The end of another year, and a whole 12 months since I gave up my main source of income in order to focus more on my writing. A whole 5 months since I went completely freelance. I don’t think it’s any less scary than it was back in January, but it’s a funny thing, looking back on a year. In some ways it seems like forever, and at the same time it feels like no time at all.
For instance, I feel a little bit like I’m still taking baby steps; I’m definitely still an ’emerging’ writer, though I’m not sure how I’ll know when I’ve actually ’emerged’. But then when I sit and list everything I’ve done this year, it feels like much more than a year’s worth of work.
Most of my focus this year (as always) has been on poetry, and writing as much of it as I can. I’ve started going to Kim Moore’s Barrow poetry writing workshops, and Brewery Poets writing group, and a monthly poetry sharing evening in Shap, which have all been great for making me write more. So great, in fact, that I’ve started writing a new long poetry sequence (so a huge thanks to the Poetry Business workshop at Kendal Poetry Festival, for the spark which set that sequence off for me in June).
As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also started a monthly wordy open mic night in Penrith. Word Mess takes place on the 3rd Tuesday of every month (except December & August) in the old mess hall at Penrith Old Fire Station (Eden Arts). Attendance has been building steadily, and we now have a lovely little group of regulars, and a slightly bigger group of occasional-ers – though whether they come because of the quality of writing or the quality of the bar is anyone’s guess! Maybe for both.
In terms of my own poetry, it hasn’t gone badly: a couple of poems in magazines, including one that’ll be in The North in January; a commended poem in York Poetry Competition; and being shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize.
Not bad – but it isn’t all about poetry.
I don’t know how other people work, but I meet a lot of people who categorise themselves. ‘I’m a novelist’, or ‘I’m a poet’, or ‘I write for theatre’. Obviously there are people who pick a form and stick to it, which is fine if that works for them – but I used to think that was the only ‘correct’ way to do things. In fact, I spent a couple of years actively not writing anything but poetry, because I had this bizarre notion in my head that writing prose or script would somehow make me a lesser poet.
Writing Yesterday with Stephen Hyde last year, the theatre bug bit me again, and those play ideas that had been simmering under the surface kept nudging at me – so this year, when I suddenly had more time on my hands, I decided to let them out.
This year I’ve drafted two play scripts – both of which are currently both sitting in a drawer fermenting, until enough time has passed for me to look at them with fresh enough eyes to give them a proper redraft. It’s been so great to get back into playwriting, that I almost don’t mind whether anything happens to them or not. The feeling of exercising those script-writing / dialogue / plot muscles was satisfying enough in itself. Like when you go for a run after a long period of inactivity, and you feel a kind of glorious ache in all the muscles you haven’t used for ages.
Then, while I was stuck in Tulsa airport for 24 hours as a storm raged in Chicago and the UK voted to leave the EU, I wrote the lyrics for a new song (also by Stephen Hyde), for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Macbeth. I think there may be a recording of this surfacing at some point in the new year, but for now, if you’re not already a Fools fan, you should definitely check them out.
I’m also getting stuck back into the rewriting process of Yesterday, working with Stephen. After a few months working very solidly on my own, it’s good to get back to collaborating again, and to remember that excitement of bouncing ideas back and forth between two people until they become something much bigger than either of you could access alone, and neither of you can quite say who came up with what. Much more of this to follow in the new year…
Ok, so I haven’t really been a fiction writer for about half a decade. Like most writers, I guess, I started out writing fiction, because stories are the first creative thing you’re taught to write in school. But my poetry, and even my theatre, has superceded my fiction for the last ten years, and the fiction has been basically absent for around half that time.
And yet… Like a lot of people, I had a novel lurking. You know the one, swimming in the depths of your brain – the one that floats to the surface when you feel particularly inspired by a good book you’ve read, or when you’re trying to get to sleep, or doing the dishes.
This year, I decided to give it a go. So far, I’m only about half way through the initial drafting stage, so there’s no knowing whether anything will come of it, or whether (perhaps like the play scripts) it will just sit in my desk drawer. But already it’s looking hopeful.
