Prologue to an epitaph

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Even if my passing were to be imminent (there’s nothing planned or threatened), I’ve achieved one of the things I always wanted to do: I’ve written and published a book which is being acclaimed on some popular media channels. The few who follow this blog will know that things were very different, just three years ago. Like Douglas Adams, I seem to have found myself in a place where I never knew I wanted to be.

I spoke to my dad today, as it’s his 75th birthday. We spoke about all that’s happened, in our family recently, and in the world during his lifetime. We spoke briefly about the current geopolitical state of the world, and of his upcoming (routine) surgery to drain liquid from the base of his brain. At the end of the conversation, I wished him many happy returns and congratulated him on reaching such a grand age. His response surprised me: Whereas the dad I’ve always known might be expected to respond with an observation on his good innings and not knowing how many more years he might have, he said something quite profound: “You never know, I might yet get a telegram from King William IV.” My dad has become more progressive and positive in his thinking than what I’ve always been used to. I commended him on having a mind receptive to such a concept, and explained how it might be quite possible for him to live to 100, given the medical advances we are making.

Because I write mainly science fiction, I obviously do a lot of reading and research of science fact and speculation. This often forms part of any conversation with visitors to my little studio, as most find the subjects fascinating. While it’s unfortunate that more people don’t seek out this information, it’s encouraging that someone of my dad’s generation listens to what I’m saying, thinks about it, and perhaps does some further research. The conversation came to a natural conclusion when I told my dad that I love him. Those words would not have been spoken three years ago, and my family have never been sentimental, but my dad then said, “Yes, and when I think of all that you’ve achieved over the last three years, I’m bloody proud.”

My dad will probably never read my books: He’s not a great consumer of fiction, and sci-fi isn’t really his genre, but he’s read some of my published short stories and he listens to his son. That’s what I set out to do in this life: To have an authorial voice which people listen to, to engage people through writing, and to make my parents proud. It’s why The Perpetuity of Memory is dedicated to them.

My greatest wish would be for everyone to hear all that I have to say. But while that’s not going to happen, I’ve written it all down in three published books. One day, more people may read them. Others might learn of all I do to help troubled teens and other causes. Until everyone knows, I’ll just keep doing it.

At the other end of my family’s generational span, I spoke to my son today as well. He’s twelve and decided a while ago that he’d like to write science fiction. I’ve cautioned him to not expect any riches or immediate recognition but he countered with something which could have come from my own mouth, and just as poignant as my dad’s earlier comment: “I know no-one will read my stuff but if I’ve written it, then it’s out there if people want to find it and I know I’ve done it.” When I take my kids for lunch every month, the conversation is very often science-based, because my children have active and receptive minds. They know that they could be a part of the first generation of humans to become immortal. They know that they will most likely see the birth of the first human Martian in their lifetimes. They listen. They listen to their father, the writer. And that’s why I do it.

So I’ve said all that I have to say for now. Most of it is in The Paradoxicon, my semi-autobiographical novel (it was easier to write about that period of my life in fiction). The rest is in The Perpetuity of Memory and there’s a lot of comforting thoughts in A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie, my award-winning children’s story, illustrated by my daughter. That’s why I do it.

There’s plenty more to write, because there’s so much going on and which needs to be spoken about. There’ll be more short stories, because there are so many subjects to address. There’ll be a second anthology. And my long-term background science fiction epic, Infana Kolonia, will see the light of day in the next year or so. Given the interest from certain quarters, the latter could even become a series of shorter books.

For now, I’ve done all that I set out to do in making myself better after my drunken breakdown three years ago. It’s all written, in my books and on this blog. The story is there and it’s one which has helped others. They just need to find it.

But I’m done, for now.

End of part two (Day 1126)

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

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Metamorphosis: The beetle emerges from the mouth. The Perpetuity of Memory is published: From the writer’s mouth (Image of a 3D tattoo).

Exactly three years ago today, I wrote a blog post, entitled End of part one: That was when I was learning about the life I’d found around me, on the streets. Scanning back through other old posts, I’ve worked out that if I’d kept recording the days, today would be Day 1126. I kept count of the days I was homeless but eventually gave up when the word took on different meanings.

Roughly speaking, it was 10 days of street walking and rough, unsheltered sleeping; 90 days of sleeping rough in a derelict building; 150 days of squatting; 210 days of sofa surfing; and 400 days of living illegally above a pub. Add that all up and it should make about two years. I’ve been at the studio for almost a year now, so I’ve found my home but it’s on the third anniversary of that End of part one post that part two makes way for the next.

I didn’t plan it. It says on the cover of the book that it took three years and without even checking beforehand, it’s landed on the exact day. Three years after the end of part one, I’ve published my first volume of collected tales. I’ve published other books and there will be more to come, but this is the one I’d like to be remembered for.

Just hours from writing of my upcoming book, it’s no longer an upcoming book: It’s published today. I wrote of my sentiments surrounding the book in that last post, by including the cover notes and introduction. Now that my three-year labour of love is published, I’m moved to post further sentiments from the book, the acknowledgements:

It would be impossible to thank everyone individually for their contribution to this book, because that would be everyone who knew me in the 42 years it took me to realise what I wanted to do with my life. But there are individuals and groups who stand out:

Those I am indebted to the most, and to whom this book is dedicated: My parents, my children and their mum.

My second family, The Pink Hearts: A rag tag group of young people I met when I was homeless and who remain friends, especially the ones who remain close: My adopted sister, The Courts, and my three adopted daughters: The fold-up one, clingy thingy, and Ninja. The Ninja was particularly helpful in the latter stages of this book, when she took on the role of proof reader for some of the later stories and sent me notes of encouragement, such as “If you don’t finish this, I will punch you. In the face. Repeatedly.”

I’m grateful to my other crash test dummies who read drafts for me: My sounding board, Nettie, and one of my most loyal friends, Jo. Thanks also to all of my old friends from the 80s and 90s who’ve stuck around to see what happened to the alcoholic.

I must acknowledge two of my literary heroes and influences: Paul Auster and Douglas Adams. Last and by no means least, my guardian angel: The man who taught me as a teenager that it’s okay to be different and that expression is freedom, David Bowie.

