Isolation with Nora

It started with Heartburn. The novel, you understand, by Nora Ephron.

It had come my way as a recommendation from a friend, as a book perfect for These Times. And it was. For three glorious days I was transported out of myself and lockdown London and into the life of Rachel (Nora) and the 1970s on the East Coast.

I really did, for the first time, forget about The Situation.

I finished the book and moved on. I read other things. But nothing else compared, nothing had the wit and style and compulsive energy of Nora’s writing. I was hooked.

So I sought her out and, deep in a writerly love affair, ordered the full collection of her writings. I liked that it is called The Most – not the best – of Nora Ephron. It is a tome, and the description fits her: she writes effusively. The most, she is.

I’m aware that it would be more proper to refer to her, as one does with writers, by her last name. But her nonfiction – she was a journalist and essayist much more than a novelist – is intensely relatable. Reading her this week, she has kept me company, has been my friend. She isn’t Ephron, she’s Nora.

And here’s the thing: I’d quite like to be Nora, too. Minus the divorces.

She is smart, witty, pithy. She digresses from her point. She is acerbic. With a phrase, she has conjured an entire personality.

She is honest, wise. She does not shy away from the hard topics: divorce, feminism, family, death. On love, she is mercifully quiet.

Wouldn’t it be something, to be as gutsy as Nora? I thought she must have acquired wisdom with age, but many of the essays in the book date from the 70s, when she was in her 30s. I guess I have about a decade to learn to put it all out on the field. We’ll see.

She writes about journalism, and you can tell how she despises much of the news industry. But she loves it, too, perhaps even better for knowing its flaws. I don’t know a single journalist who doesn’t feel the same way.

Her description of a mid-century newsroom is enough to make me nostalgic for things I never knew. It’s also enough to make me very glad I missed it, too. But it reminds me of why I do what I do: the excitement of a break, the thrill of holding people to account. I have much to learn.

And then there’s New York. It’s the backdrop to her writing, seeping through all her stories. She is, unarguably, part of the Manhattan elite. She hangs out with New York Times food critics and artists from the Village. It’s glamorous and creative and gossipy.

No doubt it’s also unattainable. But Nora’s New York chimes with my long-harboured desire to disappear to the Big Apple – for, I don’t know, six months, a year – and just write and meet interesting people and in some way live outside myself. Just for a little bit, just to see.

Of course you cannot, in fact, live outside yourself. If I were to disappear as above, I would still be chronically anxious – and being several thousand miles away I would likely be acutely anxious too. And yet I can’t help but feel the shock would force me to write, and cope, and be more gutsy. To be a little more like Nora, but without her inexplicable antipathy towards the New Yorker, my one true love and another cause of my ridiculous obsession with the place.

Just as Nora can’t let go of the ideal of being married, I can’t get over the ideal of the city, or rather, myself in the city. She is, like I say, very relatable.

And like all writers, she writes about writing. We can’t help ourselves. It makes me like her even more.

I often worry that while writing comes naturally I don’t really have anything to say. It should, I fear, be the other way round.

So I am going to try to remember Nora’s maxim, learned from her mother, that ‘everything is copy’.

Everything is copy. Even, it seems for me, Nora herself.

Progress

At the beginning of the year I set myself a to do list. Naturally I am somewhat behind on nearly all fronts, but some progress is being made. I have indeed begun learning French and some digital stuff, mostly Photoshop. Both seem unreasonably complicated (I just don’t understand how I am supposed to remember the grammatical gender of a tomato), but it is nice to feel the old cogs in my brain start to whir again. I have even been wasting a little less time by just reading and reading and reading. I keep finding fantastic writers and then reading everything they’ve ever written; my latest obsession is Kathryn Schulz, whose New Yorker piece from last year, ‘The Really Big One‘, is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

But actually most of my time has been spent dealing with emails and making or waiting for phone calls. I have concluded that this, rather than the freedom to make your own decisions or the ability to vote, is the defining state of adulthood. Like school, it is very dull and has delayed results. But, finally, all the arrangements have been made and I am starting a month of work experience at the BBC on Monday! I am very excited to be spending time across four teams at the iconic Broadcasting House: Newshour and Newshour Extra, which are the World Service’s in depth news programmes, BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire Show and Newsnight, where basically all my favourite journalists work. To say I am looking forward to it would be a laughable understatement.

