Relly Annett-Baker is a content strategist and writer. She has contributed to renowned publications like 24ways and is a frequent speaker at international events. Relly writes on her website about content, culture, and building websites.
Relly lives in Brighton, UK. She has a Twitter account @RellyAB.
The Resounding Horse Bollocks Theory of Writing Quality
Anyone who has spent thirty minutes reading anything I’ve written, ten minutes watching me present, or thirty seconds in my company will not be surprised to hear I have Fucking Issues, Man (to quote Californian vernacular).
God knows I didn’t have the sort of childhood that usually leads to this path. It’s all down to brain chemistry. The people around me are good people and have always helped me when I flail around. The other aspect of brain chemistry I have to work with is the impulse to create — and my ability to get in my own way, sabotaging my own efforts. It’s like two sides of me are in constant conflict.
It’s a familiar voice that hangs around, half remorse and half envy, strongest in bookshops and libraries (which is how I knew I wanted to write), whispering ‘everything has been done by better people that you. all your ideas have been thought before. that story premise … its just like that thing from last year’.
I feel like only now, in my mid-thirties I’m getting a grip on it all. I still struggle really badly with writing. It’s like I put myself in a straitjacket and pop a pen in my mouth. By choice. I sit down with pen and paper and I still hear my mother telling me I need to get proper work, my father drilling me about my ideas (although neither of them have ever explicitly done such things), my school peers asking me what I know that they possibly couldn’t. But the distance from my childhood is helping.
I was clearly never meant to be a child genius but perhaps I might be able to give myself enough ‘experience credit’ to chalk up something respectable over the next year or two. I hope so. I’ve held myself back more than anyone else ever could have. I can either regret that or try to move forward.
I have the same thing with my work, with my teaching and workshops, with my presentations — and I am significantly more confident about those. I’m pretty certain I’m not alone in this (and, if I am, for God’s sake don’t tell me!) and I don’t really have a magic wand to wave away the voices and the imposter syndrome. I just have this.
Whenever I fret and flail (frequently) while trying to create things, I say to myself “Someone has to be the shittiest writer in the world but while there are people who still get paid to make up horoscopes, it won’t be me.” Then I write.
Every day someone is making up what can only be described as resounding horse bollocks for national newspapers. You, at the very very least, are better than that. You will never be the worst. So, write.
I was sexually assaulted when I was 15. It was at a house party for my friend’s 16th birthday.
I was coaxed into trying rum and cola for the first time, gamely attempting to sip on the horrible concoction of cheap supermarket cola and an even cheaper rum miniature, stolen by someone from their grandma’s post-Christmas stash, before taking it to the kitchen sink to pour away.
A guy I knew vaguely from another senior school was there in the kitchen, along with a couple pressed up against the fridge. I knew her from primary school and later senior science classes, but mostly I remember she smirked when I entered, led her boyfriend out by the hand and shut the kitchen door behind her. For 15, I was pretty clueless with boys and relationships. There was a gulf between us. She might have been ten years older, and she knew it.
The boy I vaguely knew began to talk, leaning in close. I tried to smile demurely and dodge, assuming (correctly) he was drunk and lecherous. He half-pushed, half-walked me backwards, with his hand in my hair.
(My hair was long and curly. I usually wore it in plaits, or sometimes down in a mess of ringlets. It came down to somewhere around the middle of my back. It was well known you could clip 3 or 4 testtube-holder clips to my plait before I noticed. It was heavy duty hair.)
He had one hand in my hair, and another snaked around my barely developed curves. He was careful not to look me in the eye to see that I was unhappy, buried his head in my neck and made soothing murmurs about how much I would enjoy this. One of the kitchen drawers just behind me was ajar and my ponytail dipped into it. He pressed up against me so it shut, and I was trapped. I asked him to get off. He ignored me. I looked wildly over to the shut door and the shapes moving in the dark just beyond the thick frosted panes.
He fumbled about with fingers and knuckles, and tried to brush my hand against his crotch. He wanted to rape me, was trying to get that going on, but then someone opened the door again and I reached out a hand to them, surprising my attacker into taking a step back.
I didn’t know the guy that came in but he looked at me and across to my attacker and said, looking one to another, “You both cool?”. The boy who had just tried to force himself on me gave a shrug and said “You should’ve knocked.” I ran out to the garden.
I found two female friends there and told them what happened. They looked frightened for a moment and then it began. The rationalising. That this couldn’t have happened to someone they knew, by someone they knew. One of them tried to act as if she was impressed and delighted about my newfound sexual maturity. The other said it would cause trouble in our friendship group if I started spreading rumours, so did I have proof?
