Foyles - Author Q&A

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A Thousand Paper Birds is your first novel but with your career in dance and theatre, I wonder if perhaps storytelling is in your blood?

I think ‘creating experiences’ is in my blood. Capturing a mood, a glance, a moment. Having come from a dance background which is all about communicating a feeling, the things unsaid, the push-pull of an encounter, I had to work hard to move away from a series of images and sensations to something with more narrative drive. I could, however, fall back on my theatre years to explore character motivations, the importance of an arc. I think, primarily, it is imagination that has been my fuel and anchor. Imagining different worlds, the infinite possibilities. Trying to make the familiar unfamiliar.

 

How long has this story lived with you?

It started in 2003 when I first moved to Kew and began jotting down notes about the Gardens. I was working on a different novel at the time so didn’t take much notice. Over the years, different threads began to form – including origami and the question, ‘Who is Harry Barclay?’. I was always struck by the abundance of life in Kew in juxtaposition with the commemorative benches. All those dead people who had ‘loved spending time in this garden’ only made me more aware of the beauty of the place and how fleeting the moment. This rub of death and life began to fascinate me. I started writing the novel in 2009 and it took six years and eight drafts before it reached Bloomsbury.

 

Loss and grief are central themes of the story, and your writing doesn’t shy away from the sensitive subjects of suicide and miscarriage. There’s a beautiful line where Jonah feels he ‘is clutching a newborn child, holding the exact weight of hope in his arms.’ Were you conscious of speaking about grief that is often kept hidden?

Yes. I suffered recurrent miscarriages between my first and second child, so I felt qualified to explore this difficult and often unspoken subject. Grief for an unborn child is real and yet intangible. I’m always interested in exploring the things that are in the mist, that you can only see the vague shape of – perhaps an outline here or there, the rest erased, amorphous. So I wanted to see if I could bring that yearning into being.

A close friend committed suicide when we were in our late twenties. It’s one of those things that leaves its mark on you and it turned up in my writing, unbidden. I think many of us have had some whimsical notion of suicide at some point – but I think there’s a huge chasm between thinking it and doing it. I’m really interested in what that is. The space between.

I have also witnessed friends die of terminal illness – and I’m interested in the grief of a dying person. I remember a day when there was a sudden downpour – a proper, constant dousing – and my neighbour, who knew he didn’t have long, walked out of his house with his umbrella and stood in the middle of the road just taking it all in. How do you say goodbye to that last rainfall? I think one thing the book tries to do is stretch that final moment. If I could press pause between my penultimate heartbeat and my last, what would my thoughts be?

 

The book remains hopeful, the idea of redemption ever-present – perhaps because the setting at Kew Gardens is so beautiful. Did you always know you wanted to set A Thousand Paper Birds there?

Yes. Kew always came first. I was living in a bedsit near the Gardens with only two windows that were so high I couldn’t see out of them. So if I had writing time, I would take myself off to Kew and set up my ‘office’ – which was always one particular bench by the lake. Eventually this became Audrey’s bench. If the weather was dreadful, I would seek refuge in the Palm House and perch on the hot pipes, surrounded by banana trees and palms. In later drafts, I would write in different locations depending on which character’s storyline I was working on; each character has a particular place that resonates.

 

The rhythm of the book was another source of joy for me; could you tell us a little about the structure and timespan the book is set over?

As a dancer, rhythm is vital to me: the rhythm of the sentences, the words, the chapter. It is important to me where the comma is, the dash. It’s Fred Astaire in a graceful spin, his arms wheeling, then a pause – oh, how important the pause is – before he stamps, shuffles, stamps again. Writing IS a dance.

As for the structure, I was weaving two timelines and five character perspectives. At first I worked in narrative order, then in deeper drafts I took the thread of just one or two characters and worked them from beginning to end, just polishing that particular arc. Then in the next draft I would braid them together again, checking the juxtapositions, the pace … and yes, most importantly, the rhythm.

 

Kew felt like a character in its own right, as did the origami cranes Chloe creates almost compulsively. What are your thoughts about the therapeutic properties of art and nature?

Both art and nature are sustenance to me. At an early age, I learnt from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that nature has the power to transform. We enter a garden, and if we let it enter us, we leave changed. Ditto for woods, oceans, mountains – even a daisy in the crack of a pavement. It can totally shift my day.

