The ugly duckling and the life-raft
What does a blackbird singing mean to you?

Sometimes you have to stop

A couple of days ago I stopped working for lunch. My head was still full of the plans I'd been making for the last stage of my PhD. With A Secret Alchemy finished, I now have to hold onto the whole of it, mentally speaking, and write 'a commentary on its structure, its use of narrative technique, its relation to other literary works and an exposition of the aims and concerns that lay behind its composition.' When you learn that according to the university regulations I must also make it clear that I am 'well acquainted with the history and contemporary developments of the genre... and the critical field associated with it' and am 'able independently to analyse, interpret and evaluate the debates and theoretical positions associated with it,' you'll understand why writing a commentary on my novel feels a bit like trying to map a mountain after I'd climbed it in a mist.

But at the moment every which way I turn there's work. So on my way down to the kitchen I took with me what you might call work lite: the latest edition of Writing in Education, the journal of the NAWE. It's a special edition on writing in Higher Education, and full of interesting stuff that I've not really articulated to myself before. Maybe it's not everyone's idea of a rip-roaring read, though in the nature of things most of it's extremely well written. But it's full of lots of ideas. I found myself arguing, agreeing, discussing, and smiling, all in the empty silence of my own kitchen, all inside my own head. Only there wasn't room for it all among my ideas for my PhD, and as I read I started to feel weirdly feverish: I wanted to grab at ideas that slipped aside to make room for the next one, write everything down, underline all the good things on each page so that none of them would be lost, grab someone's sleeve, if only in an online way, and pour it all into their ears... It felt as if it was either that, or explode.

My half hour was up, my plate empty. Normally I take some coffee back upstairs with me, to counteract the after-lunch doziness, but I was far too wired to need it. Of all the things that needed doing, what would be the best use of the time? Preparing the next day's seminar was most urgent. Making sure I've got the tax I owe lined up and ready to be sent is horribly important and horribly depressing, but needn't be done today. (I've been saying that for weeks...) The talk I'm doing for Darwin Day is slightly less urgent and considerably more intriguing, but needs work and, worse still, telephoning aunts. The academic paper I'm planning, about writing across gender, is going to be fascinating, and even the abstract doesn't have to be there till the end of March, but if it's earlier, will that improve my chances of getting a slot at the conference? There's a novel to write a report on for Writers Workshop, which is a long, concentrated but predictably-shaped job, and hard, much-needed cash when I deliver. Or can I go where my heart really wants to go: the next stage of the story I started over New Year? It has no deadline, but those are the things which so easily never get done, and I want to know what's going to happen next...

For once I made the right decision: in a state somewhere between panic and intellectual elation I put on a jacket and went out for a walk. It's easy to forget, when you work for yourself, at home, at something which grabs your mind and your spirit in such a grip that your heart starts to race, that sometimes you just have to stop.