The plane lands in the calm between two storms. Where the flash rainfall has left a standing layer of water, the expanse of airport tarmac is a mirror. It glints in the yellow storm-light. When the driver from Writers’ House of Georgia leads me out to the waiting car, the air is warm and heavy with the promise of more rain to come.
In May 2022, I spent 10 days in Tbilisi, working on my poetry collection at the Writers’ House of Georgia. I was awarded the residency after being shortlisted for the 2021 Desperate Literature Prize, and my flights were paid for by the de Groot Foundation – but (due to Covid) it took a while to get the dates in the diary. So by the time I made it out to Tbilisi, I was staring down the barrel of a poetry deadline. In the end, I think this was probably a good thing. Although it left less time for meandering through the narrow streets of the city’s beautiful old town, or for freewriting about whatever came to mind, it did mean that I had focus throughout the residency, and a project to work towards – both of which are things that I’ve found work well for me, when I’m writing away from home. They give me a sense of purpose, and stop me feeling lonely or homesick.
On that first night, the rain finally falls as I’m unpacking my bag, in the art deco opulence of the Steinbeck Room on the top floor of the Writers’ House. It falls with abandon, with thunder across tiled rooftops and lightning forking the sky above Mount Mtatsminda. It leaves me with a strange mixture of intense drama, and a feeling of being able to just sit back and soaking up the moment – a combination which would come to define my stay in Tbilisi.
While I was in Tbilisi, I slept badly. This was nothing to do with the residency, and everything to do with the impending deadline and imminent poetry festival battling for attention in my constantly churning head. But the result was going to bed early, then lying awake for hours, either reading or thinking about what I’d been reading – and then rising late to shower just in time for breakfast.
Luckily, from what I gathered, Tbilisi tends to be a city that rises late as well. Breakfast at the Writers’ House was served 9am-11am, and was usually a leisurely affair, chatting with one or two of the other writers who were staying there.
(Side note: breakfast is the only meal provided at the Writers’ House of Georgia, but it’s incredible!)
Then I would wander downstairs, to write in the dappled shade of the courtyard for a couple of hours.
I think the courtyard was probably my favourite thing about this residency – such a tranquil space, away from the bustle of the city streets, moving in and out of the shade whenever I got too hot or too cold. I had a few Zoom meetings while I was in Georgia, and I made sure to take them in the courtyard, because it was just so beautiful and idyllic.
When hunger finally drove me back upstairs (to my supply of snacks and mini pancakes taken from breakfast), I would get ready to go out for the afternoon. One of the main dilemmas of a residency like this one is how to strike a balance between working and exploring – and it can be particularly difficult when you’re working towards a deadline. I was adamant that I wouldn’t waste the chance of exploring the city, so I determined to do one bit of exploration a day. (The only day I didn’t stick to this was the day we had torrential rain and thunderstorms morning till night, and I decided to play it safe, catch up on writing & admin, and stay dry.)
So how did I spend my afternoons? I walked along Rustaveli Avenue. I wandered through the flea market by the river and read my book in the park. I took the cable car up to the fortress on the hill. I rode the funicular railway for views across the city to the Atlas Mountains. I explored the old town and sat listening to chanting in the city’s oldest church. I went to the museum. I found a courtyard bookshop and people-watched with a coffee. I tried traditional Georgian foods. On Georgian National Independence Day, I walked the length of Rustaveli Avenue stopping to watch the bands and dancers, and shopping at the independent craft stalls. At the end of each day, I collapsed back in my beautiful room at the Writers’ House with a cup of tea and a book.
This is what I mean about the combination between intensity and enjoying the moment. In some ways, the residency sped by – I felt like I’d barely arrived, and already I was on the flight home (and getting stuck at Schiphol Airport for multiple hours, but that’s another story). But in other ways, every day felt like an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the city – not always doing anything constructive, but often just wandering the streets and drinking coffee and letting myself be.
Which is important, too, as a writer. It’s good to strike that balance between work, and letting your brain do the work while you stare into space.
Which is maybe something I need to keep reminding myself when I’m at home.
(And yes, I met my deadline. Thank you, Writers’ House of Georgia!)
Hey there. It’s been a while. After a sleepy start to the year, things have really picked up over the past three months, and now I’m not sure I’ve ever been busier. In a good way, though. Mostly.
Multiple deadlines have come at once. A couple of different bits of funding came through for different projects. And some pandemic-cancelled things have finally been able to happen.
So what’s been going on over the past few months?
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been on two writing residencies – both of which should have been last year, but were postponed because of the pandemic.
