The curse of Wednesday night writing

Wednesday night is writing night. That’s the idea, anyway. The reality is rather different.

For the rest of the week, my brain is buzzing with ideas for things to write about – blogs, stories, scripts, all sorts. These all seem like good ideas, and things worth writing about, until Wednesday night.

It seems there’s a non-writer in my brain on a Wednesday night. Even as I prepare to sit at my tiny desk in the lounge, I can feel my writing powers seeping out of me. Lethargy, indecision and apathy take over, or perhaps – to be fair to myself – it’s just the inevitable midweek tiredness brought on by three days of staring at a screen and lurching from one meeting, task, place or deadline to the next. It might also be the kids’ uncanny knack of pratting about with extra glee and skill at bedtime on dad’s writing night.

Whatever it is, Wednesday night writing appears doomed. I don’t feel like writing. I don’t want to write. But I’m stubborn, and this would have been the second week in a row where I’ve sat down at the tiny desk and ancient, creaking laptop, opened a new Word document, stared at it, and given up. So I decided to write something – anything – just to spite the non-writer in my head.

So what would I write about?

The blank Word document stares at me, in a way that only a blank Word document can do. I close it.

“Why do you NEED to write?” asks non-writer. “You don’t HAVE to. Watch telly. Do a jigsaw. Relax.”

These are good suggestions. I don’t get much time to do those things either. “But,” says Mr Stubborn, the new player in the mind games, you SAID you were going to write tonight. You wrote it on the CALENDAR. Imagine how annoyed you’ll be if you let it go another week.”

Agh, Mr Stubborn speaks the truth! I DID do that. And he’s right – I will kick myself if I don’t write tonight.

So again I ask myself, what will I write about?

Maybe I could just write something about one of the nice photos I took on holiday. I look through loads of photos, and nothing inspires me. The non-writer mocks me. Mr Stubborn tuts and rolls his eyes.

How about something to do with birds?

Nah, can’t be bothered.

Something to do with mental health, then? “You’re always going on about how important it is, but it’s ages since you’ve written anything about it,” reasons Mr Stubborn.

But nothing is forthcoming in that area either.

Maybe I should give up blogging, or give it a rest for a while, ponders the non-writer. “WHAT?” bellows Mr Stubborn. “GIVE UP BLOGGING? What kind of talk is this?”

It’s that talk we have regularly, Mr Stubborn. Remember this? Then Mr Stubborn accuses me of neglecting my blog, and Mr Self Doubt steps in and berates me for losing readers and being past my best, and interrogates me on why I do this to myself.

“And this post is so self-indulgent,” he adds. “Who cares that you can’t write on a Wednesday night?”

But Mr Stubborn has the last laugh, because I have written something, just to spite the Wednesday night non-writer within me. And here’s a nice holiday photo to shut them both up.

To paraphrase Richard Ayoade’s catchphrase in the new series of the Crystal Maze, thanks for reading – if indeed you still are. Maybe one Wednesday night, I will write something more interesting…

Waves on Bamburgh Beach

Waves on Bamburgh Beach

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The grasshopper in the wood meadow

One of my favourite wild places to escape to is Three Hagges Wood Meadow, between York and Selby.

A combination of young woodland and meadow, this special place is a haven for wildlife and is at its finest at this time of year – alive with chirping grasshoppers, swallows swooping low over the tall grass, bees and butterflies enjoying the wild flowers, and dragonflies and damselflies patrolling the pond.

Our friends Emma and Justin, who live nearby, introduced us to it about a year ago. We liked the place so much we decided to sponsor a square of the meadow, which we like to go and visit as a family.

Some time ago, Emma asked me if I’d like to be a storyteller for the Three Hagges Wood Meadow discovery day. It sounded like fun, so I said yes. But as the day grew nearer, my inspiration had dried up, and I had to admit I couldn’t think of an idea for my story. It needed to be something educational, related to wildlife, and with some interactive elements for children to join in with.

