The Problem of Potential

As I was sitting in the coffee shop yesterday, knitting (which is the new writing, don’t you know), I couldn’t help but overhear two concerned mums talking about their children’s schooling. It was a long conversation, and a private one, but the gist was very much balancing the achievement of potential with happiness.

By the time I got home, I had a splitting headache that left me zoned out for the rest of the day. It was only this morning that I realised why – the conversation triggered my anxiety. Because it is the crux of everything, isn’t it?

We spend our lives balancing survival with living. Making a wage with enjoying our money. Trading wishes for shoulds and back again. Behind it all is this constant message that we have to be the best person we can be. The richest, thinnest, most successful, happiest, living in the most tasteful house, watching the right movies, reading the edifying books, eating healthy nutritional sugar-free meals.

No one can live with the pressure of that.

It certainly drives me loopy. I know I’m a talented artist, a creative knitter, a reasonable writer. I know I was a good Marketing Manager, clever with numbers, a quick grasp of strategy, calm in a crisis. But I excel at none of those things: none of them are a driving passion that make me want to be the best at them. I flit from one to the other like a distracted five-year-old. And the guilt of not fulfilling my potential in any of those areas, never mind all of them, leaves me exhausted and incapable of achieving anything.

If I paint a nice picture, the advice is that it should become my future: selling cards on Etsy, perhaps, or painting commissions. Except if I paint when it isn’t for someone I care about, it’s no fun. And there’s no money in it. Ditto knitting. Ditto anything that isn’t to make someone happy, or to receive praise (we won’t go into how wrong that is as a motivation).

I achieved at school. I had straight As pretty much across the board. A first class degree. A Masters. I aced exams. I worked hard. It was all I knew, and I enjoyed it. I wasn’t trying to reach a certain goal – the doing was enough. The grade in itself was the reward. I wasn’t aiming for a good university or a specific career. But my success set an expectation of fulfilling my potential (to the point where I nearly got suspended for a week the first and only time I got caught smoking on site, because I was ‘setting a bad example’.)

No one could tell me what that ‘potential’ was, though, or what it was for. Only that I had to fulfil it.

And now I clean poop for a living. I muck out the guinea pigs and the hamster, pick up after the dog, wipe the kids’ bums. I cook and clean. Iron. Moan and whinge about it. Not exactly fulfilling the potential of all those qualifications. But it’s the guilt and frustration of that, rather than the chores themselves, that makes me unhappy. I love my guinea pigs, hamster, dog, kids, husband. I love my messy house and free life. And I’m not sure I know what ‘more’ looks like.

I follow Matt Haig on Twitter and Facebook. If you haven’t come across him, he is a best-selling author who is honest about his struggle with anxiety. At New Year he tweeted a succession of messages that have stuck with me (see the image above). I love this one particularly (and the Russian Doll one).

His message is powerful, and came at a perfect time for me, when the New Year Resolutions were insisting on improvement. But we are not iPhones. We don’t need an upgrade every few months. We are not Russian dolls with better versions of ourselves hidden inside. We are ourselves. We don’t need to fulfil our potential, we need to live the lives we choose to live, without worrying what other people think of us. There is no test at the end of life. Assuming there are pearly gates, or whatever version of nirvana you believe in, no one is going to say, ‘You never achieved a size ten / perfect grades / ….’ If there is a test, it is going to be, ‘Were you nice to people? Were you happy? Do you have regrets?’

Of course, this post is the exact opposite of my last one, which ended with a desire for motivation, for ‘smashing every expectation’. Life is a dichotomy. It’s precisely that contradiction, both for me and the choices I make for my children, that gave me a twenty-four hour stress headache. To ensure we don’t coast through life without a sense of achievement, but are not pushed to achieve beyond the point of happiness. To make sure the children don’t struggle at school, but to know that exam results aren’t all that important in the grand opera of life. To know that I can run to feel better inside but I don’t have to have the discipline of Jessica Ennis-Hill. To know that I want to be a best-selling author, but I perhaps don’t have the drive or emotional fortitude to get rejected thirty times.

Sanity lies in finding the balance between motivation and the endless drive for perfection. Between fulfilling your potential for you, and doing what the world expects of you.

If you figure out where that path is, I would love to know! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some final Matt  Haig advice:

“Be happy with your own self, minus upgrades. Stop dreaming of imaginary goals and finishing lines. Accept what marketing doesn’t want you to: you are fine. You lack nothing.”  Matt Haig



June Journals #8 ~ Hitting Targets & Hidden Terrors


Proofreading Symbols

Yesterday was a day spent working on targets.

We were saved by our routine in the morning. I spent the night on the sofa escaping hayfever snoring, and fell back asleep despite two alarms (alarm #1 – eldest child 6am, alarm #2 – FitBit 7am). Alarm #3 didn’t even go off (youngest child) and had to be woken at 8am. That’ll teach me to take him swimming on a school night.