The first was at Moniack Mhor, in the Highlands of Scotland.
At the start of 2021, I was shortlisted for Moniack Mhor’s Jessie Kesson Fellowship. I didn’t get it – but instead, they very kindly offered me a place on one of their retreat weeks, which I was finally able to take them up on in April. I spent the week sitting in the traditional straw bale house (affectionately known as the Hobbit House), drinking coffee, basking in the heat of the log fire, and finishing the next draft of my second novel.
What made this experience even better, was being able to tag it onto the end of a two week holiday – driving Scotland’s North Coast 500, wandering along beautiful white-sand beaches, and wending between snow-capped peaks.
The second residency took me even further afield – to the Writers’ House in Tbilisi, Georgia!
In 2021, one of my short stories was shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. Desperate Literature have a partnership with the Writers’ House – which means that one of the shortlist wins the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, and is awarded a ten-day residency in Tbilisi!
The residency space was stunning – but even more beautiful was the courtyard at the back, which was filled with trees and greenery, and dozens of little tables where I could sit and write. Which was perfect, because…
Over the past couple of months, I’ve had two major deadlines: at the end of April, I sent my second novel to my agent; at the end of May, I finished my first poetry collection.
In some ways, having two such massive deadlines back-to-back was stressful (especially with all the other work that’s been going on). In some ways, though, it’s been useful. I actually love editing. I think it’s much more straightforward to take something you already have and, like clay, to mould it into something better. I think it’s much more stressful starting with a blank page – and I also think it takes a different kind of thought process. It’s been useful being able to be in ‘editing mode’ for a while, even if it is for two different projects.
That said, the freelance life is all about juggling projects, right? And it isn’t like I haven’t also been in all those other modes over the past couple of months as well…
Ragged Edge Audio Adventure:
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with Ragged Edge Productions, on an audio adventure project. The project involved conversations with people from Ewanrigg estate in Maryport, facilitated and recorded by Stefan Escreet – which I then used as inspiration to write the commissioned poem. The poem, sections of audio, and music sung by the community choir were then combined with a walking route around the estate, and community performance along the route.
It was such a lovely project to be a part of – and I can’t wait to share the online version once it’s up and ready.
It only feels like a few days ago that I was sitting down to write my update for January, and yet somehow, here we are again. February might be a couple of days shorter than the other months, but it feels even shorter than that. So how has so much managed to happen in the past four weeks?
Some of that, of course, I mean globally. But some of it I mean personally as well.
A Few Good Things:
Perhaps the most exciting development this month has been getting my agent’s feedback on the manuscript for my second novel.
I like to think I’m fairly hardy in terms of feedback – I’ve been part of enough workshops and writing groups over the years to be well adjusted to hearing people talk about my work. But it can still be incredibly nerve-wracking, waiting to hear whether a piece of writing is working for someone. With something as long as a novel, the time investment is so much more than, say, a poem, that nerve-wracking can quickly become terrifying. What if it falls flat? What if the idea is hopeless, and the conclusion is you have no choice but to scrap it and start over? However much confidence I have in a piece of writing, these thoughts will often flash through my head.
Luckily, the feedback was far more positive than that. In fact, I think it was my favourite kind of feedback: lots of positives, with some good solid editing suggestions to work on in the next draft. So that’s how I’m going to be spending my March: with my head buried in my manuscript, working gradually through my list of edits.
But it isn’t all about work-in-progress. After the slew of successes in January, February has felt much lighter on the publishing front – although I still had a short story published in Joyland.
The story was written (and is largely set) in 2020, during the first lockdown, and features a mystery grey cat who appears as if from nowhere.
And speaking of published work, I’ve also been out and about signing copies of My Name is Monsterover the past few weeks. The Abbey Kitchen cafe in Shap has a stack of them, as does Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere (also available online here).
The Month in Books:
Not as many books as last month, thanks to a number of things which have cropped up over the past few weeks – not least having to sit down and re-read my own manuscript, to remind myself what happens in it before I approach the edits. But that saying about quality not quantity definitely rings true, because this month’s reading was excellent. A couple of proofs for books due out later this year, plus the second novel about medieval nuns I’ve read recently.
there are more things, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
Matrix, by Lauren Groff
The Seawomen, by Chloe Timms
I keep waiting to read a bad book, but so far this year has been superb! Now looking forward to diving back into my TBR pile for March.
January is always a strange month. Named for Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates and doorways: a god with two heads, for looking forwards and looking back. It always feels to me like an in-between month, still emerging from the hibernation of Christmas, not quite in the full swing of the year.
