of course, much prefer to bake him a cake and say cheers in person. I could have said all that in words. I could have told him I’d like to have a party together to celebrate, and that I’d bring a huge sugary cake for the occasion, if only we weren’t continents apart. Instead, I chose to use three tiny pictures. Lazy? Possibly. An insult to the English language? Perhaps. Effective? Undoubtedly.

I have purist tendencies when it comes to English, but I like emojis. I think they function brilliantly as a universal language and play an important supporting role to traditional languages in the digital age.

I can remember when the smiley face that appeared in The Matrix brought emoticons to my attention. 🙂 (These representations of faces using punctuation marks had been around since 1972, but they didn’t fall into mainstream use for many years.) Fast-forward a decade and I was sitting in a writing workshop being told that to use emoticons was to risk being seen as unprofessional and even childish. Fast-forward another decade and I’m signing off work emails with an animated smiley.

I try to fight my purist tendencies. When the AP said ‘over’ and ‘more than’ are both ok for quantities, I attempted to accept it (this is a work in progress). I read David Crystal’s Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 and came around to his thinking (though I still use full sentences in my messages). Emojis haven’t given me as much of a problem; maybe it’s because they’re so universal and so useful.

Emojis are part of Unicode – a worldwide standard that contains 137,439 characters. Assuming the meaning of an emoji is clear, that means I can potentially communicate a message to any Unicode user in the world, regardless of what language they speak, using emojis. I can also use them to clarify a message I’m sharing in English to someone who has a different native tongue – a winking emoji to show I’m kidding, for example.

That does assume the recipient ‘speaks’ emoji, of course. Not everyone does.

There’s a Wiki that explains all the meanings: emojipedia.org is really useful if you’re not sure. Or, if you’re like my friend Emily, you could just go ahead and make your own meanings.

🍤 This is the Prawn of Love.

〽️ And this ‘part alternation’ symbol, which looks like a big gold M, means Murakami (everything is relevant and nothing is relevant and it’s all connected… long story).

I digress.

Today isn’t just my brother’s birthday; it’s World Emoji Day. People all around the world are celebrating the weird and wonderful visual language that’s evolved over the last couple of decades to help us out in times of textual trouble – to avoid (or fix) a misunderstanding, to get a message across quickly or to clarify tone. There are all sorts of ‘IRL’ events happening (including an emoji-themed musical in New York), as well as the more predictable online stuff.

This all seems a bit weird, but just think about how ingrained emojis have become in our lives: if you’ve got a smartphone or a computer it’s a sure bet that you’ve received an emoji, even if you haven’t used one. People have poo emoji pillows and laughing emoji key rings. Emojis have gone from being in the realm of the digitally clued-up to being on the shelves of our most ubiquitous superstores. And let’s not forget the OED’s word of the year in 2015 was 😂.

Love them or hate them, why not take a moment today to think about emojis and how they’re changing the way we communicate. Where will they take us next?

😀🔣🌅🎉

 

(In case you missed the link in the first paragraph, I’ve decided to use the plural emojis. Here’s an interesting article about the question of emoji plurality.)

 

 


Read something good this week, for everyone’s sake

Join my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge

At the start of this year, I had silently hoped to read less drivel – fewer poorly written articles, pointless social media posts and dreadful books. My hopes were dashed, I’ve managed to subject myself to all of these things and more. So for the rest of the year I’m taking a stand: I refuse to read any more crap. Who’s with me?

The enthusiastic babbling of my toddler roused me from a deep sleep yesterday morning, interrupting a rather curious dream in which I was watching him play charades in front of a crowd of rowdy socialist voters in The Hague. I recoiled at the bluish light coming from my phone when I checked the time. 06:52. Pretty good going.

I went to put my phone back on my nightstand, but something stopped me; my thumb hovered over the unlock button, springing it into life. Without thinking, I scrolled to the second page of apps and touched the big blue F.

Oh look, someone’s posted an inspirational, motivational, follow-these-rules-and-you’ll-win-at-life article on a group I’m in. I read it. It was a pretty poor rehash of a million other versions I’d read in that group and plenty of others before, but it was so familiar and so easy to scan that my brain hardly had to wake up to feel some sense of achievement, albeit empty.

