I write this not quite sitting in the kitchen sink, but at least close enough to it to see the huge pile of dishes I ought to be doing. And the vase of wilting flowers I really ought to have taken out to the compost heap by now. And the cobweb on the underside of the cabinets which I’m certain wasn’t there yesterday but which has erupted into a vast glittering net, seemingly overnight. I can see all these things, but instead of dealing with them, I’m sitting at the table, watching the cursor flicker on the screen.
It’s been like this quite a lot over the past few months: trying to work, while feeling like I’m balancing on a mountain of incomplete household chores and unsent emails and unanswered texts, knowing that at any second there could be an avalanche. This might sound overly dramatic, but I haven’t really stopped since April. Not even when I had Covid (round 3) in June.
And when I say I haven’t stopped, I mean I haven’t stopped.
I’ve already written about my incredibly full-on April and May (with a commission, two residencies and deadlines for both my poetry collection and my second novel). Well, straight off the back of that, I went into Kendal Poetry Festival, for which I was Festival Coordinator – as well as fulfilling my usual role of Guerilla Poetry Officer: creating displays around town, and curating the Festival Survival Kits to send out to ticket-holders. This was followed by another deadline for the poetry collection and another deadline for the novel (seriously, whoever it was who said that ‘writing is rewriting’ was not wrong), as well as a return to all the regular admin which I’d naturally let slide in preparing for the festival.
Cut to the end of August, and I feel ready to collapse on the sofa and do nothing but cuddle the cat for days on end.
Which is sort of what I’ve been doing for the past few days – but with less relaxation and more ‘ticking items off my to-do list’. Because after four months of pretty much non-stop high-level stressful work, there are two things I know:
- I desperately need a rest, and
- I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten how to do that.
Ever since I was a teenager studying for exams (and possibly even before that), I’ve only had two responses to intense periods of work: either collapse completely and come down with a terrible post-stress flu, or just carry right on working, but for slightly lower stakes. Since in this instance I’d already done the collapse-and-be-ill part (although admittedly without being able to actually collapse, because we had a festival coming up), then I’ve had to go for option b.
Luckily, the work I’ve had to do over the past week or so (and most of the work I have lined up for the rest of September) is of a very different sort. For one thing, there are fewer deadlines – and those deadlines there are are much less pressing. For another, most of my work this month is pretty solitary, which always takes the pressure off, because it means not having to fit around anyone’s schedule but my own, which of course reduces those pressing deadlines even more. And lastly because roughly half of this month’s work is reading.
That’s right. For multiple hours over the next month, I actually do get to lounge around on the sofa, cuddling the cat and reading a book. (Side note: for years, one of my closest friends thought this actually was what I did all day for my job – something she didn’t admit to me until much later – so she was delighted this week to finally have been proven correct.) This is because I’m one of the judges for this year’s Gladstone’s Library Writers in Residence programme, and so have a shortlist of fourteen books to read before our judges’ meeting at the start of October.
To some people, I know, reading fourteen books in a month wouldn’t feel like much. (I know plenty of people have been doing the Sealey Challenge during August: reading a poetry collection or pamphlet every day throughout the month.) But for the bulk of 2022, I haven’t really been reading much. Put it down to all those high-pressure deadlines I was telling you about.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of these people who never reads because it somehow ‘tampers with their own individual creativity’, because as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t read or listen to books or consume them in some way, then why on earth would you want to write them? And how do you know you want to write them, because you never experience the thing you’re trying to create? But my reading habits do tend to peak and trough – largely because I still tend to think of reading as a delicious luxury, rather than as an integral part of my creative practice, and as such, it tends to get pushed to the bottom (and then off the bottom) of my list. So when things get super busy in the way they have done over the past few months, my reading rate tends to drop, and my TBR pile tends to grow.
This attitude of mine is something I’m trying to fix – and part of the reason I said yes to judging for Gladstone’s Library. (Another reason being because I absolutely love the library, and had the most amazing residency there last year.) And as it turns out, I was right to say yes. I’ve already read some great books (four out of the total fourteen), some of which I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise – and it’s definitely helped me to find that balance between continuing to work hard and also not working myself into the ground. I think (I hope) it’s also helping me to develop a better reading habit. More consistent, and less all-or-nothing. But I guess time will tell on that one.
One thing that has surprised me, though, is that I think I’ve been more productive as a result.
What, I hear you cry – even though you’re spending multiple hours a day doing nothing but reading? (Or maybe you don’t cry this. Maybe you stopped reading ages ago.)
Why yes. Even though I’m spending multiple hours a day reading.
You see, almost every day, I reach a point where my brain stops working, but my to-do list tells me I need to keep going. Often this point arrives in the middle of the afternoon, but not always. Usually, I make myself a tea or coffee, grab a snack, and force myself to keep working at the laptop. Usually spending about an hour answering a single email. It’s frustrating, and not efficient. But what I’ve been doing whenever this has happened over the past week, is retreating to the sofa (and the cat), and picking up a book. It isn’t that the books don’t require me to use my brain (some of them really do) but it’s a different type of thinking. It’s something I can do even when the email-answering and grant-writing and workshop-planning fails me. I sit and read for an hour or two, and then go back to whatever task I was supposed to be completing in the first place. And you know what? It works. The jobs get ticked off the list, and I feel a million times better for it.
What’s more, I even feel more like writing – which is why today, full of that back-to-school feeling on September 1st, I started a new project. What was that project? Well, you’ll just have to wait to find out.
A few extra bullet points from the past 3 months:
- I won a Northern Writers’ Award! In fact, I won the Northern Writers’ Award for Fiction, since it was the only one the judges awarded this year. This means a year of support from New Writing North, plus a whole host of goodies including an Arvon online masterclass and membership of the Society of Authors, plus financial support to continue working on my second novel.
- Kendal Poetry Festival: as I’ve already mentioned, I had two jobs for the festival this year – Guerrilla Poet and Festival Coordinator – although naturally each of those jobs broke down into about a hundred others. And as much as I supported the train strikes, I really wish they hadn’t chosen the weekend of the festival. Still, the festival was a huge success, with much bigger audiences than we’d hoped for, both in-person and online, and such a joyous atmosphere that it felt a privilege to be a part of.
- Kirkby Lonsdale Poetry Festival: luckily I didn’t have to do any of the admin for this one, as I was there as a performer rather than in any kind of coordination role. It was a huge success in its debut year, and definitely a festival to watch as it grows in the years to come.