New Year Review

New Year Review


Again, I look at my blog for this year and see I have been quiet since May. There have been three reasons.

  • One, Brexit made me speechless. I made several attempts to write something here after the referendum result. All have remained in draft form. To be honest, I am still so upset about this act of wanton vandalism (and the vicious right-wing agenda it has unleashed) that I feel genuine anger at people I know who voted Leave. Which is half my country, apparently. Although only about 10 per cent of my friends and my readers, I suspect. There is still much ‘inner work’ to do before I can feel the peace on this issue which I would prefer.
  • Two, out of financial necessity I went full-time at Goldsmiths in September. This is probably only temporary, but it has pushed all my writing and other activities to the margins, leaving no time for the extras: this blog, and my two Shakespeare-related projects. My life was fractured into too many strands, trying to drum up the means to pay my bills. So if you wonder where the ‘Help for Writers’ pages has gone, this is the answer. I had to streamline my life and get rid of things that were taking up a lot of time but bringing in minimal income. A full-time job, plus writing novel number three, plus the few freelance opportunities I couldn’t bear to turn down leaves little room for anything but family.
  • Three, I have been writing private updates on the progress of the third novel for my Patreon patrons. Given what I am giving them (which they get in return for so kindly supporting me) there is not much left for sharing here. If you want the inside story on the next novel, you can always join them: it’s only a dollar or a pound a month (no thanks to Brexit, they are now practically the same thing). In return you get not only monthly updates but my deep and genuine gratitude.

On personal and professional terms, 2016 was a good year. The Marlowe Papers play had short runs in Brighton in January and May, getting 4- and 5- star reviews, and being nominated for a Broadway Baby ‘Bobby’ award. Following a blog post here that went semi-viral, I wrote for The Guardian for the first time,  inadvertently stirring up a hornet’s nest… the ‘inadvertent’ only showing how unaware I can sometimes be. I worked for the British Council for the first time, and was keynote speaker at a conference for the first time at Yasar University, Izmir, Turkey, where I met some lovely people. I also did a talk on Shakespeare for them at the London Book Fair. I read ‘Material’ to 900 ‘A’ level students and their teachers in London (and got to hang out with some excellent poet friends in the green room). I was invited to deliver a paper on the final panel of the Worlds Literary Symposium in Norwich, which was great fun. I got a good chunk of novel three written (novel six if you count the unpublished ones! I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time and wrote more in the month of November than I usually write in a year. I also dropped a significant amount of the weight I have accumulated in recent years from sitting on my arse writing books, through swimming 3 miles a week (100 miles since May) and doing 16:8 intermittent fasting. I bought two new power tools (including a circular saw) and at the end of the year, I made my daughter a set of Tardis doors.

What is on the horizon?  The novel will be completed in the first half of the year, all being well.  I’m currently working on an exciting Marlowe-related audio project. I have a chapter of a Shakespeare book and a Marlowe-related paper to complete. And despite all that arse-sitting, I’ll drop more weight and get back to a ‘normal’ BMI.

What I’d like in 2017? Personally: more peace, more security, more balance. For the world: the same, but I suspect there’s little I can do to prevent what looks like a full-on breakdown. Still, everything good in my life came from rebuilding after I had one of those. So I tell myself something good will come at the end of this, after all the hatred, misery and bloodshed. Let’s hope so.

A Curiosity in the Bodleian First Folio Shakespeare

A Curiosity in the Bodleian First Folio Shakespeare


One of the finest results of the 400th anniversary of the death of a certain man from Stratford has been the increased availability of digitised original texts connected to Shakespeare.  The Folger’s Shakespeare Documented project is a treasure trove, though in many cases one should take the write-ups with a pinch of salt.  It is quite a stretch, for example, to claim that a report from 1633-43 that the name “Shakespear” was carved into the panels of tavern alongside those of other famous people of the day is ‘a unique record of Shakespeare, at the peak of his career, gathering with friends and colleagues at the Tabard inn in Southwark’. Unless someone can furnish us with evidence the people in question did their own carving, it sounds more like the landlord paying homage to some local celebrities and trying to increase the cachet of his hostelry by association. But I digress.

As a scholar whose specialist subject is the authorship question, my eye tends to fall on those offerings that orthodox scholars miss: items that so strongly resist fitting in with the traditional story that they will be passed by as nonsensical or unimportant. This week, a fresh oddity was brought to my attention, and if you’re at all interested in the idea that Christopher Marlowe might have authored the Shakespeare canon (the premise of my first novel), I think you’ll like it too.(1)  You will find it opposite the title page of the newly digitised Bodleian First Folio.  Follow that link, flip forward two pages, and see it for yourself.

A new First Folio find

The usual page containing Ben Jonson’s 10-line poem facing the Droeshout engraving, and telling the reader seeking the author to ‘looke/Not on his Picture, but his Booke’, has been removed. On the blank page that remains, someone has written a replacement 10-line poem that reads as follows.

An Active Swain to make a Leap was seen
which sham’d his Fellow Shepherds on the Green,
And growing Vain, he would Essay once more,
But left the Fame, which he had gained before;
Oft did he try, at length was forc’d to yeild
He st[r]ove in Vain, – he had himself Excell’d:
So Nature once in her Essays of Wit,
In Shakespear took the Shepherd’s Lucky Leap
But over-straining in the great Effort,
in Dryden, and the rest, has since fell Short.

[I have tried to reproduce it as the author intended, including those words and phrases in italics; I have left the spelling of ‘yeild’ alone, though it is wrong to modern eyes. I think it fair to assume from the context that ‘strove’ rather than ‘stove’ was intended.]

I imagine the title of this poem might have been instructive, but it has been removed. Presumably it was offensive to someone; perhaps the same person who wrote ‘Honest [Will? Shake]peare’under the portrait, or the person who copied back in, by hand, the poem that should have been on this facing page. We are fortunate the poem itself survived.

The Dryden reference helps date the poem: John Dryden was made Poet Laureate in 1668. The Bodleian First Folio is a rarity for not having been re-bound since it was first donated to the library in 1623.  The library ‘appears to have sold it at some point in the late 1660s, perhaps having replaced it with the new, improved, edition, the Third Folio, with its additional plays, which was published in 1663/4.’  So it seems likely that ‘An Active Swain’ was written into the Bodleian First Folio not long after this: during Dryden’s dominance: 1668-1700. The anonymous author need only be one or two generations removed from Shakespeare’s generation: in a position to have had information directly from their father or grandfather.

Like many of the anomalous writings connected to the Shakespeare canon, this poem is written in such a way that its meaning is deliberately veiled. To someone convinced of the traditional narrative, it will look like nonsense (essential for preservation: not worth destroying, though the title clearly was). But if you look at the words through a particular lens, you may get a little more clarity. I am choosing to look at it through a Marlowe-shaped lens because there seem to be some strong points of connection with that theory.

Shakespeare and another poet

This is a poem about the author known as Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s name is mentioned in the 8th line, and the poem has been deliberately placed opposite the Droeshout engraving, replacing Ben Jonson’s instructions about how to approach the First Folio. It speaks of a separate poet, an ‘active swain’, later referred to as a shepherd. Swain or shepherd was a common pastoral term for poet. Christopher Marlowe was referred to as a shepherd in As You Like It when Rosalind quoted a line from Marlowe’s Hero and Leander:

Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:
Whoever loved, who loved not at first sight?

But the term does not identify an individual. So the poem begins by saying there was ‘an active poet’. The poet cannot be equated with Shakespeare because line 8 makes it clear they are separate: that Nature, ‘in Shakespear took the Shepherd’s Lucky Leap.’  What is this ‘leap’? We’ll come back to that, through a Marlowe-shaped lens.

This poet made a ‘leap’.

Lines 1 and 2 tell us:

An Active Swain to make a Leap was seen
which sham’d his Fellow Shepherds on the Green

The poet made a leap which shamed his fellow poets (who are on ‘the green’ because this is what pastoral poets do, of course, sit about on the grass). What kind of leap could that be? With Marlowe, take your pick.

