BREAKING THE SURFACE

{pamphlet launch, reading & open mic}

Friday 2nd June, 7:30pm
Penrith Old Fire Station, Bridge Lane, Penrith, CA11 8HY

FREE*

‘Katie Hale’s nimble poems, attuned to both the mythic and the quotidian, are full of the delighted surprise and sadness of being alive. Read them and be thrilled.’ – Jacob Polley

It’s here. It’s happening. The poems I’ve been pouring myself into creating for the past few years are coming together in a physical thing that can be bought and read and carried around. Which basically means you can keep my soul in your handbag.

The launch event will be me reading from the pamphlet, Breaking the Surface, alongside guest readers (who I’ll be announcing gradually to increase anticipation, the way they do the Glastonbury line-up), and open mic slots for anyone who wants to sign up on the night. Come along for a night of poetry celebration!

There’ll also be a bring & share supper, so please do dig out that secret family recipe / buy a big bag of crisps on the way over.

Breaking the Surface is published by Flipped Eye.

*Please bring food to share. Bar on site.

Let me know if you’re coming HERE.

Sometimes, writing is about not writing. Sometimes, you have to put down the pen and get busy living in order to have anything to write about. At least, that’s my excuse for April.

April has been a month of clearing my head of all the wordy detritus that’s built up there over the past few months. Honestly, I think I needed the break. At the end of March my brain just felt stuffed, and writing felt difficult (more difficult than usual), as though I was forcing the words out kicking and screaming. Creativity is a muscle, after all, and any muscle can become overworked and strained.

So I’ve spent the past month travelling.

Cambodia. Vietnam.

Katie Hale - Vietnam
I’ve spent a fair bit of time on boats, and a fair bit of time eating all the delicious food I can get my hands on. The only reason I’m not currently the size of a house is that I’ve also spent quite a bit of time walking, whether that’s wandering round towns and cities, or the 3 day trekking tour I bravely embarked on in the hilly northwest of Vietnam around Sa Pa.

I’ve always believed that walking is good for writing. I’m not alone in this belief: I know a number of writers who extol the virtues of a good walk for clearing the brain. Wordsworth used to compose sonnets during his walks on the beach at Calais.

Maybe it’s something to do with the rhythm. Maybe it’s the chemical change enacted on the body by keeping it in motion. Maybe it’s the feel of ground beneath the feet, of groundedness. Whatever the answer, I’ve come home itching to pick up my pen and get the ball rolling on my various projects again.

Well – I say I’ve come home… I did, sort of. For about 2 days. Now I’m off again, although this time I feel slightly more justified in that I’m currently travelling for work. (I love saying that: travelling for work. It sounds so important & businesslike.)

This week, I’ve spent a couple of days in Dublin, where I was shortlisted for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize. I didn’t win, but the evening was lovely enough even without winning. Each of the shortlisted poets read their poem, and we were then all presented with our cheques (!) and photographed, and everyone drank wine. There was so much wine on tap all evening: poetry events done right.

Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize award ceremony - Katie Hale
Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize award ceremony

After the award ceremony, there was a reading by Don Paterson and Colette Bryce. I’d heard Colette read before at a workshop weekend at the Wordsworth Trust, but it was wonderful hearing her read from her new Selected Poems, like a cross-section of her writing career so far. As for Don Paterson, I’ve heard him read a few times, as he was one of the tutors on my Masters at St Andrews, but I always enjoy hearing him read: his precise and often ominous poems interspersed with moments of his self-deprecating humour. As with all good poetry readings, this was followed by a trip to the pub, and a long conversation with Don & my friend Ann, who did the Masters at the same time as me and completely surprised me by showing up the the Ballymaloe Prize reading to hear me read. A wonderful affirmation of the generous nature of the poetry world.

From Dublin, I flew to Gatwick, to take the train to Petersfield for the South Downs Poetry Festival Residential, tutored by Kim Moore & Hugh Dunkerley, which I was lucky enough to receive an emerging writers’ bursary for. The long weekend focussed broadly on landscape, with workshops encouraging us to think about the internal and external landscapes, journeys through them, and how we address and perceive elements of the landscape around us. After a month’s break from writing creatively, the residential was a baptism of fire, and I came away with five almost-complete poems, and a couple of bits of raw material that may or may not shape up into something in the future. So talk about a productive weekend!

