It’s a few months ago, and I’m in a British charity shop, standing in a queue.
“I’m sorry, I don’t…uh…”
Ahead of me, the shopkeeper is having problems. He’s serving a German. Nothing wrong with that, of course – wonderful people, marvellous sausages, all of that. The problem is language. The German lady ahead of me is asking for something so specific that she doesn’t know the English word for it, and can’t seem to act it out. She talks louder and slower, still in German, and swings her arms around for a bit.
“Uh – you want to buy a windmill?”
It’s looking like we’re going to be here all day – but suddenly, a lifeline. A passer-by can speak German, and he translates for her. Success! Ahh, she’s after a squash racket. The shop-keeper fishes one out of a plastic bucket overflowing with battered-looking cricketing gear, tells her it’ll cost a pound, and then attempts to make the most of the volunteer translator’s help.
“WHERE. ARE. YOU. FROM? What do you do? Are you here on business or on holiday?”
“I am from Leeds Bradford Airport!”
The translator is clearly struggling a bit. He can’t remember the German word for “business.” But that’s okay. I’ve totally got this.
“Sind Sie auf Geschäftsreise oder Sind Sie auf Urlaub?”
Everyone turns and looks at me. For a nasty second, I think they’re going to lynch me for keeping quiet about the fact I can speak German – but no, there’s not violence in their eyes. It’s gratitude. I’ve saved their day.
The German lady turns and beams at me, relieved to be in the presence of a native speaker. She tells me about her job, about how beautiful she’s finding Yorkshire, about how English people are so friendly and eager to help, and about how we completely deserved our 1966 World Cup win against her home country’s massively inferior team.
Actually, I have no idea what she’s saying. No clue. Reason being: I don’t speak German.
I smile and try to make my eyes twinkle, but oh god, I’m walking a linguistic tightrope here. If she asks me anything that requires more than a nod and a grin, I’m stuffed. Miraculously, she doesn’t.
“Ah, danke. Holiday! I have ze holiday!”
And then she grabs her racket and squeezes past us. With a “Danke. Danke!” she’s gone – leaving me to a moment of perfect social glory. Ah, that Mike! So worldly and knowledgeable that he can speak fluent European. Did you know he’s a travel writer? Really? What an interesting man he must be.
And when I shuffle forward to pay for my books, the shop-keeper refuses half of my money. Yes, that’s right – I’m getting a special discount for being worldly and awesome. And it’s only me that knows of the special circle of Hell being lit for me right now. Because really, it’s all a lie. I’m a pathetic, worthless liar.
Here are a few facts about my relationship with Germany:
- I was born there. In a British Royal Air Force hospital, 1971.
- I was robbed there. That wasn’t a great day.
- I can speak one phrase in German. It’s a phrase from lesson 2 of Breakthrough German, a course on cassette (remember those?). Three times I attempted to learn German using this audio course. Three times, I gave up at lesson 2 – and the only thing that stuck was a single phrase, virtually useless in everyday conversation but sufficiently German-sounding that it made you sound like you could speak the language:
“Sind Sie auf Geschäftsreise oder Sind Sie auf Urlaub?”
(There’s a noise at the back of your throat as you say “Geschäftsreise“. Nail that, and you can pass as German. Trust me on this.)
The chances of being able to use this phrase naturally in conversation are low. The chances of using it and getting away with it? Virtually nil. But there you go. Some people win the lottery – I get away with things like this. But can money really compare to the boundless riches of these kinds of experiences? Can it really? Yes. Yes, it can, in absolutely every single way. But I have to work with what I’ve got.
Anyway, this is a post about plans, and about finding balance. But it’s also about imposter syndrome – because maybe I can fool other people, but I can’t fool myself.
It’s over 2 years since I started helping other people with their stories. Things really got going after my talk at TBEX Toronto, and since then I’ve had a steady stream of clients and have built some decent, dependable income for myself, around a weird set of skills with a name I once assumed was a synonym for “complete and utter twaddle”.
I created a free 15-part e-mail course on it.
