The Latte Years

at first i was afraid, i was petrified

The great Gloria Gaynor ( image source )

The great Gloria Gaynor (image source)

It was November 2015, and The Latte Years had just gone to print. Contrary to what I had expected, that moment and the days and weeks that followed it, leading up to publication, were not full of excitement - though, naturally, I was excited too - but they were also full of dread, dread that seeped into my bones.

My anxiety went into overdrive and it was exhausting. I had permanent nausea for a month, so much so I bought a pregnancy test to make sure it wasn't for some other reason! I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I felt so frightened and exposed. The book had gone to print. I couldn't change my mind now. I had kept my shield up for so many years and finally, it had been put down. The moment I'd been waiting for, to have my say, at last, was here and I felt too frightened and too weak to see it through. 

In the midst of this, Tom took me to see Jason Donovan in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the musical in Wimbledon.

They sing Gloria Gaynor's disco classic ‘I Will Survive’ quite a few times during the show.

About five months after my first husband and I broke up, I went to a seventies disco party where there was a karaoke machine. This felt like the perfect song choice for me at the time, and I meant every word of it as I sang it. Because Glenn really did think I was the one who had missed out - that I would indeed crumble without him. And I knew that was not the case at all. 

Sitting in that theatre in Wimbledon nearly ten years later, Tom's hand in mine, feeling homesick, terrified and proud all at once, hearing "I Will Survive" again reminded me of who I was in 2006, a 25-year-old who was discovering her own strength but still so afraid of the man who had hurt her, who felt she had to stay silent and not tell him the truth or stand up for herself because she was so deeply afraid he would destroy her and never set her free if she did.

I wrote The Latte Years for that 25-year-old girl. And for every woman who has had to wait until she felt safe before she could tell the truth.

tell the truth about yourself

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”

So said Virginia Woolf, who was born 135 years ago today.

It got me thinking about my own work, the evolution of what became The Latte Years. I wanted it to be a novel, to take everything that had happened and make it not about me, have it be someone else's story. Also, I like making stuff up. In the three years where the only version of The Latte Years that existed was a novel (and lived on my laptop),  I had so much fun embellishing the facts. Things became far more dramatic, but also neater, than they had been in real time. 

Now, not only do I know in my bones (however reluctantly) that everything to do with The Latte Years - both the events described within it and everything that's happened since - had to happen the way it did, but Virginia Woolf's words above feel more relevant to me now than ever before. It's like a favourite teacher giving me a pat on the shoulder, as if to say, "you had to do this first. Now you can do the other thing."

The writer I used to be, before The Latte Years, used fiction as a place to hide rather than a place to let her imagination run wild. Looking back, memoir was the only way out, the only way that story could be told. Memoir was my rite of passage. I emerged from that year - 2015 - a changed person, and a completely different writer. To become the writer I am now, The Latte Years had to be written. As it is. The truth of my life, my story, my experiences, as I lived them and remembered them, nearly a decade on, alone in a study on the other side of the world from where most of it took place.

So now that I've told the truth about myself - as confronting as that was -  I'll be able to write other true things. Hemingway said, in one of my favourite books A Moveable Feast, "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

That's advice I intend to follow.

 

 

 

i must begin again: a writing retreat in norwich

Serving suggestion for this post: sitting comfortably either with a cup of tea you've just made or on a train that isn't going anywhere.

Years ago, when I was writing the earliest drafts of what eventually became The Latte Years, I would often house-sit for friends for a few days when the opportunity arose, relishing a house as empty as my schedule, where I could completely dedicate myself to writing, away from the daily grind of life. Of course, when you have a deadline and only three months to deliver 100,000 words around a full time job, you suck it up and get it done. But the idea of time – a few days completely free of your usual routine and obligations, stretching out in front of you – to do that work is a really precious and luxurious thing.

I have done wonderful guided writing retreats before, and if money were no object I’d do them far more often. There’s a lot to be said for the motivation of a group setting and an experienced, inspiring teacher to spur you on. But the empty home of a kind friend or relative for a few days does just as well, and is utter bliss for the creative person.

A bit over a month ago, I went to Norwich to a sweet little cottage to house-sit, keep my aunt’s plants watered, to write and recalibrate.

I have a few projects on the go at the moment – the biggest one being what I hope will be Book 2 – but they had all been lacking much-needed momentum. About six months ago, in the midst of the bleak end of winter, I decided I would go away on my own a few days at some point over the summer, to see if I could find that missing ingredient. With all the highs and lows 2016 had delivered so far, I needed to reconnect with myself and my creative practice, without the distractions of daily life providing endless justifications for putting things off, for not making time.