Writing in Halong Bay, Vietnam - Katie Hale
Writing in Halong Bay, Vietnam

The Month in Books: 

You know when you’re browsing an airport bookshops between flights, and you aren’t really there because you’re planning to buy a book, you’re just trying to kill some of your layover time? And then suddenly you see a friend’s book on the bestseller stand, and obviously it’s like fate intervening and telling you that you can’t not buy it? At Singapore airport, that’s exactly what happened to me, when I saw (and of course couldnt’ resist buying) Cecilia Vinesse’s heart-warming young adult novel, Seven Days of You. Cecilia was another students on the St Andrews creative writing Masters at the same time as me, so it was particularly special to be able to buy and read a book that I’d heard so much about, and seen during the earlier stages of its creation process.

Other than that, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Cambodia & Vietnam, in an effort to connect my reading with my travels. I love doing this: I love that experience of reading about a place, and then looking up from the page to find that I’m actually there.

  • Cambodian Stories from the Gatiloke
  • The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh
  • Seven Days of You, by Cecilia Vinesse
  • The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Reading list - Katie Hale
The Month in Pictures: 

(During my 4 weeks in Cambodia & Vietnam, I took over 3000 photos. Don’t worry. They’re not all posted here.)

Another month – how do they go so quickly?

March always feels as if it should be a month of waking up. It’s when nature really kicks into gear at the end of a long winter. The nights are lighter, I can ditch the heavy winter coat, and there are daffodils in the jug on my windowsill. Oh, and lambs in the field. One of my favourite things about spring, and one of the joys of living in the country: getting to see the lambs skipping and playing in the fields around the house.

Of course, it isn’t just about flowers or adorable farmyard animals. It’s also (like every month) about writing.

And I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the month. At the beginning of March, a whole host of poets & poetry lovers make their annual pilgrimage to St Andrews in Fife, for one of the best poetry festivals around: StAnza. I first went to StAnza during my MLitt year at St Andrews, when I volunteered as a Participant Liaison Officer, looking after poets & speakers, and taking them to and from the venue (or ‘PL-ing’, as it’s known by regular festival volunteers).

This year was my third StAnza, and as wellas PL-ing, I was also the festival’s in-house blogger. This meant writing a blog post each day about what had happened at the festival the day before. In some ways, this was quite a challenge, as there was pressure to write something (and something interesting, too) every day. I couldn’t just switch off for a day. But the flip-side of that was that it made me focus. During every event, I was concentrating, making notes, making sure I had something to say about it for the blog. Which meant that I probably took in more from the festival than normal – which is saying a lot, because I usually come away with my head stuffed full of thoughts & words & ideas.

Since I first volunteered there in 2013, the festival has really become a kind of family. It’s such an inspiring week, and has become a highlight of my social and creative calendar.

Read my StAnza blog posts here:

StAnza blog post writing

At the end of February, I learned I’d been selected for Penguin Random House’s Write Now mentoring scheme. In March, Penguin Random House publicly announced the list of mentees, which was exciting, and pretty much wholly occupied my twitter stream for a while. The actual mentoring process hasn’t started yet, but already it’s pushed me to write more of the manuscript, which can only be a good thing.

Poetry-wise it’s been a month of successes, too.

This month, the shortlist for the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize was announced. There are four writers shortlisted, and this year, my poem was one of them! Now I need to figure out what to wear for the prizegiving next month…

And, as if that wasn’t enough, the following week I received second prize in the Tannahill Poetry Prize, based in Scotland. We went up to Lochwinnoch for the prizegiving evening – me & my fan club (aka parents). It was an evening of music, courtesy of local folk duo Witches Brew, and poetry, from the other prizewinning writers and from judge Sally Evans. Cue a bit of a Cumbrian takeover, by both myself and Kathleen Jones (who won the third prize & is also a Cumbrian poet).

I’ve also delivered a few schools’ workshops this month, for New Writing North and the Wordsworth Trust – including one at Dove Cottage, which is always good fun. (Although sometimes it feels as though you’re writing with Wordsworth looking over your shoulder.)

Mostly, this month just feels as though it’s flown by. Like the writing time has just disappeared in a whirlwind of everything else happening. Which is maybe a good thing. Sometimes I think that I need a break from writing. Creativity is a muscle, and while it’s good to exercise that muscle, it can also get overworked. Sometimes I just think I need to give the writing muscles a break.

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THE MONTH IN BOOKS:

This month has been a fairly quiet one for reading, with only two books (though numerous individual poems – too many to list here). Part of this is that I simply haven’t made enough time for reading. Part of it is that I think my brain is starting to feel saturated, clogged up with words. But that’s fine – I have a break coming up very soon… (But shhh. Spoilers.)

