Monday, 16 February 2015

a month without Facebook

This isn't one of those gloating posts about how improved life is without Facebook. I hope. If it is, tell me - I'll delete it.

But because this is my blog and I write about myself here (big head) I can tell you that having a break from Facebook has been a key ingredient in - but not the whole picture of - a really productive month or so.

I like FB but, as I said before, "I am also a bugger for getting lost in it and that can make me feel a bit lost from myself."

Have any of you ever 'deactivated' your Facebook? I have, several times (sometimes for years at a time) so I was ready for what FB would do. Once you click that button to leave, it does its best to make you stay by showing photographs of you having a great time with various people on your friends list. It tells you these people will miss you. It names them. Siobhan will miss you. Ian will miss you. etc. Only a lot of the photos it showed me this time were with people I haven't interacted with in ages, so it wasn't that effective. FB needs to update this algorithm (that's the first time I've ever used the word 'algorithm' - no idea if it's right). I still would have deactivated, but I would have liked in that moment of going to have paused and reflected, with sadness, 'Yes, Ashley WILL miss me.'

For me, life without FB is easy. For something that can take up hours of my week (or hours of a day, even), it actually leaves no hole. Sure, my friends will be having funny conversations without me, and after a night out I don't get the 'Oh god let's see the photos/videos' moment (or maybe that's a positive), but really - I find it's what-you-don't-know-you-don't-miss. I might reactivate at some point. I probably will.

But this Facebook-less month has succeeded in making me feel more connected. I've written more, read more, and made more story submissions than I ever have in a month. Looking back at my submitted stories records for the past year, I averaged 1-2 submissions a month. But this January I made 5 submissions, and have made another 2 so far in February. A few of those were new stories, a few were rejects which have been edited and polished, and one was a pitch for a commission for a blog residency at a magazine I love. I sent work to an oh-so optimistic place, and some to a new magazine I discovered and really really like

And I wrote something for radio, for the BBC Opening Lines. I also researched the kind of stories they go for, and found this gem from Claire Fuller. Because my time online hasn't been dominated by looking at social-media, I've had the impetus to follow links to short stories to read with my morning coffee, instead of FB news feeds. I'm just making my way through the 6 stories which are available to read online from The Sunday Times Short Story Award. So far, The Referees by Joseph O'Neill is my favourite, but I also really liked The Ways by Colin Barrett. 

I've been reminded how useful, and sobering, and inspiring, it is to read the stories that are winning the big prizes. This year's Costa Short Story Award winner, Fishskin, Hareskin, by Zoe Gilbert, is just amazing. 

But my increased productivity hasn't just been down to no Facebookin. I'm pretty sure that the news I had at the start of year about my shortlisting in the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize (the results were announced at the weekend- I was awarded a 'Highly Commended' prize), and the longlisting at Bare Fiction, have been useful pushes / prompts / confidence nudgers.

And then there was just the sense I had that I wanted to get some stuff done. So stuff is getting done. Hope your stuff is too.


Saturday, 24 January 2015

Faces / close but / diaries

The lovely people at Magic Oxygen have made a gallery of all their shortlisted writers' faces. See that photo of me there on the right, with the rather red lips? Well they've gone kind of BLACK in the version in the gallery. I used to wear black lipstick - or was it dark blue - when I was fifteen and a 'Sweaty' - that meant I listened to Nirvana instead of dance music. The gallery also has info about the other 19 writers I'm shortlisted with, and it's nice to be amongst such a fine bunch. Have a look here.

I entered Bare Fiction's Flash Prize a few months ago, didn't get on the shortlist and had already enjoyed marking an X next to it in my submission diary (photo of that in last post). But I had an email yesterday to say I did make it onto the longlist of 30 out of 461. One of those 'close but no cigar' moments, which bring a mix of feelings. Ultimately good ones, though.

On my days off I've been enjoying a bit of time with my teenage diaries - here we are together.



