All posts by Louise Austin

I’d do anything

Whether you consider it hyperbole or a simple truth, this turn of phrase is often used as an expression of devotion. It suggests a deep and unbounded passion that eclipses everything else that we hold dear and takes its place as the foremost of our priorities.

It sounds rather lovely, but I am suspicious of it. Perhaps most importantly, it seems patently untrue to me; even the purest love, most impassioned commitment to a cause or most fervent ambition ought to be tempered by reason. It may not be romantic to listen to rational argument, but it is sensible to at least consider it in the light of relevant circumstances and other competing priorities. ‘Anything’ is a pretty broad category and in holding oneself to such a profound promise it is not hard to imagine a growing list of caveats that would need to be added to it to make it true, unless one is prepared to cross the line into extremism.

As well as being untrue, I think it ought also to be seen as unappealing. Perhaps the speaker intends only to express a deep love or commitment, but if they genuinely do mean to declare that they would commit any atrocity in pursuit of it, I see not steadfastness but insanity or, at best, naivety. Nonetheless, when a parent professes that they would do anything for their child, the expected response is to agree wholeheartedly; it would be socially awkward to retort that I wouldn’t, however true. It may sound callous, but I would not do ‘anything’ for one of my children. If one of them needed a transplant I would sacrifice myself but I would not run over a number of potentially matching children in the locality in the hope of finding a donor to save her. There are, in my view quite rightly, limits to what I would do for those I love. That does not render those deep bonds meaningless, it simply means acknowledging that they are not completely boundless.

Quite often, and even more irritatingly, the phrase is used as a very thinly veiled criticism: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring in any cakes. It can be hard when you’re busy, but I’d do anything for my colleagues/kids/church/charity.’ In this case the phrase is not so much directed at the speaker’s deep commitment but at highlighting your lack of it. But even dedication that would go so far as doing ‘anything’ would surely not be a commitment to doing ‘everything’, otherwise the phrase becomes even more ludicrous. It also ignores the relative importance of everything else in your life; your first priority may be your children, your partner, your job, your faith or your cause, but not such that anything done to that end, however small, trumps everything else in your life. If a friend called from hospital needing urgent help, would you ignore them to bake for the fundraiser or to attend a child’s school play?  

But perhaps none of this matters – it’s just a turn of phrase after all. Except that I think that what we say does matter. I don’t think it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ to try not to say offensive things. Similarly, I don’t think it’s healthy to say things that we don’t really mean. I have a tendency to worry too much about what others think, and it’s exactly this sort of phrase that recommends dedicating oneself entirely to something or someone else and suggests that doing so is in some way noble.

We need to balance our priorities and I include within that the importance of looking after ourselves. Not only for our own wellbeing, but also to set an example. I love washing up to pop music and usually enjoy a little salsa-style shimmying when ‘Rockabye’ comes on. But there’s one particular lyric in it that always makes me feel sad: ‘she tells him “your life ain’t gonna be nothing like my life, you’re gonna grow and have a good life, I’m gonna do what I’ve got to do.”’ This concept of constant self sacrifice in the hope of giving our children a better future is a potential vicious circle, for it demonstrates to them the importance we place on giving up our own hopes and dreams to further those of the people we love. Expecting our children to then wander into a Utopia where they will find happiness that we have never shown them, seems naive. Needs must sometimes, but if we have a choice, surely we could be demonstrating that improving our own wellbeing can also enhance that of those around us; that investing in ourselves energises us, makes us better partners, parents, employees and friends. The best way to teach our children happiness is to go in search of it.

And so, to protect my children, I’ll be letting them know that, although they are my top priority in this world, I can’t promise to do anything for them.

Not the Done Thing

When I was eleven, the most exciting feature of my secondary school was that it had an animal house. After eating, we could spend our lunch hour playing with guinea pigs, rabbits and chinchillas. We had never had pets at home and I can remember running from the lunch hall because I simply couldn’t wait to get there. Until one day, when I overheard some older girls wondering why the year sevens ran everywhere and I realised it was not the done thing. From then on, running was only undertaken reluctantly as a form of exercise or to catch public transport.

