Client profile: Sebastian and Millicent

Welcome to the first in a series of profiles, featuring some of the most important people in my business – my clients! I’m really excited to share some more of the behind-the-scenes bits of the work I do. And, of course, to show off some of the brilliant small business owners I get to write for.

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ve probably already seen my blog posts for Sebastian and Millicent. This boutique lingerie and erotic toy retailer launched online in October 2016, and I’m excited to watch it grow.

I’ve been working with founder Rachael Cunningham since she got in touch with me back in July. As soon as we had our initial consultation, over Skype, I knew she was exactly the kind of client I enjoy working with. I loved her punky, feminist spirit; her big passion for her small business; and her purple hair! When she later sent through the list of blog topics she wanted me to work on, they were right up my street – a combination of feminism, health, sex and relationships, wellbeing, and politics.

What I love about Rachael as a business woman is that she really knows her target audience, and she knows they want more from Seb & Millie than just a faceless shop. As a brand, Seb & Millie is gorgeous, stylish, and independently minded – and it speaks to its customers in a real, authentic way. The fact that the products and designers they stock are incredible is an added bonus! I genuinely adore the Ottoline sleepwear range by Hesper Fox – and they’re not even paying me to say that.

I sat down with Rachael for a chat about Sebastian & Millicent’s raison d’être, and how my writing services are helping her build a brand voice that her customers can relate to.

 

SG: What’s Sebastian and Millicent all about, and where did the idea come from?

RC: Sebastian and Millicent is about two things: discovering the vanguard of fashion and accepting yourself.

The idea was in my head for about 15 years before I finally did something with it in 2016. Most of my friends thought I was mad! The recession was still proving an issue for businesses, banks were reluctant to accept anyone who sold adult themed products, and I wanted to retain my full-time job.

However – spurred on by the trends for natural beauty and women’s empowerment, the fact that sex is now accepted in mainstream society thanks to the Fifty Shades trilogy, and a pinch of stubbornness – I ignored the naysayers and opened the business.

 

SG: Who and what are your personal inspirations and motivations?

RC: I’ve always been driven by success, experimentation and the desire to help people. In school, I was the quiet girl who listened and handed in homework on time, so that I could then help the kids who were struggling with abstract science concepts. The business provides a platform for me to help really talented individuals get their names out there and show others what they can do.

My love of fashion, by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Iris Van Herpen, is a constant inspiration for shaping the direction of the business. They really push boundaries with their designs, and I want to emulate that confidence in Sebastian and Millicent. I’m extending this concept with the new demi-couture and haute couture sections of the business, coming in March 2017, whereby garments can be made to individual measurements, for specific clients, and they can book private trunkshows to view the collections.

 

SG: What do you look for in the designers you stock?

RC: The designers are the most important part of the business; their talent allows Sebastian and Millicent to continue growing. The key attributes I look for are:

  • Impeccable construction and quality – lingerie and erotic toys are a very personal choice; they not only serve a practical purpose, but also improve self-confidence, mental and spiritual health
  • A unique point of view or meeting a unique need – such as our specialist ostomy lingerie by Jasmine Stacey
  • A collection that isn’t too widely available – many of our designers hand-make the items, so they aren’t available in vast quantities
  • Innovative silhouettes and fabrics – such as leavers lace, charmeuse silk, and leather for lingerie; and steel, precious metals, and blown glass on the erotic toys

 

SG: You’re obviously passionate about more than just selling underwear and erotic toys. What do you hope your customers will get out of Seb & Millie?

RC: The one thing I would like clients to get is the desire to discover, both in terms of discovering new designers and a personal discovery within themselves. Opening your eyes to new things is exciting, and people can be so enriched if they let themselves go on that journey of discovery!

 

SG: Seb & Millie is currently a side project you’re running alongside full-time work. How do you find the time to fit it all in?

RC: It is difficult at times, particularly when I need to visit a designer to view their collection, or take a phone call during the day. (If you’ve ever tried talking quietly about adult toys, or a new type of bra that prevents ‘quad boob’, in the work toilet then you’ll know how difficult it is!)

