The existential dread. Join us… or are you already there?

sma niell

The existential dread has hit my little urban family hard this year.

I thought it’d happen at 30. That’s what people tell you. And don’t get me wrong, at 30 I had a fair enough freak out. But it wasn’t dread. At worst, it was just confusion.

The dread, is a whole other thing. I can best describe it as a sense of mild panic, nostalgia and guilt, mixed in with irrational fear. I’ve always been neurotic, so I thought best to ignore it. Concentrate on work in the week, and concentrate on drowning the fear with wine at the weekend.

But it’s come to light that it’s not just me, it’s an epidemic. Which was at first comforting, but then I realised, if we all feel like this, and none of us have a clue what we’re doing, how do we stop it?

The only thing I can think of is to share the fear and hope that it’ll make someone else in the same situation feel better. Safety in numbers after all.

Sleep (including lie-ins)

What the fuck happened to sleep? Lyrics & books are a great way to judge how your outlook changes over time. Read something at a certain point in life, then read it again later and you can feel the meaning shift like a shaky foundation underneath you.

When I was thirteen, me and my friend Donna bought Catatonia’s International Velvet. I remember listening to Cerys singing a particular line in Strange Glue; ‘The end of the night never comes too quickly for me’.

What? (Thought my incredulous 13-year-old-self) The end of the night always comes too quickly. A lie in, bed, a great sleep has always fixed everything.

It’s only recently I’ve understood what she meant. Now (especially on a Sunday), the night is a series of hours where your own bastard brain relentlessly demands to know you what you’re doing. It reminds you about money. Tells you you’re going to fail at work. Tells you you’re going to look like shit in the morning because you haven’t slept. Tells you you should follow your dreams (whatever they are, you aren’t sure) instead of doing what your doing (whatever that is, you’re not sure about that either).

In the morning, you curse yourself for not having slept well, because if you had, all these issues (now a distant and trivial memory) wouldn’t even have occurred with you. You’re like a vampire in the daylight again, hiding the cracks with sunscreen (or foundation) so you don’t have to answer any questions.


Don’t get me wrong, relationships have always been a pain in the arse, and a source of potential panic. I know this. But in your 30′s, for an extra bonus, you’re aware of time. It was painful, cocking things up in your 20’s. But now it’s not a sharply felt pain – it’s a niggling, like a headache about to start.

What if you make the wrong decision? Waste a year in your 20’s – no biggie. Waste one in your 30’s, that’s one year less that anyone, anywhere is going to fancy you because you’re heading to 40.

What if you never get married? What if you don’t want to get married? What if you marry the wrong person? Better end it now than get divorced. But what if you end it now through fear of divorce, and realise everything was actually fine and it was just the fear talking? Do all the people who say ‘when it’s the one, you just know’ actually know? Or are they just lying?

More likely – are they just more practical? Who the fuck knows. This kind of pointless train of thought leads on to the following…


Do I want one? Should I want one?

I like having my time free to write neurotic rants like this, then go to the pub with mates. With my vagina in tact. I like having the option to sleep at night (though often that’s scuppered anyway, as mentioned in point 1). But surely not as scuppered as it would be by an unnecessary, expensive, time and planet resource consuming child.

What if I decide at 45 I did want one, but now I’m too old? What if having a child (quote verbatim from my ma) “will be the making of me”, and I don’t have one, and am therefore never truly, er, made.

What if I don’t have one and I have no girlfriends to hang out with anymore as they all had one, can’t come out at normal adult-with-a-job social hours, and on the odd occasion they do we have nothing to talk about as I don’t know or really care what small people do, and my nearest point of reference is how drunk big people act?

What if I do have one, and (as mentioned in point 2) it was with the wrong man, and he either leaves me stuck with the energy and youth sucking little shit, or worse, doesn’t leave me and we spend the next 30 years resenting each other and putting a face on ‘for the kids’.

Again, I have no answer to this.


What does my job mean? Does it matter?

What happened to my hopes and dreams, of travelling, being a journalist, all that. Do normal people jack all that in for stability and a decent wage?

Did it take so long to haul-ass up the ladder (the climb sustained by the worry I’d be a barmaid forever living on tips and free drinks) that I forgot to look where I was going? Do I actually love my job and feel guilty about it?

The higher you climb, the more you find yourself riddled with guilt and terrified of falling off. Half of you is proud, half of you is panicked. But past a certain age, you hide the panicked part because you have to, and your exterior becomes a mask of calm.

Is that normal?

Is it ungrateful to even wonder whether it’s normal? Am I a dick? The last question I can answer definitively. Yes.

Where are all the grownups?

Remember that time you lost your parents in a crowd? You were probably looking at something shiny and grabbed the shiny thing. When you turned round to show them, you were met by a forest of towering legs below a sea of stranger’s blank faces, going about their business.

You felt tiny and lost.

Well your 30′s are like that, but you’re not permitted to have a breakdown on the floor in tears. If you did, rather than kindness, you’d be met by redundancy and and bill you can’t afford from a shrink.

You are the grown up.

