Blogging about NaNoWriMo as though the US election isn’t looming over all of us — yes, even those of us who aren’t American — feels strange. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that there’s absolutely no point waiting for things to be normal again. Because something is always happening, and that something is usually terrible.
(Also, I feel like if we press pause on everything not-terrible while something potentially-terrible is happening, that means everything on the internet is about the potentially-terrible things, and nobody gets a break or a chance to think about anything else. Which doesn’t seem to benefit anybody. I can’t speak for others, but a lot of the time these days I very much want to read about things that don’t matter at all.)
So let’s talk about National Novel Writing Month instead.
My participation in NaNoWriMo every year is beginning to feel like a foregone conclusion. This is my twelfth year, and honestly, if I were going to take a break it should’ve been after the tenth, because at least that was a nice round number, but last year‘s queer werewolf novel crept up on me. Now I feel like I’d be betraying something if I skipped a year, despite the fact that literally nobody cares who isn’t me.
Actually, I did consider not participating this year. I mean, I don’t need NaNo to help me get the words on the page — writing fifty thousand words in a month is, if anything, slightly slower than my normal writing speed for first drafts — and I’ve got an MA demanding my attention, a newly rediscovered interest in blogging to feed, and videos to make. But… well. Here we are. I guess I can’t resist.
It’s a strange year for NaNo, because there are no in-person events, though most regions have terrifyingly active Discord servers (if the Ireland regions are anything to go by), so the community continues to thrive. On the plus side, not having any in-person events means less pressure to explain what my book is about, which is good, because describing this book is essentially a huge spoiler for the ones that went before it.
You see, this year my project’s an unusually self-indulgent one. Not that I’m not always first and foremost writing the books I want to read, but I’m usually aiming them at an audience too. This one, though, this one’s for me, because I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else will ever read it. It’s a sequel, you see. Well, actually, the third book in a trilogy.
The first book is Butterfly of Night, which is, with any luck, due to go on sub soon (‘on submission’ — being sent to editors at publishing houses in the hope that they will love it a lot, give me vast amounts of money, and publish it with great fanfare. Or indeed, give me small amounts of money and publish it at all). Most people don’t recommend writing sequels when the first book hasn’t sold, in case it doesn’t sell and you end up shelving multiple books rather than just one, but… that’s not advice I’ve ever listened to.
The thing about Butterfly of Night is that I never conceived of it as a standalone, as I explained in the post linked above. It works well enough as one (I worked hard to make sure of that), but it’s always been a trilogy in my head. Still, while I drafted the first two books back-to-back in the summer of 2014, book three (working title To A Candle Flame) has always… eluded me.
I’m not sure why it’s always proved so difficult to write. I’ve started it multiple times. At one point I had a bunch of disconnected scenes in Scrivener in the hope that eventually I’d figure out how they joined up. I started writing it again earlier this year, but gave up after 14,000 words because I wasn’t in the right headspace for it.
Is it because it’s the last book? Because I’m trying to follow through on promises I made to myself and brings things to a pleasing conclusion? Maybe it’s just that emotionally, it’s a challenging book: I put my protagonist Isabel through a lot in the first two, and book three is when she really deals with the psychological fall-out of that.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s hard to write the third book in a trilogy when the first book hasn’t sold, the second book needs major edits to make it work, and you don’t know whether it will see the light of day.
So this year, what NaNoWriMo means to me is the permission to write something that might not ever see the light of day. That could end up being just for me. A scruffy first draft written not for publication but because I want to see for myself how this story ends. I want to follow my character through to the end of the line. I want to know what happens. She’s lived in my head for six years: I want to complete this obligation I feel to her story.
Like I said, self-indulgent. But I’m a fast writer, so if it gets shelved, it’s okay. At least I got that closure for myself; I haven’t poured years of my life into polishing the prose of a forgotten Word document. Just a rough draft in search of some answers.
And yes, writing an entire novel for the sake of figuring out how things end — especially when I’ve arguably already done that in the outline — is no small amount of work. But my brain needs something creative to distract me, especially when reality is so anxiety-inducing; a way of letting off steam.
Self-indulgent sadly doesn’t mean easy, and now that I’ve already left behind those early chapters that were reworkings of previous attempts and struck out into the brave new world of actually drafting, I immediately hate everything I’ve written. But at least this time I did make an attempt at plotting the book, refining my ideas, so maybe this time it won’t fizzle out so quickly for want of direction.
Self-indulgent also doesn’t mean happy — but unlike those early attempts at the book from 2015 and 2016, this book is no longer as profoundly depressing as it used to be. It starts out sad (it’s very much a story about grief and recovery), but the aim is that it’s ultimately hopeful. Unlike my younger self, who couldn’t see a way out for this character that felt real, I’ve come to realise that happy endings — or at least, optimistic ones — aren’t childish, but brave. It’s easy to write bleak stories, and I’ve sure done it a lot, but trying to find space in those narratives for hope is far more satisfying, in the long run.
This is a book that hopes to reconcile the violence of the earlier books with my own pacifism. It’s a book about culpability and guilt and choices and the idea of forgiveness as a radical act. It’s asking the same question as several other things I’ve written: is there any such thing as beyond redemption?
And it’s about grief. It is very much about grief.
I think that’s why I couldn’t write it earlier this year. Since last week had me sitting on my sofa sobbing uncontrollably with zero warning at the memory of loss, I was worried when November 1st ticked around that I wouldn’t be able to write it now, either. But… I don’t know. So far I’ve been able to. Who knows, maybe it’ll help. At least I can always tell myself that no matter how bad I am at dealing with my feelings, I can’t be as bad as Isabel.
That bar is low, though.
So that’s what I’m writing this year. Because I want to. Writing for the sheer sake of writing, for the love of the story. Feels like a while since I’ve done that.
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? What are you writing? And if not, what are your go-to ways to distract yourself from reality these days?
Content warning: this post is about grief and contains references to suicide.
I am always haunted at Hallowe’en.
Not by ghosts in white sheets or creepy faces at the window. Just the kind of ghosts that live inside your head, half-forgotten until something draws them back to the surface and then all of a sudden you’re haunted again.
I’m not good at letting go of ghosts, in general. I’m not good at death, and I’m worse at mourning. Maybe this is a sign of privilege – that I’ve not had enough practice with it. So small griefs become bigger, burdens I should never have been carrying weighing me down because I never learned how to relinquish them.
And one of my ghosts comes out – appropriately enough – at Hallowe’en.
You know, one of the things I love about the internet is that no matter how niche or specific your interest, somebody out there has a blog about it, runs a website dedicated to it, spends their life researching it. You might be idly googling some lyrics to a traditional ballad and the next thing you know you’re on Tam Lin Balladry, scrolling through dozens and dozens of different versions.
That’s how I found Abigail.
Well, I know, now, that her name was Abigail, but actually, I primarily knew her as ‘tam-nonlinear’, her Tumblr username. She was the author of Tam Lin Balladry, collecting versions and recordings and retellings and compiling them into one site, but she also used to post about it on her blog, along with jokes and memes that referenced the ballad. We crossed paths because I posted something about one of her descriptions and the fact that it had made me laugh, and she reached out to me.
It would be wrong, probably, to say that we were friends – ‘acquaintances’ is a better word, or ‘occasional passers-by on the weird street that is Tumblr’. Different generations, different backgrounds, we fit into that weird in-between space of online coexistence, united by a common interest though we’d never have crossed paths in real life. Still, I’m easy with my online friendship, and tend to refer to anyone I’ve ever talked to as a friend, so that’s how I think of her. Maybe that’s wrong, and I don’t really have a right to that word. That’s one of the things I often wonder about.
Every year, around Hallowe’en, her Tam Lin posts would intensify – the story told in the ballad takes place at Hallowe’en. Every year, I’d reblog them, with the quiet delight that comes from understanding a niche joke. It’s not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated (growing up, my family actively ignored Hallowe’en), but I came to enjoy that particular nerdy celebration.