This year, January has felt particularly transient, as I’ve spent a good portion of it self-isolating with Covid. In some ways, this isn’t too different to how I usually spend my January – I rarely have much work at the start of the year, and the weather tends to keep me coccooned on the sofa for most of the month, making it the ideal month to catch up on admin tasks and the ever-higher totter of the to-be-read pile. But Covid is a srange beast, and even on the days I haven’t felt particularly ill with it, it’s left me wiped out, unable to complete more than one or two simple tasks per day.
Luckily (or perhaps unluckily), I’ve been here before. Back in March 2020, after my first close encounter with Covid, I built myself a recovery plan: I split each day into three parts (morning, afternoon, evening), and aimed to accomplish one task in one of those parts, with the other two set aside for relaxing. Gradually, I progressed to two tasks over two parts of the day, and then moved from there back to something more like a normal schedule – although it took a good few months to achieve this.
What that means is that this time around, I know what I’m doing – which is to not overdo it, and to take it slowly. And to hope things get better before too long.
So, other than baking and crocheting and falling asleep on the sofa, what have I been up to this month?
A Few Good Things:
Despite the Covid situation, there have been some definite positives to this month. For starters, I won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Travel Grant! The grant is awarded annually, to assist writers of speculative literature in their research. I’ve been applying for the past few years, so it’s lovely to finally be successful! The grant will fund a trip to Cambridge, to the Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Polar Museum.
I also had a short story longlisted for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize! The story, ‘The Architect‘, was selected as one of 10 to make the longlist, out of almost 1400 entered for the prize. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the announcement of the shortlist next month – but in the meantime, you can read the story here.
And speaking of short stories – another one was accepted by Under the Radar this month – the excellent journal run by Nine Arches Press. The story, ‘In the Soft Grey Tide of the War’, will appear in issue 28, which should already be winging its way out to subscribers’ letterboxes, and which is available from the Nine Arches website.
And last but not least, I also had a poem longlisted for the Bedford Poetry Competition. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the shortlist, but recognition is always something to be proud of, so thank you to the judges!
The Month in Books:
I haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this month. Blame it on the Covid, which has sapped my concentration like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. That said, I have read some really great books over the past few weeks, and I’m excited to keep working through my TBR pile in the weeks to come.
In the words of Jonathan Larson, creator of the musical ‘Rent’: how do you measure a year in a life?
Over the past few years, I’ve tried a number of ways of summing things up – from the books I’ve read, to the number of things I’ve had published, to galleries of pictures. This makes the blog post useful for me to look back on, but it also can give the impression that my life can be parcelled neatly into sections, and perhaps even that I plan it out to be like that, ahead of time.
This year, perhaps even more than last year, life has been unpredictable. At least, it’s felt that way for me, in ways that have proved both positive and negative. This has been true of my personal life – but also my professional life as well.
I’ve been pretty lucky this year. Thanks to a combination of grants, prizes, and – let’s be honest – not being able to go anywhere to spend any money for a large chunk of the year, I’ve been able to spend a big part of 2021 writing.
That might sound like a strange thing for a writer to say – surely a lot of time is spent writing every year? But very few writers make their whole living from the actual words on the page, and normally I do a lot of workshops and events as well.
This year, however, the focus has been on the words – from working on a collection of short stories, to editing my poetry collection for submission, to drafting a second novel. (Which I managed to get sent off to my agent just before I finished for Christmas. Hurrah!)
So, to round up this year of actually writing:
A Few Good Things:
At the end of 2019, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Writer in Residence position at Gladstone’s Library, to be taken up in 2020. Obviously, this couldn’t happen as planned last year. So, in September this year, I drove to Flintshire, and stayed for a whole month in the UK’s only residential library. Day after day, I got to sit in my own little nook at my own little desk in the most beautiful library, surrounded by books and the hush of people’s thoughts.
It was during this month that I wrote the second draft of the novel. Second drafts are always hard. At least, I always think so. With the first draft, although you have the difficulty of starting from a blank page, there’s also no pressure. You’re not trying to produce something good – only to produce something. A mess of words which you can worry about shaping sometime later on.
The problem with the second draft is, this is that sometime later on, and now there’s pressure to mould something out of the mess, knowing all the time that if you can’t mould anything out of it, then all that drafting time will have been wasted.
At Gladstone’s Library, though, the process didn’t feel like a chore. Perhaps because of the atmosphere, which tingled with work and creativity. Or perhaps because it’s so much easier to work when someone else is doing all the cooking and cleaning for you. Whatever the reason, the month-long residency was a huge success, and I managed to come out of it with a complete second draft of the novel.
