Books that make me want to write

Books that have inspired me to write. How to write stories. How to be a writer. Ourstorytime.co.uk

I’m often asked how I became a writer.

I used to answer with my most self-deprecating voice. I tried to pretend like it was nothing, just some happy accident, like it wasn’t what I’d spent my whole life working towards. Like it hadn’t always been my dream.

Oh, you know, I’d say.

I try not to do that anymore. Now when someone asks me how I became a writer, I explain that I was a journalist for years but that at some point I started writing less about the news and more about myself.

But how did you write your book? they then ask.

And so I explain how an editor at a publishing company once noticed my work in the paper and how he asked if we could meet and, oh, if I could also bring along some book ideas with me.

I might then explain how I was seven weeks pregnant at the time, and that this made everything a little fuzzy because the signs of sickness were already beginning to lurch and I was otherwise preoccupied.

I’d explain, too, that the sickness was why my initial book ideas weren’t that great but that it didn’t matter because he offered me a deal right there and then, in a pub opposite Earls Court during the spring season of the London Book Fair (and here, I’d warn them: don’t sign a deal without an agent. I wish I had known this but I didn’t, not until my own agent signed me a few months later). And then I’d tell them that I don’t remember what happened next because I had to run to the bathroom, pushing past a strange man in a top hat on the stairs (a top hat; perhaps a book fair thing), where I was promptly sick - not because of the book, but because of the baby.

But really, those are just details.

The truth is, I’m a writer, because I read a lot of books and some books pull at my heart so hard that they make me want to write like that too even if I’m nowhere near as good or ready yet.

I split these books into two. There’s my inspirational books, the ones that made me want to write, and then my practical ones, the ones that help me to write. My inspirational books are the ones that tore me to bits with their beauty or their intrigue and weaved some sort of spell on me. These are the books I turn to, again and again. Some of these are the books of my childhood and my teenage years, which weave in with my memories and remind me of certain places, faces and times. These are the books that make me want to write as beautifully and simply as I can.

Then there are the more practical books, the ones that took me out of the ten-word intros of the newsroom and into more longer, thoughtful, crafted prose. These are the books that help me polish up my words instead of wasting time. These are the ones that I’ll turn to all the time when I need a good talking to about what on earth it is I’m trying to do and why I’m trying to do it.

You’ll find my two sets of books below. I’d love to know which books have made you want to write too.

The Books that Made Me Want To Write

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I was seven or eight when I first read Little Women, and I still have my childhood copy. This book made me want to be a writer because I, like so many other little girls, wanted to be Jo. Like Jo, I had wild and long and thick hair as a girl and I often wondered then what it would be like to hack it all off. But mostly, I wanted to be Jo because she was smart and she was a writer and that made me want to be a writer too. She gave me a glimpse of what it meant to be strong-willed. I’ll never forget imagining what it might have been like, to be Jo.

The Catcher In The Rye, by JD Salinger (but also everything JD Salinger wrote; see also: Franny and Zooey, For Esme With Love & Squalor and Raise High The Roof Beam)

I read The Catcher In The Rye when I was thirteen or fourteen and then I re-read it and re-read it countless times. I fell in love with Holden Caulfield and all his troubles and I remember thinking, as a teenager, that he sounded so real and I wondered how anyone could do that, how anyone could make a person on a page, who did not even exist and had no skin, feel so real. Later, I came to learn that The Catcher In The Rye was a lesson in the most amazing narrative, dialogue and character and then I read everything else that Salinger wrote. For Esme With Love & Squalor was the first short story I’d ever read and I remember pulling it apart then piecing it back together again and marvelling at the whole damn thing.

Salt And Saffron by Kamila Shamsie

After I lost my father, I began to search harder for novels in which I could see myself and find myself, my family, my history. I wanted to taste my father’s world and I wanted to somehow make sense of my own. And then I found Salt And Saffron, a magical woven tale of Pakistani family trees and stories and summers in London spent sorting fact from fiction to try and figure out who you are. I loved the protagonist, and more than that, I felt like her too. I felt like I understood her need to understand her past in order to make sense of her present. By this point, I was already writing short stories in my spare time outside of work, and I began to realise through this book that I could maybe even write about who I was, or at least about the worlds I inhabited.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri

This book made me want to write because it showed me how the simplest of writing is the most beautiful. It showed me, too, that I could write about my heritage and my south Asian culture and let it simply sit there, without it needing to be the biggest point. Through this book, I learnt the depth of writing quietly and the importance of being an observer. These short stories taught me to shift my focus, look in the background, consider the details, and make those the story instead. I always come back to Unaccustomed Earth whenever I am feeling lost in my writing or even just in my soul. A line from one of Lahiri stories inspired the title of my very own collection of short stories, In Spite Of Oceans, too.

The Books that Help Me How To Write

I have a small section of my bookshelf set aside for the books that talk about the nature and the art of writing. These are the sort of books that help unpick the essence of writing to its seams. My favourites change like the seasons, but out of that section, these are the two I’ve been returning to again and again lately:

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Part memoir, part writing-motivation, this book is warm and generous and full of everything you need to hear when you want someone to make you a cup of tea, sit down in front of you, hold your hands and and tell you what to do when you are faced with writer’s block. Allow me to explain the meaning of the title:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

So, bird by bird, I mutter to myself when I find myself avoiding my desk, rather wiping down the counters or mopping the floors or tidying the toys away again. Bird by bird, my husband says to me, when he takes over bedtime and ushers me into his office so I can have an evening uninterrupted to work on chapters. Bird by Bird. It works (almost) every time.

Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose

A well-thumbed favourite from years ago, I studied this book in depth before writing my first book. Even though I’d been a literature grad, I don’t think I fully understood the weight every single word might hold. I never fully understood the significance of every word being a choice. This book helped me re-read in a different way, in a slower way that asks questions and provokes as it ambles along.

An extra little thank you to Gemma, for suggesting I write this post.

A little note to say that this post includes affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost whatsoever to you.

Interested in crafting your writing skills? In June, I’ll be launching a brand new summer course. Sign up to my Writer’s Letter to find out first!

My Picky Eater

An essay on a little boy who doesn’t like to eat very much. Picky eaters. Fussy eaters. Small people. OurStoryTime.co.uk

I have a small three-year-old shaped person in my life who loves carrots. This is great, for he does not like many things when it comes to food. So carrots are what we do.

I slice them up in fingers, knowing that if his main meal is simply pushed about his plate as it so often is, the carrots at least will find a way into his mouth. Sometimes I roast them, drizzled with a drop of honey. He declares these delicious. Let’s build on this, I think to myself, and so we bake muffins together, healthy ones with Greek yoghurt and carrot and the juice of a big, fat orange and then we bake yet more. He helps me peel the carrots, my breath half-held for fear of a slip, and then I hold the grater still for him so he can shred his carrot, his little voice offering a running commentary as we go.

Carrots, carrots, carrots, he sings.

He sits in front of the oven, waiting for the batch of muffins to be done. He plays with his baby brother’s toy kitchen, making me a pie from a wooden aubergine and half a wooden fish. I pretend to eat it.

Yum! I say. I will eat anything you make for me!

I tell him this, hoping my little promise might slip into his own tiny subconscious.

The muffins are done; he jumps for glee, his fingers twitching like a live wire (a habit of his when he is having fun). I make tea while he blows all over them to cool them quickly. We sit down, a muffin on a plate for each of us, and just as I’m taking a poignant polaroid in my mind of how lovely this moment has been, just me and him, he tucks in.

But Mama.

(I should have known)

But.

(Here it comes)

But Mama, it’s got carrots in it!

(Accompanied with an adorable but still testing look of sheer disgust).

Well, yes, I say. Remember, you grated the carrots for me? You mixed them in?

But Mama, I don’t like carrots!

And so I am flummoxed, once again.

Perhaps I pushed the carrots too much. Yes, I probably pushed the carrots too much. But what else do you do, when some days your child won’t even look at his plate? With just one tricky eater out of three and an overall healthy approach, I tell myself I’m not doing too badly. But then I also know it’s just him, this little guy, figuring things out, learning to say no. I know he’ll get there eventually. He will, won’t he?

Still, though. I’d like him to eat.

All three of my boys fell in love with food from the moment they tried apple puree and mashed bananas and avocados as gummy babies weaning. My eldest and my youngest still eat pretty much everything. My middle one, this little one, used to until about a year ago. I never followed any particular rules when it came to weaning, choosing instead to introduce them in a common sense, simple way to the food we liked to eat as grown-ups too. He used to love avocados and hummus and tomatoes and cucumbers and olives; lunch was almost always meze. Tofu and rice was his favourite meal. Slithers of halloumi, a treat. Now, he won’t touch any of it. He tells me breakfast is his favourite meal, and I concede, this he will eat: boiled eggs or big bowls of cinnamon porridge or yoghurt with granola or pancakes on Sundays. But breakfast is not dinner (unless, of course, it could be).

The title of this blog post is a little misleading not least because I don’t intend to label him as a picky or fussy eater and forever think of him like this. Still, it’s a title. I am reminding myself if he ate well once, he will eat well again. It is hard to not feel glum, but he is happy with the choices he makes at mealtimes and I suppose that is what counts. Meanwhile, I am investigating nicer ways to deal with this all, ways that don’t include bribes of pudding or raising my voice or tears at the table. Here’s what has been helping me even when it feels like all we’re taking is the tiniest of baby steps:

  • Claire at Today We Cooked inspires me daily with her Stories of her kids helping her cook and of course, the most amazing vegetarian repertoire of dinners. She sort of throws everything together, and cooks the way I’d love to cook. Here’s hoping.

  • Claire also introduced me to Ciara’s account and cookbook, My Fussy Eater, which has given me hope to find ways to expand my own fussy eater’s tastebuds. Her pizza rolls are a hit with all three kids, made with her hidden vegetable sauce, which I had my own variation of before. Her healthier take on baked goods (almost always using a modest amount of honey over sugar) has also helped endlessly with snack boxes for school - her wholemeal oaty digestive biscuits and raspberry chia crumble slices have been a particular hit with the whole family.

  • I really appreciate nutritionist Laura Thomas’s perspective on encouraging intuitive eating for kids from a small age. You can listen to her talking about intuitive eating for kids in her podcast. I don’t (yet) have a success story to share, but the mood of mealtimes has vastly improved when I remind myself it’s not my place to force him into eating what he doesn’t want to. It’s hard not to feel defeated, but on we go.

I’d love to hear your experiences of this; let me know over on my Instagram or in the messages below. How do you deal with little people that don’t like to eat?

