Creator Q&A - Rebecca Holden
The author of Dear Reader, I'm lost brings her incomparable energy and insights to the forefront in this great Q&A
This week I’m very happy to share a Q&A with none other than , writer of the wonderful newsletter . Rebecca was one of my earliest readers and she is a talented and enthusiastic writer in her own right, with her newsletter recently recognized as a Substack Featured Publication in 2023. While Rebecca’s earlier essays did focus on her unique perspective on navigating her way through the world, she’s broadened her storytelling palette to discuss many topics with a constant passion and wit. You’ll see this on display in today’s Q&A.
Also, Rebecca seems to love notebooks as much as I do so this makes her a top notch person in my, er, book.
With no further ado, here’s Rebecca!
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a kid, I didn’t ever know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
When I was very small I changed my mind a thousand times about my plans for the future. Whenever I was helping to milk the goats I was going to grow up to be Heidi, and for a little while I was going to be a pilot like my dad.
And then, aged six, I announced to my best friend that I was going to be a journalist. ‘Well, I’m going to be a physiotherapist!’ she replied. Neither of these statements had represented an actual ambition, and nor did we enter those professions once we'd grown up: we’d just been trying to impress each other with words.
And perhaps it’s that that stuck: finding ways to use words. Is that how I’ve ended up here?
What do you do for a living?
With having to close my glass art business during the Covid lockdown due to not feeling able to run my courses safely, I found myself more available to assist my husband with his own work.
Although I support him with some of the behind-the-scenes operations of running a successful commercial photography and art reproduction business I am perhaps most useful on his location shoots across the country, where I can be found schlepping gear, wielding a reflector or setting up lighting stands. We work pretty well together, and I’m enjoying the ride!
What led you to start your own Substack newsletter?
Around this time last year I started to wonder about one day writing the book I’ve always needed to read, and as a first step to learning more about how to go about it I found myself on YouTube. Videos from two writers immediately stood out to me: Ann Kroeker and Helen Redfern.
An inspiring video by the former encouraged me to make connections with other writers, and suggested that I contact someone whose work I admire to let them know that I like what they’re doing. I’d recently signed up to Helen’s mailing list, and it was Ann’s video that prompted me to contact Helen to let her know how much I was enjoying her videos. Helen sent me a delightful reply to my e-mail, and not long afterwards I received her latest newsletter in which she not only let her subscribers know that she’d just moved her list over to Substack, but also took the time to explain a little bit about how Substack works.
Well, Helen had got my attention with her decision to head this way. I spent a little while exploring Substack, thought ‘hey, I could have a go at this!’ and ‘Dear Reader, I’m lost’ was born.
Substack offered me a potential readership for my words: one which was already there, browsing the virtual shelves of its online library of literary content. I felt I had nothing to lose: this was the place to practise stringing my words together. Nearly a year - and over seventy posts - later, I am exactly where I’d like to be both with my writing and with my connections with other writers, just as that first push from Ann had encouraged me to be.
I’ve heard that it can be a very big deal to make an hour long trip by car in Great Britain and that going beyond that distance is an even bigger deal. Is this true? If so, why do you think that’s the case?
That’s such an interesting question! Leaving aside the fact that with my ability to get lost I can stretch any five-minute journey into an hour by simply going round in circles, I’ll say that Great Britain is wonderful in its geographical and meteorological diversity, and packs a lot of different landscapes into what is actually a relatively small area.
Like in any other nation, people are all different, and of course we all have a different concept of what our boundaries might be. I don’t have any qualms about driving for an hour - or more - to get somewhere, but it’s worth remembering that travelling for more than a couple of hours along this Great British chunk of rock means entering a brand-new landscape, and perhaps feeling even further removed from home. Not necessarily a big deal, but certainly a fascinating one, as rolling downland gives way to wide skies and smooth beaches, and craggy peaks see themselves reflected in glacial lakes.
I’ll say one thing, though: if I’m travelling for more than an hour I will certainly pack a flask of tea and some biscuits for the journey! #becauseBritish
Do you have a favorite game or games? If so, why do you prefer them over other games?
As children my brother and I would often play Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly or Cluedo, and later my love of words redirected my attention to Scrabble and its near-relation, Upwords. I still love the challenge of word games, and enjoy solving crosswords too, either alone or in company at the breakfast table. Two heads are better than one, right?
These days I play Upwords online: on the app it’s a two-player game, and I have multiple games in progress at the same time with various family members. Not only is it great fun to play, the opportunity to use it as a daily ‘check-in’ with my nearest and dearest is something that I really value.
Like many Gen-Xers I can remember my family getting its first home computer. To play our favourite game on that fabulous new piece of kit we had to type Chain “Hopper” on the keyboard and wait ages for it to load from a cassette. Of course, game tech and culture have moved on to levels incomparable to my giddy days of guiding a badly-rendered frog across lanes of pixelated traffic and a perilous river, but at the time those early games were an impressive novelty!
You’ll never see me in Vegas, but I love a card game. We keep a couple of packs of playing cards in the campervan, and on our trips Jim and I can often be found enjoying a cuppa (or a glass of something) playing round after round of ’Newmarket’. These days it’s all too easy to just stare at a screen, which is why I really value access to a decent newspaper crossword or a simple pack of cards.
Do you find yourself self-censoring much in your newsletter writing or do you feel comfortable writing about virtually any topic?