When I was twelve, we each had to give ten minute presentations to our English class as practice for public speaking. My first was on land reclamation in the Netherlands and nestled comfortably between a lengthy and evangelical presentation about canal boating and a very detailed overview of a local football club. By round two, the tedium was hard to bear and I asked if the speech had to be factual; it didn’t, so I had great fun making up a fictional world to talk about, thinking about its culture, ethics and government. Until it came to questions, when the main one seemed to be ‘why are you so weird?’ and I realised that imagination was not the done thing. From then on, assignments were for blending in and being instantly forgettable.

When I started university I had a whole rainbow of corduroy trousers and lots of quirky tops that were bought in Camden Market and didn’t always hold their colour. I loved browsing the stalls for something new, something I’d never seen anybody else wearing and pairing it with something unexpected. Until one day some friends were talking about what they were going to wear out that evening, and one commented that the conversation was pointless as they always all wore the same thing. And that night I noticed that they were all dressed in blue jeans and black tops, like a uniform, and realised that quirky was not the done thing. From then on, although I couldn’t resist a splash of colour, I chose clothes that looked (at least approximately) like everyone else’s.

Part of me is relieved that I had these realisations and learned to fit in. But then I see my eight year old, who chose black and green trainers for school sports, and is upset because the other girls think it odd that they’re not pink or purple. Or my six year old who likes to dance through the house in a flailing whirlwind of limbs but will very soon realise it is not the done thing and instead walk around demurely. These ‘corrections’ will help them to fit in, but will also take from them something of themselves.

Fitting in can make us feel safe and part of a community. But it can also stifle our identity and even stop us from seeking help or support when we need it. Although it is important to understand the rules that those around us live by, there are circumstances when we really should try to break them. We should be able to talk openly about miscarriages and fertility. Marital problems should not be the preserve of the divorced; many happy couples have had their troubles but it is not the done thing to talk about it. Mental health issues should not attract stigma or embarrassment, nor should physical symptoms or differences.

When actually examined, many of the ‘rules’ that we take for granted make no sense at all. When talking to a colleague or client, why must we pretend to be one-dimensional to seem professional? A more genuine connection would improve those relationships and everyone’s experience of the workplace. Why must we dress in shoes that are entirely unsuitable for walking or tie strips of silk in restrictive knots around our necks? These traditions are impractical and uncomfortable as well as reinforcing traditional gender roles and limiting diversity. Why is it perfectly acceptable to talk about skin cancer but not anal cancer, to confide in a friend about having trouble with eyesight or hearing, but not with the vas deferens or fallopian tubes, let alone our mental health? This squeamishness can add embarrassment and loneliness to an already difficult situation.

Today is Time to Talk Day and even if it’s not the done thing, perhaps we could make the effort to speak out or be available to listen, taking the first steps to changing the rules that bind us all.

Lessons learned

It has now been three months since I committed to becoming a writer and I still have a lot to learn. I am yet to finish a first draft of the book, and although progress has been good, I am conscious that it is far easier to open up storylines than it is to conclude them satisfactorily without being trite. I have not properly researched literary agents and publishers, as every time I google it my stomach lurches and I have to calm myself with an episode of ‘The Good Place’ or a rerun of ‘Gossip Girl’. As that is not conducive to actually ever finishing the book, I have embargoed those searches for now, but that is a temporary solution while I deal with the hundreds of smaller hurdles that need crossing before submission is even close to needing serious attention.

There are many challenges ahead, but I thought this an appropriate time to reflect on what I have learned so far.

The draft is just a rehearsal

It is far easier to edit a poorly phrased idea than it is to sit in front of a blank screen and come up with the perfect turn of phrase from scratch. Trying to get the content, the phrasing, the pace, the characterisation and the ambiance all as I want them, as well as ensuring continuity, variety and interest in my language is simply not a one stage process. I am learning to forgive myself when a first draft looks like a draft and to view a session where I splurge story from my brain as the very first stepping stone to what a chapter will look like when it is finished.