For ages I've been meaning to get them into some kind of chronological order, so now each one (there are over 70) has a small white sticker on the front saying when the diary started and ended. I rediscovered some stories I wrote back then too -  horrible stories - mostly about love. Two characters, Megan and Jake, plague nearly everything with their smug creative relationship. Jake is always playing the piano and Megan is always off somewhere writing poetry.

Although I'm a writer and my other half is a musician I absolutely do not accept that I have somehow forced a life path identical to the way I thought it would be when I was 14. No. No. No.

Oh crap.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Shortlisted, deactivated

New Year's Eve, daytime. I say to Mario:
"This is the first year since I started sending writing out that I haven't had anything published or shortlisted. But that's ok. I mean, it's how it works. Ups and downs. Ebbs and flows."

CUT TO: New Year's Day, morning. I open my emails, this from Magic Oxygen Literary Prize:
"Dear Teresa, Your story 'Waking', has made it through to our shortlist of ten..."

GET THIS: The email was sent at 11.59am, in the very last minute of 2014. Funny, huh?

Goes without saying I'm mega happy about this. A great end to one year and a boost of a start to the new one. It's a story that started out as a flash a few years ago, then took on a new life and more words and various edits, has been sent to quite a few publications / prizes and got nowhere...

EVIDENCE:
Here is a photo of my Rejection Section 2014



It's a bit blurred but I can tell you the word 'Waking' appears 4 times, so that's how many times it went out last year.

Note all those crosses. When I hear (or don't hear) a piece of work hasn't made it, I have to say I enjoy making those little crosses, they're cathartic. It's like the end of hope and the start of hope all at once.

So, fourth time lucky (probably double that if I checked how many times I subbed it in previous years). That thing has happened where a particular reader / judge has read it, and it's risen to the top of a big pile (800 entries). It might even now win a prize. I won't know if it has until mid-February, but it will be published in an anthology, and just being in the last ten is a wonderful feeling. I will, of course, keep you posted.


I have also deactivated Facebook ('What, all of it?!' a friend quipped when I announced this to him a few days ago.) No, just my account, as I have done before, when the fug of Facebook gets too much and I need a good soul clean. I am a fan of Facebook, I love and appreciate many of the people I talk to on there but I am also a bugger for getting lost in it and that can make me feel a bit lost from myself.

So I've done a bit more Tweeting in the past few days, but I've also written a lot more, and read a lot more, and felt more peaceful. GOOD.


No big end of year post, but I will say 2014 was the happiest year I've had in a while, maybe because I got a fringe cut in my hair ('bangs' in some parts of the world). Myself and my fringe wish you nowt but good stuff for the year ahead.






Monday, 22 December 2014

Long Lost Object

When I was ten years old, I met my Dad for what felt like the first time. It felt like the first time because I hadn't seen him since I was 3, and I could hardly remember him. But only 7 years had passed, and actually that's not that long when you have an adult brain and you're good at storing and knowing things. So he was full of memories I didn't have. I was full of anger and fear and curiosity and I didn't know what to do with it. This story is based on some things that happened those first few times we met, and though I've condensed it into one visit, everything here happened, or was said, or felt. Oh and I changed my name.
  

