I’m entirely sure I’m not author enough for this, but I’m an expert procrastinator and I have university work to be doing. I occasionally write books and do book-things. If you’re procrastinating as hard as I am and want something to do, you can also follow me on twitter @helen_hiorns or check out my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/helenhiornsauthor
It’s over! My 20 days of living on my benefit entitlement finished yesterday. The end was a bit of an anti-climax because I thought I still had another day, so wound up skipping breakfast due to lack of bread and only noticing I was good to break out the real coffee when someone at church asked if I was enjoying my freedom. The truth is, I actually wound up in fake debt at the end of this, but more on that later.
This week was the best so far in terms of food. I ate pretty well and have wound up with a lot of food left over, which I wasn’t expecting when I started this thing. I have curry, soup, chilli and stew in the freezer that I might never eat because I’m not sure I can face it. Two tins of chopped tomatoes left over. I even have a real life parsnip in the freezer and over half of a pumpkin. A lot of rice. It is amazing how far rice can stretch.
Yesterday, I revelled in my freedom by drinking coke and beer and middle class coffee which are so… frivolous. It’s impossible to justify a can of coke when your financial situation means you can’t even get a bus somewhere if an emergency comes up. Tonight, I’m celebrating with a pizza and a bottle of beer. The pizza cost £2.00 and the beer cost £1.20 which, on my general budget, is not a lot. More than my average meal but not… extravagant. It would be totally unthinkable on last week’s budget, though, and both tasted so, so good.
For the 20 days, my budget was £39.34. I spent –
Added up, that left me with a massive 10p to spare, which I don’t think is too bad really. This whole thing has definitely taught me to stretch things out. I used the chickpea juice in my tin of chickpeas because, hey, if you can make freaky vegan merinuges from chickpea juice they must have some nutritional content (don’t question the logic). I bought 4 pints of milk with the intention of freezing some of it (it’s 75p for 2 pints and £1 for 4; that’s a big difference when you’ve got no money), before realising I didn’t have anything to freeze it in. I wound up washing out my previous bottle of milk to use as a freezing vessel. Honestly, that whole thing has been a total disaster, because milk bottles don’t freeze well and they definitely don’t defrost well (read: I have milk all over the fridge and now my defrosted milk is in a glass and is probably going to go off because it’s not sealed but maybe cling film will save it). I’ve learnt you have to plan and to buy vegetables by weight to avoid bulk payments and not to spend your buffer until Friday/Saturday. By this week, I was confident I could get by.
Then I failed.
The reason I failed my twenty for twenty is because my phone broke. It broke on Tuesday, right before I was off to London to have a glorious evening off as a tribute for the 2016 TRI Awards where one of the managers in my team at CAP won the Insolvency Manager of the Year Award. We got to spend a lovely evening at the Hilton on Park Lane with this incredible lamb two ways, salmon, caviar and wine. It was such an amazing break from celebrating every measly cup of tea and putting lime wedges in hot water to make it taste better. It was also technically free (but, yes, I feel this was also cheating a little bit – this was pretty much the only time I accepted any free food though) and, by the end of our lovely evening, my phone was essentially dead.
It broke on Tuesday. I broke on Friday.
The irritating thing is I usually have a spare. I just didn’t this time. I have an insurance policy that I didn’t even think to include on this budget… but it’s in my mum’s name and would have taken a while to resolve even if she wasn’t on a cruise. There’s an excess that is twice my weekly budget, too, so including it and the insurance wouldn’t have helped. So, I bought a spare phone. It was £10 with a free £10 worth of credit that I didn’t really want but will probably be useful at some point. Its astonishingly crap but it does the job.
I wouldn’t have been able to do that on my budget (I had £1 left at that point) and I guess that’s the big problem with this whole thing. It’s not like I was buying an iphone off the cuff. I just wanted some kind of device that meant I could call my sister or my friends or the police or something. I don’t have a landline so I do kind of need a phone. You can’t call 999 on a laptop.
(This is extra intensified by the fact that, as I left no money for this weekend, I spent my £1 buffer on glue in order to scrapbook alone in my flat in front of yet more Gilmore Girls. Doing that without the ability to text anyone was not welcome).
