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FIFTEEN MINUTES


Fifteen thousand, that's how many words I have to write in the next four weeks - by September 15th, to be exact. In theory it's manageable, but, in practice, it's proven to be a bit more difficult than I expected. Because no matter how experienced I might be at this point in my MA, fifteen thousand words is a lot to comprehend; it's a lot to map out, in my head and on paper even. And so, up until last weekend, my pile of notes continued to grow while my word-count remained at zero, the blinking cursor on the blank document taunting me with every flash.

Naturally, Panic and Perfectionism set in. And let me tell you, these are not a friendly pair. While Panic urged me to move forward and just write something, Perfectionism would quietly tap me on the shoulder and whisper: 'yeah but, if it's not right you'll only have to do it again.' I didn't have the mental energy to satisfy either of them; Panic wanted stamina, Perfectionism demanded concentration, and I couldn't face hours spent at my desk. But then I found a solution. In an effort to ensure that my weekend wasn't a total bust, I told myself: 'Work for fifteen minutes, that's all.' So, I did.

With only fifteen minutes on the clock, I was comforted by the knowledge that it would be over pretty fast. What's more, it forced me to focus on the one-inch picture frame; this is a technique I learned from Bird by Bird (a writer's essential, FYI), in which Anne Lamott suggests starting with something small, tiny even, to combat creative paralysis. You can't, after all, write fifteen thousand words in fifteen minutes. And by lowering the stakes, doing little bits in short bursts, I actually managed to draft half my word-count - seven and a half thousand words - in around four days.

So, I thought I'd share this gem of wisdom. I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to bunker down during big projects and torture myself into working for solid hours/days/weeks. It's easy to believe 'the bigger the project, the bigger the personal sacrifice.' But that's not a great philosophy - it's mine, I should know - mainly because it leads to eternal misery and total burn out. In reality, you don't need to put your life on hold to get stuff done, all you need is fifteen minutes.

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THE REAL WORLD

'You'll have to join the real world, won't you?' he laughs, taking the cup of coffee from my hand. With a smile and a nod, I wave him off. That's how such conversations end, without exception, and this is how they usually start: 'What is it that you do then? Oh, when will you finish your studies? And then what's your plan?'

I play out this little charade on a daily basis, at work, at parties, at the supermarket checkout. No matter how varied the circumstances, there seems to be a universal consensus that post-September, when I finish my MA, it'll be my duty to hop on the first bus destined for the 'real world.' Mostly, I agree with this suggestion, or at least, I agree with the sentiment behind it - find a suitable job and start making the most of the skills that six years of higher education have equipped me with - but lately, I've come to resent the slightly condescending tone that people tend to add to it. If I'm not already part of this so-called 'real world,' where exactly do they suppose I am?

Perhaps they think I've been living in a not-so-real world where cats and rabbits reside in fancy little houses, dressed in shoes and hats and trousers. Every woodland is populated with buttercups and parma-violets, and all creatures, great and small, thrive under the peaceful rule of our governing lion, Aslan. Here, I don't work 78-hour weeks trying to finish my MA, broaden my CV-worthy achievements, and support myself in a minimum-wage service job. Rather, I roll out of bed at 3pm and skip along the Yellow Brick Road to Munchkin Land, where I stay until midnight, reading books, drinking tea, and eating pop-tarts. I've never had to pay bills or order tap-water at a bar because I can't afford a real drink. And when facing a difficult situation, I just click my heels three times and wait for my fairy godmother to sort things out. If only!

As far as I'm concerned, I've been living in the 'real world' for quite a while now; I've been responsible and sensible and well-prepared. But you know what? I think I'm due a break. So, you can keep your bus ticket, your high-rise buildings and your six-figure salary - when I finally graduate in September, I think I'll book a flight instead.

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ON SLEEP

My mother loves telling tales about the places I fell asleep as a child; at a bowling alley, in shopping trolleys, or leaning up against the booming speakers at a wedding reception. At a very young age, I somehow decided that sleep was non-negotiable, not to be sacrificed. No tantrums before bed, no tears in the bath. I never lingered in the hallway, pressing my toes into the carpet and waiting for a disgruntled parent to hush me back to my room. My bed was my haven. A place of storytelling, dream-making and hot strawberry milk.

As I grew older, my friends quickly realised that I was a terrible companion at sleepovers; the night would draw on and I'd find myself a quiet corner so I could doze off in my sleeping bag, missing out on gossip and snacks. I'd also be up at the crack of dawn making scrambled eggs and drinking orange juice with their parents, which (as I was informed) was not cool.

A few years later, fuelled by an air of rebellion, my eighteen-year-old self could just about reach the stroke of midnight before falling asleep - on buses, on vodka-soaked sofas, whilst eating McDonalds on The Strand. I had become the fairy-tale princess of my childhood bedtime stories, albeit with a splash of alcohol and mascara smeared across my cheek.

And now, at twenty four, I still religiously take myself off to bed at 10 o'clock, even on the weekend. It remains my haven. Who can resist crisp white sheets, absolute quiet and the dim light of a bedside lamp? But four nights ago, sleep was stolen from me. Instead of dreaming away the hours in a heavy slumber, I now lie awake as every muscle in my body begins to twitch, as the lumps in my mattress seem to harden, as I listen to the sounds of mice scuttling across the eaves above my bed. My mind feels as though it's operating at double speed, catching up on everything I might have forgotten throughout the day, scrawling notes on my mental notepad.

It's a cruel affliction, to be banished from the Land of Nod. Exiled like a dishonourable citizen. Perhaps I angered the Sandman by travelling with too much baggage - too much stress, too many obsessive thoughts? Maybe there were complaints made about me? A Disruptor of the Peace, I am. And it's true, I have been distracted. My life has robbed me of dreams and replaced them with troubles - living nightmares, if you will. But this has to end. So, tonight I'm performing a ritual of sorts. A sleep seance to earn my ticket out of the borderlands and through the gates of Nod. I'll light a candle, bless my pillow with lavender, make some hot strawberry milk and ask: 'Mr Sandman, will you please let me in?'