A slight left at the Doldrums and welcome to Writer’s Block.

This is one of those hideous times when I daren’t put pen to paper for fear of what will emerge. The inside of my head is a large gaping wound, and no matter how often I numb it with red wine and sedatives, long bracing walks in the wind in my Wellies, and hour upon hour of piano playing (N.B. Philip Glass particularly good for the numbing of mind-wounds) there is no coming out of this foxhole, it seems, in the foreseeable future.

So what do I do? I have work to hand in to my mentor next month, and the dwindling remains of an Arts Council grant in my bank account urging me forwards. My deadline for draft number one of the novel is 22nd April. But more, much more than this, as Sinatra once sang, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I don’t wake in the mornings bursting to write. I don’t fizz with ideas. I’ve grown cobwebs. My soul is as full of stones as the pockets of Woolf’s overcoat when she walked to the River Ouse and drowned. All these hours when I ought to be writing, but can’t. I’ve no spark anymore. I’ve no sparkle.

Here’s something that’s not often said about depression: amongst all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth it’s just really bloody DULL. It’s like visiting – year after year – the same caravan park (and you didn’t much like it the first time) with pubes on the soap bar, and mould in the shower, and stains that you don’t even want to think about on the mattress. A radio endlessly tuned to your least favourite station and somebody’s bloody dog barking all night.

You had tickets for Greece this year, you were sure of it. Greece, or Barbados, or New York, or Rome. But apparently not. Here you are, once again, in your strangely-moist bed in the caravan, watching the shadows as other unfortunate occupants lurch past your window, alone. When you wake in the morning and peer out your door there’s a sign been erected above it: NIL BY PEN. And the name of the caravan park?

Why, Writer’s Block, of course.

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‘I liked how it was before’, and other things never to say to a writer

This is draft 29. Since the project began you’ve had 23 names for your lovingly-crafted protagonist (hard to believe she began as illiterate – now she’s a linguistics professor!) and 52 versions of chapter eleven, and losing the first eighty pages was one of the best decisions thus far in your writing career (not to mention the brilliant new twist at the end – Booker judges, look out!), and you lovingly parcel your putative book with the digital version of string and brown paper, and bundle it off to the friend/family member/significant other who read drafts 14, 17 and 20.

And one merry day, when you’re happily minding your business, the feedback arrives: ‘I liked how it was before!’

And the person who offers this feedback invariably seems to think it’s a nice thing to say, for some reason I’ve never quite managed to fathom.

For the writer it’s rather like laying the very last brick in the flat-pack house you’ve built for yourself – from your own skin and bones – to be told by a clipboard-wielding bastard that you’ve got to knock it down again.

Dear People of Planet Earth, there is a rule of thumb to be used (with your nearest and dearest) in such situations: sharing one’s writing with friends and/or family members is rather like sharing one’s body. If you wouldn’t want to hear it post-coitally, then consider the chance that your friend/spouse/significant other is equally un-keen to hear it post-novelly.

For each of my Top Five Most Hated Responses imagine – go on; you’ll enjoy it, I bet – that you’ve just done the deed for the very first time with the (wo)man of your dreams, and you’re naked in all of your pale English glory on top of their tumbled silk sheets and you’re asking – you’re actually asking! – said conquest to rate your technique twixt those sheets.

1. It was fine!*

2. I only got halfway, but… it was good until then!

3. Well, obviously it needs work, but I’m sure you know that!

4.  It was quite interesting!**

5.  It reminded me a bit of something else!

* Exclamation marks, I’m sorry to say, seem obligatory in these circumstances.

** Never use the word ‘quite’ except to say ‘quite, quite’, as in ‘quite, quite magnificent’.

Sharing your writing really is that exposing. No writer expects (no serious writer expects) kid gloves from a paid editor/mentor, but when it comes to friends and family – jeez, go easy. Pause for a second – with fingers on keyboard, or pen in your fingers – and run your response through the post-coital sensitivity filter. It takes many years – perhaps decades – to write something really worthwhile: if you hobble a writer mid-stream on that journey they might just give up and do something more boring instead. And the world – as I’m sure we agree – has enough boring people already.