But routine kicked in. Breakfast, tick, homework, tick, dressed, tick. Might have forgotten to brush teeth, but that’s okay! We made it out the door.

Having got the children to school on time, I was left to appreciate how supremely fortunate I am to not have a job to hurry off to. One of the things I learned in recent years, through depression, mindfulness, and reading great blog posts, is the importance of gratitude.

And mostly, every day, I am grateful.

Grateful for my family, my home, my safety, my country, my health, my choices, my ability to be at home and give my attention to my family. Grateful for summer sunshine and green fields and walking the dog. Oh yes I whinge about not earning a living, but I wouldn’t trade what I have for 9-5 and the self-worth which I (probably mistakenly) believe that would bring.

So today I worked on my targets. I did an hour of study and learned about the strange and bizarre secret world of editing symbols. I painted a chunk of fence, although I should have checked the forecast. It’s cricket practice Wednesday, of course it was going to rain.

At least the scary facepaint dolls might get clean.

I also had a lovely domestic day, as I decided to bake some treats for my friend who is studying to be a midwife. She’s almost there and I’m so proud of her. I made chocolate banana bread and a fresh loaf to ease the pain. The bread didn’t rise but it was still yummy (we had the round loaf for tea!)

Another thing that made me smile today was realising how even famous people have their hidden terrors. I follow one of my favourite authors – Matt Haig – on Facebook. Although I haven’t read it yet, his latest book Reasons to Stay Alive has been a huge success. He’s about to do an event with Ruby Wax , and he posted this on FB today:


This is the beginning of Ruby’s article:


It just goes to show you should never judge your inside by someone else’s outside, be they famous or not. Everyone has their own story. So I’ll carry on learning weird symbols, painting weathered wood, and being super grateful for it all.




The Rest Is Silence

*Trigger alert – talk of suicide and depression*

What terrible news to wake to, that Robin Williams lost his battle with depression. I write it like that on purpose, rather than ‘he took his own life.’ He didn’t. Depression and addiction took his life.

I have read so many heartfelt posts and social media statements this morning, saying ‘what a waste’ and ‘if only he’d sought help.’ And I can’t help but feel the need to defend his actions. He clearly did seek help, just as a cancer patient will seek the best care. But sometimes it isn’t enough.

My father died of pneumonia when he was 58, after battling cancer for several years. I believe part of him gave up the fight. But no one would say he took his own life, or blame him for refusing to live with the pain anymore. We think depression can always be treated but sometimes the drugs don’t work. Therapy doesn’t work. Knowing the world loves a version of you that maybe isn’t the complete you surely makes it worse. Knowing you bring joy to millions but not to yourself. I can only imagine how lonely and painful that might be.

So I will mourn his loss, and celebrate his greatness, and hope his suffering may cause others to seek help and live to celebrate another day. I hope people will recognise Depression for the debilitating illness it truly is, rather than a weakness of character.

Many speak of failed suicide attempts giving them new life and new purpose, and I am glad that is true. Matt Haig often writes of surviving suicide and I am grateful he lived to pour his pain and experience into The Humans. But how many more woke determined to try again? There should be no blame, only an attempt at understanding. Robin Williams battled an illness and lost.

Rest in eternal peace, Robin Williams, I hope you have defeated the dark dog within and can walk free.

The It’s-All-Shit Stage of Writing

I just want to sleeeeeep

I just want to sleeeeeep

I’m currently going through what I’m coming to recognise as the I’m-feeling-low-because-I’m-editing-my-book-and-it’s-shit phase.

Symptoms include sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time. Eating comfort food and then wondering why I have no energy and my wobbly bits are a bit wobblier. Feeling emotional, crying and wanting to hug my kids loads (look, someone loves me, look I created these amazing people, I did something right.) Checking my kindle sales figures and despairing that I haven’t sold a book in three days (damn you, new kindle sales graph). Checking Goodreads and Amazon for new reviews and seeing the new critical three-star review as confirmation that I can’t write, even though I have five star reviews and even the three star review isn’t that bad.

I know this will pass. I went through it with Baby Blues & Wedding Shoes (less so with Dragon Wraiths because I edited it for a competition deadline and the urgency pushed me through the pain).

I know the editor will come back with some great suggestions and, even if the novel is currently a steaming pile of poo, it can be fixed. I know I’m stressing because I’ve discovered paragraphs – okay even whole chapters – that need work. I’m stressed because Kristen Lamb recently wrote three posts on the evils of flashbacks and my novel has two and, try as I might, I can’t think how to write them out.