As soon as I step through his garden gate the front door opens and he is there. He must have been waiting, watching through a window.
I know what to expect, vaguely, part from memory and part from photographs, but it’s still strange. Maybe because of the way he makes it look normal, with his hands in his pockets and a smile on his face, and the way he calls out to me, ‘Hey’. Then, when I'm in front of him, ‘Hello, Eve.’
            I’ve practised this next part in the mirror, watching my jaw snap down and up. ‘Dad. Dad. Dad? I have a Dad. My Dad said… No, I can't, I'm going to my Dad's. Hi Dad.’
But here, I keep the word inside.
‘Hello.’ I pull the sleeves of my cardigan down and fold my arms, afraid he’ll try to hug me, afraid he is expecting something more beautiful.
He’s still smiling. ‘Come in.’
He doesn’t wait, doesn’t see me inside with something like, ‘Welcome’. I think about turning around. About going home to my mum and saying, ‘Yeah, I met him. And that’s enough.’ And my mum asking, ‘Is it?’
I step into the house and close the door.
‘What do you want to drink, love?’ He’s waiting again, in another doorway. I know the house, in a far away way. If things had been different I might still have had a room of my own. A second home. I’ve played with that idea too, before coming here today. Leaving school on a Friday and saying, ‘I’m staying over at my dad’s this weekend.’ It seems lavish, exotic, exciting. But here it doesn’t. Here, between known and unknown, is cold and unsettling.  
‘Love? To drink?’
Love, I hear. He’s confident, not just with his words but his movements too. At ease with me here. He walks into the kitchen, expecting me to follow. I imagine coming in from school, talking about my day. What would you like to drink, love. Or I’d help myself. Open the fridge, know the cupboards.
‘Orange juice?’
I nod, ‘Okay.’

In the living room we sit in armchairs, a gas fire between us. He talks. He asks about school and exams and hobbies, trying to find the parts of me that are his.
My answers are short, minimum: top set, exams ok, drawing.
He tells me about the people who are looking forward to seeing me. Relatives I don’t know. He tells me about places he used to take me to, things we did together. The Rugby Club on Sundays. Climbing onto the piano stool. Twice the size of you. So determined. Everyone in stitches.
I didn’t expect this, this advantage he’d have on me. This is why it’s easy for him, he thinks he knows me already. I look around the room, but not at the things I’m interested in. Not at his pictures or CDs or ornaments, the things that might tell me who he is. I fix my eyes on the walls, ceiling, floor. Anywhere but him.
There’s something on the carpet between us – a small, black, crumpled thing. A dead spider. I gasp and he hears it and says, ‘Ah. If that’s how you feel you probably shouldn’t look under the back window.’
So I get up and walk across the room, past him, to see four or five black and brown spiders, all dead and folded at the edge of the carpet. It’s one of those shocks where you feel your face pull across your forehead.  
He turns in his chair to face me. ‘I’ve just had a lot of spiders lately. Are you scared?’
‘No.’ And to make him believe it I look him in the eye properly for the first time.
‘Your eyes didn’t stay green. You used to have green eyes.’
‘I know.’
‘They were like mine.’
‘They’re blue now.’ Though sometimes they still look a little green, if I’m tired, or if I cry. I don’t tell him that.
‘I've been waiting for this day for seven years.’
I want to say I haven’t, or I want to ask why he waited, why he just accepted my absence. I don’t ask of these things, but he answers them.  
‘It was hard. I didn’t know if your mum would tell you if I got in touch. I thought if I waited until you were older, you’d at least be opening your own post and making your own mind up.’
I decide to yawn.
He smiles. ‘You've still got it, that stubborn streak.’ And he starts laughing. The
laughter takes hold of him, his body shakes with it. ‘So stubborn. There was this time, you were a baby really, two or three, and we were walking through Bluebell Wood, and…’
I let myself look at him, all of him. His stomach spilling over his waistband. His thinning hair, swept over his head like a lie. Something in the corner of his mouth. I want to be at home, on my bed, lying on my back so my own stomach disappears.
He's stopped telling the story. ‘Sorry, Eve. But you know you've always been stubborn, don't you?’
Yes. Mum tells me most times we argue, and ‘you get it from your father’.
He thinks he can see me and he doesn’t even know me. I want to hurt him. I stare at his head. ‘Does your hair grow like that naturally?’
His laughing slows, his smile drops. He looks at me a while, his eyes lit in the light from the window. Then he turns around, away. After a minute he says, ‘You don’t have to be here, you know.’
He’s caught me. ‘I know.’
Quiet.
I look to the door and think about my next move. Something black in the corner of my eye. Something on my leg. How many spiders there must be in this room.   