Ten things I have learnt about blogging so far

Blogging tips: what I’ve learnt from blogging in my journey after more than a decade of blogging. Blogging advice. Blogging for beginners. On my blog ourstorytime.co.uk desk space boho desk space white eames chairs

The title of this post is utterly ridiculous for I have only been blogging here on Our Story Time for less than a year; one might argue I don’t possess the gravitas to proffer any sort of wisdom on it. I had a blog, a long time ago, that lasted almost a decade until it was hacked (which led in part to the creation of this website) but that too was an internet age ago. I am not here to tell what I have learnt in numbers and figures. I have no useful advice on how to turn your blog into money or how to come up tops in Google search or how to bump your readership up from zero to gazillions. I have no idea about any of that, because even though I run my writing course off this site, I don’t blog just to persuade you to want to pay me. But I do have some other little snippets of, if not advice, then simple considerations that I’ve found noteworthy for myself. And in case they are in turn noteworthy for you, here they are.

1 Write for you, not for others

Those who talk of business and side-hustle and algorithms tell us to write for our audience. I can see the value in that, I truly do. But it just doesn’t work for me. I am a writer; I write what I want to write first and the rest is just a cherry on top. I don’t like to think of my blog as content, a word which sort of makes me shudder. I write best when I write as me, for me. It helps to trust yourself first; to write what you want to, what you need to, before worrying about what other people may think about what you write or the way in which you write it. After all, the beauty of writing is you choose what you say and how you say it. I guess what I’m saying is - write for yourself and don’t self-edit because of what you imagine someone else’s expectations to be.

2 Write regularly

I post once a week, because it’s all I can realistically do. But I do it. Boy, I make sure I do. I turn up every Wednesday with a long read in hand, ready to turn it in (and if I ever don’t, feel free to @ the hell out of me). So make a schedule and stick to it. Don’t do it because you’re thinking of your audience or your stats on Google. Do it because writing regularly makes you a better writer. If you can post every day, then post every day. But if you can only post once a month, then post once a month - just make it the best possible version of whatever it is you write. Commit to it. Owe it to the words in your head. Owe it to yourself.

3 WRITE LIKE YOU

Write the way you speak; it’s the simplest way to start. Never mind what you assume a blog is supposed to sound like. All that matters is your voice; the one that lilts and sways, whispers and lingers.

4 pay attention

I implore: check grammar! Remind yourself when it is it’s instead of its and there instead of their or they’re. These silly little things may be a slip of the finger, but they sure do sour if left like spilt milk.

5 Don’t sweat the SEO

I used to sweat the SEO until I realised the SEO (in fact, I’m not even sure it requires the article “the” but it rolls off the tongue in this sentence, so…) was not overly concerned or compatible with my preferred writing style. I’m not entirely stupid about it - I took a jargon-free e-course on it and I will at least try to come up with an SEO-friendly blog title if I can - but I don’t go crazy thinking about it.

This might indeed be entirely stupid of me, but right now my schedule is such that I don’t have time to look up keywords and save them in spreadsheets and then see if I can work them in. It takes the joy out of this process for me. Smart people will disagree and no doubt scoff, for SEO is not meant to be joyous.

I take a simpler approach: I blog on Squarespace and in my very simple understanding of this, Squarespace has some handy built-in SEO features which I pay for as part of the privilege of being here and as such, I’m happy to let that do its thing so I may carry on with doing mine.

6 pirouette if you must

Brand and business people talk about the importance of leaving room to pivot, but I prefer to describe it as a pirouette. It is no secret (at least not any more) that Our Story Time started as an online store with a blog comprised of gift guides that, honestly, made me cringe to compile. That was not my heart. This is.

So, I took a leap, pointed my toes and pirouetted (although for me it was more of a case of going full circle, back to my writing roots).

If at any point your blog starts to make you itch uncomfortably, then you should consider a pirouette too. Learn from what does not work out, and move on. I am not saying that you should delete your blog in its entirety and start over. I’m simply saying: pirouette. Take a whirl to where you truly want to be. It’s dramatic but exciting and mostly often all works out beautifully too.

7 What’s in a name

I have friends who tell me they want to blog but they never do because they can’t think of what to call it. This, my friends, is the finest form of procrastination. It does not matter what you name your blog. Smarter people might tell you it does, but I honestly think naming your blog ought to be secondary to the process of blogging, of writing, itself.

I came up with mine because I’d literally just read a bedtime story to my kids. All I knew was that I wanted something that conveyed a measure of where my life is, and Our Story Time is a nod to that, to this time in my life when I am still very much reading stories to little people, but it is also a nod to all the magic in those moments too.

It helped that I could weave meaning into the name for my blog, but I did not brainstorm it for months. I did not allow the naming of my blog block me from starting the thing in the first place. So act fast to pick a name. Take inspiration from a favourite song, a poem, a lyric you used to doodle in your binder at school. Or use your pet’s name or your kid’s name (or maybe no, don’t do that) or even just your very own beautiful name which leaves plenty of space for whirling pirouettes as and when you might need them.

8 let your BLOG be EASY ON THE EYE

I did not design my blog, Meg did, but I’m so glad I took the leap and asked her to. I love design in all its guises, from interiors to typography, and it matters to me that my blog, well, looks pretty. I am sorry to say that I am one of those people that is attracted to books by covers (not all the time, but sometimes) and it’s the same for me with blogs. An aesthetically designed blog is a delight to behold; it’s a reflection of the person behind the screen. You don’t even have to hire someone - I did because I’m not very good at the fiddly stuff and I wanted something in very particular colours - but it’s sort of fun playing around with templates too. Just don’t let the entire process distract you from the business of writing.

9 everything is not copy

I use my blog to write about my everyday; it helps me remember, reflect and also make stories out of small moments of my life. It is introspective but that is not to say that it is always in someways heavy or woefully serious. When I am stuck for a subject to write upon, it is tempting to go deeper if only to have something to say. But I always stop myself.