The same is true with art. Many books have saved me. Music has lifted and consoled me. I have stood in front of a particular painting for hours, unable to leave. Often I don’t know why – just that it is making my soul itch. Dance has a profound impact. It touches on things we have no words for. It always breaks me and makes me bigger.

Fusing these two themes, I was interested in how humans strive to create and yet are systematically destroying the most creative thing of all: nature. Harry’s job is to save species from extinction. I’m dumbfounded by the vast variety of Kew’s flora. It’s enough to make you believe in a vast, divine imagination – but perhaps that creativity is coming from the seed itself, the atom. I’m curious about the urge to create that is in every living thing – the bud pushing through the soil, the ambition of a tree to birth an apple. In all of us there’s a striving to create, to be the fullest we can be.

 

I’ve been inspired to try and learn how to make paper birds by your book; are you a dab hand at origami yourself?

Sadly, no. I can do a few birds well. A couple of boxes. But it’s not necessarily about a big repertoire of models, but repeating the same bird again and again. There’s something very meditative about the process. But beyond my dabbling, there’s a whole world out there of origami masters making the most extraordinary things. Scientists use origami to solve mathematical equations. Leonardo Da Vinci, Houdini – many of the big thinkers have been enthralled by its mysteries and symmetries.

I love how many things can be created from a single square. How often can I unfold and refold the paper, changing it from a bird to a boat, a kimono, before the paper frays or tears? This was a metaphor for the writing process: how far can I push the form, fold in the different perspectives, and, particularly, how much can I crease the genres before something rips?

One of the best things about the book coming out is people telling me stories about origami birds being scattered in bookshops, left on trains, stranded at bus stops. People are picking up litter – a ticket, a chewing gum wrapper – and folding it into a gift for the next stranger … and the next. It’s a tiny act of resistance that says, despite everything, I still believe in beauty, in small gestures of kindness. A Chinese whisper.

 

As a destroyer of books myself, one of my favourite scenes is that between Harry and Audrey where they talk about books bearing the imprint of their readers – corners turned, pages smudged, words underlined.  Are you a careful or careless handler of books?

When I was a child, Roald Dahl signed a book for me. My copy had felt tip drawings in the margins, silly faces, doodles. He was charmed by it, saying the book had been well-loved, well lived-in. I won’t fold corners to mark my place – partly because I love matching books with bookmarks, but I will turn down pages to flag a favourite phrase. I underline often. I even scribble in the margins. Perhaps something I’ve read has set off a new thought about my characters, or a scene, so I’ll just begin to riff. It becomes a dialogue.

I particularly love holiday books. The ones that come back double the thickness because they’re bloated with sea water – or perhaps there’s sand in the seams, or an unspecified flower pressed between the pages. There may be dirt from a rickshaw. A squashed bug. My holiday has become part of the book – its story.

Some people might judge it as careless. But I believe the biggest compliment I can give a writer is to show them my copy of their book, all the corners turned, sentences unlined. Look. This is how much I loved this. This is how much I lived it. This is how much I cared.

 

First published for Foyles

What multiple miscarriages taught me

After the birth of my daughter, we waited three years to try again (Lesson 1 – take nothing for granted). It took ten months to get pregnant but I miscarried in the first trimester. Another 9 months of trying, another miscarriage. And then another. After being referred to the recurrent miscarriage clinic at St Mary's Hospital in London, I was diagnosed with Antiphospholipid syndrome (or ‘sticky blood’) and later, an incompetent cervix. Here are a few things the experience taught me.

 

We need to revise the terminology

‘Miscarriage’ implies that the woman has not carried her baby well. Guilt often accompanies grief (could I have done something differently, if only I hadn’t…) so this is clearly unhelpful. As for ‘incompetent cervix’ – the technical term for a cervix that opens prematurely – don’t get me started. Then there’s the ‘silent miscarriage’ where the baby dies in the womb, unnoticed. For me this was the hardest. I’d gone alone to a routine appointment and the unplanned scan was far from quiet. A sound came from the depths of my being. A primal thing. A disbelief. Are you sure the scanner isn’t broken? There was a heartbeat – just a week ago. I can see him on the screen, he looks fine. No, dear, he’s dead.