This month’s two books are:

  • The Idle Traveller, by Dan Kieran
  • The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

THE MONTH IN PICTURES:

Last week, I made my annual trip north to StAnza International Poetry Festival. This was my third festival volunteering for StAnza, and as well as my usual job of looking after poets, I had the responsibility of being the festival’s in-house blogger.

Amongst all the wonderful talks and readings and performances, there was one event that stood out as being not about the art (at least, not in its purest form), but about the practicalities of making that art pay.

‘Making a Living as a Poet’ was an event sponsored by the Society of Authors. Chaired by Ken Cockburn, poets Sarah Hesketh and Harry Giles talked about how to make money from being a poet – although, as Harry qualified, ‘You can make a living from poetry, but it’s a crap living.’ 

That aside, I thought I’d share with you some of the wisdom learned during that event.

Reading April De Angelis, 'Playhouse Creatures'
April De Angelis, ‘Playhouse Creatures’

HOW TO MAKE A LIVING AS A POET:

  • Find cheap rent. Poetry doesn’t pay well. Unless you have some uncanny luck or you’ve made a deal with the devil to bag a big prize every couple of months, you’re not going to make it onto the Forbes rich list through writing poems. So living somewhere where the rent is a bit cheaper, and living costs are more affordable, is going to be vital.
  • Turn up to stuff. Like so many fields of work, poetry and writing are all about making connections. I don’t mean this in a kind of ‘old boys’ way, but if someone recognises your name on an application, it’s a good start. If you get to know people, they’re more likely to think of you when it comes to work. This goes for organisations, arts councils, collaborations with other artists… The good thing is that poetry networking isn’t nearly as scary as big business networking; it isn’t about striding into a room in a sharp suit, killer heels and blood-red lipstick, then bowling everyone over with with that cut-throat marketing pitch. It’s actually just about hanging out with other lovely artsy people and having interesting conversations.
  • Say yes to everything. Become known as the person who will do the work, rather than the person who refuses the work. Sarah Hesketh started the event by saying that, by accepting any work she could in the field of literature, there’s now ‘a touch of poetry’ on everything she does. Or, as Harry Giles said: you can’t get a full-time job just making art, but you can stitch together enough arts jobs to almost make a living.
  • Be nice. People don’t re-employ people who are rude to them. It’s just common sense.
  • Be professional. Same thing. If you never meet deadlines, or you constantly bitch about your colleagues (which will get back to them – it’s a small world), or you don’t do the work you’ve agreed to do, then people are unlikely to come back to you when the next employment opportunity comes around.
  • Seek out funding. Don’t wait for the work to come to you. Go out and find it. A couple of people seemed surprised by this – isn’t it pushy to ask for work / funding when it hasn’t been offered? But let’s use a more quotidien analogy: grocery shopping. Let’s say you’ve run out of food. Your cupboards are empty, there’s nothing but that mouldy bit of cheddar at the back of the fridge, and all you have in your freezer is half a bag of frozen peas. There are two options. Option 1: sit at your kitchen table twiddling your thumbs and hope someone knocks on your door with a trolley-full of food. Option 2: go to the supermarket and do some food shopping. Obviously, the most obvious and effective of these is option 2. You go out and get some food. It’s the same with work and funding. Instead of waiting for someone to come along and offer you a residency, get in touch with the organisation where you’d like to be poet-in-residence and work together to put together a funding bid. Instead of wishing someone would pay you just to write poems, apply for PhD funding: 3 years of effectively being paid to write a collection of poems. Of course, this all means more admin, but as Harry put it: ‘Making art is also the amin of making art.’ Which brings me onto…
  • Do an apprenticeship. As with any industry, you need to learn how it operates, and have the skills to operate within it. Sarah Hesketh spent a few years working for small arts organisations, in the kind of admin role where she learned how to do everything: events planning; marketing; press releases; funding bids; working with artists; evaluation… All the arts admin skills you need to operate as an individual artist. Of course, this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some artists can’t think of anything worse than having to spend half (or even most) of their day doing admin. Which is fine. There are plenty of other ways to support your writing. Get a job in a cafe or a bar. Work in a funeral parlour. Drive an ice cream van. As long as you’re doing something that you enjoy and that still leaves you at least some time for the writing, then that’s fine. Living as a writer can be as individual as the writing itself.
  • Don’t rely on publishing a book as a way of getting rich. Harry Giles: ‘You make beer money publishing a book. Think about a book as a business card.’ The sad fact is that you don’t get 6-figure advances for poetry. Most books and pamphlets are published by small independent presses and a run of 500 is generally considered pretty good going. So just because you’ve got a book- or pamphlet-deal, it doesn’t mean you can’t start shopping for a luxury yacht. Although the actual writing of poems may be the biggest thing in terms of importance, it’s probably going to be the smallest in terms of actual financial income. But…
  • Make really good art. Although it might not make much money in and of itself, it’s still important that you write really good poems. If you’re applying for residencies or academic positions or running poetry workshops, then the people you’re teaching or applying to will want to know you’re competent in your art form. It isn’t a financial goldmine, but it’s still the thing around which all the rest of your work centres. Which is good, because the poetry is probably the reason you’re doing all this in the first place.