My journalism years have taught me that on the contrary, everything is not copy. I have written an awful lot about myself in the past for publication and while I do not regret any of that, I have also interviewed a lot of people for pieces who have passed me their soul on a plate as though it were a biscuit. I know I do not want to do that. It works for some people and helps them too but it is not something I am so comfortable with. So I remind myself that I write for me and in doing so, I am perfectly entitled to hold pieces of myself back - the pieces that are especially private, the pieces I would only give to those I love the most. Know that you don’t have to reveal everything about yourself, even if it feels like everyone else is. Privacy is scared and not everything must be shared, certainly not for want of anything else to write about.

10 Let your blog be a reflection of you

Finally, ignore everything I’ve said. This advice is not gold dust fallen from the stars, merely my observations en route from one point in time to another. Make your blog whatever it is you want it to be about. Claim your space to explore all the things you love or even don’t love, to work through the thoughts in your head. Let your blog reflect you better than it does anyone else’s tricks to success.

Foreign Parts: A Short Story

old bollywood posters on the wall of a living room

I admit it’s been some years since I last wrote fiction. Lately, this blog and other writing projects have required me to write in first-person, still in a creative, considered way, but not always entirely made up. Lately, while sorting through my portfolio, I discovered this short story I wrote some time back. I wrote it about four years ago and it went on to be selected for publication in Mslexia and won two writing awards too. I rarely read my stories back, once they are done, they are sort of done, so it was an indulgence for me to read this and remember putting this together. I thought you might like to see it, too.

Foreign parts

Spots of damp perspiration pop through Mark’s shirt surfacing onto his skin as he swallows the smoggy night’s heat, clutching the paper bag Amina has asked him to hold tightly to his chest in order to give his clammy hands something to do. 

He stands behind her, patient yet awkward, while Amina argues with the shop seller. The shop seller, plump and short, is showing her several thin shawls spun of wool as fine as silk which fall weightlessly like the paper wings of dead moths as he shakes them out, but Amina is argumentative in her mother tongue. Mark does not know what she is saying but he hears a sarcasm in her laugh that he has not heard before, a ring of clipped spite that chimes her class, her confidence and her self-assured status before this man, who merely sells shawls. Amina is not like this in London, he silently observes.

Mark is not like this either. In Lahore, he lacks purpose. There is little for him to do so he stands behind Amina, holding her shopping or one of the numerous handbags she has suddenly acquired, feeling passive and uncomprehending and of no real use. 

Lahore is not like their week in Rome, when Mark read to Amina aloud from their guidebook every morning over cappuccinos and cornetti, affecting an Italian accent to make her laugh, her lips flicking flakes of sweet pastry everywhere. 

It is not like their weekend in Paris, when Amina reached out for Mark’s hand and he led her over the Pont de Sully, deftly shunning the Left Bank for the Right, winding her this way and that through quiet, unpopulated streets in the expertise he’d so proudly gleaned in his gap year so many years ago. It is not like the time they walked through the Lake District one damp autumn, their route studiously plotted by Mark the night before while Amina soaked in a pedestal tub in their luxury B&B.  Lahore is not like that at all, he thinks.

He has showed her many places and many cities, holding them open and unfolded for her in the palm of his hand like a pop-up greeting card for her to stroll about in next to him, both of them side by side. But Mark does not know Lahore. He cannot place himself in it like a cardboard cut out. He can show her nothing here and he waits for her instead, to lead him and talk for him in an unknown tongue he cannot decipher. 

Only she does not. She is at ease here, in the city where she was born and brought up. She does not look to Mark for directions and nor does her hand slip into his the way it usually always does in London or wherever they have been, where they loop arms or her fingers search for his inside his pocket as if inside their own little magnetic field. It is not because they are careful with their affection in this different city, this different place; on the contrary there are couples, hand in hand, everywhere. But it is because Amina is different here. Sometimes Mark thinks she has simply forgotten he is there.

“Chalo.” Amina says abruptly, her hair a straight dark sheet swinging at her shoulders. “Let’s go,” she orders, stepping straight-backed and empty-handed towards the door. Mark follows.

It is dark outside, but her sunglasses still push back her hair. The shop seller is scooping up his fine, feathery shawls one by one. Now he must fold them all again. He shakes his head with a sorry smile and a chubby shrug to Mark as if to say, “Women!” Mark nods and presses his lips inwards together by way of a wordless reply, following Amina out the door, the paper bag holding the beaded flat shoes she bargained half an hour for, even though the original price was one she could more than easily afford, still clutched to his chest. 

Outside, the humidity rises all around him bursting in his face like an over-filled balloon and it hits him once more, a sudden, tight ache binding his entire body. He is relieved when Amina tells her driver to take them home. In the backseat of the car, she curls her legs underneath her and rests her head on Mark’s shoulder but it is too hot for him still and her knees press into his uncomfortably. He shifts. She looks across at him and sits upright instead.

In Lahore, Mark reads gestures, not guidebooks. He reads privilege in the nonchalance of Amina’s family’s casual stance as they lounge on their sofas every afternoon wearing thin, cool linens when the tea trolley, wheeled out by the kitchen boy, comes out like clockwork. He reads expectations in Amina’s father, as he invites Mark into his study for a sip of bootlegged wine to chat about how much a deposit for a house in London might cost. He reads stiffness in the driver and the maids who never quite meet his gaze. He has nothing to do, and he reads the unspoken words around him and wonders why he is here at all.