Almost four years ago, immediately after Trump’s election, Abigail died.
As someone with a lot of internet friends, of course I’ve thought about it – how I’d find out if something bad had happened to them, whether anyone would think to tell us, or whether they’d just disappear from my life and I’d never know what had happened. In this instance, I found out because she’d scheduled two blog posts. The first asked for somebody to take over Tam Lin Balladry, so that it could continue to exist as a living resource and not merely an archive. The second was looking for homes for her cats.
It was the cats that got me, at the time. I didn’t know how to process the idea that she was gone, and I had absolutely no idea – still don’t – what was an acceptable level of grief to feel for someone whose real name I hadn’t known until they died, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats. How they wouldn’t understand that she wasn’t coming back.
Would like to sleep by your side, she wrote about one. Will sneak up on you for a cuddle, about another. And for the rest of the day, the week, the month – even now – I keep coming back to those cats, and how they would be waiting for her, but she wasn’t coming back.
I suspect that some of that initial grief was guilt. Her last post, a few days earlier, had not been a happy one, and there was a part of me that felt I should have seen that something was wrong and done… what? Something. Anything. An ocean away, as a random 20-year-old, I still felt like I should have helped.
Perhaps, considering how little we knew each other, I should have let go of the grief by now. It’s been four years. But I can’t. Because if I think too long about how she wanted Tam Lin Balladry to survive, to outlive her, I have to think about the fact that the site’s last news update was from 2016. Yes, it’s still there on the internet, but it isn’t the active project it used to be. Of course it isn’t. Abigail thought she was replaceable – swap out the parts and the world continues. She wasn’t. The site’s stagnation is a reminder that the world needed her in it.
Instead she has a strange kind of immortality in the form of her Tumblr posts.
That’s the thing about Tumblr, far more than any other social media site – nothing is ever really gone. No matter the fate of the original blog, as long as somebody, somewhere, reblogged a post, it will continue to exist. Posts from eight years ago readily recirculate, accumulating new comments and discourse, and since the dashboard has no timestamps (unless added by a third-party plugin), they might as well have been posted yesterday.
Every Hallowe’en, I see posts from tam-nonlinear circulating again. Jokes, mostly. Snappy references that people familiar with Tam Lin can smile at and move on. Probably, 99% of the notes on those posts come from people who have absolutely no idea that the person who made those jokes is dead.
(Sometimes, I wonder how many ghosts there are on Tumblr. How many conversations are living on like echoes.)
But I know. And we may have hardly know each other, and yes, it’s been four years, but every time I see those posts I think of her. And I’m not the only one, because I’ve seen the way others start posting Tam Lin jokes and references at this time of year, trying to fill a hole we shouldn’t have to fill. Is it how she’d have wanted to be remembered? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the best I’ve got.
An odd immortality. But her memory survives nonetheless.
I think about her every Hallowe’en, but this year I’m thinking about her more, with the election looming. I have so many political keywords muted on Twitter for the sake of my own mental health, and still it’s impossible not to feel the weight of it bearing down on me, even an ocean away. I think about the last four years, and wonder what would have happened if she’d lived. If her worst fears have come to pass or if maybe she could have held out long enough to see things get better.
Perhaps I shouldn’t still miss her – perhaps my grief is presumptuous and unjustified and those who knew her better look on me and wonder how I dare to say that I lost someone. (I went back and forth for days on whether to even post this; was it an act of commemoration or just weird and inappropriate? I hope I made the right call. Maybe I didn’t.) Perhaps it’s strange to grieve for someone with whom my connection was so fleeting. But it was a connection that meant something. In however niche and specific a way our lives overlapped, they did overlap.
Perhaps all of us underestimate how much those connections mean, how much meaning we ascribe to casual interactions, how many people would miss us if we were gone and how long our legacy – even if our legacy is Tumblr posts about Tam Lin – will outlive us.
And that reminds me of the tweets I saw following the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a reminder that Jewish communities don’t use “Rest In Peace” when somebody dies, but “May their memory be a blessing”. I’ve thought about that a lot this year – it has been a year full of loss for so many people. It makes sense to me, brings comfort where rest in peace doesn’t. What does rest in peace even mean? How would we know? What comfort does that bring to those left behind? It seems to me the phrase does little to acknowledge that mourning is the part of the living, not the lost.
But may her memory be a blessing means something, brings some comfort. When faced with grief, all we have is memories – may they bring comfort. May they remind us of the good in the world, may they be a little piece of the departed that stays with us, may their legacy ensure that they’re never really gone.
I will probably never not think about Abigail when I hear or read something about Tam Lin. Probably, this abstract sadness and sense of displaced grief will keep recurring, every Hallowe’en. But what she left with me – us – was not only the loss. It was the information, the enthusiasm, the jokes, the passion, and that legacy survives.
Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.
This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.
It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.
Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.
Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.
Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.
I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.
I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.
I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.
Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.
There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).
We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws. And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?
What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.
In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.
Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.
We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.” This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.
Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.
And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.
I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.
I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.
Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.
Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.
 I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.
 I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.
 O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.
 When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.
So I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I kind of suck at blogging these days.
I’m not going to apologise for that, because frankly I’ve made excuses for it enough times that you all knew what you were getting into when you subscribed anyway, but I am going to say that radio silence for five months was not actually my plan for this blog. My seemingly productive lockdown gave way to, uh, clinical depression, so that wiped out most of the summer. Then I moved house twice in a month and now I live in Ireland. Surprise!
I guess that’s my biggest piece of news — I’m now doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, which some of you may have seen on Instagram or Tumblr or other places where I post things about my life. Being back in academia has actually so far been a super positive thing for my brain, and I feel like I’m buzzing with ideas in a way I haven’t been for a while. It’s just, most of those ideas are about medieval Irish lit, or queer theory. Which kind of brings me onto the topic of why I’m actually writing this post. See, I feel like the main reason I don’t blog is because I have absolutely no idea what I’m trying to achieve with this blog. What and who is it for? Who am I trying to be?
I know I ask this question a lot. I’ve yet to find an answer. These days, it mainly takes the form of wondering whether I’m trying to present myself online as a writer or as an academic — my Twitter oscillates wildly between the two. When it comes to writing, there’s not a huge amount to blog about. “Still plugging away!” I could say, on a weekly or monthly basis. “Hoping it’ll go somewhere eventually!”
Oh, I’m always working on new things, but a lot of the time I don’t want to talk about those until I know that might exist beyond the confines of my hard-drive. In recent months, insofar I’ve been working on anything at all (I had a few fallow patches…), a lot of it’s been mainly for my own curiosity — sequels and follow-ups to other WIPs in an attempt to help develop the worldbuilding. They’re hard to talk about without knowing whether the first book will go anywhere, because who knows if they’ll ever see the light of day?
And when it comes to the academic side of things…
Well. I’m niche. I know that. Medieval Irish literature is nobody’s idea of mainstream, and even within my own field of study I’m a bit of an oddity, since I tend to be heavy on the literary theory side of things (especially queer theory and related topics), which isn’t typical in Celtic Studies. Ironically, this seems to be the aspect that makes what I do most appealing to a general audience — unlike, for example, the detailed linguistic analysis or complex manuscript editing that often seems to dominate the field in academic circles.
But it’s still niche and nerdy and a bit of an oddity, so whenever I start talking too much about my academic ideas on the internet, I get worried I’m alienating the people who followed me for writing stuff. This happens a lot on Twitter, I think — people follow me for one thing or the other, but the overlap in that Venn diagram is fairly small, and a lot of people’s eyes must glaze over when I start banging on about medieval Irish lit again. At least my writing tweets (especially the struggles of editing, and procrastination) can appeal to an academic audience.