With less than two weeks to go, I had one free evening left when I could write something, so I sat at the computer and, without any sort of plan, decided to just start writing in the hope that something would happen. My daughter had suggested writing something from the point of view of an animal in the meadow, and that idea must have lingered somewhere in my brain, because the first thing I wrote was “One day, I turned into a grasshopper”.

Thankfully that set me on my way, and I wrote the whole story in one go. It was a liberating feeling, and the most I’ve enjoyed writing anything in years – no plan, no structure, no rules. I just wrote for the joy of writing, and it somehow worked. And I learned a lot about grasshoppers.

Now that my story has had its grand premiere in Bodgers’ Den – a cosy shelter in the meadow where my audience sat on bales of hay – I thought I’d share it with you. Here it is.

Paul the Grasshopper

One day, I turned into a grasshopper. I know, it sounds unlikely, but sometimes these things happen and you just have to make the most of it.

I was very lucky, really. I mean yes, I was very small and easy to step on, and loads of creatures wanted to eat me, but I could do some pretty cool stuff.

For example, I could jump a really long way. If you’d seen me doing it, you might not have thought it was a long way, but for a little grasshopper, trust me, it was. If I could jump that far as I am now, compared to my height as a human, I’d be able to jump 90 feet. How far can you jump? Have a go.

(((We all do some jumping)))

Very impressive, but do you know how far 90 feet is? It’s longer than a football field, or three-and-a-half London buses.

And I could make music by rubbing one of my legs against one of my forewings – that was one of the hard wings near the front of my body. I don’t mean I could play ANY music. I couldn’t do any Little Mix or Ariana Grande songs. I didn’t sound like Bruno Mars. But I could play music like a miniature violin. Sometimes other grasshoppers would join in, and it would be like a big grasshopper concert. Other times, when I played my music, lady grasshoppers would come up to me and say things like “Ooh, what lovely music. Wanna hang out together?” Which was a bit awkward, really, because I was still me inside that strange insect body, and I didn’t really fancy having a grasshopper for a girlfriend. Besides which, I’m married

Anyway, another cool thing was that when I turned into a grasshopper, I found myself right here, in Three Hagges Wood Meadow. Quite appropriate really, as it turned out I was a meadow grasshopper. The only bad thing about being a meadow grasshopper is that they’re the only sort of grasshopper in this country that can’t fly. Imagine how awesome it would be if I could have been a flying grasshopper!

But anyhow, what a great place to be a grasshopper – all that tall grass to hide in, and climb up, and jump around in. And all those other insects to chat with. There are loads of them! Have you seen any?

(((We talked about the day’s insect sightings. My favourite was ‘a dinosaur’.)))

The butterflies are so beautiful and colourful, then there’s all the different ladybirds, and the fancypants dragonflies that fly around the pond. And speaking of the pond, I do love watching the whirligig beetles spinning round and round. Sometimes I think they’re dancing to my music.

Then there’s all the bees and other insects that live in the Bee Hotel. It’s a bit over the top, if you ask me. I find the grass is perfectly adequate for an insect. I don’t get to stay in a hotel… I mean, what sort of insect needs an en suite bathroom, Freeview TV, complimentary tea and coffee, and a cooked breakfast? It’s a bit much. That’s what I thought anyway, then I realised it’s not as posh as it sounded, but still a great place to live if you’re a bee.

Talking of food, I’m a vegetarian, so being a grasshopper kind of suited me. I wouldn’t normally go around eating the sort of plants you get in this meadow, but there wasn’t a lot of Quorn about; no nice veggie curries, or chilli, or pasta, or mixed nuts – not even a stir fry. But I had these big, scary-looking teeth and could eat pretty much anything. Normally if I bit into a tree trunk, it would hurt and probably break my teeth, but being a grasshopper I could have a good chew and it was all fine. Different types of grass were the best. Secretly quite tasty if you’re a grasshopper and into that kind of thing. And a good source of carbs – useful for energy, which you need if you’re jumping about all day.

What would you chew through if you could bite through anything?

(((We chatted about this for a minute or two.)))

Another thing about being a grasshopper is that things want to eat you. That’s not something I have to worry about usually, being a human – not unless I’m hanging out in the African savannah and trying to annoy hungry lions. But I don’t do that very often.

