When You’re in the Gutter Keep Looking at the Stars

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde

One of the lowest points of my life was when (as a newly single mum) I had to claim housing benefit to help pay my rent.

I’d never had to claim any kind of benefit before, I always like paying my own way, so my skin crawled with shame and embarrassment as I made my way to my local housing benefit office to make my application.

Sitting in the reception area waiting to be called for my interview was a grim experience. Think Waiting Room for Hell.

The prospect of losing my home was terrifying.

It felt as if I was just one step away from the gutter.

But instead of letting it crush me I made a promise to myself – and my son.

I vowed that I would work my butt off to become financially self-sufficient again.

And I vowed that I wouldn’t give up on my writing dream – despite having just been dropped by a publisher.

I was one step away from the gutter but I was still looking at the stars.

I forged a new career as a writing coach and editor.

I started running weekly writing workshops in my local library.

I finally got a new book deal.

I’ve been financially self-sufficient for years now – something I’m grateful for every single day.

Today, I was invited to run a workshop and a book signing at a literary event called YA SHOT.

The workshop took place in the library where I ran the weekly writing group.

And the book signing took place at the civic centre where I was interviewed for my housing benefit claim.

When I got to the civic centre I saw that the book signing was actually taking place in the same building as the housing benefit office!

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As I walked up those steps I had a flashback to how terrified I’d felt walking up them all those years ago – not knowing whether I’d be able to keep a roof over my son’s head.

If someone had called me to one side that day and told me there was no need to worry, that all these years later I’d be coming back to that very same building to sign copies of my books I’d probably have laughed them out of town.

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But this is what happens when you end up in the gutter and keep looking at the stars.

They steer you to a happier, brighter future.

My new novel, The Moonlight Dreamers – inspired by Oscar Wilde – is available on Amazon here.

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Ten Life Lessons Learned on Tour

In the past week I’ve travelled around the UK, giving True Face workshops and talks.

I met hundreds of people and visited some really cool places.

I also learned (or re-learned) some lessons about life I’d love to share with you here…

Lesson One: Chance encounters add to life’s magic … talk to your fellow travellers

I had to get up at GULP O’CLOCK to set off for my first event. Seriously, it was still night time when I got to the station and chit-chat with a fellow passenger was way down my to do list – beneath ‘sleep, sleep and oh yes, more sleep‘. But when a guy started talking to me about seating on the station platform it turned into a two hour conversation about life, politics, the universe and everything. I got to my destination feeling way more invigorated than if I’d had a nap and it was a great reminder of the randomness of life and chance meetings. (Please note: I am aware of the perils of this one, having once been talked at by a lager-swigging Scotsman all the way from Edinburgh to York. Who started yelling that I was ‘a frigid ginger dyke’ when I dared to spurn his beery advances. When it comes to talking to fellow travellers, discernment is key!)

Lesson Two: Other people are fascinating … ask them about themselves

I’m naturally quite a shy person. One way I’ve overcome this is by asking people about themselves and thereby niftily side-stepping the spotlight. A massive bonus this brings is finding out loads of really interesting things about the people I meet. From cab-drivers to teachers to hotel staff to one of the patrons of the Cheltenham Festival, I heard so many fascinating and entertaining anecdotes over the past few days. Including: One man’s journey from Indian goat-herder to Bradford cab-driver. One woman’s passion for using music to heal. One girl’s story of overcoming anorexia. One guy’s inspiring tale of business success.

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Getting to know one of the patrons of the Cheltenham Festival

Lesson Three: Eating out on your own doesn’t have to be three courses of embarrassment with a side of awkward

The first time I ever had to dine alone in a hotel restaurant I felt hot with embarrassment. ‘Look at poor Norma No-Mates sighing into her soup‘ I imagined the other diners saying as I longed for the power of invisibility. Now I love dining out with just my Kindle / magazine / thoughts for company. A whole table to myself. Being waited on hand and foot. What’s not to love?

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Lesson Four: See your hotel room as a you-time bubble

And by that I mean, even if you’re travelling for work, staying in a hotel gives you a chance to pause and take time for yourself and take stock of your life. Tune the TV to a music channel. Have a shower or bath and slather yourself in the complimentary moisturiser. (Side note: why is complimentary moisturiser now nailed to the wall?! Was somebody stealing it or something? Ahem.) Build yourself a cosy bed-nest of cushions and pillows. Order some room service and take advantage of the free coffee bar. Then take out a notebook and free write about your life and your dreams from this fresh new, sweetly-scented perspective.