A life will always be a memory, so long as it’s not forgotten. These stories will be around long after I’m gone and I hope they make for some perpetuity of memory.

It’s all out there now: A book of stories, published and now indelible. Perhaps the most sentimental page is the dedications:

For George and Rose, my parents
They made this possible

And for Louis and Lola, my children
They are the next generation

My children may be two of the first generation of our one race to become immortal, through science and exploration. I will probably miss that boat, but I can still imagine and write stories. And the stories in this book are now immortalised, through the process of publication.

So this is a happy ending; A date which means the start of a new act, a new chapter, a new part.

I don’t know exactly why I called that post the end of part one, three years ago. Back then, life was taking me through many brief transits. If I were asked, I’d say part one lasted for about 42 years, starting in 1970. Part two lasted for somewhere between three and five years, the last three being the metamorphosis.

So this is part three. The Perpetuity of Memory is a rather handy launch pad, into whatever happens next.

The perpetuity of patience

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK PREVIEW

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The Perpetuity of Memory, out next week in paperback (£7.99 / €8.99 / $9.99)

It’s taken three years to go from homeless alcoholic to this. Although I have books on sale already, The Perpetuity of Memory has been the labour of love. It’s a collection of some of the many short stories I’ve written over my period of recovery. Even though I say so myself, it’s a good book. As well as the raw writing, I’ve spent some time on curating the collection, so that it works as a whole volume. It’s 25 stories but it’s one book.

The book goes on general sale next week, so in advance I’d like to share some of the cover and internal notes, as a pre-sale marketing exercise but also to share on this blog what the book is all about and what it means to me. Three years ago, I was a tramp. I became a published writer some time ago but this is the book I’d like to be judged on.

From the back cover:

The Perpetuity of Memory is a collection of short stories, some written in libraries, cafes, bars and on park benches, and anywhere warm, dry and light by day. Others were written at night, by street light or candlelight.

In 2013, an addiction to alcohol saw the author lose his family, home and business. With nothing else to do without going insane on the streets, he begged money to buy exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens.

These are the stories written during a period on the road; in squats, doctors’ surgeries, court waiting rooms and hospital beds. Some were written in relatively safe surroundings and others, while in a state of vulnerable and anxious terror. Sometimes, there was plenty of time to write. Often a flash fiction story was all that time permitted.

Ranging from humorous science fiction to psychological horror, these short stories are a glimpse of what goes on in the mind of an alcoholic with depression, out on the streets.

A further introduction:

In December 2013, I found myself homeless after pissing my life away. Aged 43, alcohol had lost me my marriage to the wife of my two children, my business and my home. I was on the streets. With nothing except the clothes I was wearing and a couple of carrier bags containing my belongings, I was lost.

With nothing else to do, I begged money to buy some exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens. I found places which were warm and dry during the day and started writing. At first, I was just scribbling down what was on my mind, trying to make sense of things. When it didn’t make sense at the time, I decided to put my notes into a blog, in the hope that they might make sense later. I still write that blog and all of the old entries from stolen moments at a borrowed PC are retained. They are as indelible as the memories of life on the road.

The period of sleeping rough was mercifully brief but I spent three years in squats, sofa surfing and living illegally above a pub, before I finally got my own place. It was during that transitory period that I started to write short stories and this book collects 25 of them together.

It is said that there’s a part of the writer in every story, whether it be a character trait in a fictional person or a memory from the fringes of life experience. For the writer, it can be an escape.

The stories collected in this book range from humorous science fiction to psychological horror. I’ve continued to write many more but this anthology is from those first three years.

“Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” Paul Auster.

About the author

Steve Laker was born in 1970 and grew up in Kent, before marrying in 2003 and moving to London with his wife. He has two children from the marriage and remains on good terms with his family.

After a 25-year career in print and publishing up to company director level, he ran a successful business with his wife. That life ended in 2012 when he became ill through alcohol addiction, resulting in divorce and the loss of his business and home. Subsequently, he was diagnosed with chronic depression, PTSD and anxiety. He remains alcohol dependent.

Following a three year period of recovery, he started publishing short stories in web zines and print magazines. In 2014, he won a national award for his “Changing lives” short story, A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie.

He now lives alone in West Malling, back to being a Man of Kent. He continues to write short stories and novels, both under his own name and as a freelance ghostwriter.

(END)

There’ll be more stories but for now, this is the first volume of collected shorts.

The book of forgotten things

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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My notebook, also a novel, Words and Deeds: Essays (1942) by Henry Nevinson.

Imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of escape: How do you get out? Well, you stop imagining.

So began a story which I started to write yesterday, when I had my monthly meet up with my kids in Milton Keynes (but it’s the people you’re with who make a place). Nowadays, the trust placed in me extends to me taking the kids for lunch at a pub, without a chaperone. It’s a testament to how my drinking is under control and to how mature the kids are. Because unlike some adults, they understand that I can still drink, and that I’m an alcoholic. Because they questioned, listened and learned. Now they see the proof. But the plastic police still judge without cross examination. Well, that makes them ignorant: The one human trait I can’t stand, because there’s no excuse for it.

That humans only use a small percentage of their brain is a myth. But many people’s brains are under-utilised, meaning that there is much potential in all of us, even those with a below average IQ. Just as if people stopped to think before they speak, the world would be a better place if they opened their minds. In my own mind, I imagine these people still think the world is flat and that they’ll eventually fall off the edge.

Yesterday I made notes in a new journal. I don’t like to carry the typewriter (laptop) around with me, as it contains all my work (backed-up but still, I just don’t). My Filofax, which was meant to replace notepads, is so full of notes it hardly closes and is pretty bulky. So I’ve reverted to individual journals, which are much more portable, so that I can write anywhere. The current one is a rather splendid thing: A Pelican imprint paperback, published by Penguin, entitled “Words and Deeds” and containing just blank, ruled pages.

Just as I started this blog by writing in journals wherever I could, then stealing what time I could on public access computers, so I’m doing now. Having a notebook and pen about one’s person at all times is important for the writer to record and report on life’s moments as they happen. A moment is a subjective term, which has no real definition. A moment can be a fleeting one, or it can be one which makes minutes last for days.

