Mary Killen

Dear Mary | 17 April 2019

Dear Mary | 17 April 2019
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Q. I am not a professional writer but on the strength of a short piece I contributed to a Festschrift have been asked to extend this to a 5,000-word memoir. I had no idea how difficult I would find it to do this work outside of the office context in which I normally operate. I can’t seem to crack this challenge. It’s not that I find I can’t write. My problem is that I can’t start. Every day I find a reason to procrastinate. What do you suggest?

—Name and address withheld

A. Ask one of your most ruthless and greedy friends to help you out. Send him a cheque for a substantial sum and make the agreement that you will email him 500 words a day every day for ten days by 5 p.m. at the latest and if ever you fail to do so he can cash the cheque. If it would make failure even more painful for you then you could take a tip from the Canadian broadcaster Tommy Schnurmacher, who conquered his own procrastination problem by devising a variation of this scheme. He sent a friend a stamped addressed envelope containing a cheque for $100 with strict instructions to post it on any day he failed to deliver. The cheque was made out to the Campaign to Re-Elect Donald Trump. Schnurmacher claims: ‘It worked like a charm.’

Q. When I board an aeroplane I sometimes get into conversation with someone in the seat next to me at the beginning of the flight. But I don’t want to talk throughout the whole journey. I want to read my book or watch a film. How does one politely wind the conversation up?

— F.M., Salisbury

A. You should preempt this nuisance early on by first chatting enthusiastically, then calling the stewardess and saying, in front of your fellow passenger, that you feel your throat closing over slightly and that since you are prone to losing your voice could she give you a small supply of boiled sweets of the sort airlines often have available. In this way you will have laid the groundwork to enable you to point at your mouth and shake your head sadly when the co-passenger attempts to chat further.

Q. Not for the first time I have been caught out by being landed with a bill when I thought I was being treated. On the most recent occasion I was convinced I was a guest at a surprise birthday dinner for eight but was myself surprised to be asked to pay my ‘share’ of over £100. On another occasion a friend told me she had a spare ticket for a concert and no one to attend it with. I thought I was doing her the favour by agreeing to accompany her. Then she asked for £75. I can’t afford another financial ambush, Mary.

—Name and address withheld

A. Next time force the proposer to be clear by enquiring pleasantly: ‘I’m afraid I’m rather poor at the moment. Or is that an invitation?’