Most of all, he reads Amina. She is a new edition in Lahore, a volume untouched. She smells new. She is shinier and more polished here in her family house, with its immaculate lawns behind high gates, than she is in in their small, rented two-bedroom flat in west London. There, they casually brunch on weekends eating toast without plates in crumpled nightclothes covered in crumbs. Here, Mark observes she is always pristine, her face poised and made up, while she waits impatiently for the maid to fill her china cup with weak English breakfast tea. 

They spend everyday together, but she is further away from him here than she has ever been. There is a self-importance that Amina carries, along with the designer handbags which she has suddenly rediscovered in the walk-in closet of her teenage bedroom, that Mark has not seen in her before and it bristles against him uncomfortably. 

It was Amina’s idea to come to Lahore. There were people she said she wanted Mark to meet, relatives and friends, and places she wanted him to see before their wedding. But when they met her old college friends at the Gymkhana members’ club for tea, she left him aside, launching into high-speed conversation in a voice he had never heard her use before. It was only after he jostled her elbow and gave an awkward laugh that she took him by the arm like a child and brought him forward to introduce him, but even then he felt ignored. At numerous family dinners hosted by her rich relatives in honour of their engagement, where he has worn stiff, starched kurtas that itch at his neck, he has stood shifting on his feet, unsure of who to speak to while Amina laughs loudly over some comment some guest makes instead. 

Mark wanted to see the Pakistan of the photospreads in his National Geographic magazines but he has seen it only from the backseat through the car window as the driver takes them from markets to shopping malls and back home again. 

He has seen street children in torn clothes peer in, leaving marks on the window where their hot breath and their fingers have been. He has seen old withered men polishing shoes at roundabouts, faded Afghani turbans wrapped around their heads. He has seen tailors hanging dyed silks out to dry in oranges and pinks and reds to make clothes for new brides. He has seen glimpses of all of these people and all of these things from his place on the back seat but when he poised his camera ready to capture them, Amina laughed at him and sneered and said: “Honestly Mark. What is there to see? They are so dirty. I would not want pictures of them.”

In Lahore, Amina is changed. In London, they stay up late watching Newsnight and Question Time and listening in earnest to debates about social change. He had thought these things mattered to Amina as they did to him, for at home they share the Sunday papers and listen to Radio 4.

But now he has seen the house where she grew up, grand and gated with its marble floors and mod cons, and he has watched, mildly appalled, when she scolds the maid for not ironing the crinkles out of her clothes or for making her tea too weak, and he feels as if he does not know her at all. He wonders whether she is really happy in their tiny rented flat back in London. He wonders which Amina he will marry. This one, or the one he left behind. 

Mark and Amina have planned a small wedding in London for early next spring. Mark was proudly prepared to pay for it all, budgeting carefully and creatively. Amina talks about the wedding most afternoons with her mother and her mother’s friends and her old friends from school, but she never mentions to them the things she had discussed with Mark before. Instead, she talks about venues, fancy hotels and exclusive social clubs that he has never heard of at all. He overhears Amina suddenly considering expensively draped marquees, illuminated and airy, laid out across immense grounds and sees her flick through glossy magazines pointing at pouting models wearing designer Pakistani gowns. 

This is entirely new to him. Amina is entirely new to him, spoilt and demanding like a child. “Maybe,” she says, mulling over a bridal spread in a magazine on their last night in Lahore while Mark repacks their suitcase, “Maybe we should marry here, Mark, in Lahore, instead.”

It is not what they agreed. Mark says nothing for a moment and hesitates before saying he had thought she had wanted to marry back home in London, and what about their plans for that? “Your home, or mine?” swipes Amina sarcastically, angrily rising to her feet. Mark is not prepared for this. He is not prepared for a fight, for it happens so rarely normally. They have always agreed on everything before.

Amina is in tears now. She is shouting at him, about not understanding her and not making an effort with her family and her friends. She is shouting at him about how now he must know how it feels to be her when they are in England, left on the outside looking in. She is shouting at him about how ridiculous he has been, waiting for people to talk to him, when he should have spoken to them first. She tells him, spitefully, that people have laughed at him in Urdu; her poor, aimless English fiance lost in Lahore. She tells him he has embarrassed her, just sitting there, saying nothing to no one at all. She tells him to look around and to notice all of the things that she has here, all of the things she has given up to stay in London with him instead.

 Mark has never heard her say anything like this before. It had never occurred to him that she might feel as self-conscious in London as he has been here in Lahore, and he wonders whether it could possibly be true. He wonders whether to say something, about how she has been changed here, how he has found her hurtful and haughty and cold, only he does not know how. He is weary of the heat and of the humidity and of the effort being here requires, even though, really, with all the maids and the drivers there is no effort required at all, and he is ready, so ready, to go back home. 

So he sits on the bed, with their unpacked suitcase at his feet, and he lets Amina shout and he lets her cry for he knows that tomorrow they will finally leave. It has been a long fortnight, he consoles himself silently in his head, and later, when they finally fall asleep he tells himself it is only these foreign parts which has disjointed them, and nothing else. He tells himself Amina did not mean what she said. He tells himself that she was just tired, and he thinks of how when they land in London, she will reach out for his hand once again. 

On the flight, which they sit through mostly in silence, Mark flicks through the few photographs he took. No, he thinks. Lahore was not like their week in Rome or their weekend in Paris, and he deletes the photos, one by one.

Family stories: the stories my mother has told me, the stories I wish I had kept

Listening to my mother talk about her childhood, I am reminded of how much I do not know of my past. Explore my essay on listening to stories from my mother, on my blog, ourstorytime.co.uk    storytelling family history family history research writing memoirs personal narratives

(A photo of my parents. It was taken sometime in the late seventies, before I was born.)

