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Angelena Boden

Angelena Boden

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Goodbye Smart Phone

New research out shows that smart phones can affect physical and mental health and people are shouting out about it. Workshops to detox are on the rise, psychologists are giving dire warnings about the increase in anxiety, depression and suicide, especially amongst young people – the new IGEN. The articles are interesting, eye opening and worth reading but I thought I’d add my few cents worth to a  phenomenon I find very disturbing.

  I was resistant to the idea of a smart phone until two years ago mainly because I don’t like touch screen keyboards. When I accidently gave my dying Blackberry a spin in the washing machine, I gave in and bought a Samsung mini Galaxy. Small, neat, lightweight, simple. A simple ring tone, a few Apps, connect up the email and sufficient until the day…. Well that day has come.

  Every ping announcing the arrival of some piece of information that’s not going to make one iota of difference to my life other than emails relating to my writing was having an effect on my concentration. I started to get twitchy and imagined I could hear the ping every few minutes.  

  To conquer this behaviour, I turned it off during my writing hours but my mind kept straying, wondering if I was missing out. I think younger people call this FOMO ( fear of missing out).

   My next strategy was to shove it under the mattress using the out of sight out of mind principle. That worked for about two hours, providing I was deep into my imaginary life where eyes still met over coffee and people used telephone boxes or wrote letters in beautiful flowing script to declare love or condolences.

   Living in Malvern with a huge hill behind the cottage means that reception can be intermittent. Calls get cut off and text messages stay in the outbox until I can stand on the low wall in the courtyard and wave the phone about. ‘Go damn you,’ my American neighbour heard me say one morning, as he watched me wave my device in the air.  ‘You’re addicted,’ he laughed, stubbing out his cigarette.

  His words plucked a chord and for a few days I turned off the phone all together. After all, I have a landline, a laptop and a tablet. It felt alright. In fact it felt brilliant. My sleep was better, I now do yoga in the mornings instead of checking my phone and I get a renewed sense of what my life used to be like back in the 1970s. It’s liberating. 

  So what lies behind drastic decision to actually get rid of my smart phone? Some might speculate that I can no longer cope with the acceleration of technology now that I am post 60 and from a dinosaur era. Others may think I’m ill or having a breakdown. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m enlightened or should I say I’ve got my marbles back since I was against the idea of the smart phone in the first place, realising as a behavioural specialist where this might lead. Research coming out is proving my initial fears to be true.

  So what are my top reasons for saying goodbye to my smart phone?

  My eyes are sore and are at risk of being damaged so says my optician. I don’t have 20/20 vision – in fact I have one functioning eye and I’d like to keep it. Extensive exposure to blue violet light is toxic and can potentially damage the back of the eyes. It affects sleep patterns and moods.

 Smart phone users wandering through busy streets staring at their screens are in danger of having an accident. I’ve found myself stopping in the middle of the pavement for someone to walk round me then they give me a mouthful because I interrupted their browsing for one second.

  I used my brick-sized mobile to connect with family back in the eighties and can’t remember any examples where it was used for work until I was going to be late for something. It was a phone for heaven’s sake not a walking office. It knew its place. Now, smart phones connect us to everything from a virtual learning environment to porn and on line gaming where children can be drawn into a vortex of unpoliced, unsupervised connections and adults can experience painful withdrawal symptoms when they are without their phones for five minutes. I’ve seen panic behaviours exhibited in some of the most rational and controlled people.

  What really pushed me over the edge was when I went into a restaurant last Friday and sat near a family of five, all of whom were scrolling, swiping or stabbing on their devices. No communication apart from the odd grunt, no eye contact, no bonding or connection. Even the toddler was sucking on a plastic toy mobile. I watched this scenario play out when their meals arrived. Fingers wrapped around chips but eyes stayed firmly on the screen. No more to say really is there other than it made my stomach turn. Loneliness, isolation, inability to exchange ideas in more than a line at a time..... is this the future of society? 