Why writing is not the same as reading, and other painful truths.

Ah, reading.* How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

1) A nice chunky novel = soaking your brain in a long, hot bath. (Although anything by David Peace = an episode of tachycardia.)

'The Bath of Knowledge' designed by Vanessa Mancini.

‘The Bath of Knowledge’ designed by Vanessa Mancini.

2) A good short story = an invigorating dip in the North sea. 

3) Most poetry = ten seconds of toe-tickling, or an accidental pinprick. (N.B. The very best poetry = blinding flash of glory, or leg mangled horribly in man-trap. Which brings me back to David Peace…)

Each experience may, of course, feel different for you. But the odds are, if you’re reading this post at all, that you somehow – in your own unique manner – derive at least a modicum of pleasure from the act of staring at words on a page. And if, like me, you attempt to place words on a page yourself there’s a fair chance you like it a helluva lot.

There’s an outside chance that you might even like reading about other people’s lives a little more (sometimes) than you enjoy living your own. But, ssh, we won’t go into that. 

It’s important – if you’re one of these people, like me, who would shrivel and die without books – that you take a few moments to remind yourself of the following fact: Writing is Not the Same as Reading.

Well, duh, you might be thinking. But, actually, I’ve a theory that most of us – at least once in our writing ‘careers’ – have fallen prey to the following thought:

(S)he makes it look so easy. 

From this thought we move rapidly to: (a) If it looks easy, it must be easy… (Reaching for laptop and/or pen and paper.) Closely followed, an hour or so later, by (b) What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? (In manner of Marlon Brando wailing, Stellaaaaa!)

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

I thought rocket science was hard. Then I tried writing!

The thing is, you see, the more you love reading – the more you equate it with soaking your brain in a long hot bath – the more likely it is that you’ll come to assume that writing is similarly pleasurable. And, yes, in its own twisted way it is pleasurable – very – and yes, you are right to assume they are sister activities (writing, for instance, should never be done without first having liberally steeped one’s brain in the bathtub of literature). But – and as I often say when catching sight of my rear end in a mirror, it is a big but(t) – if reading is the blue-eyed photogenic child with the nicely brushed hair who remembers her pleases and thank yous, then writing, I’m sorry to say, is the family’s black sheep that they generally keep locked away in a Mrs Rochester-style attic arrangement to wheel out, under duress, on special occasions.  

That squeaking noise, yes, it’s the Bath Tub as Metaphor being dragged out again, and if writing a novel is in any way akin to the wallowy soak of reading one then you’re likely to find it’s a bath tub with horribly faulty taps that spurt cold water over your toes every time you relax, or a wobbly cat stalking perilously around the rim with its claws out, poised to fall in. Think this scene’s going well, do you, Lynsey? SPLASH. Think again.

As a reader you plunge yourself into a ready made world of another’s invention, and everything – if it’s done as it should be – feels wonderfully real. Organic, you might say. As if it just happened to bloom on the page, like a plant or a flower. As if there was never a poor fool, like you, fiddling endlessly (painfully, sometimes) with every last page. When you enter a room in a novel and marvel – oh look – at details they’ve chosen to etch in the scene (the frost-stars on a window; a sunrise of bright yellow wallpaper; a fly on a cobweb trapeze) just remember you’re only a guest. And, like guests in real houses, you won’t be obliged to take part in the manual labour of styling the place (anymore than your host would expect you to take out the rubbish or sweep up the gunk down the back of the oven).**

You know where I’m going with this As a writer (and this is the painful bit) you’ll have to lay your own bloody floor before you can even set foot on it (let alone lay the carpets). A few leggy strides and, yup, you’ve run out of floor again: time to get down on your knees and build it. You strip off and dive in your bath tub – to find out (with chilling effect) that it hasn’t got taps yet.

So only know this: writing is locked in that attic for good reason. Forewarned is forearmed. Approach with caution.

I’ll leave you with this quote, from Jonathan Myerson in The Guardian, in the hope that it jollies you up as it did me (with its appreciation of the trickiness and slowness of it all): ‘good writing comes from someone sitting alone in a room, undergoing a distinctly unphotogenic process of self-discovery. Good writing comes from experimentation, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, and thus it grows into something that probably even the author did not predict and could not have foreseen. The writer needs a chance to try again, fail again, fail better.’