So yesterday was a perfect day and one which I didn’t want to end. But they all have to. But for as long as that moment lasted, the kids and me just gallivanted. I’m a liberal parent but I respect my ex-wife’s values and won’t contradict her, so I’m also responsible. But gallivanting with my kids is just like young cows or horses gambolling in a field: It’s simple, happy fun.

It’s nice to be writing on the hoof again. Perhaps I subconsciously resisted because of the mental association with homelessness. When I last wrote in journals, I was doing so just wherever I could: McDonald’s, the library, the train station waiting room, or by candle light in the concrete bunker at the abandoned Gilbert House in Tonbridge. There were some good times during that period of darkness, not least of all me finding myself with nothing to do but write. Now, three years later, some of the stories I wrote back then are soon to be published. I should receive the final printed book proof this week and once I’ve signed it off, The Perpetuity of Memory will be available to buy in paperback for £7.99. Here’s what it says on the back cover:

The Perpetuity of Memory is a collection of short stories, some written in libraries, cafes, bars and on park benches, and anywhere warm, dry and light by day. Others were written at night, by street light or candlelight.

In 2013, an addiction to alcohol saw the author lose his family, home and business. With nothing else to do without going insane on the streets, he begged money to buy exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens.

These are the stories written during a period on the road; in squats, doctors’ surgeries, court waiting rooms and hospital beds. Some were written in relatively safe surroundings and others, while in a state of vulnerable and anxious terror. Sometimes, there was plenty of time to write. Often a flash fiction story was all that time permitted.

Ranging from humorous science fiction to psychological horror, these short stories are a glimpse of what goes on in the mind of an alcoholic with depression, out on the streets.

I’m still writing a couple of books in the background and I’m still doing freelance work but with so many ideas for new short stories, I’ll keep writing everything I can. In perhaps a year from now, there should be a second collection of short stories published. I have so many ideas and plots that the easiest way to share them is in short stories.

The Words and Deeds journal, like the 10 before it, completes me when I’m away from my comfort zone (my studio) by providing the comfort of writing within it. It seems to attract attention and even though that makes me anxious, cognitive behaviour therapy taught me that those people who look at me are just naturally curious about someone who’s writing. Of course, if they’re paranoid, they might think I’m writing about them. But I have no secrets and just as I wear my heart on my sleeve in life, I would offer my notebook to anyone who’s curious and invite them to read it. I did this many times when I was homeless and several people signed my journals beneath encouraging personal sentiments. I treasure those memories and I managed to retain seven of the ten old journals. Some of those people became characters in my stories: a writer’s way of saying thanks (and hoping they’re read). With my dress sense and facial furniture, I look the part but for the avoidance of doubt, I wear a badge: It’s a simple tin badge with a picture of an e-reader with a red line through it. Like the steam punk watches I wear, it can be a conversation starter. People ask, listen, learn and hopefully, they read.

I wish I had a bigger badge, which read, “If there’s something you don’t understand, don’t be afraid of it. Engage with it instead. Ask, listen, learn and share. For if you are wise, then others can be too.” But make what you say or write interesting and accessible. I explained to one of the girls recently how ghosts are a paradoxical reality, as she’d recently suffered a loss. My explanation was not one based on faith and as such, it didn’t require a leap of faith on her part. My explanation was grounded purely in science and I explained quantum mechanics, spacetime and other concepts to arrive at ghosts as the truth. She thanked me later. She said I’d opened her eyes to completely new things and now she saw things differently. She’s not afraid any more. Everyone has a capacity in them like that, if they just listen, learn and think. Those with closed minds are welcome to their own company in the flat world I imagine for them. I guess my mind didn’t really open until I had a breakdown and found myself with nothing. I suppose those who have things have yet other things to think about. Unfortunately, they’re the same ignorants who don’t check facts and end up spreading false information on social media.

Never one to forget where I came from, when The Perpetuity of Memory is published, I’ll get a quantity of author’s copies. Some are for family and friends but others I’ll most likely give to the street homeless. I don’t think it’s too narcissistic to think some of them might be grateful of something to read and that it might mean something to have it given to them by the guy who wrote it, who was in the same position as them not so long ago.

So imagine you’re in a room, with no visible means of exit: How do you get out? Well, you stop imagining and close your mind. Then the room is destroyed, along with all that was in it and all which might have been. People, places, and the situations they create: Stories. Tales lost in that room of forgotten things, unless they’re read, learned from and shared.

It’s a Paul Auster reference and it’s a device I’ve used in a previous story. My second volume of collected tales will most likely be called The book of Forgotten Things.

Effectively a message for campers? (2,3,7)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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Assembled from old typewriters, sewing machines, cameras etc. (assemblique.com)

Among the many things I do to keep my brain in my skull is compile crosswords. Mine are cryptic puzzles, using a 15×15 grid and symmetrical on at least one diagonal axis. I employ the same methods as other compilers, so anyone familiar with the rules won’t be too troubled by the above clue. And it’s to that end that I attempt to write something which may resonate with others of a similar mindset: It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11). This could equally be the story of what happened when an antique typewriter and a sewing machine got together (“Brother Singer”?):

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, I learned from writing: Defy conventions and where there are two choices, find a third; Keep people on their toes. Because it’s all been done before and people know what to expect. You are the writer of your story and you want it to be different.

It applies equally to life: If it seems like there’s a choice between A and B, choose C. In my case, I was apparently some way through the alphabet when I finally decided what I wanted to do with my life, aged 42 and a bit. I’m 46 and I’ve been doing this long enough now that I no longer feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m a writer.

Recently I realised that I needed a little more order in my days; Some structure to make me concentrate on what really could make me a modest living if I run it more like a business. Given my life, that’s like erecting scaffold around a snowman. But I needed to put invisible dividers between working for myself and one day hoping to make money from it, and working for others, with a similar aspiration. It is difficult and it’s a life which doesn’t take kindly to barriers but the fuzzy ones I have in place are working.