In preparation, I have become very good friends with iPlayer, listening to all the recent episodes of the programmes I will be working on. In particular, I have really enjoyed Newshour Extra – I rarely have the radio on when it is broadcast so it wasn’t a programme I had listened to before, but the format makes it highly informative. Last week’s episode on Libya and where it could go from here was some of the best coverage I’ve heard of a country which most of the world has forgotten about.

So things are moving forward. I still don’t write enough and I haven’t got much further in finding an actual real job (not withstanding getting through to the test stage of the civil service Fast Stream application). I still don’t know anything about coding or the French past tense. But going into work for the next four weeks is just what I need, and I hope it’ll take me on to other things as I learn more about broadcasting. Now I’d better post this and go back to searching Guardian Jobs and listening to Newshour.

To do

It’s two weeks into 2017 and things are starting to come together. After a bumpy end to last year, I finally have full-time care sorted out (hurrah!) and some idea about where I am going with life. I am carving out a new existence back in London, at home for now but with plans to be a real adult in my own place sometime soon-ish. I have a couple of job interviews coming up and I am excited about the schemes I am applying for. I am feeling very 22.

Still, being unemployed and living with my parents is not ideal. So I need to make the next few months as fun and productive as possible – resisting the lure of doing nothing but completing job applications and watching Netflix. In a bid to force myself to do things, I am holding myself accountable by making myself accountable to you as well. Here’s a list of things I want to do before I get a job and move out – a last hurrah of growing up, if you like. Please, please make sure I do them.

  • Read interesting books and keep learning. One of the few real joys of leaving full-time education after a long 17 years is being unshackled from reading lists. I can officially read what I want! This is very exciting. Recently I have enjoyed some good history and am looking to expand into the genres of memoir and philosophy; so much more enjoyable in their popular rather than academic forms.
  • Cultivate a proper journalist’s Twitter profile. Share pieces that I like and connect with other writers. Write a quick message when a thought strikes me. Develop a following and a real presence.
  • Learn some digital skills. I have signed up to CodeAcademy to get up to speed on HTML and CSS, the core components for building web pages. I started this a while ago and haven’t stuck with it but now that my days have more structure I am determined to do a little, often. The same is true of Photoshop. I know being able to use this programme will really help me in media jobs, so I have signed up to an online course. Once I have the basics down, I will move on to InDesign, the journalism staple.
  • Write more. I say this all the time, but I really want to up my game here and stop feeling life a fraud when I call myself a writer. So here’s the deal: I am going to write twice a week. I am going to stop feeling like blogging doesn’t count or matter and I am going to stop telling myself the idea isn’t worth pursuing. I am going to stop finding excuses. So be prepared for some random blog posts and lots of rambling about what I’m up to.
  • Pitch. Until I have a job, my only source of income will be freelancing, so I’d better do more of it. More importantly, I want to build up my portfolio, especially by writing different types of pieces for different publications. As much as I wish it were so, I probably can’t make a career out of 700-word comment pieces for the Guardian. The challenge here, of course, isn’t so much in the writing as it is in the having an idea in the first place. Hopefully the aforementioned reading will help, but I think it’s a bit like everything else: the more I do it the easier it’ll get. Watch this space.
  • Write a long read. This is the biggest challenge on this list, but also the most exciting. Recently I have found myself buried in long reads – in the Guardian, New Yorker, Atlantic and more (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic piece, ‘My President was Black’ is a must-read) – and now I want to try this extraordinary kind of journalism for myself. I have been further inspired by the Longform podcast, which I listen to every night as I fall asleep, in which incredible writers discuss their stories and methods with other incredible writers. It’s journalist heaven but I am also extremely jealous of the exciting work they do. I want to jump on the longform bandwagon, especially as it’s a form which is actually thriving in the digital age. To this end, I have just read Storycraft: the Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Non-fiction by Jack Hart, which is absolutely r ammed with tips and examples, and now I am raring to go. For practical reasons, I am going to try my hand at some personal essays first before one day attempting some reported narrative. This is hard stuff and completely outside my writing comfort zone. Wish me luck.
  • Learn French (a bit). This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while but I really didn’t like the way languages were taught at school (agh worksheets, my nemesis). So now I have left formal education it’s time to give this a decent go, especially as the lack of a second language feels like a glaring hole in my CV. I’m still working out how best to approach this (classes? books? online?) but by 2018 I hope to be nodding less and speaking more when I cross the Channel.
  • Not have a nervous breakdown about global politics. The less said about this the better.
  • Stop wasting time. I have accepted that procrastinating is just an essential part of my nature, just like wobbling and bitter sarcasm, so the aim is to make the procrastination worthwhile. This essentially translates to: get off Facebook, read a book.

