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What I write about when I write about running

June 28, 2020

I have an article in Issue #24 of Like the Wind.

The story behind this piece sticks in my mind for two reasons. Firstly, it was an early statement of intent that 2020 would be the year I take writing more seriously. Secondly, I wrote it on the cusp of the pandemic.

It marks a phase just before the world changed – and so, by fateful coincidence, echoes the work that inspired it.

The article is a leap-year baby. I wrote 1500 words on 29 February, which I then edited and submitted on 1 March. I know this because the germ of the idea came to me while sitting the ADC Theatre bar during the interval of a production of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

Late February was in the early days of the crisis. Restaurants and cafes had started to put more distance between their tables. Signs had gone up in bathrooms about thoroughly washing hands. Soap was a commodity. Loo roll was plentiful. But, I was glad to have an aisle seat with a spare next to me.

‘Time Passes’ takes its title from a different Woolf novel: To the Lighthouse. More specifically, it takes its title from the short section at the heart of the novel that separates the two principal parts by ten years.

After three months, lockdowns are lifting, but we’re not done with the crisis yet. The UK is already looking at the prospect of localised lockdowns as the virus continues to pose a threat. India is looking at a worsening crisis. Things appear to be heading in a grim direction in parts of the USA.

If you’re looking for something meditative and absorbing, that reflects the strange spirit of the time, but offers to restore some hope, give To the Lighthouse a go.

But also, give an indie mag a go (and read my piece).

Light of day

August 24, 2020

I abandoned my last writing project in December 2019. It started life as a psychological thriller set in the near-future, and ended life as a satire set in the recent past.

Thanks to Scrivener‘s slightly alarming stats, I know I spent 272 days working on the manuscript, clocking up 100k words. And yet it will never see the light of day.

It sounds like a terrible waste, all that effort for nothing.

But sometimes you need to do something wrong to conceptualise what might be right.

I took heart from a recent interview with Sarah Moss, talking about her new novel, Summerwater: “I always say to students, time spent writing is never wasted because you learn from it.”

Although the words and work may never see the light of day, they compost themselves down and are absorbed by the roots of the next idea. Sometimes it takes writing about something to work out what you really think about it.

There are ideas and themes I can trace through the project I’m working on at the moment and the things I’ve abandoned in the past. Each time the roots are stronger, the shoots more vigorous.

Learning from your mistakes is familiar territory for anyone who has run a marathon. Those iceberg training miles, invisible under the surface, tell you everything you need to know about your limits and are essential to build your mental resilience.

Failure is only part of the journey, and besides killing your darlings is such a strong 2020 energy:

Bandwidth

August 16, 2020

For everything you choose to exert effort on, there’s an equal and opposite decision to not exert effort on the horde of other things vying for your time and attention. Sometimes this choice is explicit, sometimes implicit. Your actions are the bobbing cap of the iceberg of your to-do list.

Even amidst the pandemic there’s still FOMO. Could you be doing something better? Having more fun? Doing something more worthwhile?

We’ve been weaned on a diet of short-term dopamine hits to neglect the long-term. It’s the niggling sense that although you should be tending the furrow you’ve so painstakingly ploughed, sewed, and nurtured over the months, there’s something fun and new that could be more immediately rewarding.

The big, difficult thing can wait. There’s always tomorrow. The sun might only shine today.

How quickly the Hanging Gardens of Babylon turn to weeds and brackish growth.

This is opportunity cost, in other words. What are you giving up in order to do the thing you’re doing at this very moment. What could you be doing when instead you’re doom-scrolling? Go do the thing.

The conflicted identifies of a life lived online

August 2, 2020

I’ve been living my life more completely online over the last four months than at any time previously. It’s been an acceleration of existing trends rather than a radical change of direction, but there are some side-effects that have started to encroach on the ways that I live online.

In my day-to-day life I work in a corporate environment with one of those job titles that usually prompts the question ‘So what does that mean, then?’ And, following an elucidation, a polite, if none-the-wiser, ‘Ah, right.’

