I’m sitting here on the first morning of a three-day writers’ retreat. And I have no idea what I’m going to write. In front of me is a huge sash window, beyond it fields, sheep and a lot of sky.
Am I worried that I don’t know what I’m going to write? No, not really. For me, this weekend is about downloading some stuff just as much as pouring my creativity onto the page (I’m optimistically hoping it WILL make an appearance while I’m here).
The last time I was here, in January, I was under pressure to crack out a 20,000 word eBook on Instagram, the final project for my MA in Online Journalism. Steam came off my fingertips (well, almost) as I bashed out the words, deleted them, reshaped them, threw in some new ones, reordered and polished them. In April, I submitted. In June I passed, with distinction. And in July I graduated. A huge part of my life for a couple of years completed. What now?
First box sets, obviously. And lots of sitting on my arse on the sofa enjoying the feeling of not having to do anything. But I felt guilty, shouldn’t I be making more of my time? The MA gave me such satisfaction, such confidence, and I had hoped I’d use my ‘free’ time to crack on with my own personal projects, for pleasure. But I simply couldn’t be bothered.
Other things have contributed to this, not just laziness. In April I went full-time and in a different role – the first time I’ve worked a 37 ish hour week since having my eldest, who is now approaching five. This change in hours coincided with the last few weeks of my MA and I can’t tell you what a head fuck that was. I had thoughts pouring out of my head at all hours, a billion questions I didn’t know the answers to and a ton of reading that went unread. I went to bed way too late during this time, and for the sake of my own mental health and the ever-growing bags appearing beneath my eyes, would prefer never to have to repeat that experience again.
Back then, those full-time hours were compressed into 3.5 days with some ad hoc working from home, so I still had 1.5 days of the working week to tackle the other things life insists of you – washing, cleaning, general boring housey-type shit. But still, it needed to be done and got done. And quality time with the kids, of course. Parks, soft play centres, swimming, bikes rides etc.
Last month I stretched those hours across five days of the working week. The last time I worked on a Monday was 2012! H started school and we’ve shuffled our hours to accommodate drop offs and pick ups, while my youngest attends nursery five days a week rather than two-and-a-half.
It’s a big change for all of us:
Big girl’s don’t cry (well, only when the lunch hall gets noisy)
H is now a fully qualified big girl, and learning all about books (but strangely thinks only men can be authors!!) and is making lots of new friends. This also means I have to give her breakfast every day, tea every day and spend lots of money on tights because she manages to ladder them EVERY day*. I’ve also discovered that ketchup and white T’shirts really don’t go and wearing the same shoes fives days a week makes her feet so stinky you could bottle the pong and use it to eradicate Donald Trump. She’s also asked me where babies come from what nits are. *scratches head*
*Disclaimer: It’s that feeding my kids daily is unusual, bit I’m usused to nursery covering off two meals a day. Now I have to up my menu planning game.
Mind your winkle
A is now in nursery for the whole week, and without his big sister. With 11 months between them they generally do everything together. This new change has given him independence, he’s one of the older gang at pre-school and his close friendship with two boys there is blossoming. He’s becoming a man. Well, sort of. He burps a lot. Does that count? He’s also obsessed with the phrase ‘punch you in the winkle’ and for Christmas he wants a Batman sword, a Spiderman sword, a Hulk sword and a Captain America sword. Did all those super heroes even have a sword??!!!
Keeping our cool: fridge strategy
For me and Rich we’ve changed our hours, some longer days and shorter days for both of us. This means we have to remember who does what, including walking the dog, on each day of the week. A big chart stuck to the fridge is my strategy for remembering all this stuff. And we’re both adjusting to working across five days of the week. Your body clock gets used to the pattern of your life and we’ve just upended ours. It will probably take some time to bed in.
What I’ve realised about this new regime is that I don’t have it all planned out. That big chart on the fridge – my strategy – fails to include the washing. So at the end of week one I realised none of us had any clean clothes to wear. The house was a shit tip. And I had ‘to do’ lists for both work ad home that just weren’t getting done. That’s one of the reasons I’m here, actually, on this writing retreat. To reorder my thoughts. Rich thinks my constant need to write lists is my downfall, that I try and control too much and beat myself up when things don’t go to plan. On some level he’s right but I enjoy creative problem solving, I enjoy finding efficiencies that make life easier. And lists are a part of that. Reading Sarah Knight’s ‘How to Get Shit Done’ is also a big part, I’d recommend it to you all.
