Making Friends with Failure

We need to talk about failure.

Or rather, we need to talk differently about failure.

Failure is something we’re conditioned to dread and not really talk about … and yet failing is an inevitable part of life.

As long as we dream and strive and try to move forwards in our lives we are sometimes going to fail.

So, it makes sense to me to try to reframe failure in a more positive way – as a stepping stone rather than a dead end.

A while ago, I wrote an article on the subject for The Guardian. You can read it here.

Off the back of that article, I was invited to give a talk on overcoming failure at the BBC.

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With Ros Atile, Head of Development at CBeebies

As part of that talk I shared the following 6 steps for dealing with failure positively. 

If you’ve recently failed at something – personally, professionally or creatively – I hope they help you move forward…

Step One

When failure happens, allow yourself to feel sad. Don’t try and block your negative feelings. Acknowledge what happened and that you feel like crap. Throw yourself a pity party.

Step Two

But know when to leave the pity party. Don’t be that annoying guest who stays too long. Don’t wallow in your sadness or anger or fear. Don’t let your failure come to define you. Make the conscious decision to let go and move on.

Step Three

Let go and move on by turning your so-called failure into a positive. Turn it into a positive by asking yourself the question: What is the lesson here? Or, How is what has happened also for the good?

Step Four

Another great question to help you move on is: What does this failure now leave me free to achieve? For example, when I was dropped by my first publisher – a devastating failure for me at the time – it left me free to take my career in a brand new direction and start writing for young adults. This in turn, led to some of my greatest career successes.

Step Five

Let go of the old failure and refocus your attention on a fresh new dream. See this dream as a light at the end of the tunnel, something to aim for to lead you out of the dark.

Step Six

When you’re still reeling from a failure it can be hard to start working towards a new dream. Counteract any inner doubts or fears by adopting a one-a-day strategy. Set yourself the simple task of doing one thing a day towards achieving your new dream, no matter how small. The one-a-day way will build momentum and soon lead you to fresh adventure.

And finally…

It’s not failure that plots our path in life but how we react when things go wrong.

Don’t let your failures imprison or define you, let them educate you and motivate you to move on.


Top Ten Tips for Young (or New) Writers

When I was a teenager I thought that my passion for books and writing was going to save me.

From the ages of fourteen to sixteen I’d rebelled against the system, bunking off school, going on protest marches, clubbing and drinking and taking drugs.

But then I had a reality check. If I wanted to leave the estate I’d grown up on – if I wanted to create a life I loved – I needed to start working hard to make that happen.

So I knuckled down and worked harder than I’d ever done before to pass my A levels so that I could get to uni.

I thought that a degree in English Literature and Screenwriting would be a passport into the world of writing.

As it turned out, it wasn’t.

I dropped out of uni two years into my course as I allowed the voice of fear inside my head to tell me that I didn’t belong in that middle class world.

I was wrong, but writing did end up saving me … just a few years later than planned!

I now care passionately about helping young writers believe in themselves and achieve their dreams.

So, if you’re a young adult with a writing dream, here are my top ten tips (PLUS some exciting workshop news at the end of this post).

Please feel free to share with any young – or new – writers in your life…

One: Write about what you’re passionate about

… As opposed to what you think will be popular. Don’t follow a trend, make a trend. It will help you stand out and your writing will be all the more vibrant and real. Plus, writing about the things that fire you up help give you the stamina to keep on writing.

Two: Start small.

If you dream of being a novelist but the thought of writing 70,000 plus words gives you a bad case of the dreads, downsize your writing dream. Not forever, just for now. Start by writing short stories or blog posts. Hone your craft in smaller, easier to achieve ways.

Three: It’s OK to be bad

Everyone is bad at first. Or, as the writer Ernest Hemingway put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ The main thing is that you write. Just like physical exercise, the more you do it, the better you become. So keep on showing up at the page and putting down the words one at a time, and hone that writing muscle.

Four: Write anyway

When doubt and fear strike, write your way through them. If your inner voice tells you that you’re not good enough, ignore it. It’s just your fear trying to protect you from disappointment. Focus instead on how amazing it will be when you achieve your writing dreams. Keep writing your way towards them.