When I first started ‘Dear Reader, I’m lost’ I was wanting to write only about the fact that I get lost so easily, but I found pretty soon that all sorts of other topics were finding their way into the mix.
You see, getting lost is so ingrained in me that I can’t separate it from the other things that make me tick, and pretty soon I found I was posting about those things in their own right. In my year so far on Substack I’ve enjoyed writing about all sorts of things, including being tall, living with type 1 diabetes for over three decades, my left-handedness and my very British tea-drinking habits.
I avoid politics, bandwagons and scary stuff, and I always choose my words carefully. I have plenty of stories that I am keeping to myself, but any experiences I do want to share on Substack are explored with a gentle touch, not only for the sake of my future self but out of consideration for any other people who feature in my writing.
Most of all, I write the kind of stories that I like to read.
Recently I wrote a post talking about my favorite kinds of sounds or music to work to and you replied that the only time you listen to music is when you're cross and you listen to it loud, which is quite interesting to me. Was music part of your life when you were a child?
Music was certainly in my environment when I was a child, and I remember listening to my parents’ vinyl records with my brother when we were very little. We loved to dance to ‘Popcorn’ by Hot Butter, and we would play Rod Stewart’s 1977 album ‘Atlantic Crossing’ over and over again. I still know it by heart.
But I more deeply value the spoken word. I was brought up on a steady audio diet of BBC Radio 4, which from a very young age fed me daily episodes of the world’s longest-running soap opera ’The Archers’, served up ‘Desert Island Discs’ on a Sunday morning, and gave me Alistair Cook's insights from across the pond to chew on in his ‘Letter from America’ every Friday evening.
I call myself an ‘active listener’, and it is for that reason that I find it very hard to concentrate on writing or reading or learning or walking with music on in the background. For those things I need for the sounds around me to be authentic to that environment: so, the sounds of nature if I am outside, or, if I’m writing, just the buzz of the words in my head as I string them together.
I’ll actively listen to a radio play, documentary or podcast while I’m resting, cooking, cleaning or ironing, but if I’m working, writing, reading or walking, I prefer a much stiller background.
Could you describe The Archers a bit for our readers? Would you say it's a quintessential part of the British experience?
‘The Archers’ is a British national treasure of radio that delivers so much more than its original billing of ‘an everyday story of country folk’ had led its first listeners to expect.
After several pilot episodes the previous year, ’The Archers’ began broadcasting its daily weekday episodes from New Year’s Day 1951. Set in the fictional village of Ambridge, this drama serial about farming and countryside life soon became part of the nation’s audio furniture, with listeners enjoying getting to know the characters and the relationships between them.
Over the years the material of ’The Archers’ has included alongside its scenes of calving, seed drilling and wheat harvesting all sorts of grittier issues, with storylines around family break-ups, drug abuse, domestic violence and gambling addiction. Woven into the fabric with them, though, are more light-hearted topics: things like the village pub running out of beer, squabbles over whose runner beans should have won at the annual flower & produce show, and the unexpectedly early arrival of a character’s baby in a teepee at Glastonbury Festival.
In a TV drama series, episodes are filmed a long time in advance of broadcast, but the makers behind ‘The Archers’ are extraordinarily - and swiftly - adept at including current affairs in their storylines. The opening lines of the first episode broadcast after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 began with ‘Blessed are those who mourn’, as we heard one of the show’s longest-running characters in a quiet moment of prayer to reflect the tragic news. The threat of Covid 19 was already being discussed by characters at the same time as its audience was beginning to learn about it, and when foot and mouth disease broke out across UK farms in 2001, the farms in and around Ambridge were suffering the same experience.
When I was a child we’d always put the radio on at 7.05pm to hear the latest episode, and welcoming the characters in ’The Archers’ into my home on a daily basis has remained part of my routine ever since. Those who don’t listen to the programme certainly know about it, and - getting back to your last question about music - well, it would be very hard indeed to find a British person who doesn’t recognise its theme tune!
How did you feel when you realized that your newsletter had been featured in Substack Reads?
Surprised! And encouraged. You see, although I’m a regular reader of Substack Reads, I had felt that as the writer of a newsletter with (at the time) fewer than 400 subscribers, one who doesn’t offer paid subscriptions and, essentially, simply a writer of my own story, my words would not gain attention of the team behind the scenes.
I knew that members of the Substack Community could recommend publications to be featured (Mark, I owe you a debt of gratitude for your recommendation!), but hadn’t dreamed that I would have been someone that Substack Reads would follow up on to actually feature. I have never been more pleased to have been so wrong!
I cannot underestimate the value that Substack readers and writers get from one another. We have so much to offer each other in this shared - and sharing - space.
Pretend you wake up one morning and you discover that the Internet has been destroyed. What's the first thing that you do?
I’d do the first thing I always do: go downstairs to make a cup of tea (coffee for my husband) to take back to bed. I’d put the radio on - we have an analogue set, not even digital - to listen to the ’Today’ programme on BBC Radio 4. And instead of playing ‘Upwords’ online with my parents, perhaps I’d give them a ring to invite them round to play ‘Scrabble' at the weekend.
Longer term, I’d miss Substack, of course, and listening to podcasts. But before getting too distracted by the downsides of internet destruction, I’d take the bull by the horns and finally get down to writing the book that I haven’t yet had the headspace to commit to.
Thanks so much to Rebecca for answering my questions. Please do yourself a favor and check out - you won’t regret it.
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