Nokia must have seen this coming. I loved my 3310. It did everything I needed to do – phone, text, a fabulous radio and a camera. Iconic, classic and comforting. Thank you Nokia for being ahead of the times. I’m off to buy mine today. Love retro but then I came of age in 1974. J

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Pushing our children too hard

I feel I can write about this subject from the point of view of the mistakes I made with my children and why I wish I could go back and do it again. Despite being a single parent with little money at the time, I was determined to ensure my daughters had the best education even if that meant mortgaging the house again. As a former teacher, I believed the way out of disadvantage was through education.

   My elder daughter, clearly academic, won a scholarship to an independent girls’ school in Birmingham from where she launched successfully into the corporate world. The younger one fought pitched battles with me to attend the local girls’ comprehensive even though she won a much coveted place at one of the city’s grammar schools.

  What’s wrong with all that you might be saying?

  Simply this… I pushed my elder daughter into a career she came to hate and my younger one ended up anxious and terrified of failing at university. It was my fault.

 I hear of people selling up and moving into a catchment areas for the top state schools or borrowing huge amounts of money for private education. Imagine the pressure that puts on those children to succeed. Others have been tutoring their little darlings since nursery and boasting about their prowess to anyone who will listen. The amount of times I sat by the poolside listening to the boasts of mothers who had convinced themselves Little Johnny/Jane would represent the UK in the Olympics. (God help the poor kid if they didn’t).

   We should be helping them develop their qualities rather than their focus solely on their cognitive abilities: resilience, kindness, problem solving and emotional self-control. To be able to accept failure helps develop personal growth and is character building.  To see oneself as having a valuable and unique part to play in society without expecting huge rewards or a lot of ego stroking shapes the child into a rounded human being.

  We are exposing our children to dangerous levels of stress once we plan the course of their lives … notice their lives not yours. You don’t know what the backlash will be until it’s too late. Too many stories of young people committing suicide because they can’t meet their parents’ expectations and worse still, they can’t talk to them about how they are feeling.

  We say we want to protect our children from hurting themselves and being hurt yet pushing them into careers that might be unhappy with is hurting them. Why aren’t we focused on their happiness? Think about the burden of disappointment they might carry if they decide to opt out. My daughter is a highly qualified solicitor with a brilliant legal mind. Aged 28, she couldn’t hack it anymore, saying this is the life I wanted for her and not what she chose. I was shocked at the level of resentment. It took four years, after the sudden death of a colleague, for her to find her way through and out of the wilderness.

  If I could go back, I would not hover, push, cajole or lay an expectation on my children a second time. My daughters have always been self-starters and I believe they would have succeeded whatever role I’d taken and maybe our relationship would not be as strained as it is today.

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Are Older writers left out in the cold?

Remember the much acclaimed The Icarus Girl? Helen Oyeyemi was just twenty years old when she found her literary fame. At the time it set me wondering whether, as with many jobs, there was a ‘sell by date’ for authors so anyone one hoping to retire and write as a new career is wasting their time. No room on the overcrowded shelves for the silver sagas.

Is youth favoured by agents and publishers who can see a long relationship with their authors who will improve and go on to produce the best seller to make both parties rich and famous?  Younger writers are certainly more media and tech savvy and have a greater awareness that writing is also about marketing, PR, social media, networking and selling. I do speak to older writers who can be quite huffy, if not resistant, about the commercial side of the writing business.

 It’s hard to prove that there is an age prejudice in today’s publishing world but there is some evidence to show that some writers peak too early and burn themselves out and that others come into their own in later life. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in his fifties and Mary Wesley defied convention by becoming a best- selling author aged seventy.

David Galenson, University of Chicago, wrote an excellent paper on this very subject:-A Portrait of the Artist as a Young or Old Innovator: Measuring the Careers of Modern Novelists.