Even before the recent reorganisation of my time, the studio was the main game-changer: Before I lived here, I was homeless. After roughly a year each of living on the streets, sofa surfing and living in an overcrowded pub flat, it’s nice to have a place of my own. Here, the door locks. As such, I don’t have to worry about people coming in uninvited; or a fucking delinquent landlady throwing a lit tampon into the room (another story); or a landlord whose accent was as broad as my contempt for him. Just as I travel with my own portable atmosphere, that guy would do well to carry subtitles. Then I’d spend as much time reading them as I did listening to him. But that’s yet another story. Now I have time to write them.

A door with a lock is obviously a good thing and the metaphorical doors in my life have locks for good reasons; They just lack hinges. Now though, it’s all a bit more under control.

The gig economy hasn’t produced anything much for the freelance writer, which is pretty much what I expected. It’s like pecking around on the ground for the last crumbs of bread and competing with all the other scavengers. Some of the work which is advertised is frankly ridiculous (someone’s idea made into a novel for an up-front fee of $250 anyone?), so amongst the pigeons, it’s easy to feel like a giraffe. But once the freelance work sites are exhausted, I can move on to other things, knowing that I haven’t missed out. There are a couple of freelance projects I’ve bid on and I’ve embellished my tenders with details which many jobbing bidders may have omitted: I’m a salesman and a pimp /whore.

More life lines have become blurred as I’ve felt ready and qualified to join writing groups and engage more with my peers. Writing is a lonely occupation, so peers are important. Depression and alcoholism are also isolating, and it’s been nice to discover some kindred spirits in the writing and blogging worlds.

With hindsight, it’s not been an exercise in separation but one of unification. Writing is my life now but I wasn’t able to embrace such a thing: It all seemed too good to be true, after all that’s gone before. Now I know better. “Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.” (Paul Auster).

So even when I’ve gone through the emails from the freelance websites and I’m writing my own stuff, it’s not just my life but my job; And that reversal has been the eureka thing: The figurative light bulb above my head. Or maybe I’m the snowman who didn’t think that the sun might come out.

Because whatever I’m doing, I’m my own boss. This is my life, my story and my business. I have clients but I’m the freelance writer. As such, I have targets and deadlines which I’ll be measured on and it’s only me who’ll suffer if I take on too much. My clients aren’t bosses though: I’m still my own boss in a freelance contract, in which I will have set certain terms.

If anyone were to tell me to sit at my desk and write 1000 words in an afternoon, I’d probably go to the park and draw something whilst standing up. With only myself to answer to ultimately, and with a reputation to uphold, I’ll write what’s needed to fulfil a symbiotic contract.

The writer’s life is such that it never stops and part of my mental health problem is simply shutting my brain down so that I might sleep. So am I not antagonising that part of my depression? I spent too long fighting and now I’ve managed to embrace my misfiring mind; My one-time adversary is now my friend. Everything I watch, listen to or read; it feeds the sponge in my head. It was a simple mind trick which allowed me to embrace this. It was challenging: After all, this was my illness but also the life I wanted to make. Before this mental exercise, I had to have a notebook to hand when watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. That’s what writers do. I wanted to be a writer but I wanted to be able to concentrate on working and relaxing equally but separately. Now, I can effectively divide or dissect my brain: I can touch-type, so I don’t need to look at the screen. Even if I do, I can cancel the part of my brain which was watching TV and concentrate instead on the sounds. The words then type themselves out in my head and I remember them for later. I don’t know if this is unusual: I know I am. Perhaps I need to be grateful to the poisoned chalice which is my IQ of 147 for something. In any case, the premise was to embrace rather than repel; To enjoy the two being the same: Writing is my life and my life is writing. I just needed to change the way I was thinking.

My fiction writing has benefited from the new, permeable, semi-opaque regime: I’m doing more of it. Well, of course I am; It’s my fucking life. The barrier was accepting something so wonderful as fact, when I spent my life dreaming; mainly nightmares. I’m sure that other writers, depressives or alcoholics will get some or all of what was an unholy trinity for me. Perhaps others will too. A, B, or even C: I got off around Q and realised it’s okay to be different but that there are others like me, however rare.

Although not as prolific on the free-to-view stuff now, I’m busier than ever as a writer and that’s a good thing for a writer to be. Besides the gig work and my ongoing novel, I’m writing some library stories: Fewer but longer and deeper. The next to appear in a ‘zine, then on here will be Echo Beach: a deep and unpleasant slow burner of a psychological horror.

I have sedatives to help me sleep now but I keep a notebook by the bed.

Postscript:

Effectively a message to campers? (2,3,7): To all intents

It’s in my head and it sounds like a college for large herbivores (11): Hippocampus

As Douglas Adams observed, the answer only makes sense if you understand the question you’re asking.

A whore and a slave to the pimp

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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I am an unholy trinity of pimp, whore and slave; to myself. People who owe me money have defaulted on their debts, but that’s just an aside. It’s like when a customer didn’t pay an invoice when I ran a business. In fact, it was a good way to pay people to no longer exist. But that’s another story.

Lately I’ve had to adopt a much more business-like approach to writing, because of what it’s become for me (my life) and because I need to keep the various aspects of it separated. When your job is your life and you’ve been a slave to both in the past, that’s difficult.

It’s the way I live: This studio is not much more than a glorified office, albeit one with a leather sofa, a sound system and a TV; and a huge collection of CDs and DVDs. Like most offices, the toilet is off-suite and there’s nowhere to sleep, so I bed down on the floor. It’s a studio.

I was keen to find some sort of work / life balance but that’s difficult when I enjoy what I do so much. So having written various things for other people in the past, I thought I’d explore the gig economy. Obviously it’s poorly paid and very competitive but I don’t need to make a lot of money, I’m my own boss and I enjoy what I do. Pimping myself as a writing whore is proving to be just what I needed: Now I can enjoy writing for other people and getting paid, and still write purely for the enjoyment. I can place a divider somewhere in my already wonky day, so that it’s part paid, part not, but all satisfying.

Some freelance sites are better than others. Many are just a means for the operators to make money from desperate writers, with promises of great rewards for financial investment. Others require the writer to earn bidding rights, which can be done by writing more assignments for clients; or by “enhancing” one’s listing: basically, in-app purchases in the publishing world. Although I accept that writing has become democratised – mainly for the good – and that writers need to have credentials, I don’t believe that should come at a cost.