Those three minutes spent on my phone felt productive – I was developing myself, after all – but in the cold light of day, I realize it was a giant waste of time. It’s not only a problem for me, either; I fed the monster by reading that article. I validated the drivel by scanning it, so whoever published it gets a tick and a thumbs-up to produce more of the same. This puts me – and all of us, actually – in a terrible cycle: people publish rubbish, we consume it, they publish more, we lose the ability to make judgment calls on quality, so we keep clicking…

This content is ubiquitous online. It’s splashed across websites, it fills blogs and it comes at us through hyperlinked promises in marketing emails. Everyone has something to say, everyone’s an expert and everyone’s a writer. Only they’re not all good at it. The articles and blog posts and books aren’t all valuable, or even true. We’re feeding our brains the literary equivalent of a soggy quarter pounder meal every chance we get – with a side order of nuggets and enough cheap sauce to drown in.

It’s time for me – all of us – to do something about this. We must start demanding quality when we decide whether something’s worth our time. Welcome to my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge.

Information overload is killing our quality radar

It’s hardly news that we’re overloaded with information. We all complain about it, often on social media, giving each other even more information to deal with. Information expert Dr. Martin Hilbert published a study showing that we were bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information every day in 2007. And that was more than a decade ago – just imagine what we’re facing now.

A lot of that information hits us through apps like the big blue F that stole my attention yesterday morning. Facebook and its affiliated apps, like Instagram and WhatsApp, are reported to hold our attention for 50 minutes a day. Add to that a whole host of other social networks, like Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Reddit and so on, and we’re now spending on average 135 minutes a day looking at what other people are doing, saying and writing.

Think about that for a moment. 135 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. Long enough to run a half marathon, drive over 200 kilometres or watch the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (which is only slightly scarier than some of these statistics, even for someone who’s terrified of clowns).

The problem is, in the depths of our information overload, we lose the ability to see what’s good. The strength and focus we need to wade through the relentless attack of links and status updates and motivational quotes overlaid onto whimsical images and automatically-playing videos with mistake-ridden subtitles wanes the more they’re piled on to us. That inability is carried over to other areas too, and before we know it we’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey and the Daily Mail.

A new reality emerges – one in which a listicle of the top 17 things you never knew about the Royal family’s baby-related traditions, with commentary from a writer you’ve never heard of, who is altogether too lax when it comes to typos, seems like engaging content. It’s a world in which a headline swallows you up and spits you into a sales funnel, and you’re powerless to do anything about it by the time you hit the first catch. It’s a world in which good writing has given way to ‘engaging content’, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re being informed, entertained, manipulated or sold to.

It’s a world I’m checking out of.

Ditching the drivel

When I woke up this morning, I ignored my phone, picking up one of the books from my nightstand instead. Bird by Bird, written by the altogether brilliant Anne Lamott. I’ve just finished reading Operating Instructions, a frank, insightful and heart-rending journal of the first year of her son’s life, and I’m now an addict in the very best way. Reading her books inspires me, touches me and teaches me, and I intend to make sure I read a lot more things that do that.

For the rest of this year, I’m challenging myself to read something good every day – and I’m challenging you to join me. I’m not going to kid myself that it’s possible to completely give up the drivel, but I’m going to ask myself a few questions before I read anything from now on. Here’s my very own literary sewage filter: Will this help me? Is this good? Will I be somehow better after reading it?

I want to make sure that each time I pick up a book or click on a link it’s to read something fulfilling. Something beautiful. Something good. I want to look up to the people who have written the words I’m reading, take notes from them and become a better writer myself as a result.

I challenge you to set up your own literary sewage filter. And who knows? If we stop being baited to click and say no to the dregs, maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid the overload, get better at spotting – and choosing – quality and actually help lift the stuff we’re subjected to out of the gutter.

I’m off to read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. What’s next on your list?

(Want some ideas for great books? Check out Joe Queenan’s One for the Books for a fascinating journey through an avid reader’s memory, or The Novel Cure for ideas of books that will match your mood.)