I’m lucky to have collaborated with some wonderfully helpful people, who not only assist with the day-to-day jobs – like updating something on the website that I’m finding tricky to do myself – but also bounce ideas around with me to improve things, like you do with my blog.

 

SG: I love the range of topics you’ve commissioned me to write about for the blog. What do you feel that content adds to your brand?

RC: It is so easy to open a lingerie and sex toy store and leave it at that. But people don’t work in such a compartmentalised fashion. People now seek these personal items to help them with sexual dysfunction, to heal mental or spiritual wounds, and to increase confidence either in themselves or with a partner. The blog helps people talk about these wellness concepts, and works to link the products with the person. Ultimately, Sebastian and Millicent is about people and their experiences, and I want to showcase this in the blog.

 

You can view Sebastian & Millicent’s full range at: sebastianandmillicent.com.

Could my writing services also benefit your business? Click here for information about working with me, check out some examples of my work for Sebastian & Millicent, or click here to see what other clients have said about my writing.

International Women’s Day 2017

Women, strong as hellHappy International Women’s Day!

Today is one of my favourite days of the year, because it provides a focal point for celebrating women’s fantastic achievements, and campaigning on all the areas where there’s still work to be done.

This time last year I joined my sisters from WRW in a vibrant and defiant IWD party outside the Home Office – to celebrate the courage of women who cross borders, and to demonstrate against the harmful policies that impact on their lives.

This year, for obvious reasons, I’m not able to spend the day with those sisters who endlessly inspire and encourage me with hope for the future. Instead, I’m holding a smaller, quieter celebration, from home – wearing my WSPU T-shirt, reading some of my favourite feminist writers, writing about feminism for one of my female clients, and reflecting on the challenges ahead for the international feminist movement.

But I also wanted to mark this IWD by sharing some of the articles on feminist issues that I’m most proud of having written over the last few years. Some are interviews with incredible campaigners and activists, while others address problems still facing women across the UK, and worldwide – from representation and healthcare provision, to violence and trauma.

My IWD top 10:

  1. Nimko Ali: A year as the face of FGM (Feminist Times, 2013)
  2. We need to talk about the UK media war on women (Open Democracy, 2014)
  3. Anne Scargill: “There’s no jobs. There’s nothing. In 1984 we knew this would happen” (Feminist Times, 2014)
  4. Why do women still need to ‘Reclaim The Night’ in the UK? (Telegraph, 2014)
  5. Uphill ride? Women’s road races are struggling for status – and survival (Independent, 2015)
  6. Study shows how distressing anti-abortion ‘vigils’ are for women (Broadly, 2015)
  7. “What have I got to lose?” Hunger strikes and protests at Yarl’s Wood detention centre (New Statesman, 2015)
  8. The reality of being a pregnant woman in Yarl’s Wood (The Pool, 2016)
  9. How the UK is failing women’s mental health needs (Refinery29 UK, 2016)
  10. ‘When we get it right, we save a life’: Domestic abuse teams in hospitals (Guardian, 2017)

(Images by Tyler @ roaring/softly)

Recent writing: Gut health, and cancer’s impact on fertility

My latest health articles for Refinery29 UK and Broadly, published in January and February 2017, respectively explored the science behind gut health, and the impact of chemotherapy on young women’s fertility.

Is Gut Health A Load Of Sh**? – for Refinery29 UK:

Gut health

‘Gut health’ is the wellness industry’s buzzword of choice right now, with UK sales of digestive remedies set to reach £333 million by 2021. There’s been some pretty groundbreaking research of late into a part of the body that, until relatively recently, has been taken for granted. So what does science actually now know about how the gut works, and does the secret to a healthy gut really lie in overpriced yoghurt drinks and chia seeds?

Microbiologist Dr. Lindsay Hall is a research leader at the Institute of Food Research, and she really knows her bacteria. “The gut provides a home to trillions and trillions of beneficial microbes,” she explains. “This complex ecosystem is called the microbiota, and the number of bacteria we have in our gut day-to-day is equivalent of about 2-3kg. We’ve known about these bacteria for years, but it’s only really in the last 15-20 years – and, in a really focused way, in the last five years – that we’ve begun to understand the different health benefits that these bacteria actually provide us with.”

