In addition to my recent feature at Vela, I'm also now running a column there called Placed. Here's the general idea:

“Place,” writes the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “exists at different scales. At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth.”
Curated by Miranda Ward, Placed will address relationships to place, very broadly defined: the body is a place, the earth is a place, a favorite chair is a place, a city, a café, a corner shop, a cubicle, a lake, a mountain, a road. Placed is interested in work that addresses place on any scale, from the banal to the sublime, and that stretches beyond simple description to use place as a springboard to explore or weave together other ideas and stories.
Essays are likely to address, in various ways, certain kinds of questions: how do we form and maintain and describe relationships to places? How do we develop a sense of place? How do we shape places, and how do places shape us?

The first piece went up on Wednesday, and while I'll be contributing regularly as well, I'm actively seeking contributions by other women writers for future installments - so please do get in touch if you have something or know someone you think might fit the bill!

Recent writing: The Billfold

In a recent piece for The Billfold, I added up how much it's cost me to settle in the UK. I was surprised to discover that the actual total feels low, I guess partly because it doesn't include more abstract or tangential things like the cost of international travel, the time I've spent doing research, filling out forms, on the phone, in appointments, that I could have been working, the money I spent shipping all of my books cross the Atlantic ($900, if you're wondering), and so on — but also because this whole ongoing process has been such a huge presence in my life for so long, such a source of deep and constant anxiety. The precise impact of that is hard to convey in numbers. On the other hand, it's still a hell of a lot of money to spend on paperwork.

Anyway, here's an excerpt:

"I always knew that living 5,000 miles away from where I grew up would mean that my life took on a slightly different shape than the lives of friends back home. I knew, too, that no matter where my partner and I ultimately chose to live, we would have to jump through a series of convoluted bureaucratic hoops. But, I didn’t have any sense of what the privilege of jumping through those hoops actually cost."

Here's the full piece...

I was also very pleased to find out that my essay 'The Purest Form of Play,' which originally appeared on Vela, earned an Honorable Mention for nonfiction in the Winning Writers 2014 Sports Fiction & Essay Contest.

Recent writing: Leave to Remain

I have a new essay up at Vela. It's about the process of acquiring indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and becoming a permanent resident - though really it's more about the process of waiting for this to happen, and the sense of feeling somehow trapped during this extended period of application and not-quite-residency. It's also (perhaps as everything I write ends up being) partly about what I've called "the wild in the banal", the way everyday life can seem so strange if you look at it closely enough:

When I was younger I used to fantasize about having a button I could press that would pause the world around me while I caught my breath, had a nap, figured out a solution, came up with something witty to say. My current situation is the opposite of that fantasy – someone has pressed the pause button on my life, and I am suspended, watching the rest of the world go by.

The pause button on my life was pressed by the UK Border Agency. Three months ago I applied for indefinite leave to remain here in the UK, where I have lived with my British partner for the past seven years. I have held, over the course of these years, a student visa, a post-study work visa, and an unmarried partner visa, and I am now, at last, eligible to apply to settle permanently.

The application process is like taking a leap of faith into an abyss. You take the “Life in the UK” test (“Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE? Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community”). You fill out a 50-page application form. You send a large envelope containing bank statements and pay slips and utility bills and your passport and, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, a photocopy of every enclosed document. You pay a £1,051 fee. And then you wait.

Read the full piece...

Recent writing

My latest post for Vela went up last week. It's about running, fear (of failure, of limits), and exploration (of a sort):

In this way running is actually just an effort to do something new – or, rather, to see the same things from a slightly different perspective. What does this street feel like at the end of a 10k run? What does it do to my conception of the city to shorten the time it takes to get from here to there on my own two feet, to discover a new route, to think of that particular street corner as the place I had to walk for a bit, or that stretch of road as the place that everything felt effortless and good?

Read the whole thing...


Over at the Landscape Surgery blog, I wrote a post about what being a cultural geographer means to me. This is part of great a series of posts by fellow students and researchers in the department of geography at Royal Holloway - "The Self Portrait series is a project designed to highlight the missing ‘I’ within geography." (And it was Freshly Pressed today!) Here's how it begins:

The truth? I’m still not sure I am a geographer.

Over the last year I’ve become more comfortable claiming to be one, or at least marginally less fearful of being exposed as a fraud. But at parties my go-to response to the dreaded question of “what do you do?” is: “oh, I’m a writer.” If the conversation survives this admission, and I happen to mention that I’m doing a PhD, and I happen to mention that the PhD is in cultural geography, I might make an attempt at explaining how these things are linked. I might say, “I write about geography.” This is not really an explanation, but if you say it confidently enough, it almost sounds like one.

Read the whole piece...

"Where does your writing live?"

[A]t least to the more mobile and networked of us, place has become less about our origins on some singular piece of blood soil, and more about forming connections with the many sites in our lives. We belong to several places and communities, partially by degree, and in ways that are mediated(Malcolm McCullough)

I keep imagining a kind of perfect online mobility: not having a website or a singular blog and trying to keep this one plot of web-land mine, but taking all of my content, all of my stuff, with me wherever I go. Finding a way of being on the Internet that better respects the fluidity of self.

I've been thinking about this, thinking that really the closest thing I have to a website that accurately reflects my online presence is my Twitter feed. It's where I post links to my own writing, to others' writing, where I post photos, thoughts, quotes. It's temporary, in a way that seems apt - because let's be honest, most of the stuff I post on Twitter won't matter in a few years or a few weeks or even a few days, and that which does will find a way of living on anyway; it will become part of memory, or conversation, or new work.

And then I was thinking about this: I was thinking about Medium, and Hi, and my continual struggle to find a home for my writing online that feels right (feels write?). The question is, as Nick Rowlands puts it: "How, exactly, do you organize your online presence? Where does your writing live; how is it compartmentalized; to what extent should you strive for an overarching coherence?" My own blog has become a wasteland, a weekly-when-I-can-be-arsed depository for other people's words, and at first I thought this was because I just didn't like the design or the name or the promises it made anymore - that design and that name and those promises belonged to a different, older version of me. When I started my blog I was about to graduate from college, about to move to a new country, about to try to get a job, or into grad school, or something. I was newly in love, and I couldn't see past the next six months of my life: I would graduate, I would move to England, I would move in with him, but then what? We were from different places, and logistics might at any moment demand that we live an ocean apart, and maybe I was too young to be in this kind of love, and... And I knew I wanted to write, but I didn't know what that meant, or would mean. And I read blogs to try to situate myself in the world, to try to find my place, and I posted things on my own blog for similar reasons.

Now, though, if I've written something polished enough to be publishable, it goes somewhere else. I've recently become a staff writer at Vela, which means I get to be part of something bigger than myself on my own. And my thinking goes: if it's not good enough to live somewhere else, somewhere other than this controlled blog-habitat that I've created, then it's just not good enough. In some ways that feels freeing - it's streamlined, simple - but in other ways it's worrying: what does "good enough" mean? Who gets to decide that? Where's the space to write without the pressure of an imagined audience or editor? (Should there even be one? Or is that what the scribbled-in-late-at-night notebook is for? If only I could read my own handwriting.)

So I've been trying to figure out what to do about this - whether to try to change my blog somehow, to redesign it and restructure it in a way that fits now but will probably feel uncomfortable later, or to start (yet another) Tumblr, or to just give up, or what. I don't have that much time to worry about this, to be honest, because there are all these other things vying for my attention: Book! and PhD! and Oh, I Want to Write Another Book! and Holy Crap That Gas Bill is Big! and Other Stuff! So it sort of occupies my thoughts late at night after a few beers as I'm sitting on the couch watching an episode of Criminal Minds or whatever other mindless good-guys-catch-bad-guys thing I can find on Netflix, and I think: I should figure this out. I'll figure it out tomorrow.

But the thing I keep coming back to is this: you know how you take the Internet with you now, on your phone? How you're just walking around with this thing in your pocket, interacting with it when you want to, and that interaction is often rooted in the place you're standing, but not tied to it? That's sort of how I want to be online, too: living in my imaginary Volkswagen bus, taking my possessions (my links, my pieces of writing, my faux-nostalgic photos) with me from place to place.

So maybe this is what Medium is, or what Hi is. This is where we write. This is where we write about place. And what we create here is tied to us, wherever we are. Maybe it's easier to be in the world, and to write about the world, when the tools for doing so are as mobile and networked as we are. "This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to their phones and the places around them," Alexis Madrigal writes. This is a hypothesis about people's relationship to the many sites in their lives, the multitude of polyvocal, perpetually in-process places and communities we belong to -

"World is crazier and more of it than we think, Incorrigibly plural."

Or - I don't know. Maybe I'll figure it out tomorrow.

On Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby

Over at the Vela blog, I wrote a review (of sorts) of Rebecca Solnit's new book The Faraway Nearby, which is out soon and very much worth reading:

For almost two years now, I’ve been making a dress. I bought the pattern and a roll of fabric on holiday in Wales, but I didn’t have a sewing machine (or tailor’s chalk, or pins, or enough time, or enough patience) and I didn’t know how to sew, so what I was really buying was the possibility of becoming the sort of person who could make a dress.

For a long time the paper bag full of potential gathered dust in my wardrobe, until finally, one cold winter weekend, I brought it over to my boyfriend’s mother’s house, she set up her sewing machine, and we began to make the dress together.

To see or to help a garment come into being, to witness the transformation, is affecting. I don’t want to put too much importance on this – it’s just an item of clothing – but still: out of fabric springs form. This particular fabric, though, purchased because it felt warm and heavy on a cold Welsh afternoon, has a very loose weave, and unravels easily – forgiving if you need to unpick stitches, but dangerous, likely to fray: at any moment things might fall apart.

To describe something that’s not quite right, or that’s becoming not quite right, we use this language of un-making. It’s unraveling, we might say. She’s come undone. When I was 16 my mother taught me how to knit and I made half of a fog-purple scarf over winter break before I got restless and gave the hobby up. Around the same time I was listening to a lot of Weezer and the line “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold this thread as I walk away” got lodged in my head, even after I’d abandoned the project. Sometimes it’s easier to destroy something with a thread than to create something with a thread; sometimes, though, a thread is what the whole world is made of: it’s a lifeline.

Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is a book about threads, and a book made up of threads: “in the old way of saying it, tales were spun; they were threads that tied things together and from them the fabric of the world was woven.” Solnit spins familiar tales. Her mother gets old, and sick. She herself gets sick, and then well. A child falls down a well and is rescued, but ultimately her rescuer can’t rescue himself. An artist paints an escape route and sets himself free. Scheherazade tells her stories to save her own life and the lives of countless others. People die, or are born, or reborn.

“All stories are really fragments of one story, the metamorphoses,” Solnit tells us, and there’s an undertone of resignation or acceptance of this, of the slow march of time, the inevitability and invisibility of change: the soldier survives his war but is not the same man he was, and the cannons are melted down and reconstituted and eventually become a weapon for another war.

Read the rest here...

How to Have a Panic Attack, and Nine Other Things It's Taken Me 25 Years to Learn

‘Well in our country’, said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else - if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

1. How to have a panic attack

The most important thing is not to panic.