  • An artistic leap. Only in his twenties, he took blank verse drama to a level it had never been before.  The two-part Tamburlaine was a huge hit, as was Doctor Faustus. Jonson refers to ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’ in the preface of the First Folio. Most orthodox scholars accept that Marlowe was a genius who paved the way for Shakespeare. Swinburne said

    ‘He first, and he alone, guided Shakespeare into the right way of work… Before him there was neither genuine blank verse, nor genuine tragedy in our language. After his arrival, the way was prepared; the paths were made straight, for Shakespeare.’

  • A social leap. A cobbler’s son, he won scholarships to grammar school and university, gaining an MA (then the highest qualification) and by so doing, officially gaining the social status of Gentleman. The most powerful men in the land (the Privy Council) wrote to Cambridge University in his support, saying he had ‘done her Majesty good service … in matters touching the benefit of his country’. He became ‘very well known’ to high ranking noblemen Lord Strange (5th Earl of Derby) and Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. He dedicated a work to Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke; new research (in press) consolidates his connection to her social circle. He was also part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s circle of free-thinkers and Raleigh wrote a response to Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love. (And there’s that Marlowe/shepherd connection again).

Both artistically and socially, Marlowe outstripped his peers, putting them to ‘shame’ as the poem describes. According to the poem, this ‘leap’ led to the poet ‘growing Vain’. Gabriel Harvey’s ‘Gorgon’ poem, written in 1593 and mentioning ‘thy Tamburlaine’, contains a contemporary accusation of Marlowe’s vanity:

He that nor feared God, nor dreaded Div’ll,
Nor ought admired, but his wondrous selfe:
Like Junos gawdy Bird*, that prowdly stares
On glittring fan of his triumphant taile

* peacock

This poet ‘left the fame’.

Lines 3 and 4 tell us:

And growing Vain, he would Essay once more,
But left the Fame, which he had gained before;

These are very interesting lines, don’t you think?  Can you tell me of a famous poet (for the poem is explicit: he had ‘Fame’) – who ‘left the Fame, which he had gained before?’  Generally when poets become famous, they stay famous during their lifetimes. These lines are a fine fit for the Marlowe theory, which includes the reluctant abandonment of fame. The theory goes that he was forced to fake his death (which occurred while he was effectively ‘on bail’, having been arrested ten days earlier) to escape being executed for atheism, then considered treason.  A faked death of this kind would not be technically difficult, given Marlowe’s high-placed connections and his work for the Elizabethan secret service. Roy Kendall, biography of Marlowe’s nemesis, Richard Baines, has noted ‘deaths in the murky world of espionage can often be “blinds” for disapearances, and vice versa’. But a faked death would be emotionally very difficult indeed for a successful and vain young man, who ‘would Essay once more’ (‘would’ = ‘would like to’; best fit for the verb form of ‘Essay’ from the OED: try/accomplish).(2)

There was a struggle and the poet lost.

Lines 5 and 6 tell us:

Oft did he try, at length was forc’d to yeild
He st[r]ove in Vain, – he had himself Excell’d:

The poem doesn’t tell us what he tried ‘oft’.  One wonders if there is a link here with the previous verb, ‘essay’, which means both try and accomplish, and is linked (through its noun form) to writing. All we know is that no matter how much he tried, he tried in vain, and was ‘forced to yield’.  To whom or what?  And what does this have to do with Shakespeare’s First Folio, in which the poem is so deliberately written? If we read the reference as Marlowe’s struggle to be ‘resurrected’ or at least have his works attributed to his own name, the words directly opposite the poem: ‘Mr William SHAKESPEARES Comedies Histories & Tragedies‘ are the record of his defeat.  And why?  Because ‘he had himself Excell’d‘.

The poet excelled himself.

The first argument against Marlowe authoring the Shakespeare canon is “wasn’t he dead?”; the second is “Marlowe’s works aren’t as good as Shakespeare’s”.  But this is to compare the works of a (brilliant but inexperienced) twenty-something (everything in the Marlowe canon was written by the time he was 29) with a writer allowed to reach his prime. Doctor Faustus and Edward II are accomplished plays but Lear, Othello, and Hamlet came twenty years later; twenty years extra reading, life experience, writing practice, and ‘striving’.  If you look at the combined Marlowe-Shakespeare canon in the order in which it was written, the transition is actually pretty smooth.  The early Shakespeare plays (e.g. the Henry VI trilogy, The Taming of the Shrew) were often attributed all or in part to Marlowe until the 1920s; Titus Andronicus (c.1594) is incredibly Marlovian. Late Marlowe and early Shakespeare segue one into the other without a hiccup.

‘He had himself Excell’d’ is clearly important: it is the only phrase in the poem that the author has emphasised by writing it in italics. The solitary dash clearly indicates that ‘excelling himself’ is the cause of the poet’s failure (to achieve what he was trying to achieve). Under what circumstances could a poet’s excellence lead to their failure? If Marlowe was the central author of the Shakespeare canon this line makes perfect sense. Having excelled himself, Marlowe could not be attributed with the surpassing genius of the Shakespeare canon.

The poet’s ‘lucky leap’ is ‘in Shakespear’.

Lines 7 and 8 tell us:

So Nature once in her Essays of Wit,
In Shakespear took the Shepherd’s Lucky Leap

We start with ‘So’: this is a solution to the problem that the poet couldn’t succeed at his striving (to be credited with his own works?) because ‘he had himself excell’d‘. The noun form of ‘essays’ in the 17th century most commonly meant ‘trials’ – so a modern translation of the phrase in line 7 could be ‘trials of wit’.(3) But since the modern meaning of the noun ‘essay’ was in use at this time, there may  also be an intended hint of ‘witty writing’.  It is the poet who has been trying, striving, and essaying, and perhaps here it is the poet’s ‘Nature’ that is implicated. ‘Nature‘ is being credited for something whose mechanism we do not understand.  You might think of it as something like the poetic muse, that mysterious creative force. But how to explain the next line?

‘Shakespear’ contains the poet’s ‘lucky leap’ – that leap, we remember, that set him apart from his ‘fellow [poets]’, put them to shame, and made him vain. But how might we account for that interesting adjective ‘lucky’?  So many other two-syllable adjectives might have been chosen to make the metre, and one might fairly ask how the poet’s ‘leap’ – the excellence that apparently led to failure, despite all his striving – could be described as ‘lucky’.  Again, Marlowe theory to the rescue. It would be fair to say that someone slated for a grisly execution (hanging, drawing and quartering being standard for treason) and whose secret service colleagues helped them escape into exile might said to be ‘lucky’ to be alive, even though they had lost control of their writings.  Under the Marlowe theory, Marlowe’s ‘lucky leap’ – the blessed escape which allowed him to continue writing and developing as a writer, and all the wisdom that such an experience would bring  – ends up ‘in Shakespear’ – in this book of plays that appear under the Shakespeare name.

The poem explains why ‘Shakespeare’ is unsurpassed.

Lines 9 and 10 tell us:

But over-straining in the great Effort,
in Dryden, and the rest, has since fell Short.

It is Nature, we remember, who has over-strained in this effort: the effort presumably being the same one referred to with the words ‘try’ and ‘st[r]ove’.  And the final lines explain that no writer since has come close to the brilliance we find in the canon called Shakespeare. The poet’s striving to overcome his circumstances (the circumstances that involved leaving his fame behind) led to him excelling himself with a genius (contained ‘In [the works of] Shakespear[e]’) that has never been surpassed or even equalled. Not at the time this poem was written, and not since.

‘Nature’ is shorthand. The excellence of Shakespeare, through the Marlowe-shaped lens, is due to the shaping force of an extraordinary experience on an already extraordinary creative mind. The genius found ‘In Shakespear’ is not equalled because the author’s experience of suffering has not been equalled.  It was suffering that brought wisdom, as suffering often does, giving this singular author a broad perspective, and profound human understanding.