Despite that, sometimes recently I’ve thought I wanted to use my blog to share some of my ideas as a medievalist. Like, earlier I was working on a lecture I might be giving later in the semester, because I happened to be in the right headspace to start drafting it. Trouble is, I don’t actually know for sure yet whether I’m going to be giving it, but as I remarked to a friend, it wasn’t wasted work — I could always chop it up into a couple of blog posts and share those, with minor adaptations, if I didn’t get to give the lecture.
But would I actually do that? Would I dare? Because that’s the thing — it can be nerve-wracking putting my academic ideas out into the world, and connecting them to my real name, before they’ve gone anywhere in academia. If I want to turn something into an article and seek publication for it, do I dare blog about it first? They’re radically different mediums, and the approach I’d take wouldn’t be the same, but if I’m trying to present an idea as innovative, do I risk undermining myself if I’ve already posted about it on the internet?
Probably not. But I still worry about it — and beyond that, I worry about getting things wrong, and having future supervisors judge me for it. Or peers. Or total strangers who know nothing about me beyond what I posted on my blog one time, but have opinions on that and are determined to make sure I know what those opinions are. Even though getting things wrong is pretty much unavoidable at some stage in your academic career, and being able to develop beyond your initial ideas is important, and I’m sure most academics have early work they wouldn’t stand by anymore.
(Plus, like, I don’t even know if I’m going to go further than the MA. Who am I trying to impress, at this point? I’m already here, and this may well be the end of it. But it’s hard to be sure on that. There was a time when I was almost certain I would never do a PhD, but at that point I also thought I wouldn’t do postgrad study at all, and here we are…)
The upshot of all of this is that I end up not blogging at all. Too nervous to talk about the academic stuff, not enough to say about the writing stuff, and working on reining in the whole ‘oversharing about my personal life’ thing I’ve definitely been guilty of in the past.
And look. I said I wasn’t going to apologise. “I will not sit down and write a blog post that is just excuses for why I haven’t blogged in five months,” I told myself. But I did, didn’t I? Maybe there weren’t any apologies in there, but this is essentially a laundry list of Reasons I Have Not Blogged. I wonder what proportion of posts on this blog are just explanations for my absence? I suspect it would be embarrassingly high.
What I actually wanted to say is: this is the last time I’m going to write a post like this. For a while, anyway. Because I think I’m going to start letting myself have opinions again, even though that always scares me. I’m going to let myself share some of my early, exploratory academic thoughts. Maybe I will turn bits of that lecture into blog posts, and share those.
Why the change? I think it’s because I was asked to give that lecture (which would be for second-year undergrads, if it happens). At first I was terrified and crushed by impostor syndrome at the mere concept of doing any teaching at this stage in my academic career. I immediately went to the library to borrow a bunch of books and brush up, because I was convinced I didn’t know enough. But you know, the more I read, the more I realised I did know. And that I did have opinions and that I did want to share them. That, plus the willingness of the lecturer who asked me to admit the gaps in her own knowledge and defer to my specific experience, made a huge difference to my sense of being an impostor. Because actually, I do have knowledge that not everybody has, and maybe I am ready to share some of that.
It’s funny how the more I thought about teaching, the more interested I was in coming up with new ideas, because the idea of being able to share them made it feel like they had a point, and weren’t just me playing around with thought experiments inside my own head. I’ve always thought academia wasn’t for me because teaching wasn’t for me. But now that I think of all the informal pedagogy I end up doing on Tumblr and on YouTube, I’m wondering why on earth it didn’t occur to me sooner that I might actually enjoy that kind of thing.
So yeah, part of it’s that my impostor syndrome is no longer as crushing as it was a month ago (in fact, I’ve been amazed at how much more comfortable I feel in academic circles since starting my MA than I thought I would, which I might talk about more in future). But more than that, it’s because I’m trying to learn to admit when I get things wrong, and to be comfortable with imperfection, and not to be afraid to share things before they’re finished because the truth is, nothing is ever finished, and if you always wait for something to be Final And Never To Be Altered, you won’t end up sharing anything, ever.
I want to make peace with mistakes, with early thoughts, with ideas still in development, with the process of learning. I want to be able to look back at past work and feel only pride in how far I’ve come / how much better I’ve got, rather than shame that I wasn’t already there. I want to learn how to share complicated thoughts in accessible language, and not just in academic jargon. I want to share my ideas! For the same reason I make my YouTube videos — I don’t think access to ideas about or knowledge of medieval Irish literature should be limited to the tiny handful of people who end up studying it at an advanced level in formal academia.
So if you see some more academic blog posts popping up over the next few months, that’s why. But don’t worry, I’ll still be talking about writing, too. And dance, as and when lockdown lifts enough to mean I can actually do any dance. And what I’ve learned from moving to Ireland and how I’m finding postgrad life and thoughts on any really good books I’ve read recently.
And sometimes I’ll be wrong about stuff. But that’s okay. It’s a blog, after all. About time I started using it as one.
In my last post, I shared the news that I signed with an agent, Jessica Hare, for my novel Butterfly of Night (and hopefully many more). I had enough interest in that news to make it feel worthwhile to write a follow-up post giving a bit more information about the whole process and how it worked for me. This is not exactly a “how I got my agent” post, because it’s less about the mechanics and more just a summary of the substantial journey that led up to this point. I don’t intend to suggest that the steps involved are replicable or that they should be replicated (there are… definitely faster and more efficient ways of starting a writing career than the circuitous route I took).
Since this is a journey that has taken six or eleven or sixteen years to bring me to this point, it’s hard to know exactly where to start. You could start in December, when I began querying this book, or you could start in 2004, when I wrote a play and made my friends act it out for me — a play I later turned into a story that might have been a novel if I hadn’t abandoned it partway through. The story was extremely violent and sad. I have not changed.
2004 seems a little early, though. Maybe 2009 is a better place to start — the year I joined the writing website Protagonize, where I met some of my oldest writing friends. I wrote my first novel in November 2009. It was completely terrible, but I was fine with that. I’d written it mostly to prove that I could, starting NaNoWriMo on Day 7 with no plot, no characters, and no idea how to write a book, so I’d had no expectations that it would be readable. Perhaps going into it with that very careless, light-hearted approach is why I was able to finish it in the first place. Everything’s easier when you don’t take it too seriously.
From there I wrote a dozen other novels, and they gradually got less terrible as I went along. I edited some of them; I queried one of them briefly. In 2012 I created a character called Isabel Ryans, intended as a major but secondary character in a crime novel. Despite at least two attempts at writing that book, I never got very far with it, and eventually abandoned both it and its cast. In 2014, I looked again at this character Isabel, realised that her backstory was the most interesting thing about her, and began to ponder how I might tell that story.
The result, eventually, was Butterfly of Night, my fifteenth novel.
It remains one of the only books I’ve outlined before I started, which is partly because I had always intended it to be a prequel to that crime novel I’d started. I wrote an outline that I thought would get me roughly to that point, and I sent it to a friend to read over — Cathryn, whom I’d met on Protagonize in 2009 (see, I told you the story really started there). Cathryn pointed out quite clearly that what I had was an outline for two books, not one: there was a substantial gap in the middle, a new set of stakes, and several new characters. So I abandoned the prequel idea, and began to consider the whole thing as a trilogy.
I was in the middle of my A-Levels while I was doing the planning, and with uncharacteristic restraint, I didn’t dive in right away, instead taking a bit of time to figure out the characters. My A-Level revision didn’t only delay me, though — it also helped. While learning a very large amount of French vocab in a short space of time (hundreds of words — thanks Memrise, you saved me), I used to look for patterns and stories in the odd combinations of words that would come up. I also occasionally found inspiration in the words themselves…
I posted the above on Facebook six years ago yesterday – the 26th May 2014. Papillon denuit, I thought, was such a dramatic way of saying moth. I wanted to see if I could use it somewhere.