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Tips for Customer Service Workers Part 42: My Till is Going Slow


One of my day jobs is in customer service. Sometimes I write about it.



Extract from The Customer Service Workers' Handbook 
Part 42:
My Till is Going Slow 


Potential Settings: Anywhere which uses a single line queuing system, such as fast food restaurants / ticket booths / coffee shops / supermarkets / banks / virtually any retail

Keywords: transaction, inconvenience, technology


Scenario
Your till is taking longer than it should to process a customer’s transaction. There is just you operating the tills, and you have a queue of people waiting to be served. This has happened before and you know it’ll just take a few minutes for the till to kick into life and catch up, so there’s no need to call a colleague or a manager for assistance. But you have in front of you a customer who is having to wait anything up to an extra three minutes for their transaction to be completed, not to mention the line of other customers who are also being affected by this three minute wait.


How can you best deal with this situation?
First things first: Apologise and explain to the person you are serving that the till is being slow. This is easily done by saying, ‘Sorry, the till is being slow’. Most people will accept this and wait patiently, but some may not. The most common customer response to your apology is: ‘It’s okay,’ but you will know by the tone and style of delivery whether or not it really is okay. The main thing to look out for is looseness or tightness.

Looseness: the customer smiles as they say ‘It’s okay’ and they are relaxed enough to lean on the counter with one arm and perhaps even engage you in conversation external to the business you are conducting.

Tightness: everything about the customer is tense, in particular their shoulders, neck and face so that when they say ‘It’s okay’ they do it without opening their jaw.


What to do if the person you are serving is visibly annoyed by having to wait 
Be careful here because the stony atmosphere they are generating might make you talk more and say ridiculous things. A common trap to fall into is to suggest the till is having a bad day. While it’s true that this approach would be welcomed by a friendly and easy going customer – one who might even take personifying the till a step further and say, for example if it’s a Friday: ‘It must be ready for the weekend!’ or if it’s a Monday: ‘It must have had a big weekend!’– a lot of people are just not susceptible to this kind of play acting and will look at you like you’re filth if you even try it.  


Saying ‘Sorry to keep you’: should you or shouldn’t you?
This is a good, although risky, way to phrase an apology. It’s risky because if the person is feeling ‘kept’ already, you will either highlight this feeling inside of them and make them more of an indignant prisoner, or – and this is the hope – they will see the idea that a human keeping another human just by a small delay in the transaction process is ridiculous and they will feel some shame at their behaviour towards you so far. If this happens, they will redden and say, ‘It’s okay’ again, but this time they’ll mean it and you will feel the self-worth shift back into your body.

Note: If your customer is friendly and finding the whole delay process a bit of an adventure, saying ‘Sorry to keep you’ might lead them to exclaim ‘It’s no problem!’ and laugh loudly. This will infuriate the people who are waiting.


Keep your focus on the till or the person you are serving.
Do not catch the eye of the customers waiting in the queue. Most of them will be wearing an expression, and doing things with their body language, chosen specifically to let you know how much you are inconveniencing them right now.

Examples: pursed lips, arms folded, eyes staring directly at you. They will be shifting their body weight from one foot to the other more than they need to because this lets the other people in the queue know how inconvenienced they are right now. There will be at least one person tapping their foot. In some cases, there will be some muttering, including the sound ‘fff’. However, there will be some people in the queue who are fine with waiting either because they are enlightened or they don’t have much on today.  


What to do if the person you are serving isn’t annoyed.
The friendly and relaxed customer will probably be chatting to you as they wait. Be aware that if you indulge in conversation with this person, the people in the queue will think you’re just pissing about. Be sure to interject your chat with serious stares at the till, and even if it’s not necessary consider looking around the back of the till as if you are solving a problem with the wiring.