I realised then that, by that human instinct to avoid trouble, he was careful to leave plausible deniability in everything he did. My hair got into the drawer — he didn’t put it there. He didn’t injure me — I was too scared to move, and he was substantially bigger than me. He moved so that my hand fell across his crotch, he didn’t place it there. It wasn’t clever, exactly, but I realised I couldn’t say anything substantial.
I didn’t say anything else to my friends. I didn’t tell my family. I got asked a few times at school if I had had sex in the kitchen at someone’s party. I counted down the months until I could change schools for sixth form. I’ve seen him twice more. The second time, in a bar, I asked him outright — shaking — did he remember what happened? He looked at his feet and mumbled that we met at a party once but we were kids then. I told him he was a horrible person, and left.
Why am I sharing this, on the Pastry Box, in public? Because it is likely that some of you reading this don’t know why women can’t just report sexual assault, or that sexual assault happens to ‘others’ for some unknown reason, or that sexual assault is always overtly violent and the act of a mad monster. That’s not often the case. It is often sly, calculating and engineered for plausible denial. To be not believed is to relive the assault again, re-evaluating every moment, questioning your own sanity.
The other reason for sharing something so personal and painful relates more widely to our communities and cultures. People hate ‘drama’. They want bad stuff to go away and for things to carry on as they always have. They hate thinking that there is something more that they could have done or that they were somehow complicit, so they reject it. At some point or another, this has been all of us. This was my 15 year old girl friends who were frightened of what the things that happened to me meant for them and their understanding of their world. It is world leaders who can’t understand what the voice of the people is and why it differs from their own views. It is our coworkers and colleagues and industry compatriots when trouble rises up. People want desperately for things to calm down and go back to normal because it’s all so upsetting.
We rid ourselves of guilt that we cannot absolve by remorse or corrective action, by turning it into blame or ‘otherness’. We create narratives to explain shortcomings in ourselves, our friends and family members while demonising those who aren’t already part of our worldview. Abuse of many forms is often inadvertently perpetuated by individuals avoiding conflict. Intellectually, we know and recognise this. But then our own turf is rocked by ‘drama’, ‘scandal’, ‘accusations’, and we want to hush it all up so we can all go back to work.
So, I’ll leave you with this sobering thought, and what this whole soul-baring session was about. The tech industry, for all its logic and cleverness and money and lofty ambitions, is a cesspit for this kind of stuff. By shouting down those who try to speak up for themselves, even when all they can do is whisper, we are not creating good communities and supporting healthy cultures. We are creating a hegemony of cowards. Shout back and give voice to those being drowned out.
I wrote before about how I reached a point where I felt like I had to take control of my adult life. That I had done okay sliding about, relying on serendipity and a willingness to push my luck, but I wasn’t really doing the best I could at anything. And in climbing higher and higher, I was relying on a crumbling foundation of dreams and wishes to support my increasingly spindly tower, further and further away from the aspects of my work and my life that I’m good at and/or want to get better at.
Sometime late last year, I woke up to an inbox full of things I should be doing, a child going off to a school I really didn’t like, another child getting piles of homework even though he was just four, the rough notes and plans for three separate books, and a backlog of things I wanted to be doing. I was in a house I rent for a hideous amount of money, in a city I barely got to explore, living with a family I barely got to see. And I desperately wanted for that not to be the case.
I stared at the ceiling for almost a whole morning, thinking about the mess I was in and that I could never dig myself out from it. I cried. I wrote lists. I cried again. And then I realised that it wasn’t that I had gone wrong. It was that my priorities and goals had changed over time. The more I learned about myself, the more I wanted to control my future a little. Who I was when I was 18, 21, 25, 28, 30, 33 were all subtly different and that would continue. I felt like I had grasped, loosely, a secret of adulthood.
When I had my first child at 25, I was desperate not to be a stay-at-home mother. I found it boring, and frightening, and I didn’t want to be judged. I remember a conversation where two twenty-something guys in a coffee shop sat next to me and my buggy, presumably to do some Serious Business, and one spoke under his breath about ‘breeders taking up space’. It stuck with me. I felt compelled to work as much as possible.
I grabbed at the chance to be a copy writer and then a content strategist. I enjoyed the opportunities it afforded me to travel solo — something I was too afraid (and broke!) to do as a student or twenty-something. I met amazing people who loved words on the web as much as I do. I had a good support network with my husband and a full-time nanny. I was a working woman.
