Sunday, 1 October 2017

When I woke up to 28, my hair still smelled of New York. The fact that somehow the scent of Sleep No More at 2am; Bath and Body Works candles; aeroplane gin and Victoria’s Secret perfume that were snapshots of my favourite city could still be tangled around my shoulders half a world away seemed like a good omen. 

In some ways, most ways, almost all ways, I had never been happier. I went to work every day in a job I loved that paid me well. The company I kept fulfilled me (exhilarated me), and I was 2 months from starting rehearsals for a show I wrote that was supposed to be the beginning of it all. “28 will be formative”, the last weeks of 27 had promised, and in my childhood bed on the morning of my birthday, I had rarely believed it more.


It has certainly been that.


There are contracts both of the law and of the heart which mean I’ll never talk what happened at the end of 2016 in more detail than this; I said goodbye to a person I loved very much in November (he’s not dead, don’t worry. Just… eras end, don’t they?). In December, with six days to go, I was forced to withdraw from the show. In January my theatre, which was built around me two years earlier, which I had loved as it grew and changed with us, was torn down.

Like the ground being ripped from beneath my feet. Like someone turned the lights out when as far as all the revellers knew, the party wasn’t over. Like the clock stopped in the middle of a moment; tick, and then the tock just never came. Like somebody remembered you’re only meant to stay in the port; the haven; the comfort until the storm passes, but got the timing so spectacularly wrong. Like all of those crap cliches that exist for a reason. 

Any one of those things alone, I probably would have been fine. All three? Well the port was gone, and I was in no state to dance in the rain. 

Instead I drank gin in bed before 5pm, and ate scones with clotted cream for breakfast, and wore fur capes to dinner dates which I thought made me look breezy and fine with it but which my friends have told me since made me look unhinged. Brilliant. It never rains but it pours.

In any endeavour such as this, there comes a time when you have to decide how honest you’re going to be; which parts stay protected, which parts you’re ready to give over to somebody else to interpret. That’s the problem with telling stories; once you do, there is a part of that memory that will never belong to you again. You can’t choose how they’ll be interpreted. You tell it exactly as it happened, and to anyone who listens it becomes a completely different tale. There are some people, and moments, from the last 12 months, who wouldn’t withstand that sort of scrutiny. For the most part though, the lesson I learned from 28 is to care less. All of which is to say, I may as well lay it bare:

It was the worst year I’ve had.

I don’t mean to be sensationalist. We’re all entirely aware that this post is about to turn around and focus on the good parts; the lessons; the 29-of-it-all, right?


But before that there are some truths to be told:

I don’t know how to talk about 28 without talking about how I learned the transience of fairweather friendship. How not-knowing-what-to-say is a very different thing to not-wanting-to-say-anything. How the sad truth of it is that sometimes you can’t spot the people who only want to know you when things are good until it all goes wrong and they’re nowhere to be seen.

I don’t know how-not-to reference that there are people I thought would be part of my life forever who I now understand will not. How sometimes, still, there are things I laugh at that only one other person in the world would find funny, and on the list of people-I-can’t-just-call-anymore, their name comes first. 

Or how I’ve known for a while that right now, I don’t want to write plays. How I was sure of that long before the industry was, and long before I stopped. How I tried freelance life; full-time-writer life, and hated it so much that some mornings I lay in bed and stared at my wall for hours on end; how I don’t know what that means for me as a theatre writer right now. To wait and see goes entirely against my nature. I’m going to have to wait and see.

That’s not to say there haven’t been wonderful parts, of course. It’s not to say I haven’t fought to grab on to every bit of good, and mostly succeeded. My core group of best friends (a tier, not a person) has never been stronger. I’ve fallen in deep platonic love with people I’ve known for years and only really discovered these past 12 months; with people I met only in 2017 who quickly became important. I’m alright. I’m good. 

I definitely learned a lot. This is that part:

Every year for the past three at least, it has been my new years resolution to give as much energy to my personal life as I do my professional. I’ve failed every time, which probably goes without saying. What I’ve learned this year, though, is that we’re never doing as badly as we think we are. To say I failed is not entirely true, because I truly tried, and sometimes that is enough. I’m not a horrible person. I give a lot of love. I get it wrong sometimes, and I know and acknowledge that, but the beauty is that then I get to try again, and take the good bits with me. That doesn’t mean I won’t invent more ways to fuck up. I will and I do, and if you’re reading this you know that, ‘cause I can guarantee you do it too. But those moments make good brunch stories, if we own them and carry on. I’m doing alright. We’re all doing alright.