#ShitWordSaturday: Resonate

Whenever someone says “that idea really resonates with me,” I wish I could manifest* that idea and twang them on the head with it, like some kind of tuning fork for the brain.

tuning-fork-1906402_640The bad thing is that I use it myself sometimes; it just slips out, to my utter horror. What’s worse is that no one bats an eyelid. I don’t see people lifting pens to play bullshit bingo in meetings any more (now there’s a game we should revive), which makes it so easy to leave the corporate butchery of words like this unchecked.

Resonate comes from resound – it means to produce a deep, reverberating sound or vibration. These days it’s used to mean something is appealing on a fundamental level: “that really resonates with me.”

Yuk. Maybe it’s my aversion to the idea that we’re all ruled by some kind of mystical vibration (again, see *) or maybe I’m clinging to proper usage too tightly and should let the world’s chief storytelling officers run wild without complaining.

Either way, I’m setting myself a challenge on #ShitWordSaturday: for the coming week, I will not use the word ‘resonate’ (unless I’m talking about sound or some kind of physics-related wave). Are you up for the challenge too? Or is there another word you need to ban from your textual toolkit?

 

* Not really. Manifest is a worrying trend in self-help books (my guilty pleasure) – even more worryingly, the ones written by and aimed at women.

“We just need to want something badly enough and it will manifest,” they say. “Hey girl, just connect to the higher power and manifest yourself that money you deserve.”

What?! Don’t be sucked in by the industry’s latest butchery of the English language. What they’re implying is that these things will materialize. But that’s not how life – or physics – works. (If it did, I would be sitting here cradling a first edition of The Count of Monte Cristo, not You are a Badass.)

Here’s my take: if you want that Ferrari/house/holiday you need to (*shock horror*) WORK FOR IT. Of course some ways of working are smarter than others, but just wishing something will appear from thin air and happy thoughts is not a good strategy. (It does remind me of that episode of Bagpuss when the mice make chocolate biscuits out of butter beans and breadcrumbs, though. Classic.)


#FavouriteWordFriday: Beleaguered

In our post-truth world (as people have depressingly dubbed it), it’s helpful to be certain of a few things. Author (and so much more) Anne Lamott decided to write down some of the things she’s sure of, and she shared her list of 12 things in a recent TED talk. Before she even launched into the first item, she used a word that caught my attention: beleaguered.

“I hope that my list of things I’m almost positive about might offer some basic operating instructions to anyone who is feeling really overwhelmed or beleaguered,” she said.

I think we’re all feeling a little beleaguered – like we’re having to deal with a lot of problems or a barrage of criticism. Perhaps it’s our constant connection that’s to blame: by being continually updated about the world’s challenges and tragedies, we feel responsible, but because they’re too big for us to solve, we’re left feeling helpless. And while the internet gives us the wonderful opportunity to share our messages with the world, it also exposes us to criticism, ridicule and attack.

Screen Shot 2017-06-16 at 14.25.22The word beleaguered comes from the late 16th century Dutch ‘belegeren’, which meant to camp round (‘be-‘ meaning about and ‘leger’ camp). It’s connected to ‘besieged’, which means being surrounded by military; in modern Dutch, ‘leger’ means army.

So yes, we’re probably all somewhat beleaguered – besieged by an army of internet trolls, troubled by the world’s seemingly insurmountable problems and harassed by our own feelings of inadequacy. Perhaps it’s a word we need to use more often to reflect on these issues that we all too often ignore.

What’s your #FavouriteWordFriday word of the week?


Hands off my notebooks!

I have an obsession with notebooks that’s bordering on unhealthy; I have a shelf dedicated to my (unused) notebooks in the office. I also love backing cool new ideas on Kickstarter and Indiegogo (you should see my computer keyboard that feels like a typewriter!).

So you can imagine my excitement when I saw The Perfect Notebook: the notebook to end all notebooks, one that will make me more productive, happier and healthier, and a better friend, employee, wife and mother.

It’s pretty plain looking, but it has a “modular disc binding system” – you can move pages around in it. I like that; it made me click on the promo video. That’s when it all went wrong.

The video shows a young professional woman struggling to juggle everything in her life: she should be getting more done at work, she should be getting her startup off the ground in her spare time, she should be eating right and going to the gym. She should be better at life.