*This post is about the pursuit of reading, as opposed to the Berkshire city of Reading. (I did, however, have an excellent weekend at the Reading Festival in 1990. Just thought I’d mention.)

** My own personal house porn comes in A.S.Byatt’s PossessionAmong the many (better known) delights of this novel, Byatt also Gives Great Room.

Does the universe need another writer?

Since joining Twitter a couple of months ago, two things have become immediately obvious: (1) that I’m not half as interesting as I secretly hoped I was, and (2) approximately 97.5% of the population of planet earth is currently writing a novel.

Another wake-up call came via a recent workshop run by Writers’ Centre Norwich (you can also read my guest blog on their website if you’re so inclined). From the doctor-esque scribble I found in my notebook the morning after, I’ve managed to decode (and probably falsify) the following, rather sobering, fact: each year around 86,000 new titles are published in the UK. Around 59,000 of those titles will sell an average of… 1000 copies? 100 copies? 50 copies? (Knees trembling slightly now.)

The answer is 18 copies.

And that’s the average. Meaning, of course, that many new titles sell fewer than 18 copies. Which, by all accounts, is a bit of a slap in the face.

It could be that I’m labouring day after day (my social life dwindling to Howard Hughesian proportions; my bank statements gathering dust in the hallway – too frightening to open) on a book that only my mum will buy. (And, if I’m honest, she’s not that keen on my fiction anyway, so…) Gulp. And that’s if it’s even published. Anyone fancy an uphill struggle?

Well, yes, actually. I do. There aren’t many things in my life that I’m really wholehearted about, but writing is one. And here’s why: I can’t not do it. Jump cut to Jean-Paul Belmondo in À Bout de Souffle‘Informers inform, burglars burgle, murderers murder, lovers love.’ And writers write. A day without writing feels wrong and unworthy. A day without tumbling headlong into something made-up makes my brain feel like two pennies rattling around in a pauper’s money box (by which, of course, I mean my money box): depressingly lonely. That’s right, yes, I’m really that sad: I feel lonely without my imaginary friends. And since they’re still there, in mid-gesture (a bit sore and stiff from their freeze-framing yesterday, when I had ‘proper work’ to get on with), I’d better scoot off now (my brain nicely heated from writing this blog post) and bring them to life again.

What to do when your novel hates you.

Last week, while lovestruck writers all around the globe were frantically conjuring upwards of 1667 words per day for National Novel Writing Month, my own novel announced that it hated me.

Oh god, not you again. Another 500 words about wallpaper… Oh, look, and now somebody’s walking the length of a shadowy hallway… Again. Now they’re opening a door. Now they’re filling the kettle for tea. How exciting. You’re really beginning to grate on me, Lynsey. Can’t someone else finish me? Sarah Waters, for instance. Susan Hill… 

Every sentence I wrote was shrugged off, refused entry, deleted again with a head-shake of shame. In my absence, my novel got dressed by itself and walked off. It went down to the courthouse and took out a restraining order against me. I couldn’t go near it. The moment I picked up my laptop my novel directed me straight to a game of Prolific on Facebook, or opened a shiny new window and filled it with tweets (yes, you definitely ought to read that link, Lynsey: the one about ’20 Mistakes All Writers Make’, oh, and look, here are 49 pictures of cats falling over on Buzzfeed… you know you love cats falling over…)

The first week of NaNo was racing away. On their website, my word count was frozen in time. Other writers were hitting five figures. I drifted through Panic, past Jealousy, onto the Isle of Don’t Care. On the Isle of Don’t Care you’re so far from the book you once loved that you barely remember its name. Weren’t you writing a book once? What, who, me? I don’t think so. You were. It was called ‘Something Hall’… and it had lots of shadowy hallways and wallpaper in it. That sounds pretty dull, to be honest. Let’s giggle at cats falling over instead.