Over the summer, Penguin Random House put out a call for submissions from minority writers, to receive a place on one of their WriteNow insight days, which includes a 20-minute one-to-one with an editor. Having submitted an application & 1000-word extract with my ‘I’m not really a fiction writer but I’ll give this a go’ hat on, I couldn’t really believe it when I heard I’d got a place on the Manchester insight day in February 2017 – especially when I heard that there were over 2000 applications for just 150 places. Talk about a confidence boost!
Even if nothing else comes of this, that acceptance email has given me the confidence to write a novel (well, novella) that otherwise would have remained unwritten.
Work-wise, my main project this year has been running schools workshops and delivering Arts Award Discover. I delivered I-can’t-quite-remember-how-many workshops in schools for the Wordsworth Trust, to tie in with their Arts Award Discover project, where the children wrote poems about places that meant something to them. I also ran Arts Award in Shap and Clifton Primary Schools, which was great fun – especially in Shap School, which was my alma mater. (Can you call it an alma mater for a primary school, or is that just for universities?)
As always, the children blew me away with the quality of work they produced. One particular phrase that I wished I’d written myself came from an 8-year-old, who wrote, ‘I am as shy as a funeral.’ I think I was too gobsmacked to think clearly for about 5 whole minutes. So that night I shared the simile on facebook, and got a whole host of gobsmacked reactions from other people, too.
Oh, and speaking of sharing…
This year I created Poetry Plaster Packs. The idea was to share little packets around Penrith on Valentine’s Day. Each one contains: a plaster (for the literal cuts and scrapes), a cheerful little poem (for the figurative ones), and a little gift – because let’s face it, who doesn’t love a present? I shared about 40 on Valentine’s Day, and a few more since. I suspect I may be distributing a few more in the new year, too.
I’ve also had 3 online projects this year:
The Sam Thorpe Trust Fund: I put together the website for this earlier in the year, and it’s worth checking out, especially if you’re in the Penrith area. The Fund gives grants to young people who want to do something extraordinary, and to schools / organisations that work with young people.
#SomethingGood: On Wednesday 9th November, I was sitting on my sofa in a state of shock, having spent an almost-sleepless night watching America elect a future president with no history of government but a long history of racism, misogyny, and abuse of power. I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. Some of my American friends were posting on social media about how to contact your senator to raise protests, but I’m not American; I don’t have a senator. Instead, I decided to do something quieter, but hopefully also positive:
The Tea Break Project: And speaking of America, I’ve also started a new travel blog this year. Some of you might remember my first travel blog, Second-Hand Hedgehog. I’ve now moved to a new online home: www.teabreakproject.com – with (hopefully) better content, better design, and better stories from life on and off the road. This year, my travels have included Portugal, Marrakech, Kansas, a massive road trip up the west coast of America and into Canada, and a week in New York.
The Year in Books
Every year I make it my goal to read at least 50 books. This year I’ve read 57, which isn’t bad – although I haven’t read as much poetry as I’d have liked. Something to make sure I work on next year.
I have, however, read a lot of plays, thanks to my rekindled interest in theatre and writing for the stage.
I’ve also read a lot of contemporary literary fiction written in the first person, to try to get my head in the right place for drafting the novella. Among these, I’ve discovered Margaret Atwood. How it’s taken me till age 26 to read any Margaret Atwood, I have no idea, but I’m buzzing with that exciting feeling that comes when you fall in love with an author’s writing style. I have to physically prevent myself from running to the till every time I see one of her books in a bookshop.
As well as new discoveries, I’ve made a great rediscovery this year: The Little House on the Prairie. I re-read this in preparation for my trip to Kansas (and the real-life little house on the prairie just outside my great aunt’s home town of Independence). I thought I knew the story. What I hadn’t realised was that I’d only ever read that one book in the series, and that they were a fascinating insight into American history and culture, and why the middle of the country is the way it is.
My top 10 books this year (in alphabetical order):
- Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
- Zinnie Harris, How to Hold Your Breath
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House on the Prairie (series)
- Helen Mort, No Map Could Show Them
- Rory Mullarkey, The Wolf from the Door
- Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
- James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
- Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth
- Em Strang, Stone
- Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton
The Year in Pictures