There are a lot of rehearsals

Nothing compares to the feeling when the story flows from my fingertips as they race across the keyboard and my characters are confronted with disaster or delight. But although the narrative might be there, the words are usually not; sometimes not one remains after an editing session. There is not the thrill in tweaking words and worrying about nuance that there is in taking an idea and giving it form for the first time, but without that labour, the story is easily lost in distracting repetition, inconsistencies or clunky phrasing.

I have learned that my editing process requires a little distance – if the story is still bouncing around my head all fresh and exciting, it feels very raw to take a scalpel to my work. Equally, if I leave it too long before editing, the volume of prose becomes simply too arduous to wade through, so I have to mix up the writing, research and editing to keep the process interesting and maintain focus. Each time I read a passage I focus on a different aspect of it and I seem to be constantly tinkering. As the book grows in length (54,000 words and counting) a full read through has become a somewhat more significant undertaking and I like to have two versions open, one to edit and one to search (how anybody handwrites a book and manages to keep track of everything I have no idea; electronic searching is my crutch) alongside a notebook covered with lists, diagrams, tables and timelines. It can be a time consuming process, but the polish is what makes the story shine.

It’s hard not to blur the lines

My job used to bleed into my personal life through my blackberry, but it always felt very clear what role I was playing at any given time. The line is far more blurry now; I think about plot lines while cooking dinner or singing lullabies and I clear my head after an hour of writing by doing some laundry and listening to the radio. On the whole I like that my worlds have collided and I no longer need two separate personas; I can just be me.

But the mask of the professional is not just a disguise for our quirks, it is also a shield. If a partner critiqued my work as a lawyer, I would stand before them in my demure Hobbs dress and Karen Millen shoes, armed with a pen and paper for taking notes. I was there in my capacity as a lawyer and so my heart was locked safely behind the trappings of corporate life. But feedback as a writer can be far less formal; a comment from a friend or relative while I’m playing cars with my toddler, wiping down the kitchen worktops or eating lunch. Without my guard up, a suggestion that will later prove helpful as I sit at my laptop writing, can pack a painful punch. I need to find a way to take the sting back out of constructive feedback, as I genuinely want and value it.

Every book needs research

To most people this may be stating the obvious, but I had not really imagined that a children’s fantasy novel set in a fictional world would require much research, after all, it’s just made up… But the physics, the biology and the chemistry have to be internally consistent as do the history and geography that provide the context for the story. I want the setting to feel real and that can involve a lot of work for what is sometimes a very minor detail that will pass the reader by quite unnoticed. Fortunately the internet enables me to easily find and read detailed analysis of the obscure, although I expect my google history would now make very odd reading.

I am happy

The writing process is far from easy, but it is a challenge that excites me every day. I never have that ‘Sunday evening feeling’ any more and I love having the head space to be creative and the time to simply sit and write.

Resolutions

January is a time of year when many people reflect on their lifestyles and choices, find them wanting and make a change. A new year gives us the opportunity to make a fresh start, though I can’t help but think the bleak midwinter is a suboptimal choice of timing for fledgling diets, exercise regimes and teetotalism. This is partly because I am always in the throws of near-hibernation due to the long hours of darkness and lack of sunshine, and partly because my birthday falls less than two weeks into the year and I do enjoy celebrating with a glass of prosecco or two. I must also confess to a typically British approach to progress, well summed up by Kate Fox:

‘What do we want?’

‘Gradual change.’

‘When do we want it?’

‘In due course.’

Bemoaning change has been a habit of my lifetime, but more recently I have started to challenge myself. Very often the changes we would like to make in our lives are stalled not by fear or lack of ability or resources but by inertia, apathy and the comfort of routine. We meet a friend at the same time in the usual coffee shop, walk predictable aisles each week to choose a near identical trolley of food, skim the menu in a much loved restaurant and simply pick our favourite items each time, indeed it makes us feel warm inside if we are able to simply ask for ‘the usual’.

But trying something new does not mean abandoning comfortable favourites forever, if you don’t like the coffee shop across the street you don’t have to go again next time, if the Chablis isn’t as good, go back to the Sancerre. But these little experiments are worthwhile; it’s how we meet new people, discover new music or food and find new passions. Besides, the terrible wine can always be used for cooking and a disastrous meal somewhere new is far more memorable than a forty third visit to an old favourite.