A few sites will only accept writers upon completion of a timed on-line assignment and with my trusty copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook always to hand, I did some research. As it happens, I’ve signed up with three freelance sites: Upwork, Freelancer and Copify. The latter is the one which required learned qualification but I’m a whore and a pimp. They only accept writers on merit and I completed a random piece on “The Legacy of the London 2012 Olympics”: 200 words in 20 minutes, including proof-reading and editing. Some of the freelance work placed by clients demands that kind of skill and speed and I was accepted as a writer. I can’t share the article here because it was written for someone else and therefore I forfeit copyright: It’s the way the industry works and I’m a whore.

I’ve run businesses before and they failed because I was drunk. I’m sober now but I know how a business works. By effectively going back to running my own business, I’m making a separation in my mind, so that it doesn’t get all mixed up again. It’s a coping mechanism; it’s a continuation of the life-long recovery process; and it’s got my life back.

It’s dividing the writer’s life into work and personal. The difference is, I enjoy both now because of what I do.

As my intellectual stock has risen and I’ve become more marketable, I wondered if my website ought to be more professional; at least, minus the alcoholism and mental health issues. But people buy from people and if people are going to work with me, it’s the real me they get.

I can’t delete the past when my life is my business now but I get to choose who’s in it.

A week in solitary refinement

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Pink heart

After a week spent at my parents’ house with my kids, I’ve now had another week to settle back in at home. Although I was in good company while I was away, it was nice to return to my comfort zone. Pleasant company aside, all I longed for was solitude. It’s one of many parts which have never fitted together in the puzzle which is my particular brand of depression.

Although I can be quite extrovert in the right company, I’m a reclusive person by nature. All of my other traits are equally observable in either situation: Opinionated, offensive to some; not giving a shit. I can be challenging company and I travel with my own atmosphere: That’s why my comfort zone is my studio, where I can be reclusive.

Depression is not inherited but I know that my parents (and others) find it frustrating when they don’t understand something, just as I do. My diagnosis was hastened by alcoholism and I continue to fight the fire with gasoline, but depression can strike anyone and it’s a slow stalker; only letting you know that it’s there once it’s enveloped you.

And it is frustrating: Having an IQ of 147, a grasp of quantum mechanics and entanglement which pretty much explains everything, yet not being able to understand what goes on in my head.

I also know that I’m unlikely to ever be cured of my illness. There’s not a day which passes when I don’t miss my children and rue everything which led to my breakdown. And yet, it was down to me and it’s me who serves the life sentence.

This isn’t self-pity. If anyone were to check social media for the last time I posted a needy “me” comment, they’d have to look for a very long time, because I never do. Why burden others with something which I myself find perplexing? And so I remain reclusive.

All of which and more, I need to convey to a judge and a panel at tribunal in order to be re-awarded the increased benefits I once received. It’s difficult to explain how a mental illness can affect one’s physical abilities but at my last tribunal, I was fortunate enough to have a judge who was more insightful than most of the people I’ve had to deal with in benefits land.

It’s in that hearing that I’ll finally have an opportunity to pour out my heart. Everyone knows what I put everyone else through when I had my breakdown. Now that’s in the past, I wonder if anyone, one day, might think to consider what I went through and what I continue to go through every day. No wonder I keep myself distracted by writing.

Writing this blog is always an outlet and my writing in general is a therapeutic coping mechanism. As I’ve continued to read the regular column in The Guardian, where better-known writers describe their working days, I find more and more kindred spirits. Many writers have mental health issues and some use their work to express what they are unable to to others, and even themselves.

I realise how suited I am to this job for many reasons. With no-one to talk to (and I don’t want to) – like my peers – it’s sometimes a matter of writing a story which gets it all out. Most of those stories are never seen but this old typewriter knows it all. And it’ll be here when I’m gone, like those diaries in The Unfinished Literary Agency, found outside the abandoned building. Like some of those other writers, I’m happiest when it’s dark outside and my studio is lit only by the desk lamp over the laptop: I’m cocooned then.

Some of those stories end up getting a second airing and occasionally become something else. Like most of my writing though, it’s the deep thought between the lines which can make the stories so affecting.

A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie sat in my virtual filing cabinet for 18 months: Praised by the editor of Writing Magazine when it won first prize in a “Life-changing” story competition, it languished. Because like most writing, there was room for improvement. I edited that story quite heavily and made it appropriate to a greater readership, with more inclusive circumstances in the story.

Those circumstances are a family break-up and the loss of a family friend; things which many people can relate to. Although it’s a children’s story first and foremost, it’s still pretty deep, as my beta readers would testify. Although my own daughter is only nine, when she offered to illustrate it for me, I was amazed at how much of the sub-text she seemed to have understood and which is portrayed in her pictures. The book is available on Amazon for Kindle (here) and I hope to attract the attention of a mainstream publisher. It’s a story which needed to be told and which I hope many will read and be affected by.

When I write stories for children – including the ones I now write specifically to keep up with my own – I don’t dumb them down too much. As I found with all of the teenagers I met when I was homeless, society does young people a disservice when it comes to understanding. I try to be more respectful.

A week of solitude and thought has given me many more ideas for writing, both current and future. My short fiction output has reduced, as I predicted it would. I’ll still do the marketing and PR work, but I’m at a stage where I’m having to look at writing from a more commercial angle. With a couple of paying gigs in the pipeline, as well as the Cyrus Song book going well, it’s good to be back.

Horror, science fiction and fantasy: That’s my life.

Given my solitary and reclusive nature, a busy writer is a good thing for me to be.

Running round in circles in my mind

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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REO Speedwagon, I can’t fight this feeling: One of many guilty secrets in my eclectic music collection and a song I’m listening to now, which means a lot to me. Like so many songs, this particular track takes me back to a specific time and place, where there are fond memories. I threw away those oars a long time ago.

It’s nice to be able to listen to music again, after a week away with my kids at my parents’ house. It was a break which was three years in the making, so it was pretty affecting. I lost a lot of time when my only love was alcohol, so there was a lot of catching up to do now that I’m sober. I knew it might be difficult but I only had a couple of wobbles.