 

Hospitals are remarkable places

It not only houses the recurrent miscarriage clinic but is the emergency go-to-place for anyone in the area suffering signs of miscarriage. The waiting room is full of scared women from all races and backgrounds. Some are alone, others are trying to stay calm because they have an older child in tow, some are with partners – the body language sometimes close, sometimes frayed or distant. Often the room is too hot, too crowded. Women shift about on plastic chairs trying to ease the cramping pain, but it’s impossible to be cross about waiting. You know if someone is in the scanning room too long they will come out ashen or weeping. On one sweltering afternoon, a woman in a hijab collapsed – from the heat, pain or grief, I do not know. I do know it’s a place where people hold their breath and hope against hope.

 

Mourning is tricky

There are no photos, no gravestones to visit. You are grieving what could have been – the potential of a child, the mother you hoped you would be. Carrying a dead foetus inside you for over a week is not easy. I couldn’t work, read or watch TV. Instead I played the piano. It was something about occupying my hands – creating movement out of stasis. When it came to the day of the procedure, I worried that the baby had resumed breathing. Sleep riddled with nightmares.

 

I would do anything for my children

Inject my belly daily with heparin? OK. My ‘blossoming’ stomach was a black and blue pin cushion and the more it swelled, the more terrified I became that I would stab the baby. Also not fun is having your cervix stitched to prevent it opening. ‘It’s only one stitch,’ they said, forgetting to mention it was a purse stitch: in and out, in and out, then pulled together like a drawstring. Once the epidural wore off it was agony. The next day I hosted my daughter’s fifth birthday party. I could hardly walk. But still you make the cake, wrap the pass-the-parcel, sing the song.

 

It’s difficult being the man

My husband desperately wanted to shoulder some of the burden, but he couldn’t be the one to puncture his stomach with a needle. We had to negotiate the different ways we grieved, the different ways we supported the growth and life of our child. 

One tip for men: if there is a waiting room full of pregnant women who have been nil-by-mouth for twelve hours and are being forced to glug Lucozade to test for gestational diabetes, DO NOT wander in with a barista coffee and a croissant.

 

Creativity matters

The miscarriages profoundly affected my sense of being a woman: a creator. I couldn’t get my novel to work and the two journeys intertwined. I was desperate for the words to spring to life, for my baby to survive. There was a sense of stillbirth – so many things craving to be born – my babies, my art – until eventually I channelled my grief into the story. Strangely enough, when wonderful things started happening with my book, a pregnancy stuck.

 

Nature helps

Put your hands in soil. Grow things. Lean into the earth. I spent a lot of time in Kew Gardens, writing on a particular bench, letting nature support me. Kew is one of the most healing places in the world.

 

Gratitude

It wasn’t an easy birth. My waters broke five weeks early. Scar tissue had covered the cervical stitch, making its removal one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. There was an emergency C-section and I almost lost my son at the last minute. He had severe jaundice which led to a six-day twilight zone filled with the blue light of phototherapy. But we all survived it.

Throughout the process, I was acutely aware that I already had one child while others around me didn’t. My heart goes out to anyone who wants to be a parent. I’m also aware that without access to modern medicine and the NHS this ending would be very different. When I watch my two children play in Kew Gardens, I know that my biggest lesson is gratitude. I am incredibly lucky.

 

First published in Red Online 16 June 2017

The Riff Raff Q&A

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Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.

I had several notebooks full of ideas for a novel but couldn’t find a way forward until I realised there were two completely different novels in there. That was a major A-HA moment. I sat on a bench in Kew Gardens, listened, and began to write.

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?

It might take seven years and several drafts but it would eventually be read, loved and published. I used every shred of faith I had to get through it.

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

With two young children and a part-time job, I don’t really have that luxury. I’m pretty disciplined. However, now the Paper Birds are ruffling their feathers, ready to fly out into the world, twitter is much busier and that’s a really easy way to lose time and focus. When I’m struggling with something, a helpful ‘procrastination’ is playing the piano. Usually by the end of the piece, I’ve solved the sentence, or the character intention, or whatever was keeping me stuck.

What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?