I repeat, what am I doing here?
So why am I REALLY at this writing retreat? When I booked it in the summer my intention was to dust of my old novel, written around seven years ago, and actually do something with it. But I’m not putting myself under any pressure. This is about creating head space, finding creativity that’s not linked to an agenda, objective or deadline, and unwinding a little. Part of me thought I might use the time to catch up on work when a colleague told me that would be an utter waste of ‘me time’ and she was so right.
We all need this sort of time, whatever our responsibilities. Time out. When I arrive here last night it hadn’t been a good day. I’d yelled at the kids while getting ready for school (not how I wanted to part ways when leaving them for the weekend); I forgot that H needed to take a special item (see images as proof of special-ness) into school and while I am not an overly emotional person I felt I’d let her down and cried when I got back to the car.
I was awkward, shy and self-conscious at school, in any new situation, and still am to some extent. Don’t get me wrong, in my comfort zone I’m the life and soul but outside of that the mouse in me squeaks to the surface. H is so like me and I don’t want to be the cause of any anxiety. I’m small chunking here – I just went home, retrieved Pooh Bear, wrote a little love heart post it note and dropped it back at school. All fine. No one emotionally damaged. Well, maybe me. I don’t forget things as a rule and this time I had. When I went to call Rich to fess up my parenting faux pas, I found I’d left my bag at home too. Another trip back to retrieve it. Grrr. And then I was late for work. FFS.
So here I am, yesterday a good reminder that everyone needs to take time out every once in a while. That thoughts and tasks and responsibilities and wish lists all mount up and it’s either time out or implode.
If you are still reading this btw, pat yourself on the back and go and grab a cuppa and a biscuit. There’s still a bit more to come…
So, enough of the whining, here are some positives…
What’s your beef?
Since our routine change, we’ve recognised how bad we are at eating together as a family and have introduced the tradition of Sunday roasts. Hardly groundbreaking, but hey, we all have to start somewhere. This is awesome on lots of levels: who doesn’t love roasties smothered in gravy? The kids really enjoy a) the food b) the chance to chat to both parents at the same time c) getting involved by clearing plates and choosing and dishing up dessert. They recognise it as a weekly tradition and look forward to it. Plus Ralphie gets leftovers so it’s win-win for all of us. So simple, so brilliant.
While work is relentless, there’s never enough time and I often don’t feel like I’m achieving much on a day-to-day basis, there are some huge benefits. I have an awesome team who I genuinely enjoy working with: talented, funny, hard-working and on the same page as me. I’m lucky on this count, most defo. And we’ve just been nominated for two awards – some proper recognition of the awesome work we do. This feels good.
I have an amazing set of friends. Like-minded, not perfect, spinning multiple plates. And, most importantly, not prolific Facebook status updaters. Second to that (just kidding) talking to them reminds me that I’m normal. We all feel like we fail a lot but we take comfort in each other’s situation and how much we do. That we live in a busy world and we’re in charge of how we manage that world. We share coping strategies! One of those pals is here on the writing retreat with me – she’s just scarpered upstairs with a bowl of snacks, and is both an inspiration and part of my support network. I also have lots of funny stories to sell the tabloids when she gets really famous.
I’ve been styled by…
This is worthy of a blog post all of it’s own. In short, there’s a lovely lady called Susie who dishes out the most wonderful style advice. She makes people feel good about themselves and her USP is that she is a regular, normal person. Someone we can identify with. She hasn’t turned me into a fashion icon (she can’t work miracles!), but she has reignited a passion for clothes (not good for ye olde bank balance, mind you) and made me feel more comfortable about my body shape. I’ve also just lost a stone in weight – you need to take action when your clothes are actively hurting you! I’ll write more Susie in another post, she deserves one.
We have a cleaner!
Move along, nothing to see here.
And finally… the future
I still think I want to be a journalism lecturer when I grow up. I’m in my late 30s so I hope this happens sooner rather than later; the growing up bit I mean.
But before all that, I’m using this time at Stickwick Manor in Devon to rearrange my priorities. So come Monday, when I return to Milton Keynes, I’ll be a new woman. Or probably the same woman with a shiny new, and focussed ‘to do’ list.
And it’s Christmas soon, right?