It actually ended up becoming a major motif in the book. I shared my initial premise and blurb on this blog in May 2014, noting that I had two guilds of assassins called “Comma” and “Hummingbird”, but that these were placeholder names which would probably change. A reader said that they enjoyed the bird/butterfly theme, which is… how I found out that Comma was a type of butterfly. It slotted very nicely into place with the butterfly of night idea, and of course, that ended up being the title. I never did change the names of the guilds.
Anyway, I wrote the first draft of Butterfly of Night in July 2014, for Camp NaNoWriMo, finishing it while on holiday in Guernsey with my parents. My writing style is always to complete a draft very quickly and then abandon it for weeks or months before coming back to edit it — I recently returned to a book for the first time in five years — and that’s more or less what I did with BoN, too. I’ve written a new draft of it every year since 2014 (except this year, so far…). The second draft in 2015, the third in 2016… it was my Camp NaNo project multiple times, and I was never quite happy with it. Some of the rewrites were extremely drastic, changing entire plotlines; others were smaller, but still made substantial changes.
There’s also one draft I have absolutely no memory of writing whatsoever, but given that my memory is pretty spotty in general (thanks, chronic pain and mental illness), I try not to dwell too much on the fact that I’m missing that period entirely…
In 2016 I tried entering the book into Pitch Wars, but it didn’t go anywhere. I continued to edit. In early 2018 I sent out a few queries, but without much conviction: I still wasn’t totally happy with the book. I just didn’t know what to do next — I felt I’d done as much as I could do alone. So later in 2018 I tried entering it into Pitch Wars again. This time I got a couple of full requests from mentors, but ultimately wasn’t chosen.
I wasn’t sure what to do after that — should I query again? Work on something else? I spent late 2018 pretty busy with other projects — the second draft of Bard, the first draft of To Run With The Hound (one of the most challenging first drafts I’ve written because of the research involved). I had a Christmas job in a bookshop, which kept me busy, and distracted me from thinking much about querying. Then, in early 2019, I saw some tweets about Author Mentor Match, the submission window for which was due to be opening in a couple of days.
The idea of Author Mentor Match was to pair up unpublished writers like myself with a more experienced writer — someone further along the journey, even if their debut hadn’t come out yet. It was a mentorship programme similar to Pitch Wars, but a little less intense, as it didn’t have a deadline or an agent showcase. On a whim, I entered Butterfly of Night — I’d felt like I needed external support to make it better, and it couldn’t do any harm, after all.
Then I forgot about it entirely, until I got the email that I’d been picked. I was at the bus stop on my way home from dance at the time, and I had to read the email multiple times before I actually took in what it was saying. I’d been chosen as a mentee by Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls. It wasn’t until I saw her tweet about it that the excitement really hit:
Rory’s edit letter did what I hadn’t been able to do over the last few years: it asked the difficult questions I hadn’t been asking, and pointed out the fundamental structural problems. Being me, I looked at it, I looked at the book, and I went, “Welp. Time to burn this down and start over.” But like, in a good way.
So I did. I pulled the book apart and I rebuilt it from the ground up. It was the only way I was going to make those structural changes work — if I tried to fiddle about with the existing book, I’d only end up ruining what I already had. I spent a bunch of time digging deep into worldbuilding and character backstory, writing 15k of notes of all the stuff that would never make it onto the page, and I let that help me reshape the story. Having Rory there to bounce ideas off was invaluable — although many of the things she’d picked up on were issues I sort of secretly knew were there all along, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do so drastic a rewrite without someone to reassure me that it was genuinely worth the effort.
At times it felt like I wasn’t editing Butterfly of Night, I was writing a brand new book with a few similarities to the old one. But in the end, what emerged did feel like the same book — but refined and recut and made into something new. And better. So much better. I cut scenes that had been there since the first draft, and writing it in 2019 was always going to be a different experience to writing it in 2014 (I’m a different person, with a very different worldview), but the heart of it still felt the same.
And, you know, there are still little details in there that date back not just to the first draft of BoN, but to that terrible crime novel I abandoned in 2012. The fact that Isabel’s organisation is called Comma. The fact that she speaks Esperanto. The fact that she owns a green coat very like the one my sister owned at the time, which is now mine. They’re tiny details, now long dislocated from their original explanations and given new ones and integrated into the worldbuilding in different ways. But they’re a reminder that nothing is ever lost and no draft was ever a waste of time. They’re all part of the foundations on which this version of the book was built.
After that, Rory read the new draft, pointed out a couple of scenes I really didn’t need, and generally reassured me that I hadn’t broken the book completely. I did another quick redraft (I think it literally took about two weeks), cutting out those scenes, smoothing things over, and making the book 10k shorter overall, bringing it down to 90k instead of 100k in length.
And then I started my job and neglected it for a few more months. But one of the best things about Author Mentor Match wasn’t just Rory’s feedback — it was the community that formed among my fellow mentees. We were the sixth group of mentees for the programme — Round 6 — and although not everyone in R6 joined in with the obsessive and worryingly active Twitter group chats, there were enough of us in there to form a close-knit group of writing friends, ready to cheer each other on through drafting, edits, and the dreaded querying. We called ourselves Write Club.
Without Write Club, maybe BoN would have continued to lurk on my computer for months more, but as others embarked on querying, I began to get something like FOMO. No matter how torturously slow the process seemed, or how many rejections everyone was getting, I felt like I should be putting myself out there. I’d been working towards this for so long, but it was just so easy to send five queries and then chicken out and never send anymore.
So, in December, I started querying. It was all fairly conventional: I used Query Tracker to find agents, I read their MSWLs, I followed them on Twitter, I sent a few queries at a time and personalised them as best I could… I got a full request and a partial very early on, and another full request straight after the partial had been rejected, which was encouraging… and then nothing. Three months of straight rejections. Actually, mostly it was three months of silence, and then there was that one afternoon I got three rejections in a row, which was a rough day, I won’t lie.
I was beginning to give up, though. I hadn’t sent that many queries, especially compared to some of my Write Club friends, but I was still running out of people I thought might like my book, especially as I was predominantly focusing on UK-based agents. Once I spread my net further afield and sent to some US agents, I opened up a whole new set of possibilities, but my feeling was that a UK agent would be a better fit — and there didn’t seem to be that many of them who repped YA. In mid April I got one more full request, but I was still feeling fairly discouraged, and beginning to think about what I might do next. Maybe I’d work on my Bisclavret novel, and query that in the autumn…
Then #DVPit happened. #DVPit is a Twitter pitch event for authors from marginalised or under-represented backgrounds, a group I consider myself to belong to by virtue of being queer, trans and disabled.
I’d participated in #PitMad, another pitch event, a month earlier, but had had little interest from agents, so I wasn’t convinced that #DVPit would be any different, but since it was a smaller and more focused event I thought it might work out better. Aaaaand… it did. Maybe my pitches were just better, but I found I got a surprising amount of interest, enough to send half a dozen more queries, this time knowing that the people I was sending to were actually somewhat interested in my premise.
And that’s how I found Jessica! Within an hour of sending her my query she requested the full, and a few days after that emailed me asking if we could have a video call to ‘discuss editorial thoughts and next steps’. I thought it might be an R&R (revise & resubmit), so I tried not to get too excited about it, but in fact she offered representation. At that point, I had to email all the other agents who still had my query or full, asking if they were still interested and so on; a few more asked for fulls, I finally got closure on my older fulls, and I settled down to wait for the two-week deadline to be up in order to make my decision. I had sent 45 queries in total.
It was a tense couple of weeks. I was waiting on emails about next year and scholarships and so on at the same time as waiting for agents to get back to me, so essentially I jumped every time I got an email.
In the end, I didn’t end up with competing offers, so I was spared having to make a decision. A few agents stepped aside, some because they weren’t able to read the book in time, and I had a couple of near-misses — one got back to me on deadline day because she’d been going back and forth on it: she loved the book, but didn’t know how to approach submissions on it, and didn’t have a clear vision for that side of things.