I know my book doesn’t have enough pace and conflict and humour. At 85k words (when my previous novels both came in at 110-115k words) I’m worried it doesn’t have enough of anything. Right now I’m 50% through final pre-editor line edits. I’m averaging more hours sleeping than working every day. (Today’s work day = 1 hour school assembly, 1 hour editing, 2 hours’ time wasting, 2 hours’ sleeping.) I want to abandon editing and get back to my children’s book, only that’s a steaming pile of poo too.

Flatlined sales chart

Flatlined sales chart

Even though I know this will pass, I do worry that the more books I write, the more craft advice I read, the more I work at this writing thing, the harder it is getting to come up with good ideas. The idea for Dragon Wraiths – my favourite (although flawed) book – came in a dream and the words flowed. Not without effort, but mostly without doubt. I wasn’t trying to write someone else’s book, I was writing my book. Now though, especially with the children’s book, I’m trying to recreate the brilliant middle grade fiction books I adore to read. And as a result I can’t seem to come up with a story and I don’t have faith in myself to just write and see what happens. Being stuck in the editing doldrums with Class Act is not helping!

As with my paintings, the more I try to be a professional the more I feel I’m losing the part that made it fresh and fun and exciting. I wonder if your third complete novel is a bit like the third year in a relationship, when the heady romantic days have settled into a comfortable routine and you have to work a bit harder at the compromises? Or maybe authors feel like this about every book. Certainly Matt Haig said The Humans is the book he is most proud of, the “one I will never be able to write again.” (Facebook) and he’s written LOADS of books! (I thought he also said it was the only one he enjoyed reading, but I can’t find that quote on Facebook…)

Writing, like parenting, is full of highs and lows, successes and doubts, and the best mantra you’ll ever hear, even though it doesn’t help at all at the time is, “This too shall pass.”

Let’s hope so.

Stuck and Sahara Dust

Under a dust cloud

Under a dust cloud

I got stuck on my WIP today, despite flying along this week. Yesterday was a 6,000 word day – my first for a year or so I should think – and I managed 2,500 in 90 minutes this morning. And then stuck. Not from writer’s block but from world-building block.

I don’t have a particularly active imagination – a funny thing to admit for a writer. Or, I should say, I don’t have a world-building imagination. I can do characters and dialogue, but scene building is tougher. When I wrote Dragon Wraiths the details of the world and its history kept me puzzled for weeks. I would wander round the fields walking the dog trying to figure out how it all worked; what happened to the body, how did the mind transfer to Taycee and so on. I’m not entirely sure I figured it all out but, shhh, don’t tell anyone!

And now I’m having the same problems with my children’s book. The world is a mishmash of all the books I’ve read recently – not intentionally I hasten to add. I never set out to steal an idea – I’m a pantser, I very much make it up as I go. But when I review what I’ve written, I can see the influences coming through my subconsciousness. A world covered in cloud? That’ll come from The Curse of The Mistwraith (Janny Wurts). A world like ours but different, where the animals can speak? That’s The Divide (Elizabeth Kay). A missing father? That could be The Extincts (Veronica Cossanteli) or To Be A Cat (Matt Haig). A bunch of boys who mess around? That’s probably from Johnny and The Bomb (Terry Pratchett).

We live in the purple bit...

We live in the purple bit…

But now we get to the nitty gritty of my story – where my characters are themselves, not parodies or plagiarisms – and I’m stuck. Merula’s a fairy who goes through blending when she’s twelve (or younger, haven’t nailed down ages yet), but what is blending? And when she’s banished she visits the wild ones, but who the hell are they? A baddy called Vulpini has cast the spell to cover the sky in cloud, but whatever for? And why have all the parents disappeared and where are they?

I love pantsing – I write to find out what happens next (as my husband often says) – but sometimes the drive in the dark is along a nice straight road and sometimes you sense there are cliffs and chasms either side. It’s the same road but one is easy and the other terrifying, even though you’re equally blind.

I tried my usual trick of wandering round the field with the dog, asking and trying to answer questions, but we’re currently sitting under a cloud of Sahara dust and the view is as hazy as my mind. With eyes full of grit and a throat clogged with dust, I returned home defeated. Maybe there’s a reason I write Chick Lit. World building? Give me one that’s already made, please.

Watching The Winter Olympics: Reason to Celebrate or Racist Tribalism?

Vicarious Happiness

Vicarious Happiness

I spent today watching the Winter Olympics while doing armchair parenting (spinning the Twister wheel and supervising filling the trampoline with teddies).

It’s the first chance I’ve had to get engrossed in watching it – I’m not as big a fan as I am of the Summer Olympics because there are so few Brits competing (comparatively speaking) and it makes it easier to be a bystander rather than a participant. But, as I watched Elizabeth Yarnold win gold in the women’s skeleton – after throwing herself headfirst at 85mph down a hill on a tray – and listened to her interview afterwards, I finally got excited.