Which brings me onto…
Heinrich Böll Cottage
Another postponed residency from 2020, Heinrich Böll Cottage is a very different set-up to Gladstone’s Library. A self-catering cottage with a view of the sea, on Achill Island in County Mayo, it felt like the best kind of solo retreat, where I could spend my mornings editing the manuscript, my afternoons walking along some of the beautiful beaches the island has to offer, and my evenings reading by the fire.
This was also an incredibly soothing time. Something about being by the sea, and being able to explore in a way that felt both incredibly free, but also very Covid-safe in terms of my own independence. And, as at Gladstone’s Library, I felt like I accomplished way more than I would have done in the same time at home.
Although, speaking of accomplishments…
This year, I was lucky enough to win a Northern Writers’ Award!
The Northern Writers’ Awards are a series of annual awards, run by New Writing North, with the aim of supporting writers in the north of England at various stages in their careers. I’ve been applying for the awards for years (why not? They’re free to enter, which is a huge plus!) and this year, I was finally successful.
I was awarded a Northern Debut Award for Poetry. This not only consisted of a monetary grant, to support my writing time, but also a series of mentoring sessions with an established poet. So, towards the end of the year, I had my first session, working with the wonderful Malika Booker: two hours of intense interrogation of my poetry, by the end of which my brain felt like it had run a mental marathon. It was the most incredible experience for helping me to see my poems in a new light, and I can’t wait to continue the sessions into 2022!
And, continuing the funding theme, I was also awarded an Authors’ Foundation Grant this year, from the Society of Authors. This has paid for time for me to complete the manuscript of my novel, to get it ready to send to my agent. It’s been an invaluable help, and so great to know that I have some secure money in my account, even when everything remains so rocky.
Kendal Poetry Festival
And speaking of wonderfully intense experiences: in spring this year, Kendal Poetry Festival ran their first online festival – over 9 days instead of the usual long weekend, with so many events we soon lost count.
And my role in all of this? Guerrilla Poetry.
I first created Festival Survival Kits for Kendal Poetry Festival back in 2018, out of a project I’d previously run independently. Since then, the project has gone from strength to strength, and this year, the Survival Kits were bigger and better than ever!
This year, I also started to run an online workshop series. This has been a huge success – partly because it’s led to meeting some wonderful writers, who’ve come along to take part, and written the most incredible pieces.
I’m planning to carry on with these into 2022, and the next one is on Saturday 15th January – still with spaces if you’d like to come along:
Defying all my original expectations, 2021 actually managed to be a fairly decent year for publications and prizes as well.
After its delay due to Covid last year, My Name is Monster finally came out in paperback at the beginning of this year! It has a stunning blue and coral cover, and it’s been great, these last few months, actually getting to see it out and about in shops.
I also won the Palette Poetry Prize this year, with a poem called ‘The Gallery of America’ – about which judge Jericho Brown said: ‘This poem is amazing in its ability to speak to and through itself given its own history. But there is much more than just syntactic technique going on in these lines of definite desperation.’
In other poetry news, this year saw me win the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, and have poems shortlisted for the Aesthetica Poetry Prize, and commended in the Verve Poetry Prize, the Magma Editors’ Prize, and the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition.
In fiction news, I had a story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize, within which I won the Georgia Writers’ House Prize – leading to a residency in Tblisi, to be undertaken sometime in the coming year. I’ve also had stories shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Exeter Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award, and in the top 5% for the Bridport Prize.
I’m planning on doing my annual analytical post of all my acceptances and rejections sometime in the coming month, but for now, not a bad year for prizes all in all!
And, last but not least, My Name is Monster was also featured this year by the Boozy Book Club: an online book club & event series, which mails out the books along with a box of themed goodies. Here’s the Monster box – and I think you’ll agree it looks pretty spectacular.
As I said at the start of the post, things rarely fit into nice easy little boxes, and this year has seen a few extra things, which deserve an honourable mention. Perhaps the most notable of these was my appearance on Rosie Jones’ Trip Hazard: a comedy travel show in which comedian Rosie Jones explores various parts of the UK in the company of a celebrity guest. This was filmed in 2020, but aired earlier this year, including yours truly, talking to Rosie Jones & Scarlet Moffatt in Dove Cottage, and getting them to write poetry on the edge of Grasmere.
In other performance-related news, I wrote the lyrics to a song for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Robin Hood: ‘Branching Out’. The brief for the song was ‘folky feminist power ballad’. Here it is, sung by Maid Marian – aka Emily Newsome:
So what next?