The week before Christmas, I sat in front of the fire in my mother’s house, the house where I grew up, willing my feet, my bones, to warm up just a little. It was late. It was cold (for the house had been empty for a while and it felt like there were icicles suspended in the air). It was quiet, too, apart from the hum of the refrigerator and the occasional rattle from the pipes as the heating lazily woke up, taking its sweet time to drip into the radiators. The children were asleep, worn out by the novelty of their grandmother’s playroom and their routine trip up the ladder and into her loft (something of a ritual whenever we go). R was working, catching up on some hours he had missed while we travelled the two and a half hours north out of town to arrive.

And so I found myself alone, sat by the fire, cold thumbs flicking through some old paperback I’d found in my teenage room, when my mother came in to join me. It was her first night sleeping in her own bed again after some long and sad weeks away seeing her siblings in Pakistan (she buried one of her brothers while she was there). I made her hot tea and as she sat by me, tired and worn, I thought of all the sadness she must have seen. Her mother, a grandmother I never knew, died when my mother was fourteen. Some of her siblings, both older and younger, have passed away. When her father died, I think I was about seven or eight, she did not go back to Pakistan for his funeral. She watched her husband, my sweet father, fade away piece by piece in an illness so cruel it still cracks my heart to say the word stroke. Though I have known some loss, I don’t quite know what any of this, any of this cumulative loss my mother has been through - losing a mother, a father, brothers, a husband - might feel like.

My mother’s story is not really for me to tell. But that night by the fire, she told me about a letter that her last, remaining brother showed her while she was away. It was a letter my grandfather had written to my grandmother, only many decades after her death. He wrote it while staying with my uncle, his son, the noise of his grandchildren running around the house no doubt in his ears. He wrote to his dead wife and told her, in his letter, that all their children were grown and married and that she would be so proud. He told her how much he missed her. How much he wished she could have shared in their life. Apparently, when he wrote it, my uncle went to call my grandfather in for food.  “What are you up to?” he asked. “This,” my grandfather replied. “This is what I’ve been up to.” And with that, he handed the letter to my uncle and brushed past him (or so I imagine) and they never spoke of it again (at least not that my mother knows). My mother only just discovered the letter existed.

That night, sitting by the fire, on a cold December night, my mother talked and talked about her girlhood. Things I didn’t know, or perhaps I did know but had not paid attention to before, like how her father built a house and named it Taaj, for my grandmother, or laughing, how my grandmother demurely never spoke my grandfather’s name - Ameen - and so never even said it in her prayers, sweetly glossing over it instead.

I sat and listened to these stories and it occurred to me, then, by the fire in the house where I grew up, that these stories from my mother might not be mine to tell, but they are mine to know, and they are my children’s to know, and for them, I should probably make the effort to know a little more.

Because time passes.

Stories fall along, little bits scrunched up in someone’s pocket, crumbs tumbling here and there each time they are told.

All that remains is the present, and I suppose, all we can do is snatch a little bit of the past before it pops away and learn to keep it safe somehow. I’m not quite sure how but I imagine writing it down is one way to start.

I left it too late to sit down with my father; we didn’t get to gather our moss. He stopped talking about eighteen months before he died, his voice lost and knotted and dried up someplace deep inside him. I wonder what he would tell me, if I could sit with him by the fire in my childhood home, his home. I wonder what we might talk about and even though I’ve not heard his voice for so long, I still remember it. I think, though this will sound loopy, I think if I thought hard enough and sat long enough, that I could probably hear him right now if I tried.

We’d have a lot of catching up to do. I’d tell him about Obama - he’d have loved Obama - and then I’d tell him how the Tories have made a right hash of things. I’d show him a picture on my phone: this is my husband, these are my kids. This one looks like you. And then maybe we wouldn’t say anything because there’d be too much to say, because I wouldn’t be able to say it, because we’d both know he’d have to go again. Maybe I’d just hold his hand, put my head on his shoulder, whisper in his ears bits of all the things I’d have wanted him to know but didn’t have time to tell him because time is cruel like that.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m going to try to collect the crumbs I can find. I’ll try not to sweep them aside but follow the trail. I’ll gather them up on the tips of my fingers and maybe when I have millions and zillions of them, I might shape them into something I might hold, something I might pass around like a parcel in a childhood game and hold it out for us all to share.

Footnotes

How to write a memoir

One notecard at a time

Recording Dad

Another thing my mother told me

SIGN UP TO MY LETTERS


Every month, I write two letters to those of you who are my regular readers. My first monthly letter is for those of you who like my blog and wouldn’t mind an extra little top-up during the month. I call my letter Afterthoughts. Consider it a secret note of scribblings in which I share what I’m reading, what I’m writing, what I’m thinking about and sometimes how I’m feeling; it’s like you and me talking lickety-split in my favourite cafe over a hot tea and a crumbly cookie. It’s like a long read, only between you and me.

The second letter is my Writer’s Letter - it’s for those of you who don’t just like my blog but are curious about how I write it too. It lifts the curtain on my personal craft of writing, with my tips and advice on pursuing writing in a creative way and little secrets on turning ordinary prose into something sparkling. I also share the ups and downs of my writing journey and I’ll of course keep you particularly up to speed with any news on my writing packages, including my online writing course, The Quiet Words, and my writing mentorship, Writing Friends.

You are always more than welcome to sign on up to both letters; I love writing them, and they are both different.