Points to ponder

Consider Shakespeare’s obsession with name, with exile, with mistaken identity, with resurrection.

Consider some of the otherwise inexplicable lines of the Sonnets: ‘as victors of my silence cannot boast‘ (Shakespeare’s silence?) or ‘my name be buried where my body is‘ (though the name ‘Shakespeare’ was plastered across the top of every other page in the 1609 sonnets and on numerous title pages too).

Consider what Stephen Greenblatt perceived through his wide and deep reading of the Shakespeare canon:

‘Again and again in his plays, an unforeseen catastrophe … suddenly turns what had seemed like happy progress,  prosperity, smooth sailing into disaster, terror, and loss.   The loss is obviously and immediately material, but it is also, and more crushingly, a loss of identity. To wind up on an unknown shore, without one’s friends, habitual  associates, familiar network — this catastrophe is often epitomized by the deliberate alteration or disappearance of the name and, with it, the alteration or disappearance  of social status.’  (4)                   

Consider this quote from our former Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes:

‘The way to really develop as a writer is to make yourself a political outcast, so that you have to live in secret. This is how Marlowe developed into Shakespeare.’ (5)

Consider Hamlet’s dying words to his only friend:

‘O good Horatio, what a wounded name
(Things standing thus unknown) shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.’

Consider the torn out corner where the title of this poem would have been.

The rest is silence.


An Active Swain in situ Bodleian First Folio

(1) Many thanks to Gary Allen for bringing it to my attention.

(2) The poem uses ‘essay’ twice: once as verb and once as a noun. There is no verb form of ‘essay’ connected to writing. If we assume the poem was written in the mid 17th century, the OED offers 4a: To attempt; to try to do, effect, accomplish, or make (anything difficult) and a variation of 1a: Also to practice (an art etc.) by way of trial but this form would usually be transitive i.e. have an object – you would essay something. The verb in the poem has no object, but poets will often bend grammar to their own devices, so the practicing of an art may also be implied, perhaps as a secondary layer of meaning.

(3) Though ‘essay’ as a written composition had come into use by 1597 (Francis Bacon, following Montaigne’s 1580 Essais), the noun form of essay in this poem seems likely to accord with OED Essay (n) 1a: a trial or test, although it could be 5a: attempt.  However, if it was ‘attempt’, one would need to change ‘of’ to ‘at’ to make grammatical sense (attempts at wit). Therefore ‘trials of wit’ is the best fit.

(4) Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World (2004), p.85.

(5) Ted Hughes, Letters of Ted Hughes (2007), ed. Christopher Reid, p.120.

The Creative Process in a Nutshell

The Creative Process in a Nutshell


The creative process is left out of most creative writing teaching. I’ve been teaching “process” for 20+ years, and I thought it would be helpful to share what I have learned here (and what I teach), in a handy, easy-to-link-to format.  Some of this only applies to writing. But some of it applies to all kinds of creation.

The process of writing is really two processes

The creative process is actually two separate processes: creation and criticism (editing). The biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make is trying to create and critique at the same time.  Example: a sentence comes into your head, and instead of writing it down, you start judging it, deciding if it’s worthy of even being recorded. You decide that it isn’t, and discard it. You’ve just said No to inspiration.  How would you feel if you gave someone a gift and they rejected it, saying That’s not a very good gift? Would you run to get them another?

Never create and edit at the same time. Say yes to any ideas that come: record them before you consider their value. Create freely, without judgement, and get a whole load of stuff down (on paper, on screen) until you run out of steam. Only when you have a whole heap of creation on the page should you switch into your critical, editing head and decide what to keep.

Useful Analogy One: The Clay

If a potter wants to make a pot, they need a big lump of clay. They can go and get this from a supplier (or dig it from a river bed). They put a formless lump of it on their wheel and start turning, shaping it as they go. They might have a rough idea of the shape they are after but they also let inspiration guide them as they work, moulding it and watching what happens. A writer has to make their own clay, and if you want to make life easier for yourself, accept however it comes.  It’s fine to get your words down in a formless lump. You can edit them later – turning the wheel, moulding the shape – but make the clay first.

 Separate creative and critical

Your creative self says YES, allows, loves, flows, dances with ideas, goes a little crazy. Imagine a four-year-old dancing, dressed up in wellingtons and a fairy costume, making up an extravagant and nonsensical story and building a castle out of yoghurt pots. That’s your creative self. Your critical self is like a strict, no-nonsense teacher. Never let that part of you in the room when the four-year-old is dancing. Otherwise you’ll get: What’s this nonsense? What’s the tiara doing on the cat? Stop this right now! And clear up this mess! The critical self sees mess, not magical castle. And creates a 4-year-old who decides dancing is dangerous and vows never to make up another story again. So don’t let your critical self stomp on your creative self. Compartmentalise.  Never give them headroom at the same time. Doing a few minutes of free-writing every day is the best way of training yourself into this separation.  Even now, after years of practise, I still feel myself trying to reject words and sentences when I am writing: I feel myself hesitate and wonder if they are good enough and I have to tell myself gently, Allow.  Allow is the magic word. Because:

‘Flow’ is a state of allowing

All writers, muscians, artists, sportspeople, scientists, hell, anyone skilled at their passion, knows what it is to be in a state of flow, and what flow allows: in short, genius.  That unbelievable goal, that breathtaking symphony, that astonishing poem – every one was created by an ordinary human being in a state of flow. Our most revered cultural icons, from Austen to Einstein, from  Pele to Fonteyn, are all people whose greatest skill was their ability to get into, and stay in, the flow.  The concept of flow was first named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. But long before it was named, it was known writers and artists across the centuries have described as the flow-state as inspiration, personified it as The Muse.  It is a sense of pure and unconscious (and un-self-conscious) energy flowing through you. There is no thinking involved. It is effortless. It is not something that your conscious mind could cog and chuff into being. Indeed, if brought in during the process, the thinking part of you will mess it up, exactly as it does when you suddenly become conscious of doing something amazingly well, and immediately fail. Think crucial penalty kick, missed.  You cannot ‘try’ to get into this state: trying is the opposite of flow. You must simply allow what comes to come, and keep saying ‘yes’ to what comes until what comes is amazing.

Useful Analogy Two: The Tap

Say you haven’t written for a while, or ever. It’s like moving into an abandoned house. You want to have a bath, but when you turn on the tap (faucet, my American friends) nothing comes out at first. And then it splutters, because there’s air trapped in the pipes.  It comes in fits and starts. But then the air works its way out and the water starts flowing: but it’s brown. The unused pipes rusted and now the water looks like something you wouldn’t want to touch. A lot of people, when they see the ‘rusty water’ writing coming out of them, give up at this stage. But the truth is, when it comes to writing, everyone is connected to the mains. You’ve just got to keep that tap turned on, let the water – the words – keep flowing.  Because eventually the water runs clear, and then the boiler kicks in, and it starts to heat up too. And now it’s worth keeping – finally, you stick the plug in, and let the bath fill.  The bath is your novel.  But you are the tap.  The creation flows through you.

Through you, not by you

Mystic poet William Blake knew this fundamental truth about the creative process, when he said of his works: “Tho’ I call them Mine I know they are not Mine.”

When you start out as a creator, you are generating the work yourself. You are trying to make things happen. Often you will try too hard: the work will be stiff, mannered, lifeless. An undeveloped writer manipulates their characters like puppets. They have to, because the characters are wooden; they have no life of their own. In my twenties, listening to writers talking about their work, I became intrigued by this recurring theme: the characters come alive, they would say. They just do things and say things, and I just write it down. This had never happened to me. I was a puppeteer.

And then it did. And everything changed.