Like many companies during lockdown, my employer has focused on becoming more visible online. Which can only mean the dreaded corporate mire of thought leadership, webinars, and #contentmarketing. Suddenly, the social networks and online identities I’ve built around interests outside the workplace have been coopted to serve careerist purposes.

I have a significant interest in education, the field in which I work. But it’s not the whole of me. I am a Venn diagram of education, endurance sports, writing, literature, local vegetarian-friendly cuisine, wildlife, weird AI, craft beer, and home-brewing.

Living online, there’s a fine line to tread between presenting a work persona (because, let’s face it, potential clients, colleagues, and employers Google names as a matter of due diligence) and pursuing personal interests that may mix poorly with the professional.

Examples: A lot of my work is in Muslim countries in the Middle East, and yet as a cultural Westerner, I’m quite open about enjoying a drink. Some of my work is in Central Asia where large dishes of plaff and slabs of horsemeat are common features of business meetings, which as a vegetarian I must politely push around my plate. I work in educational publishing, where writing for pleasure is a cliche and generally treated as a source of disappointment.

Everyone is complex. Everyone has interests outside the professional context. No one person lives life solely laser-focused on one specific domain. Sometimes interests might seem mutually incompatible, or contradictory, and it’s in these mixing of ingredients that alchemy happens.

‘Opinions own’, of course. Don’t share stuff you wouldn’t want a prospective employer finding, of course. Lock accounts. Tighten privacy settings. But, only connect.

The thing that I’m struggling with the most is that a creative enterprise – and there is no more creative enterprise than writing, creating worlds and lives from nothing – should not be incompatible with a profession that requires empathy, understanding of the macro and its impact on the micro, and the ability to imagine a better future for young people. Yet, I sense it is. And I don’t know how much energy I have to fight that perception.

Crossroads

July 26, 2020

Every now and then something turns out a different way from how you’d hoped. Disappointment is such a 2020 vibe.

But get past the initial disappointment and there’s a chance to reappraise, reevaluate, refocus. Because sometimes when so much effort has been spent pursuing one particular outcome, considering how things work when they play out differently adds a bit of perspective.

Maybe the original goal wasn’t so uncomplicated. Maybe the actual outcome allows the channelling of more energy into things that are good and things that bring joy, which would otherwise have been consumed in less worthwhile ways.

So, is this a turning point? Something I’ll look back on as a formative moment? The closing of one door, the opening of another? Or just a special request stop on an otherwise planned journey?

The finishing line

July 12, 2020

Each morning during lockdown I have made time to write before work. And now, much like parts of lockdown, I have reached the end.

As the grip of the crisis loosened, so the words flowed more readily. 100 or 200 words a day in March or April, 1000 or 2000 in May or June. 72,000 words accumulated in batches.

Writers sometimes say that writing a book is like running a marathon. Having done both, it’s true… up to a point.

To run a marathon you spend months plugging away at the distance, gradually building up following a careful plan. You shift your life around the routine. You push through hard solitary winter miles when the days are dark and the rain lashes down carried only by your own drive and motivation. You accumulate far, far more miles than the 26.2 that everyone sees at the end. The race itself is the tip of the iceberg, the rest remains concealed beneath the waterline.

As a runner, you can track all sorts of data. Miles run each week. Longest distance run each week. Average pace. Active calories burnt. Weight. VO2 max. Recovery time.

As a writer, you can track one data point: words written. Each day words gather like snowflakes. At first a scatter or two, building gradually, slowly until a soft even drift covers the ground. And then, it stops.

Now it has, I’m in the wilderness months. Snow blind. Because there’s no ready measure of the output of drafting, other than time sunk. The word count will fluctuate, growing some days, shrinking others. I hope to avoid a thaw. But each day I will wade in, moulding and sculpting the accumulation, hewing something better out of the raw material that has fallen.