ThePerfectNotebook-Video

But don’t worry, help is at hand! All she needs to do is switch all her clumsy files and lazy ways for The Perfect Notebook and she’ll be running a marathon and a multi-million dollar business in a matter of weeks. The pages are already printed with the stuff she should be doing, and some space to write her own goals. She just has to get stuff done and tick away.

I’m a productivity tool junkie, so why did this notebook – which technically combines lots of my favourite things – turn me off so quickly? This made me think about all the reasons I love notebooks.

They’re simple.

Get a load of pages and bind them together. It doesn’t matter if it’s lined, squared or plain paper, fixed with staples, glue or thread, bound in leather, fabric or card, the notebook’s core structure is simple. And it works.

They’re multipurpose.

Granted, the first page of my used notebooks almost inevitably spells out all the ways I’m planning to use that notebook to change the world, but by page four it’s usually home to shopping lists, reminders and scribbled down phone numbers.

They’re inspiring.

Some of them are beautiful and all of them make me want to pick up a pencil. They inspire me to write down my ideas and worries, my daydreams and doodles. My notebooks are where my thoughts come together somehow, a meeting place for words and scribbles. They give me the space to be creative and pragmatic all at once.

They’re non-judgmental.

My notebooks don’t tell me I should be working harder, or make me hang my head in shame if I miss a gym session. They just listen to my incessant rambling, which is rather lovely.

 

Even though The Perfect Notebook claims it can make me a better person, I’m sticking firmly with my imperfect notebooks instead. Would you make the switch?


How reading stuff I wrote as a kid has helped me break bad writing habits

I’ve been writing everything from non-fiction essays to poems since I could string a sentence together. I was a prolific writer as a kid: little me would scribble notes and the beginnings of many (many) novels on scraps of paper, napkins… anything I could get words onto.

A few years ago I convinced my Mum to whittle down her enormous box of my ramblings and I took away a small folder of some of the best* things I’d written. Reading them was very revealing, and it highlighted some of the bad writing habits I’d managed to nurture and grow over the years.

Seeing my bad habits in black and white really helped me squash them.

*Read: funniest

Bad planning.

CaterpillarPlanning is a really important part of the writing process. Knowing where you’re going with an article, story, report, book or poem helps you structure it properly, providing the best possible support for elegant, well thought-out writing. Skip the planning process and you risk your work caving in on itself.

The little version of me didn’t know this. Take my caterpillar “poem” for example. (Come on, it’s not really a poem, is it?) I had one side of A4, minus some pretty generous margins, to work with. I knew this; I’d drawn and decorated the margins myself. What I should have done was draft the “poem” somewhere else first, then work out if it needed to be shortened.

I didn’t do that.

What I did was this: I saw a glorious blank page and started filling it with whatever spilled out of my head. It was going (relatively) well until I saw the end of the box and panicked, shutting the whole thing down abruptly (see the next bad habit).

Reading my caterpillar story made me laugh, but it also put a spotlight on my problem. Of course, I’m not restricted to pencils and paper these days, and typing makes it much easier to play with words on a page. But I really had to force myself to focus on planning.

Now when I start working on something, I begin with a skeleton structure: a word or two to represent what each paragraph or section would contain. Having a skeleton helps me organise notes – I can cut and paste them into the relevant section – and then all I need to do is add flesh to the bones. Planning in this way means I know how many words I have to play with in each part of a piece of writing, and it means I don’t have to cut the work from the bottom.

Abrupt endings.

At the end of the bridgeAs you can see from my amazing caterpillar masterpiece, I had a big problem with endings. This was partly because I would get really excited about every book I was writing, only for my excitement to dissipate by mid-way through chapter two (confession: this still happens, I have countless partly written novels floating around). One of my biggest issues was finishing everything I wrote far too abruptly.

The ending of a piece of writing is really important. Sure, not everyone will make it to the end of an article, but those who do will remember the last few sentences they read better than the rest.

Again, little me didn’t know that. Take “At the end of the bridge” for example. Even the title suggests that something brilliant is awaiting the protagonist at the other side of the bridge. But when she gets there she is “amazed”. I don’t go into detail, despite there being plenty of space in which to do so.

“The girl that traveld [sic]” ends rather cryptically too: suddenly, in the final sentence, the girl can talk to the animals. Nothing like an unexplained revelation to end a story.

