Auto rescue services. Sure, we have them, but we don’t really need them. Because when you’ve just broken down on a mountain road, been blocked into your parking space or embedded your wheels in the beach – all of which have happened to me, thankfully not on the same day – someone always pops up to help you out.
Driving home on the highway one evening, the electrics in both my car and my phone gave up the ghost at the same time. In any other country, I would have locked the doors and sat tight till dawn. But this is Cyprus: the first passer by pulled over, offered the use of his mobile and stayed with me till my more mechanically-minded partner arrived, half an hour later. And this is hardly the first time I’ve been rescued from a driving dilemma: blocked into a parking space in old Nicosia, I was saved by a gang of jovial gentlemen who poured from the nearby cafenion and proceeded – with much good natured laughter – to bump the offending vehicle out of my way. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve been overly optimistic about the beach-going capabilities of my four wheel drive – and subsequently been freed by locals carrying a length of stout rope and a couple of planks purely – it would seem – for the purpose of rescuing silly girls from the sand! (click here for ‘All At Sea’)
The answer, of course, may be to be more realistic in my vehicular expectations. But do I really need to? On this island, there’s always someone who will help get the wheels back in motion.
Today I visited the past. In any other country, that might have meant going back a hundred, possibly even a thousand years. In visiting Ancient Idalion, I went back over five thousand.
Oh yes, while my ancestral countrymen were probably still wondering if they could eat stones, civilisation was flourishing in Cyprus. And nowhere more so than in the city kingdom of Idalion. For over two millennia, what is now Dali hosted a huge, peaceful civilisation, based on the copper trade. These people were smart – they had beautiful houses, glorious palaces, paved streets and stunning temples; they smelted copper, pressed olives, worked cloth and fired huge pithario on an industrial scale; there were accomplished tradesmen, blacksmiths, stonemasons and even doctors. And they were peaceful: even managing to withstand the might of the foreign armies – there’s a bronze tablet in the local museum (visit museum site here) that dates back to 480 BC with an inscription that awards land to “Dr Onasilios for services to the wounded in the unsuccessful siege by the Persians and Phoenicians of Kition, from the King and people of Idalion”. As part of the burgeoning of civilisation in the fertile crescent, they traded with the near East and the Aegean, Anatolia and Egypt.
In the ancient world, Cyprus was the idyllic island where East met West in peace. Isn’t that still the case? What do you think?
I once worked out that I have over a million words in print.
And that’s just the commissioned pieces – I haven’t even counted the blog, or my constant literary ramblings (filed in dubious–sounding folders such as ‘hmmm, ‘strange’ and ‘why’) or the innumerable stories I wrote as a child!
So. One million words. Views in the thousands. Followers by the hundred. And a successful career built on, basically, what comes out of my head and hits the page. And still, I feel a fraud.
I’m convinced there’s an authorial equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes just waiting to pounce. But in this case, the revelation won’t be sartorial, it will be literal. A lone voice will suddenly cry “But you CAN’T write! Hasn’t anyone noticed?” At which point my entire readership will wipe the figurative mist from their eyes, leap to their feet and cry, in unison, “By God, it’s TRUE! We’ve been bamboozled!”
(In the worst of my imaginings, I’m naked when this happens. But that I can explain – it’s just background anxiety, like dreams about taking exams without your trousers on. However, I digress…)
The point I’m trying to make is that all true writers I’ve ever met feel exactly the same: that we really don’t know what we’re doing. (Conversely, whenever I’ve come across someone who maintains they’re “simply brilliant” I’ve been massively underwhelmed. Horrified, even, by the standards of their work.) So, what’s the link? Why do talent and insecurity go hand in hand, skipping blithely into the sunset – and off the proverbial cliff of self-doubt?
Far greater minds than mine have probed the issue. I’ve seen analyses of this link by the dozen (http://bit.ly/1XSz1US andhttp://bit.ly/1s54csR), and Tennessee Williams summed it up beautifully when he said: “I don’t believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.” But my thoughts on the matter are, quite simply, this:
There’s no mathematical standard for measuring good copy. Logically, 2 + 2 = 4 (well, in this universe, anyway). But creatively, if there’s a numerical formula by which one can judge writing, I’ve yet to discover it.
To be any good, you have to be unsure. It prompts you to research, to study, to fine-tune and perfect. Show me someone who will agonise for half an hour over the placement of a comma, and I’ll show you someone with the makings of an excellent writer.
And lastly, writing requires imagination. A wonderful ability, that will take you to places undreamt of by say, actuaries and accountants. But it will also create mental worst-case scenarios (hence the Emperor’s New Clothes) far, far beyond the imaginings of those in the more pragmatic professions.