So yes, it can actually get pretty terrifying being a grasshopper in a place where there’s so much other wildlife. So many creatures like to eat them – spiders, birds, snakes, even rodents like mice and rats. Apparently it’s a good thing that so many creatures like to eat grasshoppers, because if they didn’t, the grasshoppers would eat up all the plants and crops and everyone would be starving. It didn’t feel like a very good thing to me at the time though.

I’m a birdwatcher, so I found it weird being a grasshopper – I mean obviously it was weird being a grasshopper, that goes without saying – but what I’m getting at is that you can’t really go around watching birds when they’d gobble you up if they spotted you. It’s a bit like the opposite of birdwatching, really. They were trying to spot me!

But I couldn’t resist trying to watch some birds. I knew that sometimes Red Kites and Buzzards liked to fly over the meadow, particularly over the woods. They’re big, impressive birds, and I couldn’t help but think “Imagine how amazingly massive they’ll look through the eyes of a grasshopper!”

Now, if I’d been one of the other sorts of grasshopper, I could have flown up and had a slightly closer look, but I wasn’t and I couldn’t, so I decided my best bet was to climb up the tallest grass I could find and have a nosy from the top. I wasn’t going to get a very good view from down there in the undergrowth.

What’s the highest thing you’ve ever climbed up?

(((Justin won with Mont Blanc.)))

I hopped around the meadow until I was amongst the tallest grass, then began my climb. Suddenly there was a hiss behind me, and a grass snake slithered towards me. Aaaaaagh! I took a mighty jump as it opened its mouth and prepared to chomp down on me.

I’d escaped – just. But I needed to get back to my tall bit of grass, so I waited until the snake had stopped watching me and gone looking for another snack somewhere else, then jumped back, but there was more danger waiting for me. Just ahead of me, there was another grasshopper, but something was wrong – it was just hanging there, unable to move.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Oh you know, just hanging about,” it said.

“Really?” I said. “You don’t look very comfortable.”

“I was being sarcastic,” it said. “I’m stuck in a spider’s web and it’s going to come back and eat me in a minute.”

With not a moment to lose, I used those big, tough teeth of mine to chew through the web and release the grasshopper.

“Oi!” said a voice from above. “That’s my lunch. Come back here!”

It was a huge spider, and it wasn’t happy.

The two of us leapt out of harm’s way and hid behind a leaf until we were sure the spider had lost us.

I said farewell to my fellow grasshopper, and decided to have one last try at getting to the top of the grass. I could hear the cry of a Red Kite somewhere overhead, and sped up, hoping I’d be able to get a proper look at it. Leaving the ground far behind me – well, it was far behind if you’re a grasshopper – my little insecty head popped up above the top of the grass, and I could see all around. The woods, the pond, the bee hotel, Bodgers’ Den… But where was that Red Kite? Typical birds, always disappearing when you go looking for them.

I was about to have a good sulk, and possibly a grumpy chew on a blade of grass, when a huge bird drifted over the top of the trees, twisting in the air as it flew, like a… well, like a kite. And that’s what it was – a Red Kite, a bird that could only be found in a few remote parts of Wales when I started birdwatching as a boy, but that we can now enjoy watching here in the meadow and other places around here.

I didn’t have to worry about it eating me. Kites need bigger food – they’re not interested in grasshoppers. But I hadn’t been concentrating on what was going on around me. There was a swooshing of wings and the horrifying sight of a blackbird swooping down on me!

I waited for the end to come, but then all was quiet and still. My adventure was over. I was a human again, sitting in the meadow. The Red Kite was still there, soaring above me, and I watched a grasshopper hopping away, as I stood up, walked over here to the Den, and started writing about all the things I’d discovered about being a grasshopper. And that’s what I’ve just been reading to you.


Blogging at the crossroads

Legend has it that blues singer/guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and agreed to sell his soul in exchange for his musical talent.

I’m at a crossroads myself. I won’t be making any deals with the devil, but I could do with some inspiration on the writing front.

