Me and my venlafaxine (past tense)

Sunday night

It’s rather perilous for me to post at the moment. My head is spinning; I reel when I walk; my thoughts are extreme and scattered.

This isn’t alcohol: it is the symptoms of withdrawal from that most blessed and cursed of SSRIs – venlafaxine. Known as Effexor when I started taking it, I have seen out the patent along with all the other opportunistic drug manufacturers. Now I take it in whatever form it comes.

Or rather, now I don’t. Two days ago I quit. Over the last few weeks I have been cutting my pill in half – and, mark you, this was already the lowest dosage pill that is available. I have gone from 300mg to 37.5mg over the course of 7 or so years, and I cannot deny that venlafaxine has very likely been a lifesaver. When living had to be pared back to the very bones, it was a godsend. It layered me with a protective coating of numbness. Make no mistake, I love this pill. But now I need to bid it farewell. I’ve tried before and failed. But now I’ve had enough.

So I was taking 18.75mg, and now I’m taking nothing. My body is screaming in protest. My mind and body are like lead – I don’t want to wake, or rise, or move. I get the head zaps. The sudden sideways lurches. I am so irritable that the sound of other people eating drives me from the room. I light a candle in the bathroom so I don’t have to listen to the extractor fan. I heard a song on the radio that I liked and had to fight back tears, really fight them. On the one hand I don’t know how I can function like this, but on the other I am tearfully grateful to have the feeling back in my life. To feel. To feel. To feel. After all these years of medication-induced numbness, it is incredible to feel. I just hope I don’t scare everyone who knows me.

That’s the problem. I’m not sure how I’m going to get in the car and drive to work. Is it even safe? How could the police measure it, if I had an accident; this absence, this lack of pill? In a sense I am floating above accountability. And I don’t know how I will function in the workplace. I know one thing – I will not apologise for the course I am taking, or change it. For someone to tell me to take my pills so as not to upset the applecart – that would be unbearable. That would be like telling someone they have to take birth control so as not to take parental leave. In a company that is decimated by maternity and paternity leave I will not accept that.

I don’t know how long this state of withdrawal is going to last. I fear it might be months. What will happen to my life in the meantime?

Following Friday

Just after I wrote the foregoing I took a small reality check. I saw my GP. I turned down a sick note on the grounds that I was one of the blessed league of tele-workers. And I’ve spent the last week “WFH” so as not to disgrace the roads, ditches and A&E departments of Oxon. Aren’t I wonderful? But I’m still not taking the pill.

Anyone who has ever tried to give up venlafaxine – you & I have solidarity. We may succeed, or we may fail, but at least we tried. You have my sympathy & my admiration.

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Are we as Charlie as we think we are?

Like every other right-thinking consumer of news today, I have been transfixed, horrified, by the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Through the day I have impotently tweeted and retweeted in a futile attempt to make a meaningful contribution; to synthesize a response; to sum up the event, to condemn it, to punish it… anything to comfort myself, to test that my foundations are secure, and to explore on which fronts I am vulnerable to attack, and on which fronts I am willing to fight. I have shared the hashtags and tried to swell the indignant grief and rage in a non-inflammatory way. I have contemplated learning French so I can understand the satire. I have uncomprehendingly viewed the French webpage through which subscriptions to the magazine can be purchased. I very nearly took up a pen and tried to draw a cartoon.

But this evening, looking at footage of the impromptu gatherings across the continent by crowds bearing aloft pens and banners declaring ‘Je suis Charlie’, I feel only desolation. None of it really means anything. Only people who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and defend the principle of free speech by doing it are entitled to say ‘Je suis Charlie’. Everyone else may admire Charlie, or respect Charlie, but they are not Charlie. Only the bravest of the brave can say that, and precious few of us are that brave. Tomorrow will show us more clearly who is prepared to stand up and be counted. Already the cowards are identifying themselves – among them the Daily Telegraph – and insulting the dead by censoring the images for which they died.*


I like to think of myself as a liberal, a tolerant liberal, and I revere the Golden Rule as the overarching natural law by which we all should live. Unfortunately I am also one of life’s shrinking violets, and will turn myself inside out to avoid giving offence. It is anathema to me to upset people. I can turn my back on someone, but I have perhaps only once in my life knowingly bitten my thumb at another. Tonight I feel wracked. To allow Charlie Hebdo’s precious trickle of satire to be cut off would be to betray the dead, but to keep it alive we have to continue deliberately to give offense. We have to give that unpleasant medicine, and by proper extension of the principle of free speech we have to be prepared to swallow it too.