The start of a year always feels like such a daunting and exciting time to me. Daunting because literally anything could happen. Exciting because literally anything could happen.
So far my plans for 2022 involve a lot of editing. I finished 2021 with three manuscripts at various stages of completeness: a poetry collection, a novel, and a collection of short stories. Of these, I’m in a waiting game with the novel and short stories (waiting for editorial feedback so I can move onto the next draft) – so I’m planning to start the year by working some more on the poetry collection. I have a big deadline for this in the spring, so hopefully after that, I might even be able to move over to writing something new – but that’s several months away yet.
And what else, apart from the writing?
I have a couple of trips planned in Scotland (Covid-permitting), as well as a few residencies due to happen later this year (again, Covid-permitting). I have one or two book events lined up – and other than that, I’m going to eagerly await what the year might bring.
And in the meantime, I’m going to edit, I’m going to write, and I’m going to read. And I can’t wait to get stuck back into all three.
2021: The Year in Pictures
Happy New Year, and here’s hoping 2022 brings you everything you’re looking for!
I sit at the old wooden desk in front of the picture window. In front of me, the bogland dips down to where a stream runs down along the side of the lane. At the bottom of it, visible as a bright triangle of blue, is the sea.
This is where I sit and write for two weeks in October, as the world russets and yellows towards autumn.
On the edge of the village of Dugort, on Achill Island, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is Heinrich Böll Cottage. Once belonging to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Heinrich Böll, the cottage offers fortnightly residencies to writers and artists, providing time and space for you to work.
I arrived at the cottage straight off the back of a month’s residency at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in October 2021. This wasn’t the original plan – originally I was supposed to be staying at the cottage in October 2020, but, for obvious reasons, it had to be postponed. I was a bit nervous about whether it would be too intense, attending two residencies one after another like this. After all, a residency is a wonderful opportunity to focus on the work, but that can lead to it feeling a bit like a creative workout; it needs a bit of normality around it to make the intensity work.
I needn’t have worried. The residencies had such different feels to them, that the contrast worked.
(Though, after 18 months at home, six weeks away did still feel like a lot – less in terms of creative intensity, and more in terms of missing friends. And the cat.)
So what is Heinrich Böll Cottage like?
This is a self-catered residency, but luckily, the kitchen is lovely (and has a dishwasher, which is my favourite time-saver). There’s a supermarket about 15-20 minutes’ drive away, in Achill Sound, or, in the other direction, a convenience store about 10 minutes’ drive. There are also a couple of pubs just a short drive away, which is ideal when you’ve spent the whole day writing and don’t want to cook.
The cottage has two bedrooms (a double and a twin), two studies (with desks and views down towards the sea), as well as a painting studio with plenty of natural light. There’s also an outside utility with washing machine and tumble drier – very useful when you’re on the road for six weeks.
There’s a bus that goes right past the front door, which goes into Achill Sound. But the island is so beautiful to explore that I wouldn’t want to do this residency without a car.
So how did I spend my residency?
Achill Island is stunning. I’d never visited the west of Ireland before, and now that I have, I’m already desperate to go back. Purpling peat bogs, towering mountains, golden sand, azure waters, dramatic sea cliffs, and about a million sheep. All of this meant I was determined to do plenty of exploring while I was there.
Over the course of my two weeks on the island, I developed a kind of routine: writing in the morning, then off exploring in the afternoon. Sometimes (often) I then carried on writing in the evening, or else read, or even just had a super early night. (Turns out, all that work and travel can be kind of draining.)
I say writing, but more specifically, I mean editing.
While I was at Gladstone’s Library, I wrote a second draft of the novel. During the weeks on Achill, I did the bulk of the work on the third draft. A lot of this process involved reading aloud (cue that day when I thought I had Covid because I had such a sore throat) – which was a refreshingly weird experience after spending a month working silently in a library.
I tend to edit by hand, on a big printout of the manuscript, which was perfect for avoiding distractions – especially as the cottage doesn’t have wifi (although there is limited 3G at the cottage). I didn’t quite finish the process of typing up all those edits, but once that’s done, I’m planning to take a couple of weeks’ break from the novel. After all, writing two drafts back-to-back like that (especially on back-to-back residencies) is intensive, and distance is always a good way to get perspective on a book.
What do you get / what’s expected of you in return?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that, while I was there as a writer, the residency is also open to other artists. The studio room, for example, has recently been refurbished and additional windows put in, giving it oodles of natural light and making it a perfect space for painting.
So what do you get on the residency?