Unfortunately that week at the end of July I had come down with a nasty throat infection, so on the train journey up from London I mostly sipped hot tea, read Oh Comely magazine and eavesdropped on interesting conversations happening all around me. All things I enjoy doing, sore throat or not! But I was unsure as to whether the weekend would be as productive as I’d hoped, given how poorly I was feeling. Many of the businessmen around me were drinking whisky. I considered joining them, I was sure it would help my throat.

Travelling essentials.

Travelling essentials.

I arrived safely, fell on the empty house with gratitude and relief, and went to bed early. I was up with the sun the next day – a rhythm I settled into for the rest of the retreat. Each day began with black coffee made in the moka pot on the stove, sipped in the garden, where toasty warm sunshine beat down on my shoulders, bees and butterflies floated among the flowers and the coffee slowly warmed my sore throat, dry and raw from coughing.

I walked into Norwich city centre nearly every day, mostly to treat myself to a second coffee at Gosling and Guzman. “The secret to a happy life is continuous small treats,” said Iris Murdoch in her novel The Sea, The Sea, which I happened to be reading, so I took it as a sign to get a cinnamon bun too.

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

Lovely coffee and buns at Gosling and Guzman. And their takeaway cups are so pretty!

I was alone for the whole time, but not lonely. I slipped easily into solitude, wearing it like a comfy familiar sweater. No television, no internet, no email, no social media. Text messages were the only contact I allowed myself with the outside world. It was amazing to realise how disciplined I could be and simply not look at social media – I disabled all notifications so it was simply a matter of not allowing my finger to touch the icon, though it gravitated automatically whenever my phone was in my hand, much to my curiosity. It’s definitely far more of a habit and a distraction than I realised.

Otherwise, I gave everything my full attention – not just my writing, but books I read, music that kept me company, food I cooked.  Choosing to focus, to tune out the usual constant distractions, it was incredible how much more I noticed and took in, savouring everything from the peppery depths of my watercress soup and subtle key changes in the music I was playing, to the smell of the air, the way light changed and the burn of hot tea in my sore throat.

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in  I Quit Sugar For Life .

Watercress soup - probably *the* best thing you can eat when trying to recalibrate, it completely detoxifies the body! And it's so yummy. I made Sarah Wilson's recipe in I Quit Sugar For Life.

I did yoga daily, something I haven’t done for a few years. Pigeon pose was incredibly comforting. I spent an entire Ludovico Einaudi song in uttanasana. I did my favourite episodes of Lacey Haynes’ Home Yoga Retreat many times.

I sat with my thoughts a lot, my journal open and a pen beside me, to scribble down anything worth remembering.

Sometimes I just sat and watched the light change. The light inside the house was very soft and as it hit the table and my piles of books, it looked milky, like when paint brushes are dipped into a jar of water. My iPhone camera didn't quite capture it so I just watched and took a picture with my mind instead.

I wrote a lot. Not the sort of things I thought I would write, interestingly. As the second day dawned, it became clear to me that this retreat was less about coming away with something to show for myself (which, if you've been reading me for a while, you know I enjoy) and more about getting my groove back.

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Snapped while walking the quiet streets of Norwich city centre, sipping coffee. It seemed apt!

Why did I lose my groove though? I wondered in my more melancholy moments. I didn’t think I’d feel like this. Why do I feel so empty, when my dream has come true? I wrote. Why do I feel so exhausted and, if I’m honest, sad? How did I go from so pumped, disciplined and motivated to can’t-be-fucked and what’s-the-point?

And then I re-read Dani Shapiro’s masterpiece, which I highly recommend to any writer, Still Writing. I found it such a comfort last year, where I mostly read the “Endings” section. This time, the “Beginnings” section was far more resonant.  Reading this paragraph was like a warm reassuring hug:

When I’m between books, I feel as if I will never have another story to tell. The last book has wiped me out, has taken everything from me, everything I understand and feel and know and remember, and…that’s it. There’s nothing left. A low level depression sets in. The world hides its gifts from me. It has taken me years to recognise that this feeling, the one of the well being empty, is as it should be. It means I’ve spent everything. And so I must begin again.
If you have done your job…you’ve thrown your whole heart into this. And now your job is done. And you are bereft.

I wanted to cry as I read this. I had spent months thinking there was something wrong with me. My whole body flooded with relief that another writer, let alone one I deeply admire, felt this way too. 