It seems to me an awful dilemma. Should we upset the vast majority of good, peaceful, observant believers just to defend a principle? Does the principle need defending? I certainly have ideas in my head of ways to gratuitously offend believers of all stripes (though some are easier than others to offend), but I have never seriously contemplated turning them into reality. Today I wonder whether it is ignorance (not knowing), apathy (not caring) or cowardice (not daring) that keeps me silent. The murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, is reported to have said “I have no kids, no wife, no car… I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” At the dinner table tonight I contemplated asking my loved ones whether they would support me if I chose to write a profane, blasphemous novel or poem, and whether they would be proud if I was murdered in defence of free speech, but in the end it was easier not to have that conversation. It is always going to be easier not to take the path of most resistance.

At this moment, as I publish this, the murderers remain free but many of the innocent are writhing in self-administered chains of political correctness. There is no justice we can call for that will adequately fit the crime; in trying to imagine a punishment equal to this modern medieval act we risk becoming monsters ourselves. The only pain deep and profound enough that I can possibly imagine is for the gunmen to witness the universal skewering and pitiful deflation of the gaseous bloated fantasy fiction they think they are defending. Satirists, cartoonists; it’s over to you.

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Disposable income, or, in defence of childlessness

I was travelling by train recently, something that I haven’t done for a long time. I had forgotten the forced insight you receive into the lives of others. The proximity of so many people, along with their reasonable desire not to pass the time in monkish hush, means that you can be instantly plunged into worlds by turns infuriating, fascinating or banal.

One of the pair sitting near me on this occasion made a throwaway comment about her latest online shopping obsession. Her companion retorted, ‘That shows you haven’t got children – you’ve got a disposable income.’

Er, hello? Reality check. You CHOSE to have children.* You made a one-time long-term high-stakes death-or-glory decision to dispose of your income on a Mini-Me or two. You might later regret this, or look wistfully on your childless friends jetting off for city breaks or buying three pairs of shoes and a copper warming pan, but that doesn’t make it any less your CHOICE to dispose of your income in that way.

The right to family life may be enshrined in law but childbearing is not statutory – no-one is forcing you to do it. You may argue that you have the wellbeing of future generations at heart, but to that I would retort Pah! Is that ticking you hear the demographic time bomb or your own biological clock? Please don’t occupy the moral high ground just because some of us have chosen not to fill up our primary schools with the replicating units of the future.


*Unless you are one of the unlucky women who is denied the right to choose whether and how to limit her reproductive potential. I am writing from a comfortable middle-class middle-income middle-England perspective here.

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Training day, or, the perils of being yourself

Today I spent the day learning to Manage Successful Projects. Fine, whatever. A part of this process was investigating personality types using the DISC system of Robert Rohm. I’ve done a similar thing before, for a different employer, and was satisfied with the outcome. These things are like horoscopes – you’ll find something to relate to in all of the categories.

Today, the trainer asked everyone in the room to spread out along an imaginary axis from ‘Outgoing’ to ‘Reserved’. Well, I know which one I am, and I’m nothing if not honest and transparent, so I set out confidently for the back of the room; the Reserved space. I suppose I thought that more than one other person would join me there, in a room of 13 people. But what can you do? You’ve made your bed, you’ve got to lie in it.

Then we were asked to separate ourselves again, along on an axis from ‘Task-Orientated’ to ‘People-Orientated’. On the previous occasion I did this exercise (via a more sophisticated methodology) I ended up with my feet planted squarely in the Task-Orientated camp, which in the jargon of today’s session would make me a ‘C’. Given that I’m an Editor, and Cs are conscientious detail freaks who do everything three times and thoroughly, this was not a bad place to be. But in the time since then things have changed with me. I’ve been on the receiving end of a casually dismissive relationship break-up, and almost entirely lost what emotional stability I had. In the absence of any countering influence, my thoughts and feelings do what they want, and they are running riot like a particularly sadistic storyteller on amphetamines. I’m re-experiencing some of the feelings of my darkest times: I feel like a person standing outside a glass room in which a party’s going on. I look on my colleagues and feel a million light-years away from ever being able to live the kind of life they lead. I look at my fellow ‘Reserved’, and realise that even she has a family. Someone managed to break down her reserve and see the good in her. But it doesn’t happen with me. I am outside the glass room in which everyone else lives, and I can only observe.

