Weeknotes S07E02/Writing with Neil Gaiman, Chapter 2


Choose a folk tale or fairy tale that you know well.
Select one of the characters from the story for the following exercise and write a few pages about them, using one of the following prompts:

  • Pretend you’re a therapist treating the character. Write a scene in which you discuss the character’s life and problems, then arrive at a diagnosis.
  • Write a newspaper article describing the events of the story. For example, Snow White—Woman Hiding in Woods for Ten Years Found by Wealthy Hiker. Then write a story for that headline using journalistic objectivity.
  • Have your character explain their actions to a jury.

H is always on time to his session. Always. At 3 o’clock I open the door and there he stands. Once I opened the door at 2.59, just out of curiosity, just to see if he stood out there waiting. He wasn’t. I’d barely closed it before the clock chimed and the knock came on the door, always a heavy knock, a knock that seemed to knock inside me as well.

H was supposed to come for couples therapy. He does, sometimes: in the dead of winter he brings his wife. They’re an odd couple. She smells like – oh god, I can’t describe it. Like fresh grass. Sometimes like the oven as the bread comes out, and sometimes like the oven as you open the door and it roars heat into your eyes.

But today the sun was high up in the sky. The room I use for clients is at the top of my house, a three storey pile I inherited from some mad aunts. They took a floor each, and apparently they knew H. Sometimes it felt like they knew everyone. It’s a lot of building for one person, but the room at the top is generally light and airy – and the views are incredible. You can see all the way across Hyde Park, all the way to Buck House.

The clock chimed. I felt the knock in my bones, as usual, and crossed to the door to open it.

“Come on in,” I said, and motioned him inside. He came in, carrying with him a smell all of his own. It’s – I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘fungal’. It’s rich and dark and yet, for some reason, the image that comes to me is always a skull with a white mushroom blossoming in the socket.

I gesture at the seat, as usual. He takes off his flat cap, as usual, and scratches at his head.

“So.” I say. It’s always best to let the client go first, to follow where they lead.

“So.” He says. “Midsummer’s Eve today. Hot. Too hot.”

I agree. The sweat is already beading on my forehead, though Mr H doesn’t seem to be afflicted.

“No P today?”

“No. She’ll be out, enjoying the sunshine.” He stretched out his legs, and I heard a crackle from his knees. “Me, I’d rather she stayed home, but women – what are you going to do?”

He shoots me a look from under his bushy brows. They’re shot through with silver and cast his eyes into deep shadow. I keep as natural a posture as I can.

“Why would you rather she stayed at home, H?”

H leans forward. I resist the sudden urge to lean backwards, to get away from the maddening smell. “Because she’s my wife,” he says, as though explaining it to a child.

“Do you think she knows that?”

He holds my gaze for a second, and then looks down. He picks at the dirt under his nails. He’s a pit boss, apparently. I thought that would mean paperwork and management, but he still seems to get down in the dirt with everyone else. He told me at our first session that he preferred it that way – his two older brothers had both joined the military early on. Royal Air Force and Royal Navy respectively, I think, and now apparently at the very peak of their careers. H, though – he said he got enough joy out of doing the job to never really stop.

“Yeah, she knows it. We have an argument every Christmas about it.”

“About whose relatives to stay with?”

He snorts. “Yeah, that kind of thing. I don’t know. Whenever we’re together it’s great – it’s perfect – and I respect her job.” He opens his hands wide, the universal gesture for believe me, guv’nor. “And I know she has to travel about, bringing sunshine to the kiddies and so on. But I worry about – other men. She’s beautiful as anything, and when you’re so far from home, maybe temptation sets in?”

I give it a beat. Silence is a crowbar.

“And it’s not like I don’t trust her, of course I trust her – “

“That’s interesting,” I say. “Because it takes two, doesn’t it? Do you ever think she’d decide to cheat on you?”

He starts to say something, and then stops. “I can’t imagine it,” he says, slowly. “But there are other ways…”

“You mean rape.” I try to keep it as flat as possible.

The eyebrows bristle again, and the shadows deepen. I know he’s looking at me even though I can’t see his eyes. “Yes,” he bites out.