My agent at the time read an early draft and said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t mix up the real and the magical this way.’ I stood my ground, really wanting to push the boundaries of what literary fiction could do and still be ‘literary’. I had a belief that my quirky, hopeful book might find a readership – but the agent and I departed ways. When I submitted the next draft, six agents fell in love with it and offered representation.

Best thing about writing your book?

Firstly, it was a wonderful excuse to go to Kew Gardens regularly. And secondly, I loved the strange coincidences that happened along the way that encouraged me to keep going. Creativity is a strange and fantastic beast – a dance between me and something ‘other’, be that my subconscious or something more mysterious. Whatever it is, it feels like an act of co-creation. Another highlight was my agent ringing while I was standing outside the Palm House in Kew Gardens. I was told I had a publishing deal - and I was in the perfect place.

And the worst?

It’s an ambitious book. Weaving the real with the metaphysical was challenging at times, as was having five character perspectives and two different timelines. There were days when it felt like I was entering the boxing ring, wrestling with ideas and ending the day with my nose bloodied. There were so many different versions of the book wanting to be told, it was hard, sometimes, to decide which way to go.

Go-to writing snacks?

Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.

Who or what inspires you to write?

The first inspiration can come from the most unlikely places – an overheard conversation, a fleeting image, even a glance between two people. A specific location is often a starting point for me – the mood of a place and how it can affect people. Other writers and books are a constant fuel – and different art-forms too – dance, theatre, visual art – anything that makes my soul itch. In my research period, I’ll collect images – of location, character qualities, moods, motifs – which I pin to huge noticeboards in my room. Each time I walk in, it feels as if I’m entering the book. Working on the next novel, I’ve been listening to a lot of Max Richter. It’s music that makes you ache, that stirs up all the things unsaid - those subtle, almost indefinable emotions. There’s a propulsion to his time signatures – it helps my hands start moving without me. A constant searching and questing…

The book that changed you?

Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It was the first time I realised that literature could do that.

Your pump up song?

She Dances by Anna Jordan. I listened to it constantly in the final drafts of Paper Birds when I was cross-eyed with exhaustion. It’s not so much a pump up song – it’s quiet with pared back vocals, percussion and Indian rhythms – but there’s a journeying to it – and it encouraged me to keep putting one step in front of the other. ‘She dances to it all. She must have heard those beats before. I hope that she’s always there. I hope that she feels the rhythm ‘til the end.’

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?

I recently loved Sarah Winman’s and Sarah Perry’s latest novels and would love to ply them with wine and ask, ‘how the hell did you do that?’ But if I have to pick one, I’ll say Audrey Niffenegger as I think our conversation would cover different art-forms and the act of creativity itself. But then again, there’s Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare…

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?

Your art and craft are the only things that matter. Write because you need to write – because you can’t let go of an image, a character, a mystery. Write because you love the puzzle itself, the challenge. There’s a lot of noise when you get published. Whether you’re met with praise or criticism, the only real work is to continue writing, to continue striving to be better. If you’re one of the ones who can’t stop writing, you WILL get there.

First published in The Riff Raff

Patience, Perseverance and Passion

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As this year’s Festival of Writing draws near, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be judging the Best Opening Chapter competition with my agent, Jenny Savill. I wonder who will be in the shortlist and what they are doing right now. Perhaps they’re commuting to work, or hanging out the washing, pouring a second glass of wine, or changing a nappy (or perhaps doing both at the same time). In this very moment as they glance up at the sky, or put on the kettle, they don’t know that, in a few weeks, their life will be transformed.

The festival had that impact on me. So, after signing with my agent, what happened next? More drafts. Another four to be exact.  A Thousand Paper Birds is a many layered thing. Based in Kew Gardens, with five characters, two love triangles and a mysterious death, it’s told from multiple perspectives and two time-frames. Add in a speculative thread and the folds of origami, and you can imagine why it took a while to pin this particular girl down. I learnt a lot in those two years – not just about my characters and craft, but also about perseverance and passion. There were days when it felt like I was entering a boxing ring, wrestling the pages, and leaving the desk with my jaw bloodied. In one particular draft, I tried so damn hard to please that I took on every suggested edit and ended up with a Frankenstein manuscript, the stitches so coarse you could see the seams. It had no blood in it. No heartbeat. I had to go back and lovingly unpick it, gently resuscitating it back to life and asking it to forgive me – and thankfully it did. It’s a delicate balance – taking in other people’s advice, but also staying true to the world you’ve created and to the book’s anima, or spirit.

