HAPPY NATIONAL POETRY DAY!

For this year’s National Poetry Day, I was commissioned by BBC Local Radio to write a poem as part of the #FreeTheWord project. The project took 12 regional words chosen by listeners, and asked 12 poets to write a poem based on their region’s word. I was the poet from Cumbria, and my word was ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining etc).

You can watch the poem here:

Ode to Twining

The week summer slammed the door so hard the valley
rumbled from its leaving, you couldn’t move for moaning.

Not fat complaints dropping powerless from lips,
or torrents gossiping and coarse – up here,
our words are leaner, tighter… Here we twine,

unwinding our moans like wool
festooned between us. When the weather
rocked the windows and swept away the bins,
we twined till twining became
entwining, till we had twilled ourselves
in the warp and weft of our words –

the way we were that other winter, when water
rose through the town and the roads were a maze,
when the rain was a blank wall
wetting our backs and the wind was a wild thing,

when our words unravelled and all we could do was follow them
like string – till together our twinings wound thicker,
were rope, and we bound ourselves together like love
as the floodwater billowed and swept –
and we stood fast in our twining and we waited, and we won.

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Yesterday, I was invited to Penguin Random House’s WriteNow Live event in Newcastle, to talk to 50 of this year’s selected writers about my experience of the mentoring scheme, and what it’s done for me. So today, I thought I’d share the talk I gave:

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IMG_4519Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle, Katie Hale

Back in February, I was sitting in a room in Manchester on my own WriteNow insight day. Like all of you, I was there because I felt there were barriers to seeing my work in print.

Some of the barriers we face are external. I recently went to see a friend’s performance at the Fringe. It was a one woman spoken word show about coming out, set against the history of the secret queer language, Polari. At the end, an audience member (it may or may not be relevant that he was a middle-aged white male) came up to her and said, ‘It’s good, but it’d be better if you took out the gay bits.’

Again and again, we as writers come face to face with this bizarre attitude that straight white men write stories that are universal, but if you’re a ‘marginalised’ writer, you’re only writing for other people within your own group. These are the kinds of trends in publishing, and the external barriers, that WriteNow is working to overcome, and probably the reason that a lot of us are here today.

But we also face internal barriers, and I’d like to talk a bit about mine.

I nearly didn’t apply to WriteNow. I’d had an idea for a novel in my head for a while, but never had the confidence to do anything about it. I wrote poetry, not fiction. I had this notion that writing prose as well would be somehow wrong – like I’d be jumping outside this little box I’d put myself in, and that wasn’t allowed. I also wasn’t sure it’d be any good.

The night before the deadline, I forced myself to sit down and write the opening section of my novel. The next day, I ended up going to a McDonalds to use the wifi, so that I could submit my application just an hour or two before it was due – not because I was disorganised, but because I didn’t have confidence in my own work even to submit it.

But here’s the thing: it wasn’t just my work I didn’t have confidence in – it was myself. So I put all kinds of barriers in my own way, and came up with all kinds of reasons not to apply: I was a poet, not a novelist. I didn’t have what it took to write a longer piece of work. I didn’t know enough about plot, or character, or dialogue. I wasn’t right for the WriteNow programme. I wasn’t writing anything shocking or revelatory about marginalised subcultures. I didn’t ‘look’ gay.

Skip to a few months later, and I was sitting in a room in Manchester with forty-nine other nervous writers. Somehow, miraculously, I’d made it this far, which meant that somebody at least thought my writing wasn’t terrible – although being a writer, I do have an overactive imagination, and there was a small part of my brain that was cooking up all kinds of administrative errors that meant I’d been invited to the insight day by accident. Not true, obviously. Nobody is here by accident – you’re here because you’ve worked hard for it.