Incidentally, if anyone would like to criticise this piece, feel free. There’s nothing you can condemn that I haven’t already considered, beaten myself round the head with, and wept buckets over. In fact, right now, my insecurities are standing next to me, bellowing: “So now it’s one million five hundred! And you STILL don’t know what you’re doing…”
Are you a writer? Do you feel the same way? I’d love to know I’m not alone in this…
The other day, I lost my keys at the beach. If you’re used to a seaside seething with people both in and out of the surf, this may not seem like a big deal. But Cyprus has a lot of coastline to choose from (countries ranked by coastline length), and I was on a stretch of sand the length of several football fields – with not a soul in sight. Not one person to point out where I’d buried my keys under my towel before heading in for a dip. And where exactly I’d placed that towel before the wind blew it half way down the beach…
I’m forever doing things like this when I’m near the water – which, living on an island, gives me an excellent excuse for my inanities 90 per cent of the time. There was the time I tried to windsurf as far as I could, forgetting that I hadn’t yet learnt to turn around, and had to hitch a lift back from a friendly coastguard. The day I lost a contact lens after an especially vigorous wakeboard session and had to drive home with one eye closed like a flirtatious vamp. And then there’s the snorkelling incident when I happily played Count The Starfish for over an hour, before emerging from the waves beautifully tanned on the back and blindingly white on the front!
But, despite my frequent misadventures, I’m still always down at the beach, whenever I can get there (click here for the link to breaking down in Cyprus). It’s the getting back that’s usually the problem… if anyone finds a set of keys buried in the sand near Napa, let me know!
There’s a lot more to finding a topic than mere stumbling opportunity. You mustn’t imagine I dash down to the corner shop for a pint of milk and randomly stagger upon a fully-fledged story of the “I’m Amazon’s best-selling comic-book writer; would you like full-fat or semi-skimmed?” variety. There is a great deal of work involved.
Of course, being Chief Features Writer at a national newspaper (click here to see the Sunday Mail website) does allow me access to an unprecedented number of Press Releases. But of the 100-odd that clunk into my inbox each week (advertisements for upcoming events; PR pleas for media coverage; disgruntled citizens with a grudge against – it oft transpires – almost everything) barely a brace merit further research. So I get out there and network.
Well, to be fair, mostly I stay in and work on the net.
USE YOUR ONLINE NETWORK
I trawl Facebook (sponsored links provide interesting topics more often than you might imagine, especially if you’re covering local features); I shamelessly abuse my LinkedIn network (students writing theses are a great inspiration – they’re usually at the forefront of new ideas and knowledge); I Google upcoming happenings to see who’s planning a cutting-edge event. Spend enough time on the internet, and something of interest will pop up. Sometimes, it takes mere minutes. At others – I’m afraid – the process will involve hours of your time.
ABUSE YOUR REAL-LIFE SOURCES
Real-life sources are also a great inspiration. Over the years, I’ve built a select group of contacts who always seem to know what’s new and exciting long before anyone else. How they do it, I’m not sure, though I have noticed that they all share similar character traits. Thus my sources are generally extroverts who are constantly meeting new people, possess a
rampant curiosity and a good memory for detail, and an eye for what might interest the public. (Funnily enough, they’re mostly in the arts and education – a personality link worth pursuing, I suspect.)
MISUSE YOUR INTERESTS!
However, there are times when everything and everyone lets you down (including your Editor, who usually has a story or two in her back pocket ‘just in case’). Usually because it’s holiday season and everyone’s far too busy elsewhere. And that’s when I, personally, turn inward for inspiration…
If all else has failed, I allow myself the luxury of choosing a topic that relates – not to anyone else and their doings – but to me and mine. In fact, some of what I know are my most-engaging pieces have resulted from an utter lack of subject matter. Third Culture Kids (http://bit.ly/1LnzYv1), of whom I am a typical example, was written at the height of the summer hols, but received more views than the rest of the month’s stories put together. The Wires of Connection (http://bit.ly/1QswWKs), which focused on connecting remotely with one’s family when abroad, was a big hit over Christmas. And Switching Off (http://bit.ly/1OhWn29), during which I went screen-free for a day, really resonated with readers over the Easter period. Sometimes, it seems, it really is best to write what you know.
At the end of the day, if you’re looking for a titillating topic, you need to be on the job 24/7. Relying on Press Releases, random emails and chance meetings is never enough. Most of the time, you’re going to have to put in a lot of work: screen-time, phone calls and emails all. But, always, always ensure you have a couple of personal interests for potential use just in case. (I have notes on ‘The Fear of Flying’, ‘Long-Distance Love’ and ‘Medical Mishaps’ for when that topic pool is shallower than a drought-ridden puddle.) Because you can’t byline a blank page.
Are you a writer? I’d love to hear from you about how you find your topics!