In September 2015, the manuscript was ready and we sent it out on submission. What a terrifying process! But within 24 hours, an editor in Italy had read it overnight, fallen head over heels and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer. Other offers started to come in – Portugal, Netherlands, Russia – then I heard that a few UK editors were taking A Thousand Paper Birds to acquisitions. This is not an easy hurdle – the entire team has to love it and, in the run-up to Frankfurt Book Fair, there’s a lot of books vying for attention.

Trying to keep positive, I took myself off to Kew Gardens (the book’s location) to hear the Director’s Talk. As I left the event, my phone rang and THE MOMENT happened. Bloomsbury had put in an offer. I was standing outside the famous Palm House, in the perfect spot. A couple of times I had to ask Jenny to repeat herself – partly out of disbelief, partly because the ducks were quacking, but there I stood by the glasshouse, my dream solidifying in the trees, the lake, the sky, my body.

This elation continued in Frankfurt when Germany offered me a 2-book deal. Signing for a second book felt like the start of a career; a validation.

So guess what happened next? Yup. More drafts. Thankfully, my editor, Alexa von Hirschberg, is one helluva talented & insightful lady. Sensitive, funny, wise, stylish, she was a joy to work with. The copyedit too was a wonderful experience. The copyeditor’s attention to detail was love-filled. It’s the fine work of the scalpel … ‘do you really want ‘in’ twice in a sentence?’ (see, I’ve just done it again), ‘should it be ‘garden’ or ‘Gardens’? Did you realise that you swap between imperial and metric?’ After all the large scale edits, it was a pleasure to focus on the miniscule.

Ten drafts in all. So many different versions, characters cut or changed, whole passages gone, and for a while I worried that I would grieve for all the different ‘Paper Birds’ that had vanished. But when I read through the final edit it was the book it was always supposed to be. Everything had come into focus.

During this period, there was a lot of other stuff happening too. While I was writing the draft(s) of my life I also had to set myself up as a business, dealing with foreign tax forms and complicated contracts. An illustrator was working on a map of Kew Gardens, blurb copy was needed, copyright permissions required, author photos taken, the jacket design approved (oh my, it’s so flutteringly gorgeous!). Then there was also a pregnancy that involved me injecting myself in the stomach for 9 months daily, a premature baby and the usual sleeplessness and chaos that comes with a new-born – but that’s a whole other story…! And now, I have a year to write Book 2 (the first one took 7 years so you can understand why my eye is twitching…).

There’s a host of unknown and wonderful things ahead. And I’m frightened. Of people reading it. Of people not reading it. The author events, the promotion – all challenges for a publishing virgin. But in the end, away from the noise of twitter, book sales, reviews, I know my main job is the work itself: to write the next book better, using everything I’ve learnt. The landscape of language, the puzzles of plot and pace, the intimacies of character – this is where I’m happiest, and how privileged I am to be able to spend my day at the typeface, conjuring up things to believe in. This passion (obsession? endless curiosity?) is both anchor and fuel.

So, yes, since York, life has changed. After years of writing alone, it’s amazing to be part of a collaboration with some of the most talented, brilliant people in the world.

Good luck to all of you coming to the Festival, and if you aren’t shortlisted for any of the competitions don’t be disheartened. I didn’t and I still came away with interest from 8 agents. So much can happen in the 1-on-1s, in the coffee queue, at the bar … the quickening of fate can happen in the most unlikely places.

As for the six chosen for the Best Opening Chapter, I’m so looking forward to reading your work. And for one of you (or more), hold on tight, the rollercoaster is coming to get you

First published 18 August 2016 for The Writers' Workshop

 

Warning: Attending the Festival Of Writing can seriously change your life

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The truth is I was terrified. My comfort zone is a quiet room with only my characters and words for company, so the idea of spending three days with hundreds of writers I didn’t know felt challenging. Apart from having to face industry professionals, there was also the prospect of the Gala Dinner. When I followed participants on the forum discussing dresses they were going to wear (taffeta was mentioned), I definitely wobbled.