When you have developed sufficient skill, it becomes increasingly easy to enter a state of flow. The characters become real in your head, doing and saying things that surprise you. Your job is to allow what comes, and to transcribe it into your medium: for a writer, words. Consider writing as an act of listening. Listening to the words that arrive in your head and allowing them; allowing the next words, and the next. In essence, your job is to take dictation.  From where?  Why, the collective unconscious. Or the Zeitgest. From mass consciousness, and from the edges and eddies of it too. From your inner being: that still small voice. Where do you get your ideas?, that evergreen question posed to writers at Q&As, is only groan-worthy because there is no sensible answer.  Everywhere. Nowhere. They just come. And that’s the point surely. We don’t get our ideas. They come to us.  They come whenever we are in a state of allowing/receiving/flow.  This is accidentally achieved in the shower, on the train, washing up, or walking the dog: whenever the mind falls into a kind of receptive emptiness.  It can also be deliberately induced by drugs and alcohol (not recommended, but traditional for writers) or by dreaming and meditation.  Or simply through the act of writing, writing anything, with love and without judgement.  The simplest way for any writer to get into a state of flow is, in the words of Natalie Goldberg: “Just write, just write, just write.”

Which brings us to my ‘top tip’ exercise and my third creative writing analogy, the compost bin. It’s much like the tap, but earthier.

Useful Analogy Three: The Compost Bin

Think of your brain as a compost bin. On the surface: potato peelings, eggshells and teabags. That’s the news, Facebook, Twitter, that thing you friend said to you at the bus-stop.   Some days, when you start writing, it will be like going into a compost bin from the top. All that comes out is scraps; eggshells and teabags. But don’t give up. Keep going. Below this level, the dross level, things have broken down a bit. So keep going. Dig out more and more. Eventually you’ll get to the stuff that’s been there a while, composting away, all mixed up and organic. It’s juicy, and dark. Don’t be scared of it. It’s potent. It can grow stuff.  Bring out a few spades of it, expose it to daylight, put a seed in it.  Then leave it, and see what happens.

Useful ‘Flow’ Exercise: Freewriting

I’ve been using this one forever. Or since I read Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers (I was 21; feels like forever). If you’ve been to a few creative writing workshops you’ll know it too.  Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes. Start the timer and start writing, as fast as you can. Write without stopping, without judgement, without crossing out, without correcting your grammar or spelling, without really caring if you are writing in “proper” sentences. (Though you should be writing forward in a flow to the edge of the page, in free-flowing sentence-type things, not doing some kind of word association down the page). You are trying to get ahead of your ‘thinking’ self; the conscious bit. You want to write so fast that you cannot possibly plan what comes next, you have to write what occurs. You are trying to get a direct line between your head and your writing hand/fingers. So that whatever words are in your head end up on the page. If you’re thinking Oh God, I don’t know what to write! then that’s what you write ‘Oh God, I don’t know what to write!’ and keep going from there, transcribing whatever’s in your head directly. It doesn’t matter what you write. Give yourself permission to write absolute rubbish. Sometimes it is nothing but rubbish. Sometimes something usable is buried in it (but don’t stop to check in the middle of the process; write until the timer goes). It doesn’t matter. You are turning the tap on, and keeping it on. You are getting past the eggshells and teabags, and towards the compost. And maybe in that compost a seed can grow.

How Does a Conscious Creator Create a Shitstorm?

How Does a Conscious Creator Create a Shitstorm?


If you’ve been following this blog since the beginning of the year, you might have a question. It might go something like this. Ros, how does ‘being a conscious creator’ fit in with a lot of angry people having a go at you on Twitter? Fall asleep or something?

So here’s The World According To Guardian-clickbait-author.*

We are all of us creating our unfolding lives through the thoughts we think and where we place our attention. Most of us are doing so unconsciously. Some of us have learnt to do it consciously (see Dream House) but still do a little unconscious creation when we are – you guessed it – not paying close attention.

Example.  Long after I had manifested my dream house and a few months after I had manifested the long-desired Major Book Deal, I sprained my ankle so badly that I thought it was broken, was on crutches for a fortnight, and had significant pain for nearly eight months.

There are no accidents

img_0125If you recognise you are the creator of your own reality, you have to take responsibility for everything. (In your life. Not in the world. That’s madness. Or possibly Ho’oponopono.).   Ergo, there are no such things as accidents. So Ros, what was that about, playing Pet Hotel on your phone while you’re crossing on the pelican crossing that (being remodelled) has an inch-lower section just before the curb? Answer (apparently): not feeling good enough for the UCL PostDoc. It took me a little while to feel into the truth of this. My initial reaction was swearing, passing out from the pain and being carried home by the road crew.

While my ankle was raised and iced I had plenty of time to identify the real cause of the ‘accident’: not just my inattention to the changed level of the road surface, but to the flurry of ‘not good enough’ feelings that whispered bad things in my ear every time I looked at the UCL application form, or looked at the world-class academics who made up the English Department. I was trying to affirm myself onto a path that was not going to admit me (don’t get me started on the uselessness of affirmations), ignoring all the painful thoughts this course of action caused. But you can’t ignore painful thoughts for very long.  Whatever you focus upon with emotion, wanted or unwanted, you are likely to manifest. My thoughts, which manifested into a beautifully symbolic injury, were as follows:  I couldn’t move forward,  I would come a a cropper, and it would hurt. And really, bloody ow. With a mild surface depression on my route, a mindlessly addictive app, and UCL represented by a curb,  I created for myself a world of pain, and was unable to move forward.  Magnificent manifesting, kid!  Ten out of ten!

In fact that year I sprained my ankle twice, and fell down the stairs, top to bottom, twice (sober, I might add), so getting fully conscious became a serious priority. These days, because I loathe being in physical pain and my body seems to ramp up to it faster than a cat takes down a sparrow if I ignore the subtle signs, I’m very conscious of my thoughts.  If I feel them turning against me (indicated by a negative emotional state) I tend to notice, and turn them around, pretty quickly. No more monster ankles for me, thank you.  Not if I can help it. Which brings us back to the opening question. How does a conscious creator create a shitstorm? Especially one they didn’t actually see coming (and would have avoided, given the choice)?  And why am I not actually unhappy about it (even though it felt pretty bruising at the time)?

“Bad” is good

During the last nine years, I have learned to see everything that happens to me as a blessing.  “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” said the wisest man in English literature, and as the sassiest pop singer of the Eighties answered, “who am I to disagree?” So when something “bad” happens, I tell myself it’s actually for my benefit, and if I can’t see the benefit, that’s only because I’m not seeing the bigger picture.  The minute I relax about the “bad” thing, or even better, bless it, the benefits tend to arrive pretty quickly anyway. In the case of my recent social media experience, it was obvious that it was part of a hugely positive trajectory, rather than some kind of ‘course correction’ or universal smack down.

In the two weeks before it happened, I had:

  • Finally bitten the bullet and asked (the universe at large) for money.
  • Explained why I was asking for money in a blog post which was widely shared and universally (or so it seemed) appreciated.
  • Landed a commission for a Guardian blog post as a result…
  • …at a moment when I was very pressed and would have very little time to write it and no time to sit on it/edit it.

You have to assume, too, that everything arrives with perfect timing (even when the timing doesn’t seem particularly perfect). My mood in the run up to the Guardian getting in touch was possibly as elevated as my mood has ever been (though I set new highs of cheerfulness every few months). On March 11th I was “happy for no reason” and “feeling bulletproof”; on March 14th I was “still buzzing with joy”.  But being approached by The Guardian made me “slightly nervous” (more about what the editor would think of my article than anything) and on March 21st (hours before it was published) I reported to a friend I had “come slightly off the high, mostly because of having no time on my own (=no time to recentre and ground myself)”.  So the article had been written with a little bit of fear and trepidation in the broadcast signal. Humans are social animals, and very good at picking up these subtleties, whether they know it or not.

So: outrage.

The value of outrage

Yet the upshot can only be good. Outrage meant my piece was shared far more widely than it would have been had everyone agreed with it (or read it as the jocular opinion piece I intended).  The article had over 40,000 views, and tens of thousands of people who had never heard of me had my name appear in their social media timeline: not just linking to the Guardian piece but to the numerous response pieces, subtitled ‘my response to Ros Barber’ or ‘open letter to Ros Barber’.