But I also remembered a Facebook post I’d read earlier in the week from the author Matt Haig. Now, I think Haig is brilliant – I love his books and his social media commentary is usually spot on, particularly his commentary on depression, which I find comforting. However, on Tuesday he said he didn’t understand supporting a sports person just because they “happened to be born on the same landmass.” He goes on to say “It seems tribal, to me, and tribalism is next to racism isn’t it?”

His comment made me uncomfortable because I suddenly worried that my flag-waving support of Andy Murray or the English Cricket Team (although not so much recently!) or the British Lions is somehow racist and bad. It’s hard for me to disagree with someone I respect and admire but I think in this instance I do.

For me, supporting sporting people, particularly at the Olympics, is no different to watching documentaries or reading biographies, devouring a book or following an author on social media: It’s a way of vicariously experiencing someone else’s life; a life that I will never live myself. It doesn’t matter who you follow or why. I supported USA in the hockey today, because I knew my American brother-in-law was doing the same, and it became exciting to watch, instead of background noise. It gave me a reason to care about my fellow man, rather than a reason to hate.

Thought-provoking Post

Thought-provoking Post

In terms of the tribalism aspect of nationalistic pride, I think it’s easier to follow someone from my own country because I can more easily understand their background, lifestyle and upbringing. Listening to Lizzy Yarnold speaking of growing up admiring Denise Lewis (and wanting muscles like hers!) – I could relate to that. I could picture her juggling studies with training, I could visualise her in Bath, or imagine her family smallholding in Kent. Listening to her was like listening to a friend.

The joy of watching sport, for me, mostly comes from buying into the stories and caring enough to will someone on to be the best they can be. Cheering for them, experiencing their highs and lows, pains and achievements, and – yes – crying a little as the national flag rises, the anthem plays and I feel connected to a wider world than my messy lounge in the Midlands.

It’s disingenuous to believe we live in a completely nihilistic society. Life does have meaning; being human has meaning. Forming connections with fellow humans, however we can, is intrinsic to being human. We ARE tribal, we’re a social breed. We replace neighbourhood community with nationalistic sport and social media. As our real world narrows to four walls, remote working, and 2.4 children, we reach out to experience life through other ways. To celebrate people’s successes and commiserate their failures. It’s the rise in reality TV and programs like X Factor. Give me the Olympics any day: I’d rather form an illusionary connection with an athlete who has worked tirelessly to be at the peak of physical fitness than someone looking for fame for fame’s sake.

When you break it down you could as easily support the underdog in every competition, or the one with the fanciest costume or best name (how I choose horses in the grand national.) Maybe national pride is a dangerous illusion, a foolish whim. Maybe it is racist, although I like to think I can support Lizzie Yarnold without suggesting all the other competitors are somehow inferior beings. Maybe there’s a difference between racist and racial discrimination. Or maybe it’s human nature to categorise ourselves and sport is a harmless, positive, enjoyable way to channel our basic instincts.

All I know is I would love my daughter to be inspired to work hard and achieve great things because a member of “our team” did well.

Start as You Mean to Go On

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

The final cover for Two-Hundred Steps Home The Complete Journey

There’s nothing like starting the year as you mean to go on! Publishing a book on Amazon on day four of the year, even if it is one I wrote last year, and one that probably should be proofread first, feels good. You can find it here: Two-Hundred Steps Home: The Complete Journey.

I have added the disclaimers and hopefully no one will buy it and trash me for finding the odd inconsistency or typo (of which I’m sure there are plenty). I am fixing the typos as they’re discovered (thank you hubbie, and anyone else letting me know about them) but a writing challenge is a writing challenge: I didn’t set out to write a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013, just a novel that people might enjoy reading. Which, from the reviews I’ve had, it seems they did.

My only dilemma now is whether to take down the first volume from Amazon. It gets the occasional sale, but when you search for ‘Two-Hundred Steps Home’ it presents both books as versions of the same work, even though they have different ASIN numbers. Ah well. A small dilemma.

I’m also enjoying my new resolution to read more, both books and blogs, and write more comments (although I’m not sure I’m keeping up with that target quite as I should. I still feel jetlagged from holiday, illness and Claire!)

I’m reading The Radleys by Matt Haig at present and really enjoying it. I won’t divulge anything about the story, as I’ll write a review post when I’ve finished it. What I am enjoying is how Matt Haig breaks the rules in his writing: there is plenty of head-hopping and change of perspective. I think there’s even a change from writing in the past to the present tense, but I’m trying not to analyse, just get swept up in the story. It might be hard to write a review without spoilers, which I hate, so I’ll have to give that some thought. Maybe read some reviews on other blogs and see how it’s done. What’s your view on reviews? Spoilers or no spoilers? Where do you draw the line?