That’s the problem, though. It’s okay to live on £13.77 a week for 20 days. It’s okay to live on £13.77 a week if you know it’s going to end. It’s okay if you can have a plan for every single thing you need to buy. It’s not feasible to live on it long term, or even an unlucky short term period, because there are so many other expenses that I would genuinely need to spend at some point. Clothing. Travel. Stationary. A phone. A birthday present. The £275 utility bill my previous provider is trying to charge me for one month’s electricity. There’s no security or stability. If something comes up that costs more than £13.77 then you can’t buy food that week. If some extra bill of more than £13.77 came up I’d have to ask someone to borrow the money. If you have savings whilst on benefits it’s deducted from your entitlement (on savings over £6000, which admittedly is enough to be a decent buffer for a while) so that you live on those savings until they’re dry. It’s no wonder that people on low incomes can end up in debt so easily.
I’m back to my real life with new added appreciation for a lot of things. The ability to go into a supermarket with just a rough idea of how much I’m going to spend, rather than a list, a plan, predicted prices and a calculator, is such a freedom. The fact that if I’m out and suddenly thirsty… I can just buy a coke or a coffee and not worry about it is amazing. Buying lunch out when I don’t want to eat my packed lunch. Wine. Chocolate. Going out for drinks with colleagues. Having a separate budget for meals out. Being able to get on a bus and visit my friends because I want to. Not having to plan for the fact that I’m going to run out of shampoo this week. The incredible freedom of knowing that, if every single thing I own falls apart, I have a safety net waiting for me to dip into.
I don’t really know what it’s like to live without that but even twenty days of constantly thinking about food and money and whether I can afford to go and see my sister takes up so, so much head space. I have been hungry and a little miserable but mostly I’ve been borderline-anxious and, for me, this wasn’t even real.
Now, excuse me whilst I go and never eat 36p Aldi bread ever again.
Last week, I spent £3.75 on food. I spent 32p on parsnips, 45p on bread, 75p on potatoes, 69p on double cream (my luxury item of the week), 45p on swede, 50p on chopped tomatoes, 35p on lime (to put slices in hot water to make it taste better). 24p reduced price grapes. That made me some pretty great root vegetable soup which tasted a lot less good on day five. I also cooked a massive pasta bake using the aubergine I’d saved from last week, chopped tomatoes, 24p pasta, breadcrumbs and cheese. It was good food and nice enough that I got to have people over for dinner and feed them the pasta, too.
(Less good on day six. A lot, lot less good on day six)
This week, I had a massive £8.40 for food. I’ve never gone through the supermarket with a calculator before this challenge and this week I spent half the time doing the maths in my head. That’s a special kind of luxury. Just, knowing you have a buffer is pretty wonderful. Even in my fake pseudo-experiment where I actually have what might be a months’ worth of food in the next cupboard, I felt so insecure last week. I just knew that if anything came up I wouldn’t have money in the budget to pay for it. Things are looking up.
Also, I got to buy some amazing food this week. I bought a culinary pumpkin for a semi-extortionate £1.50. I bought quorn mince. I bought feta cheese (okay, well, “greek style” cheese). I bought eggs! I can afford protein! Protein! I’ve got root vegetable, bean and quorn mince chilli cooking in the slow cooker and I managed to get the train to see my sister this weekend and I have never appreciated these things so much before.
It’s actually okay.
I JUST REMEMBERED I BOUGHT TEA BAGS THIS WEEK. I HAD A CUP OF TEA IT WAS SO WONDERFUL.
It’s made me appreciate a lot of things I don’t usually think about. It’s made me realise how much I miss certain things. I’ve really missed tea. I miss sugar and sugary foods. Bread that doesn’t make me want to throw up. Coke. I really, really miss coke. Wine. I really love wine and beer. I have a bottle of beer in the fridge that I really want to drink. Good coffee! In my flat I currently have a coffee grinder and fresh coffee beans and I have been drinking Nescafe instant and I did not know I was such a coffee snob (I did not pay actual money for this myself; it’s on loan from my sister. I’ve so far used it twice before this thing came up). I miss realising I want to read a book and instantly downloading it on my kindle and reading it. I miss being able to go places. Being able to plan for the weekend without worrying whether I’m going to run out of washing up liquid, or milk, or tights, or just anything that costs more than £1.50.