“I think that’s a normal fear,” I say. “The world is…unpleasant. Do you think your wife knows that it’s a possibility?”

This time the intonation is completely flat. “She knows it for a fact.”

“Because you’ve told her?”

H pauses longer than the answer deserves: “Yes.”

Fear uncoils itself in my belly.

“How did you meet?” I ask. I’m working overtime to keep the tremor out of my voice. The sweat on my forehead is not from the sunshine streaming in through the window any more.

“That has nothing to do with that.”

“With what?”

His shoulders, his fists, his knees are all facing me. The man is all right angles and hard lines.

“With – with how I feel.”

“What happened, H? How did you meet her?”

“It wasn’t – it wasn’t like that-“

His voice is so quiet, and yet I hear it still over the roaring blood in my ears and the sudden leaden weight in my bones. Somewhere a bell is chiming and it is too slow, it is not my clock but it is my bell, the bell that tolls at the end, the bell that sounds in the darkness at the end of the shift, the bell in the hand of the King of the Mine –

I gasp out a breath, suddenly, and suck in a mouthful of shorn grass and strawberries and the flat heat of the desert. The light is suddenly so bright that I can see the veins of my eyelids.

“Husband. Did you miss me?”

I breathe into my carpet. I can’t remember how I got here but I can hear, somewhere above, a conversation taking place.

“No, love. I was just worried about you.”

There is the sound of a kiss.

“Worry not. Not while the sun shines. I’ll be with you soon, husband. Go home. Look after those that need you.”

“I will. Come home to me soon, wife.”

The door opens. The door shuts. The sun goes back outside.

A bell – my bell – chimes softly, unobtrusively, to let my client know it’s time to finish. I hear the crackling of H’s joints as he stands.

“I’ll see you in a little while,” he says. As he steps past me I feel my bones press against my skin, as eager to jump into his hands as a puppy. “Thanks for your help today.”

The door opens. The door shuts. My bones, grumbling, go back to their work of holding me upright. I note today’s progress in H’s file and settle myself with a cup of tea.

Outside, the sun still shines. I think about it. Midsummer’s Eve is the longest night. After this, it all starts getting darker.

Writing with Neil Gaiman: exercise one


To practice honesty in your writing, choose one of the following moments and write a few paragraphs in your journal about it. As you write, pay attention to your inner register about what you’re writing, noting the particular things that make you uneasy. Try to be a little “more honest than you’re comfortable with.” Remember that being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared; it means you do it anyway.

  • A time when you were deeply embarrassed.
  • When you regret something you did.
  • The saddest moment of your life.
  • A secret you are afraid to talk about.

Take the work you wrote above and either read it aloud to someone you trust, or read it alone and pretend that you have an audience. Listen to the way you sound and pay attention to the sensations in your body as you’re reading the difficult moment. Consider what you’re afraid of being judged for, or afraid of saying out loud.

Write those things down.

Continue reading

Advent of Code: Day 13

This is going to be about software. Mostly.

There’s this thing – the advent of code. It’s a sequence of 25 puzzles to be solved with code. Some people do it in Python, some people Java, someone with aggressively self-flagellating tendencies is doing it in SQL and there’s a rumour of someone who’s done it purely with formulas in Excel. If that’s true then that person should be found and immediately restrained, for the good of all.

Continue reading

Weeknotes: Advent of Code edition

Oh, hi

First thing: yes, you may have seen me hanging out with local celebrity and genuinely nice guy Dan:

Dan and I played chess! In real life! In public! It was bloody marvellous fun and if anyone else would like to play chess in public then I say let’s do it (in spring, because the seats are made of concrete and the wind cuts through you like a prison shank and warfare, even a simulacrum of it, should be conducted in the sunshine).

Work continues apace, though not for me this week as I’ve spent it on leave. I’m going to sneak a peek at my emails on Sunday and delete almost all of them, which is an unalloyed joy everyone should try once a year.