Five: Use a character questionnaire

This is probably the tool I recommend most to other writers. Not only does it help you create interesting and well-rounded characters but it should give you a ton of ideas for your plot too. You can find a character questionnaire here. Feel free to add your own questions to it.

Six: Focus on your reader

When you start writing it can be really easy to forget all about the person you’re writing for. Remember your reader. When you’re coming up with ideas, fleshing out characters, creating a plot and writing a scene, ask yourself: what will my reader get from this? Make sure they’re getting something.

Seven: Do the right writing

There are many different types and genres of writing. Make sure you’re doing the right one for you. In my next novel, Tell it to the Moon, one of the main characters, Amber, is really struggling with writer’s block. She just can’t seem to find the motivation to write. But when she starts writing a play she just can’t stop. Experiment with different types of writing until you find the right one for you.

Eight: Don’t let the dream-busters get you down

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that whenever you have a dream you will encounter ‘dream-busters’. These are people who will try and put you off your writing dream with sly put-downs or passive aggressive remarks. This is usually down to their own unhappiness or jealousy. Try not to let it hurt you – let it fire you up and make you all the more determined instead.

Nine: Learn from constructive criticism

Writing is such a personal thing – even when you’re writing fiction it still feels liking you’re pouring your heart and soul on to the page. So if you receive criticism it can really sting. But – if the criticism is constructive – try to learn from it. Even best-selling authors get notes from their editors telling them how to improve their work. And ultimately, that should be your main objective – to make your writing the best that it can be.

Ten: Write for joy

Don’t write for fame and fortune, write for the pure joy of it. I used to think writing success and talent was measured in book sales, now I know for a fact that this isn’t true. Now I measure the success of my books in terms of how much joy I had while I was writing them. You should too – it makes the whole writing thing SO much better.

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Bonus tip: Come to my young writers workshop

I’m running a workshop for young writers (age 11 – 15) on Saturday 27th May at Brighton Festival.

We’ll be going into all of the tips featured here in a lot more detail.

And it will be a lot of fun.

Find out more and book your ticket here.

 

Young writers wanted…

I’m looking for young writers to write guest posts for the Moonlight Dreamers website.

Topics I’m looking for posts on include:

  • Achieving a dream
  • Writing
  • Sexuality
  • Bullying
  • Friendships
  • Political causes / activism

Or you can pitch me an idea of your own.

If you’d like to find out more or pitch me an idea, simply fill out the form below…

 

Tell it to the Moon_hi res

Coming August 2017

Tell it to the Moon, the Moonlight Dreamers sequel, is available to pre-order on Amazon here. Perfect for writers, dreamers and people who want to be the change.


In Celebration of Celebrity Publishing

I’ve been invited to take part in a panel discussion on celebrity children’s publishing.

One of the questions up for discussion is:

“Books by celebrities are often looked on as less worthy than books by ‘proper’ authors. Is this part of a culture of snobbery in children’s publishing?”

My short answer to this question would be, ‘yes’.

My longer answer goes something like this…

In my recent blog post, Be Proud of Where You Come From, I talk about what it was like growing up on a council estate and an excruciating lunch I had once with a group of publishing people, who openly mocked those living on estates.

I’ve worked with many different children’s publishers over the last few years (nine in total) and I can tell you it is an extremely middle-class and privileged world. And I can count the number of non-white people I’ve encountered in children’s publishing on the fingers of half a hand.

I have no idea exactly how many working class or non-white writers are commissioned by these publishers but I’m willing to hazard a guess that, historically,  it’s been a small percentage.

Until the advent of ‘celebrity publishing’.

Celebrity publishing has meant that people from working class and ethnic backgrounds, who’ve achieved success in less elitist areas such as sport, or music, or the online world, have been given a chance to share their stories through book deals.

And more importantly, when it comes to children’s publishing, to share their stories with young people who might have come from similar backgrounds. Young people who might not have automatic access to a library of books. Or even a single book. Young people who’ve never been encouraged to read.

When I was a kid, none of my friends on the estate I grew up on had bookshelves in their bedrooms. None of them had books in their bedrooms.

This isn’t necessarily because their parents didn’t understand the importance of reading.

When you’re struggling to find the money to feed and clothe your kids, books become a luxury item. A luxury item you simply can’t afford.

I once did an author talk to several hundred high school students in Wales. The students had been bussed in from all over the region – some were from affluent areas and others were from very poor communities.