Care to step closer? Then come right this way. I feel lucky to be in your inbox!

The moments that make me feel like a mother

An essay on motherhood, being a mother, on my blog ourstorytime.co.uk  motherhood, parenting, family life

Last month, I was interviewed by Abi at The Family Collective on my experience of motherhood. One of the questions she asked me was: Which are the moments that make you feel like a mother? I thought it a rather lovely thing to ask. You can read my interview here. But this question, I kept thinking about. So I wrote a little more about it; ahead of Valentine’s Day, consider it a love letter of sorts.

There are days I forget how old I am. There are days I feel still younger than I think I am. There are days I refer in passing to my career, and then it hits me it was not yesterday. Boy, it’s bewildering: time. The way it does this, the way it passes then stands still then swoops so fast like a fairy-tale billow of wind, like a full-skirt twirling, all gathers and falls and crushed silk so soft, you can barely catch a breath: this is sort of the way I feel about motherhood.

Somedays, we can be going about our day as we do - small backpacks on small shoulders, one, two, three little boys, spilling across a pavement like three toy trains headed in wildly different directions - when I might accidentally catch sight of our collective reflection in a shop window and it hits me that I am a mother of three. It disarms me, leaves me a little dizzy, for the notion is wild. Wait, what? Three kids? the twenty-something me says to my thirty-something self in my head. Then I snap out of it in a beat, for this is a pavement in London after all. Hold hands! I yell. Busy road!

Or else, we’re in the grocery store picking up a motley mix of both things we need for dinner and also absolutely do not need, the things that small hands have delightedly thrown in the basket too without any rational thought - sometimes, it’s not until the checkout that I realise we have acquired small bags of popcorn or biscuits or pastries that I must pay for too - and here, again I am reminded of it. I am reminded of the small hungry mouths that look to me to feed them, and their hot little fingers that wiggle their way into the cookie jar or into my 80% dark chocolate stash, hatching plans, giggling and licking their lips. Later, I might discover little smudges of chocolate on the door handles or a trail of cookie crumbs up the kitchen steps and when I discover these clues, long after they have gone to bed, it hits me again; that mother of three thing. They are real. I did not just make them up. They did this, they think, they do. Did I make them? Did we? These are the sort of thoughts I sometimes think.

See also: those feverish nights when one or the other cries in their sleep. When they need me and so I sacrifice my sleep and slip into their bed to stroke their hair and ssh them gently and then they settle, eventually. Then too, these thoughts come to me as I lie next to them in the dark. They are real. They need me. I will keep you and you and you safe. An aside: I always feel like a mother because I could always do with more sleep, too.

Somedays, it’s when all five of us are hanging out in our favourite cafe - the three of them munching egg and soldiers or cheese toasties and the two of us, looping little fingers together between his black Americano and my tea. And it’s on those days, between those moments of watching for spills and wiping sticky fingers, that we share a glance that lingers, and we both think, a little bewildered: How? how did we go from just the two of us to all of this? Did we really do this? It’s the same look we swap after we’ve successfully strapped them into their car seats at the close of some ambitious day out. It’s the look that celebrates our daily triumphs and says, we’ve got this. Home, now.

The moments I feel like a mother are those everyday moments and though they are but simple they are staggeringly huge too. They take up all the space in my heart, space I never knew was even there. “Space is infinite! Space never ends!” my five-year-old tells me, out of the blue. I tell him to stop jumping on the sofa.

(Yes, my boy. It never ends. This is infinite, what I feel for you and you and you. And you, who got there first. You, who will catch me when I fall. We’ve got this.)

Then there is this, too.

I feel like a mother come bedtime, when our clumsy dance from dining table to bathroom is complete, when all the tribulations of tooth-brushing and hair-washing and the who-did-what and the bags-packed-for-tomorrow is done. Somehow, all of that doesn't matter when we're all piled into bed and I begin to read a story or two.

So this is us: one with his head on my shoulder, idly twirling my hair, another tucked under my arm sucking his thumb, the other (the smallest one) rolling around somewhere in the middle. Come bedtime, I forget that my patience might have once been tested at all. I feel the comfort of our routine and a certain anticipation for lights out, yes, but mostly, I feel I know what my children need from me. Warmth, the reassurance of the rhythm of words spoken aloud, the steadiness of breath, the collective beat of our hearts. This is our story time. This is when I feel they need me close, not for noses that need wiping, not for any sense of urgency, but simply so that we may remember that all of this is real.

Infinite. May it never end.

These are the moments I feel I'll always remember even when they're long grown into the adults I can’t yet imagine.  I am many things and sometimes I actively seek to be other things, not just a mother. But I am a mother. I am and I am and I am. I am three times over; it is folded into me now. It is both who I am and what I am and it is worth surrendering into.

It humbles me; they do.

Reflections on inclusivity

an open door in a brick wall leading to a courtyard of fairy lights

It has been over three months since I wrote this: Why Simple Living And Minimalist Lifestyles Need To Be More Inclusive. In between the poetic prose you might stumble upon on my blog, I also wrote something important that made people think. So much has happened since, mostly around Instagram, that I wanted to take a moment to consider what it all means.

It took a lot for me to put that piece out there. After it went live, I picked up my phone and saw all my notifications roll in. It felt like my hand was stuck to a block of ice, skinning off the tips of my fingers and stinging my palm. I had no idea how people would react. As a measure of this nervousness: I used to come on Stories every single day talking quite happily about this, that or the other. I haven’t spoken on Stories since the day after I posted my original inclusivity piece three months ago now.