If you’re anything like me, your knowledge of this complex microbial ecosystem probably begins and ends with the words ‘good bacteria’ and ‘bad bacteria’. Years of yoghurt adverts where women complain about bloating before eating a magic fromage frais and having a giggle about nothing in particular have taught us that not all bacteria are bad. But in fact, the impact they have on our body – and potentially, our brain – is incredible.

When Chemotherapy Saves Your Life But Leaves You Infertile – for Broadly:

Cancer treatment reproductive health fertility

When Becki McGuinness was diagnosed at the age of 21 with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer, she was anxious about the impact treatment could have on her future fertility. “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have pushed further,” she says, “but my concerns were brushed off by the doctors.”

Now 30 years old, and infertile as a result of the intensive chemotherapy that saved her life, McGuinness is campaigning to ensure all young cancer patients have access to the fertility options she was denied.

“A fertility specialist told me later that there had been enough time to save my fertility before I started treatment, but I feel like [the cancer specialists] made the choice for me,” she adds. “Being young and infertile is such a hard thing to take. There’s no chance for me now; once you’re infertile you can’t go back.”

Continue reading at Broadly…

Balance: February 2017

At the start of the year I set myself a challenge of blogging each month about my efforts to be more balanced. I had big plans for 2017 – exciting ideas and goals to push myself, both personally and professionally. Well, best laid plans, eh?

There hasn’t been much balance in February. On the first day of the month I was discharged from hospital. Since then, there’s been a lot of rest and recuperation, a lot of anxiety and despair, and very little else. I’ve watched a lot of  Parks and Recreation , I’ve devoured all three seasons of Transparent on Amazon Prime (thank you Sarah for the recommendation), and I’ve got steadily fatter on a diet of takeaways and comfort food while spending 20 hours a day in bed.

I’ve struggled with not being able to take comfort in the things that usually give me comfort. For the first half of the month I couldn’t hold a pen to handwrite. I haven’t been able to keep up with work or reading as much as I’d hoped. I read and loved , the third in Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club trilogy , and I belatedly made a start on A Quiet Life  – the debut novel of my wonderful colleague Natasha Walter, which I’ve been meaning to read since I bought a signed copy on publication day, back in June. But sitting up for more than a couple of hours at a time is painful, and I can’t even relax into a hot bubbly bath – much less go for a facial, or a massage.

I’ve been forced to listen to my body in ways I never really expected, I’ve had far too much time to think, and I’ve been endlessly frustrated by the feeling that my life is on hold. Instead of enjoying my final two months at Women for Refugee Women, I’ll have spent them signed off. Today I missed the National Refugee Women’s Conference, and the launch of WRW’s latest report, which I’d been so excited to be a part of. I’ll have lost a quarter of the year by the time I’m free of the cast and the neck brace. I’ll have lost almost half of it by the time I’m free of pain and able to get, physically at least, ‘back to normal’. And then there’s the enormity of wrapping my head around what’s happened. Who knows how long that will take, and if words will be enough this time.

I have though been blessed with lots of love and support – in the form of flowers, chocolates, books, care packages, messages, hugs, meals, so many cups of tea, and help around the flat. I’m so grateful for the support and patience of my friends, family, and clients – and to my friends at Well Spirited PR, The Happy Tummy Company, and Distraction Box for their generosity. I’ve been emailing the wisest person I know, my dad, whose handwritten letters have always got me through tough times in the past. In one of those emails he reminded me of this quote, from the single greatest Christmas film of all time : 

Remember, no [wo]man is a failure who has friends

It’s never rung more true than during this month, when I’ve teetered so close to the edge of my own metaphorical bridge, and yet been overwhelmed by so much kindness. Thank you all, and I’ll try to make March’s post less depressing…

Balance: January 2017

Balance, January 2017

Balance, January 2017

UPDATE, 3 FEBRUARY 2017: I feel so sad to be publishing this now, but I don’t know what else to do with it.