I’m afraid the kids from poorer areas probably won’t be able to afford to buy your book,‘ one of the organisers told me at the beginning of the event.

When I was doing a book signing at the end it broke my heart to look into the auditorium and see whole blocks of students – all from the poorer schools – still seated, having to look on, while the richer kids queued up to buy books.

So, what exactly does this have to do with celebrity publishing?

I know for a fact that many, many young people from poorer backgrounds have got into reading after their favourite celebrity has published a book. I’ve heard this from young people during school visits time and time and time again.

And whenever I’ve heard it, it’s made my heart sing. Because I know what a big deal this is. Because I know that this, sometimes very first owned book will be a treasured gift. A gift that may well spark a life-long love of reading that might otherwise have gone undiscovered.

So, when I see snooty articles and headlines about celebrity books being ‘turkey twizzlers for the brain‘, or responsible for dumbing down an entire generation, it makes me sick.

It’s such a lazy bandwagon to jump on.

So easy to join the chorus of negativity without even knowing – or bothering to learn – the truth.

So-called ‘celebrities’ aren’t Dick Dastardly style characters, rubbing their hands with glee while they plot the intellectual downfall of our kids.

They’re ordinary humans, who’ve worked hard to achieve extraordinary success. And, when they’re given books deals as a result of this success, they work extremely hard to make sure that their books uplift and inspire their fans.

I know this to be true – not only from the celebrities that I’ve helped but from other writers who’ve also helped celebrities with their books.

I also know from publishing friends that a large chunk of the money made by celebrity books gets ploughed back into commissioning new and unknown writers and mid-list authors. So it simply isn’t true to say that celebrity books are stealing opportunities away from writers – it would appear to me that they’re actually funding opportunities.

I’d urge anyone who feels that celebrity children’s books are ‘less worthy’ than books by ‘proper’ authors to go and spend some time on a sink estate – or in a run-down school.

Talk to the fans of these celebrities about what their books have meant to them – the positive difference they have made. And how these celebrities’ stories – both real-life and fictional – have given these young people hope and inspired them to dream. 

Instead of mocking and joining the latest twitter witch-hunt, shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, in this increasingly online world, young people are still reading?

And shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that celebrity children’s publishing is making the world of books accessible to a large section of young people who have traditionally been under-represented and ignored?

Tell it to the Moon_hi res

Tell it to the Moon, the sequel to The Moonlight Dreamers, is available to pre-order on Amazon now. Perfect reading for dreamers … and anyone who wants to be the change they want to see in the world.

 


The Gritty Truth About Writing

It was a Saturday night.

My head was thumping and my eyes were sore.

My entire body ached – especially my shoulders, which were knotted tight.

How much longer will this go on for? I wailed into the darkness.

I thought of the rest of the world all out enjoying their Saturday night – dancing, laughing, drinking cocktails with fun names like Tequila Facelift and Vodka Orgasm – and it made me want to weep into my glass of water.

But I wasn’t ill that Saturday night.

I wasn’t stricken down by the flu or in the grips of a migraine.

I was writing my first novel.

And I was wracked with exhaustion and despair.

I had no idea if what I was writing was any good.

I had no idea if I’d ever get the plot to work.

I had no idea if my characters were likeable or even believable.

Basically, I had no idea.

I felt like giving up practically every single day but somehow – thankfully – I kept going.

And I kept going because I had grit.

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Writing a book takes creativity and imagination … but it also takes a huge amount of determination.

It’s easy to dream of writing … but quite another thing to keep on showing up at the page, day after day after day after day.

Or, in my case back then, as the mother of a young son, night after night after night after night.

So, how do you find the grit to get the words down on the page?

How do you overcome the nagging doubts that sit on your knotted shoulders as you type, telling you you’re not good enough?

The answer is, you have to want it really bad.

And you have to get crystal clear on why you want it so bad.

It could be that you’re desperate to share the message of your book with the world…

Get crystal clear on why that is. Who or how would you be helping?

It could be that writing is as essential to you as breathing…

Get crystal clear on why writing makes you so happy. Make your writing all about enjoying the journey, stop obsessing about the destination.

It could be that you love the idea of entertaining or inspiring or thrilling or scaring readers with your words…

Get crystal clear on how happy this would make you feel. Picture your words lighting up others all across the world.