Honestly, I was relieved not to be put in a position to have to decide between multiple people. I hate decisions, and there are always pros and cons on both sides. For example, if one of the bigger, well-established US agents had offered… would their experience supercede the fact they were in the US, for me? What about an agent with a lot of high-profile clients — would their extensive contacts make up for the fact they’d probably have less time to focus on me and would take longer to get back to me about things? Jessica is a very new agent, so I knew she’d be able to give me more attention than someone with a larger list, but since a lot of the advice I’d been given about looking for agents included things like “talk to current clients” and “check their sales history”, I was also a tiny bit nervous.
But I asked her lots of questions, she answered them, and ultimately I got the vibe that she really loved Butterfly of Night. What really clinched it, though, was the fact that she wasn’t expecting me to stay in one genre and only ever write dark, stabby YA books. I also write adult fiction, and I’ve never understood genre (I’m not good at fitting in a box), so I was very keen to find someone who would support my career in whatever direction it ended up going, even if it didn’t seem like a straight line on from BoN. I signed with her on the 15th May, and it’s hard to say which of us seemed more excited about it!
So that’s how it happened. This is a long post, about 3,000 words — but this was a long journey. From eight-year-old me deciding I wanted to be an author to eleven-year-old me setting myself wordcount goals to thirteen-year-old me’s first novel to eighteen-year-old me’s first draft of Butterfly of Night. I’m twenty-four now, far from the ‘teen writer’ I once was, and I’ll never be an overnight sensation — I look in astonishment at friends who are querying their first or second novel, because BoN was my fifteenth and I really needed to write all those bad books before I was able to write this one.
But these things take as long as they take, and Butterfly of Night was the kind of book that needed to spend a long time in its cocoon before it took flight. Now all that’s left to do is wait and see where the journey takes me next — and write more books, of course.
This isn’t really a blog post, as such — I seem to have lost the knack of that. I thought when the lockdown started I might start blogging regularly (to track the passing of days, if nothing else; to leave some record of all this that’s more comprehensible than my scribbled journal), but the fact that I’ve not posted since February shows you how well that went. Looking in my drafts, I found half a post from March about some of the books I was reading. Totally forgot I’d even started that.
Instead this is just a handful of pieces of news, because although they’re few and far between these days, I suspect I still have a few readers on this blog who don’t follow me on other social media. That is, if I still have any readers after letting this blog fade so completely into obscurity. My stats have officially flatlined for the past few months, and by flatlined I don’t mean “held steady”, I mean they’re at 0 views. Oops. Turns out, if you want people to read your blog, you actually have to write it. Astonishing, that.
I’m now agented! As of Friday, I’m represented by Jessica Hare of The Agency (London) Limited. She signed me for Butterfly of Night, a YA novel about a screwed-up teenage assassin and her poor life choices, but I think it’s safe to say we’re both in this for the long haul, so fingers crossed it’s the start of a long and productive partnership! I’ll talk about this whole journey in a future post, if you’d like me to — depending on where you start the story, it dates back to 2014, or 2012, or 2009, or 2004, so it hasn’t been a speedy process. I have a lot of thoughts about it all, so let me know if you want to hear them.
I (re)wrote a book. Two books, actually. In April and early May I rewrote Bard, my SF Arthurian novel from 2016. I wrote a second draft of this book in 2018 that brought it closer to what I wanted it to be, but I wanted to make some major changes this time around, mostly relating to worldbuilding (which I’ve got substantially better at). Unfortunately, in fixing these aspects, I managed to screw everything else up, and the book is now 134k of disappointment. RIP. At some point I’ll rewrite it again, but at the moment I don’t want to look at it at all, so it might be another two years before I can bear to do that… Once I was done with that, I leapt straight into another project, mostly as an attempt to avoid reality, and wrote 102k in 9.5 days. So, yes, that did bring my total up to 236k in six and a half weeks. I haven’t pulled something like that since 2013.
But reality really is terrible, isn’t it? I just… can’t read the news. Can’t watch the news. I’m coping by avoidance, and it seems to be working okay, until the news intrudes on my own life and then it all becomes unbearable. On Monday I learned that somebody I knew at university had died because of Covid. Although we weren’t close, I still have a lot of fond memories of him, and this totally knocked my feet out from under me. I averaged about 12k a day for the rest of the week through sheer determination Not To Think About It, which… is one way of dealing, I guess.
I’m due to start an MA in the autumn. I have no idea what form that’s going to take, right now — whether I’ll be doing online classes, whether the start of term will be delayed, what exactly it’s going to look like. I haven’t yet confirmed where I’ll be studying, as I’m waiting to hear about scholarships and funding, but it’ll most likely be either University College Cork or Maynooth University. The MA’s in Medieval Irish, so you can see exactly how well my ‘I’m not staying in academia’ thing went. Terribly. It went terribly. I appear to be the kind of person that academia just happens to. But planning for the future is hard when nobody knows what the future is going to look like, and I’ll readily confess to being considerably anxious about the whole thing.
I shaved my head. It’s the quarantine mood. Didn’t make that much of a difference for me, since I had very short hair anyway, but now I’m fuzzier than ever. That’ll be fun, when I eventually manage to get my passport updated with my new name — something that’s been put on hold by the current situation. Yes, it is making me somewhat anxious not to know whether I’ll have an up-to-date passport by the autumn or whether I’ll be carrying my deed poll around everywhere trying to make sure I get registered in the correct name. I also made some bread, but gluten-free bread is hard, so I’d say it was only a limited success. Getting good at making naan-type flatbreads tho. My dry yeast’s a year past its date so all bread is flatbread at the moment.
I think that’s all the news I’ve really got to share with you at the moment, but with luck I’ll be back in the not-too-distant future with real posts. If you’d like me to talk about writing/agent stuff, let me know in the comments and I will do that.
I don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions anymore. They’re too much pressure, and the emphasis on success or failure to achieve some arbitrary change no longer seems like a particularly helpful way of approaching things. But it’s still nice to see a new year as an opportunity to begin some new project, or set oneself on a new path.
Last year, I wrote a post (now consigned to oblivion along with the rest of the blog archive) about how I wanted my focus for 2019 to be on peace — making peace with myself, but also choosing more peaceful paths in life general, and thinking about my commitment to the idea. I don’t know how well I succeeded at that; possibly I’d have done better had I remembered that particular declaration more frequently. But I did find myself pondering it now and again, and I certainly thought a lot about violence and pacifism in my writing, and what stories I wanted to tell.
This year, I decided that my theme would be honesty.
(I’m not intentionally working my way through all the Quaker testimonies — peace, equality, simplicity, truth, sustainability — but now that I’ve started, I can see the value in carrying on this way… I could certainly use to tackle ‘simplicity’ before my book-hoarding tendencies become entirely overwhelming.)
Honesty is a tricky one. Honesty is as much about being truthful with myself as it is about telling the truth to others. I am great at lying to myself, justifying unhealthy behaviours or excusing away negative thought patterns. I’m also good at letting indecisiveness prevent me from ever living a truly honest existence, and I’m so afraid of being impolite that I’ll tell a dozen white lies and half-truths just to avoid saying something that might be construed as rude.
Anxiety. It can really get in the way of the best intentions.
This year, then, is about being honest. About admitting what I want and doing what I need to do to achieve that. About telling people how I feel, and living with the temporary discomfort of those conversations rather than the longterm resentment of not having had them. About declaring who I am, and then having the courage to stand up for myself about that. Correcting people about pronouns, rather than letting it slide because it’s easier to live with the discomfort of untruth than the potential awkwardness of the correction. Balancing safety (never speaking up) with truth (being who I am).
As part of that, I changed my name.
Changing your name by deed poll in the UK is a remarkably undramatic affair. Despite the scary legalese of the document itself, that isn’t actually an essential part of the process (you can just as effectively write on the back of an envelope “hi my name is [x] now” and as long as it’s signed and witnessed, it’s theoretically valid). The fancy wording and posh paper can be helpful in persuading banks and other organisations that the deed poll itself is legit, though, which makes it sometimes worth doing.