I wrote the blog post below during my recent trip to Suffolk, 22-27 January, and it was due to be published last Saturday, 28 January, by which time I should have been on holiday with my husband. We never made it on that holiday because I was badly injured in a serious car accident on my way home from Suffolk on that Friday, and spent the following five days in Addenbrooke’s Hospital. Huge thanks to the staff there, in A&E, ICU, HDU, neuroscience, trauma and psychiatry – as well as the paramedics and air ambulance team who took care of me at the scene. I feel very lucky to still be alive under the circumstances.

I’m publishing this now from my bed, with a broken left wrist (disastrous for a left-handed writer), two spinal fractures (which means eight weeks in a neck brace), and a lot of bruises, but fortunately no long-term physical damage. My mental health’s pretty shaky, to say the least, and I’m less certain about how long that will take to heal.

In terms of work, I’m hoping to keep on top of emails, social media, and regular client commitments as much as possible, but please bear with me. Everything is slower, more painful, and more difficult than normal. I suspect next month’s update won’t look quite how I’d imagined it at the end of this post…


January 2017: I’m writing this from a cottage by the sea in beautiful Thorpeness, Suffolk. The morning sunlight’s streaming in through the window, and the only sound is birds tweeting. By the time this is published, I’ll be in the Bulgarian mountains, enjoying the après-ski at a riverside hotel in Bansko. So, how’s that for balance?

In all seriousness though, January has been a real mixed bag in terms of my 2017 challenge to become more balanced. It all got off to a pretty good start. The first couple of weeks after Christmas were a busy time for cat sitting, which really is the most perfect sideline for me as a freelance writer. For the first week or so of January my days were bookended by a 10-20 minute morning and evening walk to other people’s houses – with the added therapeutic benefits of cuddling their cats once I got there! On New Year’s Day I spent a couple of hours on a client’s sofa, with a book in one hand, a 4-month-old kitten on my lap, and his brother on the back of the sofa, head resting on my shoulder. What a blissful moment of “wow, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this” contentment.

January blues

Then the reality of January kicked in and, for a few weeks, balance gave way to merely trudging my way through increasingly bleak, grey days. Between the political climate and the weather, the post-Christmas period felt even more grim and austere than usual. And then some devastating news – from a refugee friend who I know from my work at Women for Refugee Women – really knocked me for six. I knew January would potentially be a struggle, but in lots of ways it’s really tested me to my limits.

It’s hard to keep up a healthy balance of exercise, reading, and self-care when that heavy dark cloud’s hanging over you, and you have to prioritise your energies for the things that need to be done. January has had a few more than its fair share of really bad, bleak, hiding-under-the-covers-because-I-can’t-face-the-world-days.

January highlights

Of course, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom. Another refugee friend received some much more positive news this month, and I’m overjoyed for her. I’ve started working with a couple of great new clients, writing content for their small business websites. I treated myself to a massage, a facial, and my first BuddyBox. (Past Sarah who thought self-care was frivolous and self-indulgent doesn’t know what to think!) I’ve had a steady stream of repeat work from clients I’ve enjoyed working with in the past. I had my first freelance article published by The Guardian. I’ve raced my way through the backlog of Couragemakers podcasts, so that I’ll soon have to start listening to them once a week like everyone else. And I’ve had some exciting commissions from publications that I love writing for.

I’ve also read some brilliant books, and really rediscovered my love for getting stuck into a good book at any opportunity. I finally got round to finishing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time . Although I struggled to get into it initially, I ended up finding it so interesting and insightful. Animal: The Biography of a Female Body  by Sarah Pascoe was my favourite read of the month. I love her as a comedian, and her book somehow manages to be fascinating, funny, and totally raw all at once. Her honesty about the anxieties and struggles of life as a cis, hetereosexual woman is so authentic and refreshing. In memory of Carrie Fisher, I ordered  Postcards From The Edge the day after she died (along with  The Princess Diarist , which I haven’t read yet). What a wonderfully striking, witty and incisive read on mental illness and addiction. My final book of the month is Terry Gibbs’  Why The Dalai Lama is a Socialist . It feels like just the antidote I need to the current political situation.

When I write it all out like that, I’m not even sure why I’ve spent so much of the month feeling tense and miserable.