The crossroads in question is a blogging crossroads. The road I have been travelling seems to have reached a confusing junction. It has been a good journey, but what has brought me this far might not take me much further.

If this blog was a TV series, its declining viewing figures would point to inevitable cancellation. That’s the danger of studying blog stats – when it’s going well, the incoming comments and viewing figures are addictively enthralling. When you post something and the figures are low, it’s demoralising. The unhelpful voice in my head tells me to give up; that I’m a has-been. It compares me to other bloggers and says “They’re doing better than you. Why do you bother?”

I find myself wondering what to write about, and indeed whether to keep blogging at all, as I have plenty of other things to keep me occupied. On the occasions I have time to blog, sometimes I just can’t be bothered. Other times, I’ve got an idea for a blog and talk myself out of writing it because I don’t think anyone will be interested – and I’m not even sure that I’m interested myself. I’ve talked myself out of writing this post several times and am only really posting it to spite myself.

My writing was most compelling when I was ill with depression. I wrote because I needed to get it all out of my head, and people seemed to relate to it.

But I’m happy to say I’m not ill any more. As I’ve got better, the story has become less gripping, and fewer people read it and feel moved to share it. And I don’t have that same drive and impetus to blog at the moment. I used to post almost every week. Now it’s once a month, if that. The momentum has gone.

I’ve written a lot about depression and sometimes wonder if there’s anything useful I can do with that back catalogue. I’m proud of what I’ve done, and hugely grateful for all the amazing support you’ve given me. I know from the comments I’ve received that my blog has helped a lot of people, which I love to hear. In return, every comment, retweet or like has helped me.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure I have much left to say about depression. I’ve been writing about it since 2011 and don’t want to keep dredging up memories that I’d rather forget. And I don’t want to bore people, or myself, by going over the same things over and over again. On the other hand, supporting people with mental health problems is something I really care about, and writing is one way I can do that. I’ve got to know many brilliant people through sharing my story – people whose friendship has enriched my life – and we all need to stick together to fight the stigma of mental illness.

I do love writing about wildlife, especially birds. Birding is something that helps me stay well, and I mainly write about what helps me to keep depression away these days, rather than depression itself. But I don’t think I want to restrict myself to a theme. I like writing about random stuff like pantomimes and music too.

I’ve written light-hearted stuff about parenting, but my kids are getting older and I don’t want to embarrass them – not in a blog anyway.

I also fancy writing more fiction and comedy. But is this blog the right place for that?

And so I stand at the crossroads. I know I want to write (sometimes anyway), but I’m not sure what. In some ways, it’s like starting again.

But there is only one of me. I have a finite amount of time, energy and inspiration. So another factor to fit into the equation – along with all the many other things I want to do all at once – is finding time to relax, and simply to be.

The main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have reached the crossroads, however frustrating it may be.

So, I don’t know what you can expect from Dippyman in the coming months. What do you think I should do?

 


Children’s books: my story

Once upon a time, there was a little chap called Paul who loved books.

The pudgy-faced young lad, with his tufty blonde hair, would carry a new Mr Men book in his chubby hands for a whole day before allowing someone to read it to him.

As he grew older, slightly less tubby and slightly less blonde, the lad discovered Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Michael Bond’s Paddington books, Norman Hunter’s Professor Brainstawm stories, then progressed to adventures with the Hardy Boys and Swallows and Amazons, and mysteries with Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators.

That fiction-loving young whippersnapper was, of course, me, and, since my teens or possibly even earlier, I’ve wanted to write my own books for children. My fondness for my own childhood favourites has never gone away, and these days I read them to my own children. My daughter has just peered over my shoulder to see what I’m writing, having just enjoyed a chapter of Paddington Helps Out.

I wrote my first children’s book – Splot (a story about an alien who crash-lands in a garden pond) -as an assignment for my English language A Level, and revived it for a publishing assignment as part of my degree. I still have copies of it, and for several years have planned to re-work it.

Other stories have languished somewhere either in the back of my mind, partly sketched out in a notepad somewhere or lurking on my laptop, or long forgotten in a drawer or a box, and it occurred to me last week that I’d given up too easily on my ambition. I’ve entered some competitions, got nowhere, and admitted defeat.