I read a lot of books on it, watched a lot of Netflix (for educational purposes, of course), and I drank a lot of coffee
However, it’s time for a bit of a change. I’ve been feeling out of balance for a while now, and the problem is easily summed up in one line:
How can I help others with their storytelling if I’m not doing it myself?
Cue a galloping attack of imposter syndrome.
Neil Gaiman had this to say on the subject:
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It’s Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.
In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don’t know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn’t consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don’t have to make things up any more.
The problems of success. They’re real, and with luck you’ll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.
When you need money, you say Yes to every piece of work that comes your way. Consequently, over the last few years I’ve found it all too easy to be a self-employed person who also writes, instead of a self-employed writer. Turns out there’s a big difference. As a result, many of my writing plans have suffered, a few have toppled over and died – and the smoking gun in each case has been my lack of words on paper (or the digital equivalent).
Now this situation is getting corrected, thanks to two major changes in my life.
Firstly, I’ve reorganised my debts.
Secondly, I’m finally travelling, as I always planned to. Since 2012 I’ve spent most of my time in this part of Yorkshire (northern England):
It’s a pretty odd place at times.
But it’s home. It’s where I grew up, and where my Ma now lives. And over the last few years, she’s had a number of health problems that have meant I’ve had to stick around for a while. All this is right and proper – it’s what good sons should do – but it’s also meant my travel and business plans have taken a right old battering.
Thankfully, she’s finally on the mend, she’s due for a corrective operation that should sort out the remainder of her problems, and all is well at home. Which means I can, at last, get travelling.
So I’m writing this in Madrid, Spain.
I’m here for another week, then I’ll have a week in London, a weekend in Belfast, and then I’ll be back in East Yorkshire for a month or two, so I’m around when my Ma has her operation. After Christmas, I’ll be on the move again – but in the interim, I’ll be taking day or weekend trips to the cities around the UK and maybe the occasional quick flight (or not-so-quick Megabus) abroad.
And anyway, the winter sunsets in Yorkshire are…kinda special.
What’s Next For Fevered Mutterings?
- First up, I’m visiting every city in the UK and Ireland. I’m around four months into it, I’ve ferreted around fifteen new cities so far, and I’m ready to start writing it all up. I’m doing this to become a better travel writer, but also, I’m challenging the popular notion that everywhere in the UK is becoming the same. Stay tuned (and follow me on Instagram – I’ll be leaning on it heavily.)
- I’ll shortly be remodelling this whole site, to reflect the new way I’m tackling my freelance and consultancy work, to make it easier for visitors to click through to my best stuff, and to tidy up the inside of my own head.
- I’ll be posting twice a week, every week. Annoyed at the huge gaps between posts in this site? No more.
- I’ll be starting to publish serialized books. I’ve spent years planning this out, and studying the work of the experts. What I’ve failed to do is write the damn things. Well, as of 6 months ago, I’ve been writing the damn things, and I’m nearly ready to launch the first one out the door. More on that soon.
- I’ll be kicking off a new project that’s designed to help aspiring professional writers overcome that ugly, depressing word “aspiring”. How do you get started in this writing game? Is there a map? Not really – so I’m making one.
- I’ll be sharing everything I discover as I finally become a travel writer who, you know, travels.
Want to follow along? Stick your name in that blog post subscription box, top right – or just pop back later. Ta.
A few thank-yous, shout-outs and interesting links
All the thanks in the world to the people who have helped me stay on target, kept me sane and reminded me of my own promises to myself – including Mariana Calleja, Candace Rardon, Don George, Torre DeRoche, Pam Mandel, Jodi Ettenberg, Shannon O’Donnell, Clifton Wiens, Kash Bhattacharya, Jonny Miller (and the rest of Maptia), Alastair Cross….I could go on. If you’re not on this list, please know that you probably should be.
Watch a live reading of The Iliad, one of the world’s oldest and most influential epic stories, in 68 parts, performed at the Almedia Theatre in London.
Finally, if like me you ever have days where you’re feeling old and creaky, and travel seems like it’s only for the obscenely young – Dervla Murphy wants to tell you to shut you up and get cycling.
All images: Mike Sowden.