Anyway. So far, so self-pitying. All these thoughts came later. The point is, that I’m feeling less Task-Orientated than I used to – I crave connection, and validation. Tasks can’t validate me – people can. So I moved toward the side of the room where the People-Orientated people go. There was me in that quadrant, the other Reserved in the Task-Orientated quadrant, and a crowd of Outgoing people at the other end of the room, blinking at us in Decisive or Interesting bemusement, respectively. At the time I thought I was making a positive statement about myself; I thought I was saying ‘Here is someone who cares about her colleagues’ feelings, who wants everyone to rub along together, who wants to find the right person for the right job, and would enjoy being part of a high-functioning team.’ It turns out that what I was actually saying was ‘Here’s a doormat who can’t say no to anything and if you trust your project to her it’s going to disappear in a mass of swampy good intentions.’ As it were. That means I’m an ‘S’, by the way. Turns out I was better off being a C. At least then you’d have stood more chance of getting your manuscript submitted in a timely fashion.

The whole exercise was interesting, but it meant that I exposed myself in a very literal way. I stood alone in a corner of the room designated for people who lack assertiveness and are likely to be unable to manage their workload. And the trainer did not hesitate to point this out. Twice. While senior colleagues looked on. FUCK.

So a good day’s training was had by all, yeah? Of course I gave a glowing report on the evaluation form. I only realised afterwards what a fucking disaster it was.

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Personal statement

Periodically, and usually when I’m procrastinating for some reason or another, I Google Dewi Wyn Lewis. I generally do this when I need a little bit of a boost, because one of the people answering to that combination of proper nouns is a person in my personal pantheon of heroes (simply put, he is one of the few people in my life who’s managed to make me feel a little bit less crap about myself).

Given that Dr Lewis has been a person in regular contact with a lot of students it is unsurprising that relatively little comes up on a cursory trawl of the interweb. But today I was bored enough with what I was doing to watch this little YouTube video, which was presumably instigated by the child catchers at University College London.

Seven years after I graduated with an underwhelming third from my Chemistry BSc at UCL, I still rewind the memory tape back to that time – it is, and I suspect it will remain, one of the real sources of regret in my life that I couldn’t distinguish myself any better.

So if I could reach through the WWW to anyone watching this, and contemplating becoming a chemistry student, I would beg them to listen attentively to the advice in this video.

Most importantly: you have to regard mathematics as your friend. Clearly Dr Lewis cannot come out and baldly state it, but if you can’t make friends with maths you can kiss goodbye to your future as a chemist. In my first session of remedial maths (I was among the significant minority without a maths A Level), I made so bold as to inquire of the lecturer afterwards what the meaning of ‘derive’ was. I don’t remember what the answer was (I eventually came to understand the meaning of derivation by a kind of desperate osmosis), but I remember the uncomfortable sense that I had asked a lunatic question – like asking a farmer the meaning of harvest – and the feeling that I had left my weakness dangerously exposed. A few weeks later, during our induction into the awful mysteries of calculus, my fate was sealed: I hazarded a guess in response to a lecturer’s question and fell burning from the sky, never to fly again.

And for God’s sake listen to the man – it’s a degree of hard work. Those afternoons in the lab? You will be cold. And tired. And miserable. And hungry. You will gaze enviously out of the windows at the other students tripping to the bar as the streetlights fizzle on, and you may even wonder whether it’s all worth it. It is worth it, but it may take years for that to become apparent. I now view my contemporaries who have moved on to PhDs and post-doctoral work with a degree of envious pride. I wish I had had it in me to ascend to those heights; I didn’t, but I tagged along with them for a while.