From the age of four, when my family bought a holiday home in the glorious mountain village of Arsos, the people of Cyprus have never ceased to amaze me. Back then, it was still a nation finding its feet – and yet, even as strangers, we were welcomed with open arms.
My sister and I ran free with our newfound friends, playing in the breezy schoolyard on the crest of the hill, exploring the mysterious undergrowth in the forested valley and picnicking under the olive trees that dotted the hillside. We became part of the village, part of an extended family that would always feed us, water us and keep an eye on us. Never a day went by when we weren’t invited for a meal with neighbours, who quickly became firm friends. Every hour would bring a new offering left on our street-facing windowsill: succulent grapes in September, feather light flaounas at Easter, luscious halloumi from Paraskevi down the lane.
Nowadays, people abroad see Cyprus on the news and shake their heads in concern. But it’s not like that at all. Twenty years later, that warmth of community spirit still lives on in every heart, and I’m still secure in the knowledge that wherever I go and whatever I do, there’s always someone looking out for me. Even in the city I find handfuls of fresh lemons, jars of olives and freshly baked kolouri on my doorstep every day…
A (very) rough guide to becoming a Features Journalist
I was born a writer. In kindergarten, while my best friend painted the classroom gerbil, I – to the loosely-disguised chagrin of my long-suffering teacher – wrote utterly unpunctuated ten-page stories. But actually making a career from my love of words never occurred to me.
My entire family, you see, are in education. Teachers of Music, Drama or Sport. Professors of Chemistry, Latin or Literature. Lecturers in Law, Biology or – in the case of one rather eccentric but indubitably brilliant uncle – Nuclear Physics. So my career path was set from an early age: to school I would go in order to, ultimately, go back into schooling.
Which I did. For several enjoyable – if exhausting – years during which I attempted to teach English to Key Stage 3. And I loved it, lesson planning and all. But what I truly adored was teaching the kids to write, constantly interrupting otherwise mundane lessons on, say, phrasal verbs, because it was about to rain; an excellent excuse for a spot of fig lang: “clouds like armies on the march”, “hellish heavens”, the onomatopoeia of rain…
And, in teaching kids to write, I was educating myself. There’s nothing that helps you see what works (and what doesn’t) than marking countless essays for punctuation, word use, sentence length, tautology…
Writing – be it creative, persuasive, descriptive or narrative – was clearly my educational forte. I loved teaching it; I loved learning about it (bedtime reading was The Queen’s English, Eats, Shoots and Leaves or Troublesome Words); I enjoyed creating worksheets far more than delivering the information. In fact, so strong was my passion that even my partner at the time was chosen – in the main – because he shared my appetite for words.
Unfortunately, where the two of us differed was in our ability to work to a deadline. Because he, bless him, was a typical I-promise-I’ll-have-it-in-by ten, eleventh-hour, news journalist. Which meant those many all-nighters during which we should have been agonisingly passionate in bed were, in fact, spent passionately agonising over the several articles due at 9 am. Cue the (word-) loving girlfriend…
MAKE THE TEA. WORK FOR FREE
I started with cups of tea to sustain his literary labours, but ended by writing the damn things for him. To give him his due, whenever I’d contributed significantly (in terms of actual authorship, rather than random beverage provision) he’d request that I, too, be by-lined. And this went on for well over a year…
Oh no, don’t think it happened overnight! Even in my fortuitous case, there was a lot of kettle-boiling, writing for free and picking up the tricks of the trade before anything happened. It just didn’t take place in an office…
GIVE IT YOUR ALL
Then, one day, there was a phone call from the editor: “A bout of flu”, “several concurrent pregnancies”, “holiday season,”… The staff had been decimated. And someone – anyone – was needed to cover an important upcoming event. Could I? Would I? Might I have the time to…. And those all-important words: “You’ll be paid, of course…”
That first solo article involved two short interviews, a spot of internet research and totalled less than 1000 words. But I spent hours – days even – getting it right.
MAKE YOUR OWN OPPORTUNITIES
Fortunately, the paper liked it. Because now, a decade later, I’m their Chief Features Writer, with a thriving freelance sideline. I write for publications all over the world, and I’ll write about anything (A cleaning app? I can make that fun! Wakeboarding in winter? I’ll do it!).
My boyfriend – who went on to become Head Reporter for the very same publication – is no longer my partner in crime, though we remain the best of friends, and closest of wordsmiths. But I will always be grateful to him for giving me the confidence to forsake my educationally-fated genetic path and become what I was truly born to be.
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. In becoming a writer, you really do create your own chances: you learn, you practise, and you keep trying, no matter how long it takes you to get there. And if that means long nights, constant study, and working for free, so be it – eventually you’ll get noticed. At the end of the day, if you were born to write, then just do it. Write!
In entirely unrelated news, my best friend is now a leading make-up artist. Well done that gerbil!