This is not me evangelising about quitting your job and following your dreams. Quite the opposite in fact. By mid-February most resolutions are abandoned until next year precisely because they are too ambitious; we impose on ourselves a whole new routine starting on an arbitrary date. We seek to enforce rigidity without habit or inclination and actually stop ourselves from trying new things. So instead of promising to force yourself twice a week into the drizzle to pound the dark streets alone, ask a friend to run with you or try out some local exercise groups. Instead of becoming a gluten-free vegan for a month, try getting a veg box delivered and use it to have an enjoyable meat free day every week by experimenting with ingredients you wouldn’t normally use. Instead of becoming a recluse to save money, invite friends over instead of going out. Email an old friend, try a different brand of ketchup, walk on the other side of the street. Life is not about deprivation – find something this January that makes you happy or improves your life.

Disclaimer: As Netflix is removing ‘The Good Wife’ at the end of the month and I am hooked and only on season 2, I will mostly be watching that back to back until midnight for the next fortnight and not trying anything new at all.

Halfway there?

On my 35th birthday I finished Part One of my book. ‘Finished’ is of course a relative term for a writer, for the constant reading and revision will continue, but the story has been broadly translated from my head to the computer and it is time to embark on Part Two. I am pleased to be on track with my ambitious target timescales but I am also terrified, because I had a four month plan when I put my career on hold and the initial phase will soon be over.

I am learning every day and loving life as a writer; I remember reading long ago that once you have your characters and scenarios, a book will write itself, and that has certainly been the case for me so far. My protagonists are becoming very real to me and I’m afraid to admit that my hopes of engaging more with the real world on leaving the City behind have not been borne out. Instead of being tied to a Blackberry or practicing a presentation to a Trustee Board in my head, I am researching the physics of dragons and running through synonyms on the school run.

Until now, the book has been embryonic and I have protected it, kept it close, sharing it only with those I trust most intimately. But my ultimate dream is that it will transport children to another world, the way Tolkien, Cooper and Pullman took me to Middle Earth with the hobbits, to join the Old Ones in their battle against the dark and to Lyra’s Oxford, wishing fervently for a daemon of my own. The gulf I have to cross seems vast and my next step is to find my book some readers and get some feedback, which means letting people into my world and introducing them to the characters who have become so significant to me.

The magic of a book is that it paints a different picture in each reader’s head, but it scares me that some people may not like what they see. I like to think I am receptive to constructive criticism, and I hope to welcome any feedback that will help improve the book, even if my ego takes some denting, but sending it out into the world feels momentous, like the first day of school, and as I send it off, I won’t be able to stop myself worrying about how it is faring, out there on its own for the first time.

Another World

Once upon a time, somebody gave a name to imposter syndrome and it resonated with so many people that decades later it had entered common parlance and I heard it and smiled, for finally ‘that feeling’ had a name. Despite my education and training, despite the support of experienced lawyers at the very top of their specialisms and despite many years of hard work, I spent much of my career in the City on tenterhooks, waiting for somebody to march in and announce that they had found me out, that I wasn’t supposed to be there and dismiss me from their sight.

In fact it only happened to me once, in my first proper week on the job, when a second year trainee failed to return to the UK and I was assigned in her stead to a rather particular partner. He did not want a shiny new trainee and made it very clear, despite having known me for all of thirty seconds, that I was not up to doing the job. He assigned me to making up flat pack boxes and I went home and sobbed. Fortunately we parted ways a few short days later, much to our mutual relief and in twelve years, nobody else ever made me feel so small. Quite the opposite, so many people gave of their time and energy to make me a better lawyer, a better writer, a better presenter, a better manager and a more confident person, which makes it seem all the more unfortunate that he should have been my introduction to life as a solicitor.

