Two Walnut Whips in the Library: An Unexpected Encounter Among the Bookshelves

I recently watched a man drink a whole bottle of salad crème in the library, and there wasn’t a salad leaf in sight. Straight from the bottle. Glug, glug, glug. To me, this epitomises libraries in the twenty-first century: a catch-all for those in freefall from the community services and projects that have been cut by the government, looking for a place to belong or snooze or drink condiments. As a writer, obsessed with people-watching, I love it.

It’s possible to work in the separate study room in absolute silence, away from those who have drifted in for weekly colouring-in, reminiscing or language exchange groups, or simply to have arguments with their partners at full volume, and I do this when I’m close to a deadline, but for most part, I can’t resist dropping myself in the centre of this vibrant soup of people, most of whom would be surprised to learn that you can borrow actual books from the library as well as charging your phone. It’s gold, and I don’t want to miss a moment.

There’s also the food issue; the staff in the silent study area are particularly unforgiving and appear at your desk like riot police at a crack house at the slightest sniff of a cookie or a crisp. Sirens have sounded and ejector seats flung for lesser crimes than a rogue sandwich. And I love to eat while I work, which is exactly what I was doing last Wednesday afternoon – working in the noisy part of the library where no one says a thing if you bring a portion of chips, a tub of ice cream and a flask of tea in with you. And then I saw him. The milky-eyed man from Hong Kong.

I’m quite good at zoning the hum of conversation out and getting to work, but I’m less able to concentrate when my curiosity is on fire, and this old guy had every synapse in my brain glowing. Spread out on the table in front of him was an array of goods – books and newspapers, a KFC sandwich and coffee, some kind of dispenser shaped like a house, two multi-pack boxes of Walnut Whips, crisps, and a stuffed bag for life that I would have loved to rummage through. But it was more the arrangement that stood out: sprawled, as if this was where he lived now. And it was the way he interacted with it; he would bite the sandwich before replacing it precisely, glance at a book before returning it, and slowly move around before taking his seat again. Then he would gently rest the side of one hand on the palm of the other, like a knife on a chopping board, close his eyes and disappear into meditation. I couldn’t take my eyes off this strange but peaceful creature.

And he’d spotted me looking.

“Wrong number!” he laughed as he hovered by my table and pointed down at my phone. By now I was texting my partner about him.

His eyes were glowing as he smiled down at me, and I couldn’t help laughing at his humour and the open, warm way in which he had made contact. I was in love with him already.

He returned to his seat after a short exchange, and I continued texting, but when I looked up, he was standing over my table once again with a Walnut Whip in each hand – one mint, one original. Again, his face was so peaceful and full of kindness.

“For you,” he offered and gave an almost imperceptible bow of the head.

I’m vegan, but I was genuinely touched and didn’t want to insult (or bore) him, so I thanked him profusely and happily took the gift. I know enough people who love chocolate.

“I wish I had something to give you in return,” I told him, taking a mental inventory of my bag, genuinely wishing there was something in there other than my notebook and a box of tampons.

“You don’t need to,” he smiled. “It’s not Christmas.”

Gift accepted, we quickly moved onto getting to know each other, and before I knew it, he was sitting with me. He told me that he had moved from Hong Kong with his father when he was thirteen and had been in town for the last forty-five years. I couldn’t imagine the culture shock and impact of being separated from your homeland at such a young age. He told me about the Opium Wars, Hong Kong independence and how good the chicken was in the buffet restaurant just down the road from the library. An old school friend was murdered near there a few weeks ago, but I didn’t bring it up.

He then asked what I did, and I told him that I write people’s life stories. I may have been imagining it, but curtains twitched on a few other tables when I said this. Everyone has a story to tell.

“You should write my life,” he told me. “My life has been exceptional,” he added, and I knew that he was telling the truth.

I looked down at the two Walnut Whips sitting on my laptop, and there was nothing I wanted more in that moment than to write his life story and send it out into the world for posterity. I was giddy with love for him and all the tales he had to tell, and before I could stop my hand from doing it, I had scrawled my number on a piece of paper and arranged to meet him at Costa on Monday. The sensible part of me was already backpedalling, and I explained that I work on so few project that there was only a slim chance that I could do anything for him, publishers are only interested when there’s an exceptional angle, and not all life stories are sellable, but I couldn’t deny that I would love to spend an hour with him and hear his story, and he seemed happy enough with that. I was happy too.

So, this week, I am grateful for the man who drifted over with the two Walnut Whips in the library, made me smile and booked an hour to tell me about his life. I look forward to discovering what Monday brings.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

The Primal Act of Writing Longhand

I loved English at school, but I absolutely hated our Tuesday morning sessions. The teacher made strange ‘uuurp’ sounds after everything he said, smelt of Avon and was unpredictable in his response to ill behaviour, sometimes laughing along and other times practically throwing whole boys across the room. But it wasn’t his idiosyncrasies that I hated, rather his insistence that we should spend the hour filling pages and pages of an exercise book with row upon row of loops and swoops and squiggles and swirls in the name of improving our handwriting rather than reading how Billy Caspar was getting on with Kes or making up our own stories.

Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact.

He didn’t even let us write whole words, sometimes not even whole letters – just the underline flourish of an f or j tail or the overground whoop of p, d or b. I hated it, but I have to confess that I’m grateful now for those wasted hours. Beautiful handwriting in the digital age belongs in the graveyard of lost arts, alongside offline dating, board games and (if you’re a teenager) making eye contact, but I love mine, and other people like it too, and, for some reason, it means a lot to me. It’s unique to me, but it also, as graphologists will testify, speaks of my character, temperament and creativity.