Some people will tell you that panic is essential. Do not believe them. Sure, you could have a panic attack in the fast lane on the 405 freeway and have to pull over onto the hard shoulder, while traffic goes whizzing past and the misty LA light starts to fade. You might stagger into a hospital, gasping and wild-eyed. There might be tears, flailing, falling. These things might happen: but it's just as likely to be slower, more subtle. Maybe you won't even notice. Maybe years will go by before you identify the feeling as something significant.

Lie in bed, on your side, facing the wall. Maybe you've taken some yoga classes, maybe someone once tried to teach you to meditate, and you think you can trick yourself into feeling calm. Feel dizzy anyway, maybe because all those times you were "meditating", you were really just napping in the presence of incense. Feel your heart racing. Wonder if this is what dying feels like. Keep wondering this. Tell yourself that you would know if you were dying, in the same way you know if you're about to vomit or when you're hungry or tired. But you don't know. Worry that you don't know: is it good or bad that you don't know? Is not knowing the same thing as knowing?

Wake up in the morning pleased and surprised. Go to bed the next evening not knowing if you'll survive the night. Repeat until something more interesting happens in your life: you get drunk for the first time, you get a C on a calculus exam and have a meeting with a stern teacher who expected more of you, you get into college anyway, you spend two hours after the prom making out with a boy you didn't even know you liked, you go to Europe for a month, you move across the country.

2. How to talk to doctors

Go running every day. When winter sets in and it's too cold to run along the river, start spending your evenings at the gym, which is in a humid basement with a sweat-stained carpet and flickering lights. Run fast, but never very far: your usual distance is four miles on the treadmill, and the funny thing about this is that even four miles later you're still standing in exactly the same spot. Play your music loudly and try not to look at the television screens flashing news at you. Lift weights sometimes, just the lightest ones, in an attempt to tone your arms, which is something you've read about in magazines. Lie on a purple mat and do a few sit-ups and wonder when you'll start to look like someone who goes to the gym.

Then, at some point, late one evening, begin to feel a pain.

"What sort of pain?" the nurse in the campus clinic will ask you, when you arrive for your appointment and tell her you think you're going to die.

Tell her you don't know what sort of pain. Pain, in your chest. That can't be good, can it? She'll take your blood pressure, say it's good. She'll say you're a healthy young woman. She'll want to know if you do any other exercises at the gym. Any weight-lifting? she'll say.

Tell her: a bit. Not very much though, can't you tell? You'll think this is funny, because you're still pretty scrawny, or at least your arms are. But she won't laugh; she'll just say, without missing a beat: well, you've probably just pulled something.

Tell her you don't think you've pulled something.

She'll ask if you have any other symptoms. You'll say, restlessness, inability to sleep, palpitations - only you won't know the word for palpitations, so you'll just say, my heart feels funny. You'll tell her about that time you went to the ER for something that turned out to be nothing and the attending doctor said he thought you had some sort of heart murmur, and that you should ask your family doctor about it, but you didn't have a family doctor because you were not from around here and your insurance didn't cover things like that, so you were asking her about it, now, months later.

She'll absorb all of this. She's in her fifties. Maybe she has daughters of her own, college-aged girls. Maybe she thinks you're crazy. Start to wonder if you're going to be late for your 3 o'clock class after all. Is this the sort of thing you can get a doctor's note for? Imagine visiting your professor during office hours, saying, I'm sorry I wasn't there to discuss Discipline and Punish, I was keeping an appointment to announce my impending death.

Finally the nurse will say, alright, fine, I can refer you to a cardiac specialist. He'll probably do an EKG, she'll say. But I still think you've probably just pulled something, she'll add. You have no idea what an EKG is but you're happy to be taken seriously.

Go home. Look up "EKG". Start to worry.

Tell your boyfriend that they're going to hook you up to a machine. A machine! But he'll be asleep, so you'll mostly be talking to yourself. A machine!

Arrive at the clinic wary but fully intending to go through with this thing, to find out once and for all what's wrong, or not wrong, with you. Sit in the grim waiting room. Take stock: note the 70s brown carpet, the dirty yellow walls, the hazy late winter light trying to push its way through greenish-tinted windows. Note that nothing seems very clean, even though nothing is obviously dirty. Keep thinking: oh my God, I need to get home and have a shower. Wonder if heart disease is contagious. Reach for your hand sanitizer; rub the gel between your palms. Wonder if the people working here really work here at all, if the other people in the waiting room - quiet, like shadows - really exist outside of this space. Wonder if you'll emerge as the same person, or if you'll emerge at all. When the doctor calls you in, don't tell him about the heart murmur or the palpitations (you still don't know the word, and you can't tell a doctor - a cardiac specialist, no less - that your heart feels funny), just that you'd had a bit of pain in the chest area. Play it down: say, my chest, maybe my shoulder. The nurse thinks it's just a pulled muscle. The doctor will do some poking and prodding and ask a few questions and in the end he'll say exactly what you want him to say: that he thinks the nurse is right, you probably pulled a muscle lifting weights at the gym. And because a doctor has said it - even a doctor with an incomplete picture of an incomplete problem, in a dubious clinic populated by ghosts and shadows - it's okay. Buy a new pair of running shoes on the way home to celebrate.

A few years later, realize that you can Google all your symptoms. Learn the word "palpitations". Feel immediately better: as soon as you find a word for something, some evidence of it existing, being a thing, it becomes easier to deal with. Visit your doctor. Try to tell him what you think is wrong without actually describing anything: say that you want to do something about the physical manifestations of your anxiety. He'll think you mean diarrhea, so it will come as a big relief to both of you when you can laugh and say, no, no, heart palpitations, things like that. Things like what? he'll say. Do you have any other symptoms? You'll say, Not really. Well, dizziness at night. Sometimes nausea. Shivering, uncontrollable shivering.

Any shortness of breath? he'll say.

No, you'll lie.

Fill the prescription. Forget, for years, that you even have this problem. Let it become something that's past: and forget about that Faulkner quote you once read, the one that says, "the past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past." Forget what any of it feels like, so that it can seem new each time it resurfaces.

3. How to fool yourself into thinking you look like a grown up

Get a job, preferably one that you hate, though you could settle for one that you just find boring. Commute. Start to become one of those people who shouts at pedestrians when they walk in front of your bike and realize you're not angry because someone could get hurt: you're angry because you're in a hurry, and you were going at a good clip, and they've fucked with your momentum.

Make photocopies and send emails. Become one of those people who distributes agendas before pointless meetings and uses the word "pipeline" regularly. On your lunch break, take a walk and wonder why everyone else looks so much happier than you feel. Catch a glimpse of yourself in the darkened window of a recently-shut shop. Think that you look pretty happy, actually, and that your expensive new haircut certainly looks expensive, or at least it looks expensive if you know how much it cost, which you do, because you paid for it.

Pay your rent. Pay your phone bill. Pay your other phone bill, even though you haven't used a landline in about ten years. Pay your gas bill. Pay your electricity bill. Pay your credit card bill. Pay for your gym membership. Pay for your groceries to be delivered to your house in the evenings because you just don't have the time during the day anymore. Go to the bank on a Saturday because you just don't have the time during the week anymore. Discover that you're not going to have enough money to pay your rent and your phone bill and your other phone bill and your gas bill and your electricity bill and your credit card bill next month, even though you have a job that you hate (or at least a job that you find boring). Start to dream about work: compose emails in your sleep, look for solutions under your wilted pillow. Wonder if you're doing it right. See: 1. How to Have a Panic Attack.

4. How to actually be a grown up


5. How to not feel jealous of people who are fitter, happier, funnier, prettier, smarter, more accomplished, and more interesting than you

You could try telling yourself that they're not fitter, happier, funnier, prettier, smarter, more accomplished or more interesting than you, but you probably won't believe it, even if it comes from your own trustworthy mouth. Start to resent yourself for trying to deceive you: you don't deserve to be deceived, even if everyone else is fitter, happier, funnier, prettier, smarter, more accomplished, and more interesting than you. How dare you do this to you! How dare you!

Go to the pub. Sit in the corner. Have a drink and scowl at everyone. Feel marginally better, in an "I feel worse" sort of way. Go home. Go to sleep. Dream about something boring, like buying groceries. Wake up. Think about how everyone else probably has better dreams than you do. Slide into what's commonly known as a funk, but know there's nothing common about it: you're the Queen of Funks, and this is the Funk to End all Funks, and if nothing else - if nothing else! - you can be a superlative failure.

6. How to get out of bed in the morning, even when you don't want to

Find someone you love who loves you back and will make you a bacon sandwich but refuse to bring it upstairs, even when you say that there is no point in getting out of bed and you'd rather starve because frankly starving would be more interesting than not starving at this point. Wait a few minutes for the smell of bacon to climb the staircase and enter the bedroom. Decide that you're still not happy with things, that you're resolutely unhappy, in fact, but that you may as well go downstairs and have the bacon sandwich, as it's there, because no one else is going to eat it, and it would be a shame to waste a bacon sandwich.

7. How to feel more productive

Stop reading things you don't want to read. Even that. And yes, if it helps, even this. Also, add things you've already done to your to-do list. I know it's cheating but it still feels good and it will always feel good, no matter what they say.

8. How to feel smug

Don't own a television. Don't own a car. Don't tell people that it's mostly because you can't afford these things.

9. How to avoid awkward conversations

Don't talk to anyone. Ever.

10. How to avoid feeling lonely

Talk to people. Often.

n.b. This originally appeared in GENE 01 last year. Some of it's fiction. Some of it isn't. Its alternative title, in my head, is, "It Would be a Shame to Waste a Bacon Sandwich".

Swimming and writing and stuff

I have an essay up over at Vela called "The Purest Form of Play", on swimming, time, practice, play, artistic/athletic discipline, and other things. There's also an interview with me on their blog, where I talk about my book, what I'm reading, and the eternal pre-tweet question: "am I doing this as an academic or a writer or just a girl sitting in the pub with her boyfriend, Instagramming her burger?" Here's an excerpt from the essay!

I’m fascinated by the act of swimming. I use that word act deliberately, in the hope that it connotes the theatrical; I’m interested in the performance, the pool as setting, the costume, the rituals, superstitions, repetitions. Swimming laps, maybe, is like learning lines. Sometimes, when I’m swimming, I slide out of the role of participant and into the role of spectator. If I’m resting at the wall I’ll rest too long, just watching. When the dogged university swimmers are doing their laps, jaded but youthfully energetic, or when there’s someone in the next lane over who’s just really good, who wears years of hard practice particularly well: I admire the fluidity and fluency of their bodies in water. I strive for this fluency myself, even though I suspect I’m past the point of ever being able to attain it.

I like the mask, too. It’s odd to feel that wearing practically nothing–a tight black suit, cut high at the leg, a silicone cap that hugs the head close, goggles that press rings around the eyes–is a protection, a way of preserving anonymity, but it’s true: no one can see me when I swim, at least not the way they can see me elsewhere. I think some people are self-conscious about squeezing into swimwear, flattening their hair and ears, showing skin usually reserved only for lovers or doctors. But I like it. I like the way I look in costume: which is to say, not entirely like myself, or rather not entirely like the myself I’m accustomed to seeing every day, the myself I’m constantly, vainly giving sideways glances to in mirrors and darkened windows on half-empty streets. I look like–someone. Just someone, someone who might be anything at all: renowned or habitually ignored, rich or poor or whatever. There are no particular clues to identity. The face, washed clean, is left to speak for itself; you don’t know the color of my hair or that I only ever wear lipstick if it’s red and expensive (Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent), even though I can barely afford to buy groceries most weeks. You don’t know what I do or don’t do for a living or a not-quite-living, who I’m with or not with, where I spend weeknights drinking after I’ve been swimming, where I come from, what my visa status is. You might intuit certain things from the fact of my being here at all, but you can’t see those things, or any evidence of them on my person. And I can’t see you.

You stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people that you may see in other contexts every day, but how would you know? I wouldn’t recognize anybody that I see regularly at the pool outside of the pool–I only know them from the color of their caps, their distinctive or admirable strokes. Out of water the stroke means nothing–it’s like a tattoo that disappears when exposed to air. But this is how I know these people, this is how we know each other.

Read the full piece here...

That time I wrote a book

The air is thick with a weird mixture of smugness and insecurity: it's the evening of the last day of 2012, and everyone's busy telling everyone else what they did this year and what they learned and what they're going to do differently next year.

This year I almost didn't go totally broke, which for a freelance writer/whatever is pretty good going, or so I'm told. I spent a month having a long-overdue love affair with the place I grew up. I swam. I went to weddings. I started a PhD. And so on. But for some reason the thing I think of, immediately and exclusively, when I think of what I did this year, is 'write a book', I guess because this is a thing I've wanted to do for awhile (well, forever, really). And then I did it and people kept looking at me funny when we spoke, like, why aren't you more excited about this?. And I looked back blankly, because I didn't know what the appropriate facial expression for "I don't know why I'm not more outwardly excited about this; but also I'm more excited than it's possible to convey" was.

Anyway, it'll be in bookshops sometime next year and in the meantime you can order it directly from the publisher, if you're so inclined. And here's what I think after having written my first book:

1. It takes longer than you think it should to write a book of publishable (debatable word, I know, I know) standard. Even if you once half-jokingly wrote 50,000 words in one month. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe it just takes me longer than I think it should to write a book of publishable(ish) standard. I don't know how long it should take: I have literally no idea. Like, a year? A decade? A week? But this is a lesson I'm always learning and forgetting and learning again: that things, all things, take more time than I want them to take. So it's important that I point it out, because by next week I'll have forgotten again and I'll be disappointed in myself again.

2. Maybe don't do a crowdfunded book (or even album/film/whatever) unless you've already written the book. Or at least written most of the book. Or at least have a very very strong sense of what the book is going to 'look like'. Otherwise you'll be nibbled on by guilt for a year as you sit at your laptop late at night frantically not writing, and you'll worry that the thing you produced won't match up exactly with the thing you promised because let's face it, things never turn out exactly as we envision, and people will forget completely about the project, and you won't know if it'll be a pleasant reminder when a book arrives on their doorstep or if the book will just be a sour artifact of a wasted £20, and you'll be completely broke for a long time, etc etc.

Obviously this is a bit of a catch-22: isn't the whole point of crowdfunding to allow people to contribute to the process as well as the product - to give, for instance, an author the opportunity to take the necessary time to write the book? And yes, maybe in theory it is. I've written about this before, and I still believe it's fundamentally a good thing. But there's a flaw, and I can't quite put my finger on it it, and I don't necessarily think it's a fatal flaw, but it's big, and it goes something like: the world doesn't move at quite the right pace for crowdfunding to be practical for large-scale projects, unless maybe you're Amanda Palmer and you have a million fans in the palm of your hand already. So yeah, if I had written half the book already, or if it was an extended essay or something, that works. But everything's moved on in a year. We need to slow the pace of consuming down if this is going to work for someone who says, I'm starting from scratch on this project which requires me to do quite a lot of background reading and research and fieldwork before I can even tell you exactly what shape it's going to take, and then, after I've read a lot and transcribed all my interviews and had a hundred conversations about the subject matter with the people I'm working with, then I'm going to sit down and write, which is something which in itself takes time, and then I'm going to edit and rewrite because I'm not going to do something that I'm not happy with or proud of. And then the actual publication process starts: the copyedit, the proofreading, the typesetting, the cover design, the printing: all the other stuff that takes time too. Which is basically what I did.

3. There's no big "hooray!" moment. One day you'll be sitting there thinking, how is this ever going to be a Thing? And then one day you'll be emailing the manuscript to the copyeditor and then one day you'll be reading proofs, and then one day you'll be opening a box full of your own books. But there's never a moment where you say, 'let's go get champagne and celebrate the fact that I've finished!' Because you've never quite finished, quite. When you send the manuscript off, when you receive the proofs, when you hold the physical thing: people will say, isn't it great, aren't you so excited? You must be so excited! And you'll say yes, it is great, and yes, I am so excited!, but you'll also be thinking, but how did this happen? and what happens next?

4. Writing a book is really thankless work. I don't know why anyone would do it if they didn't take pleasure from the act itself, or if they had any expectations at all of external encouragement or gratification. Does that sound negative? I don't mean it to: I love sitting at my desk and looking out my window and reading things and typing things and feeling a little at sea sometimes, and going for walks and swimming for a very long time when things are going badly and not having time to go to the pool at all when things are going well. I love all that, that's all I ever really want to do. But listen: no one else really gives a crap if you've written a book or are writing one (except for your family, of course. They'll tell everyone they know, with embarrassing abandon, about how you're writing a book). You won't be paid well to do it if you're paid at all. There's no guarantee that it'll be worth it in the end. When people you meet at the pub ask what you do and you tell them you're writing a book, they'll ask you what the book is about, and for the first ten months or so you'll dread the question because you don't quite know the answer yet, or you do know the answer, fundamentally, but you haven't figured out a good way to articulate it yet. And then for the last two or three or four months or whatever, you'll really want them to ask, because you have the perfect answer, and you have so much to say about it, and it's so exciting! - except that their eyes will glaze over immediately no matter how garbled or practiced your answer, and they'll smile and nod and be polite and ignore everything you say and that'll be that. Sometimes they'll ask if you have a publisher. You'll say yes, and they'll want to know how you managed that, in this cut-throat competitive world ("and at your age!" someone will say, which is both a compliment and a challenge), and you'll have to shamefacedly admit that you don't have some story about Being Discovered, you don't have any literary accolades, you're not a fresh-faced, Brooklyn-dwelling, New Yorker-worthy young talent that everyone will have heard of this time next year, you're not Lena Dunham, you're not special. You were just in the right place at the right time. You know some people at a small startup publishing house. You're lucky.

People never judge you as strongly as you think they should for this, though. Usually they'll just say something like, "but God, isn't the whole 50 Shades of Grey thing so depressing?", or, "ooh, my cousin's a copywriter, she has a really great website, you should get a website!" or whatever, and then you'll say "what do you do?" and they'll tell you all about their job as an administrative assistant or how they just finished a doctorate in neuroscience or how they're about to head off to spend a year translating poetry in Kyrgyzstan (it's Oxford, that sort of thing is de rigueur).

And then for no good reason at all you'll feel a bit like an asshole, because you know it looks like you just sit around all day looking out the window and reading things and typing things and feeling a little at sea sometimes, and that's precisely how you spend your time, and even though you have no money and no guarantee of ever having money again you feel spoiled, or like you know a secret that other people don't know, like you're getting away with something.

At My Desk

I am sitting at my desk, like I do nearly every day, with a cup of coffee in an orange-striped Penguin classics mug (The Pursuit of Love). I am watching the rain fall on the rainforest garden, now so overgrown, so wild, that I generally avoid it, because to spend time there gives me anxiety: I think instantly and obsessively of all the things I could be doing, and am not doing, with that space. My old retired Dutch bicycle, chained to the garden shed by ivy (and, secondarily, an actual bike lock), rests where it has been resting for a year and a half now. I'm unable to give it up, although it's not in very good shape, and it's unusual enough that even the most ambitious repairmen seem to think that sourcing parts for it would be all but impossible. I keep thinking that someday, somehow, I'll be the one to fix it up, but it was already well-used when I got it, and I don't really know anything about bikes, even though I probably should (my father was recently inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, after all).

Anyhow, pretty much every day for the last year I have spent at least a few hours sitting here, doing this. Sometimes all I manage to accomplish is to stare out at the greenery (or, in winter, the bare branches, the cold ground). Since nobody pays me to do any of this, I don't have to feel guilty if that's all I've accomplished at the end of a day. When people do pay me to do things (not very often, to be honest, but it does occasionally happen), I do those things instead.

Writers are always talking about, or writing about, or reading about, how they work, or so it seems to me. Maybe it's an avoidance tactic: because it's related to the act of working, it's almost the same thing as actually working. It's tangentially useful. Maybe. But who was the writer who said you have to sit there at your desk no matter what, put the hours in even if you're not working at all? That's the other problem with all these writers talking and writing and reading about how they work: sooner or later they all blend together, become this one figure, The Writer At Work, who has all the traits and habits of all writers, even when they contradict each other. So I don't know who said that, about having to just sit there. I do know that it was Hemingway who said the thing about always stopping before you've exhausted your supply of ideas and words - stop so that you'll know how you need to begin the next day. I guess like how some food critic or chef said that the perfect meal leaves you wanting one more bite. Except that in addition to Hemingway saying this, someone else also said it, or agreed with Hemingway, anyway. Murakami, I think, though it could have been anyone. Other people will say the opposite. It strikes me that we read these little bits of advice and observation not because we actually care what circumstances led to the birth of our favourite books, say, or what kind of discipline our favourite writers have, but because we are seeking to affirm that we're not alone. We're always searching for reassurance that we're not doing it wrong. We keep reading until we find someone whose methods or outlook match, more or less, our own, and then we breathe a sigh of relief, and stop searching quite so frantically, because our own particular habits have been validated. We're doing it right after all!

Anyway, the writer who said you had to sit there at your desk no matter what would, I think, approve of the way I structure my days.

Anyway, what I'm thinking, as I'm sitting here today, on a Sunday, clocking in, putting in my hours, is that I want to start increasing the distance I swim each day. I don't need to spend more time at the pool, I think; I just need to spend my time more efficiently. Often I take long rests so that I can watch the other, better, faster swimmers, to really think about things before I push off again. I think this kind of observation has helped me improve fairly drastically over the last few years, but probably it's time to think a little less and do a little more.

I'm also thinking about how next week I'm going back to school for the first time in a long time, and up until quite recently all I felt was unbridled excitement, but now, all week, I've had this terrible sense of inadequacy: I'm sure I'm going to be found out, deemed unqualified even to begin.

Sometimes I interrupt my own thoughts to read someone else's thoughts - an article I've been meaning to read all week, for instance, still open in a tab. I like to get all my tabs closed on Sunday, in preparation for a fresh week full of frantic clicking and saving-for-later and not-reading. Sometimes I discover that something I'd been putting off reading is not something I want to read at all, or is only a paragraph long. There's a certain satisfaction when that happens, though I'm annoyed with myself for not taking the time to find out sooner. It's like a certain amount of energy was reserved for that particular tab, that particular article, and now I have that energy spare, to play with.


Yesterday I spent a few hours in the front garden. Gardening is thankless work. I always enjoy it very much up to the point at which I straighten my sore back, wipe my muddied hands on my ripped jeans, and assess the results of my labour, and realise that nothing looks much changed or much improved. Sure, there are fewer weeds, the rose bush is no longer drooping over the wall and into the path of pedestrians, but essentially, everything looks the same, just a little bit tidier, almost imperceptibly tidier. If you didn't know what I'd been doing and you walked up to our house, you wouldn't notice anything at all, though at least you wouldn't necessarily think, gosh, what a mess!