And then… Bam. There I was on the Isle of Don’t Care, doing nothing particular, browsing some articles, making a playlist on youtube, when suddenly everything changed. This was Saturday (day of the NaNo ‘marathon’). Something was fluttering, off in the distance. And there, on the opposite shore, with a white flag in hand, was my novel. Come back, it said. All is forgiven. That Sarah… that Susan… pah! They’re both busy. It turns out there’s no one but you who can finish me. No one else wants to. They’re all writing books of their own. 

So I turned to my playlist and plucked out Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (which it’s physically impossible for me to listen to without feeling something)and out popped 2,340 words. Just like that. As it turns out, the Isle of Don’t Care is a great place to visit occasionally. Ease off the pressure gauge, kick back, and leave your subconscious to wander… and all sorts of things will have planted themselves in your head when you get back to shore. 

Just be sure not to stay for too long…

 


Thank you, Writer Squirrel.

Day One of NaNoWriMo (that’s National Novel Writing Month if you’re one of the remaining 0.0001% of the population that hasn’t heard of it) and I seem to be playing an awful lot of online boggle… (Still, at least it’s not Candy Crush.) My word count for the day is a sorrowful 706 (as opposed to the 1667 I’m meant to crank out).

Last year I scrambled across the 50,000 word finish line by literally (oh all right, figuratively) vomiting ten thousand of those words in the last six hours. What did I write about? Don’t ask me. After roughly an hour I moved to Auto Pilot. My hands seemed to type independently of my head. Looking back on that draft – or, rather, peering at it from behind a cushion – I feel like a 1960s acid casualty watching herself writhe topless on screen in WoodstockIt must have been me who wrote that thousand word scene about peeling potatoes, because – look – it’s right there on my laptop. But, equally, if you told me that one of my cats had randomly tapped out the contents of that document whilst chasing an insect across the keyboard I wouldn’t have had to struggle too hard to believe you. In fact, I’d have been relieved.

The truth is – the whole thing was drivel. M’Lord, I present the following evidence from the festering pus-filled document entitled ‘NaNo2012’ to support this claim:

Thump, thump, thump. Silence. Thump, thump, thump.

Was Miss Bellcomb a virgin, she wondered momentarily, as Nick writhed towards her, grabbing her hair.

‘Oh crap,’ Arthur said. He leaned on the wall. ‘Oh crap. This is bad.’

Couldn’t have put it better myself, Arthur. And who’s Arthur? Forget him: he doesn’t exist anymore. My point is, finding something like this – that you wrote – on your laptop could easily get a girl down. You could start to have dark bleak thoughts of the ‘I’m not worthy’ variety. And perhaps you’re not worthy. (That is, of course, always the possibility.) But aren’t we writers too often too hard on ourselves? Any musician, for instance, will tell you it takes years of practice to master their art. Unlike writers, musicians commit their mistakes to the ether: there’s nobody there with a dictaphone, taping their every last error and storing it up for posterity (by which, of course, I mean future humiliation). Writers, though, are like squirrels in autumn: religiously hoarding our every last sentence in case we can use it one day. What I’m trying to say (I think) is that nothing is wasted. And don’t be ashamed of your drivel. Embrace it. Your drivel is part of your journey, your scales and arpeggios on the way to your Emperor Concerto.

And, while trawling last year’s NaNo drivel for some of the ickiest phrases, I found one I rather quite like:

She sat up, alert, on her chair, as if someone had just pulled her laces too tight.

So, thank you, Writer Squirrel. Keep hoarding.

If Scrivener was a man, I’d marry it.

I’ve always been gripped by the thought of a house so huge you could stumble, one day, on a door that you never knew existed.

In my real life (the dull one), I live in a flat that a Hobbit would find a bit snug. In my writing life, though, I spend most of my day in the titular Hall of my novel, a great sprawling beast of a place in the wilds of rural England: ‘In a normal-sized house you could hold all the rooms in your memory like birds in a cage. Not at Madder. At Madder they perched for a while, and flew on.’

It’s analogy time.

In my head a short story is ‘normal-sized’. I can feel the whole shape of it; see it, as if it was there – like a bird in a cage… or a chair, or a lamp, or a table – in front of me. Solid and real.