The main thing is, of course, two weeks in the beautiful Heinrich Böll Cottage. Unlike other residencies I’ve done, you don’t get meals or transport paid for – which means you’re responsible for making your own way to the cottage.
What I did learn while I was there, was that I also got a small stipend to help cover costs (a total of €350 for the fortnight). This is funded by Mayo County Council and the Arts Council of Ireland. I don’t know whether this is something received by every artist in residence, or only in certain years, or certain art forms, or dependent on funding – it isn’t mentioned on the Heinrich Böll Cottage website, so I wouldn’t like to assure anyone of it, only for people to then be disappointed. For me, I planned the residency without it, and then it was a nice bonus while I was away.
What’s expected in return?
Apparently, during non-Covid times, the Association likes to link you up with a school or local arts group, to run some kind of event or workshop during your stay, as a way of giving back to the community. But while I was there, this part of the residency wasn’t happening.
The main expectation, though, is that you use the time and space to work on your artistic practice, whatever that may be. That’s it: just go to the cottage and create.
How do you apply?
The first thing to be aware of is that the Heinrich Böll residency has a long lead-in time. Admittedly, my experience of this was exacerbated by Covid, but even so, I submitted my application for the residency in July 2018. I also have it on good authority that the applications received in this current round are being considered for 2023, so any applications received in the coming year will be for 2024 consideration. As I said: long lead-in.
Personally, though, I like to plan ahead, so I’m a bit of a fan of a longer lead-in for a residency. (I find those residencies where you only find out if you’re successful a month or so before the start incredibly stressful.)
If this works for you as well, then you apply by snail mail, submitting your application (consisting of a recent sample of your work, a short CV and a letter of interest) to:
John McHugh Achill Heinrich Böll Association c/o Abha Teangai Dooagh Achill Island Co Mayo IRELAND
NB: As with Hawthornden residency, the initial application for Henrich Böll Cottage is by post, but communication thereafter is done by email – or, when it comes to arrangements such as collecting the key to the cottage, by phone.
And that’s it! I hope you’ve found this informative – whether you’re thinking of applying yourself, or just here to nosy at what I was up to for a couple of weeks. And if you do decide to apply: best of luck, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you!
The hush of books. The dusty tingle of being surrounded by other people’s thoughts, other people’s ideas. Ornate wooden beams soaring overhead, as the occasional turned page rustles from across the gallery. In the sacred quiet of the library, I sit at my desk and start to write.
Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library, meaning that you can book to stay in one of the bedrooms, and eat in the restaurant, Food for Thought, and work in the library while you’re here. (Clergy & members of the Society of Authors gete 20% off!) The library also offers bursaries and scholarships, and runs a writer-in-residence programme – which is how I came to spend a month here, working on the second draft of my novel.
I arrived at Gladstone’s Library on 1 September 2021, sixteen months later than originally planned. The reason, of course, being Covid and the mutiple lockdowns and restrictions. For almost eighteen months, the library was closed, and we kept having to renegotiate the dates of my residency – so that by the time I actually made it here, the library had taken on this strange mythical quality, like a mirage, always two steps further on.
And there is something magical about Gladstone’s Library. Something transformative about the Reading Rooms, about the process of climbing the narrow wooden stairs each day, to sit at my desk in the little alcove above the porch, and immerse myself in the world of my second novel.
My first residency after (more or less) 18 months of being at home:
Compared to a lot of people, I haven’t had it bad the past 18 months. I haven’t had to shield, so I have been able to leave the house for things like food shopping and, more recently, outdoor social gathering. I have a garden and my back door pretty much opens onto the fell, so there’s been plenty of opportunity to get out of the house safely. I’ve even been on a couple of holidays around the UK.
But, like most people, I’ve spent the majority of the past 18 months in my own home, in my own (sometimes failing) routine.
The past few weeks have shocked me out of that. The change of scene, the change of company, the knowledge that I only had a specific amount of time – all of this helped me be far more focused and creative than I would have been at home. Not to mention the fact that having set (or loosely set) mealtimes imposed a useful amount of routine on my days at the library.
It reminded me how much I love residencies, and how much a new environment can – for me – help and encourage the creative process.
So what did I achieve?
I started the residency with a first draft of a second novel.
Everyone approaches the drafting process differently, and for me, first drafts are a mess. I don’t write chronologically. I write scenes which I know have to happen, but with only a vague concept of how they might all fit together. I also have a tendancy to change the characters’ histories and motivations halfway through the writing process, or to decide the ending isn’t going in the direction I originally thought, or – as in this case – to totally change the narrative voice from third person past to first person present.