And vertical – boy is it vertical. Vertiginous. Sheer. Sheer hard work. Miss the odd lecture and you can probably catch up (with the aid of an obliging colleague who’s prepared to lend their notes), but miss out on understanding a key concept and you’re stumped. As I typed that, the words ‘Clausius–Clapeyron equation’ dropped into my mind as if from a clear blue sky. I have no idea if they represent a key concept but I know they are something to do with thermodynamics, and that for me was a ladder even the first rung of which was way out of reach. Probably the only thing I remember about thermodynamics (apart from the sensations of fear and crushing inadequacy) is the fact that Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the big hitters of physical chemistry, had an equation relating to entropy carved upon his gravestone. The poor devil hung himself, apparently. To a first-year Phys Chem student sinking into a major depressive episode through the floor of the lecture theatre this didn’t seem like such a bad way to go.

So now I am an alumnus. Not one of the distinguished ones, but an alumnus nonetheless. I survived UCL Chemistry. And I am immeasurably richer for the experience, notwithstanding the student loan that will probably outlive me. I don’t work in a lab and will never author a paper, but I understand the difference between precision and accuracy, I get an uplift bordering on the spiritual when I think about symmetry, and I know how to clean sticky stuff off glassware. I wish things had been different, UCL Chemistry. I really, really do.

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Wonder Undiminished – Dawkins the Memoirist

I am not often moved to review books but in the case of An Appetite for Wonder I have made an exception. I shared the below on Amazon, for the edification of the buying public, and am reposting it here since my blog is my Collected Writings, and why the hell shouldn’t I? Plus I can use italics here.

“I am a great admirer of Dawkins, although I read his atheist and humanist works before dipping my toe in The Selfish Gene pool. As such, I was predisposed to be charmed by An Appetite For Wonder, and in many ways it didn’t disappoint. The early part of the book, with its loving descriptions of talented ancestors and stories of African childhood, had me gently chuckling, particularly the anecdote about the lions and the ‘vroom vroom’.

As Dawkins began to describe his schooling, I found myself puzzled. The prose seemed ever so slightly stilted, lacking the elegant styling and perfect expression of thought I was expecting. Perhaps this is the inevitable product of memories incompletely recalled? Perhaps Dawkins the writer-scientist has too much integrity to flesh out a reminiscence with words or details for which he has no evidence? And on one or two occasions I found myself noticing repetition of thought – perhaps some things are of such significance to the writer that he deliberately repeated them, or perhaps an indulgent editor let them pass.

The harshness of Dawkins’ self-criticism took me aback – on just one spread he writes, of his schoolboy self: ‘What was the point of such boasting? I shall never know…’; ‘That attitude was so stupid it’s pretty self-evident that I didn’t deserve to do well in class anyway…’; ‘I was evidently very confused…’; ‘It ludicrously occurred to me…’; ‘Among many other things I got wrong here…’ Why so hard on himself? He was just a boy at the time. Then again, as he points out, there is no physical part of Dawkins now that was also in the boy Dawkins, so in some ways he is writing of an Other to which he is linked only by the quasi-miraculous chance of memory.

Dawkins’ humanism comes through strongly when he writes of his regret at the bullying he was witness to, and he is scrupulously even-handed when recalling the virtues and vices of all the characters he speaks of – even the paedophiles. There was no point in the book at which I thought Dawkins was being boastful or arrogant, even though in describing The Selfish Gene and the genesis of meme theory he is speaking of his role as the author of life-changing ideas. He is entitled to sing his own praises if he wants to. But it doesn’t feel as though he does.

An Appetite for Wonder takes flight in the last chapter, when Dawkins lights on a structure that allows him to praise Charles Darwin while ostensibly writing of himself, and I closed the book feeling that I had been in the presence of an author who is really rather ambivalent about autobiography. I can well imagine that he would rather treat of any subject other than his own history. He writes (beautifully) of ‘the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence’, and I could easily be persuaded that it is not what happened in his (or anyone’s) life that matters to him, but why. So many of the smaller, more personal details are missing from the book that I don’t feel I know much more about Dawkins the man than I did before; possibly a straight biography could be better written by another. For example, I longed to know how his success was received by his parents. By his own admission they made sacrifices to give him the kind of education he had – were they pleased with the result?