I gave The Latte Years everything I had. So indeed, that has been the feeling, even though I have so many other ideas and stories I want to explore, over the last six months or so - that I had nothing left, both to say nor the capacity to say it. The Latte Years had been a part of my life for a long time – scratch that, it was my life, literally! - that being without it has been very strange. It's only been recently, staring down the barrel of October, that the tunnel has had light in it again.

The first draft of what became the book that was published in January this year was started in 2010. It wasn’t necessarily the story I wanted to tell, but the one I had to. It was bossy and barged to the front of the queue. Me first, it demanded. It was a story that had been hanging around ever since the events of it had taken place, a story that had me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until I told it. I knew attempting to write anything else in the meantime would be fruitless – and indeed, it was. And now it is done. 

So what ended up happening on this retreat was nothing earth-shattering, just a lot of journaling and several short pieces of fiction. Because after years and years of my writing being about this one thing, I am finding my feet again. It’s strange, like what I imagine training for another marathon might be like. I’m back at the beginning. But this time I don’t have the energy of the first-timer, when you have no idea what you’re in for, and everything’s exciting, and it’s purely the thrill of the unknown and whether you'll actually pull it off spurring you on. Once you know, it’s definitely harder to lace your shoes up.

Writing ingredients.

Writing ingredients.

And something I have to remember is that while, yes, I wrote the manuscript for The Latte Years in three months, I had actually been trying to write that story for nearly five years prior to that. So, in theory, I’m way ahead of schedule for Book 2 and I need to stop beating myself up. Now is the time for thinking, gathering, marinating and, frankly, savouring. I worked so hard. It's OK to enjoy this and take a while before I dive in again. It makes sense to me to cultivate a strong practice, a mixture of discipline and play, so that I can get the juices flowing.

Retreats tend to spark the question "how can I keep this amazing, peaceful, zen feeling going in my life once I go home?" and I was no exception! I want balance and energy in my life, but I get very overwhelmed at the idea of trying to fit in everything I want to do with my time. The answer came very clearly towards the end of my time in Norwich and it felt like it had been staring me in the face all along. I am a fairly motivated and disciplined person but the secret to me achieving anything in life is to have projects, goals and deadlines. Without those things, I flounder. I always have.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

Me, doing my best non-floundering face.

But the truth is, I’ve needed to take the pressure off myself this year and have a few less deadlines, goals and to-do lists. The only thing that has stopped me from hiding under the duvet each day has been going gently. Withdrawing quietly from anything non-essential that adds nothing to my life. Writing mostly for myself, filling journal after journal, knowing it will never be read by anyone else and revelling in the thrill of that. Trying not to beat myself up about not doing everything I feel I ‘should’ be doing. Time out from life showed me that I can’t force inspiration. I can’t force a story out of me, it will only happen naturally. And perhaps it has more of a chance of happening naturally if I give myself what I need. Like, nourishing and simple meals. Creative play. Daily yoga. Time out from being ‘on’. Daily journaling of my thoughts. Meditation, sitting, supporting my throat chakra (which needed a lot of help, it was no accident I had a sore throat. More on that in the next post!). Self care. The luxury of doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it.

There was a part of me that thought I’d come away from my days in Norwich with the start of the next book, and that didn’t end up happening. But what did happen was I locked the house on the last morning, walked to the station and sat calmly and happily with a coffee and magazine (no phone!) on the train back to London, and felt flooded with a renewed sense of purpose. I was returning to my life with a bit of clarity, a clearer vision and a new pleasure in my craft; a re-dedication to my practice; and a better awareness of what I need to feel creative and balanced, and to make sure I get those things, because that is the only way I will do my work.

In that respect, the retreat was a complete success.

Reading on the way back to London.....

Reading on the way back to London.....

Next post: how I healed my throat chakra in Norwich (now there's an article for the East Anglian Daily Times!)

Have you ever gone away on your own to retreat, recalibrate, start a new project or get your groove back? What did you discover?

before, after and now

I could have written a post about "this time 10 years ago" but I think you all know that story by now. 

I could have written a post featuring some old pictures of me, and pictures of me now, but while I'm proud that 10 years later I'm still a healthy size, what I've tried so hard to do with my book, and with my mindset in general, is resist getting stuck in 'before and after' thinking. Reaching goal is never the end of the story, and the 'after' photo is actually just a moment in time. Holding on to it is rarely straightforward. Weight loss success stories are certainly very motivating to read, but I think it would be far more interesting to check in with them 10 years after their 'after' picture is taken and see how they're doing then.

And I'm also not going to write a post about 10 years of maintenance, because when I consider the stretch of time between 25 April 2006 as I stood on my set of scales in my bathroom in Melbourne and saw a number I longed to see staring back at me, and 25 April 2016 as I type this in my study in London, "maintenance" is the last word I'd use to describe this period in my life.