This means that, when I have a ‘finished first draft’, what I actually have is a jumble of scenes and linkages which may be vaguely novel-shaped, but which also may look a bit more like a rubbish heap. The second draft, then, is where the shape and feel of the book really start to emerge. Where I have to try to make it all make sense.
(This is why, often, I dread the second draft. Suddenly, unlike before, the pressure is on for the words to actually make sense.)
While I was planning for the residency, I’d been thinking of my time away as a six-week block: four weeks at Gladstone’s Library, followed by two weeks on a residency in Ireland. In those six weeks, I thought, I should be able to get the bulk of the way through the second draft of my novel.
I also thought this was a pretty tall order. Bear in mind, the first draft took me eight months to write, and it was a total mess. Still, I would give it a go. Even if I didn’t finish the second draft, I reasoned, I would have enough of it done to carry me across the finish line when I got home.
Cut to three and a half weeks later. I’m in my final week of the Gladstone’s residency, and, after twenty-six days of writing in the library, I’ve finished a second draft.
85,000 words + a heck of a lot of coffees, and somehow, the whole second draft is complete.
I’m someone who tends to write a lot of drafts (I know writers who write more, and writers who write fewer – it really depends on the writer). For me, there’ll probably still be structural changes going on into draft three, and maybe even draft four – so there’s still quite a way to go in terms of finishing the actual book. And that’s before I even send it to my agent, and way before an editor gets to see it.
But it’s a solid start – and the residency has meant that I’m much further on than I ever expected to be at this stage.
The residency consists of residential stay + meals + library use for a calendar month. The library also offers a £100 per week stipend, plus travel expenses from your UK address. In return, the Writer in Residence gives a talk (mine was part of the library’s annual festival, GladFest), leads a full day masterclass, and writes two blog posts during the course of their stay:
The library is a beautiful building, with one wing dedicated to the Reading Rooms (where the books & desks & archive collections are), a middle section of offices, and another wing dedicated to living: bedrooms, a lounge, the chapel, and the restaurant.
The Writer in Residence bedroom is a double ensuite room – mine was on the second floor, with a little window that I fell in love with at once, looking out on a tree which was filled with birds and, occasionally, squirrels.
There’s also a desk in case you prefer to work in your room – though beyond the occasional Zoom call, I didn’t use this much, preferring to work in the much more atmospheric Reading Rooms instead.
What about the food?
The Writer in Residence position is fully catered, meaning the library provides three meals a day, plus coffees in between if/when necessary.
Breakfast is continental (I maybe ate my body weight in croissants over the course of the month), with options for either lighter or more hearty meals at lunch and dinner (the steak pie is excellent). To begin with, I was worried the food might get a bit samey, eating from the same menu every night, but luckily they varied it up by adding specials, and having features such as Sunday lunctime roast dinner.
I had to limit myself on the desserts, though. Right at the start of the residency, I made a decision to only allow myself pudding on days where my total wordcount reached the next 10k word marker (so, at 10k words, 20k words, 30k words, etc) – which may have also contributed to my productivity during the month!
The best bits:
The best bit of any residency is the time to write. A chance to turn on the out-of-office and dedicate that brain space to the writing.
But there’s something extra special that happens at Gladstone’s. Whether it’s being surrounded by all the books, or the concentrated quiet of other people working, but there’s a magical focus that happens in the library, where the work just flows.
Hey there. It’s been a while. Sorry about that – but then, in some ways, it feels as though it’s been no time at all.
Either way, it feels as though time has been doing some pretty strange things over the last year and a half. Always slowing down and then speeding up, trapped between a race and a limbo. And the truth is that for a large chunk of it, at least for me, it hasn’t felt as though very much has been happening. I get up. I make coffee. I play with the neighbour’s cat. I write. I answer emails. I collapse on the sofa. I watch something or other on Netflix. I nod off. I drag myself to bed.
Like a lot of people, I’ve been struggling a lot this year with a feeling of inertia, a fatigue in the bones. Whether that’s just a result of lockdown, or the uncertainty we’ve all been living through for the past year and a half, who knows. The upshot is that everything seems to take longer, which means less going on, which has not only meant less time to post on here, but also feeling like I have less to post about.
Basically, this is just one long big excuse for my absence.
Cue this summer, when evrything changed. Or rather, when everything happened. It’s as though the days got longer and suddenly everyone came out of hibernation. Suddenly, I have news.
A Few Good Things:
I FINISHED A FIRST DRAFT!
At the beginning of this year, I started working on my second novel.