Some of this is fairly ambitious, some of it I should have done years ago (French, I’m looking at you here). But having written this list, I can say that everything on it is achievable. Feel free to pester me about it; I’m just hoping a job comes along and lets me off the hook!

Why be a journalist?

As ever, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything apart from course notes. Again, I’ve slipped back into university – lectures, reading, friends, not enough sleep – and out of writing. I don’t know why it’s so much harder here; I don’t know why all the ideas I had in the summer have disappeared like a well running dry. If this is what I do, who I am (and I firmly believe that it is), shouldn’t it come a little easier?

In a New York Times’ op-ed this week, Hector Tobar, a journalism professor, writes of his students’ resilience in the face of the looming question: “who’d be a journalist?” With everyone seemingly keen to question the wisdom of entering a industry that is ‘dying’, from friends to family to the voice in my head, it would be easy to say “not me” and turn the other way. It would be easy to take that job in the civil service, policy analysis or think tanks. It would be easy to do something that would pay the bills. But it would be impossible not to look back and regret.

Because whenever anyone asks, I point to the reporters showing us the world’s forgotten people; I link to the columnists questioning an unjust world; the people telling their hard and uplifting stories, all in the form of newsprint. I open up the New Yorker and find an exquisite sentence, a unique viewpoint in the Guardian. Everywhere in journalism I see people being brave, speaking truth to power, asking the questions no one is answering. How could I not want to do that?

People misunderstand journalism as simply relaying events and opining on them like a public school debater. Some merely think of the gutter press and write it off as immoral. But that’s the bad journalism, the stuff just written for page views and sales, and that’s fine, because it props up the profound stuff. I genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that words are power, power that can do so much good. That’s why people write, that’s why people stare down the barrel of long hours and low pay and ‘we’re not hiring’ emails. Because of a passion for story telling and a determination to be heard. I may never go on a protest or find an answer to any of the world’s problems, but I will always – always – stand up and be counted.

But despite such fierce belief, and no matter how much talent or effort you summon, writing is hard. Writing is painful. It is so full of self-doubt that sometimes it’s easier to just get on with all the things that don’t require you to look inside yourself quite so much.  Strings of letters cannot be but an imperfect rendering of the idea they flow from. And it happens so very slowly, each decision considered and reconsidered. It cannot be done in a hurry, and yet time must be made. Writers are known to be neurotic and it is easy to see why. Writing is as much about guilt and fear as freedom and hope. But get it right, and what a sense of satisfaction. What a relief.

When people come to understand the effort, conviction and bloody-mindedness required to be a journalist or a writer, they are wont to say that they “don’t know why you do it”. I try to explain the passion and the inability to imagine yourself doing anything else. Still, they say, why not choose something else, why take the risk of endless disappointment? “Yes,” I say, “it’s hard; you have to really want it. And I really want it.”