A final observation is that I was slightly surprised to find that this is only the first of a projected two-part work – I might have expected the publisher to advertise the ‘Part One’ nature of the book a little more obviously. Then again, it is subtly hinted at in the subtitle – ‘The Making of a Scientist’ – so presumably in Part Two we will join Dawkins the fully formed scientist on his journey to becoming the influential public figure he is today.”

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The Empty Hearse – a forlorn response

I had high hopes of the BBC’s ‘The Empty Hearse’ (1 January 2014). So far the makers of the series had done such a good job of producing a show to satisfy an audience ranging from die-hard Doyle-ites (among which I include myself) to casual viewers seeking exciting Saturday-night entertainment.

And so? Well, even in the presence of spectacular explosions, boy-on-boy action and Twitterati crowd scenes, I was always only here for one reason. The pivotal scene of ‘The Empty House’ is the moment at which Holmes reveals to Watson that he is alive. Even in Doyle, Holmes infuses this scene with a theatricality that could be called insensitive, but in ‘The Empty Hearse’ I think writer Gatiss tilts this far far too far towards slapstick. Yes, the way in which Holmes puts together his waiter disguise as he passes through the restaurant is clever. But it calls to mind too much the diversionary tactics of illusionists such as Derren Brown (who was, cleverly, featured in the one of the inset ‘conspiracy’ scenes). Yes, the Holmes of Doyle enjoys a little sleight of hand and the odd coup de théâtre, but this particular moment was not the one to reference this. The tone was all wrong. In Doyle, even as Watson is recovering from the swoon that Holmes’ reappearance put him into, Holmes is apologising profusely and ministering brandy to his friend. His first words are “My dear Watson, I owe you a thousand apologies.” In Gatiss, it appears to be days before Holmes admits to having upset his friend in any way (and this during the toe-curling scene in the tube carriage).

This particular scene from the canon is a hugely important one to me, and I scrutinised Martin Freeman’s performance for its emotional integrity. I thought he did a wonderful job of conveying those crucial few seconds of realisation, and was sorely disappointed that the creators of the show did not call upon Benedict Cumberbatch, also surely a very able actor, to match him. Thinking on my disappointment when the episode had ended, I wondered why I felt so let down. I wanted that scene to ring true. Why did I feel belittled? Perhaps it is because I ‘lost’ someone [curious euphemism, that – what I really mean is that someone I knew died] – and for years afterwards I suffered from the inability to believe that he was dead, the belief that I had seen him in the street, and vivid dreams of his return. I fantasised about how he might let me know. More than 10 years later I occasionally find myself scrutinising the face of a stranger, even though nowadays it is more for the comfort of remembrance than in any real hope. Maybe all this is because I read Doyle as an impressionable young adult, and I internalised the possibility of miraculous returns to life. Still, it makes the situation in which John Watson finds himself just a tad more personal.

Looking back through Doyle, as I just have, I understand another way in which the tone of ‘The Empty Hearse’ does not ring true to an old-school Sherlockian like me. As the episode unfolds, and despite the numerous red herrings, it becomes clear that Sherlock never expects to die when he goes up onto the roof of the Bart’s hospital. The plans (thirteen of them) are in place, and the inscrutable Mycroft has his back. This is in total contrast to Doyle in which, as he explains his escape from the Falls, Holmes tells Watson that “My note to you was absolutely genuine. I had little doubt that I had come to the end of my career when I perceived the somewhat sinister figure of the late Professor Moriarty standing upon the narrow pathway which led to safety.” So on the one hand the Gatiss Sherlock provides a telephonic suicide ‘note’, in the full knowledge that he will not die; on the other, the literary Sherlock writes a genuine farewell note, in the semi-certain belief that he will die. This is quite some profound difference. As the consumer of this entertainment, I find the latter infinitely more satisfying. How people act in the face of impending annihilation is an interesting subject to me, which is why the last episode of series 2 of the Gatiss Sherlock provided real meat. The distress appeared genuine, the dilemma real. I think this may be why the fandom of the Gatiss Sherlock has waited so eagerly for the resolution.