But a novel is more like London, say. You can see the whole thing in instalments, but not all at once. And you might have a vague sense of concrete, or shop glass, or buses, or Buckingham Palace, perhaps, when you’re thinking of London, but all your attempts to imagine it, whole, as a single appreciable object – a lamp, or a table – are doomed from the start.

On a good day, a novel’s like London. On bad days it’s more like…

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Enter Scrivener.

Thanks to my fellow writers (and future bridesmaids) Mary Nathan and Meghan Purvis, I made the wise decision – one morning, adrift in the London-ish land of my novel – to pick up a half-price copy of Scrivener, courtesy of those lovely folks at NaNoWriMo (who kindly offer a voucher code to those who ‘complete’ – which is markedly less sinister, by the way, than ‘completing’ in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go…).

Best. Decision. Ever. All right, so you must schedule four or five days to do no actual writing at all while you run like a loose-limbed child through your shiny new playground, but really, believe me, it’s worth it. You’ll never again have to scroll through 142 pages in search of that scene that you half-think you maybe half-wrote… You’re in Scrivener now: and you’ll store all your scenes in a series of files with their own little names (of your choosing) and mini-synopses on file cards, and photos and paintings and audio files that you’ve grabbed off the web in your modern-day version of research. Your London has boroughs now. And your London will let you take photographs of it (with Scrivener’s handy ‘snapshot‘ function that allows you to keep hold of multiple versions of scenes… and roll back to a previous version whenever you like).

With this piecemeal approach, you can isolate problems more easily. Why was my novel so boring, I wondered? Ahem, answered Scrivener. Have a quick squint at your scene files. And lo, and behold, my protagonist had returned to the kitchen four times in a single chapter. Perhaps, whispered Scrivener, you could offer variety to the reader? I will, I said boldly. And grabbing our camera we set off together to tackle the sprawling metropolis of my novel. 

Glassworks. A cryptically-titled post about seizing the day and all that.

What’s the secret of artistic success? According to the (prolific and phenomenally successful) composer Philip Glass it’s very simple: get up early, and work all day.

In the spirit of Mr Glass, for the last three weeks I’ve been setting my alarm clock 45 minutes earlier and attempting to write. Unlike Phil (as I’m now calling him, after two sentences’ acquaintance) I don’t have the luxury of devoting his average ten hour stretch to my artistic endeavours – and neither did he for a very long time (having spent the lion’s share of the 1970s as a plumber and/or taxi driver) – but I’m finding, to my huge surprise, that the ‘getting up early’ part of the equation is working swimmingly well.

Now I speak as a woman who’s had to be crowbarred from bed on a number of gloomy occasions. I do love my bed. I love dreaming. I love sleeping in. I love long lazy mornings in blanket city with nothing particular making demands on my time.

But the thing that I’ve learnt in the last three weeks is that, yes, I love sleeping – but really, when’s all said and done, I love writing much more. In an oddly circuitous way I love writing with Philip Glass’s Glassworks in the background. (Have a listen; you might love it, too.) And, occasionally, when I’m listening, I’ll think about Phil and his ten hour day… and my measly two hours, here and there, feel like blinks of an eye, and each day when the clock makes that horrible peeping at half past six (and I long to curl up in a dream again) I chastise myself with the knowledge that Phil has been up for two hours already.

Oh yeah, and he’s 76.

Enough said.

To doll or not to doll? That is the question.

Any writer currently tiptoeing through the cliché minefield that is the Ghost Story will likely have pondered this question at some weary, uninspired point in the wee small hours: can I, or can I not, have a scene with a Scary Doll™ in it?

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The Scary Doll™, as we all know, has been Done to Death. But so, too have shadows and candles and sinister disembodied giggling – and I’ve happily included all those clichés in my Magnum Opus. But is the Scary Doll™ a step too far across the cliché minefield? Will the Scary Doll™ explode in your face?

For this particular writer the answer is: yes.

In draft 1 of the novel I bravely attempted to ‘doll’ (And now came a clack as it hauled itself up and sat stiffly in lace dress and bootees, the hint of a tooth in its sluttish red mouth). Other drafts have been burdened with kilt-wearing dollies and dollies with teapots and balding monstrosities smothered in lace. But, in each case, the sinister hellspawn I’d set on the page was not, in fact, a Scary Doll™ but, rather, its devious (and far more terrifying) cousin: the Hilarious Doll.