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Lesson Five: If someone is rude to you … punch them in the head

Just kidding! When you meet a lot of people not all of them are going to be new best friend potential and some of them are going to be down-right arsehole-ish. Don’t get sucked into a conflict – not even in your head. Especially not in your head because then there’s no end to the effing and blinding! This person could have just been given some really bad news. They could be going through hell. They could be deeply afraid beneath all the swagger and bluster. Whatever. Don’t make it your problem. Smile sweetly, don’t judge and rapidly disengage.

Lesson Six: When you think like an explorer you discover hidden gems … and disgusting toilets

One of the venues I was running some workshops in was an old courthouse. During a break I spotted a reference to the prison cells in the building. ‘Ooh, that sounds interesting,‘ I thought. Swiftly followed by: ‘You can’t go nosing around. You’re here to do a job, not sight-see.’ But I ignored my inner Captain Sensible and asked one of the organisers if I could take a peek. Getting to go inside a really old cell was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. It was spooky and atmospheric and the toilet was a particular highlight!

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Lesson Seven: We are all afraid … so don’t think you’re alone

In one of the exercises I do in my True Face workshops I get people to talk about their fears. Every time I introduce the exercise, by talking about my own fears, a little voice inside my head says, ‘But what if none of them ever get afraid? What if you’re the only weirdo who thinks like this?‘ But every time without fail I get nods of recognition and hands shooting up as people offer to share their own insecurities. So next time you feel afraid, or your inner voice tells you that you haven’t got what it takes to achieve your dreams, reassure yourself that you aren’t alone. And know that successful people are just as afraid as you are, they’ve just learned how to control or ignore their fear.

Lesson Eight: We all have so many reasons to be proud … so be proud

In another exercise I do I ask people to write a list of things they’re proud of. The things I’ve seen on people’s proud lists over the past few days have taken my breath away: ‘I’m proud of conquering my eating disorder.’ ‘I’m proud of getting through life without my dad.’ ‘I’m proud that I no longer self harm.’ ‘I’m proud that I’ve made a conscious effort to be a nicer person.’ ‘I’m proud that I don’t let the haters get to me any more.’ ‘I’m proud that I won a poetry competition.’ What are you proud of? What qualities did you need in order to achieve those things? Next time you’re feeling down or afraid, remind yourself of all the great things you’ve done.

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Lesson Nine: Teenagers need our support

I lost count of how many times I had teachers, event organisers or parents telling me how badly books like True Face are needed right now. Teenagers today are under more pressure than ever before. Us oldies have to be there for them. To support and mentor them and reassure them that all will be well. We need to pass on the benefit of our hindsight and experience. We need to motivate and inspire and show them that they’re not alone.

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Lesson Ten: When travelling, don’t waste valuable daydreaming time on Peter Andre’s marriage

On the train back from my travels I started reading a magazine. By the time the train pulled into Doncaster I knew all about Peter Andre’s Strictly Come Dancing ambitions and how wearing pink and brown really suited him and how no, his wife isn’t worried about The Strictly Come Dancing Curse because she isn’t the jealous type (I don’t watch it but apparently everyone who has ever taken part in the show has had a steamy affair with their dancing partner. Or something…) Anyway, by the time I got to Doncaster my brain was losing the will to live. So I binned the mag and put on my i-pod and did some serious window-gazing-day-dreaming instead. By the time I got to London, I’d come up with a new book idea and enjoyed a little daydream of a more *cough* romantic nature (and no, it did not involve Peter Andre crooning Mysterious Girl clad in various shades of pink and brown). Day to day life can be so crazy-hectic there’s very little time left to dream. Travelling is one of the best dreaming opportunities going. Don’t waste it.

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Some Loving Words for When You Need to Be Strong

Sometimes in life, we’re called upon to be the ‘strong one’.

When a partner is made redundant.

When a friend is given a scary diagnosis

When our kids get sick.

There have been many times in my life when I’ve had to be the strong one.

As a teen, when my parents split up.

In my twenties, when my marriage broke down.