The girl that traveldOk, so I’m not that bad any more, but endings weren’t my strong point for years. Reading these stories, I was so disappointed when I reached the end that I realised how my readers must have felt in the past, albeit less obviously. I now include my endings in the planning process, making sure they reflect and build on the introductions, and leave the reader with something to think about.

Over-enthusiasm.

JohnI love exclamation marks! Really, I’m pretty sure you can find one in just about everything I’ve written. I tend to over-use them – and superlatives – in emails to this day, but it’s only because I write the way I speak. And I speak enthusiastically.

In the lovely (untitled) story about John, little me got over-enthusiastic without getting creative, and emboldened the word “very” a couple of times. Over the years, my vocabulary improved, and with it my enthusiasm became more colourful. Things were “really brilliant”, “totally awesome” and “completely amazing”. Add a sprinkling of exclamation marks and you get an out-of-breath reader.

In my head I was just excited and optimistic; on paper, I looked like a lunatic. Reading John’s story reminded me how important it is to check the tone of what I write. These days I write however I feel like it at the time, then make a point of checking for tone when I run back through what I’ve written. If I seem a bit nutty, I cut adjectives and exclamation marks.

Not editing.

Cats 1Actually, my over-enthusiasm was part of a bigger problem in my writing: I wasn’t editing my own work properly. This was probably the toughest habit I had to break.

Check out my treatment on “Cat’s”: a little intro, a song, a poem and a couple of cartoons. Cat’s what? Cat’s disappointed that I used several grocer’s apostrophe’s (that one was on purpose). Even as a kid, I knew how to punctuate and spell properly. Reading this it was obvious to me: I was being lazy.

Editing a piece of writing is almost as important as doing the writing in the first place; it can make the difference between an ok article riddled with mistakes and a compelling article that’s polished and professional.

Of course I want the latter, so now I make sure I factor editing rounds into my writing process. If it’s possible within the deadline, I schedule time to sleep on a piece of writing (figuratively speaking) so I can attack it with fresh eyes the next day. It’s definitely improved my work, and I’m happy to say those painful apostrophes don’t litter my writing any more.

——-

What terrible writing habits did you develop as a kid? How have you tackled them? Share your stories in the comments!

 


My baby was due yesterday. Here’s why I’m still working (and why that’s ok)

Yesterday my due date (and my birthday, incidentally) came and went, as they often do with first babies. It marked the start of what I’m optimistically calling my ‘baby holiday’. Only it’s not what you might expect: I’m still working.

This was actually the fourth adjusted date of the start of my baby holiday. Initially, I had intended to stop working a week before my due date, then the Friday before, then the Monday. When I attempted to stop working the day before the baby was due to arrive, I learnt three things: it’s ok to ignore advice (even if it’s given with love and the best of intentions), ‘relaxing’ doesn’t look the same to everyone and it’s great to love what you do.

An avalanche of advice

Just like every other pregnant woman in history, I’ve been showered with advice for the last nine months. Eat this, don’t drink that, go for a walk (but not too fast), relax, stay active… But nothing compares to the opinions people have shared about working during pregnancy.

My approach – which is basically to work for as long as possible and see how it goes after the baby’s born – has resulted in an array of reactions, from support (it’s so great you can be flexible!) to amusement with a hint of condescension (oh really? You think you’ll be able to do that?) to downright anger and disapproval (that’s really bad for you and your baby).

This mix of reactions isn’t new to me. As a freelancer, there is no clear divide between my ‘life’ and my ‘work’ (which suits me brilliantly, because my work – writing – is what I like to do for fun). This situation isn’t ‘normal’ – I don’t work to live, my work is just a part of my life – and that makes it difficult for many people to understand. If I had a penny for every time someone’s told me to slow down, take a break or have a day off, I’d have enough to kick back with a G&T (post-baby, of course).

EscapeaBut add a bump into the mix and it all gets a bit emotional. People started to worry about my wellbeing and the health of my baby. Surely all the stress of working can’t be good. If you were employed, you’d have to give up work a month before your due date, there must be a sensible reason for that rule. You really should switch off and spend time nesting and thinking about babies instead of writing about pesticides and bees, tuna slaves and urine fuel cells.