Given that I still felt an outsider as a lawyer having spent my whole adult life on that track, I am somewhat nervous about taking my first tentative steps into the literary world, where I am a total novice and have everything still to learn. Although I have lived my life very comfortably in books, bookshops and libraries, I have never been to any literary festivals or even book signings and have little idea what to expect. Not only that, being at the very first stages of becoming a writer, it feels very presumptuous to describe myself as such.

Despite my own instinctive urge to hide behind my computer until the book is complete, I couldn’t resist going along when Michael Rosen came to visit my hometown. I am pleased to confirm that the first author I met was rather more motivating than the first lawyer; I found Mr Rosen to be a real character, brimming over with enthusiasm and exuding a very genuine warmth that was inspirational. I waited in line, books in hand ready for signing, behind a very charming older lady who seemed strangely nervous. It transpired that she had not only taught him as a youngster, but also featured in the memoir she wanted him to sign. His delight at seeing her was heartwarming and his expressive poetry, performed to a group of schoolchildren was full of energy, demonstrating a sincere passion for words without a scrap of pretension. This time I was lucky. All in all, I would be more than happy if I could be like him when I grow up.

A beginning

I was born on 9 January 1983, the first of three girls. I can’t remember life without books and Mum tells me I was known to fall asleep as a baby with one on my face. At playgroup they were delighted that I wanted to spend all my time so quietly in the book corner, but my parents insisted they encourage me in other activities too, for it was also all I wanted to do at home. Of the many ways a child could be precocious, I’m pleased that I was an early reader, for it opened my mind at a young age to so many incredible places, eye-opening adventures and amazing characters. I am a rule abider by nature but can remember my main transgression as a child was to creep from my bed and switch the light back on at night because I simply couldn’t fall asleep without knowing what happened next.

I felt a genuine sense of panic aged seventeen when I was told it was time to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had no idea what I ought to do and instead of seeing a world of possibilities before me, I was terrified of picking the wrong option and forever closing the door on my undiscovered destiny. After taking a pop-psych test at school, I was reliably informed that my most compatible career options were lawyer or teacher and so in 2001 I headed to Oxford to begin my degree in law, or as my alma mater would have it, ‘jurisprudence’. I loved my time there, trying to figure out my own identity amongst some incredibly talented people, including my future husband, but I’m afraid that my degree took rather a back-seat to love and heartbreak, friendship and fun.

There was a typical undergraduate rush to indulge in free canapés and drinks as the law firms came to court us, and it was easy to be swept up in the excitement and competition of securing a job offer, which I duly did, signing up for a Magic Circle firm at the end of my second year, ready to start work in September 2005. City life was a buzz and once again I found myself surrounded by charismatic, astute, ambitious people, working until the small hours during the week and spending cosy weekends as a newly-wed fixing up our first home, a maisonette at the end of the Metropolitan Line.

Our lives marched on; my husband finished his doctorate and started work developing software for medical imaging and clinical trials, and my career progressed, specialising in pensions law, a technical area that is far more interesting than it sounds, though best skirted over swiftly if you want people to talk to you at parties. We moved back to the suburbs where I had grown up and had three bright, strong and kind daughters of our own. Our lives were a source of daily contentment for us, but of very little note to anybody else. We put down roots and grew into our role as the bedrock of a small family.

Many people imagine themselves writing a novel and I counted myself among them for many years, suppressing the urge and assuming it to be folly. In early 2017, in the fading weeks of my third maternity leave, I finally decided it couldn’t hurt to give it a go, for it had bubbled away in my mind for so long, it needed to be released, even if only for my own relief.

I opened a spreadsheet and plotted the key story arches, sketched out my characters and wrote the history and geography of another world. Then I opened a blank document and started to write. The threads of story and the little character quirks I had spent my life collecting, started to come together. And I fell in love. And much like romantic love, once you’ve had a taste of the real thing, you can’t settle for anything less. And so, on 17 October 2017, I left my stable, sensible and lucrative job to focus on my first novel. I cried on my last day; after twelve years it was a wrench to leave behind many fantastic colleagues and clients. But I have finally found that passion I was afraid of closing the door on aged seventeen. Every day I’m writing, reading, editing or daydreaming about a world of my own creation. And I can’t wait to share it with you.