The grownups you remember, the ones with mortgages, kids, cars, jobs where you wear a suit and read a paper at the weekend – they’re you and your friends. The same friends you smoked a fatty with in the skate park while necking 20/20 what seemed like five minutes ago.

Got a question and need advice? You’re fucked.

Last but not least… rose tinted specs. 

My friend Donna (remember, from point 1) – has known me since I was 11.

If she reads this, she’ll no doubt (another great 90’s band, with an ironic name given the context) remind me that when we listened to that Catatonia album for the first time, we hugely overanalysed the lyrics, searching for what they meant.

I know (thinking logically, which I do on occasion) I’ve always been a little unsure of everything. I think we all are.

This may be the most irritating thing about your 30’s and the existential dread.

Friendships, jobs, relationships – everything seems easier and more fun when you look back.

I hate it when I hear my dad hark on about the golden days of the 50s, maybe because it strikes a nerve. Do we all turn into our parents in the end, lamenting our lost and semi-fictional youth?


I’m also aware that we aren’t that old.

If anyone could advise on how to get a good night’s sleep and prevent the continuation of this shit, i.e., lamenting the lost awesomeness of my 30’s when I’m 40, I’d like to hear from them.

Anyway, fellow friend of the fear, sleep well…

Don’t let growing up ruin your dreams – Bristol Lit Fest Launch Logic



After Primary School, lets face it, the fun is over. High school means you have to work out how to act like a grown up, or at least learn the ability to pretend convincingly you’re a grown up.

You don’t play games, not imaginative games. You learn to play social games. You’re made to stand up and read in front of the class. You’re terrified, and you have no idea what the words mean, not really.

You don’t understand the story yet, because you haven’t experienced anything yet. You’re learning to fit in and fake the emotions though, so you blend in with the crowd.

But you know the words mean something, so you start to wonder about them, usually secretly. You wonder what you can learn from them. The stories you hear seem to have the answer to something you can’t quite grasp.


You have your set texts. GCSE’s are important. You need to hit the targets or the school looks bad, your parents will be disappointed, and you will feel bad.

If you don’t get your grades, how will you learn to tick all the other boxes ahead of you satisfactorily.

You’ll never get into college. You’ll never get a job. You won’t be a success.

Won’t I, you wonder? Really?


They are not on the designated sheet. They are out of the scope of the reading list. Those texts that catch your imagination are too modern, those artists that intrigue you are too vulgar. Your opinions are not shared by the class, and your answers don’t fit the marking criteria. You don’t make the grade.

So, now there are two obvious paths to tread; because your imagination is broad and varied, but what the majority of people count as ‘growing up’ and ‘being successful’ is not.

That’s when you meet and court those most limiting of characters;

Fuck ‘em, and compliance.

Fuck ‘em says: The hell with ‘literature’ and ‘aesthetics’ and, all that other bollocks.

They’re for rich wankers anyway. For people with too much time on their hands.

They’re for armchair philosophers and self indulgent bastards who like to sound clever in front of their smug peers down the pub. Literature is for people with too much money who don’t have to get a ‘real’ job. If you wrote anything honest down, they wouldn’t understand it anyway, because they don’t go out and experience things.They just read about them. They read Shakespeare and Tolstoy and they haven’t a clue about real life.

Fuck ‘em says; If I don’t know the right words, they’ll never take me seriously. If I don’t read the right books, and have the right grades, they’ll make me feel small.

So you stop daydreaming, stop asking questions, stop getting lost in stories or writing anything honest, you just get on with it.

Then you feel sad and you don’t know why. Because you can’t express yourself, and you feel like you shouldn’t. You just want to fit in.

Don’t worry, a disheartened, tired voice inside you says.

Just get home, put on Netflix and it will tell you what you’ll like, based on previous selections. No need to discover or explore. No need to think anymore.

Work in the morning.

Or you can listen to compliance.

Suddenly saying Stephen King or Nick Hornby are your favourite authors is embarrassing. You could safely upscale to Bukowski or Hunter S. Thomson because they’re pretty cool. But you have to know they’re cool because of the drugs and the drinking, not really think about the message behind what they’re saying.

You need bite size quotes. Bite size quotes impress.

Who cares if you didn’t read the whole story. You can only tweet 140 characters anyway. Or you can just put a selfie on Facebook of you in black rimmed glasses, drinking a latte with the book next to you, you don’t even need a quote for that.

Later, of course, you will have to know the more ‘literary’ writers. You’ll need to be familiar with canonical texts and learn to  pronounce authors like Dostoyevsky* correctly.

You’ll need to know at least a summary of Shakespeare’s plays. Was Hamlet the one where he holds out the skull, and Macbeth the one where he goes murderously mad, or the other way round?

Just learn to remember the facts, and when it comes up at the pub quiz, over a craft ale, you’ll sound very intelligent indeed.

You learn it all, and you know all the best lines. You can say all the right words in the right places. You fit right in. You’re successful. A real grown up.

But you feel sad and you don’t know why.

You can’t express yourself, and you feel like you shouldn’t. You’ve learned so many second hand opinions, you’re not even sure what you think anymore.

Don’t worry, put on Netflix and it will tell you what you’ll like, based on previous selections.