I’ve been considering changing my name for a long time, but I’d concluded there was no real rush. Most people seemed happy to call me Finn if I asked them to, and since I’m almost always read as female, my name wasn’t exactly outing me — even if it did lead people to make assumptions about my gender that I didn’t want them to make. I figured I could wait until my passport was nearer to its expiry date, and then do the change, so as to minimise the cost of updating it.
But that wouldn’t be until 2026, and that wait had started to feel too long. I’m working on applications for MAs at the moment, which made me realise that when I get another degree, I want it to be in a name that feels like me. I want to write Finn Longman on academic articles, and have the weight of authority behind it. I’m querying at the moment, and when I hopefully sign with an agent, I want that to be a name that feels truthful, too. Not one that feels temporary and incomplete, missing a major part of my identity.
So, in the light of all that, Finn is now my middle name. I know quite a lot of people who go by their middle names — my boss, for one, and a close friend of mine. Now, I guess, I’m one of them, in most contexts.
I thought long and hard about the change, and whether or not I should commit fully and make Finn my first name, but in the end this seemed like the best option. I didn’t want to let go of my first name entirely — not only is it important to my parents, but it has significance to me, too. It’s a connection to part of my heritage that I’m not willing to leave behind at this stage. But if I made that my middle name, I ended up with slightly unfortunate initials, and it didn’t flow as well as this way around.
I thought about keeping my old middle name, too: Joy. But it didn’t seem to fit, and I couldn’t make it sound nice. Letting go of Joy was more difficult than I expected — nobody in my family has ever called me by it, but it was a part of my authorial identity for several years, and I guess I’m more attached to it than I thought. There’s something symbolic in it, though, to let go of the ‘joy’ that is expected of me and to find my own, instead, to seek it where I think it’s meant to be instead of having it imposed.
I guess keeping my first name just seems less risky. After all, there’s the plausible deniability of not having changed my first or last name that will make my life much easier if I forget to update my name on one account or another — a fair few accounts don’t even use the middle name. Maybe it’s cowardice, but I think it’s compromise — finding a truth that works for me. Yes, it seems like a lot of money to replace my passport (not due to expire until 2026) for the sake of a middle name, but on the plus side, that’s six fewer years of having blue hair and an undercut in my passport photo, which is probably a good thing.
It was a small change, really, swapping three letters for four, but it was a difficult one nonetheless. That’s why I did it this weekend, when I had friends in town for a conference who could act as my witnesses and encourage me to go through with it.
And so, in the end, I signed my deed poll in the pub.
Here’s to making 2020 the year I’m honest, with myself and with the world. We all have our truths to live, and this is a small part of mine.
No, that’s not quite right. I know how it works. I know the stiffness of my knees in the morning, the strain of that early cycle into work. I know the clicks and clunks of my spine as I shift in an uncomfortable chair, the way my head feels too heavy for my spine, the threat of a headache that will linger for weeks.
But ballet… ballet feels like pouring myself back into an old mould, trying to inhabit the shape of it again. Tracing familiar paths, looking for the routes I remember. It’s familiar; I haven’t been gone so long. It’s unknowable; it is a thousand years since I have spoken this language and the words of it are lost to me.
Pliés are fine, though soundtracked by clicking joints, with the occasional throb of the left foot where I might have a stress fracture. (More likely, it’s a tendon problem. I’m to have an x-ray on Wednesday, just to be sure.) And I am remembering the rhythm of tendus, feeling the stretch of every fondu in calves strung tight by Irish dance, drawing up into a developpé supported by muscles honed more often by cycling than by dance.
It is attitude that poses the problem. Not mine — the step. Raised leg, bent at the knee, body making spirals from the floor on up and up. The hip injury that kept me from Irish dance all of last term makes itself known, reminding me that while I may have redirected some of my focus for the moment, these two disciplines are not so different that ballet is a place where I can escape from my injuries.
Of course I can’t escape from them; letting go of pain has always been my body’s problem. It insists on clinging to it, sounding alarms long after the fire has been put out. More than a quarter of my life has been soundtracked by those alarms, the ache in my hands still a barrier, if a smaller one than it was six and a half years ago.
My hips are tight, that’s the trouble with these attitudes. I am not currently capable of keeping my hips turned out the way they need to be, because after months of not being allowed to stretch, not being able to push too far, not being able to use them, the muscles around my hips are like a tight cage, trying to protect the fragile area.
I have been reading a book about pain, about how to tame it, because this is something I need to learn how to do. The book told me that a dancer who suffers from a foot injury will feel pain more intensely than an office worker with the exact same injury. For the dancer, this injury is a risk to their livelihood, their career, their passion — and so their brain processes the threat as much larger than the officeworker’s brain. And because the brain recognises a threat, it rings the alarm bells louder.
Brains are only trying to protect us, but sometimes, they are so bad at it.
My hip throbs. Except that’s not really what it feels like. It’s more of an… itching, underneath the skin. A scratchy kind of pain, like a low-level electrical current, or steel wool where there should be soft cotton. And with it comes a predictable cycle of thoughts.
You’ve injured your hip again, my brain tells me. You shouldn’t have gone back to dance. You should have waited longer. Now you’re going to have to take more time out. You should drop out of the show. How can you tell them that you have to drop out? You have a soloist role, you’re going to screw everything up for everyone. This isn’t going to go away. You could take the whole term out and as soon as you dance again it will come back. It’s never going to heal fully. You’re going to lose dance the way you lost music. You’re going to have go through all of it again.
Those last two thoughts worm their way beneath my skin, itchy as tendon damage. You’re going to lose dance. It’s a vicious whisper. You’re going to have to go through it all again.
Our brains know our worst fears. How best to frighten us into compliance. My brain remembers 2013, the overwhelming despair of losing the use of my hands, the profound depression when I didn’t know if I would ever write again. My brain remembers feeling like I barely weathered that storm.
My brain knows I’m afraid that if that happened again, I would not survive it.
The book I am reading about pain is very keen on stopping these spirals before they get to that point. It is, after all, very hard to deal with them once they already have, especially when they have such potent fuel as ‘past trauma’ and ‘legitimate anecdotal evidence’ to fan the flames. My brain processes the sensation of pain in my hip, draws its own conclusions based on several months unable to dance last year, compares that to the older injury and subsequent chronic pain and everything that I lost because of it, and concludes that this is the threat level it needs to process.
It says: you are going to lose dance.
The pain intensifies.
In an ideal world, or as ideal a world as one could find where I would still be experiencing the pain in the first place, I would stop my thoughts in their tracks almost immediately.
There is a pain in my hip, says my brain, in this not-quite-ideal world.
I can feel that, I would say in return. That doesn’t mean another injury. I must have overworked it a little today. I need to rest it. Perhaps a heat pack or a hot bath will soothe the muscles, and I can take some painkillers and go to bed. In the morning, it will have eased off. I’ll have to remember that pushing my turnout like that can trigger the pain, and take it slower in the future.
And my brain would say, Okay. I just wanted to make sure you knew about it, and I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack while cycling home, and the pain would lessen.
The things brains do to protect us are sometimes not as helpful as they should be, especially when they learned how to ‘help’ from a traumatic experience that has left them with a skewed understanding of the body. I am learning to acknowledge that. I am learning not to berate my brain for it, but to gently remind it that maybe it is reacting based on instinct, not evidence, and that perhaps this is closer to a PTSD episode than an objective assessment. Not all pain is life-changing, life-ruining, neverending.
But it is hard, when those are the tracks I have walked for so long. More than a quarter of my life. It feels unfathomable. If my seventeen-year-old self had known what my twenty-four-year-old self would be living with, what effect would that have on me? It is better, I’m certain, that I didn’t know. Hope is the only thing that kept me going.