I know that's kind of the point: gardening is an investment of time, like writing, for instance. But while I don't have a problem with the way writing a book is - you're always thinking, I've worked all day and I've made no progress at all! until suddenly, one day, you find yourself with a finished manuscript - I do have a problem with the way gardening is. I guess I want instant gratification sometimes. Which is probably why we've never managed to tame our garden, why we've never managed to really grow anything, in an organised sense (we've certainly been very good at letting the wretched ground elder take over, and the cherry trees have gotten substantially taller in the years that we've lived here).

But I do like doing something physically difficult, and I like getting dirt under my fingernails. The other day I painted my fingernails, for the first time in about two years, with some nail polish I found lurking on my desk under some papers. It's a funny purple colour, and it chipped almost instantly, for which I was relieved: I'd like to be somebody who wears nail polish, but the reality is that it made me feel a little too much like not-myself. Maybe someday, I think, and idly chip some more away as I sit on the couch reading.


Sometimes whole days go by when I don't talk to anyone. It's quite easy to do: if the Man is in London and the postman doesn't need me to sign for anything and I don't need to go to the shop around the corner for milk or bread or butter, and I don't have plans for the evening or money to go to the pub, who would I speak to? Sometimes people will come by trying to sell us things, or at least trying to sell us ideas. One day a man came to the door, wanting to tell me about how he could insulate our loft for free.

"I'm not trying to sell you anything," he said.

"I don't think you are," I said, although it was obvious that I did think he was, and moreover obvious that I was not prepared to be persuaded to think anything else. I looked at the card in my hand: FREE!, it said. It had a URL printed across the front, too, but I knew I would not look at the website, even though our house probably could do with some more, or better, insulation. I leaned against the doorframe, as if to take up more space, to assert my place, and told him I'd have to ask my landlady. He promised he'd come back later, but he never did, I guess because he knew I wasn't going to ask my landlady.


We have lunch and listen to The Archers. I return to my desk. It's still raining. I haven't been outside yet. I was planning to mop the kitchen floor today, but I think maybe the rain gives me an excuse not to, though I would no doubt have found an excuse anyway. I don't think we'll ever be tidy people, really. We'll never have pristine white carpets or the kind of house where everything has its place and then resides, meekly, obediently in that place. Here everything is always spilling out, spilling over. I've spilled red wine on my yellow slippers from Fez. The sauce has bubbled up and stained the stovetop red. The books spill off the shelves, slip off the mantlepiece. When it hails, the hailstones come down through the chimneys, invading, transgressing. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by the neediness of a house, all the things that need doing, maintaining, but today, and most days, this effort seems like a small price to pay for shelter and warmth, for being able to sit and watch the rain.

When I was growing up, I used to like climbing the hill beside our house. From halfway up you could look down and see the human face of the house, the jagged staircase-nose and the uneven window-eyes.

Rilke, as quoted in Bachelard:

(House, patch of meadow, oh evening light Suddenly you acquire an almost human face You are very near us, embracing and embraced.)

Akiko Busch, in Geography of Home:

When one of my sons first started to color pictures, the house he drew as an imprecise shape, between a circle and a square, with two windows hovering near the top and a door floating somewhere between them. The resemblance of this outline of a simple house to the human face was unmistakable. […] And it occurs to me that this primitive rendering captures the way we imprint ourselves on the places we live.

On Writing About Music - Text of the Talk

On Thursday I gave a little talk on writing about music - a kind of expanded version of this post, really - for the Catalyst Club (usually a Brighton-based event, but now making hopefully regular appearances at Oxfork). I always agree to public speaking things with some idea in my head that I'll be smooth, hilarious and thought-provoking, and it isn't until the moment I find myself confronted with an audience that I realize I'm actually nervous, bumbling, and have a hard time remembering to take breaths in between sentences, but I think (well, hope, anyway) it went okay. Both of the other speakers - Graham Jones on the independent record shop and Jon Spira on music on film - were excellent, and the audience asked me some really good questions after, which I tried to answer as adequately as I could. I spoke from my (ongoing) experience writing this book, and I suspect the talk would have been different if I was writing in a more straightforward genre - if I was writing a biography of a band, for instance, rather than this series of essays that use them as a focal point but attempt to explore a set of much broader questions about the logistics and love of making music (or making anything, really). But even very broadly, I think the way we represent music and musicians on paper is interesting, and I tried to refute - or at least address - the old adage that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". Anyway, here's the text I based the talk on, for anyone who's curious:

On Writing About Music

I'm going to be talking to you about writing about music. Supposedly I'm qualified to do this because I'm writing a book about music. But I'll tell you what: I'm not sure I'm that well qualified to write a book about music. For one thing, I'm not a musician, and I never wanted to be a musician. I played the violin for a few years, but I played it so badly that a man once paid me not to busk. I've always enjoyed listening to music, of course, but this is really the extent of my relationship to it: as a listener. So I can only write about it - and read about it - from that perspective.

Anyway, the first time I ever felt any desire to write about music, I was 17. I was on a plane to Boston, going away to college. I was reading a copy of the New Yorker; an article about Bjork. And I got to the end of it and I thought, I don't even like Bjork that much, but I wish all music writing was like this. I want to do this. About an hour later I'd forgotten all about the article, and about my ambition. Over the next four years I discovered sex, keg stands, and Foucault, but I don't think I wrote a single word about music.

And now here I am, writing a book about music.

It turns out that the Bjork essay was written by music critic Alex Ross. A few months ago someone gave me a copy of Ross's book Listen To This, which is an anthology of some of his writing. It includes that essay on Bjork, which I've now re-read. And the funny thing about it, I think the thing that initially left such an impression on me, was that it isn't really about music at all. It's about Bjork, and Bjork is a musician, and her music is the reason the essay was - and remains - relevant, and it sort of underpins the whole thing. But the interesting parts of the essay aren't the parts where Ross describes Bjork's music. Occasionally he does try to describe the sounds. He uses phrases like "a misty mass of overlapping lines," "lurching rhythms", "craggy, medieval-sounding melodies". And these phrases sound nice, I guess. But what do they mean? I don't know - to you they may mean something. To me - as a non-musician, mind - they mean pretty much nothing. I can't hear the song in my head or understand what "craggy, medieval-sounding melodies" are meant to make me feel.

No, the reason Ross's essay is so good is that he's not just writing about music; he's writing around it. The more myopic a piece of music writing is, I think, the less resonant it becomes. When you try to transpose the notes of a song into words in a sentence, it comes out sounding a bit flat.

Which is why, to a certain extent, I can understand the notion that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture". Elvis Costello said that, or maybe it was Martin Mull, or Steve Martin - there's some disagreement about this. Anyway, I think a certain kind of writing about music is probably like dancing about architecture: abstract, poetic at best, but ultimately futile. But writing about music certainly doesn't have to be that way. In fact, Alex Ross opens Listen to This by mentioning and then refuting that very quote. "Writing about music isn't especially difficult," he says - which of course is exactly what I want to read, as I'm slaving away at my laptop, struggling to write about music:

Whoever coined the epigram "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" […] was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science, its jargon ranging from the wooden ("Beethoven's Fifth begins with three Gs and an E-flat") to the purple ("Beethoven's Fifth begins with fate knocking at the door"). But it is no more dubious than any other kind of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet […] So why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music?

I think one possible answer is actually in his Bjork essay. At one point, describing a conversation with the musician, he mentions that "Bjork often uses the second person to close the distance between herself and others." I think, at its best, music does this too. So maybe the perceived problem with writing about music is that it seems to reintroduce the distance closed by sound and memory: when you listen to a song, there's very little standing between you and the performer, but when you read about that song, there's at least one other person (the author) standing between you and the performer.

Which leads us to the question of perspective - the question of the author, really. There's a bit in the preface to Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful, which is a book about jazz - a book I haven't actually read, by the way, I did try, I spent a solid half a day in January trying to wade my way through. I made it to page 22, and it's been sitting optimistically on my bedside table ever since, gathering dust. I did read the preface, though, and the afterword, which I only read for the purpose of giving this talk. Anyway, the preface and the afterword are actually very good; and in the preface Dyer describes the process of writing the book. "Throughout," he says:

my purpose was to present the musicians not as they were but as they appear to me. Naturally the distance between these two ambitions is often very great. Similarly, even when I appear to be doing so I am not describing musicians at work so much as projecting back onto the moment of the music's inception the act of my hearing it thirty years later.

I always think of music as being circumstantial. You might have two people listening to exactly the same recording of exactly the same song, at exactly the same time, feeling - hearing - different things. So it makes sense that writing about music is circumstantial, too. To the extent that listening is about an emotional rather than a rational response, it's tricky to write about: the way we affix memory to song will cloud our judgment of it and therefore our interpretation of it. For instance, every time I hear "Stars of Track and Field" by Belle and Sebastian, I have a very visceral reaction; I feel fear, I can actually smell what it was like to be on my high school track team. I used to listen to that song over and over again as a way of convincing myself that I wanted to be a runner. And it's kind of hard to capture that as a simple description of sounds. On the other hand, there's a balance to be struck: music can act as Proust's madeleine, but the author needs to remain aware that the music is still there. Otherwise you just have a story about how a 14-year-old girl didn't really want to be on the track team - which is, frankly, kind of boring.

I feel like there's a good analogy here. In December I went to a gig at the Rotunda - Gaz Coombes was playing, Little Fish were supporting. If you haven't been there, it's a little tiny round two-storey venue. And it was the first time I'd been there, and I was so taken with this idea that you can go upstairs and stand not just above the performers but behind them. It's like I could see exactly what they could see, but not in exactly the way they could see it. So I stood up there for the whole night, half paying attention to the gig and half worrying that I was about to spill my mug of mulled wine on someone's head (which, luckily, I didn't).

Anyway, I think writing about music is like that. You can be in the audience, staring the musician in the face, or you can stand above and behind him, looking out at the response - but either way, you're situated in the story too, and you have to be aware of that.

So I guess what I'm suggesting is that when we write well about music, we're not really writing about music. If all goes to plan, I'll have written a book that is kind of about music, but is more about ambition, disappointment, change, love, money, ordinary human interactions. What I'm looking for is not a way to accurately represent what something sounds like, but a way to begin to identify a mysterious internal driving force, the thing that compels musicians to keep going, and to reconcile that internal driving force with the harshness of the external world. What makes a band keep ticking, even after so much struggle and adversity? Why play music at all?

The book I'm writing is centered on an Oxford-based band, Little Fish. About a year or so ago, they actually asked me to write them a new biography. Band biographies are sort of tricky - so often they seem to follow the same weird pattern, you know, like, "Hailing from," - that's a big one, why do so many band biographies start with 'hailing from'?" - they're always things like, "hailing from Oxford, Little Fish sound like a cross between the Velvet Underground, the Spice Girls, and the mating call of a kakapo." Anyway, I went to interview the band for the purpose of writing this biography, but even so, it was actually really hard to write a biography that didn't sound like that, because it's hard to decide where an ongoing story should begin and end. Little Fish's story starts with a girl picking up a guitar and writing a song, but everything is still happening, they're still evolving.