Sometimes you need someone to remind you what you’re good at. I spent two and a half years writing to such a specific voice that I forgot what mine sounded like. I barely produced a creative word that wasn’t on that show. A truth that not many writers admit (unless you ask and then they all do) is that writing to commission can absolutely kill your creativity. I’m saying that in public because I wish someone had told me it was normal. It has been a downfall and a blessing that everything I write sounds so very like me, and this Summer I decided it was high time I rediscovered how to do that (and it is like a muscle. You just have to start using it again), so I signed up to Laura Jane Williams’ course Don’t be a writer, be a storyteller. Honestly, I didn’t go in thinking I had a lot to learn; I was doing it so someone properly ingrained in the industry could tell me what was working, where my strengths really were, how to do more of that. Six weeks of set assignments, and deadlines, and writing it out, and I was like “Yeah. That worked. I’m back”. And as is often the case in these situations, I had so much more to learn than I knew. The lesson here is basic: Remember what you love. Remember what you’re good at. If those are the same thing, you're so lucky. Don't take that for granted. Find the people who can teach you to be better, let them teach you, then do it as much as you can. Its a muscle.

Buy the lipstick. Don’t try and budget with cheap skincare because it won’t work and you’ll end up trying four just to find the best, which will cost more than the expensive pot of cream you wanted in the first place. Skin is the biggest organ and should be respected as such. There was a time this year where my skin was so bad I cried pretty often, and I just hadn’t identified it as a priority. That’s the lesson: know the things that are non-negotiable; the things you absolutely need to stay happy. I should have stopped drinking wine to afford the moisturiser, walked places instead of getting a tube, did what it took. It sounds shallow, but healthy skin and nice lipstick is one of my needs, it seems. Looking good makes me feel good. Good to know. (I came out of that dark-skin-time when I discovered The Ordinary, a truly incredible brand selling very affordable skincare that seriously works and makes you feel like you’re doing a science experiment on your own face, which is obviously a really great thing).

The older I've got, the more seriously I feel like I'm taken. As a woman in theatre (and quite a young woman relative to the work I’ve done), there's a much larger conversation to be had around that, but the crux of it is that I think a lot about the way I’m portrayed, and the reasons why as I get older, everything feels just a little bit easier. Of course there are some outside factors at play (like I said, another conversation), but the most defining factor for sure is that the older I get, the better I know myself. You don’t have to say a word. People can see that. I know I'm good at what I do, and I make no apologies. I’ve realised that doesn’t mean everyone will be on board; what I do won't work for some people, and that is fine. As a writer and in my day job, as a friend and an acquaintance and a colleague and a kiss in the dark and a long-time-love, sometimes I won’t work. I think my favourite lesson from 28 is knowing that’s not on me. The older I get, the less I want to change anything. So I won’t. I call that a win.

So what, then, am I taking forward, in to the last year of a decade where so much happened (obviously. 10 years is a long time)? What am I telling Ava-at-29, four days away just waiting to begin?

Be scared, and do it anyway. 

Trust that sometimes things feel easy because they’re easy. Let them be easy.

Your body has never been healthier, which is not to say thinner. Do more yoga, drink more water, stay this strong. It’s good, innit?

Realise that settling is not the same as feeling comfortable. Never settle. Always try to make sure you’re comfortable.

Write more blogs. Even when you feel like nobody is reading them. One day a lot of people will be reading them (and I can never thank Derren Brown enough for that), and you want a legacy.

Everything won’t be fine. Sometimes things will be shit and that's important too. Keep going, though. Everything will be wonderful. 

You got this.

See you later, 28. You’ve been… so many things. 

(Oh, and the fur cape? The one that made me look unhinged? I got it out from under my bed this week, and started wearing it again. Whatever my friends say, I know it looks hot). 

(Photo by Luke Oliver, my favourite travel buddy and seriously great photographer).

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