I am not going to lose dance. These days it is less about hope and more about stubbornness. Even if my participation doesn’t always look like this, I have to believe that I will not lose dance. I refuse to consider the possibility of losing it. I have already lost too much, and the grief of that is feeding my fear now. I cannot give it any more fuel.
As I stand at the barre and assess my posture, perhaps it’s not that I need to remember how my body works. It is that I need to teach it all over again. I need to relearn the muscles and the joints, remapping my brain’s understanding until it no longer automatically associates my right hip with pain even in my imagination. I need to start again, from the beginning.
One hand on the barre, first position. Demi-plié. And rise.
I thought about writing a regular post summing up the past year and the decade before it, but that seemed like a cliché, so I decided instead to write a letter to my younger self — the person I was as the year turned from 2009 to 2010.
Dear younger me,
It’s hard to know how to start a letter like this. You’ll hate me if I gush about how young you are, because you’ve always hated being patronised. I don’t mean it like that. I just mean… well, you’re not me yet, are you? You’re hardly even you. You’re a half-formed thing, much as you like to think otherwise.
But the groundwork’s there. The skeleton of who I’d end up being. Actually, as I stare down my twenty-fourth birthday I look a lot more like you, almost fourteen, than some of the selves I’ve been in between. I do Irish dance again, for a start, just like you do. I compete in preliminary championships and I’ve taken masterclasses with Ciara Sexton. I can practically see you freaking out from here, and you don’t know the half of it.
I quit, though, for a long time. That seems absurd to you — you’re still in love with it, still in the honeymoon period. In about a year and a quarter, you’re going to walk away from it. You’re going to do ballet instead — another thing you can’t imagine right now. You won’t go back to Irish dance until you’re 21. It’s what you need, or at least, it felt like it was at the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy decision when it happens.
Then there’s the music. I’m trying to remember exactly where you’re at right now. 2009… oh! Of course. You just joined the wind band. They were playing the title piece from Riverdance and you being an Irish dance nerd, you wanted to be a part of it. It was a great concert, wasn’t it? I remember the high of it. You took up the piccolo this year as well, I think, but I don’t exactly remember where you were at with the violin.
You’re going to lose that.
Sorry. It sounds blunt when I put it like that. It was blunt when it happened. You’ve got about three more years, and then you’re going to injure your wrists, and develop debilitating chronic pain. They’ll tell you you’ll be playing again in a few months and then six years down the line you still won’t be able to hold a fiddle for more than about fifteen minutes before the pain kicks in. You’ll lose your entire social life — this is what happens when you put all your eggs in the orchestra basket. It’s going to suck.
It’s going to shape most of the rest of the decade, too. Your entire identity is going to end up moulded by this, which is what I mean when I say that you’re not me yet. You’re still able to trust your own body, trust that you’ll be able to do whatever you like without triggering pain that will leave you unable to write for days on end, or too fatigued to move. You don’t even have any real food intolerances yet, though you’re going to lose the ability to eat fruit some time in the next year or two (trust me, that’s the tip of the iceberg…).
You’re going to lose so much, and it’s going to be so hard, for so long, and there’s nothing I can do to protect you, no warnings I can give that will prevent it. Your body is a time bomb. You could spend your whole life being careful and eventually it would still go off.
You have no idea what’s coming. And for that, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you now to make the most of it — especially music, which you’ll lose more completely than anything else. I also wish I could tell you to install and get used to voice recognition software before you lose the use of your hands entirely for a few months, because that would really help me down the line, but… I can’t.
Let’s talk about writing instead. Another thing you’ll almost lose — but don’t worry, at least you get that one back. You’re only just beginning to realise how important it is to you. You’ve got two short, crappy novels under your belt (I hope you don’t mind me calling them crappy. I’m pretty sure you’d describe at least one of them that way, and … just trust me on the other one, please), but you’re going to write, like, seventeen more before this decade’s out. Some of them you’ll rewrite half a dozen times. Some of them will be bad, some of them will be good, some of them have potential but they’re not there yet.
You’ll self-publish three poetry collections. Have your poetry appear in a couple of small magazines. Write literally hundreds of thousands of words in blog posts (and then delete all of them). You and Charley (yes, you’re going to stay friends) will help co-write a boarding school mystery. You’ll write YA and adult and fantasy and contemporary and everything in between. Most of it’s going to be at least a little bit gay.
(Oh yeah, spoiler alert: you’re not straight. You’re not even a girl. You have a lot of identity crises coming, younger me, and none of them are going to be easy, and I’m closing off this decade still not having the answers to a lot of seemingly simple questions. Good luck with that.)
It’s going to feel like everything’s taking forever, and you’re going to be struggling to find direction or the courage to take the plunge and just send your work out into the world. Eventually, you’re going to enter something called Author Mentor Match, and you’ll get in. You’ll team up with a more experienced writer (if I tell you it’s Rory Power, author of Wilder Girls, it’ll mean nothing to you, but I promise you it’ll mean something a decade down the line), and she’ll give you the support you need to tear your book apart and rebuild it from the ground up. You’ll make friends, too, with the other mentees — a writing community you haven’t had since Protagonize shut down, and which you desperately needed.
Oh, yeah, right. Protagonize shut down. It’s okay, though. You had a good few years of it, made some lasting friends, caught that writing bug for life, and really, in the long run, it’s probably a good thing that all of your writing from 2009 and 2010 isn’t still floating around online. I know you’ll be annoyed at me for saying that, but I don’t mean it to put you down. If anything, it’s an encouragement. You’re going to get so much better at this.
I guess while we’re on the subject of Protagonize, we should talk about right now. New Year’s Eve 2009/10. You’re about to lie to a moderator who caught you making a sock puppet account to boost your own ratings because you’re way more insecure than you’ll ever admit to being, and you’re going to get banned from the site for a month. I don’t think you’ve had that conversation yet (I think it’ll happen tonight), but… it’s coming.
You’re an idiot, younger me. An idiot for making the fake account in the first place, and even more of one for lying to a moderator about it and then arguing with them when they (rightfully) made you face some consequences for it. I’m pleased to report that you’re going to grow out of that, at least; ten years down the line I’m not as honest a person as I’d like to be, but I’m working on it, and I never did anything like that again.
So. You’re going to start this decade banned from the site. Unable to access or continue any of your existing stories, you’re going to start something new. Write the first few chapters of it and then abandon it until, oh, around April, when you’ll rediscover it and keep going.
That book’s going to go through nine drafts and then you’re going to shelve it. You thought it was a standalone at first, then the first book in a trilogy. In a few years you’ll realise it’s actually a much later installment in a larger series. Then, eventually, you’ll realise that virtually nothing of that original book will survive, but for some version of a few of the characters.
But those first wisps of characters that you began to develop during that month of creative isolation are still going to live in your head in ten years time. Alex Kian Robson? He’s right here. I call the series Death and Fairies, which was a joke that stuck. Alex isn’t the main character any more (he got demoted), but he’s very much there. So is Jennie. You didn’t know what kind of story you were trying to tell yet, but you laid the first stones of it anyway.
So it’s not a waste of a month. It just feels like one. It’s your own fault, but cheer up — things can only improve from here.
And they will, in writing terms. I cannot understate how much you’re going to improve in ten years. And finally, right at the end of the decade, you’re going to keep your promises to yourself and you’re going to start querying — properly, this time. It’s a book you haven’t even thought about starting yet, though you’re only a couple of years away from creating the bare bones of its protagonist, Isabel. I think you’d like it. It’s sad and violent and there’s no kissing at all.
It would take too long to tell you everything that happened in the past decade. Some things I think you’re going to have to find out for yourself. You’re going to face… pretty much everything for the first time, I think. You haven’t really experienced much yet. You’re going to lose your grandparents, and that’s going to suck, and your brother’s going to move to Canada (you’ll miss him more than you’ll admit). You’re going to have some pretty dark moments and sometimes it’s going to feel like you’ll never drag yourself out of the hole that you’re in.