Like most writers, I do most of my work on my laptop. I wouldn’t be able to deliver a longhand version of an article or manuscript to a publisher, so why would I make extra work for myself by adding a handwritten draft to the equation. You can’t spellcheck handwritten copy, and you can’t conveniently switch lines around, so what would be the point? However, the moment I decided to write my memoirs, the first thing I did was find a beautiful journal and pen. The lines had to be the right colour and distance from each other, the pages the right quality, stitched not spiral, a medium Bic that would glide rather than score. And then I began. The idea of typing didn’t occur to me, because that special nature of handwriting runs deeper than aesthetics and character markers; it offers a fluidity that frees the mind, a direct, unbroken link between the mind and the page, which, for me, taps into something deeper and more personal than typing. It is writing, but it is art at the same time.

And as a piece of art, there are secrets hidden within a handwritten memoir – the doodles on the page where the muse abandoned the author, the slow, apprehensive rigidity of difficult subject matter, the looping abandon of an author in the flow of genius, the scored lines of fury, the same word overwritten again and again as the writer processes just what it means to be this person, to tell these truths. It says so much about the author and the experience of writing, and we don’t often get to be this free in life. Writing truthfully is an act of rebellion. Writing longhand is revelling in the experience. In the absence of cave walls on which to tell our stories, it is the rawest way to express the written word.

It also makes it harder to self-edit. We can cross out words or whole paragraphs in our notebooks, but we know they’re there, and we know what they say. Perhaps they’re mistakes, but maybe they’re truths fighting for the light of day. Perhaps what lies under the scribbled biro is the story that you were always meant to tell.

Follow Hayley Sherman, writer …  @hayleystories

She Cried When She Read the Book: An Emotional Ghostwriting Experience

‘Jenny’ first contacted me to edit her domestic violence memoir. She is a passionate woman with so much to say on the subject, following nearly two decades of abuse. She is now dedicated to conveying a message of hope and survival to other victims and building awareness of a subject that is all too often diminished and ignored. It is an important book on so many levels, and I was honoured to work on it. I learnt so much and realised that I was blinkered on the subject in a way that she is at pains to highlight – a victim of domestic violence is not a certain type of person; it is a man or woman who met a monster after dark that refused to let them go.
Jenny told me that she was dyslexic and suffering from PTSD. Writing the book had been a difficult experience for her.

Her determination shone through in the writing, but there were serious issues with the book. She had been incredibly brave to open her laptop and let her fingertips loose on her suffering, and it had naturally flooded out of her in a steam of consciousness. Consequently, it was powerful but muddled and difficult to follow. And there were other issues: she would often abandon the narrative to tubthump the issues surrounding domestic abuse, dragging readers out of the moment and away from her story – a story that conveys her message so much more powerfully than repeated rhetoric; she was also (understandably) guarded with what she was prepared to reveal, often leaving out the most revealing elements of her experience; additionally, she veered toward ‘telling’ her story rather than ‘showing’ it with concrete description and vivid language that draw readers in, so it wasn’t coming alive on the page.

As a writer, my focus is on the experience of the reader, and although this is a painful true story, it is still a story, and I could see how it could be told in a way that would keep readers turning pages. Her focus was, justifiably, on her own experience, so it often felt as if there was a wall between her and her readers.

I told her my concerns, but she had concerns of her own: she didn’t want to simply write a survivor memoir: her scope was wider than this; she didn’t want to bring readers too close to her experience; she had a message that she was determined to deliver; she also had a fixed publication date, and time was scarce. I went ahead with the edit, as agreed, but it was challenging, and I struggled to return it, knowing that it still needed so much work. So, alongside the edit, I compiled a report, containing recommendations, suggestions and pages of questions to help fill in the blanks that the original draft had left me with. The result? Unfortunately, I completely overwhelmed the poor woman. I felt terrible and wished I had simply left her to publish the book. But how could I?

When she came back to me after that, she was beginning to see the merit of what I was suggesting, but she was still completely overwhelmed. It was at this point that she asked me to write the book for her. Time was short, but I knew I could bring it to life and produce a book that honoured her experience while serving as a lifeline to other survivors.

I was excited to work on such a rewarding project … but then she told me that she wanted to see my output every day – every day! – and my bubble burst.
I’m used to having a free rein to produce a first draft, which can then be edited. I felt like I was in chains before we had even begun. However, I am a great believer in pushing my own boundaries, placing myself in situations that are difficult (and that I often don’t like) because this is how we grow. And I respected Jenny’s need to maintain control of the project. It was her book after all.

The result exceeded both our expectations, not just in terms of the end result, but with regards to the process. I would send my copy to her every day, along with a page of questions that would help me proceed, and she would send answers and feedback. Very slowly, the trust grew between us, and she began to feel safe to reveal more of herself and share details that were painful but vital to the narrative. As difficult as this process must have been for her, she would often tell me how much she was enjoying it, and I felt so proud that she was finding it therapeutic and even healing. It was amazing to help her after everything she had suffered.
The energy and compassion of our exchange shines through in the book, and she cried when she read it for the first time. She was so grateful that I had managed to capture this difficult chapter of her life, and I was so proud to have been of service to her. I am truly blessed to be on this path.


Twitter: @hayleystories

Domestic Violence Support, call 0800 2000 247