Onto the meat of what I’ve been doing this week: solving totally meaningless code puzzles that are extremely satisfying. I’ve learned a lot, even from this week, including the beginnings of how to cache results to speed up processing. The problem are set against a very silly story, but nonetheless have given me an opportunity to practise recursive methods, overriding the methods of the parent class, and methods as storable objects. All of this is making me better at solving problems. I don’t think it’s necessarily making me a better software engineer, and is reminding me that most of the things I love best about being a software engineer are a tiny proportion of what’s actually involved in being an engineer.

An image of my code
This code (https://github.com/jonodrew/2020-advent-of-code/blob/main/twelve/twelve.py) took me about four hours or so. It took my boss about an hour, I would say, to achieve the same outcome.

My current role ends in March, at the moment, though everything points to it being extended. It’s the dead of winter and we’re in weird pandemic times, so I’m not going to make any rash decisions, but more and more I’m trying to work out how I can move down to four days a week. At the moment I teach in return for a donation to a malaria charity and I love it: it’s not a career, I know, but I’m having a moment where I wonder what the need for a career is. I don’t plan to have kids; I don’t have any desire to continue acquiring more material wealth. There’s not much point. There’s not much time left. There’s a climate emergency happening, literally right now, every second you are reading this is a second closer to the end of the world as we know it so I implore you not to stop reading because that realisation will absolutely ruin your day.

This is almost certainly my biannual moment of panic: when everything is complex and challenging, I yearn for the significantly easier task of just teaching people that the differential of e raised to the power of x is e, raised to the power of x. Or solving code problems that have almost no real-world application. Getting together the brain to think about things five years from now seems like getting into training to be the principal male ballerina of English ballet: there’s no way it’s going to happen so why put in the effort?

Ugh. This pandemic feels like the way Bilbo talked about the longevity granted to him: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” That’s where I am. I’ve had a year of days and no life.

Things will probably change, though hoping they’ll change for the better might be too great an ask at the moment. Any change at all will, at this point, be preferable.

S06E20: All change please, all change

Two things ended this week. A role I’ve wanted to do for years and only ended up doing for nine months. And an epic chess game with Dan. I like the way that they finished at the same time – although, of course, this is confirmation bias. Lots of other things didn’t finish, so it’s entirely possible I’m just grasping for things that fit the pattern I’m trying to build.

Facing the prospect of two weeks off, I am struck again by the existentialist horror of responsibility. I know if I don’t plan things I will default into wasting time. And I know there’s a self-care aspect to wasting time, and there’s a productive way to waste time, but neither of those are embodied in me eating a family bag of crisps and binge-watching Netflix for a week. A couple of days, sure, but I know my default is to just passively wait for something to happen to me. I am going to do my best, on this occasion, to do things.

My lovely team got together and said lovely things to me. Even more kindly they did it on Thursday so, at the end of the day on Friday, I could quietly slip out of the door without any fanfare. I have been thinking about why this is, and it seems to be how I leave any relationship. I want to do it on good terms, but I also don’t want fuss, because fuss means emotional expression and that is a real struggle for me. Consider a party. If one mentions one is leaving, then people will say “Oh no! Already? It’s so early!” and one feels a duty to explain oneself. The cat needs feeding. The crocodile needs brushing. One has left the stove on and the cat’s dinner will be quite burnt. It is rare to find people who say, “Right! Jolly good, lovely to see you, safe journey and au revoir.” Instead, there’s a lot of emotions to manage. I know this is one of those good problems to have – oh no, my friends protest at me leaving – but I think it’s still valid to say it’s exhausting to have to explain multiple times that you’re leaving, yes, you’re really leaving, sorry to disappoint but by this time the crocodile’s almost certainly eaten the cat…

And so again, as always, I slip quietly away, so as not to face up to – I think the disappointment, even feigned, of people who’d like me to stay.

As I look ahead to the next season I am thinking about whether to refocus these notes to be a more effective reflection on work. I’m not sure yet: I like the freedom, but the lack of constraints also produces all sorts of work that’s not necessarily useful for me. Valuable, but not useful. I’m also looking forward to writing a little code again, and I’ve updated my automated graduate rotator with some more content. Next step is to thing about the tricky things like a data architecture; the end-to-end system design; and the words to mask the complexity of what’s going on.