Generally, I was paranoid: It’s part of my unique condition and I assume that any tension I perceive is because of me; I come with my own atmosphere. The jitters weren’t alcohol-fuelled. I did get a little angry and upset but it was with myself and the situation I’ve created. I was among people whom I love dearly but for all the time I was drunk, I was hurting them. I’ve written before of how I can sympathise with alcoholics who lapse: Fuelled by my chronic depression, I have very weighty feelings of guilt. It would be very easy to numb them by getting rat arsed. Last week was always going to be the biggest test but if I ever lapse, things will go back to how they were and I won’t see my family. So I didn’t succumb. Being an alcoholic really is a life sentence.

We had days out and days in, with visiting relatives. On the in-days and in the evenings, I spent most of the time writing: It’s therapy but I was also writing stories for the children. They did confirm that it’s pretty cool to have a dad who’s a writer. So I wrote a couple of stories, with the children’s bedtime companions as the main protagonists. The premise was that the cuddly toys go on adventures while the children sleep, and vice versa. That turned out to be a pretty good way of getting the kids to sleep.

They loved the stories and I’ve promised to write more and send them by email. It’s not the same as having the author read them to you but we’re back to monthly meetings now and the stories are a good way to keep in touch. It also means that I can hold on to last week and keep it going in some ways.

I brought the kids over to the studio in the week, just so they could see where I live. The studio isn’t big enough to have them stay but they thought it was a cool little place. I must admit that I’ve looked around a couple of times since I’ve been back, as I thought I caught a glimpse of one of them. But they are gone and I’m empty. The coping mechanism is to just carry on, writing for comfort and to keep my kids close.

As well as the stories I wrote specifically for them, the eldest (11) and youngest (9) love the Cyrus Song stories and can’t wait to see the book which has evolved from them. It’s not a children’s book and they probably won’t get some of the deeper sub-texts but that’s part of the point: Cyrus Song is a story for everyone, which some will understand at a deeper level than others. It’s a skill I’ve been praised for in the past: An ability to effectively write two stories in one, dependent on a reader’s perspective. I can also change styles very easily, so I can still feed the adult horror audience as well as writing the more fun stuff.

Back to my parents’ and I was let loose on the kitchen a couple of times, because I’d not cooked for the children in a long time and there are a couple of my signature dishes which they love: Nothing gourmet; just waffles and eggs; and southern fried chicken with fries. There’s a very specific way that I cook waffles and eggs. I make my own southern coating for the chicken and the fries are home-made too. To me, the best fry-up is my mum’s. To my kids, the best waffles and eggs, and the best fried chicken, are cooked by their dad.

We had some fairly lengthy discussions: Despite seeing the kids regularly, there are few opportunities to talk in any depth when walking around Milton Keynes, which is all there is to do there. Without prompting, the eldest stated that he doesn’t believe in God. The youngest does and their mum’s a Christian but not the kind to force views upon the kids. I wondered if the eldest had stopped believing because of everything which went on with me (They were told that I was ill; They know it was because of alcohol). No: He just got bored of school assemblies.

I would never force my atheist views on the children but my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Losing my religion was one of the most enlightening things that has happened to me. I did tell Louis though, that I can’t fully rule out the existence of a superior intelligence, when science still has questions which it can’t answer. I just don’t subscribe to a religion. What doesn’t exist is God, as created by Christianity. But I can’t deny that there may be something else: That’s fuel for the science fiction writer in any case.

Despite their relatively tender years, my children are remarkably grown up (alcoholic father; honest mum) and intelligent. I shouldn’t be surprised, given the genes they’ve inherited. Where I had my IQ measured at 147, my ex-wife isn’t so vain, but I’d wager she’s smarter than me. I’d not spoken to the kids at length before last week and they’re a credit to their mum and step-dad. They’re still kids though. For now, one of them is perhaps agnostic: I know what that feels like; to be confused.

My daughter is less easy to define, as she’s just herself. She’s endearing, more care-free than my son, and has a personality ten times her size, without being in any way objectionable. Paternal bias perhaps, but they both seemed to win over everyone I introduced them to. They bicker like siblings do but they’re best friends. They make me smile, especially when the littlest comes out with one of her idiosyncratic observations (Pointing at a black and white cat: “Cow cat!”). They like Pointless and The Big Bang Theory as well.

My auntie said the sweetest thing, as she watched me writing for the kids: “I wish I had the brains.” Trouble is, I’ve had an IQ of 147 for a long time; It’s only recently that I realised what it was for. A life wasted, or a life spent just wondering? My kids seem to think the latter. For me, it’s been the realisation that I can do something: Something which affects others. It was a long journey; I paid a heavy price but I’m a much better person.

It was good fun, last week. It’s good to be back but I wish I was back there. I suppose a part of me is. I wasn’t judged and people know that I’m a writer now.

I was treading water while I was all at sea and many metaphorical ships had sailed. Then I was without a paddle for some time, before a life boat picked me up. The drinking is under control now but others will always judge me.

It’s time to bring this ship into the shore and throw away the oars forever.

A world with soft edges

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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(Crochet toys!)

There are many things which make my life good, when I’ve served myself so many shit sandwiches in the past. For me, the main ones are having kids and being a writer. Looked at the other way around, it’s even better: I’m a writer and I have kids. From their point of view, it’s one of the greatest things ever: When you’re 11 and nine-years-old; when you want a bedtime story and your dad’s a writer, you can just have a completely new story written for you.

Louis (11) and Lola (9) gave me the cast: Their bedtime companions; A Minecraft cuddly pig and a stuffed puppy from IKEA, called Snorty and Greg respectively. Then I asked my kids what super power they’d most like to have: Lola would like to fly and Louis chose invisibility. So I wrote a story: A completely new bedtime story, and my children were at the world premier, read by the author. But it’s a story for everyone:

A world with soft edges

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

That was Snorty’s wish and Greg’s dream.

Snorty was a small Minecraft pig: Just a simple collection of polygons in the Minecraft world, made real and less cube-like as a soft toy, and with a back leg which hung a little loose. Greg was a Labrador puppy from Ikea: His coat was a bit faded and he was small. But he was Swedish: He could bark very loudly if someone said or did something he disagreed with, or if something happened which he didn’t like.