After a successful business running my own international training consultancy, I retired in my late fifties and spent a year following a family death wandering about in my own head not knowing which direction lay my future. Write a book I was told as if it was something to knock up in a couple of months, slap between two covers and hey presto. One thing I did know was that unless you want to write a family memoir or a story for the grandchildren, you have to take a business like approach. It meant launching a new career aged sixty as a novelist. That meant training, researching, tons of reading and analysis of writing styles, format and structure. If you’re not prepared to draft and redraft several times, cutting out your favourite characters you’re sure everyone will love and cutting and remoulding your plot then serious writing isn’t for you. Aging means more time for these things but speaking from experience less energy for anything that’s not creatively stimulating. It’s not a career for anyone needing an income or to top up a pension because it won’t happen unless you write for the market and can read a crystal ball. The former makes it a drudge, the latter makes you a genius.

 When approaching a outlet for your work, except if you plan to self-publish, don’t mention the fact you’ve retired. If you’re writing full time then you’ve got a new career. Give the impression you’ve got energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to engage with the commercial activities all publishers require. You have to do everything possible to make your book sell and if that sounds exhausting then think again. Painting or fishing might be a more relaxing hobby because from personal experience I can say I have never worked harder in my life than I do now. Up at seven, write till lunch time, an hour’s exercise, articles, blogging, networking, social media, and editing in the afternoon. I can easily put in a twelve hour day and my head is still buzzing with creative ideas as it hits the pillow.

When I wrote my debut novel, The Cruelty of Lambs, I didn’t expect to write another. Once it was sitting proudly on my bookshelves and those of my family, I felt a bit like a new mother who’s told not to leave it too late before the next one.

The advice I was given was not to be a one-trick pony. Publishers invest in a brand. Brand You. From career novelists they expect at least a book a year depending on their schedule and after all it’s usually book four or five that makes your name and rewards their gamble on you.

Publishing has changed so much in the last thirty years. It’s  a media business and publishers are looking for the right image, an approachable author, added value and of course the next big thing. More mature women writers might feel discouraged as they age when it comes to their appearance and the camera. I certainly wouldn’t have cosmetic surgery to hide my age. I’m proud of being an older writer and celebrate my authenticity, silver hair and laughter lines.  

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Why some books are getting on my nerves - literally

  I must be losing my sense of adventure. That, or I am simply getting old.  Books that would leave me unable to sleep or have me snatching a glance at yet another paragraph to see if murder most foul had been committed or some other heinous crime no longer suit my nervy temperament. My adrenaline glands are fatigued. So says my doctor. No more excitement for me!

   The term “gripping psychological thriller” used to be like a shot of the best red wine through my veins which, incidentally, I can’t tolerate any more. Now it’s becoming an overworked marketing strapline.  I should know, it’s partly the genre I work in. So many books buzz around on Amazon with dramatic headlines the books don’t deserve. Obviously I am not mentioning any here but I’m sure you’ve read stuff that neither lives up to the hype nor complies with some trades descriptions act.

  Keeping people in suspense for 80,000 words is no mean feat for the writer and I wonder how many books are abandoned because either the reader is disappointed after a few chapters or being of a  certain disposition can’t cope with the suspense provided by the unreliable narrator ( a new bit of jargon I’ve recently acquired). Can your nerves take another fictional garrotting or are you becoming so inured to blood and gore that it leaves you feeling cold? Are we being offered templates of similar storylines, defective characters and unrealistic interaction? In short, has the psychological thriller had its day? Probably not but I think it needs freshening up a bit.

  A lot has been written about this genre but here’s my tuppence ha’penny worth.

   One important ingredient for a psychological thriller is to get into the minds of those who are suffering and not necessarily the character responsible for inflicting the pain. It’s easier to do if you are weaving in some personal experiences as you can write from the inside out. This is what I’ve done in my two books to date. It’s more important to show how this suffering plays out – out of character behaviour, unexplainable mood swings and changes in perception – rather than forensics or police procedures. Even plot takes a bit of a back seat.

  The most ordinary and balanced of people can find themselves responding to a threat or a loss in the most extraordinary ways. I talk to many of these people through the counselling work I offer. When it comes to emotions, nothing is predictable yet I find myself wanting to shake some of the characters I read about because either they don’t come across as authentic or to use some recent vernacular like “snowflakes.”

As for me, I need a break from grubbing around in twisted psyches and have turned to something softer and less rooted in harsh reality, at least for the summer, to give my nerves a rest.

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