Little reminders

June 15, 2020
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Every now and then there’s an unexpected reminder: there but for the grace of god go I.

I have a regular cycle route. A neat 14-mile loop that takes in a mix of fields, and hills, and riverside. My least-favourite stretch is early in. A long straight road that switches to national speed limit between villages, the road surface pocked and worn by fast, heavy traffic.

I was just coming to this stretch when I saw another cyclist take a nasty fall. No traffic involved. But he lay there in the middle of this busy road, not moving, a dark pool of blood on the tarmac.

A walker, a passing driver, and I stopped to help. I blocked the road and called the emergency services, the others got him out of harm’s way. An ambulance came quickly, checked him out, started the process of persuading him to go to hospital.

Once I was no longer needed, I got on my way.

Ten – maybe fifteen – minutes had passed, but it set the tone for my thoughts the rest of the ride.

Life changes slowly or not at all, and then can change completely in the blink of an eye. As far as I know, the man’s okay – shaken, cut and bruised, but nothing more serious. But it could have been very different.

You can bubble-wrap your life to avoid any kind of risk, but what kind of a life is that? Far better to be doing the things you love and living well while you can.

The hard miles

June 7, 2020

Here we are, again.

If you read nothing else, read this excellent piece by Gary Younge on systemic inequality in the UK and US, and the protest against the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd.

Protests have been held, online and irl, over the past two weeks. Anger and solidarity has flooded out worldwide. Maybe this time’s different?

Individuals, corporations, celebrities and brands flooded social media with black squares to express solidarity on #blackoutTuesday. Well-meaning earnest statements were crafted and released, white font, black background. ‘We are shocked…’ ‘We are appalled…’ ‘We condemn in the strongest possible fashion…’

And who can disagree with these sentiments?

But here’s the thing: words are cheap, action is hard.

This post discusses HarperCollins simply because its example is so visible. I don’t work for HarperCollins, and perhaps it’s unfair to single them out. However, the systemic issues in publishing are not confined to HarperCollins. They are industry-wide, but perhaps less starkly obvious.

The system

HarperCollins is one of the ‘Big 5’, a group of the largest English-language publishers the are responsible for a significant majority of trade publishing around the world. On 1 June, a week after the killing of George Floyd, they put out a statement on social media:

As is common in our trade, HarperCollins publishes under a number of different imprints. Each imprint focuses on its own niche.

Broadside Books launched in 2010 to ‘publish books on the culture wars, books of ideas, books of revisionist history, biographies, anthologies, polemical paperbacks and pop-culture books from a conservative point of view.

[Quick pause here, in case ‘revisionist history’ didn’t start alarm bells ringing. It really should.]

It is currently promoting The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas that Will Win the Future, the cover of which features President Trump (who has rightly been criticised for pouring petrol on the fire) hugging the American flag.

Conservative voices are as entitled to a platform as liberal voices. But let’s be straight, this isn’t about free speech. HarperCollins is a for-profit company. Broadside was launched to capitalise on the rise of right-wing politics and angry Breitbart-style polemic.

Broadside is not a passive platform. It plays to the choir.

Publishing has an issue with diversity. It is an overwhelmingly white middle-class profession. In recent years, publishers have tried to address this through routes into the industry.

HarperCollins runs several diversity programmes, listed here. In fact, HarperCollins is the only publisher to have been named as one of Business in the Community’s Best Employers for Race.

This is evidence of an effort to address the some of the same systemic issues that HarperCollins seeks to commercially exploit through its Broadside Books imprint. Yet this kind of cake-and-eat-it approach is precisely the problem: does the tone at the top match the initiatives often driven by the organisation’s lower ranks?

Low pay and emotional labour

One of the common criticisms with diversity schemes is that they funnel people towards the lowest paid roles, often working in the most expensive cities in the UK, whether staff turnover is high. Relatively few hires stay in the industry long enough to progress, so management and leadership remains much as before.