Retreating

Fortunately, despite the low points, my mood and my energy have been well and truly restored in January’s final week. First, on Saturday 21 January, by the Women’s March on London. What a festival of hope, sisterhood, and love. It was really uplifting to join 100,000 people, all united against hatred and division. For most of the afternoon, we lined the streets between the American Embassy and a packed, defiant rally in Trafalgar Square. I was so proud of my refugee sisters Joy, Rahela, Shahd, Jade, and Rehemah, who performed their own poetry – and absolutely rocked it! – to that enormous crowd with such confidence, passion and flair. They never, ever fail to make me cry, or to restore my hope for the future.

Then, the following day, I left for my short break in Suffolk – which has been restoring in a totally different way. I booked the trip back in August, when I still thought that I’d be freelancing full-time again by now. The idea was for a kind of DIY writing retreat – a time of solitude and contemplation, to pin down my freelancing plans and goals for 2017, and to clear my head for some more creative projects.

Aside from some problems with my accommodation during the first day, my retreat went exactly as I’d planned. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets; walks along the beach at Thorpeness and Aldeburgh, and around the Meare, a Peter Pan-inspired lake; peace, solitude and tranquility; great food and drink from The Kitchen, The Dolphin, and the Meare Tearoom; and lots and lots of reading, writing, and scribbling down ideas. Besides working on client work and feature interviews, I planned for the year ahead, drafted pitches to my target publications, and wrote the first few thousand words of my novel. Yes, you know, that novel I’ve been talking about and thinking about writing for the last 20 years! Obviously, don’t expect it to be finished any time soon – but hopefully getting started was the hardest part.

Next steps

Before January’s through I’ve got to make it through a week of skiing without any major injuries. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I’m a pretty anxious, risk-averse kind of person. It’s taken my husband the best part of ten years to persuade me to hit the slopes with him – and not without plenty of apprehension and misgivings! What I am looking forward to though is following my Suffolk retreat with another week away from reality. If the skiing doesn’t work out, at least I can seek sanctuary somewhere warm, with a gorgeous view of the snowy mountains and a good book. Then, in February, there’s a lot of running, swimming, and pitching to be done…

Time to Talk: How Do You Know Which Therapy Is Best For You?

therapyTime to Talk

Today, Thursday 2 February, is Time to Talk Day 2017. Time to Talk Day is an annual awareness raising day, designed to encourage people to start (and continue) conversations about mental health and wellbeing.

If you’ve been thinking about looking into therapy, for whatever issues you’re dealing with, there’s no better time than right now. Use Time to Talk Day as your motivation to get talking!

Of course, talking about mental health can be really tough. Although we’re getting better, there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness – particularly more severe conditions like psychosis, personality disorder and trauma.

But if you are struggling, talking really can make such a difference. Believe me. Personally, this year I’m trying to make more of an effort to open up to friends and family about what’s going on with my mental health. I’m not always very good at it, but I’m getting there.

Talking therapy

If you’re not yet ready for that – or even if you are – talking therapy can be a great way to process your thoughts and feelings with a neutral professional. As I wrote for VICE a couple of years ago though, not all therapies work the same for everyone. There’s no hard and fast rule to finding a therapy that works for you. A lot of it comes down to your relationship with the therapist, and it’s ok to use a bit of trial and error to find the right one.

In my latest piece for Refinery29 UK, I wrote a guide to some of the different types of talking therapies out there.

There’s a pretty wide range of options out there, with varying levels of availability and waiting times, depending on your area and ability to pay. But, particularly when you’re feeling vulnerable, the overwhelming abundance of mental health terms can be confusing to try and navigate. Do you need counselling or psychotherapy? A psychologist or a psychiatrist? It’s a lot to unpick – so here’s a breakdown of some of the different therapies available to help you out.

If you need to talk but don’t know where to start, you can read my article in full at Refinery29 UK...

 

IF YOU NEED SUPPORT

Please note that I am NOT a psychologist or healthcare professional. If you are struggling with mental health problems, contact Mind on 0300 123 3393 or Rethink Mental Health on 0300 5000 927. In a crisis, call the free, 24/7 Samaritans helpline on 116 123.

However, if you would like to get in touch about your own experiences, or a story that you’re keen to tell, please feel free to drop me an email.