If it helps, free-write your answers to the following prompts:

  • I have to write because…
  • My dream life as a writer would involve…
  • If I don’t follow through on my writing dreams I’m afraid that…

 

Back when I was writing my first novel my main motivation was the financial freedom a book deal would give me.

When I had moments of doubt and despair like on that Saturday night I’d remind myself of exactly how badly I needed to make it as a writer.

Making it as a writer would put me back in control of my own destiny again, doing something that I loved, and really, who doesn’t want that?

So, I kept on showing up at the page, learning my craft from my many mistakes as I went.

And a couple of years later, my first novel was published.

I’ve since had ten other books published.

And one thing I’ve learned more than anything else is that it’s grit, fuelled by desire, that makes writing dreams come true.

 

For more writerly inspiration please visit the Dare to Write section of this website.


Be Proud of Where You Come From

‘How come I never get invited round to your house for tea?’ my friend Jane asked one day as we embarked upon another epic game of French skipping in the school playground.

It was a question the ten-year-old me had been dreading. I’d been round to Jane’s house many times. It was beautiful and huge and so different from mine it was like visiting an enchanted palace. There was a swimming pool in the back garden and a kitten-soft, leather three-piece suite in the living room and a phone on the wall in the kitchen (back then, having more than one phone in your house was a very big deal and having one mounted to the wall was the height of extravagance). They even had an entire store room devoted to food. Jane’s parents travelled a lot and they always brought back exotic edibles from their adventures. Delicate, wafer-thin biscuits from Belgium, brightly packaged breakfast cereals from America and squeezy candy in tubes from France. All of this overseas food was stored in a small room next to the kitchen – a room Jane and I would raid regularly for midnight feasts.

In contrast, my terraced house was small and two-adults-plus-four-kids-messy and, even worse to ten-year-old me, it was on a council estate (think the projects, US readers).

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The council estate I lived on was called James Bedford Close. I never did find out who James Bedford was but I’m not sure he’d have been all that happy with this tribute to him.

Although the estate was pristine and cheery when it was first built and we moved in – with playgrounds for the kids and brightly painted front doors (ours was canary yellow) and even had it’s own on-site caretaker – things soon went downhill.

The flats on the estate became a dumping ground for troubled people, the caretaker was axed and the brightly painted doors began to chip and peel.

Our childhood games reflected the changes. As well as playing hide and seek and knock down ginger we also started playing ‘spot the junkie’ – spying through the grimy windows of the local druggies’ flats. It was terrifying and exciting in equal measure. You got bonus points every time you spotted a prone body sprawled amongst the carnage inside.

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One family on the estate owned four dogs, named Tyson, Rocky, Rambo and Teddy, who they let roam free, day and night, providing a regular source of terror throughout my childhood and teenage years. My dad became my lifelong hero when he kicked Teddy after it went for me on the way to Brownies one night. Such bravery!

How could I invite my friend Jane from her enchanted palace, with its wall-mounted phones and rooms devoted to food into this world?

The answer was, I couldn’t and I didn’t. I was too embarrassed.

So I came up with ever more elaborate excuses as to why she couldn’t come round. ‘My dad has lots of work to do.’ ‘My mum isn’t very well.’ ‘I’m being punished for not feeding the goldfish. My parents ended up being over-worked and sick and punishing me for most of my childhood.

Fast forward to a few years ago and I’m at a lunch with a group of publishing folk. 

In my experience, publishing folk are very nice folk but they’re also very white and middle class folk and I’ve yet to meet one who grew up on a council estate.

At some point during our lunch the conversation turned to council estates and more specifically, the type of people who live on them.

The conversation became patronising and sneery and ‘ho-ho-ho aren’t working class people so frightfully gross‘.

I felt a rage in my belly, ‘fuck you’ thought-bubbles over my head.

These privately educated, privileged people had no idea of the hardships endured by those living on a council estate. To them, the poor were just peasants, there to be mocked over a nice glass of prosecco.

They knew nothing about the decent, hard-working people who live on estates. The people who are forced to live in the bleakest of conditions, often in property that ought to be condemned.

They knew nothing about the stress this can cause.

They knew nothing about what it’s like to be so poor you have to choose between feeding your kids or yourself.