I didn’t eat lunch on my insight day – I was too nervous about my one-to-one, which meant I went into it feeling a bit light-headed. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried, because this was when I first met Tom Avery – who I’m going to name-drop because I think he deserves to be named. In that first meeting, Tom gave me such on-point constructive feedback on my work, that it felt right the moment he said it. Half a year on, Tom has given me feedback on the first draft of my manuscript, and I’m rewriting it ready for our next meeting in November. He’s given me new insight into the story I’m telling, but he’s also given me confidence in my novel. It isn’t just confidence that I can write, it’s confidence that I should write.

Because ultimately, WriteNow is about stories. It isn’t about overcoming diversity in some box-ticking photo-opp way. Penguin Random House is a business, not a charity – and it’s a business that relies on individual voices. Our voices. You guys are all here because of your story. You’re here because you can write.

I guess WriteNow has been like school, in a way. There are the things it sets out to teach us, like what publishers mean by certain terms, and how the process of finding an agent works. Then there’s the hidden curriculum: the things you learn along the way.

So I’d like to finish this talk by sharing some of the things I’ve learned from that hidden curriculum, the little pieces of advice I’ve picked up along the way, and I hope they’re useful to you, too.

  1. Eat lunch today. Editors are not scary people – they’re just people with a passion for stories and good writing, and you’re all here because you’re good writers.
  2. If you have a bio that says you’re an ‘aspiring writer’, take out the word ‘aspiring’. If you’re here today, then you’re already a writer.
  3. Never wait till you ‘know enough’ to write a book. I’ve spoken to enough published writers who still don’t feel they ‘know enough’, and the best way to learn is by practising.
  4. Make friends. Make friends in writing groups at home. Make friends with other people here. These guys are your colleagues, not your competition.
  5. Be loud. Don’t sit in a corner apologising for your manuscript. And if you don’t feel confident, that’s ok, because pretend confidence can be just as effective as the real thing.
  6. Have fun. Writing is a long and lonely process. Editing is even tougher. When the grind of the work is getting you down, remember that drive that made you pick up a pen or open your laptop in the first place.
  7. And last but not least, I want to share a piece of encouragement we give each other on our WriteNow mentees Whatsapp group: Deep breath. Keep writing. You’ve got this.

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

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It’s amazing how much time it takes to get back to normal after a month of being away. Especially when that ‘month away’ involves taking a show to Edinburgh Fringe. I’ve been back home about a week and a half now, and I think I’ve finally caught up on sleep, got back to grips with what day of the week it is, and (mostly) responded to the emails stacked up in my inbox.

Edinburgh Fringe was an incredible experience. Although I didn’t get to see as many other shows as I’d imagined I would (the one down-side of having to work on and flyer for your own show), I don’t think I’ve ever felt so steeped in art and creativity. I spent practically the whole month with my head buzzing with ideas and just itching to pick up a pen.

Of course, the month wasn’t without its difficulties. When your director tumbles down Arthur’s Seat and breaks her ankle, or one of your cast members loses her voice, or the mics stop working half way through a show, you have to find a way to rally round. But that’s why it’s so important to have a good team on board. Which, luckily, is exactly what we had.

The Fringe in numbers:

360 tweets
33 stars given
26 performances of The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash
11 cast, band & crew members
7 trains taken
5 flats stayed in
2 awards won
1 ride in the back of an ambulance
1 cello string snapped
100+ coffees drunk

The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash ran at C Royale, 2-27 August 2017.

CAST:

Anna // Emilie Finch
Sally // Amelia Gabriel
Julia // Ellen Timothy

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BAND:

piano // Peter Shepherd
drums // Chris Cottell
cello // Emily Hill & Susie Lyness

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CREATIVE:

words // Katie Hale
music // Stephen Hyde
director // Issy Fidderman
musical director // Peter Shepherd
movement director // Nils Behling
lighting // Jennifer Hurd
sound // Nat Davies

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BEHIND THE SCENES:

production // Edward Armstrong & Anya Boulton
marketing
// Katie Hale & Anya Boulton
trailer // Úna O’Sullivan

Keep an eye out for the future of the show!

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