But there’ll be brighter days too. You’ll go to Ireland, just as you’ve been dreaming of doing for years already. Multiple times, in fact! You’ll meet Kate Thompson. Maggie Stiefvater, too. You’ll do a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, and get really, weirdly into medieval Irish literature. You’ll start learning Irish, properly this time. You’ll get a job as a trainee librarian and move to Cambridge. You’ll go to conferences, turn your dissertation into an academic article, and start thinking about doing a master’s. You’ll become a Quaker (you don’t even know what a Quaker is yet), after years of struggling with and losing your faith. You’ll love and be loved and there will be people who understand you, eventually.
Right now, you can’t see any of that coming. But I promise that it is.
And no, you won’t be published before you’re eighteen, or even before the end of the decade. And a lot of what you thought might happen won’t happen. In fact, the vast majority of what went down in the past ten years isn’t what you might be expecting. (Did I mention the fact that you’re queer? You’re… super queer.)
Will you have regrets? Absolutely. Will you mourn missed turnings, abandoned paths, lost opportunities? Of course. Will you find yourself wishing you could turn back time and go back to who you were at the start of the decade?
You’re not me yet. You’re not even you yet. And I’m not sure I’m me now, but I’m a lot closer to it than when I was standing where you are. These ten years haven’t always been kind, but we’ve grown up, younger me, and we’re almost ourselves now. I don’t know who we’ll be in ten years time, but at least nowadays I’m confident I want to stick around to find out.
So hang in there, younger me. You’ve got a long decade ahead of you, but the only way out is through.
With love and in friendship,
*Oh yeah, you’re going to change your name. It’s a short form of delorfinde, so really, it’s not so strange to you; you’ve yet to start using your legal name online. Anyway hi. This is me. You. Us. <3 Wait ’til you find out about pronouns…
In the aftermath of the election, it’s hard to know what to say.
Maybe it’s easier to say nothing, to let it pass unremarked as so many things do on this blog these days, but that feels dishonest. I have so much I want to say; it’s articulating it that’s the hard part. I’ve started writing this post three times already. Everything I say sounds either melodramatic or untrue, and I can’t get past that.
How about this:
I didn’t think I had been allowing myself to hope for a different result, until the exit poll was announced and I found myself sobbing.
Or what about:
Ever since I started hanging out with Quakers, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about ‘God’ as meaning ‘the innate goodness of people’, but sometimes it feels like that’s as hard to believe in as a childhood conception of God as a bearded man in the sky.
I’m scared about what this means for the future. I’m scared of the country I live in, where I cannot trust people to look out for their vulnerable neighbours, where xenophobia and racism are on the rise, where racist rhetoric wins hearts and votes. I’m scared of the inevitable fallout when Brexit happens — a fear I’ve been living for three years already and will continue to live with until the worst happens and there is nothing left to be afraid of because it has already happened.
I’m young. I’m trans. I’m disabled. This government doesn’t care about me. It has already killed disabled people with cuts to benefits and the NHS, and it will kill more of us. If the NHS goes under, I have friends who will die. You see what I mean about the melodrama? I try and state it like the bald fact that it is, try not to let the emotions creep in, but it still sounds dramatic: this is a matter of life and death.
But it is. I don’t know how else to say it.
I wouldn’t think of myself as a single issue voter — I care about so many things. I care about the environment, I care about peace, I care about equality, I care about creating a system that doesn’t work people into the ground just so that they can survive. I care about education and the arts and the idea that everyone should have the chance to thrive, not merely to keep breathing. There are dozens of things that matter to me.
If there were to be a single issue, though, it would be the NHS.
I’m lucky, so far, in that none of my lifelong health conditions are the variety that have to be continuously medicated or they become fatal. I rely on the NHS for those frequent blood tests, the B12 injections, the extra vaccinations to support my immunocompromised system. Without them I would suffer. Without low-cost access to medication I would struggle. But others? Others would die.
Others have already died, abandoned by a benefits system that will leave them with an unplugged fridge and no insulin, or declared fit to work while terminally ill.
And yes, I have complained about NHS waiting lists and I will probably complain again. I’m currently on three, the longest of which is approximately two years, the shortest of which was a minimum of three months and I’ve yet to hear from them. But I know that those waiting lists are the result of cuts and deficits and strain imposed by the quiet privatisation of different services. By the lack of proper governmental support for mental health services. By this country’s rampant and growing transphobia, and the lack of funding for healthcare to support trans people.
(The rise in vocal, vicious transphobia in this country is another fear I live with constantly, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I suspect it will get worse. I can’t do anything about that, either.)
I see my friends in the US crowdfunding to afford medication they need to live. I see people bankrupted by medical debt while dealing with the grief of losing family members. And I can’t fathom how anybody could look at that and think it was something to emulate, but I’m afraid that some of the politicians our country has just elected think exactly that.
I hope that my fear is unfounded. I hope that the people who say, “They’re not going to sell off the NHS,” are right, just as I hope their promises to fund it aren’t yet more lies spouted by spineless, heartless cowards who will say whatever they have to say to convince people.
I hope that I am wrong.
I can’t express how much I hope that.
I hope that Brexit doesn’t destroy this country. I hope that it doesn’t send food prices through the roof, make it impossible to obtain certain medications, or result in a huge deficit of medical professionals. I hope that it doesn’t destroy our relationship with Ireland. I hope that those who have made their home in Britain are allowed to stay, made welcome rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucracy.
I hope all of these things. That doesn’t mean I believe in them. Hope can be a ruinous thing. We cling to it until it shatters and the shards of it slice our hands to pieces. Hope isn’t enough; to thrive in the face of something like this takes work.
I wish I could promise to put that work in, to fight for all of us, to agitate for change, to be an activist and a pillar of the community and a support to those around me… but I’m so tired. Some days it takes all of my energy just to get out of bed. Fatigue is a full-time job, and that scares me, too: the knowledge that I don’t have the strength to stand up for myself and my friends. I admire those who have it in them to be an activist, but I know that I’m not one of them. Not at the moment. Not when I’m barely coping as it is.
My method instead is avoidance, and perhaps that’s cowardly, to pretend none of it is happening, but sometimes all you can do is distract yourself as a way of barricading your mind against the constant fear. Yesterday, I finally finished writing the gay werewolf novel I was working on for NaNoWriMo, because it was a distraction that I needed. I’m not sure what I will work on next, but I have a dozen small projects that I can lose myself in. Perhaps that’s the easy way out, to refuse to face up to reality until it forces itself on me, but I know that my powerlessness and anxiety will break me if I allow them to be my focus, so I have to look elsewhere.
I have to find peace where I can.
Yesterday, I spent half of my lunch hour in the college chapel, seeking silence, somewhere to hide from the world and the screaming headlines and the fear burning electric through the inside of my head. I found a kind of peace there that quieted my mind a little. Oh still small voice of calm. This world is so loud, especially at the moment. It seems harder and harder to seek that quietness, and part of me feels guilty for trying, when it feels like I should be out on the streets with a placard and a chant.
Peace and good acoustics be with you…
Hanging out in the Christ's College Chapel earlier to clear my head. This hymn is actually by a Quaker and the words are found in QF&P 20.03, but today mostly I was just looking for that still small voice of calm. pic.twitter.com/zRr8gPt8KP
But all of us can only do what we can, and for me, at the moment, it feels as though existing is all the resistance I can offer. Continuing to be me, refusing to apologise for all the things that I am: queer, nonbinary, pacifist, creative, exhausted, loving, helpless, disabled. Continuing to exist in a world that only offers boxes I don’t fit in. Allowing myself the shocking luxury of unapologetic rest.
I am afraid of what the next five years will bring. I’m afraid of my own helplessness. I’m afraid of my country and I’m afraid for my country and I’m afraid for myself and I’m afraid for everyone more vulnerable than me, who don’t have the privilege of safety nets.