Eventually, the voices set up camp in my mind and I compromised: I’d start my baby holiday one week before my due date. That day arrived much more quickly than I’d expected, and I still had several articles to write, a book to edit and a load of invoicing to do. So I postponed. Just one more article. One last document. A couple more emails. Then there were no more excuses.

Attempting to ‘rest’

The day before my due date I got up early and sat down with my sewing machine (which I’d never used before) ready to turn some curtain cut-offs into a cushion for the cats to sleep on. Two hours after starting I admitted defeat and moved to the living room with a cup of tea, a needle and thread and How to Make a Murderer on Netflix. I made a little catnip toy and a tiny felt heart filled with lavender. They were both a bit rubbish.

I felt completely empty. Useless. Pointless. I wanted so much to be enjoying myself, relaxing and doing something creative (why sewing? No idea…) but I was just bored and frustrated. I watched my lovely Facebook friends send me thoughtful, caring messages in response to my ‘look how crap I am at sewing’ post, urging me to stop doing stuff and just kick back with a cuppa. Rationally I understood, and even agreed with, their comments. But I still sat there feeling guilty, conflicted, confused and bored.

When my husband walked through the door that evening, he knew exactly what had happened. ‘Why don’t you do some work tomorrow?’ he suggested.

At that moment the day’s three lessons hit me hard. I became a freelancer almost 18 months ago so I could make a living doing what I love: writing. Writing makes me feel excited and happy. It makes me feel useful and fulfilled. And it relaxes me. Sure, sometimes deadlines can be stressful, especially if they pile up. But I thrive on the pressure (and stress can be good for you anyway).

And I’m not good at sitting still; for the last few years not a single day has gone by when I haven’t done something. No PJ or TV days, and when I do watch a film (or, I admit it, the occasional soap) I’m usually writing or editing something at the same time. When I’m not writing, my version of relaxing is seeing how many things I can tick off my to do list.

Of course I wasn’t happy when I tried to do nothing. It’s not right for me; I was trying to do other people’s version of relaxing and getting ready for a baby. Advice is there to advise, not to instruct, but I’d let myself get swept along with the wave of opinions and hadn’t stopped to think about me. The 9-to-5 office job doesn’t suit me, so it makes perfect sense that the ‘normal’ approach to maternity leave doesn’t either.

My baby holiday

Despite what people have been saying about me needing to slow down since I went freelance – and particularly over the last nine months – I’ve come to realise what my husband already knew: what I need is the opposite. I need to feel useful and busy, to keep ticking things off my lists and adding new things. I need my own version of a baby holiday.

So here’s my five-point baby holiday plan:

  1. Keep writing.
  2. Take on one deadline at a time (this makes sense logistically, since I could go into labour at any moment).
  3. Stop trying to sew. It’s not going to work.
  4. Focus on enjoyment rather than relaxation.
  5. Drink tea and watch Netflix if you feel like it (but you’re not a weirdo if you don’t).

Of course I have no idea what’s in store for me in the next few hours, days, weeks and months. But finding out is half the fun, right?

 


How a year of living the dream has changed my life

One year ago today I sat at my shiny new green desk, sharpened my pencils and switched on my laptop. I was terrified. Not just nervous, but knee-tremblingly petrified of how my first day was going to go. I put a Dream Theater CD on (which has become one of my best work buddies this year) and opened my emails. I started to write, nervously, my heart beating fast with every keystroke.

I’ve written every day of my adult life (almost every day of my whole life, actually, since I was four) so I shouldn’t have been scared of what I was doing. So why was it having such an effect on me?

I had pretty high expectations of that day. Ever since I’d announced a few months earlier that I was planning to ditch the 9-5 and go solo, people had been applauding my bravery and telling me how they wished they had the courage to follow their dreams and do what they’re passionate about. If I hadn’t already been nervous, I definitely was after hundreds of people making me out to be some kind of career hero.

My view of taking the leap to freelancing was actually more pragmatic than it might seem. Sure, I love writing and, like millions of other people, had always dreamed of working from a remote cottage on a lake somewhere, with a pencil in one hand and a coffee in the other (think Colin Firth in Love Actually). But I’m a bit too sensible to do something just because I love it. I did my research, and it actually made better business sense than staying where I was.