I started the month by asking for more money. The road towards more money is name recognition. So I guess I’m on the road.

Yes, some people have decided they don’t like me and would never buy a book of mine, but they don’t actually know me and I’m pretty sure they probably wouldn’t have bought a book of mine anyway.  Many more people heard my name for the first time, enjoyed the article, came here and found out more about me. Some have bought my book; others have offered me paid work and other opportunities.

Outrage is quite a publicist.  I would never recommend you could it deliberately. But if the universe sets you up with Outrage, accept that the universe has got a better grasp of things than you do, and that it’s working for your benefit.

Path of least resistance

Here’s one final observation from a conscious creation standpoint.  If you ask for something, and it comes (or in my case, starts to come), but the way it manifests is painful, that’s an indication of how much resistance you’re holding. At a seminar once, I heard a man who had been trying to manifest enough money to completely remodel a room in his house, and then a pipe burst, the ceiling collapsed, and he got the money for remodelling from the insurance company. But as he pointed out, he would rather it had come a little easier than his bathroom actually falling into his dining room. And as was pointed out to him, given his level of resistance to receiving money (and common associations of wealth with evil make some of us *very* resistant), one eighth of his house being destroyed was the easiest way it could be delivered.  The social media shitstorm was just my ceiling collapsing. The remodelling is already in progress.


*Hoping you get the John Irving reference, though I suspect it dates me.

If you like what I write and want to help with the remodelling (of my finances), you could always consider becoming one of my patrons. It costs less than a dollar (and even less than a quid) per month and puts an unbelievably big smile on my face, a picture of which I will happily send you if you ask me to! I will also write to regularly with behind the scenes action and deep gratitude. Find out more here:


“You” = “One” = “Me”

“You” = “One” = “Me”


One morning you wake up and you think,

Okay, enough is enough. I am going to do the thing that scares me. I am going to ask for help.

You hate asking for anything. But especially help. You have spent years being strong and capable. The times you asked for help and were refused (way back in the last millenium, when you were struggling to cope, alone with three small boys) hurt so deeply that you swore never to ask anyone for help again. You are a very strong and capable woman. You tile bathrooms. You build websites. You construct furniture.  You help other people for a living. You don’t ask other people to help you.

But ten weeks ago you made a commitment to stop hiding the fullness of who you are.  To have the courage to tell the truth: not The Truth, because you know there are many truths, but your truth, even though you know that will make you vulnerable. You have read Brene Brown. You recognise that vulnerability is a form of strength. So today, you will overcome your fears and ask for help.

If that isn’t scary enough, the kind of help you must ask for is money.

Money: society’s greatest measure of success. You know that if you tell the world that you are struggling financially, despite all the things you have achieved, and won, and been awarded, some people will conclude you are a failure. But that is the form of help that is required; the thing that will genuinely take the pressure off you, so that you can focus on what you’re good at: writing. Maybe there are some people out there who can see the value of your writing, and who like it enough that they could spare a dollar a month (84p inc VAT) to help you focus upon it. So you set up a Patreon account. You discover that Amanda Palmer has enough Patreon supporters to provide her with $36,000 a month (strictly speaking, per ‘thing’ at about one ‘thing’ a month). You are nowhere near as popular or successful or well-known as Amanda Palmer, but nor was Amanda Palmer before she started asking for help.  You don’t need anywhere near as much financial support as Amanda Palmer gets. It is worth a try.

You eat the frog. You e-mail your friends and family, to let them know about the Patreon account. Five of them become patrons, which is lovely, and you thank them. Another one turns up the next day (when you are at work in London) with bread and cheese and teabags. Your husband calls to ask you why your friends are turning up on the doorstep with food parcels. It is sweet, but also embarrassing, because you are not on the breadline. You are not a charity case, any more than Amanda Palmer is a charity case. More embarrassing than the food parcel, the wealthiest person in your family (an actual millionaire) writes you a lengthy text to explain why he cannot spare 84p a month.  It makes you squirm inside, and wonder how much he spends on coffee, which is none of your business. It reminds you how much you hate asking for help. You would have vastly preferred silence.

You think maybe people don’t understand why you are asking.  So the next day, you write a post on your blog explaining why you have been reduced (and that is the way you think about it) to asking for patronage.  You explain that even writers who have had considerable success (as you have) make far less from their books than is commonly assumed. You share the link on social media, and get on with your day.

Then something extraordinary happens. People love the article. They appreciate the honesty about author earnings. The link is widely shared. 5000 people read the article on the first day, and by the end of the week, 10,000 people have come to your website to view it.  That’s as many people as would normally come to your website in a whole year. Three become patrons, and you are deeply grateful to all three of them. (But let’s face it, it’s not looking good for the Patreon idea. Three patrons out of ten thousand readers is a conversion rate of 0.0003%.)

People comment on your article. Like the friend who brought the food parcel, some of them offer something you didn’t ask for. They offer advice. If money is what you want, they say, you should self-publish.  Self-publishing is the answer to low author incomes. You answer their comments, explaining why you don’t think self-publishing is a solution to your problems, especially as a novelist who writes literary fiction. But the same advice keeps coming. So you decide your next blog post will be about that: why self-publishing isn’t the answer for you.

Then something brilliant happens. On Tuesday the books editor of The Guardian gets in touch. The Guardian!  Your favourite newspaper!  (Even though the Guardian review of your first novel was the only bad one it got. At least the Guardian review of your second novel made up for it). The editor says they enjoyed your piece about author earnings, and would you like to do a follow-up piece in the Guardian books blog? Maybe about why you won’t self-publish your literary fiction, because you made some interesting points about that in the comments? They will even pay you. (Not much, but something! You asked for money. Here comes some money.)  You say yes, of course, brilliant, you were going to write about that next anyway.  When do you want it?  Not soon, you hope, because you’re going away for the weekend for your husband’s birthday weekend in a couple of days and you have a pile of student marking to do. They say by Monday please. (Which means by Thursday, because you’re going away for your husband’s birthday weekend). You say you’ll do everything you can to squeeze it in. (The Guardian!)

This is a great opportunity. Here comes the next fear. What if I fuck up?

Okay, you think, you can do this. They like what you wrote before, so you just have to write like that again. You have to tell your own truth just the way you would on your blog, forgetting this is for The Guardian, because that will only make you nervous, and if you are nervous you will fuck up.  So to keep yourself relaxed, you write it as an unpublished post on your own blog. It still feels a bit scary when you are writing it, but only a little bit.  Some people might not agree with what you write, but it is just your opinion, based on your experiences. You are not laying down the law, just saying how you see things.  You try to keep it sharp and funny. Because of the student marking, you don’t finish it before you have to run off to meet your husband and daughter at the Eurostar terminal with your £29 winter sale bargain tickets tucked in your computer bag. You try to write it on the train but you get motion sick. You finally finish it on Saturday morning, at the kitchen table, using headphones to block out other people, which is to say your beloved husband, who wants to go out and enjoy a city he hasn’t visited in ten years, and especially your daughter, who keeps asking “when will you be finished?” Suddenly worried it might be a damp squib after the last one, that it might be so bad they won’t even publish it, you press Send. Writing never seems to get any easier; any more certain. You try not to worry about whether it is okay for the next forty-eight hours.

On your husband’s birthday it goes live.  It has been edited. Some of your words have changed. The heading and subheading are not yours at all, and not quite the way you would have put them: you wouldn’t say ‘poverty’, for example. You are not in ‘poverty’, very clearly, because you are in a beautiful apartment in beautiful Paris.  Yes, you are here thanks to credit cards, and Christmas optimism, and your father-in-law’s generosity… but ‘poverty’ sleeps in shop doorways.  You guess ‘massive debt’ doesn’t have such a poetic ring. Never mind. Money always comes unexpectedly when you most need it. And look what is happening. The Guardian! Life is wonderful. Everything is heading in the right direction. You go out for the day with your family, take your daughter to the top of the Eiffel tower for the first time, and for a boat trip along the Seine at dusk.

