Sunday, 19 January 2014

Writing: Two Years in Geneva

Two Years in Geneva

Geneva, Switzerland. 2014.

I've heard it said that we all have somewhere we consider 'home' because when we went there we became the person we had always wanted to be. Geneva has been that place for me. I love this city, and as this week marks the second anniversary of my move to Switzerland to work as a Literary Consultant and Ghostwriter, I feel so grateful to the friends I've met here who have inspired me, helped me, listened to my barmy story-plots and welcomed me into their lives. I'm also more thankful than I can say for the friends and family back in the UK and around the world who have supported me and made it easy for me to work abroad.

Back in 2012, a couple of months into my move, a short story of mine, Woman Much Missed, was shortlisted for the Writers & Artists 2012 Arvon Short Story Competition. It was the second short story I had written - the first, Bait, a tale about a fishing trip gone awry, written between lectures at university, had landed me my first Ghostwriting job.

These were Woman Much Missed's opening lines:

There was nothing extraordinary about the young man who walked out of the town department store at midday, except perhaps that it was exactly midday, and stories rarely begin so punctually.

You can read the rest of the story here if you like.

Later that year, Woman Much Missed was published in the New Voices pages of the website, Untitled Books. Untitled Books has now evolved into the brilliant Bookanista. My short story had a picture ascribed to it, a little author bio, and best of all, it was posted alongside short stories written by real authors like Tessa Hadley and Salley Vickers, and interviews with Zadie Smith and Amitav Ghosh. A friend even told me she had Googled my writing!

I'll never forget the moment I found out about the shortlisting. I was at Geneva's central bus station, sitting with my friend Cait as we waited for her coach to arrive to take her back to the UK. I got a text from my colleague, Amanda, telling me what had happened. I didn't believe her at first, but when she confirmed it, and Cait had caught her bus, I walked home across the Rhone river and called my friend Elena. I told her the news and we shared the joy until my phone cut out, and I stood there, in the darkness of that night, feeling like anything was possible.

Go! New Year's Eve, 2013/14.

Two years on, I still don't know exactly where Woman Much Missed came from, though I stitched it together quite methodically at the time. You might recognize the title as the first line of Thomas Hardy's poem, The Voice, it's a poem I've always loved. The story was written to the theme of 'identity', and - no spoilers - it's a story about masks, about people who are afraid to let others see who they really are, which, looking back, is probably how I felt when I arrived in Geneva on the 15th January, 2012.

I had a few experiences under my belt, some travelling, some French, and a degree from a good university, but starting to write sincerely was a whole new ball game. It challenged me to step up and step forward.

In the summer of 2012 a friend asked me to contribute writing to a donor publication put together by the International Labour Organization (ILO). We were documenting the human trafficking awareness raising activities of NGOs in South Asia.

By Christmas 2012 I had joined a Writer's Group, PenPoppers, and had made inroads into my first children's book, The Rice Boy, both of which you can read about on my Writing Page.

By the summer of 2013 I had finished another short story, The Marriage Inspector, and had written for the ILO again, this time carrying out interviews and collaborating with the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) on keynote speaker biographies for the Work in Freedom programme launch in London.

By October 2013, writing daily had given me a solid home-away-from-home, as I wrote about in my post on Iceland and Imagination.

By November 2013, finally, I was ready to start another dream project:

Opening Lines!

The Glaciers at Zermatt, Switzerland. 2013.

Over these past two years, I've found writing a really great way to open conversations and make connections. Nearly everyone has a connection to the written word, whether it's the copy writing, legal writing, medical writing they do in their working lives, or the journal they pen daily, the poems they'll only show their nearest and dearest, the novel they dream of writing. The list goes on. Self-expression connects us to ourselves and others in such a special way.

A few words that catch my eye every time I go to my Arabic class at the College Voltaire, Geneva. 

I feel more confident now, but telling people I was a writer back in 2012 felt a bit like coming out of a proverbial closet. Luckily I had a bit of a trial run with the Ghostwriting I was doing. It was much easier to respond to people's 'what do you do?' with 'I'm a Ghostwriter' and watch their eyes glaze over as they thought of Ewan McGregor. It's interesting work but not quite as exciting as the 2010 movie adaption of Robert Harris's novel, Ghost, makes it out to be. You can read my colleague's great introduction here: Ghosting, Introduction: What Is a Ghostwriter? or check my own page.

In francophone Geneva it was quite hard to find the right wording because the outrageously antiquated French word for Ghostwriter is nègre, literally meaning "in the shadows".

With thanks to Swiss ghostie, Anthony, for this snap.

But I suppose there is an element of shadow involved with such work. With Ghostwriting always comes the fear of losing one's own writing voice, which made it all the more pressing to start developing my own material in 2012. It's much harder to say you write for yourself, though. Then you have to start telling people about the Tiger Judge in your children's book and the Seagull Prince who has fallen in love with a starfish, much to the dismay of his flock, or the dystopian short stories, the novels about magic and marginalized characters.

Telling people I write fiction is much scarier than actually writing it. I'm never exactly sure what's going to happen next, in my novel or my career. All I know is that now I've said it, out loud, I have to try to live up to it.

I'm a big fan of these yogic words:

Practice, and all is coming
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Creative writing, it seems, is a practice like everything else. 

I'll be 25 this year and I feel like I'm finally learning what it means to trust myself and the decisions I've made. In 2011, I found a mysteriously brief advert on the Guardian jobs website and thought, why couldn't I be a

Literary Consultant.


I got the job, came to Geneva, found my feet and found my voice. With the support of my writing colleagues, I thought, why couldn't I enter a short story writing competition? And Woman Much Missed was shortlisted.

Beginner's luck maybe, but somehow I don't think it works like that. Two years on from that big time of change, when I moved to Geneva and wrote Woman Much Missed, perhaps I can understand a little bit more where I was coming from with all those masks and mirrors. It takes courage to let people know and see who you really are. But if you don't try to be yourself, how will anyone really know you?


Being shortlisted by Writers & Artists was without doubt the validation I needed to set me on this path of writing, but I quickly learnt that validation is an unhealthy thing to constantly be seeking. At the end of the day, you need to believe in yourself before others believe in you. If you write or want to write, be sure to write for you, and write exactly what you want to write. If sharing those words is what you'd like to do, share them, and don't be too shy to do so, even if it's just with a trusted friend.

Robert McCrum writes very well on the power of deadlines in this article, Deadlines can give life to creative writing.

You could try setting yourself a deadline? Or if you'd like to try writing for competitions, you can find a great list here at

Happy writing!

Thanks for reading, and to everyone who has helped me on this journey so far, and to all those who will listen to my plotting in the future:

thanks a million!


  1. I'm sure the friend who admitted to having Googled you wasn't the only one ever to have done so! Your enthusiasm for writing is infectious and your encouragement for others to elevate themselves from "aspiring writer" to "writer" is so much appreciated. I'm so glad and grateful that you made the move to Geneva, found your voice and continue to help other to find theirs. Write on, lovely Helen! x

  2. Great post, Helen, and thank you for linking to my blog. Geneva has been truly inspiring for us - and doubtless for many others. Keeeeep writing! xx

  3. Honoured to have garnered a mention! :) Even more honoured you phoned me when you found out. Can't wait for the next phone call! Love love love love

  4. You've done so well, but you've had it in you all along! I can't wait to see where life and your imagination take you next x