I came home from work late one day and my husband was sitting waiting for me with a cup of tea. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said. The colour drained from his face. “No, no, it’s nothing like that, I’ve had a mad idea.” Now this was far from unusual – in the five years he’s known me, my mad ideas have included getting pet bees for the flat (I’m still working on this), running a half marathon five months after running my first ever 100 metres and turning our dining room into an indoor allotment (we got two cherry tomatoes). So when I told him I was thinking about quitting my job and going freelance, he agreed without hesitation and made me a spreadsheet showing how much I’d need to earn to survive.

My shiny green desk

My shiny green desk

That was my first lucky break: the most supportive husband in the world. This year, he’s cooked, cleaned, made me thousands of cups of tea, kept me awake, made me go to sleep and made me smile when I was ready to cry. There aren’t enough words in the world to thank him enough.

I leant on a lot of other people for advice before I resigned. I called mentors, friends, colleagues and family, especially people I knew would tell me not to be stupid. But nobody did. The clincher came when my good friend and long-time advisor Myc, who taught me everything I know about science PR (and wrote a brilliant book about it) said “I’ve been waiting for you to say this, it’s a brilliant idea. Say yes to everything in your first year.”

So I quit. I spent every available moment planning the next few months, making sure I’d have enough work to get me through the remainder of 2014, at least so I could enjoy Christmas, even if I ended up having to get a proper job in January again. My colleagues gave me a great send-off and I felt thoroughly loved, appreciated and sad to be going.

Two days later, there I was, green desk, pencil and laptop awaiting my input. The first few weeks were liberating and fun – I was still terrified, and learning how to pitch, quote and wrap up projects. It felt like I was running on adrenalin, and I was enjoying every minute of it. I had time to think, plan, clean and go for a run. I really was living the dream.

I suppose reality hit home the first time I worked through the night. In an office job, you can manage your work and say no without any financial implications. As a freelancer, I could manage my work around other people’s deadlines, and saying no would simply mean not getting the job and the money that comes with it. So, following Myc’s sage advice, I said yes to everything. Somewhere around March, I started to realise I had more work as a freelancer than I’d ever had as an employee – was I going to make it?

As spring turned to summer, I spent more and more nights tapping away at my keyboard, rather than sleeping. I missed parties, concerts, coffees and trips to the zoo, but I did all the work, and I’m proud of the results. It seemed the more I did, the more work came in – I was getting emails and calls from friends of colleagues of friends, with all sorts of assignments, from writing press releases about flower bulbs to sustainability website copy and feature articles on theoretical biology.

I was exhausted, but ecstatic.

People liked my writing. They enjoyed reading my articles, thanked me for helping them improve their websites and called to tell me how happy their professors/managers/editors were about the work I’d done for them. For the first time in my life, I felt in complete control of my professional success, and I knew it was going well. I was in The Zone, writing thousands of words every day on eclectic topics for various different channels. It was exhilarating.

But it was also eating into the rest of my life. I was missing my husband and the kids, even though I was sitting in the same room as them. My mind was on the next deadline, not the film everyone was laughing at on TV. I might have been happy professionally, but I was missing out personally.

Announcing Escapea

Watch out, world.

Then something changed: I got pregnant. It was planned, of course, but we didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. I’d decided long before that I would just carry on as normal until it was time to push – after all, writing isn’t exactly strenuous. But the baby had other ideas. The baby made me very sick. So sick, in fact, that I could hardly look at my computer screen without having to run to the bathroom. A tiny embryo had effortlessly fixed my dilemma: no more all-nighters, no more forgetting lunch, and no more staring at the screen for 14 hours at a time.

For six weeks I took my foot off the throttle and did only what was necessary. I still worked my A game, just for fewer hours every day. I even took the odd day off at the weekend. That was a few months ago now – little Escapea is 5 months and counting – but I’ve learnt a lesson. I can only enjoy my work if it’s part of an enjoyable life, and for that to happen I need balance.

It’s been a year, and today I’ve taken stock of what I’ve done. Since 1 November 2014, I’ve written more than 140 articles (check some of them out on my website), completed 123 projects (with 17 more currently underway) and given six training sessions. I’ve taken a 10-day holiday, and had a day off for our first wedding anniversary, but have worked the other 354 days of the year. I’ve generated almost 10GB of files (which is quite a lot for someone who’s not a designer) and edited three books. I can’t even begin to work out how any words I’ve written, but I’d say a (very) conservative estimate would be 200,000.