When you return to the apartment’s WiFi, there are a lot of complimentary tweets and messages. People mention that the comments section is getting lively and you know what that means. You avoid ‘below the line’ discussions as a matter of course. There’s no way you’re going to read the comments on your own article. You’re not some kind of lunatic.

Though part of you feels ridiculous because the article’s headline claims you are in poverty, and you are actually, right this minute, opening a bottle of champagne. You didn’t buy the champagne. The owner of the AirBNB apartment you are renting, Marie, another writer and the classiest woman you know, bought the champagne for both of you as a gift, because she knew it was your husband’s birthday. This is the universe’s way of letting you know that you are loved and blessed beyond measure. You take a picture of the birthday spread. (You are eating in, to save money. Your husband’s birthday meal is a ridiculous combination: reheated ravioli, and champagne.) You cannot share the picture on social media, because you’re in Paris drinking champagne when you’re supposed to be poor. People would be angry about that.

But people are angry anyway. You expressed an opinion some of them didn’t like. Your biggest mistake, it turns out, was using ‘you’ as the indefinite pronoun. The article was about you, your experiences and opinions, but because you didn’t want it to be full of the word ‘I’, and ‘one’ seems too awkwardly posh and ‘a person’ is ridiculously formal, you used ‘you’ in your subheadings. People tell you that your use of ‘you’ was provocative. Because you used ‘you’, some people think you mean them. In fact, they are sure you mean them. You’re a writer, they say, you know how to use language and you knew full well what you were doing. It reminds you of when you were 21 and temping at the Alliance and Leicester Mortgage Advance department, and one of your duties was answering phones to people who shouted into your ear “You told me it would take two weeks EIGHT WEEKS AGO!” and even though you weren’t even working there eight weeks ago and hadn’t told them anything, you experienced their frustration as a personal attack and would go home every night and cry.

Writers are sensitive creatures. Self-publishing, as it turns out, is a sensitive topic. Some ‘Indie authors’ believe you have attacked the practice of self-publishing as a whole, rather than expressing your personal reasons for not self-publishing literary fiction. (You are not against self-publishing. You self-publish two non-fiction books). Because you have said self-publishing can make you act like a fool (you give the example of endless self-promotion on Twitter), some people think you have called all self publishers fools. They miss the nuance of ‘can’. Your husband tells you (fondly) that you are an idiot, because that was obviously going to happen if you put ‘self-publishing’ and ‘fool’ in the same sentence. The word you had originally used was ‘twat’. You can’t decide if ‘twat’ was better or worse than ‘fool’. You consider it jocular, but other people might find it more offensive. Twat or fool, you regret not having more time to sit on the article before sending it; more time to realise for yourself how some people would read that sentence.

Not reading below the line doesn’t save you. After winding each other up into a frenzy of rage about this perceived attack on themselves and their choices in the comments section of the article, the angry people seek you out. On your website, on Facebook, but mostly on Twitter, because that’s where you hang out for fun.

You are accused of ‘eviscerating’ self-publish[ing/ers], by people who attempt to eviscerate you for “your rude, belittling music metaphor.”  You’ve never been attacked for a metaphor before. They mean that part where you compared literary fiction to opera. You were trying to say it’s unpopular; it has limited appeal, a small market. Jesus, you don’t even like opera. You like Taylor Swift. You remember reaching for that metaphor under pressure on Saturday morning, and thinking literary fiction is like… what… bluegrass? jazz? what?  and then remembering Will Self had compared it to opera and thinking that would have to do, because you really needed to give your attention to your husband and daughter; it being the weekend, and your husband’s birthday weekend, and them seeing little enough of you as it is.

Probably because of the opera metaphor, you are called an elitist and snob. You, a person who feels inadequate for being schooled at an Essex Comprehensive, who makes basic errors of grammar, and who has to Google which/that every time you use them. You are called an attention grabber, an egotist, and a failure. You are told that your ‘facts’ are woefully out of date, even though you didn’t really use any facts (because it was an opinion piece, not a factual piece), except for the 90:10 marketing to writing ratio supplied to you by two self-publishers on your original blog piece.  You trusted that they knew what they were talking about. The funniest tweet that comes out of your being outdated (unquestionably true; your offspring would concur) is “The 90s called and asked for your background research. ;)”  You gave that one a ‘Like’.

For the first time in your life, you are called a cunt. The impact is slightly softened by the fact that the person who calls you a cunt goes by the Twitter handle ‘Angel Medium’.

Three days on, you are back home, and it is still happening. A few people are coming to your defence, which is heartening. Actually it is people coming to your defence that brings tears to your eyes, so you shut Twitter down for the day.

You walk the dog. It is one of those mornings where, even though you are deep in thought, strangers come up to you, engage you in conversation about the dogs, laugh with you. It’s like the universe is putting its arms around you and hugging you.  Letting you know: no matter what is happening on social media, you are loved. And that people on the whole are good, and kind.

After staying calm and polite through the barrage of people’s fury and misunderstanding, it is people’s kindness that makes you cry.

You decide to write this, and post this, even though the angry people will come here too.

Authors and the Truth About Money

Authors and the Truth About Money


The Rich Writer Myth

One of the biggest myths about becoming a successful novelist is that it means you must be rolling in it. ‘Six-figure-advance’ trips off the tongue very easily, as if it were normal. ‘Royalties’ sounds juicy. Money: still something that people who want to write a novel want to write a novel for. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I got a very handsome £75,000 advance for my first novel, The Marlowe Papers. But that was £75,000 for four years’ work, and paid over another two years, so in essence £12,500 a year (before agent’s commission and tax). Add to that the fact that I had, like many startup businesses, launched my career through getting into debt to an amount almost equalling the advance, and you’ll realise it wasn’t actually a life-changing amount of money.

I also hadn’t realised that unless your debut novel becomes a best-seller, you’ll not get that kind of money for the second book. My advance for Devotion (2015) was £5,000. That’s £5,000 for two years’ work.  This is not because it was 1/15th as good as The Marlowe Papers.  Some people are liking it very much indeed.  But that low advance (which is actually a pretty average advance) is causing me headaches. Thanks to the critical success of The Marlowe Papers, and nearly 20 years of teaching experience, I now have half a job (2.5 days a week) as a creative writing lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London.  But that’s half a salary, which means that every month I have to find ingenious ways to drum up the other half to meet my living costs. Those ingenious ways are time-consuming, not always money-generating.  In short, what they do is get in the way of writing any more books.

Writer Royalties

What about royalties? Surely if you’ve written books that win prizes and get reviewed in the mainstream press, you must be getting regular royalty cheques? Only if you’ve earned out your advance, because an advance is an advance on royalties. And the way things have gone in the publishing makes it increasingly hard for an author to earn out their advance.

Yesterday, as I was finally bracing myself to put out the begging bowl, I pulled out my publishing contracts and put my royalty figures into a spreadsheet. I found out that in order to earn back that £5,000 advance on Devotion I would have to sell 12,500 copies of the paperback through Amazon, or 7,500 copies through independent bookshops. (That’s because Amazon and other large retailers press publishers for large discounts, and the publisher passes on the effect of those discounts to the author.)  If you know anything about publishing, you’ll understand that literary fiction doesn’t sell in those quantities unless the book makes a major prize list. So there’ll be no royalties on either of my novels in the foreseeable future.

Supporting Authors

The best way to support an author is to buy their book, read it, and, if you like it, tell other people about it or even buy it for them.  But as far as supporting an author financially, buying their book doesn’t help them out as much as you might think. Here’s what I get if you buy a paperback of either The Marlowe Papers or Devotion (RRP £8.99).  (I say, ‘what I get’, but in truth, this is the amount that will get offset against my advance, reducing the debt I owe to my publisher).