Although all my jobs since I left college have involved writing and publishing to some extent, they haven’t allowed me to make things up using what my teacher at infant school called my ‘vivid imagination’.

I do, however, enjoy the freedom of writing this blog. Sometimes the story is sad, sometimes funny, but it’s my story, and I’m telling it my way.

So the former pudgy-faced, tufty-haired youngster, now bald, 37 and a father of two, sat up in bed one night and thought: “I know what – I’ll dig out a story I’ve written for children, and post it on this blog so that other people can read it to their children.” And that’s exactly what he did.

This is a short story I wrote fairly recently about a monkey toddler who has an unexpected adventure on the way to the banana shop. Tell me what you think, and, more importantly, what your children think.

Scampy Monk and the Bus Full of Babbits

It was the middle of a morning in May and Scampy Monk was bouncing on his bed, bellowing for bananas.

“Bla bla!” he shouted. “Bla bla!”

“A banana?” replied Mumsy Monk. “But you’ve eaten them all! We’ll have to go to the shop.”

Scampy Monk bounced with a big boing off his bed, bumped down the stairs on his bottom and gave his mum a big hug. “Bla bla,” he said, with a cheeky grin on his little monkey face.

He grabbed his yellow bus, put on his blue shoes and stood by the door of Monkey Treehouse.

“Bla bla,” he said again.

Five minutes later, Mumsy Monk, Dadsy Monk and Scampy Monk were swinging down the tree trunk and on their way to the banana shop.

Scampy Monk went bounding down the lane, busily brumming his bus.

He stopped, as he always did, by the broken bench, where he liked to peek at the sheep through the old, wooden fence.

“Zeep!” he said, pointing happily.

“Yes, a sheep,” said Dadsy Monk.

“Two zeep!” said Scampy Monk.

“That’s right, two sheep! Good counting!” said Dadsy Monk.

“Babbits!” squealed Scampy Monk suddenly. “Two babbits! More babbits!”

“Ooh yes, lots of rabbits,” said Mumsy Monk.

“Babbits go lellow bus?” asked Scampy Monk.

“I’m sure the rabbits would love a ride in your bus,” said Mumsy Monk, “but I think they’re a bit big. Let’s go and get you a banana.”

Scampy Monk called out “Bye bye, zeep! Bye bye, babbits!” and with a friendly wave he was off, carrying his yellow bus above his head as if it could fly.

They were just down the road from the banana shop when they heard the loud but cheerful “BEEP BEEP!” of a horn behind them.

As they turned round, Scampy Monk was surprised but thrilled to see a big, yellow bus.

“Lellow bus!” he cried in delight.

“That driver,” said Dadsy Monk, “looks just like a sheep.”

“It is a sheep!” gasped Mumsy Monk. “But sheep can’t drive buses!”

“Zeep!” squeaked Scampy Monk, bouncing with excitement.

The sheepy driver was not the only strange thing about the bus. Scampy Monk noticed something funny about the passengers too.

“Babbits!” he shrieked. “Babbits on lellow bus!”

All the passengers were rabbits. Some were brown, some were grey, some were black and some were white. Some were a mixture of colours. Some were chatting to each other. Some were playing games. Some were looking out of the window. Quite a lot of them were eating carrot crisps, and one or two were having a nap.

The sheepy driver leaned out of the open window.

“Would you like to join us?” she asked.

Scampy Monk had jumped onto the bus before his mum and dad could answer, so they followed him.

“Seatbelts on!” called the driver.

Everyone quickly fastened their seatbelts. Scampy Monk was extremely excited, especially when he heard the bus engine start.

He had a huge surprise when he looked out of the window.

“Bus flying!” he cheered.

“Oh!” said Dadsy Monk. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

Scampy Monk was amazed to see clouds drifting past the window as the bus flew higher and higher, and the sheep and rabbits he had seen in the field below got smaller and smaller. An owl looked in through the window and hooted.

The rabbits on the bus chattered loudly. Scampy Monk turned round and waved at them.

“Hello babbits!” he said.