And then a few months ago, Ben, who plays the Hammond for Little Fish, showed me some liner notes from an old Velvet Underground album. The liner notes included an essay by a guy called Elliott Murphy. And Murphy starts his essay by saying, "I wish I was writing this a hundred years from today. Then, I'd be writing about music made by dead people. There'd be a beginning and an end."

And when I read this, I thought, Yes! My life would be so much simpler if I had chosen to write a book about Mozart! But instead I'd chosen to write a book centered on a band for whom change has been a central theme, particularly recently - they left their label, they lost their drummer, they've recently added two members to the line-up, right now they're on some crazy tour of China. And I thought, yeah, it's easy to write about music made by dead people - not because they're dead, but because once they're dead they can't keep changing, though our perception of them might. Trying to write a sentence about a band that's still very much alive and kicking, let alone a book about them, is a crazy idea, because just when you think you've started to understand something integral about them and who they are, something's shifted.

But then again, it's not always so easy to write about music made by dead people, either. As Alex Ross points out, "the difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe sound but to describe a human being. It's tricky work, presumptuous in the case of the living and speculative in the case of the dead."

So maybe even the dead are not done changing, not done saying new things. There is no beginning and no end; just what we choose to extrapolate from our own encounters with a sound or a song. And I guess the answer, if there is even a question here, is that there is no answer. In a way, there's no such thing as music writing; it's all just a variation on fiction, on speculating (or presuming) what moves and motivates people.

The Long Haul

- I am - what's the phrase I'm looking for? Knee-deep doesn't seem deep enough; eye-deep, perhaps, drowning in - work on this book. Things have become very strange, because I'm unable to see before or beyond this project: my world has effectively shrunk to the size of my study, even though I'm actually writing about other people most of the time, even though I'm venturing out into the world to interview and interact with them on a regular basis.

- I'm deliberately spending less time online. I did think I was immune to distraction, or that, at least, distraction wasn't really distraction, that it was ultimately constructive to let the mind wander, to click impulsively on this link which leads you to that link which leads you to that thought which leads you to write a 3,000-word essay that no one else will ever read on something you never knew you were interested in. It turns out this is not the case, this is not at all constructive when you need to concentrate on constructing one specific thing. So I try to spend at least half the day every day without accessing email or Twitter or my phone, and it really does help. Now I can feel myself getting pulled away when it happens: I recognize something I hadn't thought to notice before, something like the different levels on which I concentrate. Do you ever find this? Often I find I am doing one thing but really I'm thinking about another. And it turns out it's easier to identify this discrepancy, and to start to marry what I'm thinking with what I'm doing, when I'm not flipping through 70 tabs in my browser desperately trying to remember which one I just opened.

- I'd be lying if I said this was a particularly blissful period of my life, because underpinning everything is a sense of self-doubt quite different to any I've experienced before. I can't remember where but I once saw a quote about how the hardest thing about writing a book is coming to terms with how dumb you are. This is true. For every thousand words you write, you know there are two thousand better ones that a smarter version of yourself could pluck out of the ether and lay down, but eventually you come to the conclusion that you are not that smarter version of yourself and you never can be, and you decide it's 'good enough'. A sinking feeling, mixed with euphoria: that's basically my emotional state right now.

- But really I'm not complaining. I obviously enjoy what I do, and I'm obviously interested in what I'm writing about; what would be the point if I didn't, and I wasn't? And it's nice to be focused, if only because so much of being focused is actually making sure you do things that have nothing to do with the thing you need to do. So today, for instance, I take a walk after lunch (smoked fish and salad, which I tell myself is the sort of meal that will keep me physically and mentally alert through the long afternoon to come). Because the weather's been so nice here lately I've been walking across the Iffley Road and down into the Kidneys, which has the most unappealing name of any nature reserve I've ever known but which is generally pleasant at this time of year and, more importantly, fairly empty, especially in the middle of the afternoon, when almost everyone has something more important to do than wander through a small kidney-shaped nature reserve. I have something more important to do than wander through a small kidney-shaped nature reserve, too, but then again, these forays are actually part of doing that thing. There's a little log near the water that I like to walk to and sit on, for a few moments, before I become bored of sitting and staring at the still-bare branches of the nearby trees and get up and walk back through the field and up Bedford Street to Warwick Street, from which point you can just see the dome of the Radcliffe Camera on the horizon, next to the scaffolding-clad tower of St. Mary's. As you descend the hill, towards the basin of Chester Street, the Radcliffe Camera and St. Mary's sink like the sun behind the tops of the terraced houses.

- Later, after I've been back at the computer for a few hours, I take a bath. I am allowed to do this, I tell myself, because it means that I don't have to take a bath later; I'm not cutting into my working day, just rearranging it a little. It also gives me an opportunity to read a bit from a book that has nothing to do with my book, because, I think, I need to come up for air every so often. I've mainly been re-reading The Great Gatsby, along with John Berger's Ways of Seeing and Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. It seems to me that, as I'm re-reading these books, I don't need to give them the attention I might give something on first reading; I'm just dipping my toes into familiar waters for fun (although of course Dyer has a bit about re-reading: "I could read the letters again because I had read them so badly the first time around," he writes. "In fact, I realised with a sinking heart, I was practically obliged to re-read the Lawrence letters which I had longed to go on reading but which, now that I had to go on reading them, I wished to God I was shot of").

- I also tell myself I'm re-reading lots of things that have nothing to do with what I'm writing about because I want to balance out the heavy, sometimes oppressive influence of music - by which I mean music as a topic, not music itself. I want to make sure that my world does not shrink to such an extent that it seems inconceivable to write about anything other than sounds and feelings and bands and the bleak business of making a living out of any of it.

- As for music itself, I'd like to tell you that I'm working mainly in silence, or listening to logical things in a logical order, but the truth is I'm mainly listening to the same playlist over and over again, skipping through tracks when I'm alert enough to realize that I'm bored by them. I'm actually bored by all of the tracks, because that is what happens when you listen to the same playlist six or seven times a day for three or four months straight, but I don't remember to be bored by some of them all of the time. When I'm particularly absorbed by what I'm working on, I'll often listen to several songs in succession without skipping over anything.

- But, really, the main thing is that it's all moving forward. At the pool one Friday night a girl asks to borrow some of my shampoo. We chat, briefly, as we stand under the industrial showers. She asks me what I do and when I tell her I'm writing a book she asks what the book is about, which is exactly the question I would ask but hate being asked. And yet I come up with an answer, an answer that fits in a few sentences. And I think about all those people who tell you how you have to have a perfectly crafted elevator pitch that you can deliver on command with eloquence and enthusiasm, and I think, really, what you should aim for is just to be able to mumble something while standing semi-naked next to a complete stranger after a long swim.

- "Yeah, I work hard but compared to what?" - Leonard Cohen

On Writing About Music

So, how about this book I'm writing?

It's Tuesday, noon, post-croissant and latté at the cafe around the corner. I'm back at my desk, reading for research or distraction or both. And a forgotten memory surfaces: 2004; I'm on the plane to Boston, 17 years old, moving out of my parents' house and into the cold arms of a strange city. I've got last week's copy of the New Yorker on my lap. I'm reading about Björk (I don't even like Björk that much, I mean, I've put some of her songs on mix CDs but mostly just to differentiate myself from my Usher-and-Britney Spears-loving peers) and I'm thinking: I wish all music writing was like this. I'm thinking: I want to do this, I want to write about music like this. I don't want to write about music the way people - fans, reviewers, Rolling Stone hacks - write about it, but I want to write about it like this.

About four hours later I'd completely forgotten about the Björk essay, about the way it felt to read something like that. To the extent that I retained any desire to be a writer over the next few years I did also retain some ambition to be able to write that comprehensively and powerfully about a subject, but I pretty much figured I was going to go to law school and move to Washington, D.C. and live out some West Wing-inspired fantasy.

And yet here we are almost eight years later, and I'm writing a book that's ostensibly about music. It turns out the Björk essay was by Alex Ross, whose book Listen To This was one of my birthday presents this weekend. "Writing about music isn't especially difficult," the book opens:

Why has the idea taken hold that there is something peculiarly inexpressible about music? The explanation may not lie in music but in ourselves. Since the mid-nineteenth century, audiences have routinely adopted music as a sort of secular religion or spiritual politics, investing it with messages as urgent as they are vague.

My book is about music, but as much as it's about music, it's also not about music. Sounds obvious, I guess, but it's something I have to remind myself every time I sit down to work, because I keep getting stuck on this idea that I'm writing a book about music and I don't know anything about music. It's taking me a long time to get my ideas down; not because I don't have them, not because I haven't spent the last year talking about them and making notes, but because when it comes time to actually write a chapter, I find myself embarrassed by all the things I don't know. So I keep saying to myself, yes, it's about music, but it's also about ambition, disappointment, change, love, money, ordinary human interactions. What I'm looking for is not a way to accurately represent what something sounds like but a way to begin to identify a mysterious internal driving force, and to reconcile that internal driving force with the harshness of the external world.

A few days ago, Ben sent me some photographs of the liner notes from a Velvet Underground album he'd recently bought. The album includes an essay by Elliott Murphy, who writes:

I wish I was writing this a hundred years from today. Then, I'd be writing about music made by dead people. There'd be a beginning and an end.

It struck a chord, so to speak: the chapter I was working on happened to be about change, evolution, finding your voice, losing your voice, searching for a new voice. But then, just a few hours later, I read Alex Ross:

The difficult thing about music writing, in the end, is not to describe a sound but to describe a human being. It's tricky work, presumptuous in the case of the living and speculative in the case of the dead.

So I guess the answer, if there is even a question here, is that there is no answer, or no easy answer anyway. Perhaps there is no such thing as music writing; perhaps it's all just a variation on fiction, on speculating (or presuming) what moves and motivates people.

On My Desk

As I was moving from one study to another last week I started thinking about how dependent I am on the support of a certain set of books. It's not that I can't work without them, just that if I am working, I prefer to have them within arm's reach. It isn't even necessarily that I'll need to refer to them (though I might) - more that they're part of the comfortable scenery, reminders of my own intentions and ambitions (and conspirators in procrastination: if there's something else I should be doing, you'll quite often find me flipping through one of these books).

Here's what's on my desk:

- The New Oxford Book of English Verse. 1972 edition. Lime green jacket, blue lettering. Chosen and edited by Helen Gardner. Purchased for £4.50 in Hay on Wye a few years ago, during the literary festival, our annual pilgrimage. Once belonged to someone who signed their name (illegible) on the 5th of August, 1978. Some previous owner - maybe the same one - also pedantically (or appropriately?) added "D.B.E., M.A., L.Litt - Prof. of Eng. Lit. Oxford" after Helen Gardner's name on the title page. I'm not always very good with poetry but it seems important to have some to hand, and I have a sentimental attachment to this particular bulky, out of date volume, because this is how I discovered Louis Macneice: flipping through my new purchase on the train from Hereford, the sun setting outside, the carriage cold, I found "Snow": "I peel and portion/A tangerine and spit the pips and feel/The drunkenness of things being various."

- Louis MacNeice's Selected Poems is, of course, also on the desk. It has soft pages and smooth edges; my mother bought it for me one summer day in Bath and just to hold it, let alone to read it, is comforting.

- Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer.

- Zuleika Dobson. An old orange Penguin paperback ("This edition celebration of the Author's eightieth birthday, 24 August 1952") that I bought in Boston, at a used bookshop in Brookline, one hot September night shortly after arriving back from Oxford for the first time. I was using it for research for a while, so it's marked up and peppered with post-it notes bearing cryptic notes like "'Mainly architectural...' + femininity in Oxford" that could, out of context (or even in context) be interpreted to mean almost anything you want. The post-its were bought as a joke from Urban Outfitters and all have obscenities written along the edges, like "Ass" or "Balls" or "Fuck", so that my attempts at scholarship cannot be taken too seriously.

- The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. I have practically written my own book in the margins of this copy so I hope I never lose it, though in a way to read it fresh (without my own subtext) would probably be a good thing for me.

- The Elements of Style. I only keep this on the desk because I feel I should. I had a professor in college who said we should all own a copy, so I went out and bought one, and I have hardly looked at it since. Still, it lends gravity to the line of volumes, and I do like E.B. White's essays.

- Graham Greene's In Search of a Character. Stolen (or rather rescued) from a school library. It's a slim book but I haven't read the whole thing; I keep it there because of the introduction - "Neither of these journals was kept for publication, but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence" - and the first line of the Congo journal: "...All I know about the story I am planning is that a man 'turns up', and for that reason alone I find myself on a plane between Brussells and Leopoldville."

-Brideshead Revisited. We have at least three other copies of this in the house but this is the original, bought at a book sale in Santa Ynez, printed in 1945, with its unmistakable Brideshead smell. In the back is a National Express ticket from January 2009, from High Wycombe to Oxford. I have never been to High Wycombe, so this is a complete mystery to me. Over the years this book has come to mean less to me than it used to, but it's still inconceivable that I could ever sit at a desk and write seriously without it being present.

-The Origin of Species.

- An uncorrected proof of Isolarian by James Attlee, which I read during my first summer here. I guess in a way I think Attlee has written the book that I would have liked to write. At first I was sniffy about this, because I wanted to write it, but now I find it rather soothing, because seeing the book there reminds me that I don't have to write that book, - the burden has been lifted! - that I have another book (or other books, I should say) to write instead. Also, it's very good.

- Heart of Darkness. I remember reading this in my last year of high school. I got really into it (some of my notes and essays from that first reading are tucked in the back of this flimsy copy), and I think I mainly keep it visible to remind me that I know how to read, if you see what I mean.

- Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. I think if Kirsty Young asked me what book I'd like on my desert island in addition to the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, this might be it. I don't know why but I can't seem to grow tired of reading it; the delight intsensifies with each re-reading. The book begins to smell worn and right, the pages stained with sunlight.

- Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan. Because the tension described by this line: "Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other" is at the heart of (a lot of) what I think and write about.

- Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. For this line and a million others:

"So I went from making notes on Lawrence to making notes for my novel, by which I mean I went from not working on my book about Lawrence to not working on the novel because all of this to-ing and fro-ing and note-taking actually meant that I never did any work on either book. All I did was switch between two - empty - files on my computer, one conveniently called C:\DHL, the other C:\NOVELand sent myself ping-ponging back and forth between them until, after an hour and a half of this, I would turn off the computer because the worst thing of all, I knew, was to wear myself out in this way. The best thing was to do nothing, to sit calmly, but there was no calm, of course: instead, I felt totally desolate because I realised that I was going to write neither my study of D.H. Lawrence nor my novel."

- Vile Bodies. There's a chapter of this book written entirely in dialogue. It's hilarious and devastating, hilariously devastating, devastatingly hilarious.

- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. I know this book pretends to be a detective novel, but it isn't; it's a love story about Oxford. I can't remember who, but someone once told me it was "the best of the books about Oxford", and I'm not sure I could honestly disagree. In any case I do remember that Wodehouse wrote of Sayers that, "It is extraordinary how much better she is than almost all other mystery writers".

- The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton.

- The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Anyone else have any books they don't like to work without?

How I Read

"the wall between work and idleness had crumbled to such a degree for him that he scarcely noticed it was there…his best ideas always seemed to come to him when he was away from his desk. In that sense, then, everything fell into the category of work for him. Eating was work, watching basketball games was work, sitting with a friend in a bar at midnight was work. In spite of appearances, there was hardly a moment when he wasn't on the job."

As a couple, our primary consumerist vice seems to be buying, or at least acquiring, books. Even when neither of us has any money, which is often, scarcely a week goes by that we don't have an influx of books, a new intake. I don't know why or even how this is - I don't set out to add to our extensive collection, but between buying and borrowing and receiving gifts, our extensive collection is undeniably expanding. And we have a lot of books in the house that neither of us has read - or that neither of us has read very closely, anyway. I like this because it makes it feel like my home is a bookshop: there are discoveries, as well as re-discoveries, still to be made here.

Paul Auster's Leviathan, from which the quote at the top of this post comes, is one such discovery, made after two months of failed attempts to read a whole good book. I started with Women in Love. I began it in October, during our strange Indian summer. One Saturday afternoon, knowing this was probably the last Saturday afternoon of the year that would be so mild, so sweet-smelling and free, I walked down to the café at the end of our street and sat outside in the sun in my shorts and fedora and ordered a green tea and pretended I was in Morocco, or someplace else, at least, sipping something hot to combat the heat of the day. At the time Lawrence seemed perfect; but later, about halfway through the book, I realized I couldn't bear to read Hermione Roddice's voice described as "sing-song" one more time. If I read that one more time, I thought, I will crack up, I will break down. I'm not giving Lawrence up forever: just until I get a grip on myself, I thought.

So, remembering my thrill upon discovering Margaret Drabble earlier in the year, I picked up Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. The problem here, I told myself after just a few pages, really, was the size of the book: it didn't slip easily into my handbag, it was hard to hold open with one hand. I couldn't go on; I would simply have to come back to it later, when I was feeling more physically able, when my strength had returned.

The perfect antidote to this problem was bound to be Paul Harding's Tinkers - a slim, modern book, just 191 pages long, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a first novel by a man who holds a creative writing MFA. And it turned out to be not bad, not bad at all, but not right, not quite right. I'm not giving this one up forever either: just until it's what I need, which might be next week or might be next decade.

You never know with books, is the thing: sometimes it's just right to read something and sometimes it's not. It's a lazy way of reading, yes, and I know too that my inability to commit to one book is more a symptom of my currently unpredictable attention span than anything else. But the problem for me is that reading is a competitive sport, not an idle pastime; I feel the effects very keenly, and the desire to leap up off the chair and begin writing something of my own, or to go for a vigorous walk along the river while I contemplate what I've just read, is often so strong that I have to suppress it every two or three pages. In the pub, the living room, the park, you can see me glancing up every few minutes, like a startled meerkat, staring at the world and seeing it anew, over and over again. So the fundamental pleasure of reading is enhanced by reading something which is personally timely; the problem is identifying what is personally timely. Who would have guessed that I would happily consume all of Amsterdam in one sitting a few weeks ago? I certainly wouldn't; I picked it up simply because it was there, on the coffee table.

But the other night I went calmly over to a shelf in our lounge and pulled Leviathan from between The Complete Novels of Jane Austen and Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, where it had been inexplicably resting for several years. I don't know why I haven't read it sooner, or why now is exactly the right time to read it, but I am utterly transfixed by it, which is a good feeling, a refreshing feeling. And I'm reminded that reading is part of the job, yes - as much as eating or having a drink with a friend, both of which I also count as work - but, like those things, it is also not just a part of the job.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Distraction

For the past few weeks I have been trying to capture the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window on video. This is harder than it sounds; they come off in bursts, because of a gust of wind, and by the time I realize it's happening it's already happened. This is like Autumn itself: I always think how much I love it, the way the leaves glow and the air goes crisp, and how much I'm going to take advantage of it this year, really go for walks, really explore and enjoy it. And then one day I am at my desk, trying to capture the last yellow leaves as they come down, and I realize that I've missed it! Again! Already the tree nearest me is bare, save a single red leaf on the tip of a single branch, and soon the cherry trees too will be naked.

So I still have no satisfactory video footage of the leaves falling from the trees outside my study window. I do have lots of short video clips of nothing happening. Someday I will find them and wonder why they're there. I will wonder this for about ten seconds, and then I will delete them because they're taking up space, and who wants ten short video clips of the view they see every day?


Trying to capture on video something which I cannot capture on video is just one of a number of things I've been distracting myself with lately. (By the way, is that the correct phrase - "on video"? It seems curiously analog for a process which involves nothing more than tapping the screen of my iPhone). The problem is that I do actually have something I need to be concentrating on (namely, writing the book which is actually going to be published). I don't mean that I can't concentrate (I can concentrate, I sat in the same chair for several hours on Sunday and read Ian McEwan's Amsterdam in its entirety - not a long novel, but certainly an act which requires a certain degree of concentration). I just mean that I can't see the connections between what I'm concentrating on very well. So on the one hand I have the thing that I'm mostly working on, the thing where all of my attention should be but isn't, quite. (Is all of anyone's attention ever on just one thing? At least part of mine is always on worrying about whether or not I'm paying the thing I need to pay attention to enough attention instead of the thing itself.) And then on the other hand I have these other things on the fringes, which are infringing on my ability to think clearly about anything.


One day, convinced that nothing in the world could compel me to do good work, so why bother, I watch an old episode of Silent Witness over lunch. I'm still at my desk, which makes it seem like I haven't thrown the towel in quite yet, or at least, I haven't thrown all of the towel in, I'm still clutching on to one corner, like it's a lifeline. Last week was particularly busy, I tell myself, so I deserve this hour (which turns inevitably into three). But for how long can you honestly say you 'deserve' something like that? When has the debt been repaid?

Anyway, watching old episodes of anything is a dangerous game for me. When I'm in the throes of a TV show obsession I am worryingly unable to cope with real life. And as a matter of fact I've been spending quite a lot of time watching old episodes of Silent Witness recently. After that first sneaky hour a number of others follow, until they are not sneaky anymore. I am watching an episode at lunch, an episode after lunch, an episode before dinner, an episode during dinner, an episode after dinner. I could pretend that I'm trying to find something relevant in it; that any distraction can actually be warped by willpower into something tangentially but unmistakably useful. I'm studying character development, storytelling through cinematography, whatever. But in the interest of being honest, I'll tell you the truth, which is that I mostly watch it for the pretty faces.

Last night (or maybe this morning, at about 2 am, just before I fell asleep and had fitful dreams about solving a crime which culminated in two exactly identical bodies lying on the mortuary slabs - not twins, just two versions of the same body) - it occurred to me that I also actually just like the show. There's no shortage of unrealistic television dramas about people who solve crimes and cut up dead bodies and do vaguely sciencey shit - CSI, the other CSI, the other CSI, and so on - but this one, for whatever reason, is my favorite. It doesn't make me squeamish, which it should (paper cuts make me squeamish, let alone fake autopsies). It doesn't frighten me, particularly. It walks a fine line between being too ridiculous to be worth watching and representing very finely some aspects of the human condition - elements of the soap opera combined with elements of an Ian McEwan novel, perhaps.