  • Buy directly from the author at full price: author gets £4.50* (minus any postage)
  • Buy from an independent bookshop/Hive: author gets 67p
  • Buy from large-chain bookshop: author gets somewhere between 40-67p
  • Buy from Amazon: author gets 40p
  • But second-hand from Amazon marketplace: author gets nothing.
  • Buy from second-hand bookshop or charity shop: author gets nothing.
  • Borrow from library: author gets 7.67p. (And I actually receive this money. It comes through the PLR system and not via my publisher. For 2014-15 I got £69.41).

[* authors can buy their own books from their publisher at 50% discount. But some contracts will stipulate these books are ‘not for resale’ or will attempt to limit how many copies an author can sell direct to readers.]

I noted that my US sales (the US paperback is released in April) will net me even less, because they are based on “price received” rather than the recommended retail price. The US paperback retails at $15.99, but the publisher will receive something on a sliding scale between 70% ($11.19) and 30% ($4.80) of this amount from the retailer, and my paperback royalty rate of 7.5% is calculated on that figure   So in the US:

  • Buy from an independent bookshop at non-discounted price: author gets 84 cents (59p)
  • Buy from (at maximum discount): author gets 36 cents (25p)

The audio book of Devotion has just been released (hurrah) but my royalty on this is also on price received, and frankly I can’t even tell what that will be, because though it retails for £16.62, I can’t imagine anyone will pay that when the most prominent price is £0.00 next to a notice that potential listeners can get it free with a trial of Audible (£0 for 30 days, then £7.99 a month). What the author will get from that is anyone’s guess.

I should add, these are not abnormal contracts. They are vetted both by my agent and by The Society of Authors. It is just where publishing is going, and is the reason why average author income continues to shrink year on year (see ‘Author’s Incomes Collapse to “Abject” Levels’).

Modern Patronage

It is clear that authors, like other creative people looking to make a living doing what they love and are good at (bringing joy to many people in the process), are going to have to look to new ways of supporting themselves. In the olden days, writers, composers and artists needed wealthy patrons.  Then for a while, there was Net Book Agreement and substantial funding for the Arts, and we could mostly survive directly from the fruits of our labours. Then came funding cuts, and the internet: for love it though I do, it has ushered in Amazon and their erosion of author royalties, the free and 99p Kindle, e-book piracy, and a ‘free content’ mindset. Authors need patrons again – and hey, where are the wealthy people?  Not sponsoring writers, as far as I know (though I’m prepared to be proved wrong!). The modern model of patronage, Patreon, is based on crowdfunding.  You can become a patron of the arts for as little as $1 /84p a month.  That’s $1/84p you probably won’t notice, but if enough people do the same, your chosen artist/author really will.  Check it out. The continued survival of literature written by anyone other than the wealthy and privileged could depend upon it.

If you like anything I’ve written; if you’d like me to write more; if you’d happily buy me a cup of tea if you met me, then maybe you’ll consider becoming my patron.  You can do this for only $1 (84p including VAT) per month. Patrons will get regular ‘insider’ updates and at certain levels get other rewards too (first edition signed and specially inscribed copy, name in acknowledgements etc). Find out more by clicking here.

The Dog Walk of Appreciation

The Dog Walk of Appreciation


In some ways I suppose this is another article about not losing things (and another article highlighting the importance of the family dog). But in this case, the potential loss in question is not a thing, but one’s significant other. And in this case success rested upon what might feel, at first, to run counter to everything I said in the ‘losing things’ article. With items, it was essential to think of that item as only mislaid, and coming back to me with certainty. But with my relationship, it turned out that I had no chance of recovering it until I first accepted that it was lost.

There is no contradiction. Energetically, this represents the critical step that most people (including me) find hardest to achieve when it comes to conscious creation: being at peace with “what-is”, and letting go of the outcome. With objects it was achieved easily enough: visualise the happy outcome and then surrender to whatever occurs, saying to oneself “all is well”. Not so easy to say to oneself when your second marriage — the one that seemed so very blessed at its inception — appears to be self-destructing.

Background: something that had been on my lover’s list of ‘wants’ in Costa Rica had been a child of his own. When we returned from paradise (freshly married), he moved in, and during the months that followed, he proved his parenting skills with my three small wolves boys so comprehensively that I decided it would be churlish not to give parenthood one more shot.  Part of me perhaps had some concerns about that, and those unconscious concerns manifested as SPD – symphysis pubis dysfunction.  What this meant in practice was that during the last few months of my pregnancy, and for a few months after our daughter’s birth, I couldn’t move without pain. As a result, my husband took on a great deal of extra physical labour. He was looking after me, my three sons, our new daughter, the house, plus running a theatre (for love) and doing removals (for cash). His own needs were at the bottom of a very long list. Cue broken immune system. A bad cold at Christmas turned into flu. Six months later he was still ill. Eventually it became clear he had developed ME/CFS.

For the first couple of years, our relationship was unaffected. But after a while it began to take its toll.  He became, understandably, angry and depressed. Five years in, we were pretty miserable.  Both of us hit moments where we wanted to bail out, but we had a small daughter. Plus at the bottom of it all, I kept remembering Costa Rica. Surely that person, the person with whom I had forged a deep, soul-level connection, was still there?  During this time, someone told me about Tam Lin. This is how I wrote it up in Devotion:

When her husband is swallowed by a monster, the good wife waits. There is an old folk tale, Tam Lin. A beloved husband is cursed by a witch. The curse can be broken only by love. The husband’s first disguise is a tree. So the wife hugs her wooden, unyielding husband, declaring her love. But it is easy to love a tree, and no test of your trueness. The tree will not love you back, but it’s harmless. The witch’s curse tests love more completely. The husband will keep changing form, and the wife must hold on no matter what form he takes. If she drops him, he’s lost, stuck forever in the shape that his wife couldn’t tolerate. Whether she finds in her hands a poisonous snake or a razor-sharp blade, a slippery eel or a white-hot poker, and though she cannot know what terrifying transformation will follow, the wife must grip fast, keep faith that this is her husband. Only when her love has been tested to its end will her husband be restored.

We made it out the other side of my writing The Marlowe Papers, but only just. He recovered to a certain degree but still had to take it very carefully, and between the two of us, a lot of damage had been done. I swallowed so much anger that my appendix burst. Communication was difficult and partial. We’d become pretty good at making each other miserable.  He kept saying he wanted to leave and I was making a lot of arguments about why he needed to stay.  Then one night, I stopped fighting for ‘us’.

I took the dog out for his late walk. It was a frosty night and there wasn’t another soul on Hove lawns.  I felt a huge amount of sadness to think that my second marriage was ending; such a failure.  But I had learnt that negativity doesn’t go anywhere good, so I was looking for a way to turn that around.  I decided I would use the 45-minute walk to list all the things I appreciated about my (soon to be ex) husband, out loud. I started with small things. It was hard at first, with all the rancour that had passed between us (some of it that very day). But any emotion, when focused upon and indulged in, builds its own momentum.  The more small things I could think of to appreciate, the easier appreciation came.  Here are a few things I said to the frosty air.

  • I appreciate what you did for me when you came into my life.
  • I appreciate the way you were such a good parent to the boys when they were small.
  • I appreciate how you had the patience to get them to put their shoes on the shoe rack every day for eighteen months so that I wouldn’t stress out every morning trying to find them.
  • I appreciate how you brought organisation and order to our lives.
  • I appreciate how you always put us first, even to your detriment.
  • I appreciate what a brilliant father you are to our daughter.

And so it went on for 45 minutes. I must have come up with hundreds of statements. When I came back in, nothing had changed for him; he was still looking at me with exhausted and slightly hostile eyes. But I could only look at him with the eyes of love. I was full of appreciation for him, so much so that even though he was utterly unresponsive, I was able to hug him and tell him very sincerely that I loved him hugely as a human being, and that he must do whatever he could to create a life for himself that made him happy, and that if that meant leaving me, although I would be sad about that, I would support him 100%. I left him standing in the corridor and went to bed.

This was about five years ago.

We are still together.