Other than that, just keep your fingers crossed you win something big, like the National Poetry Competition. There’s always an element of luck in life – do you meet the right person who’s going to love and champion your work, or do you write that poem which happens to speak to the personal experience of the editor selecting work for a magazine? But the more you go to things and meet people and put your work out and apply for opportunities and get involved, the greater the chance of those things happening.

The more nets you throw out, the more chance you have of catching a fish.

Read why I’m aiming for 100 literary rejections this year.

What they say about January being like a kick-start into the new year isn’t true in the slightest. It’s all about February. January is like the push-start you have to give the rusty old banger to get it out of the driveway; Febraury is when the thing really splutters and roars into action.

In other words, for the shortest month of the year, it’s been kind of a busy one.

My Writing Life: February - Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer
An evening stroll

For one thing, I’ve been running loads of schools workshops, for the Wordsworth Trust and for New Writing North. I’ve got to work in some new schools, and go back to St Patrick’s School in Workington, where I’m working with the same amazing group of Yr 4s over the course of two years. Some truly amazing poems – some which have been running around in my head ever since. In fact, thery’re so good that they deserve their own blog post. Which they’ll get.

The downside to schools workshops? All the bugs that are going round. I’m used to coughs and colds (I seem to have one about 50% of the time), but a couple of weeks ago I picked up the weirdest bug I’ve ever had – so weird that at first I didn’t even realise it was a bug. It was a headache. I say headache – I really mean migraine. And that was it – no sickness, no cough or cold, nothing. Just this headache, which stayed for around 36 hours and then mysteriously vanished, though not without making me miss seeing Narvik at Theatre by the Lake. Humph.

Maybe being forced to spend a day in bed isn’t hugely terrible though… Maybe my brain just needed that bit of a rest, as it’s pretty much been all go since the start of the month.

The month started with a big one: a trip to Manchester for the WriteNow insight day. WriteNow is a scheme run by Penguin Random House to engage and develop minority writers. The day itself was full-on and intense, with talks from writers, editors, agents, publishers – as well as a wonderful opportunity to meet other emerging writers, and an invaluable one-to-one with an editor, looking over a section of my manuscript. It felt like a year’s worth of literary knowledge, experience and connections, all packed into a single day. So no wonder I came home and slept for 11 hours!

And, in a nice gesture towards symmetry, at the end of the month (as in, yesterday) I discovered that I’ve been selected as one of 12 new writers on the WriteNow mentoring scheme! Which basically involves a year’s mentoring from an editor at Penguin Random House. Needless to say, I spent much of the evening (after Word Mess) dancing round my bedrom with wild abandon.

So, with writing bug well and truly lodged, I started out on the rest of the month, joining a new writing group as well as going to a couple of tried & tested old ones. I also made it to Poem and a Pint in Ulverston for the first time – one of those things I’ve been meaning to do for months, which was a lovely evening. (Thanks as well to Kim Moore for those homemade scones…)

Obviously, there’s been a lot of writing happening this month, as always, and I’ve just finished another intensive writing session with Stephen Hyde, working on our rewrite of the musical. It’s a funny one, working collaboratively – in some ways, hugely rewarding as you work with double the brain-power, and in some ways tricky, as you have double the creative doubts to wrestle with. Still, it’s the results that count, and the session was the most productive we’ve ever had – desptie the fact it was only 5 days instead of our usual week, or maybe because of it. We even had a chance to record a Face to Face conversation for this blog, all about the collaborative creative process.