‘When we get it right, we save a life’: domestic abuse teams in hospitals

Domestic violence support in hospitals

Domestic violence support in hospitals

My first published feature of 2017 looked at the role hospitals and other healthcare settings can play in tackling domestic violence. It was also my first freelance piece for The Guardian!

I’m very proud of this article, and it was a real privilege to work with domestic abuse charity SafeLives. They, and the organisations they work with, are doing such vital work in this area. Particular thanks to Sharon*, who so bravely and candidly shared her own experiences of violence and abuse.

The Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) is one of around 25 hospitals in the UK to have a team of Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (IDVAs). Now SafeLives, a charity dedicated to ending domestic violence, is calling for every hospital in the country to invest in on-site IDVAs to support more abuse survivors like Sharon.

More than half of domestic violence victims identified in hospital access A&E in the year before getting help, according to SafeLives’ A Cry for Health report. The charity believes health professionals are ideally placed to identify victims and intervene earlier.

“Domestic abuse is extremely difficult to talk about but a lot of research suggests health settings are a good place, in terms of not carrying stigma and feeling safe,” says chief executive Diana Barran. “We also know that clinical staff are unlikely to ask about domestic abuse if they aren’t confident there’s a someone they can refer to. This is simple; let’s have two or three specialist practitioners in every hospital.”

Many thanks also to IDVA Punita Bassi and nurse Mandie Burston, for sharing their experiences and expertise. They’re both such wonderful examples of how clinical staff and IDVAs can work together to protect patients experiencing violence. If only the system worked so well for all victims!

Read the article in full at The Guardian…

*Not her real name

 

If you need support

If you are based in the UK and experiencing domestic violence, or other forms of domestic abuse (including emotional, psychological, financial, or sexual abuse, or stalking), you don’t have to suffer alone. Please contact one of the following services for specialist advice and support.

For women:

Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247 (run in partnership between Refuge and Women’s Aid)

For men:

Freephone Men’s Advice Line, open 9am-5pm Monday-Friday: 0808 801 0327

For LGBT people:

Freephone Galop, open at the times below: 0800 999 5428

  • 10am-5pm Monday-Wednesday
  • 1pm-5pm Tuesday: trans-specific service
  • 10am-8pm Thursday
  • 1pm-5pm Friday
  • 12pm-4pm Sunday

Why, like Mark Zuckerberg’s, my views on religion have softened

zuckerberg-getty2Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg got some flak over the festive period, after innocently posting a “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah” message on Facebook.

Despite having previously defined as an atheist, Zuckerberg explained, in response to comments under his post, that: “I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important”.

Having been raised in a Christian family myself, I wrote for Independent Voices about why I can relate to Zuckerberg’s change of heart. I recently lost someone special, whose love, warmth and openness were a big influence on my life, and whose funeral really made me rethink the value of having a faith like hers.

Despite the headline (which I didn’t write), I’ve never really considered myself an atheist, although I’m not sure I believe in a God. I guess humanist probably comes closest to how I’d define my views. But I do also believe that my Christian upbringing played a big role in shaping my values and outlook on the world, and I can definitely see the importance of religion – or faith, or spirituality, or whatever else it may be – when it’s based on love, compassion, openness, tolerance and respect like my Aunty Grace’s was.

Of course, with eye-watering predictability and zero sense of irony, a small number from the band of anonymous, militant Twitter atheists saw my thoughtful, personal reflection on the compassion of my late relative, and responded to it with caps-lock, abuse and name-calling. Which doesn’t make all atheists tw*ts any more than all Muslims are terrorists or all Christians are “God hates fags”-placard-waving, abortion-clinic-protesting, science-denying creationists. I did have to laugh though!

You can read my article here*

(Please don’t bother getting in touch to insult my intelligence or the memory of someone I love.)

 

*Incidentally, my byline on the Independent website is Sarah Graham-Cooke to differentiate me in their system from LGBT activist Sarah Graham, who has also written for them previously. I’ve no plans to make it a regular pen name – I’ve never used my husband’s surname except as a collective noun (the Graham-Cookes) – but it seemed less confusing than having the website group two writers’ articles together under the same name**.

**With hindsight Sarah Graham-Cooke would almost certainly have been a better SEO choice than either Sarah Graham or Sarah Cooke, but I’m now pretty well attached to the name I’ve always had!