But over time I had begun to realise that there were problems brewing at home. I barely saw my husband, my eldest child was not settling well at school (and we had tried a few schools, as we had moved), and I was resenting the time I spent doing work because I felt I should be at home. I was resenting the time I was at home because I felt work opportunities were slipping by and I wasn’t doing a good job handling what I had already.
I spent much of January questioning my assumptions about what I ‘had to do’. My biggest issue was education for my two boys. After a lot of reading and research, I decided to stop client work and instead home educate my children. I would continue to create and teach classes and workshops, on the side, because that was what I really wanted to do with my career. As part of that, I started to read a lot about learning and education which fed my ideas about home ed. Early in February, I took my eldest out and by the beginning of March his younger brother joined him too.
This has, obviously, had a huge impact on our lives — and my work/life balance in particular. I’m still adjusting, as are the boys. As an added bonus, I have developed a keen interest in learning and how the brain retains and uses information. I feel like some new areas of exploration are opening up to me, that will help me create more classes. It finally feels like I’m going in the right direction, forward.
Putting on the factory brake.
I wrote in January about how my one little word for 2014 was Forward. I’ve been putting that in action since then.
I realised sometime towards the middle of last year that I was not happy with my work and it was affecting other areas of my life. To quote a truism, if Mama ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy, and that was beginning to show itself to be true around my home.
I was not handling things well. I didn’t have the grace and presence of mind I needed when I was being challenged by clients and colleagues. I was resenting the time I was spending trying to catch up with work, whilst also chasing for payments that should have been made already and trying to lessen the impact this was having on my family and day-to-day life. I was still angry about previous mess ups (and not even all mine!).
I realised to go forward, I first had to stop.
Factories used to have a break, an actual lever in some cases, as a way to immediately shut down all production to address a serious problem in the assembly line. Knowledge workers have no such thing. And yet we often need one for so many reasons — health, rest, time to think — but we are expected to be as always on as the automatons and computers we work with. We are people. People need to be able to stop.
In my case, my stop started with me crashing and burning, recovering a little, and then slowly winding up operations to a point where I felt more comfortable. I asked myself what did I truly want to do? Professionally? As a mother? Wife? Human being?
I wanted to teach and help others get better at understanding the rich tapestry of content we weave throughout the web — both its creation and its stewardship.
I wanted to write — both fiction and non-fiction, a desire I had been squashing for some time due to ‘Important Work Deadlines’.
I wanted to spend time with my children. I had worked an awful lot since they were tiny and I wanted to be with them more, participating in their lives.
None of these things were happening right now. So, this year I started making changes. Some of them pretty big and scary. I turned down big client work projects. I decided to work on creating and teaching new classes and workshops to support myself. To write. To play with my children for whole weeks at a time.
And, slowly, to move forward.
One Little Word
“I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”
Alice in Wonderland
I am not really one for resolutions – that is to say, it isn’t a moral objection so much as I haven’t got the willpower to keep them – but it is exactly because of this I really need a constant reminder of life beyond ‘Right now, I’d like to eat this chocolate / get back into bed / go hide in my office and check Twitter rather than play a 33rd round of Snakes and Ladders’. For me, this reminder is my One Little Word.
For a number of years, I have chosen One Little Word to guide me through the year. I got this habit from scrapbooker and memory keeping blogger Ali Edwards, who has written extensively about the impact her OLW (One Little Word) has had from year to year.
In previous years, I have chosen Move, Complete, Light, Happy and Focus. They have reminded me of long term goals and helped me see whether I am getting closer to the top of whichever mountain I want to climb, or pushing me further away. They have guided me to make difficult decisions and to commit to things I’d rather shirk from.
I have also argued with myself about them. They have shown me a bigger picture – beyond this minute, this hour, this day – and helped me (sometimes) keep myself accountable. In the case of the chocolate / duvet / dodging kid wrangling temptations, I don’t always win against myself but it’s not like I wasn’t told. The same word, and the many meanings of it I have pondered, reverberate in my head.
I live with them too. Literally in plenty of cases – I often get a custom necklace with my word on early in the year, and I look for quotes and art prints to hang. The last few years have seen me collect inspiration on a Pinterest board dedicated to my word. I also make journal and scrapbook pages to celebrate my successes and document my struggles. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but I start to be aware of my word elsewhere in the world too. It takes on a significance I had never considered previously.
So, what is my OLW for this year? After some consideration, I have chosen Forward. Something I need to be and do, and not be and not do in equal measure. Allow me then to be so forward as to invite you to consider what your One Little Word for 2014 should be.