Summer’s end

I’m going back up to Warwick next Saturday for my final year, which has come around way too quickly. As I desperately try, and fail, to cross things off my to-do list, I am struck by how long it has been since I posted here. I admit I don’t really have an excuse for my lack of blogging; I have been busy, busier than in all past summers combined, but really I would have had plenty of time to blog if I had made the effort. I didn’t. This post is likely to become a long and rambling attempt to make this up (mainly to myself) but I hope it is interesting for you too.

On the bright side, it is not as if I have been lazy. I’ve visited the Edinburgh Fringe and Crete (both hugely enjoyable) and been to Birmingham a few times. I’ve recruited new carers, caught up with family and countless friends, researched masters programmes and done nowhere near enough preparation for my dissertation. At least I now know that I will probably look at the problems of democracy promotion in post-conflict settings, most likely Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Rwanda, but this will probably change and become more refined as I read around the subject. Right now I will just be happy if I manage to write 10,000 words on anything.

The masters research has paid off a little. Although questions still remain over accessibility, I am pretty sure that I will be applying to the LSE, UCL and King’s College London to study international relations. While I do not want to and can’t move back in with my parents, it is time to come home to the city, especially with my career beginning to take off (read on for more!). I miss its unique sense of being simultaneously at the middle and on the edge; a great tumult of humanity, which for me holds so much possibility. For now, my heart lies in the small patch of land outside Coventry that is Warwick’s campus, but London is where I need to be. And so I find myself trying to write personal statements good enough to give me the remote possibility of getting into such prestigious universities and it’s not proving to be easy. Wish me luck.

Best of all this summer, I have been writing. I didn’t quite fulfil my goal of pitching to loads of publications, partly because of business, partly because of fear of the unknown and partly because I have yet to crack the skill of having multiple unique ideas at any given time. But I have officially earned the title ‘freelance journalist’ having continued to write for the Guardian since my internship there. For the first time in my five years of writing, I am even making money from my words. Perhaps you can understand why I have been concentrating on freelance work over blogging. Anyway, I couldn’t be happier. I was quoted in the Week too so I seem to be doing alright.

And what of the summer’s politics? It was dominated by two stories; Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable victory in the Labour leadership election and the heart-breaking refugee crisis. When it comes to the former, I am simply disappointed. I think the media furore around Corbyn’s supposed radicalism missed some deeply concerning social conservatism buried in his economic leftism and, unable to command loyalty within his own front bench of supporters, let alone the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party, it seems unlikely that Corbyn will be an effective opposition to a Tory government in desperate need of restraining. The rhetoric of a ‘new politics’ is all very well, but Corbyn’s version is both a return to the 1970s and a free pass for Osborne. Hardly progressive, and an even deeper shame in light of the progressive, positive centre-left vision set out by Yvette Cooper, the only candidate to inspire a modicum of excitement in me.

But if Labour have driven me to shake my head in bewilderment, Europe’s response to the refugee crisis has left me both angry and deeply sad. There is too much to say here, bemoaning the lack of solidarity between the EU’s member states, politicians’ inability to act with moral conviction, and the complete failure to tackle the desperate situation in Syria. But the biggest issue is politicians’ and the public’s refusal to recognise the reality of the situation: that refugees fleeing the bloodiest war since WWII should be exempt from the politics of migration and instead should be treated with the basic human compassion Europe was built to express. If a mother is frightened enough to put her children aboard an unseaworthy raft, who are we to question her motives? In all things, if you wouldn’t swap places with someone, don’t judge them. It really is that simple.

As I head off for the start of a daunting and exciting new year, answers for these desperate people do not appear any closer than they did at the beginning of the summer. I can only hope that future generations of politics students are not taught that refugee crisis of the summer of 2015 did not presage the crumbling of the European principles of solidarity and free movement, or of the EU itself. They should be defended with everything we have. I hope to be able to make that argument as I write more and more over the coming year.

Interesting times

What a week it has been. Between the Greek crisis, the anniversary of 7/7, and the budget, just the first three days were hectic. And then from there we had budget fallout, the unfolding situation in Tunisia, a Chinese banking crisis and, of course. more Greece. As a new week starts, it remains entirely possible that the embattled country will crash, or be forced, out of the Eurozone and maybe the EU.