The pig and the dog would spend their nights exploring, but always aware of the giant children, in case they woke. Because when the giants woke up, the animals would immediately fall asleep: That was just the way things worked. The giant children would look after the animals during the day.

“Are the giant kids asleep?”, asked Snorty.

“Yes they are. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to answer you and you wouldn’t have been able to ask me in the first place, would you?”

“Oh yes”, said Snorty. “My leg’s a bit loose”.

“How many times do I have to tell you, your leg is fine.”

“But that giant girl has had me for so long, and she loves me so much that she’s made my leg loose.”

“Yes, and the giant boy loves me a lot, so I’ve got faded fur. But when we’re awake and those two are asleep, I put an amazing technicolour dream coat on.” Greg gave Snorty a Thespian twirl.

“Ooh, look at you!” Snorty smiled, then looked at his leg. “But what about this?”

“You look fine!”, Greg said. “Your leg might drag a bit, but I won’t leave you behind. When the giants are asleep and we’re awake, your leg is as new as my coat.”

“Greg? Do you wish you could talk to your giant?”

“I can’t talk to him. He has to sleep, so that his batteries recharge.”

“Have they got batteries?”

“No. Just big, developing brains. I can’t talk to my giant kid and you can’t talk to yours. They have to be asleep, so that we can get up to things. We have to explore and have adventures while they sleep. Some of what we do, they see as dreams and that feeds their batteries.”

“Their brains, you mean.”

“Same thing really, Snorty. But yes. Then while we’re asleep, they go off and do nice things, so that we have pleasant dreams.”

“So it is like we can talk to them? I mean, we live their dreams while they sleep; And they live ours while they’re awake? Is that right Greg?”

“I think so Snorty. Do you know what your one dreams of?”

“She said that if she had one superhero power, she’d be able to fly. What about yours, Greg?”

“Mine said that he’d like to be invisible. If you could wish for something though, what would you want your giant to do?”

“Well, she wants to fly. That means I can fly. But we’re different to the giants. I think I’d want her to know that if she really wants to fly, she can. Maybe one day, she might fly in a different way. Or maybe, she might actually fly. I want her to keep imagining. Would you want to be invisible, like your giant does?”

“That would be a lot of fun. There could be intrigue and espionage, which would be very exciting. We have to be responsible though and not misuse the superpowers. All superheroes have to be careful not to reveal their powers. We do have a bit of a problem though”, said Greg.

“How so?”, asked Snorty.

“Well, if you can fly and I can be invisible…”, Greg began.

“Then I can’t see you.” Snorty finished the sentence.

“Hmmmmm…”, said Greg.

“Hmmmmm…”. Snorty agreed. “So, I could be flying around and not know where you are.”

“And I could see you flying around but you wouldn’t be able to see me.”

“Hmmmmm…”

“Hmmmmm…”

“I know!” Snorty shouted. “If I’m flying and you need me but I can’t see you, you could just call my name.”

“And if I’m invisible and you want to find me”, said Greg, “You could call mine.”

“We’d be a a superhero double act. A bit like siblings”, said Snorty.

“But without having to admit that we’re best friends”, said Greg.

“Yeah.”

“That’s quite cool.”

Suddenly and for no reason whatsoever, a castle appeared: Not in the distance; not just in front of them, but all around them.

“We’re in a castle,” said Snorty.

“You do have a habit of stating the obvious, piggy.”

“But why are we in a castle?”, said the pig.

“I don’t know. One of the giants is dreaming. And they’ve given us a castle.” The dog looked thoughtful. “Shall we have a look around? I mean, seeing as we’re here?”

“What are we looking for?”

“I don’t know. But a castle has just materialised around us. It would be a bit silly not to look around, wouldn’t it?”

“Isn’t it a bit rude to look around other people’s houses?”

“Well, yes. But we’ve been put inside this one, so it’s kind of ours.”

“Perhaps we’re trapped? Maybe there’s no way out.”

“If anything really bad happens, then the giants will wake up. When they wake up, all of this will be gone.”

“But I like it here.” Snorty looked around. They were in a huge entrance hall, with large wooden doors on either side and a grand staircase, leading up to a balcony which ran all around the room.

“I like it here too”, Greg said. “As long as nothing bad happens, we can stay here until the giants wake up. So we must look out for anything which looks like a bad dream and use our superpowers to keep them away.” Greg stood on his back legs, so that he looked more dramatic in his colourful coat.

“What am I supposed to do?”, Snorty asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you can stand up like that and look like a twonk. I’ve got a wonky leg, remember?”

“I do not look like a twonk. I am being theatrical. Besides, your leg is fine in here. How many times do I have to tell you, Snorty?”

“Oh yes.” Snorty stood on his hind trotters and looked down. “The floor’s further away.”

“Don’t say you’re afraid of heights. I thought you wanted to fly.”

“I do. I’m not afraid of heights. Aren’t you afraid of not being seen?”

“I’ll only use my invisibility if I have to. I can bark. I mean, I can shout, remember? It’s got a bit cold and dark in here. I am a little bit worried. “

“So am I.”

“I think there might be a bad dream here somewhere.”

“Me too. Don’t go invisible yet, Greg.”

“I won’t. But don’t you fly off either.”

“I won’t. What does a bad dream look like, Greg?”

“I don’t know. The whole point is that the giants wake up and then it stops. All we can do is…”

“What?”

“The best we can, I suppose. I feel strange, Snorty.”

“So do I Greg. I think this might be how bad dreams start.” Snorty looked at Greg. “Hey!”, he shouted. “You’ve got my legs!”

Greg looked down. “I thought the ground looked closer.” He walked around for a while on his new trotters. “There’s nothing wrong with this leg you’re always moaning about. It just looks like I’m wearing pink trousers. It is cold in here. Hey! You’re wearing my coat!”

“Ooh! I am.” Snorty looked at the coat, then down at the floor. “The floor is even further away. Greg! I’ve got your legs!”

“I’m glad you’ve got them, because I was wondering where they’d gone. I think we should see if we can get out of here. This is a bit weird.”

“There are two doors”, said Snorty. “Shall we check one each?”

“That sounds like a plan”, said Greg.