But I was determined to do something radical. I had been writing for 15 years, been close to publication a couple of times, but the overall message I was receiving was ‘you have talent, you write beautifully BUT…’ Hearing I had potential in my early twenties was lovely. Hearing I still had potential 15 years later was frustrating and I realised that if I was going to cross that golden threshold I had to do something different.

I had submitted my third novel to 5 agents in June 2013. After receiving silence, I booked my place at York. The week before the festival, three of the original agents got in touch, saying they were interested. So I arrived at FOW13 on a high and had an absolute blast. I learnt so much from the workshops and loved meeting writers from other genres. The biggest discovery was that I actually ENJOYED ‘small talk’ if it was about books. I was in my element.

During the weekend, I met two agents who both asked to read the manuscript. I returned from the rollercoaster, proud that I had pushed my courage to the limit, and as I sat there on the Sunday evening I had no idea that the real ride was only just beginning.

The agents from the festival read my manuscript within 24 hours and both offered representation. I then returned to the original 3 and they offered representation too. Overwhelmed, I contacted two people I had met in York: the wonderful book doctor, Andrew Wille, and the fabulous Francesca Main from Picador. Both offered advice without being directive and both suggested that I contact other agents too. This led to a ridiculous number of agents saying yes and my diary became unrecognisable with daily meetings. I was in the centre of a ‘buzz’ and I realised that people were now reading the manuscript differently with a starting point of ‘how can I help make this work?’ The doors I had been knocking on for 15 years were crashing down around me.

I now had a new problem. Who was I going to pick? All the agents were smart, passionate, experienced and a delight to be with. I would have happily worked with each of them as they all brought something unique to the book and showed great insight. By this point, several successful writers were also getting in touch to recommend their agent or offer advice – and I remain stunned and humbled at the support I received from so many professionals who took time out of their busy schedules to help. But it did get to a point where I was scared to look in my inbox to see which celebrity was there that morning: ‘BOO!’ However the overall message I received was clear. I needed to listen out for that infamous ‘click’ … and to trust my instincts.

When I walked into the ANA offices, Jenny Savill led me into the boardroom where I found a pictorial homage to my book spread out on the table. There were not only photographs of the novel’s location, but print-outs of music I mention and images of motifs that proved to me she understood the subtleties of what I was trying to do. She then introduced me to her colleagues and they had read the book too. Despite being in the hectic run up to Frankfurt, each of them stopped to meet me and I was so overwhelmed that I walked into a glass door. A classic Bridget Jones moment…

Had I heard a click? There had been a symphony of castanets. But still I wasn’t sure. How could I possibly turn down the others who I also adored? But I kept coming back to Jenny who had shown me that she understood the book, and what I’d been trying to do, better than I did. The key moment came when I drove past a poster of an NME cover showing David Bowie surrounded by origami birds. Both of them key motifs in the book. It was the strangest synchronous moment … and the first person I wanted to call to was Jenny. And that was that.

It was hard to let the others down – all who had put so much energy and belief into the book – and of course I would have loved to mesh them into one uber-agent! But this was the real world and after all the excitement, my suitors rode into the sunset to find other books to fall in love with, other writers to court. In the ensuing silence, I was left standing opposite the one I had chosen, the two of us looking into each other’s eyes, thinking of the years and challenges ahead of us and saying. ‘Okay, let’s make this happen.’

So now I have the draft of my life ahead of me. But I’m back in my ‘happy place’, playing around with words and asking these wonderful, frustrating characters to reveal themselves to me just a little bit more. And as I work, I don’t only have the brilliant support of Jenny … but all the agents’ wise voices in my head. And I feel hugely supported and blessed.

None of this would have happened without the Festival Of Writing. They were the spark that lit the fire. I also can’t thank Andrew and Francesca enough for their unbiased support – I couldn’t have got through the rollercoaster of these crazy months (or had so much fun) without them.

There are still many more hurdles to jump. But I have learnt an important lesson … and ironically it’s a lesson I needed to learn for my characters too.

If you do the thing you’re most frightened of, you might just get what you want.

First published 18 December 2013 for The Writers' Workshop