In addition, drives to improve diversity disproportionately put the labour on black and minority staff. The department I work in at Cambridge University Press is by far the most diverse department I’ve worked in. Yet, the (often emotional, often tiring) work of championing diversity has fallen conspicuously on a small number of colleagues. No prizes for guessing which ones.

A couple of years ago the University ran the Black Cantabs exhibition to highlight the achievement of its black students. In 2016, only 1.5% of the University’s undergraduate intake was black compared with a national average of 8%. The exhibition was intended to encourage black and minority applications, underpinned by the ethos of ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’. It profiled 15 black alumni. Posters were placed around the Press to encourage people to visit the exhibition – and to encourage conversations about diversity.

Which it duly did… I heard reports of one comment: ‘There are more black people on those posters than work at the Press.’ There are 1200 people who work at the Press, and 3% of the British population is black so even if all these alumni had suddenly found themselves working in the organisation we still wouldn’t be representative.

Real change is hard

The problem with systemic inequality is that while it harms – kills, even – the oppressed, it bolsters those in power. To address these issues, we’re going to have to make hard decisions. Decisions about what we want the industry – our businesses – ourselves – to stand for. Because it isn’t conscionable to carry on as we are.

I don’t have the answers for how to address all the issues – but I guess that’s kind of the point. We have to collectively address them together. We have to build a consensus, and maybe if this moment is good for anything, it’s for looking around and acknowledging that change is necessary, important, urgent – and possible.

Listen.

Punch up, not down.

Use your voice to amplify others.

The protests and campaigns will fade, the next outrage will come along, and that’s when the hard miles begin.

A change of scenery

May 31, 2020

The past few months I’ve existed over a smaller area than in many, many years. Life has vacuum packed itself to – at best – a square mile. It has contorted itself to cling to the networks of previously unexplored streets on our doorstep in much the same way plastic clings to the contours of udon noodles.

Things have relaxed in recent weeks, it’s true. Unlimited exercise means absolute freedom – provided you don’t need the toilet. But even though my morning commute closely resembles a stumbling act from shower to desk, my horizons have remained much the same as before. Back when leaving the house was only permissible for essential shopping, one daily exercise, or an unbroken 260-mile car journey to Durham to check one’s eyesight—

No, sorry, that last one doesn’t apply to the likes of you or me.

Unlimited exercise presupposes unlimited leisure time. However, complaining about free time as we careen into the deepest recession since 1930 is the absolute definition of first world problems.

But the thing I’ve come to appreciate over the last few weeks has been the relative freedom of an evening cycle. To escape into the countryside, whip past fields and hedgerows, climb whatever counts for a hill round here, and see the city crouched low in the thinning sun is to squeeze the very best from this particular lemon.

And it’s made all the better by the relative quiet of the roads. Although maybe that’s because if you find yourself round this way when you’re aiming for Barnard Castle, you really should have gone to Specsavers.

Ennui of the state

May 24, 2020

Do you feel a restlessness? That sense you’re waiting for something – anything – to happen and yet, still, each day passes the same as the last. The rapid drama of the beginning of the crisis has passed, the peak has passed, and yet we still wait because the danger has not passed.

If you’re fortunate enough to be sheltered from the worst of the crisis, by now you’re intimately familiar with the contours of boredom. Uncertainty is many things – stressful, frustrating, immoveable – and yet who’d have thought it was so dull?

I’ve resisted the capitalism 2.0 side-hustle BS of ‘if you didn’t achieve [productivity goal] in lockdown, maybe time wasn’t your problem’ that marked the first weeks of the crisis.

But this is the golden hour.

Because if it’s true that nothing is certain, then it’s equally true that everything is possible.

My act of radical optimism has been to throw down some words each morning. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, but showing up is half the battle. A day with time spent fingers hovering blankly over the keys is better than a day without. But it’s been getting easier: 9000 words in March; 9000 words in April; 11,000 words so far in May.

Ennui is an energy, and maybe – just maybe – now’s the time to channel it.

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