All the losses and gains in my life since that day in 2006 have had nothing to do with weight. Everything in my life has changed so how could I possibly expect to maintain anything? It was an effort to get out of bed some days (occasionally it still is!)

Merely a few weeks after that scale victory, my life as I knew it fell apart. But thanks to having reached that goal, I had the courage to walk away from the wreckage and I knew that I could survive. Thanks to the highs, lows and plateaus of the previous year of point counting and weigh-ins, I knew I had the strength to persevere when I hit rock bottom, crawled back up, and got smacked down again. It was almost as though that year had been preparing me for what came next.  

The greatest thing weight loss taught me was learning to believe in myself. I hadn't learned it when I was younger. Back then it was all about creating a life that looked good to the outside world rather than anything that felt true and aligned with who I really was. I designed my life with fear, anxiety and self-loathing as my architects.

Weight loss helped me kick those bastards off the job, and compassion, courage and self-respect took over the blueprints instead.

But while they're fabulous architects, they're not perfect employees either. Those three occasionally take leave when I least expect it - I wouldn't have you think for a minute that fear, anxiety and self-loathing have disappeared for good. They never did, and they never will. I've had to learn to deal with them when they show up in productive and conscious ways instead of going backwards, to the days when I let them run the show. I don't always succeed, but I can always turn the car around in time. If I've maintained anything over the past 10 years, I guess it's that. 

Weight loss happened to be a tool I used to wake myself up, to get off my arse (literally) and start taking control of my life. But I outgrew it long ago. I don't need to get on scales to see how in or out of control my life is. I just pay attention. Life being in balance is something I feel now, rather than measure. It's not a number. It's not a dress size. It's a feeling. If that feeling is off, I try to do something about it. If I'm feeling good, I keep doing what I'm doing, until that doesn't work anymore. What works right now might not work this time next year. That's cool. Despite being a bit of a control freak, I try to roll with things. I try to have high standards but low expectations.   

I have no idea whether 10 years later I am still at goal weight. But you know what? I don't care enough to find out. Because I'm healthy - physically and mentally - and I'm pretty happy with who I am. That's what matters to me.  That's what I'm proud of. I have fought for the life I have now, over and over, every step of the way. I've used every brick thrown at me to build the strongest foundation I possibly could.

So what I'm thinking about, and what I want to celebrate today, is that 10 years after reaching 'goal' not only am I still healthy, but I've kept moving forward. It was not weight loss I had to maintain, it was all the other changes. And naively I thought that would be easy. But everything keeps changing, all the time. Nothing ever stays the same. You can't hit the 'pause' button once you've reached a moment where you think you've got it all. You have to keep working hard, even though you already have.

10 years ago, I chose the road less travelled by. And I keep choosing it. No matter what. I could give practical weight loss tips about eating more greens and exercising more, but it's all ultimately useless if nothing changes inside of you, in your head and in your heart. You don't have to be motivated. You don't have to live by a set of rules. You just have to start caring about yourself and paying attention to your life.

Keep choosing to be your best self and live your best life, every day. That's the secret.  Stick to your path, even when the going gets tough. Don't retreat back to the smooth, safe highway. Stay the course. Keep choosing. Keep going. 

Here's to another 10 years of that.

****

To celebrate this little milestone of mine, I'm giving away a signed, personalised physical copy of The Latte Years which I will post to you, anywhere in the world. Just read the T&Cs and enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below! 

T&Cs:

  • One winner, one prize

  • No cash alternative

  • Open internationally

  • You can enter once a day until 12:00am (UK time) on 1 May 2016

  • The winner will be chosen completely at random by Rafflecopter on 1 May 2016

  • Once the winner is announced and notified via email, you have 24 hours to claim your prize or another winner will be chosen

  • PM will retain proof of postage but can't be held responsible for the vagaries of the postal system or the customs regulations/duties in your country.

 

Good luck and THANK YOU for all your love and support, particularly if you've been following along for the whole of these past 10 years. I am so incredibly grateful xx

PS: The digital versions of The Latte Years are still discounted until midnight Australian time today! 

The Latte Years is on sale this weekend!

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It's April 25 on Monday and it will be TEN years since I reached my goal and began living a completely different life.  A sweet friend from my blogging days in Melbourne dubbed it "Phil's Revolution Day" and I thought was a most apt description!

To celebrate, The Latte Years e-book is discounted on Kindle, iBooks and Kobo all weekend

And make sure you pop back on Monday because there will be an extra surprise for you!

Happy Phil's Revolution weekend to you all xx