But both doors were locked. Greg trotted back to the middle of the room, using Snorty’s legs, which he now had. Snorty padded, on Greg’s legs, which he now had.

They looked around and there were no other doors. The castle had materialised around them after all; They’d not walked in through a door. The only other way of leaving the entrance hall was the staircase leading up.

The dog and the pig walked to the stairs. But the stairs had turned into an Escalator, which was running down.

“What in this world has happened?”, said Snorty.

“One of the giants is dreaming this,” Greg said. “What will they think of next?”

“Shall we try going up it? The moving staircase?”

“We can try. We’ll need to run. And keep to the left.”

“Why?”, asked Snorty.

“Stand on the right, remember? And we’d better be quick.”

“Why?”

“Because the walls are closing in.”

“And the ground is shaking. Do you think the giants are waking up?”

“I hope so. Whether they are or not though, there’s only one thing we can do to get out of here.” Greg looked up.

Snorty looked up too. The walls stretched up as far as they could see and were closing in on all sides. They couldn’t run up the Escalator: It was running too fast; The walls were closing in. And besides all of that, they each had the wrong legs.

“You need to fly up”, Greg said to Snorty. “And I need to shout as loudly as I can.”

“Erm, Greg?”

“What, Snorty?”

“Actually, I am afraid of heights.”

“Oh you twonk! Why did you get that superpower? Well, you need to fly and you need to carry me. And I need to shout. Hopefully, we can wake someone up.”

“But I can’t carry you!”

“You can if I’m invisible.”

“How?”

“Because I’ll weigh less. I’ll be with you, so you don’t have to be afraid.”

Greg closed his eyes and became invisible. He shouted to Snorty: “Now, fly piggy. Fly!” He shouted and shouted; He barked and shouted some more.

Greg’s coat became Snorty’s wings and his legs dangled beneath as he rose into the air. The higher he went, the quieter Greg’s shouting got.

The walls continued to shrink in around them and the whole world shook, as Snorty’s wings grew tired and Greg’s barking was drowned out by the earthquake around them.

How long does a blink of the eye last? A blink is the time between the eye closing, then opening again. Usually it’s less than a second. Sometimes, it’s a whole night; or perhaps a lifetime.

In the blink of an eye, Greg and Snorty were back with the giants.

“Is there any way we can tell them about this, dog?”

“The only way to change things, piglet” Said Greg. “…is to end the dreams.”

“Could we tell him about it? That man on the typewriter.”

“I think he already knows.”

Lots of people have wondered what it might be like to make a dream come true. But what if someone’s dream was simply to be awake? Then, what if you could share your life and your time with them? What if you could make their dreams come true, just by sleeping, so that when you were asleep, they were awake?

It happens every night. All over the world.

It’s rather wonderful, if you think about it.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016

Postscript

Nailed it, according to the test audience, aged 11 and nine.

Post Postscript

[SPOILER ALERT]

Floored someone, when I heard from a contemporary who’d got all of the subtext and said they had a wet face at the end. Because there’s a very tragic thing at the end, subtly hidden: I put that in, so that a parent reading it to their kids might be as deeply affected by it as those whose heads it should drift over.

Chips off the old writer’s block

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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(Image: Ukfrozenfoods.com)

It would appear that next week’s break with my children may be a bit of a busman’s holiday: Based on the emails I’ve had from both of them, we’re going to be doing quite a lot of writing. I’ve checked, double-checked and checked again; made sure that they’re not just humouring me: No; For whatever reason, they want to write some stories.

I suppose if you’re nine or 11 years old and you’ve got a dad who’s a writer, it could be quite cool to write some stories with him. For my part, I’m proud; of my children, but what father isn’t? I’ve been told that I should be proud of myself: Something I’ve not been for quite some time, since I let everyone down. As with so many other things, I wish I’d not had an alcoholic breakdown but the life which has come about since is better than any period in my life before, even when I had money.

My daughter has drawn all of the pictures I need for the children’s book I (WE!) are publishing, so we’ll be putting that together over the course of next week. My son is using three of my short stories for a website he’s building and I dare say I’ll be helping with that as well. What’s most exciting though is the new book: Cyrus Song. Both kids love the two short stories which started that off and both are keen to be a part of the ongoing process. I suppose when your dad is a writer and he can imagine talking animals, that’s pretty cool too.

Of course, we’ll be going out to various places with my parents but the main thing the kids want to do is help with my new book. I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination (It helps in my job) but to have their input will make this new project even more magical than it is already. I suppose it doesn’t get much better when you’re their age than having a dad who’s a writer and who can bring characters of their imagining to life, as they sit with me and watch that process. For the sake of everyone, I’ll set appropriate times for me and my co-authors to work together.

It really is the case that my kids are proud of me, despite everything. I already knew that my parents have a sense of pride in what I’ve become and next week, we’ll all be in the same place, where the elders can see the youngsters writing with me. What a wonderful life. It’s just a shame it took such a long time to realise.

So, a week off? From writing? Difficult though it may have been to drag myself from something I enjoy so much, my kids are more important. If they want to watch, learn and provide input, who am I to argue? The writing life never stops and it’s even better when there are people along to enjoy the ride.

So far in the Cyrus Song book, there have only been a small cast of animal characters, as I try to concentrate on the ongoing plot and narrative. By the end of next week, I expect to have a large menagerie. I can see how it’ll go already: The kids make it all up during the evening and I turn it into magic later, for them to read the next day. I’ll post updates as the schedule permits but I really don’t think I’m going to get much free time: How fucking splendid!

Almost as splendid as all of that is a little program I’ve installed on this very typewriter (a Windows 10 laptop): It’s the best retro geek thing a writer could wish for; Called “Qwertick”, it makes my keyboard sound like a typewriter: My life is complete. And the typewriter will travel with me next week.

I never qualified in my last diary entry, quite why it’s comforting to remind myself that I’m a writer: It’s for when I’m out of my comfort zone. Away from home. I get anxious and paranoid, so being able to reassure myself that I’m a writer is a coping mechanism. Next week, when I’m out and about with the kids, I have two little reasons to be proud. I shouldn’t need my coping mechanism.

But if anyone asks my kids what their dad does, I know that they’re quite proud to tell people that he’s a writer.