Between episodes, I spend some time thinking about what it means that there are so many of these kinds of shows out there and so many people watching them. I'm not qualified to speculate on this, of course. I'm sure someone somewhere has done a study on it, or written an article. But in my concentration, I don't think to look it up. The crime element explains some of the apparently endless appeal (a number of these kinds of series have been running for over a decade) - we're drawn to mysteries, aren't we, they're easy to make compelling even in an hour-long slot. But beyond that is the question of whether it is morbid or wise to surround ourselves with all of these fictional representations of mortality all of the time. These shows may not be subtle, they may not be what astute critics would sneeringly call "good television", they may stretch the limits of our willingness to suspend disbelief, but at the core is the simple truth of life ending in death. Blah blah blah.

But yeah. Basically what it comes down to is this: I like the show because when Tom Ward and Emilia Fox smile at each other over a microscope or a corpse, it makes me smile, too.


To try to trick myself into thinking about the thing I should be thinking about (that's a retrospective excuse, of course), I start a side project. Or, at least, even though it isn't fully formed as an idea in my head yet, I describe the latest thing that's distracting me from the thing I really need to concentrate on as a "side project" in order to validate it (everyone needs a hobby, right? So why can't the side project just be my hobby?). I try not to make it seem too concrete, because the point at which it becomes concrete is the point at which I need to acknowledge either that it is A Thing I'm Going To Run With or A Thing I'm Going To Put On The Back Burner or, worst of all but probably most likely, Not Really A Thing At All. I try to use words that are so ambiguous that stringing them together adds no meaning: loosely speaking, I say to myself, it's about death, depression, anxiety, memory, and purpose(lessness). It's really very funny to me, but I don't know why. I haven't yet been able to pinpoint precisely what it is that makes me laugh about this.

Then, of course, I find this piece about how to write funny by Steve Almond. "As a rule," writes Almond, "the sadder the material, the funnier the prose."

That's it, that's the thing, the idea that's distracting me, or at least that's the idea that happens to be distracting me in the moment I read it. Take Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, which for an unrelated reason has been heavily on my mind lately. No matter how many times I read it (I've lost count, I'm afraid to say), it always makes me laugh. That's a good sign: if its jokes (which seems woefully the wrong word here) relied solely on something theatrical, circumstantial - misunderstandings, Shakespearean situations - surely their funniness would, gradually, start to diminish. One can generally only be delighted by an engineered joke for so long (wordplay is another matter). But the funniest bits of Vile Bodies are the saddest bits - and the book is a tragedy, really.

There's also Geoff Dyer, who's at his funniest when describing - well, anything, but particularly those things which on the surface appear quite serious: anxiety, depression, aging, loneliness, ruin(s). Here he is writing about having a nervous breakdown in Detroit. It's one of the saddest and funniest things I've ever read:

It was raining outside. Not a howling storm, just steady drizzle. The kind of rain that yields no sense of when it might ease up, that seems to be keeping itself in reserve so that it can, if necessary, keep going till the end of time. 'It was raining outside.' Gore Vidal derides someone for writing a sentence like that, feigning surprise or relief that it was not raining inside. But that day in the Clique I looked down and saw that it was raining inside as well as outside. My egg-smeared plate was becoming wet. Drops of water were falling on to my toast, moistening my eggy hash browns. As I looked it rained harder and I could not see. I was crying, not sobbing, just this steady leak of tears. And then, as I realized I was crying, I felt that I was in danger of sobbing. I got a grip on myself, stopped the leak, staunched it. I ate my wet eggs and looked at the rain outside, hoping that would take my mind off the rain inside. I'm having a breakdown, I said to myself, I'm having a breakdown while having breakfast. I said this to myself to calm myself down, to try to familiarize and render ordinary the extraordinary turn of events that had led to this internal rain. I stifled my sobs and ate my breakfast which did not taste any worse because I was having a nervous breakdown. When I had finished the eggs I wiped my knife with a napkin and spread butter and apricot jelly on the whole-wheat toast. I finished the rest of my coffee. I calmed down. I was no longer leaking tears but I was no less distraught now than when I was having a nervous breakdown, which I was still having even though I had, to a degree, managed to regain control of myself.

Why is it funny? You might ask that; I've asked myself that. But you might just as well ask why it's sad. The tragedy is in the comedy and the comedy is in the tragedy. That's right, isn't it? Like Lorrie Moore (who Almond also mentions in his article). What makes A Gate at the Stairs so funny? Certainly not its wretched outcome - or maybe that's precisely why it's funny. Funny for not being funny, like everything else. When I was about six years old my best friend broke her arm trying to do a back handspring in our living room. For some awful reason I began to laugh. I ran into my room with our other friend, another witness, and we giggled inconsolably, behind a shut door. I did not find it funny that my friend was scared, in pain. But something about the inevitability of the situation, perhaps, something about the irreversibility of it, elicited an involuntarily hysterical reaction - like the scene in Outnumbered where Sue submits to a fit of laughter at a funeral.

"So why are these books so funny?" Almond asks, after listing his own favorite funny books - The Catcher in the Rye, Money, Birds of America. "To begin with, because their authors reject the very premise that suffering should be treated only as an occasion for sorrow. They view suffering as something more like an inevitable cosmic joke, one that binds us all...Their characters make us laugh because they tell us the truth at a velocity that exceeds our normal standards of insight. And because they continually violate the normal boundaries of decorum, by confessing thoughts and feelings the rest of us spend our lives concealing. We're both shocked and gratified at their candor, and so we laugh."


I wish I could connect this to what I started writing about here, but as I've said, the bit of my brain that makes connections between things isn't doing its job. You could blame all the TV or the navel-gazing or the short days or the pleasantly dull routine I've settled into or whatever, but I don't really think it's symptomatic of anything; it's just the way things are at the moment.

Anyway that's more or less what's been going on in my head/life for the last few weeks.

This Week's News

On Thursday I was on BBC Radio Oxford, talking about the project I'm doing with Oxford band Little Fish. If you're one of the two people I haven't guilted into listening to it yet, don't worry! It's available online for another four days [edit: my bit starts at around 1:12:00). I haven't actually listened yet, because every time I hear my own voice I cringe, but I enjoyed the experience. I arrived very early and I'd had too much coffee beforehand, which may explain why every other word out of my mouth is "exciting!" or "excited!", but mostly it went well, and the Jo, the host, made me feel comfortable and even vaguely interesting. Yay! In other news the leaves outside my study window are red, the ice cream truck is still driving around the block on weekend afternoons, I can't seem to find a decent pair of jeans anywhere (but that might be because I can't seem to bear being in a shop for more than five minutes at a time), I'm alternating between D.H. Lawrence and David Sedaris before bed, and I've had cheese on toast for five out of seven lunches this week.

How's your October been?

In My Country: Notes on Hearing Geoff Dyer speak about Americans

Last week I went to London to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans. I didn't have any particular desire to hear Geoff Dyer speak about Americans, but I did - almost desperately - want to hear Geoff Dyer speak, and I did want to know what The School of Life's secular sermons are like, so I travelled from the Cowley Road to Conway Hall early on a Sunday morning. It was one of those lukewarm September days. I sat at the front of the hall, perhaps wanting to be noticed, to be (perceived as) bold. A woman in a red and blue military-style jacket (like a drum major's uniform, perhaps, if I knew what a drum major's uniform looked like, or even really what a drum major was) stood before us. She wanted us to sing; this really was a sermon, and there were hymns. She said she had changed a little bit of the first hymn - Sinatra's "New York, New York", lyrics printed in our pamphlets - and invited Ed, her small blond pianist, to play a few bars so that we could practice the modified verse.

We sang. It still sounded like a hymn, like an English hymn sung in an English church on a rainy English sunday. It had that hymn-rhythm; which is to say, no rhythm at all. I don't know much about singing, but I'm pretty sure that the way the English sing their hymns makes virtually no sense unless you've grown up singing them that way.

After we sang, I felt good; singing in public always makes me feel this way, as if I have achieved some kind of victory (in preschool I was once admonished to the point of tears for mouthing the words to a song rather than singing them out loud). But there was something unnerving about the whole thing, too. There was something strange about this woman, in her drum major's jacket, with her Shirley Temple curls and her peppy voice, imploring us to loosen up a little, shake our limbs a little. I did not want to shake my arms or my legs like a chicken; I certainly did not want to do so repeatedly, and I most certainly did not want have to pay the bald man sitting next to me a compliment, not because I didn't think he was worthy of a compliment, but because the compliment would inevitably be forced, even if meant - I like your shirt, I like your blazer, you have a nice smile - and therefore quite meaningless. Moreover, the first thing that had popped into my head was, "I like your hair," which was definitely not something you could say to a bald man you had never met before. So I just looked the other way; it was easy, I pretended I was on the tube, trying to avoid looking at the person across the aisle whose knees were touching mine.

And the bald man turned to the curly-haired man behind us and said: "I like your hair." And the curly-haired man said to the bald man, "That's a great shirt!" And it was a great shirt; I hadn't noticed before, but it was a great shirt now that the curly-haired man had mentioned it.


Then Geoff Dyer - who, even though he makes frequent reference to being tall and thin, is much taller and thinner than you imagine he is - was on the stage, at the pulpit, preaching, or, rather, speaking. He sounded a little like he might be suffering from the onset or aftermath of a mild early Autumn cold; occasionally he paused to sip from a tall glass of water. He told some anecdotes, about Americans, about the British, about the time he went to Big Sur and stood in silence on a bluff overlooking a bank of fog so thick it obscured the sea, everything, and thought how peaceful it was until an American man appeared on the scene and boomed into the quiet: "Sure is peaceful, isn't it!" I knew I'd remember that anecdote, not because it meant anything much but because I, too, have been to Big Sur and been impressed by the way the fog rolls in and covers the coast but allows you this God-like view over it, this view that makes you think that virtually anything could be going on below you but you are above it, on the sun-bleached hillsides, in the sun. Well, yes, I thought: that is my country.


But then, I don't really know my own country. I've probably seen more of England - percentage-wise, at least - than I have of the USA.

Last summer, on our way to Toronto, we had a layover in Minneapolis, and so, for the first time in a long time, I was in my country - though of course I had never been there before, to Minneapolis, to anywhere near Minneapolis.

I passed through immigration. The officer, who looked about my age, did not seemed inclined to interrogate me, but neither did he seemed inclined to let me through without at least making an attempt to understand the apparently complicated circumstances under which I found myself now here, in our country but his city.

"So you live in the UK?" he said, flipping through passport pages, looking at faded stamps and expired visas.

"Yes," I said.

"But you're going to Canada."

"Yes. For a wedding. But not mine," I added. I laughed, he didn't. Maybe he was thinking it was perfectly plausible that I was flying to Toronto via Minneapolis for my own wedding to an Englishman. For some reason I started to think, what would happen if I just made a run for it? Would they catch me? Would they detain me? Would I go to jail? How would I explain it?

"So you live in the UK and you're going to Canada and you're not staying in Minneapolis?" he summarized.

"Yes," I said. And he stamped my US passport, and I was home, geographically if not emotionally.