Balance 2017

balance-2017

Happy New Year! Wow, 2016 was intense, wasn’t it? I can’t believe it’s over so soon. I’ve spent a lot of the last few days, between Christmas and New Year, reflecting on 2016 and planning for the year ahead. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with New Year’s Resolutions, but I’m also a sucker for any kind of symbolic fresh start – whether that’s taking stock of my life in late December/early January, or stocking up on new stationery in September. This year my theme is “balance”, a word that’s been playing on my mind a lot in the last few months.

I write, therefore I am

With my contract at Women for Refugee Women finishing in September, prioritising and building my freelance business has been a big focus in the latter part of the year. I’ve spent a lot of time reading, learning, and talking to people about how to better balance the art of writing beautiful sentences with the science of running a business. How to not only write better, but also how to freelance better.

The beauty and the challenge of writing is that it can never be just a job. Writing is a passion, a vocation, something that feels totally natural. To paraphrase Descartes (such a cliche, I’m sorry), I write therefore I am. It’s a part of me, a source of comfort, a means for organising my thoughts and feelings, expressing myself in a way that I just can’t do verbally.

But the problem with this kind of career is that it blurs the boundaries between work and life. On the one hand, writing takes over and I’m never really off-duty, but on the other hand there’s also a danger that it becomes mundane – in the same way as I missed reading for pleasure while studying for a Literature degree.

Productivity

My focus last year was on making writing work for me – learning to view freelancing more as a business; finding processes that suit me; and creating systems to track my pitching, my marketing, my income. I’ve been so inspired by Emma Cossey‘s freelance habits, and by Mridu Khullar Relph, whose Freelance Business Blueprint course helped me devise my own digital tracking systems. I now use these daily alongside my good old-fashioned Evernote/Moleskine notebook, which uses a system based on the BulletJournal.

Accountability

In August I began working with Hackney-based accountability coach Ayesha Giselle – both as her client, and as her web content writer. (There is, I think, something wonderfully feminist about sharing skills of equivalent value with other women, and I’ve loved my reciprocal arrangement with Ayesha.) Through my sessions with Ayesha, and the content I’ve written for her, I’ve learned the enormous value of being accountable for your goals. Between Ayesha’s wisdom, and the support of my long-term freelance buddy Philippa Willitts, I definitely grew as a freelancer in 2016.

I also followed with interest Nicole Dieker’s monthly income report for The Write Life. Although I’m far too British to start posting my own monthly income online, I do love the power of being publicly accountable, and how she and everyone else can track the fruits of her labours month-on-month. As with my swimming challenge this autumn, I’ve realised that I’m so much better at sticking out the tricky bits when I’m committed to someone or something bigger than myself!

Balance

Which brings me to balance… While 2016 was a big year of learning and revelations in terms of my worklife, I’ve also realised how important my work-life balance really is – and that life definitely isn’t balanced enough as it is. It sounds painfully obvious typing it out, but I now know that I’m happier, more creative and more productive when I make time for the things I love, as well as the things that pay my bills. Running, swimming, reading, writing for the pure love of writing – all these things feed my creativity, my productivity, my physical and mental health, and yet I’m not fitting them in as much as I need to.

In 2017 I want to find that balance. I want to devour books and magazines like I did as a child, like I currently only manage on holiday. I want to make time each day for exercise, self-care, learning, and screen-free time alone with a notebook, pen and my thoughts. And I want to rediscover the joy of writing for the sake of writing – in my journal, on this blog, and *gulp* finally working on that novel. (I wrote the first sentence in the early hours of Boxing Day morning. Scary.)

Blogging

Back in November Jenn Mattern wrote a blog post on All Indie Writers, exploring the idea of finding motivation through monthly writing challenges. I loved the idea of tracking my efforts at work-life balance throughout 2017 (what better way to make sure I keep it up beyond mid-January?) So that’s the plan: a monthly blog post on all the things I’ve done outside of freelance work, as well as more regular updates on what I’m up to work-wise. Mini book reviews, fitness challenges, much more writing about my own mental health and wellbeing. Bring it on…