It’s not so bad but that’s only because I can see an end point.
Remember to donate to CAP’s awesome work if you can!
For the past week, I’ve been living on what I’d be entitled to if I lost my job tomorrow which amounts to £13.77 a week after bills (more on this here) for Christians Against Poverty. I sort of screwed myself over on some £2.49 coffee that I misread the price of and was too British/polite/awkward to take back. Other big spends included £1.49 cheese and £0.85 peanut butter. I spent £11.09 of my budget in total (more on that later), all of it on food.
Food wise, it’s been better than expected. I’ve eaten copious amounts of carbs and not a whole lot of protein. I have been consistently hungry the whole time but I’m half convinced that’s psychological. I’ve essentially eaten the same four meals on repeat. I have had pasta with tomato, garlic and onion sauce (and cheese). Pea risotto with broccoli and cauliflower (and cheese). Chickpeas, broccoli and cauliflower curry. Cheese sandwiches for lunch. Thank God for cheese. I did make an onion soup but it was pretty crap and I wound up adding it as a base for my curry (and tomorrow’s pasta bake). Aldi 45p bread is truly awful. It doesn’t taste like food. I’ve been having a slice of toast with peanut butter for breakfast every morning but haven’t been able to finish the whole slice the last two days. I haven’t had a hot meal that didn’t largely consist of rice since Wednesday. I have four more portions of curry left that I definitely don’t want to eat.
(A friend told me that rice is responsible for a third of the worlds calories – this might also be true for me this week.)
I really really miss cups of tea but I didn’t think I could afford coffee and tea in the same week.
It’s been a very interesting exercise in priorities. As this budget has to include leisure and travel, the prospect of the weekend was not sounding very exciting. I was worried I was going to spend two days sat alone in my cold flat watching copious amounts of television. It actually turned out pretty good. One of my friends took pity on me and picked me up/dropped me off so I could Saturday spend the afternoon hanging out with her and that evening I met up with another friend and we walked down to the Bradford Forest of Light (a light installation in the park, for context). The group went out for coffee/dessert afterwards. It was okay because I was able to justify my tap water by explaining my 20 for 20 but I imagine it’d be a lot more awkward and crappy if I genuinely couldn’t afford a £3.95 milkshake (and, wow, they looked incredible. I am so going when I’m back on my usual budget). Sunday I had church, which definitely broke up the Gilmore Girls marathon I accidentally started, and then I spent an hour in the supermarket with a £4.45 budget (I overspent by 3p). Shopping takes a lot longer when you’re frantically adding things up on a calculator and keep having to put things back.
Next week, there’s a magic comedy evening at work that I committed to going to a while ago. It costs a usually reasonable £10 but on my budget that’s pretty astronomical. I was trying to save £3 last week so I only had to fork out £7 of this week, thinking that given I’d already bought the pasta/rice/onions/coffee I wouldn’t need as much money for food next week, but I only managed to save £2.68. I got a little carb-happy in my preparation shop and had to go on a midweek vegetable hunt. That leaves me with £6.45 for the rest of next week.
Then I ran out of toilet roll. I legitimately nearly cried when I discovered that the cheapest toilet roll Aldi was £1.45 for four rolls. I spent twenty minutes deciding whether it was worth it or not before walking to another supermarket to see if there was anything cheaper. I had a plan B in which I just bought tissues rather than toilet roll then moved the single toilet roll I still have to the bathroom the guests use so that I am the only one subject to this very mild form of suffering, or at least I don’t look like I can’t afford toilet roll. Tesco’s saved me with their ultra-value £1.00 for six rolls. I’ve never been so stressed about 45 pence before… but that’s two tins of chopped tomatoes or a whole swede (I’m going to make some kick ass vegetable soup for lunches this week because last week I used up my bread way too quickly) and my milk’s nearly out of date and I’m nearly out of shampoo and I really, really want to go to this comedy evening.
I woke up hungry and I’m sick of rice but if this is one of the only social thing I can afford to do before the 23rd then, apparently, I’m willing to not have teabags until next week and to have the same soup every day this week. I am dreaming of squash and something with sugar in.