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Further Developments with The Marlowe Papers


filming trailer for The Marlowe Papers stage versionThis week, I had the huge privilege to be present at the filming of a trailer for our stage adaptation of The Marlowe Papers. A high quality affair thanks to professional film company Drop Dead Films, who have all the right gear (HD cameras, jibs etc.) and who offered their services after seeing the play during its run in the last week of January.

The snowballing of a creative project is a great process. It’s wonderful to consider how something goes from being you, all alone with your idea and typing a few words on a keyboard… to ten years later, having six creative people in a room all bringing your idea to life with skill and passion.  What’s even more wonderful is knowing that this won’t be the end of it: dozens more people, perhaps eventually hundreds, will end up giving their creative input into various iterations of a story that began in my head.  The contract for the option of The Marlowe Papers opera was finally signed this week.

And in further developments, I am currently working (and loving working!) on a film script. It’s a great joy to enter the world of my characters once more, and the stripping out of Marlowe’s internal musings (such a huge part of the book and a significant part of the play), as well as the words whose work will be far more effectively done with cameras, has left me some room to develop and deepen some strands and even add new scenes.

None of this would be possible without the huge enthusiasm of everyone who loved the original book, from my agent, my editor and the rest of the team at Sceptre and Hodder, to readers and reviewers.  And Nicky Haydn, whose insistence we adapt it for the stage has led to so many delightful things, and to even more people being able to enter and enjoy this imaginary world.  And Jamie Martin, whose masterly acting has brought to life the most challenging of scripts and persuaded me I can adapt it for the screen.  Here’s to all of you wonderful people, and all the wonderful people to come: deep gratitude and appreciation for everything you have done and are yet to do.


Fear of Failure – and How It Makes Us Play Small

Fear of Failure – and How It Makes Us Play Small


fear of failureFear of failure is the block that comes up more often than any other when I am working with writers. It is the holding category for about the half the content of ‘Write the Damn Book!‘ It is the bucket into which writers can throw a great deal of their negative self-talk:  what if it’s rubbish? what if I can’t do it justice?  what if I can’t find an agent? what if I can’t find a publisher? what if it doesn’t get reviews? what if it does get reviews and the reviewers hate it? And not just writers: anyone who ever had a dream of doing something and were afraid to do it. Fear of failure is a kicker.

Fear of failure is what stops most people even starting. Why put all that effort into something if it’s (probably) going to fail? And look around: don’t you see people failing everywhere? And look at all those failures in your past. Remember how painful they were? Better not even try. Better keep that dream where nothing can break it: in the future. Better keep that novel safely in your head, where it can remain as perfect as you envisage it, and not be sullied by your monstrous attempts to render it into actual words.

This is the paralysis that met me when I first sat down to write The Marlowe Papers. Especially after I spent three months writing an opening I was rather pleased with, only to put it in front of my then supervisor Lavinia Greenlaw and be told (quite correctly) that it was crap. (Obviously she didn’t say ‘crap’ – we talked viewpoint and narrative voice and stuff like that – but the upshot was, DELETE, back to the blank page). At that point, fear of failure got me round the throat like a cold bony hand and wouldn’t let go. Not a word would come out because they would be words leading to FAILURE.

Luckily, at just that point, I had learned EFT.  I began tapping every day on the individual fears that made up my own fear of failure; the foundational events that made me want to run away screaming: the three unpublished novels, the ‘also ran’ poems. Hell, here I was proposing that I could write a novel in the voice not just of youthful genius Christopher Marlowe, but of Marlowe-as-Shakespeare… i.e. the Greatest English Writer That Has Ever Lived.  With absolutely no evidence that I was capable of doing anything of the sort.

Hubris. You betcha.

It took weeks of daily EFT to completely eliminate fear of failure for this project. And then – guess what?  It was back for Devotion and I had to tap the fears connected to that book out of the way. But that’s because if you are always moving forward, out of your comfort zone, you are going to keep meeting fear.  You are expanding yourself into territory you have never visited before, and that is bound to bring some fear along with it. Fear is a good sign, in other words, of where you need to grow. So long as you don’t let it actually win, so long as you recognise it and move through it, fear is the first energy of the creative process.

So how do you stop fear of failure from destroying your dreams?  If you’re procrastinating on a creative project – failing to begin it, or failing to make progress – fear of failure is probably behind it and you’ll need to take action to remove it.

How to remove fear of failure

To remove fear of failure I highly recommend energy psychology techniques.

  • You can learn EFT like I did (free and detailed tutorials from the inventor of EFT can be found here) and move it out of the way yourself with a little dedication.  It will usually take at least a couple of weeks (tapping for 20 minutes a day), but this method is free, and it will give you plenty of insights into yourself along the way, as well as blessing you with some unexpected secondary gains.  (I got improved relationships with my spouse and family, and relief from anxiety and depression, just for starters).
    • Cost: FREE
    • Time: Approximately 5 – 15 hours in total, not including EFT-learning time.
  • You can see an EFT or Matrix Reimprinting practitioner.  This will costs £60-120 a session for someone who really knows what they’re doing, and you’ll probably need a few sessions, depending on the complexity of the underlying causes.  Not all practitioners are equally effective: try to get a personal recommendation.  I’ve been doing this kind of work one-to-one and in groups (notably on Write the Damn Book) for years, but I haven’t the time to take on any new one-to-one clients at the moment.
    • Cost: £60-£1,200
    • Time 1 – 10 hours, not including travelling to/from appointments
  • There’s a brand new development of EFT and Matrix Reimprinting called Release and Replace. I’ve been using this with my existing personal clients over the last few months with incredible results. You can read about it, and how it works, here.  What’s great about Release and Replace is that you can ‘bundle up’ all the past traumas that are creating an issue (such as fear of failure) and neutralise the emotional charge on them in a single session.  End result: that problem stops being a problem in less than an hour.  Don’t believe me? Try the method for yourself. No travelling to/from the appointment, and unlike any other kind of therapeutic session I’ve ever heard of, there’s a 100% no-quibble money-back guarantee: if you don’t release your fear of failure, you get a full refund.
    • Cost £17
    • Time 90 minutes.

Interested? For more details click here.

In the meantime, let me have your comments on your own experiences fear of failure, or indeed your experiences of energy psychology techniques, if you’ve tried them.  What has worked (or not worked) for you?


Guilpin’s Fuscus: Sir John Davies

Guilpin’s Fuscus: Sir John Davies


“Man is known by the company he keeps.”

A great deal of my recent research on Christopher Marlowe has involved looking at the wider social networks of which he was a part. This can get pretty obscure by most people’s standards, but since so many amateur sleuths looking into the Shakespeare authorship question seek information with a straight forward Google search rather than mining Early English Books Online and other paid-for sources, it seems sensible to blog about an article or two I’ve had published recently.

Fuscus in Guilpin’s Skialethia (1598)

Fuscus Guilpin Skialethia Sir John DaviesFor Shakespeare authorship questioners, minor characters in obscure texts can take on a great importance, and whole theories are sometimes constructed around a single (sometimes very wobbly) interpretation.  When I was looking into the identity of someone nicknamed ‘Fuscus’ in Everard Guilpin’s Skialetheia (1598), I found various assertions that Fuscus was Marlowe, or Thomas Nashe, to add John Payne Collier’s 1868 guess that Fuscus was John Marston.

Not so, my friends.  Combining clues from the several different epigrams in which Fuscus is mentioned with the work of P.J.Finkelpearl and J.R.Brink on a certain scandalous happening at the Inns of Court at Candlemas 1598, it is now clear beyond any doubt that ‘Fuscus’ is the poet and lawyer Sir John Davies, he who had his Epigrams published side by side with Marlowe’s translation of Ovid’s Elegies. The article is here behind a paywall until December 2017, but after that you’ll be able to download a copy from the publications section of my staff page at Goldsmiths or my profile on  If your need is urgent, you can always get in touch and I’ll send you a copy.

Rosalind Barber, ‘Sir John Davies as Guilpin’s Fuscus’, Notes and Queries (2015) 62 (4):553-554.