The rabbits waved back and made rabbity noises.

“Hold on tight!” bleated the bus driver. “We’re going up!”

The bus engine made a loud, grumbling, rumbling sound – more like an aeroplane, or even a rocket, than a bus.

Then WHOOSH! The bus went zooming straight up through the clouds.

“Wheeeeeeeeeeee!” squeaked Scampy Monk.

For a few moments, the monkey family and the rabbits were in clear, blue sky, looking down on a bed of snowy white clouds. Then the sky became dark.

“Time for bed?” asked Scampy Monk.

“No, sweet pea,” said Mumsy Monk. “I think we’re in space.” And they were.

As they left Earth, looking like a green and blue bouncy ball far below them, Scampy Monk spotted something ahead of them that made his eyes goggle.

It was the Moon, and it looked just like a…

“Bla bla!” whooped Scampy Monk. “Big bla bla!”

“That’s not a banana, dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “It’s the Moon. It does look like a banana though, doesn’t it?”

“Moooooooon,” said Scampy Monk. He sat up as high as he could in his seat to get a better view.

“I wasn’t expecting this either,” said Dadsy Monk.

As the bus got closer and closer to the Moon, it slowed down. Slower and slower it crept, until it had pulled up next to the Moon.

“Everybody off!” called the driver.

Scampy Monk bounced up and down on his seat, waiting to walk on the Moon.

The sheep driver gave each passenger a space helmet to wear as they got off the yellow bus. Scampy Monk felt like his little head was in a great big bubble – but it was fun.

There were some steps on the banana-shaped Moon, which everyone climbed to the top. The sheep led the way, and handed out slippery mats. It was a giant slide! Scampy Monk watched the rabbits whizzing down.

“Me! Me!” he yelled, tugging on Mumsy and Dadsy Monk’s arm.

“Let’s all go together!” said Dadsy Monk, who was nearly as excited as his son.

Scampy Monk sat at the front of the mat, holding on to Mumsy Monk’s legs. Dadsy Monk, who had the longest legs, sat at the back.

“Are you ready?” asked the sheep.

“Yes!” shouted all three monkeys at the same time.

The sheep gave them a gentle push, and they were off, speeding down the steep slope.

“Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” cried Scampy Monk, loving the ride.

When they got to the bottom, the three monkeys rolled off their mat onto a big, flat rock, laughing merrily.

“Again!” said Scampy Monk, straight away. “Again!”

They went on the slide another ten times, going faster each time.

“BEEP BEEP!” The sheep was sounding the horn.

“Everybody back on the bus please!” she called, as she drove the bus round to the end of the slide. “One last ride!”

Scampy Monk, Mumsy Monk and Dadsy Monk took their slippery mat to the top of the slide for the last time and went zipping down to the bottom, flying through the open bus door. The sheep took their space helmets and the rabbits all got on board.

“Off we go!” shouted the sheep, turning the bus round and driving off into space.

“Bye bye, Moon,” said Scampy Monk, waving as the Moon got smaller and smaller.

“Ball!” he chattered, looking at the Earth.

“No dear,” said Mumsy Monk. “That’s the Earth. That’s where we live.”

Soon the sky was blue again and Scampy Monk could see the clouds, then the fields and the trees.

“I wasn’t expecting any of that,” said Dadsy Monk, as the bus landed at the bus stop.

The bus door opened and the sheep stood up.

“Thank you all for coming,” she said, smiling. “I hope you enjoyed your trip.”

The passengers unfastened their seatbelts and, one by one, walked to the front of the bus and thanked the driver.

“Bye bye, zeep,” said Scampy Monk, hopping down the bus step. “Bye bye, babbits!”

“I bet you weren’t expecting that,” said the sheep to Dadsy Monk, with a wink.

Once everyone was off the bus, the driver closed the door, and with a wave of her hoof she was off down the lane.

“Right,” said Mumsy Monk. “What shall we do now?”

“Bla bla!” chirped Scampy Monk, with a big grin.

“Good idea,” said Dadsy Monk. “I’m a bit hungry after all that sliding.”

THE END