To be fair to Gatiss and the others involved, it was a big ask. To convincingly explain away such a gigantic cliffhanger was never going to be easy. My emotional response is that they have nullified a lot of what made series 1 and 2 so good. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be coming back for more. I am not immune to The Purple Shirt of Sex and The Swishy Coat. It’s just that for me it isn’t Sherlock any more.

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Josh Ritter – A Certain Light

Josh Ritter – “A Certain Light” (Live at WFUV)

Underneath the YouTube video I’ve linked to above, one of the commenters has written ‘I had to pull over to the side of the road when this appeared on the radio last night’ – which sums up perfectly the way I felt when I first heard ‘A Certain Light’.

I’m no music critic and have nothing intelligent to say about the gentle familiarity of the melody but I can and will rhapsodise about the lyrics, which I have transcribed below without recourse to a search engine (yes, really!).

Probably this song should be discussed in the context of the whole album (Beast In Its Tracks), which is quite openly a breaking-up record. But, to hell with it, ‘A Certain Light’ stands alone and captures with stunning simplicity the ambivalence of a person moving from one relationship to the next.

Josh, the narrator, is singing of his new lover, who has transformed the winter bleakness of his life with a smile that brings “springtime”, with all the promise that implies. He acknowledges this in a manner that couldn’t be any more terse:

“But it did.

And now it is.”

Does the simplicity of these statements reflect a stripped-down humility in the face of tremendous good fortune? Or is it grudging; wary; the non-committal grunt of a man forced to admit that he was in the wrong? It should be easy to call it, one way or another, but it isn’t.

That’s the breathtaking thing about this song. It is so easy to read it as a straightforward paean for a new lover that the conspicuous betrayal of the bridge can almost be ignored. But not quite. When narrator Josh sings “She only looks like you… when she holds her head just right…” there’s a private communion taking place between the narrator and his old lover that transcends all his new happiness in the quality of its intimacy.

It took me a while to get it. The chorus lulled me, until I realised that it was a direct address to a second person, and there’s that killer word.


“When she holds her head just right.”

If I was the new lover I would be devastated. I would tear my chest apart to rip out my heart so that it could no longer love this person who watches me, waiting for me to hold my head “just right”, so that I can remind him of the old lover. “Right” is like the pea under the mattress; no matter how many soft and gentle words of gratitude and affection are layered over it, you cannot rest comfortable when “right” is the word that describes resemblance to the old love.

And that’s the genius of ‘A Certain Light’. Everyone who has been the new lover has most likely been the old lover too. And there is such comfort in the thought that old love endures, that it doesn’t “disappear like smoke”. There is fidelity in the midst of infidelity. Even as he betrays, the narrator is loyal. So what if he’s with her now?

I have agonised over this song. I worry that “right”; it’s like a wound I can’t help opening.


A Certain Light

My new lover

Sweet and kind

The kind of lover that one rarely finds

And I’m happy

For the first time

In a long time

Came along and

Opened up a door

And though I know I’ve been in love before

Oh I feel it

So much more

Than the last time

And she only looks like you

In a certain kind of light

When she holds her head just right

It’s been winter

For a while

The north wind’s wail cuts like a baby child’s

It was hard

To think her smile

Could bring springtime

But it did

Now it is

The green green grass has come up green and it’s

Feeling just

The way it did

The very first time

And she only looks like you

In a certain kind of light

When she holds her head just right

And any more

Would stretch the rhyme

So let me leave this where I started I’m

Just happy

For the first time

In a long time

In a long time

– Josh Ritter

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Drafting a novel the easy way: days 71 to 81

So, we meet again.

I’ve been moved to blog today because I think that I’ve detected an infinitesimal lightening of the morning tiredness – the eyes grate ever so slightly less when I blink, and my mind can cope with thoughts beyond the simple desire to lean against the train window and sleep.

The USP of this project was originally that the process of drafting would be made easy by breaking it down into small, manageable chunks. Well, I can report that it aint so easy, particularly if you have a lifelong history of procrastination and only responding to hard deadlines. I now find myself looking at a significant shortfall in my word count, and I’m trying to think of different strategies to both keep up a steady output each day, and reduce my deficit so that I get back to my target. Looking at the numbers, I can see that I haven’t reached the magic 5,000-word mark in my deficit, and perhaps that will be enough to galvanise me.