It’s been slow going. The novel which I started to work on early in 2020 proved to be a false start – partly because of Covid. (When the world turns upside down, different stories can start to matter more, and the stories which you thought drove you before can suddenly feel vaccuous and unimportant.) Luckily, I’d had another idea for a novel last March, and was finally able to start work on it in January.
A few weeks ago, I finished a first draft.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go yet. I’ve let the manuscript sit in a drawer for the past couple of weeks, giving it time to rest before I start work on draft two.
I always think the second draft is the hardest. Draft one is just about writing down your ideas. In draft two, you somehow have to make this colossal bundle of words make sense as a story.
But I don’t want to demean the process of writing that initial draft! It’s still an awful lot of words (70,000 words, to be exact), and this year in particular, that process of pulling a story out of thin air has been hard. I think it’s important to celebrate those achievements at every stage of the writing process.
So: first draft accomplished. Draft two, here I come!
The biggest win (and one I’ve been applying for for years) has been a Northern Writers’ Award.
Northern Writers’ Awards are an annual set of awards, grants and prizes, run by New Writing North. This year, I was lucky enough to win a Debut Poetry Award, to work on my first full-length collection. The award comes in the form of a financial grant, alongside mentoring, which I can’t wait to get started on.
And, speaking of poetry, my poem, ‘Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863’ won the Prole Laureate Competition, judged by Carrie Etter, who said this about the poem:
The winning poem, “Snapshot of My Great Great Great Grandmother, Missouri, 1863,” transfixed me every time I read it. I was entranced by the poem’s deft interweaving of American history, motherhood, and the country’s relationship with guns. The speaker’s consciousness is well conceived, the references to God crucial for our sense of the speaker’s consciousness in that time and place. With expertly interwoven narrative threads, a thoughtful use of line and pacing, and poignant observation, this poem deserves more applause than I alone can give. It’s a remarkable, moving poem.
At the end of June, I had a short story shortlisted for the Desperate Literature Prize. And not only that – it went on to win the Georgia Writers’ House Prize, which comes with a week at the Writers’ House in Tbilisi! Still not sure when I’ll be able to take that one up (thanks, Covid), but I was thrilled to be chosen, and am already very excited for whenever it does happen.
The story, ‘Raise, or How to Break Free of the Ground, or The Lakeland Dialect for Slippery is Slape and to Form it in the Mouth Requires an Act of Falling’, will be published in an anthology later this year.
So that’s my very successful summer! Don’t get me wrong – there are still plenty of ‘thanks but no thanks’ responses. But it’s amazing how much difference it makes when you get a couple of ‘yes pleases’.
For me, one of the markers of summer is seeing The Three Inch Fools perform. An outdoor theatre company, The Three Inch Fools tour the country every summer, with five actors performing two Shakespeare plays (this year, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Romeo and Juliet).
This year, they toured a second play: Robin Hood. This was a more meta, folky, musical take on the well-known story, and I had great fun writing the lyrics for one of the songs (music by Stephen Hyde), sung by Marion (aka Emily Newsome):
So what else have I been up to?
Alongside all this, there’s been a mix of work & play. I’ve run a number of online writing workshops (which will start up again in October), and been one of the tutors on Northern Writers’ Studio’s inaugural Summer School.
Despite saying I was going to put less energy into submissions & applications this year, I’ve also been submitting work and writing applications. Which, yes, is time consuming. The difference this year is that I’m only applying for things that I actively want to do / would benefit my practcice, rather than just because the money’s good. If I’m going to spend hours and hours on an application with limited chance of success, I at least want it to feel somehow worthy.
As for the ‘play’ side of the summer, after very little over the past year, I’ve actually been away from my own house a few times lately. This started with a trip to the Highlands in June, and continued with a self-made writing retreat (where I wrote around 12,000 words in 5 days), then finished up with 3 days walking the Pendle Witches Walk with my friend Loren (in some very witchy weather). After the year of monotony, it’s been good to remind myself that taking a break, and changing the routine, can be so hugely beneficial for creativiy.
So what’s next?
Well, in many ways, that depends on the outcomes of some of these applications. But in the shorter term, there are a few things I know are in the pipeline:
Firstly, I have a couple of residencies in the pipeline, which were postponed from last year: Gladstone’s Library in Wales, and Heinrich Boell Cottage in Ireland. I’m going to be using the time at these to work on redrafting the novel, and hopefully to be able to totally immerse myself in it.
I’m also very excited to be going back to the poetry collection, with mentoring courtesy of the Northern Writers’ Award.
And, in the autumn, I’ll be back to running the online writing workshops, starting with Writing Weather on Saturday 23 October.