No need to think anymore. Work in the morning.

So, readers, Small Stories is here to tell you you needn’t choose either.

Literature, in whichever way you choose to write it, read it, perform it, or listen to it, is cathartic.

It’s good for you.

It makes you question life, consider other points of view, and tell your own truth, however you wish to tell it.

Ask stupid questions, because that’s how you learn.

Tell your truths despite being a ‘proper grown up’, and never stop daydreaming and doodling at the back of class.

Thanks to everyone who came to the event, and thanks for getting involved and writing down your confessions. There’s a selection below and I’m sure there’ll be more from Small Stories soon… so keep in touch @smallstorybris

Confessions from the evening can be found below…

*My truth: Dos-toy-ev-sky. I had to do that in my mind when writing this. I also wiki searched the spelling. Just in case.


A selection of your confessions from the Literature Festival launch:

“Sometimes at poetry readings I switch off and just think about myself” – Er, thanks for coming Graham

“I am as soft as down & as frightened as a chicken” – Carol

“I love Jonny” – Well Sophie, if he’s reading this, can I count matchmaking as one of the services provided by Small Stories? Keep me posted eh.

“I should have known I was a lesbian when I fancied Mary Poppins as a child”. Cassie

“I’m going to be an English teacher and I still don’t fully understand how apostrophes work”. Hannah

“I own hundreds of DVDs, but don’t have a DVD player”. Josh

“I am over 30 & I still can’t tell my left from my right. Now I have developed a system where I have to clap in order to know which way is left. It’s weird”. Yer tis Christie, but whatever works!

Thanks so much to everyone who came along, and to our amazing readers, Dean McCaffrey, Ellen Waddell & Bella Fortune, and to DJ BarrTheTruth

Also a massive thanks to out designer Sam Green, and our illustrator Ben Philips. You guys make us look so pretty.

Hopefully see you all at the other amazing Bristol Festival of Literature events on around Bristol this week…


Small Stories presents Bristol Festival of Literature Launch Party!


Small Stories presents: The Bristol Festival of Literature Launch Party

Oct 17th, 8.00pm – late at Watershed Café Bar



Can you hear the truth?

The modern world is full of words. It’s hard to cut through the noise. From click bait articles to 140 character self-promotion to advertising masquerading as news to social media self-propaganda, it’s hard to tell what’s real and to get your voice heard.

Everyone has a story to tell, no matter who they are or how they choose to tell it. Often, the most memorable stories are honest – they share experiences, they teach you different points of view.

That’s what Small Stories is all about. We find the people with the most interesting truths, and we give them a stage.

You’ll hear from some of Bristol’s best Theatre Performers (Ellen Waddell), Performance Artists (Bella Fortune), Spoken Word Performers (Dean McCaffery) and from your slightly cynical, but ever honest, host (Natalie Burns).

There’ll also be a live DJ set and the chance to get involved and make your story heard – all for free. Donations welcome of course!

Most importantly, whether you like it or not, we only speak the truth.

Learn a little more about our truth tellers…

Ellen Waddell

Ellen Waddell is a writer, director, performance artist and musician.

She’s been featured on BBC Radio Bristol, and her one-woman show ‘Jean Luc Picard and Me,’ has just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ellen will be performing a piece of prose about the difficulty of being honest in a world where self-promotion is valued above all else.


Natalie Burns

Natalie Burns is a writer, reviewer and ex-copywriter. She is co-creator of Bristol writers group, Small Stories, and currently working on the board of organisers for Bristol festival of Literature.

Natalie will be hosting the event, and reading a short tale about why writing is the best way to make sure that being a ‘proper grown-up’ doesn’t ruin your dreams.


Bella Fortune

Bella Fortune is a writer, performer and performance maker. Her first two solo shows were performed as part of Mayfest at the Wardrobe and Solo Showcase, Solo Lab and her third is currently in development with support from Ferment, Bristol Old Vic.

Bella will be critiquing the critic by performing a poem about her own experience of the pro and cons of reviewing.


Dean McCaffrey 

Dean McCaffrey is a Bristol based writer & musician who has performed with the ‘Apples & Snakes’, a UK based spoken word organization, ‘Listen Softly’ in London and ‘Stemschot’ in Belgium. He performs spoken word & hip-hop around the city.

Dean will be telling some very real spoken word truths in his unique, creative and inimitable style.


Luke Sleven

From an early age, Mr. Sleven has been scribbling on every canvas or wall he can get his grubby, paint stained paws on. Each piece is produced with the thought and intention of giving the viewer an insight into his world and a piece of his soul. He can mainly be found dwelling around the colourful underbelly of Stokes Croft.

Luke will be illustrating one of the Small Stories live on stage, and we’ll be auctioning of his unique, original painting at the end of the event.


DJ BarrTheTruth

Usually found lurking in the more dark and dangerous corners of the city, DJ BarrTheTruth has decided to step into the light to play us some funky tunes when the performances are over.

He’ll be making sure you all feel relaxed and groovy, and that you stick around to meet some fun people, have a drink or two, and enjoy the party.



Bristol Literature Festival is hosting 16 events, right across the city.

View the events map