But that doesn’t matter. That piece was not just about me. It was about speaking up for people like me, from different backgrounds, heritage and colour, who sometimes find it hard to nudge a foot in doors which seem to open easily for others. It happens in traditional media all the time. It also happens in social media; we know that, now, more than ever.

***

There’s a belief that was instilled in me as a child, which is that true goodness is the kind of goodness that doesn’t shout about it all the time, because you’re doing it from your heart, not for appearances’ sake. My parents used to say this about things like giving to charity, and so I guess, having been brought up this way, it’s normal I believe it too.

I was thinking about this, about doing things from your heart and not for the sake of appearances, when the lack of inclusivity in lifestyle niches was fired up again in the crafting and making circles back in January and then more recently, regarding representation in the social media feeds of one particular slow living/ slow fashion brand. So many people spoke out, it felt like Instagram was on fire.

Those days were strange and furious and they were also deeply hurtful and outright offensive for so many people, many of whom I consider to be online friends. Now those days have passed and things are relatively calm, I find myself wondering where everyone is and what they are doing. I’ve been wondering if lessons that were learnt on Instagram because of the hard work of a dedicated few, might be spilling into our offline life too.

Being inclusive, standing up for fairness and believing in change doesn’t always have to mean putting yourself in the line of confrontation if that’s not what you feel you can do. I understand that because I too have chosen on occasion to show my support in other, quieter and less visible ways behind the scenes - so then you might keep an eye out for, say, offensive messages that need reporting urgently, or maybe you’ll check in with those brave voices on the receiving end of vile attacks instead and ask them what they need. This is human. Caring is human. This matters too, more than putting out a post because you feel you should.

When the issue of representation and inclusivity came to a head on Instagram in late January, someone asked me: “Would we even be talking about this if we were to meet?” and I guess, maybe, no. It’s easier to write about issues so deep and complex because writing brings perspective whereas, in person the chance to be misunderstood is greater when there’s no distance between you (or at least, in my experience).

Even small changes in the way we think and act online could make a difference to the way we treat each other when we are right there, face-to-face and palm-to-palm, breathing in the same space. In time, these little acts might simply become habit, second nature. Small changes don’t always require big confrontations and they don’t always require validation either.

So if you can’t figure out what you want to do or say on social media when it comes to inclusivity, or feel you should say something because everyone else is - then don’t. You don’t have to say it just because. I would argue that what matters more is what you do in your life away from your phone. I would argue that while it’s great that you diversify your feeds, it matters more that you read important books and articles on race, or email your kid’s school to see what you can do to help make the books in their library more diverse, or correct your mother when she makes a stereotypical comment about black guys at the bus stop or make the effort to maybe talk to the mum at the school gates in the hijab who smiles at everyone, but no one actually ever includes.

***

Something else I was brought up to believe is that your intention matters (some of you might recognise this as an Islamic tenet) and I hold onto that too. I hold onto that, even if it sounds naive or like it’s not quite going far enough.

I am not sure if everyone’s wanting to do better has ended up into actual doing but I hold onto this belief that intention matters, even when I routinely see articles and blog posts promoting and linking to the same faces, the same friends, the same businesses, the same voices.

I hold onto that belief of intention even when I wryly notice those with influence who act as if only now after all this have I’ve earned the right to a response whereas before I didn’t. I don’t think I was ignored on purpose; I just wasn’t seen. Never mind. I know that believing in intention might not sound good enough, but I remain optimistic. I hold onto the belief of intention, because what is there without hope?

I’m willing to be patient and perhaps you’ll have noticed that small things are shifting and people are thinking. It’ll simply take time for circles to widen more generously in order to let others in. It will take time, too, for influential bloggers and podcasters to stop before they link to only share the work of their friends and the people they love but also then think: Who else can I get behind? Who else’s work can I share or promote, who doesn’t look like me? Who else is doing a brilliant job, but has to work harder to be seen because she happens to be of a different background? Who else’s voice may I amplify?

Time, that’s all.

***

I stand by everything I originally wrote. I still and will always believe that the more we listen to each other, the richer our everyday lives will be, even when it comes to social media which has such a hold on our lives and reinforces more negative stereotypes than we think in ways both subtle and strong.

Because - as I’ve written here before - I believe that when we make the effort to speak to people with different voices and different backgrounds, something special happens, even when we do not reference our difference continually.

We understand each other, the ups and the downs, a little more. Subconscious prejudices might one day disappear. We make connections. We might even make friends.

All of this is why I am passionate about connecting people to their writing voice (yes, I’m linking to my work), because the right, well-chosen and well-crafted words have the power to open minds and educate, yes, but also to enchant and inspire and to leave us wanting to hear more, know more, read more and more and more. Because, for a moment, lost in those sort of words, we may even begin to see the world a little differently.

Footnotes

The Problem With Performative Allyship

Redefine Pretty

#RevolveSoWhite

Representation Matters (She Flourished)

Eight simple ways to be a better writer

Eight simple ways to be a better writer

Writing matters to me because I find it life-affirming. We may think a thought, write it down, explore where it goes. There is always something or some place or some feeling or someone to write towards.

I write my blog because it's my way of making sense of what is going on in my life or what I happen to be thinking about that day, no matter how trivial - whether that's going out for dinner or picking a bedtime story or trying to explain who Donald Trump is to my kids. I simply write about my day to day, figuring things out as I navigate daily life.

Writing looks back at me, an outstretched hand grasping mine to go run some place together, some place wild and bright and free; some place where I might find ideas hidden in the undergrowth and peel them like Christmas clementines, one sprightly little piece at a time.