This evening I think I’m going to have a pasta/rice free dinner and have some roasted reduced price parsnips (32p for a whole bag!) that definitely aren’t going to be good tomorrow by the look of them, with some swede and potato mash. I’m unduly excited. And hungry.
Remember to donate to CAP’s awesome work if you can.
This week, I finished uni.
My university memories are pretty much a mixture of becoming more and more addicted to coffee, walking up a lot of hills (hello, Sheffield), dicking around with my beloved housemates, getting angry about the patriarchy, being equal parts frustrated and enamoured with the whole concept of philosophy (but how do you gain concepts anyway, huh? Because if you’re learning them from primitive concepts then surely you must already have the concept. Or something. I’m sorry Steve, I’m sorry Fodor, I wasn’t really listening that week), a great deal of effort being put into finding cheap and yet drinkable cocktails and dancing to Taylor Swift. Like, these three years have involved a lot of Taylor swift. Much more Taylor Swift than could have been anticipated.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve lived with three of the random people the university accommodation gods assigned me with in first year for the whole three years, with an extra very welcome addition in second year. They’re my best friends. I am going to miss not living with them more than I care to think about. I met two of my coursemates in the first few weeks of fist year and we have since managed to squeeze two budget holidays and two society-trips from our student loans (and jobs, and book money, and savings etc.), and I hope we continue going to sunny places where I burn my arse and they tan for the rest of our lives. I trust them sufficiently that they still have the photos of former mentioned burnt arse. My church friends and my church are like a family. We have BBQs and go on walks in the peaks and an offshoot from my cluster set up a homeless café and I am so so proud of us. I’ve really really enjoyed my course. From shipping Socrates/Plato, crying over consciousness, writing text messages in formal logic (ish) to almost successfully avoiding Kant for my whole degree, it’s been truly brilliant. Apart from that whole module on Descartes because, really, what was I thinking?
I have only had to throw out three pairs of shoes due to the mould in student housing. We’ve only been burgled once. We’ve had no infestations of any kind (wait…there was those flies in first year I guess). Our landlord only took three months and four visits to replace that lightbulb. Student life is good.
Also, I have some great stories. As a writer type person this is very important to me. The favourite is either the throwing-pants-at-locksmith, getting-stuck-in-a-lift-in-Mallorca or that-time-my-housemate-stole-my-cake, but those are stories for another day.
The reason I started this long rambley thing is I wanted to talk about writing at university.
I wrote and published my debut novel during my first year of uni, which was great. Really great. I would highly recommend doing that if possible. However, the glorious and wonderful thing about the first year of university (at least, for me), is that it didn’t count. Since then, I’ve felt like I’ve barely been writing at all. I had writer’s block, then I was busy, and then I was very busy, and then I was even busier. If I haven’t written much, I’ve read even less. Unless we’re talking about academic articles and books about Plato (I do love me some Plato), I mean. My to-read pile has done nothing but grow since Alevels finished several lifetimes ago.
Except, whilst procrastinating and hiding from those essays a few weeks ago, I did a little stock stake and I’m still completely shocked.
In my life, I have written 11 novel length stories from beginning to end. Some of those 11 are a little rusty. Some of them are posted in various corners of the internet. One of them is published. Apparently, nine of those were finished during my three years at university. Four of those were started and finished during these three years. There’s also another six multi-chapter (but not quite novel length) fics that I’ve finished, with five of those being started in that time. Well over 600 000 words written and those are just the words I liked enough not to ruthlessly delete/hide in a dark and mysterious corner of my documents folder.
And that’s alongside the 62 000 words of essays that has been my degree (+ exams), all my extra-curricular things, having a social life, going places, meeting people and, occasionally, sleeping.
I’m not saying those words have all been especially productive. Recently, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing my current favourite fictional couple into various really crap situations and see if I can them get them to work it out. I think it’s a stress thing. Plus, my world is ending (excuse the melodrama), so this is probably a subconscious thing where I’m trying to convince myself that everything will work out. Still, they probably didn’t need to deal with the cheating and the adoption difficulties or that difficult talk about depression, or the extraneous family drama.