They knew nothing about the way poverty and powerlessness can sap your will and kill your dreams. But I did.

One night, when I was about sixteen, a local gang set fire to a car outside my bedroom window. It was to prove a turning point for me.

I’d spent the previous two years skiving off school, drinking and taking drugs. I’d begun giving up hope that things could get better.

But as I watched that car burn, I realised I had a choice: I either carried on down that path and ended up condemned to an eternity of living in fear … or I worked my butt off to get to university so I’d be able to leave.

The next two years were like the training montage in a Rocky movie. I stopped drinking and getting stoned and started studying and running, all the while listening to a soundtrack of angry rock music and hip-hop to motivate me.

I made it to uni … and two years later I dropped out of uni as I couldn’t stand being so in debt.

But something inside of me had shifted. I believed in the power of dreams. I had proof of the power of determination and grit.

I kept working and dreaming until I’d achieved my dream of becoming a writer … and ended up at the publishing lunch.

And when the publishing folk at that lunch started mocking the people who live on council estates I didn’t feel embarrassed, like I did back when I was a kid, I felt proud.

Proud that no silver spoon or private education or networking or nepotism had bought me a place at that table – hard graft and dreams had.

And so I told them in no uncertain terms that they were talking crap. That most people who live on council estates are decent and hard-working and have just been dealt a worse hand in life than them.

I told them that I grew up on an estate and I was proud of that fact.

I told them that they ought to think more before they sneered and mocked.

And then there was silence – of the tumbleweed kind.

I went home that day feeling really upset. I liked everyone at that table – it was just their incorrect preconceived ideas that I hated. What if they didn’t want to work with me any more? What if, having worked so hard to get a place at their table, they turned their backs on me?

But that night I got an email from one of the woman present at the lunch, apologising profusely. ‘My parents didn’t bring me up to talk like that,’ she told me. ‘They would have been ashamed to hear what I said. I’ll never talk like that again.’

As I read her words I cried – and I learned another important lesson: we should always be proud of where we come from … and never be afraid to voice that pride.

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Last week, I went back to James Bedford Close.

I walked through the flats where we used to play ‘spot the junkie’.

I saw the ghost of my childhood past clambering over the remnants of the climbing frames.

I looked up at the bedroom window I used to gaze from and dream of better.

And I felt incredibly grateful.

Grateful for the start in life growing up on a council estate gave me.

Grateful for the street-smarts and the savvy and the endless adventures.

Grateful for the lesson that anything is possible with the right amount of grit and the determination to dream.


The Gilmore Girls Guide to Great Writing

The only good thing to come out of my bout of flu earlier this year was that – in my desperate search for something to watch in my feverish, bed-ridden state – I came across the show Gilmore Girls.

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Gilmore Girls is a comedy-drama series about a young single mum and her daughter, set in the fictional small American town of Stars Hollow. It originally aired from 2000 – 2007 and all seven series are now available on Netflix PLUS a Gilmore Girls revisited special.

Each series contains twenty-two, forty-five minute episodes. It’s a Netflix binger’s paradise. And – in my humble opinion – a masterclass in great writing.

To anyone interested in writing, I thoroughly recommend you watch it. Here are my takeaways from a writing point of view and why I think it’s so good…

 

Great, nuanced characters

Gilmore Girls has a huge cast of characters, all of them colourful and well-rounded. It’s a great example of how it pays to spend time developing your characters before starting to write. Take time to flesh out their backstory; to give them interesting quirks and traits and to develop their own distinctive voice.

 

Whip-smart dialogue

And speaking of voice, Gilmore Girls excels when it comes to dialogue. There’s a lot of dialogue in the show but it’s razor-sharp, funny, pacey, and packs a punch. The verbal sparring between the characters is brilliant and each of them have their own distinctive verbal ticks.

 

Wonderful world

The world of Stars Hollow has been so well realised you want to slip through your screen and live there too – or at least I did! The funny traditions, the town meetings, Luke’s Diner, the store, the town troubadour(!), the writers have created a wonderful world for the show. Take time to develop the settings for your stories so that they become characters in their own right.

 

Perfect balance of humour and poignancy

Although Gilmore Girls is way more funny and feel-good than sad, it still has its very poignant moments. This contrast between light and dark makes it compelling viewing. You become emotionally invested in the characters because the writers show us their vulnerabilities and make us truly care. Make sure your own story contains light and dark. Play on your reader / viewer’s emotions to make them care.