What made the week even more remarkable was that I spent it in the Guardian’s newsroom, having won work experience at their Student Media Awards. So far it’s been fantastic; I’ve gained experience researching, contacting press offices and using the newswires. I also get to sit in on the meeting where they decide which story goes on which page of the next day’s paper; a journalistic skill in itself. Excitingly, I’ve also been allowed to write – covering Nicky Morgan’s response to a sexist photographer, Ian Duncan Smith’s fist-pump, and giving a student’s reaction to the budget. All being well, another piece I wrote will run in the society pages of the actual paper in August. Of course, I enjoyed this writing immensely.

But by far the highlight of each day is the 10am conference, where senior staff and editors gather for a discussion of the day’s events. Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief, always starts the meeting with a list of the previous day’s successful and enjoyable pieces – on Friday my student piece made the grade! Then it’s on to a fascinating discussion of the top stories. With staff giving explanations, sharing opinions and making predictions, I can almost feel my brain soaking up knowledge. I am very proud to say that I contributed to a discussion about why politicians feel able to ignore young people. Despite the fact that my heart was pounding away, it wasn’t a small achievement for someone who does not enjoy public speaking. If only I could have kept it up when Katherine Viner briefly spoke to me afterwards, but inevitably the cat got my tongue.

On Tuesday, Yvette Cooper came to conference to give a small speech and answer questions. Although this was very exciting, as an unconvinced floating voter, I wasn’t expecting to be too impressed. But impressed I was, both with her principled moderation which does not pander to her party and her strong feminism (I’d probably support a feminist in any stripes). I’d like to see her take David Cameron down a peg or two. Andy Burnham, one of her competitors in the Labour leadership election, is coming in next week; it’ll be good to see how he compares. I never thought I’d be in a room with top politicians at the age of 20, but there I was.

I have had a great week, topped off with the news that I got a first in my second year of university. I am looking forward to another week on news and then another on the comment desk. With negotiations between Greece and its European creditors on-going, it could be an interesting time to be in journalism.

Lessons from the year

My second year at university saw success on three fronts: more work, more reading and more writing. Somewhere along the way, I learnt quite a bit; about myself, journalism and politics. And so, having, like a lot of journalists, bemoaned the advent of the ‘listicle’ (which I still maintain should not be a word), I present you with the highlights of these lessons.

  • There is absolutely no point in reading an entire book that you don’t understand just because it’s required reading (in my case, political theory from the 18th and 19th centuries). Find one that explains the core text in intelligible English and save time, boredom and exam season stress
  • On a related note, John Rawls is god’s gift to politics students
  • Planning essays is the best way to revise
  • My academic interests lie in security studies, human rights, justice and feminism. I am probably a constructivist but I believe in moral imperatives
  • It’s probably high time I transferred my essay-planning skills to pitching articles (by which I mean: knowing what my point is before I start)
  • There is nothing as gratifying as reward for hard work
  • There is nothing as uplifting as well-loved friends making you laugh on a bad day
  • No matter how inconveniently-timed the urge to read a novel or write something is, do it and don’t feel guilty for not doing other things. You’re probably learning more than if you were writing an essay and the inspiration is fleeting
  • My heart lies with 20th century American novels, the Guardian, New Yorker and New York Times, and inexplicably compelling internet think-pieces
  • I am not an aspiring journalist. I am a journalist
  • Not to overdo things. Take a break if your brain is no longer absorbing information. Lie in if you know that extra hour will help you function at your best
  • Coffee is wonderful
  • I write best between 11pm and 1am. I do not know if this is a blessing or a curse but count me in for the night shift
  • Old friends are precious. So are new ones
  • General elections are simultaneously banal, depressing and riveting
  • Being open about my disability is, with the right people, very freeing
  • I do and don’t need a plan. I wish I knew what I wanted to do after university and what the best course of action would be, but I’m happy to take the time to work these things out – as I am always being told, I have plenty of time

Not bad for a single academic year. And at least I spared you the GIFs.