At last! The till has caught up and completed the transaction.
How the customer exits this situation, and how you bid them goodbye, will depend on their behaviour during the last 3 minutes. If they maintained their annoyance it’s always nice to be extra nice to them in the hope that you will highlight their not-niceness. But don’t hold any hope for this.

You can use ‘Sorry to have kept you’ as you greet each of the customers who have just had to wait. Once again you’ll most likely elicit the ‘It’s okay’ response delivered with or without sincerity.

Your till is now operating as it should.
Congratulations, customer service worker, you can go back to working to full capacity  with maximum efficiency.   


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
If you enjoyed that, why not try this previously published extract from The Customer Service Workers' Handbook:

He or she is just not that into you: the disengaged customer - rude on purpose or by accident?

 

Thursday, 6 November 2014

How To Take A Selfie



Do you think you look good today? Best take a selfie to check.

Is it a good one?

Yes. Fantastic. Post to all social media outlets with caption ‘just chillin’.

No. Do another.

Is it a good one?

No. Do another.

Is it a good one?

No. Do another.

It must be the light in here. Close one curtain. Put that nice ambient lamp on.
Ruffle your hair.

Think about how sad you felt that time you saw a dead baby bird on the pavement and it made you write a blog post about the cruelty of life.

YES: hold that face.

But now think about how sexy you felt that time you went out with damp hair and the wind gave you the best blow dry you’ve ever had and when you stopped to look at the wedding dresses in the wedding dress shop window you caught a look at your reflection and your head looked FUCKING ACE.

Now add that feeling in. That’s it. Do your SADSEXY face.

Is it a good one?

Wow that’s really not what you were trying to communicate at all, is it. Do you really look like that? Go to your favourite mirror and do SADSEXY FACE in it. Looks better in the mirror. Get your camera and take a photo of your reflection.

Ooh wait - turn the flash off.

Oh and also light a candle and put it in front of the mirror.

DO NOT GET THE CANDLE IN THE PHOTO THAT’S TOO MUCH. You just want the mood of the candle. The glow.

Ok. Now take the picture.

Is it a good one?

Hm. It’s ok. It’s quite hazy. Quite arty. Ooh, arty is good.

Or maybe it’s wanky.

Point is even though it’s just a suggestion of your face it’s VERY natural and VERY effortless.

PERFECT. Post to all social media outlets.
 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dear 1980s teen

Last year, for their launch issue, The Letters Page called for pieces of writing on the theme 'pen pals'. I've had my fair share of those. But I also had one secret one, well - a fairly secret one, so I chose to write something to her and send it to The Letters Page. I couldn't remember her name, but she's from the 80s and she was a teenager. It's took me a while to decide if I should publish the letter here because it's a bit personal and not just about me. But I'm the only weirdo in it so there's no slander or treason going on. So here it is. A letter about a weird year and a weird-o.   


Dear 1980s teen

Hello. You don’t know me, but I wrote to you, and you wrote back, sometime in 1989. You were fifteen and you thought I was too. You also thought I was a boy called Stephen. But no. I was me, Teresa, and I was eight years old.

The boy you thought I was, Stephen, did exist. He was my mum’s boyfriend’s son and your real pen pal from a few years before. I’d found the letters you’d written to him in his bedroom, where I slept, and snooped, some weekends when we stayed at his dad’s and Stephen went to his mum’s. Being surrounded by the possessions of a teenage boy made me do so some weird things. Pretending to be Stephen and writing to you was just a part of it. Of all the things I did, when I was caught this one was actually the easiest to explain. Your letter had arrived, addressed to Stephen, at my address. Stephen had no idea why. He hadn’t written to you in years.

Mum asked if I knew anything. ‘Yeah,’ I confessed casually, ‘it was me. I just thought it’d be funny’. I was only eight but I knew humour was subjective. Well, that it could get you out of something. Made it harmless.