Thirsty in the departures lounge, I bought a bottle of Aquafina water with two stray dollar bills in my wallet. It reminded me of being in high school, buying bottles of water from the vending machine outside the gym during the long, hot volleyball season, which always began in an Indian summer. We would sweat our way through two hours of scrimmages and sprints and inspirational speeches. I was 14 on 9/11 and I remember that afternoon, though we'd spent all day in front of television screens, which they'd produced as if by magic and hauled into all the classrooms, it was business as usual. Drills and sit-ups and bottles of Aquafina from the vending machine. Sometimes it was so hot that we would go across to the pool after practice and leap in. Then I'd spend the long drive home wet, my t-shirt stuck to my sports bra, my hair smelling of chlorine and perspiration.

So Minneapolis is not where I’m from, but in a way, it’s part of where I’m from. The truth is that when I say "my country", what I really mean is "my parents' house," "the farm my best friend grew up on," "the bit of Boston I used to live in," "the other bit of Boston I used to live in." All of these tiny, disconnected places, forming a patchwork map, my map. I love my map. I love those places. I feel patriotic about street corners, particular coves and hilltops, parks and benches and cafés and long winding roads. But I don't know what Americans are like; I don't know what America is like. I don't know what to think of my country as a whole. I don't even know how to see my country as a whole.


I guess the trouble with being an American abroad is that you never know where you stand. Everything depends on politics, and politics cannot be counted on.

In his sermon, Dyer alluded to a period - four or five years ago, when the pound was worth twice what the dollar was worth, when animosity towards George Bush was at a high - during which Americans were treated with a much chillier, more patronizing attitude. I remember that period. That was when I first came here. I was defensive, yes, but I always imagined that people looked at you a bit differently if you were American. It was polite in those days (it may still be polite, in fact) to ask if someone was Canadian if you discerned a North American accent. I remember an aggressive and insecure compére at a comedy show, mistaking my sarcasm for genuine insult, telling me I was just another one of these Americans, spending a few weeks here, pretending to know everything, and why didn't I just go back to where I'd come from? And then, later, realizing his mistake, he was so apologetic ("the cult of the apology," Dyer called it, this unmistakably British instinct - "the human equivalent of birdsong") that I couldn't help but feel some kind of perverse sympathy for him.

But here we are now, and things have changed, and authors are giving talks in praise of Americans. And in a few years, or a few weeks, something else will change, attitudes will shift, and I, who has not moved, will stand somewhere else.


Then there is the issue of friendliness. The American smile. Updike's quip: "America is a vast conspiracy to make you happy". I started to think about this. As I thought, I realized that I was probably, even in that moment, quite happy to be in London on a sunny Sunday morning listening to one of my favorite authors dole out praise for my countrymen, scowling. I am nearly always scowling. When I work, when I sit, relaxed and reading or listening, my face contorts in a way that is comfortable for me but uncomfortable for everyone else; I'm often asked if I'm okay. Yes, of course I'm okay, I say, can't you tell?

Needless to say, I don't have an American smile. I was not invited to join the cult as a child, I missed the meetings where the mechanics of the smile were discussed and practiced until they became an instinct.

I used to work at a school in Oxford. About half of our adult students were Americans doing a semester abroad; the other half came from all over the world to study English. One of my many menial tasks was to print student photos onto ID cards. Even before you checked the files, you could always tell the Americans from the rest, especially the girls: they were the ones with shiny grins as big as the moon, wide eyes, flat hair, heads cocked at a flattering angle. They were not prettier than anyone else - very often the opposite - but they always gave the impression of being prettier than everyone else.

As I listened to Dyer speak about the charm of Americans, I wondered if maybe it wasn't real charm, not always; maybe sometimes it was the illusion of charm, like those girls smiling up at me from their ID cards, pretending to be prettier than everyone else and therefore convincing me, convincing all of us, that they were.

Even I am charmed when I go back to the US; I am always amazed that shopkeepers want to have such long and involved conversations with me, that cashiers want to make eye contact with me, that the girl at the bank is so genuinely curious about my weekend plans. But I feel like I don't know how to trick myself into being charming. I feel, frankly, like I'm not a very good American, with my scowl and my shyness and my sorries (I may not be part of the cult of the smile, but I am definitely part of the cult of the apology).

Lately, though I've been practicing being more American. I've been trying to accentuate my accent, for instance, or to raise my voice above a whisper in the pub. I suppose that the longer I'm here the more strongly I feel the compulsion to assert the fact that I'm from there, to solidify my standing as an outsider even while I feel increasingly like I am part of something.


After the sermon was over, after we sang a final hymn, I stood in line to waiting to ask Geoff Dyer to sign a book. I hate asking authors I love to sign books. I'm always hoping that, somehow, perhaps by looking deep into my eyes, they'll discern that I'm special, that my appreciation for their work is special, that we could be friends, even. At the same time, I know it's a pointless thing to do: I'm not trying to increase the value of my library, and I'm under no illusion that because an author has scribbled "to Miranda" on the title page, we have any kind of relationship.

But as I stood there before him, presenting my book and my nervous smile, I made a conscious effort to try to be more American than I might ordinarily be. I began to smile and to speak. I gushed about how much I liked his work. I said my name so quickly (perhaps, I hoped, so American-ly) that he had to ask me to repeat it. He signed my book. I said, "have a nice day!" And then I sped off with my heart thumping for no obvious reason, sure I'd made a fool of myself.

Later, waiting for the bus home, sipping a too-large chai latté like I used to do in college, the sun shining limply over Notting Hill, I forgot to care about whether or not I had made a fool of myself. I thought of this, by Jawaharlal Nehru: "But in my own country, also, sometimes, I have an exile's feeling." I figured that really, the only country I could claim any ownership of was the one that's made of memory.

Sunday Rant: Sometimes the Enemy is Me

Oh, what a difference a year makes. And maybe that's just it: maybe it's circumstantial, maybe it's related to the fact that a year ago I was there and now I am here, and everything, but also nothing, has changed. But seriously, have you looked at the internet lately?

I know the internet is not just this Thing, this big mouth-breathing monster that sits in the corner and grunts occasionally and then looks back down at the keyboard. But indulge me for a moment. Pretend it is. And just look at the state of it! Greasy hair, stained t-shirt, dried spittle at the corner of a tea-stained mouth. It hasn't been exercising enough; it hasn't been realising its potential or even acknowledging it has worth.

Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I don't write rants on Sundays. Sometimes I don't write anything, all day, which is not good when that is basically what I am supposed to be doing all day, every day. But honestly, a lot of the time I can't actually pinpoint what it is I'm thinking, or what it is exactly that's annoying me, even when I know something is annoying me. There's so much noise. It's like that scene in Arcadia (which I know I reference in every other blog post), when Valentine Coverly says "There's just too much bloody noise!" and you aren't sure if he means there's too much noise around his data, or too much noise in the room, in general.

I am not going to do that thing I hate and blame the Internet Monster, and say that the reason I sometimes can't write or sometimes can't identify what it is that's annoying me is that the Internet Monster has been mouth-breathing in my ear all day and I'm just so…wait, what was I saying? Because I still really, really hate that. I am not going to blame one of the greatest (for better or worse) technological and possibly sociological phenomenons of our age for the fact that sometimes I sit down at my computer and instead of banging out another 2,000 words of my book I look at photos of expensive chairs and impossibly beautiful women in Barbour coats on Tumblr. Because if computers didn't exist and I was chained to a desk writing my book in my own blood with a stick I would still find ways not to write it. I can promise you that.

But. Part of the reason I don't write, or I don't know what's bothering me, or I can't figure out what the fuck my book is supposed to be about, is because lately - in the last year, or two, maybe - I haven't been exercising that part of my brain that ignores everybody. Everything I read or see or hear that involves anything or anyone else in some way influences what it is I think I should be doing. Which isn't right. And because I read and see and hear a lot, my sense of what I should be doing has been completely diluted by this sense that I'm not doing what they're doing, how can I be more like them?

I am envious or jealous almost all the time because of what other people are doing. I don't actually know what other people are doing, of course. The lives I see online are like little icebergs, and I will never collide with most of them, so I will never know what lies beneath. But I can extrapolate from an offhand comment - "what a great day", for instance - and, because I like to invent things, and in a perfect world I would be inventing them on paper for an adoring public, not in my head for the sake of destroying my own self-esteem, imagine that what this means is that the person who had a great day is, at 24, already a bestselling author with a Booker nomination and a big house.

I guess the thing is, there's just so much. Of everything. I'm drowning in everything. And it isn't that I can't shut it off and it isn't that the Internet Monster is destroying the world. It's just that I've lost my bearings. I'm stuck in a bad maze. I'm tired of a lot of things, which is fine, but I need to know how to find the things that excite me, rather than just encountering, again and again, in different incarnations, the things I'm tired of.

There's just so much funny, for instance. There's so much funny that none of it is funny anymore. It's too near the bone, or else it means nothing at all. If I read one more girl's clever blog about her slightly zany life (and, looked at from the right angle, whose life isn't slightly zany?) that overuses capital letters, sentence fragments and exclamation points to drive home just how FUNNY! It all is! I will probably cry. (And am I guilty of doing this? Yes. Of course I am, sometimes. I'm as susceptible as everyone else, and I know it: that's the point.).

Meanwhile, on Twitter, that medium for even more transient expression, there are all these jokes! These one-liners that, taken out of context, are mean or meaningless or both. And all this talk about television! Increasingly I wonder if Twitter is actually just a way for people who watch a lot of TV to feel like they're part of a community. And they can #xfactor to their hearts' content, and Caitlin Moran can make as many quips about the contestants as she wants, and other people can retweet Caitlin Moran's quips about the contestants as much as they like (this is not a criticism of Caitlin Moran, by the way: she is a tremendous writer, both funny and poignant, and I have a lot of respect for her). But it's still a Sunday evening and they're all still sitting at home alone watching television and talking about how bad it is - or, even more depressing, how good it is.

Am I jaded? Yes, I am, a bit. I'm tired of smug people telling us what they ate and wore and accomplished today. I'm tired of self-referential Techcrunch pieces, self-referential Guardian articles, self-referential tweets. I'm tired of reading blogs about how to be more productive (why do these blogs never suggest "not spending your entire morning reading blogs about productivity" as a tip for being more productive?). I'm tired of feeling perpetually as if I'm not keeping up, even when I know that everyone else feels exactly the same way, because no one could ever keep up, even if they tried.

But I'll say again: our imaginary Internet Monster, slobbering and abused in the corner, is not the cause of my angst. You know what the cause of my angst is? My self. My negativity. It takes a certain amount of energy and imagination to sift (or, perhaps, see) through a billion photos of well-dressed people standing in the middle of the street and a bunch of blog posts about that really awkward thing I did yesterday or that really funny thing that happened to me involving a bookcase, a dildo and a dwarf, but it can be done. No one says that books should be abolished because there are some really bad authors out there (maybe some people do say that, but they'd be wrong). And no one is standing over me forcing me to spend a few hours every day looking at things that, fundamentally, are making me depressed. I'm doing that all on my own.

What is making me angsty, therefore, is not that there is so much shit: it is that I am allowing myself the luxury of getting down about all the shit, instead of ignoring all the shit. I don't have to read the things I read, and, more importantly, I don't have to react negatively to them.

I think maybe a year ago I was too excited about everything to ignore anything, if you see what I mean. I think a lot of us were. But now we have the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to choose what we engage with.

So welcome to the era of accountability: in which the Internet Monster stops doing the work for us, and we have to be discerning enough to discover and promote the content we actually care about, instead of being forever mired in the content we resent. No one said it would be easy.