I have managed to excrete some 34 words during this 10-day period, though in my defence that could have been more; on the blessed day when I was going at it the train carriage I was in developed a fault with the doors and we travellers were unceremoniously ejected. The train manager told one protestor quite bluntly ‘this is a form of transport, not an office’ and had no truck with this poor soul’s simple desire to stay at his table and keep typing. As an aside, I could venture that the marketing departments of train operating companies do not peddle this view of inter-city travel when they are showing executives polishing their Powerpoint presentations on promotional posters, and that it is not surprising that some confusion arose in this man’s mind. (Apologies for the quintuple alliteration there; it’s one of my weaknesses.) But getting back to the point – what this episode reinforces is the importance of routine to (my) writing life. As long as everything else goes as it should, and I’m sitting on a train that is running on time, with a shelf for my laptop and an empty seat beside me, I really ought to be able to get the words out. Boring as it may be, I have to normalise the other functions of my life if I’m to get creative in this one department.

And that is the state of the nation. What, are we nearly at our destination already? Do you mean to tell me that I have procrastinated away a whole train journey by blogging about writing rather than writing? Well, blow me down.

Word count: 3,131

Deficit: 4,969

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Drafting a novel the easy way: days 60 to 70

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I’m going to keep posting these reports of no progress until I shame myself into becoming a writer again.

If I analyse my situation with an eye to coming up with a solution, the reasoning would go as follows. My current life choices absolutely dictate that I leave the house in the pre-dawn and return after dark, leaving time only for the basic functions of working life. My commuting time, which was previously so fertile, is now taken up by unrestful dozing. I seem unable to contemplate doing any sort of cerebral work. And, I sleep a lot at the weekends. I ought to push myself harder then. But taking all that into account, there is a solution of sorts that I have resisted admitting. I have to do my drafting at lunch time. I have to find a quiet, reasonably private place where I can beaver away with my netbook; and I have to make it alright with my lovely work colleagues, who must by now be thinking that I am insanely antisocial. I can’t allow that to persist.

I’ve been meaning for weeks to write about a piece by Jeffrey Eugenides, published by the New Yorker on 24th December 2012. In this piece, a speech given to young writers that is full of insight, he describes a state of being that I think I am trying to record in this blog at the moment, a “feeling of hopelessness [that] mixes, oddly, with a perverse kind of hope, of resistance to the regrettable physical facts, and you’re filled with the desire to write something”.

Eugenides also quotes the novelist Colm Toibin on the need to write “the stuff that won’t go away. … It seems that the essential impulse in working is … to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find a form and structure for it.” This perfectly expresses why, 19 years after I first expressed the desire to be a writer, I have not given up, despite a notable lack of achievement. “The stuff that won’t go away.”

In the same piece, Eugenides also touches on a theme that is close to my heart, that of living in the country (which is one of the reasons I am non-functional with tiredness at the moment: I live in the country but work in the city, and getting between the twain is time-consuming). The overarching theme of his piece is writing ‘posthumously’; that is, free from constraint, feeling that you won’t have to answer to the living for what you write. According to Eugenides, “…living in the sticks is like being dead—it’s a way of forgetting that anybody’s watching. It’s a way of writing posthumously. Better, of course, if you can do it in Brooklyn, where you can get a decent meal, but do whatever you have to do.” This isn’t exactly why I want to be in the country – you can be effectively dead to the world just as well in the city, if you choose – but it’s an interesting thought that being closer to society’s pulse in the city could be an actual detriment to the writing endeavour.

There’s just one more extract from Eugenides’ piece that I want to mention, because it struck me at the time of first reading. Now I revisit it, to comment on it, I find it a little patronising, and it comes across more as the type of quote that English teachers will set as an essay title, with the dread suffix “Discuss.” But even if you extend it only so far as the clothes you choose to put on in the morning, there is some merit in the following:

“The same constraints to writing well are also constraints to living fully. Not to be a slave to fashion or commerce, not to succumb to arid self-censorship, not to bow to popular opinion—what is all that but a description of the educated, enlightened life?”

Word count: 3,097

Deficit: 3,903

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