Immediately after I submitted my final 6000 word essay, I spilt a glass of wine down my pyjama top, watched Catfish, documentary edition, then proceeded to accidentally smash said glass of wine all over a pile of my notes about the poverty of stimulus argument (symbolic stuff, that). I have since had waffles for lunch, gone pottery painting, had afternoon tea, a BBQ, two nights out, caught up with Game of Thrones, haven’t caught up with Supernatural (I’ve already had the final three episodes spoiled by the internet and I’m not sure I’m emotionally ready for that), gotten sunburnt, ordered an unreasonable amount of take-away, had cocktails, read 62% of a book (!!), got 196/200 Harry Potter characters on Sporcle and cross stitched some more of my cushion. Living the wild life and all that.
Now, I think, maybe it’s time to get writing.
(Or maybe I’ll just watch some day time TV and eat lots of food. We’ll see.)
Last Saturday, I had the immense pleasure of heading down to Birmingham for the first UKYA Extravaganza, alongside thirty plus other authors, a whole host of book bloggers and some wonderful readers. There was a brilliant blog tour in the weeks beforehand (my post is here), the event sold out in hours and the actual day was exhausting but wonderful. A couple of people have written brilliant write ups about the event, so I’m just going to talk a little about why I think the UKYA community is so important.
Writing can be a lonely business sometimes.
Today, I got home from uni and decided that I was going to go to my room and be a writer and do writer things rather than join my housemate watching daytime TV whilst staring at her dissertation. We were at the point where the heating had been off for four hours, so I wound up preserving body heat in bed whilst watching Supernatural fan videos set to Miley Cyrus songs. I don’t think I even opened a word document. I missed Jerseylicious for nothing.
Yesterday, my let’s-write optimism gave way to reading lots of pretty things I wrote several years ago and moaning to one of my best friends about how I wrote lots of pretty things several years ago and now I only ever write things that are vaguely funny or just plain crap.
This is an ongoing theme.
Sometimes, the words just fall out of your brains and onto screens, and your fingers can’t keep up with your thoughts and you’re inspired and writing and it’s brilliant. Sometimes, you’re just losing a staring competition with a blank word document, or the story won’t go in the right direction, or you read it back to find it’s all insipid and boring.
Writing is hard.
My first stories and novels were all fanfiction posted online. They were also spectacularly bad. I wrote a post Deathly Hallows fic in where Harry re-explained the whole of the last book, a story where Dolores Umbridge became a werewolf that time she was in the forest with all the centaurs (this idea probably had some merit; the execution was lacking) and a trilogy about some Marauder’s Era romance where Sirius unknowingly had twins with the world’s biggest Mary-Sue, and then several people died and one of the twins turned out to be Penelope Clearwater and then she dated Charlie and Percy, or something. I did, thankfully, get a lot better. And people noticed and they told me that they noticed.
We had this brilliant writer-reading community. I had regular reviewers who I got to respond to. Stories that I would check for updates for every day. I had long, rambling chats about writing. Constructive criticism. Bouncing ideas around. People who would listen whilst I whined about how much I wanted to be a writer (here’s looking at you, Hannah). We all competed in NaNoWirMo together, egged each other on, provided feedback on chapter updates.
I still talk to a few of these guys and I still count them amongst my friends, but we don’t talk as much as we used to. I miss it a lot. Now, when my chapter’s not working and there’s nothing in my brain and I’m having another want-to-be-a-writer panic, I just mope or complain to one of my none-writer friends (who are, of course, all fabulous… but it’s hard to explain creative constipation and they must get very bored of listening to me). Occasionally, I’ll get a tweet from a reader who’s read my book. That’s nice (do that more often, please, it’s like a warm hug). I don’t, however, get hundred words long reviews for each chapter full of questions and compliments and criticism, which is basically just like having a conversation with people who care about your characters just like you do. I didn’t feel like I was writing into a void back then.
I miss having the connection.
The UKYA Extravaganza taught me a number of things. First, is that I am not the only author in the world who finds it much harder to write with a fictional editor perching on my shoulder and yelling at me. I am not the only writer who found the one after the debut novel very difficult to write. I am also not the only author who feels like they’re shamming authordom and should probably be kicked out of the club.