So, regrettably, I’m putting the dolls to bed. There may yet be mileage in a one-eyed teddy bear, but for now I’ll leave with you Hugo, a genuinely terrifying doll from the 1945 horror classic Dead of Night

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A visit from the evil word-fairy.

She comes in the night. Like the tooth fairy. Or perhaps a succubus. And what does she do? She takes the 522 words you lovingly crafted yesterday morning in the white heat of creative genius… and she hands you back something a nine-old-year child would be ashamed to have written.

Last night I had such a visit. This morning I find myself facing The Book in the cold light of Monday morning (and we all know Monday morning light is the coldest morning light of all) and wondering – as I believe Keats once put it – WTF?!?!?!

But where there’s tea, there’s hope. Kettle boiled, mug in hand, there’s no option but to plunge back into the ludicrous piece of sub-Downton nonsense I found on my laptop this morning… and try to write better today.

Sigh.

Blowing my own trumpet. Just momentarily. (Sorry.)

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Being British, I’ve always struggled a bit with blowing my own trumpet. It’s not quite the done thing, is it, chaps? It’s not quite cricket.

But a group of us got together last week at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road to read from our burgeoning novels, and (even if I say so myself) we did pretty bloody well. Every bone in my British body is screaming at me right now to temper that statement (rather well, okayish, marginally above average, slightly better than a smack in the face with a wet kipper) but, screw it, we acquitted ourselves with style and aplomb and it deserves saying. Here’s Laura Stimson saying it much better than me in her blog about the event (on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich).

For those who don’t already know, I’ve recently enjoyed a period of professional support from those lovely folk at WCN as part of their Escalator Literature programme 2012/13 (in conjunction with the UK Arts Council). They’ve produced a rather lovely booklet (which you can see in all its glory in the photograph above) containing quotes from myself and my nine fellow ‘Escalatees’ : Mary Nathan, Meghan Purvis, Megan Bradbury, Jonathan Curran, L. E. Yates, Kyra Karmiloff, Sue Healy, Ian Madden and Linda Spurr. There’s some extraordinary talent among them, so do check out their work at the WCN website. That’s me in the spotty dress, clenching my prosecco.

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And here’s me reading from my novel-in-progress Madder Hall, a psychological ghost story set in the 1970s and very nicely summed-up by my lovely mentor Michelle Spring as a ‘playful and menacing’ mix of the Gothic and the grotesque. (All credit for pics and video to the equally lovely Lucy White and Gordon Smith.) Having always loathed reading in public and, let’s be honest, majorly sucked at it too (see my last post), I found the experience about 67% less hair-raising than expected and feel only a modicum of dread at the thought of repeating it all at the Writers’ Centre’s Salon next month. N.B. The instrument I’m describing in this extract is the glass armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761, and here’s what it sounds like in the expert hands of Thomas Bloch.

Here endeth the trumpet blowing. Rest assured, normal self-deprecating service will be fully resumed in my next post.

Fear of the blank page…

‘Get black on white,’ as Guy de Maupassant apparently once said. (Presumably in French.) ‘Black words on a white page are the soul laid bare.’

So no pressure there, then.

Writing your inaugural blog post, as it turns out, is almost as daunting as writing the first line of a story. Happily, in a blog, you can call on Maupassant to do the job for you.

Anyway… I’m Lynsey, a prize-winning short story writer and fledgling novelist. As a short story writer I’ve bagged the prestigious Bridport Prize and a Canongate Prize for New Writing. As a novelist I’ve kindly been taken under the wing of Writers’ Centre Norwich. Earlier this year I was chosen as one of the ten most promising genre novelists in the Eastern region as part of their Escalator Literature programme, and offered a year’s mentoring from the wonderful Michelle Spring. Very happily, I’ve also received a grant from the UK Arts Council to write my magnum opus, Madder Hall. And that’s mostly what I’ll be blogging about on this site. The highs and the lows (and yet more lows) of writing a novel.

In the meantime, here I am on the Future Radio archives waffling on about music (and myself) instead of writing.