 

Realistic relationships

The relationships between the characters in Gilmore Girls are believable and compelling. Even the closest relationship in the show – between Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory – is tested at times. And when they become estranged in one of the series it made for gripping viewing. On-off romances, mother-daughter tension, professional and love rivalries, friendship, fallings out – Gilmore Girls has it all and handles it all in a way that’s engaging and believable.

 

Well-developed secondary characters and ‘baddies’

Even the minor characters in Gilmore Girls are interesting and well-developed. The same is true for the occasional ‘bad’ character. We’re shown why they’re troubled and as a result feel empathy for them. The writers haven’t been lazy or taken any shortcuts and this greatly adds to the richness of the viewing experience. Take the time to fully flesh out all of your characters – it will really pay off.

 

Full of heart

As a result of all of the above Gilmore Girls is full of heart. You feel better for watching it; warm inside and more hopeful and optimistic about the world. It’s like mug of hot chocolate in TV form but without being too sickly-sweet. I can’t recommend it highly enough…

 


Notes on Not Giving Up

Every so often our life is rudely interrupted.

By a shock diagnosis…

An unexpected redundancy…

A brutal break-up…

The death of a loved one…

These landmines along life’s path have the power to destroy our happiness, equilibrium, even our sanity.

I hit a landmine recently and here are some notes I wrote in the depths of despair to try and cheer myself up. They helped me. I hope they help you…

 

This too shall pass

There’s a reason why this phrase has been so widely quoted ever since its first use in the early nineteenth century – it’s true. Everything passes. Nothing stays the same. Even the very worst of times. It just feels as if they’ll never end. But they will and do. Hold on tightly to that thought.

 

These are the uphill steps to happiness

Remind yourself that you’re still on the path to happiness – it’s just that you’ve hit an uphill stretch (and quite possibly a stormy one too). The trick is to keep walking. Eventually you’ll get to the top and the view from up there will be breath-taking.

 

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Count your blessings every day

Even on the worst of days – especially on the worst of days – remember to take time to be grateful. Each night, write a list of the things you’ve been grateful for that day. Even if you have to do this to the accompanying sound of a barrel being scraped, scrape away. You’ll find something.

 

Seek out pockets of joy

Joy is always available – it’s just that sometimes you have to seek it out. And sometimes it can be very well hidden. Seek out pockets of joy amongst the sadness and stress. They are there.

 

Ask for help

Help wants to be given. Don’t let pride or some insane desire to be super-human get in the way. You’re not super-human, you’re all-too-human – we all are – and sometimes we need help. There are loads of people out there who love to be of service – let them help you now.

 

Seek comfort in hindsight

Remind yourself of other dark times you’ve been through – and got through. You can do this. Ask yourself what helped you back then. Apply the wisdom of hindsight to your current situation.

 

Visualise a happy future

Visualise it so hard you almost believe it’s happened already. Carve out time to daydream. Write down your dreams. Create a dream board. Compose a list of all the cool things you’re going to do once the storm has passed.

 

When self-pity strikes ask ‘Who can I help?’

It’s all too easy to sink into a pit of self-pity when the going gets tough. But all that does is make you feel worse. A great way to snap yourself out of a pity party is to help someone else. Perform a random act of kindness. Do something nice for a friend. Shift the emphasis from you for a while.

 

Be kind to yourself

Don’t beat yourself up, build yourself up. Buy yourself treats. Don’t burn yourself out. Prioritise. Focus solely on what really matters – like getting through the day. Put non-essentials on the back-burner. You can come back to them when things are better and you are stronger.

 

Immerse yourself in nature

It you’re able to, get out into nature, whatever the weather. When I was at my lowest ebb recently I went for a hike in gale force wind and driving rain. It felt great battling against the elements, symbolic of my struggle somehow, and the wind blowing my doubts and fear free. There’s a wisdom to be found in nature. Tap into it. Tell your problems to a tree.

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Hold on to hope

Even when it seems like there’s none to be found. Hold on to the hope of better, brighter days. I’ve found mine – and you will too. Sometimes faith is all we have left, but faith is a powerful thing. I’ve known it work miracles…