I always thought that my writing related neurosis, stemming from the fact that I care so much, might disappear at some point. I’m beginning to suspect that’s just a fact of life. I just love it too much. Maybe we all do. I mean, it is the best job in the world. It’s most of our dreams.
I got tips and advice and wisdom from those who’ve been in this industry longer than I have. Reassurance. A lovely sense of author comradery. The desire to have everyone on speed-text to talk about writing with.
That’s not even starting on how great it was to get to talk to readers properly. I think I’d have liked to kidnap them and keep them talking to me until I had a full and complete understanding of everything they did and did not like, their predictions about what was about to happen after the end, whether they thought about the relationships in the book etc.
Seeing people who are as so excited about books reminds me of why I fell in love with writing in the first place and makes me want to blow my whole student loan on buying every single book that people were discussing, just so I can join in the conversation.
Books and reading and writing isn’t a solitary activity anymore. You finish a book and you can be tweeting the author ten minutes later. It’s different when you’ve got everyone in the same room not restricted to 140 characters, though.
I was chatting to Alexander Gordon Smith for a while and I remember him saying that the problem with getting such a large group of authors together is that, the second we’re out the house and all together, you can’t shut us up. We’ve all been cooped up at our laptops for such a long time that conversation is really quite exciting (and exhausting).
It was a wonderful event and I hope there are many more to come. A huge thank you to Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery for organising such a brilliant day.
Just over a month ago, I still had that post-exams glow and was fighting against adverse weather conditions to head to York for the SASH homeless writing competition awards ceremony.
SASH is a York based homeless charity who provide emergency Nightstop services and run Supported Lodging projects to stop young people from falling into homeless, and they’re really really great. The writing competition was especially brilliant, because it used writing to raise money and awareness, and how great is that? Themed ‘homelessness’, the competition was judged by award winning Ross Raisin (and a couple of other writers too, but I’ll get to that), and challenged entrants to write a maximum of 3000 words about homelessness. The top 22 entries were published in a beautiful anthology courtesy of Stairwell Books and the winner received an incredible Arvon five day residential writing course.
I got involved with the competition when the dregs of the last academic year were circling the drain, just because it seemed like too good of a fit to pass by. I’m involved with a bit of work with the homeless and vulnerable in Sheffield (and recently wrote about some of that here) and I am, by most definitions, a writer. So, I joined the motley crew of volunteer judges whose job it was to spread the word and whittle down an incredible 120 entries to a shortlist of just 22 (our original aim was 20 – we didn’t quite make it).
There were so many really wonderful entries and such a variety of styles and subjects. We had poems and plays and prose. Authentic, engaging and really touching stories. Some of these stories were written by people who have experienced homelessness first hand. Some, by those whose family and friends have. Some, just by people placing themselves in their shoes.
At the Awards Ceremony, Community Co-ordinator Tina Firthlock said the idea sprung from the fact that everyone has a story. Several times since I’ve started interacting and engaging with the homeless, I’ve been told that the worse thing is the way people avert their eyes as they walk past. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to be systematically ignored, but I know that writing was one of the first times I felt like I had voice or that I could say something that people might listen to. Everyone has a story. Writing has power. I love love love the idea that this competition might have given some individual’s their voice back.
SASH also runs musical and art events to help fundraise and I am deeply enamoured with the idea of using creativity to fundraise and raise awareness. Cake sales and shaking buckets at people are all well and good, but how much more original is it to encourage people to express themselves whilst fundraising?
The Awards Ceremony was a lovely event. I had the chance to talk to some of my fellow volunteer judges again and to some of the contestants. I was also truly honoured to receive a copy of the wonderful anthology (which is really brilliant, for the record, and you can buy a copy here) and to be mentioned in the acknowledgements. It was a real honour and a privilege to be part of such a wonderful competition and I hope to be helping out again soon.
A huge congratulations to Olivia Gwyne for her wonderful story ‘Heading North’, and to both runners up Alison Hitchcock and Carmel Page. I enjoyed all of the entries immensely and everyone who entered should be proud of taking part.