At five ayem, all you can hear is the sound of the river rushing below your window, and the gurgle and spit of the coffee machine. You still have the night, and all its velvet mystery. The day hasn’t yet started; you are there to call down the moon and raise up the sun.

Peaceful. Your neighbours are sleeping. Not one door slams, not one voice is raised. You even feel kindly towards them, at this hour. They’re so sweet, when they’re sleeping. They don’t bother you at all.

You’re someone different at five in the morning. Someone meaningful, purposeful. Because only those who suffer from meaning and purpose force themselves to wake at that hour. Nothing is beyond you then. You can do anything at all. What you do, naturally, is write. It should be no easier or harder than at any other hour, but the muse looks kindly on those who come early to work. She likes to see you there every day, washed and dressed and properly humble.

You learn. It’s a glamourous hour.

teaching vs writing

Teaching and writing go together like cake and icing, like chips and vinegar, like cheese and jam. We writers are drawn to teaching for good reasons: we get to talk about books all day, we get nice long holidays, we get the sort of autonomy and independence we awkward types love. In my workroom there are two writers, me included, amongst the staff. The staff member I replaced is also a writer, who left to pursue her successful work in poetry.

But it’s not easy. Stephen King says teaching “sucks away the creative juices and slows production.” It’s true. Writing novels is slow work, anyway. But when you’re teaching all day, coming home and cranking out a couple of hundred words might take you hours. I sometimes find myself just gazing at the screen as the letters dance around. Sometimes I type with my eyes closed. (Free advice: Anything you write whilst you’re actually asleep is unlikely to be your best work.)

Working full time in any job is demanding, and I don’t think teachers are uniquely hard done by. I’ve worked as a secretary, as a picker in a factory, as a cleaner, a cook, a copywriter, a cold caller. Each of those jobs was hard for different reasons. And I know I’m lucky to have a job which is reasonably well paid and which I enjoy.

But… (you knew it was coming)… but… GOD, is it exhausting, dealing with people all day long. Thinking about what they need from you, what you can do to get through their barriers, what you can do to inspire them, what you can do to help them achieve. Thinking about if you’ve done enough, if you’ve done wrong. Having to summon the patience for dealing with people who, really, really, make you wonder. About their motives, about their personalities. Dealing with the fact that most of the people you work with neither notice nor care about how hard you work or how much of your life you are giving them.

The thing is, when you are a writer, the people that you most want and need to think about are the imaginary people in your head. And those people, your people, get pushed out and squeezed right to the edges as your brain fills up with more and more and more of this everyday crap. You neglect your imaginary people, and you neglect friends and family, too. There’s just not enough time for everyone. You need a bigger brain, to accommodate everything that’s in it.

I’m not going to stop teaching or writing – I can’t afford to give up either. And I don’t know what the solution is, except to just keep trying. Just keep believing that there will come a day when it all falls into place. When all this hard work will pay off.


how late it was

I’ve never grown out of wanting to stay up late. There’s a glamour to the night time, a certain electricity in the air. When I was younger, I liked to stay up all night with my friends. I was always the last to go home or go to sleep. Now, all my friends have grown up, and the last time I stayed up all night I felt horrible the next day, like my body was made of gravel and dirt, and my brain was busy with voices… So I thought I won’t do that again.

I used to like to write at night, because I felt like I had the world to myself. Growing up in a big, loud family, you learn to carve out time, solitude, peace, and then to defend it tooth and nail. I read a lot and was usually able to leave my body and live inside the story. Sometimes I think that I wouldn’t have survived my family at all if it weren’t for books.

Nowadays, night times are not so peaceful. My neighbours disturb me. Living in cities, so close together… I hear them moving around. Their music is intrusive, the boring thump-thump-thump of a bass line.  I want to live somewhere I can hear silence. I want to see stars in the sky at night, and be a little afraid to walk along the path to the water, and stumble, and hear the unearthly cries of the foxes in the woods.

For a long time I’ve been feeling that I want my life to change. But I have not known the shape or way it should change. I don’t want anything, or the things I want are everyday things. To sleep without earplugs. To hear the rain. To spend my time reading and writing. A very simple kind of life. But I’m not a simple kind of person, I’m complicated and full of contradiction. I want courage, is what it is.


life and art

It’s confusing when you’re young and your Whole Life is Ahead of You. When I was young and my Whole Life was Ahead of Me, I didn’t really know what to do with it.  The only thing I’d ever thought seriously about was writing, but that didn’t seem like something I’d even be able to do, let alone make a career of. I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, even though I had the academic stuff to pursue any of those careers. I didn’t have much ambition, career-wise, at all.

Even so, I ended up going to university and getting a degree, which didn’t make a lot of difference to my prospects – I still found myself working in jobs where the qualifications required were basic maths and English. (It did give me a chance to go to Japan, though. If you want to work abroad, having a degree can help with getting work visas.) Some years later I went back to university and did a PGCE, which I thought would professionalise me, give me a career and some job security. Then the government cut most of the funding for the courses I teach, withdrew its political goodwill, and pushed colleges into becoming profit-making businesses, which meant that I was only able to get work on temporary contracts, only paid for my teaching hours and given few opportunities for professional development. Or I could work in the private sector, where wages for an hour’s teaching can be as little as £8. Finally, last year, I decided to do an MA in creative writing – not because I thought it would improve my career prospects! I thought I might learn something, though.

So I’ve done the whole education thing. And I think, if I had been smarter from the off, and if I had been braver, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Here’s the thing. Getting degrees didn’t open a lot of doors for me. Employers don’t care that I have a first class degree. It’s not in engineering or maths or a specialised subject, so it’s meaningless – like every other humanities degree. Even a professional, vocational qualification like a PGCE doesn’t get you very far when the only decent teaching jobs are at universities where you are expected to have a PhD just to teach on a sessional English course.

What opened doors for me, gave me opportunities, and made it possible to support myself over the years? Being able to touch type. Secretarial skills are the skills I have that are marketable and usually in demand. And those skills, in my case, are entirely self-taught.

Here’s what I wish I had understood back then: If you’re an artist, be an artist. If you’re a writer, write. Get a job that pays the bills and doesn’t corrode your soul, something you can do without giving your heart. Travel and live cheaply, seek out adventures and experiences, find out what matters to you. Give up on the idea of university as a place of enlightened growth and learning. Universities are businesses now. The idea that an expensive education in the arts or humanities is going to open doors for you is a myth. That’s not how this economy works. It used to be that education was a way out for ordinary, working class people, but it’s not anymore. It’s a trap. It’s a rip off. What might open doors for you is having some kind of practical skill, a good work ethic, and no massive debts to worry about. Be more free. And good luck to you.



Just realised I hadn’t blogged today! Am fixing that right now. Time has just got away from me – was teaching this morning, then spent three hours planning lessons and another two hours catching up on other paperwork, and now I am hungry and I still have to do at least an hour of proper writing… So, yikes all around then.

What I want to know is, how do you fit writing in with your other work? It seems to me that you can be a full-time writer if your partner supports you, or you have some kind of independent means, or you are writing bestsellers. The rest of us need jobs. So how do you fit writing in? Get up early and do it before work? Stay up late? Sacrifice something else?

I try to write every day, even if I only manage 15 minutes. Some days, even that seems hard to achieve.

How about you?