So what next? Well, March is going to be a busy one, with StAnza Poetry Festival looming large, followed by a lot more schools workshops before I head off to Cambodia & Vietnam! But that’s another story. For now, here are some books:

THE MONTH IN BOOkS:

  • Human Acts, by Han Kang
  • The Heretic, by Richard Bean
  • Dreams of Violence, by Stella Feehilly
  • Land of the Dead; Helter Skelter, by Neil LaBute

THE MONTH IN PICTURES:

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.

Writing at the Wellcome Collection

Poetry

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.

script writing for theatre - Katie Hale

Theatre

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…

New York - writing in a cafe, Katie Hale

Fiction

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.

Arts Award Discover workshops

Projects

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.

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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

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The Year in Pictures

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It all started when my phone had a water-based, toilet-shaped accident.

So I left it to dry in a bowl of rice and went to work without it. I didn’t need to use it – there were no family emergencies or missed appointments to contend with. There was no drama. If I’d had to pick a day to be phone-less, this probably would have been the best one.

And yet all day I felt its absence like a missing arm.

The next day was the same, as my injured phone continued with its rice therapy. I could literally feel my hand twitching to pick up and scroll through a phone that wasn’t there. It was like a phantom limb.

It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to call or message anyone (I certainly didn’t need to), or even to post on facebook / twitter / instagram. It was just that I wanted to look.

I didn’t even have to think that I wanted to look at it – if I had, then I’d have blocked the thought by remembering that my phone was neither working nor with me. It was pure instinct. Every time I sat down, every time my hands were idle, every time the world stopped for a second, my hand twitched towards my pocket or my bag. It was just… normal.

It was so normal to me that it wasn’t until the afternoon of the second day that I realised what it meant: that I was addicted to social media.

And my next thought? I should write a blog post about that.

I suppose it’s hardly surprising that I think this way. I spend nearly all my ‘office hours’ on a laptop, often on social media, emails or Mailchimp. When I’m not in the office, I’m often writing (on a laptop) or blogging, or catching up with my own emails, social media, website and admin – all on a latop, phone or iPad. True, I’m not on a computer when I’m teaching my poetry workshops, but I do use my laptop for nearly all my planning. On top of all that, I live in a county with an ageing population and a defecit of 20-somethings, which mean that most of my friendships are long-distance ones, and an important ingredient of those is – yep, you guessed it – my phone.

I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard. Very few of my friends have off-screen jobs, and even those who do (like the teachers and theatre directors) are tied to computers, emails and / or social media for at least part of their work.

This isn’t anything new. At least, not very new. We can all see the way the world is and the dominance of the screen in our daily lives.

Before now, I’ve always thought of this as a good thing – or at least, never as a terrible harbinger of doom.

Technology offers a wealth of opportunity for people who can use it well – just look at some top bloggers, vlogggers and instagrammers, whose online presence and social following earn them thousands and thousands of pounds. And I know from personal experience that social media can be a great marketing tool.

But I hadn’t realised how much it had rewired my brain. My constant phone- and laptop-usage has literally altered my instincts. For me it’s actually changed how I live on this earth as a human being, and how I interact with the world around me.

More frighteningly, at least for me, is what it’s doing to my creative brain.

I hardly ever write with pen and paper any more. Apart from poetry, which I always draft in a notebook before typing up, I now type everything. I compose words through a keyboard. I paint in the rigid shapes of computer font, rather than my own individual (if untidy) handwriting. Where’s the personal aspect of that? Where’s the artist in the art? To me, it feels like trying to paint a Monet using children’s printing blocks.

When that thought first flashed through my mind, that I should write this post about my social media addiction, my initial reaction was, ‘how ridiculous’. My second reaction was: I can’t, I don’t have my iPad on me.

Writing had become so tied up with the keyboard that the notebook in my bag didn’t even figure in my thoughts.

So I fought against my instincts. I bought a coffee and a muffin (always a good start), sat down with  good old-fashioned notebook and pen, and wrote this.

And as I wrote, I thought: I should do this more often.

I felt more connected to what I was writing. More free to edit things and change them around. Less pressure for my writing to be ‘good’.

Yes, I always draft my poems in a notebook. But why not my prose? Why not drama? Why not blog posts?

Every cloud apparently has a silver liningg, and the silver lining to this little technology accident was the way it made me rethink my creative practice. It taught me not to fear the pen and the page. It taught me to separate the computer keyboard from the writing process, at least in the draftings stage. And it taught me not to keep my phone in the back pocket of my jeans.