I don’t think she totally bought it. But ‘I thought it’d be funny’ was preferable to an alternative explanation, one that might go more like this: ‘I’m just doing some weird stuff at the moment, Mum. I’ve also stolen quite a few of Stephen’s possessions. For example I have a knife of his in my school bag and there are some playing cards with photos of women with their boobs out in my drawer at school.’    

A classmate found those cards. Went into my drawer to get something, saw them there, took them straight to the teacher (with a sense of panic edged with triumph, I imagine). My excuse was instant and believable: ‘I found them on the school playing field’. The teacher looked me over while she considered it. I was terrified inside. But I wasn’t usually troublesome, at least not that anyone knew of, so she believed me and reasoned they must have been dropped by some of the older boys. It wasn’t mentioned again.  

My auntie found the knife. Went into my schoolbag to get something, saw it, took it straight to my mother. With a sense of panic and triumph, I imagine. My excuse was not believable, but familiar: ‘I found it on the grass outside’. Not enough.

There were two extra dimensions to this particular situation. One, that of course – a knife is an alarming object for any parent to find their eight year old in possession of. And two – a big clue about where it came from: Stephen’s name carved into the handle. Interrogation required. When did you find it? Why didn’t you tell anyone? Did you know it was Stephen’s? You must have. Where did you get it from, really? And what was it doing in your schoolbag?

I can’t recall if I showed the knife to anyone at school. I didn’t brandish it about, that’s for sure. I just had it there in the front pocket of my rucksack. No one needed to know – just like the cards. I was the victim of noseyness both times. I’m being light-hearted now, because really the finding of the knife was a dark moment, this being-caught moment, the drama in the room, the questions, the panic. I knew my mum knew I was lying. That was a horrible bit. But it was like the truth was stuck inside me, too terrible to tell, the culmination of all the deceiving I’d been doing - I’d stolen more stuff, just nothing else as shocking. I remember being sent into the living room while they talked about it in the kitchen. Fun House was on TV, and for years after I associated that program with a feeling of fear and shame. I was a thief and everyone knew it, only I wouldn’t say it.

The dark feeling leaked out into the months after. Mum and Stephen’s dad broke up. I’m not sure if I was the reason but I might have contributed to it.

Eventually I did confess. It took months though, months coloured by intense worry, until one day mum was hanging the washing out and I went to help. Somewhere between handing her the pegs I told her the truth about the knife. I’m not sure exactly what she said, but I remember it was nothing like what I expected, and ended with, ‘And you’ve been carrying this feeling around with you for all this time?’ She hugged me. We were to forget about it.  

I didn’t, not really. It hung around my head for years. We didn’t speak about it ever again, not even as adults. I’ve looked back, like I am now, to try to see a reason, or maybe just a theme to my behaviour. Secrets? Danger? Did I want to be Stephen? I don’t have an answer, or need one. Mostly I’d like to go back to see myself and say it’s ok. Confess earlier. People do worse things than this. You might do worse things than this. Be free. Actually – always be free. This is the most important thing I could ever say to you.

Oh but this letter here is to you, 1980s teen, not me. I’ll round up. What I remember about your reply to ‘Stephen’, the one that got delivered to my house, is that you hadn’t noticed a change in his handwriting, interests or ambition. (I think I said he loved school, reading and wanted to be a teacher. Hm. Not so.) 

You also used a lot of exclamation marks. You were excited about the rekindled correspondence. I wonder what you thought when the letters stopped again. Did I contribute or shape your view of men – do you think they’re inconsistent, flaky, changeable? Or did my version of Stephen (no penknives or nudey playing cards owned) became the bar to which you measured all potential suitors/pen pals?

I wonder if you still have the letter I sent. My Mum confiscated yours after telling me to stop pretending to be Stephen. I imagine her now, throwing it away, wondering if I really did think I was being funny, and what was going on in my head. And she didn’t even know what was in my school bag yet.

So I’m sorry, 1980s teen, for fooling you. Sorry you got caught up in my weird year.

Teresa, aged 8 and 33.