So what’s next?

I’m excited about year two. It’s like year one, but without the terror. I’ll have the added challenge of a baby, but I can tell little Escapea likes writing (judging by the kicking I’m getting right now) so we’ll have some fun.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be treated to a tour of the rare books library at Teyler’s Museum (thanks to my wonderful husband), which has given me some ideas. I want to carry on bookbinding and actually get good at it. My lovely family gave me a quill as a first anniversary gift this morning, so I intend to use it.

Teyler's Museum

In awe of the Teyler’s Museum library.

I’m already having a fantastic time writing for The Canary, an awesome new media company that’s free, fair and fearless, and I’m carving out some time to get stuck into my bee book again (I swear I’ll finish it one day).

I don’t intend to work less hard, or get less done in year two. In fact, I think I can improve my productivity and efficiency and probably get more done in less time. But after a year of saying yes, I’m now giving myself permission to say no to not sleeping, not seeing my family and missing the fun stuff.

I don’t think my decision to go freelance was brave. And, looking back, I don’t think it was as mad as I’d expected. It has shown me what I’m capable of, and where my limits are. It’s given me the confidence to try new things and write about what I love, and it’s taken the breaks off of my ideas (which may or may not be good for me).

Last night, after a week of 16-hour days, my Mum asked me: “Are you still enjoying it?”

“I’m living the dream, Mum,” I said. And I am. I do what I love every day (and get paid for it), I’m in charge of my own professional joy and now I’m giving myself permission to say yes to the things I love and pass on the things I don’t. And because I’ve spent the last year building myself a solid base, I have the freedom to put some balance back into my life. For starters, I’m switching off my laptop and enjoying the rest of Sunday.

 


Why you should care – part two: is your grammar fit for a king?

Ok, so admittedly this isn’t about English grammar, but it does have an important message: the general public cares about the grammar in popular songs.

Last week, with excitement and anticipation, Holland watched the coronation of Willem Alexander. It was a huge full-day event, held on Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day), on which Queen Beatrix abdicated and her eldest son took the throne, next to his new Queen Maxima.

WillemAlexander-Maxima

As part of the celebration, a well-known songwriter pieced together lyric suggestions from the public to come up with a song from the Dutch people to the new King.

Then it all went a bit wrong.

The song starts off quite nicely – it’s catchy and typically Dutch, with a modern twist. Unfortunately, it was spectacularly rejected by the public, a Facebook page against it garnering tens of thousands of likes within a couple of hours of the song’s release. The writer pulled the song but was subsequently overruled by the coronation organisers, and it was performed live on the day.

Why all the fuss?

Some people say the song is a grammatical nightmare. Dutch is a complex language, and, like in English, grammar is important. When people heard the song (and read the lyrics in the video) they were outraged by the bad grammar. Here’s Wim Daniëls explaining it in great detail (in Dutch).

Daniëls says there is a mistake in every sentence – lots of people agree with this. Not enough commas, too many demonstratives, incorrect tone… but it’s a song. Shouldn’t that make it safe from the scrutiny of grammarians?

I don’t think so. If you’re doing something that public, it ought to be correct – or at least consistent. If you want to be chummy with the King (using the informal ‘je’ instead of the formal ‘u’, both meaning ‘you’) go ahead. But make it clear. And when constructing a rap based on all the brilliant Dutch things that begin with the ‘W from Willem’, try to think of things that actually begin with a ‘W’ and not plump for other words… ‘The W from waiting for stamppot’ is probably my favourite terrible line.

The song is still out there in all its glory, and the King and Queen certainly seemed to enjoy it on coronation day. And the mistakes might even have a positive outcome – kids will be studying these lyrics in Dutch language class and improving them.

The fact is that when someone writes a big important song representing the public, the public cares about the quality. People don’t want to be associated with bad grammar. There is, of course, something to be said for artistic licence, and I’m not about to start analyzing the latest from Jay-Z or Muse. But good grammar has its place. If you’re writing a song for a king, it ought to be right. Don’t you think?