In my thirties, when my partner got sick.

Each time, I’ve cried and ‘why’-ed, then picked myself up and got on with it.

You can do this, you’re the strong one,’ I’d tell myself. ‘You’ve always been the strong one.’

Then, this summer, someone very close to me got very ill and they needed my support.

But instead of feeling strong, I felt wrung out.

The ‘strong one’ title that I’d held on to for years suddenly seemed to be sliding from my grasp.

‘I can’t do this. I can’t be strong any more,’ I thought … and that thought terrified me.

Then I did what I always do when I get desperate – I hit my knees and I began to pray.

Why do I always have to be the strong one?’ I cried. ‘Why do I always have to be the rock for other people?’

(Please note: This isn’t true, I have loads of people who are there for me too, but what can I say? When you’re in the middle of a self-pity party logic and reason aren’t on the guest list.)

Because being strong for other people is how you get to experience true love,’ the voice of wisdom answered inside my head. ‘If you choose to see it that way.’

If I choose to see it that way.

I thought about my situation.

I saw myself at a crossroads, with two possible routes.

I could choose fear.

Or I could choose love.

Something deep inside of me shifted.

Instead of feeling sorry for myself – which wasn’t going to help anyone at all, least of all me – I realised I should embrace the chance to choose love.

When we choose to love others selflessly and unconditionally we unleash a superpower within us.

When we focus on how we can love, we block out why we might hurt.

If you’re being called upon to be the strong one right now, try it and see.

Instead of filling your head with fear thoughts, ask yourself the simple questions: How can I bring love into this situation – for the other person and myself? And how can I navigate this minefield gently and in peace?

Whatever the situation that’s calling upon you to be strong, choose the loving path to get you through it.

Because ultimately, when it comes to helping others, there’s nothing stronger than being love.

SIDE NOTE: I’m not a member of any religion but I strongly recommend the power of prayer. When the chips are down, when the tears are flowing, when fear is all around, simply turn inwards and ask for guidance. Ask God. Ask the Universe. Ask Love. Ask your inner wisdom. It doesn’t matter. Then keep your mind open and still and wait for the answer…

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Don’t Let the Bastards (or Your Background) Get You Down

It was a cold October night and a thin mist curled off the River Thames.
 
My friend and I sat huddled outside the Festival Hall, drinking red wine and talking.
 
Really talking.
 
No inconsequential chit-chat about the weather at our table.
 
No trivial banter either.
 
And when we each spoke, the other listened.
 
Really listened.
 
Not using the time to think up the next thing we were going to say.
 
At the time my friend and I were both trying to make it in the writing game.
 
But both – coming from London council estates – finding it intimidating trying to succeed in such a middle class world.
 
A world that could often feel sneery and elitist if you weren’t a member of the clique.
 
We read each other snippets of our work.
 
We gave each other feedback.
 
We told each other our backstories. We didn’t edit out the hardship or pain.
 
I felt so much respect and admiration for this guy who swept up other people’s crap for a living, whilst composing the most beautiful poems in his head.
 
He made me see that coming from a poor background and a life of struggle wasn’t something to feel ashamed of – it was something to feel infinitely proud of.
 
We called ourselves the Rebel Writers and ‘writing, no matter what’ became our mantra.
 
The course of my writing life changed forever that night on the Southbank.
 
It gave me the courage to self-publish my first novel for young adults.
 
And, when a hoity-toity best-selling author openly mocked my self-publishing (something that would have devastated me previously), it gave me the courage to think ‘f**k you’ and enter the book for a national award anyway.
 
And when the book won the award…
 
On Saturday I went back to the Southbank to run a workshop – on overcoming fear and achieving your dreams.
 
I got there early and sat at the same table my friend and I had sat at, that autumn night all those years ago.
 
When I thought of all that had happened since, all the writing dreams achieved, it blew my mind.
 
Feel proud of who you are and where you come from.
 
Feel proud of your mess-ups and your poor choices and your if onlys.
 
Feel proud of how they’ve changed you for the better – making you stronger, more compassionate, wiser.
 
Wear your scars as badges of honour; as reasons why you’re perfectly qualified to achieve your dream.
 
Don’t let other people mock or belittle you or put you down.
 
And if they do, think f*** you and pick yourself up again and prove them wrong.
 
 

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