This week I was planning to write a long and highly thoughtful blog post about some aspect of writing, but I think I used up all my writing juices on completing the first draft of the novel (!) – so I decided to be topical instead, and share a teaser poem from my upcoming pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye).

(By the way, if you haven’t already put it in your diary, the launch is on Fri 2nd June! More here.)

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway

after Turner

So slight it could almost be an accident
in the turmoil of colour and oil, racing
across the wingspan of the bridge
into the present – a flick of a hare

boxing the future, jacking its sharp angles
over dabbled green, its ears slipstreamed
to the focal point, and back legs springing
like a voice reaching the end of a question.

It runs to show man the limits of his progress.
It runs in terror of the industrial age.
It runs to demonstrate the engine’s speed.
It runs because it is a hare and hares run.


Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway‘ was first published in The Compass

I like to write in cafes. I’ll be honest: that’s largely because I have a fondness for cake, and scones, and hot chocolate with marshmallows. And because coffee can be a great way to wake up the writing bits of the brain.

But it’s also about the cafe as a creative space. Writing can be such a lonely pursuit that it can be easy to feel isolated. For me, cafes represent a half-way house between the solitary and the social. In a cafe, it’s possible to be alone and yet in the middle of a bustling crowd. The perfect set-up for people watching.

So that’s my task for this writing prompt:

Sit in a cafe & eat cake.

Ok, the cake bit is optional, but the real purpose of sitting in the cafe is to people watch. Pick somebody you don’t know – whether it’s a customer or a member of staff – and write about them. Write their portrait, write their fictional back story, write about where they might live, write about the conversation you overhear, write about yourself in relation to them. It’s up to you what you write, but here’s the catch: your piece of writing should be finished by the time you’ve finished your tea / coffee / hot chocolate with marshmallows, whipped cream & a flake.

And I know, ‘a poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ And you can always come back to it later. But for the purposes of this exercise, it’s all about forcing you to write, rather than sitting and looking at the blank page. And I always find that a time limit is one of the best ways to do that.

Good luck!

Oh, and if you’re in Cumbria, here are my top 5 Cumbrian cafes for writing in.

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.)

Crockery
hard white seeds that don’t grow in the ground

The word has left you. Instead, you turn
your plate-like hands, the way a ploughshare
turns up rocks, or the bones of small mammals.
You stare at the creases in the loose squares
of your palms, as though each
is a path you’ve never travelled.

Sometimes, we try to follow them –
trace them back down all the years
to when their route was still uncut: farm tracks
not yet tarmacked, or sheep trods across
a common field, where footsteps still raised
a breath of dry earth; where the seeds,
secreted in the ground, would wake in later months
as beetroot, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, swede.


‘Crockery’ first appeared in the 2015 Templar Anthology, Mill

 

 

 

Until very recently, I was an unbeliever. I’m not talking about religion or magic or the supernatural – I’m talking about writers’ block. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said there was no such thing. I thought it was all a figment of the imagination.

Then it came for me.

In some ways, I stand by what I said: it is all in the mind. But: ‘Of course it’s all in your head. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.’ (Thanks, Dumbledore.)

The way I see it, there are two types of writers’ block, each with their own different cure.

TYPE ONE:

The Easy Type

I’ve met so many people who tell me they have trouble writing. When I ask them how often they write, the answer is often something along the lines of: ‘I’m not writing at the moment, I’m looking for inspiration.’

‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ – Pablo Picasso

Here’s the thing: writing is hard. You’re reaching into the mysterious parts of your soul, pulling out what you find and attempting to wrestle it onto a page. You’re pulling something fragile out into the open. Naturally, the body tries to put up defences.

‘The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.’ – William Goldman

Writing can be mentally and emotionally draining. It’s so much easier to check facebook, or binge watch a TV show, or do the dishes, or check our emails, or cook an elaborate dinner, or any of the other things we do to avoid actually sitting down and writing.

This procrastination can be a manifestation of many things: fear of getting it wrong; laziness; taking the easy road; an uncertainty about the work; embarrassment; worry about not living up to other people’s expectations…

For all of these, there’s one very simple cure:

Make the time to sit down and write.

An hour. Two hours. Three. It’s up to you, just as long as you go to your writing space and stay there. Don’t get up and dust the top of the kitchen cupboards. Don’t tweet. Leave the list of household chores somewhere where you can’t see it.

If nothing comes, write about how you can’t think of anything to write. Repeat this routine every day, or every couple of days, as often as you come. If you turn up to work, then eventually the inspiration will as well.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

TYPE TWO:

The Tricky Type

What makes Type One easy to cure is that the cure is physical. You get yourself into your writing space and something will eventually turn up. Type Two is so tricky because the cure isn’t physical. It’s a purely mental battle, and that’s much harder to fight.

This is the type of writers’ block I didn’t realise existed, until about a year ago. Because sometimes, it isn’t just laziness or a fear of creating the work that blocks us. Sometimes, there’s a much deeper problem.

I’m talking about things that go beyond the work itself. Big things. Things like grief for a loved one. Anxiety. Depression. A big upheaval. Some sort of earthquake that shakes the foundation of our lives.

Something like this isn’t always a block. Sometimes, it can draw the work out of us and turn the creativity into a therapeutic process. But often, this therapeutic creativity comes later. Initially, there’s a block.

This block can’t always be solved by just turning up to the writing station. Often, solving the root problem has to come first. There’s no easy way to do that. Anyone who has ever suffered from any form of mental health issue will know that it’s a complicated process – one that takes time and patience and a lot of self-acceptance.

And often, once the root problem is addressed, or at least accepted, the writing will start to flow again. (Of course, at this stage, you still need to turn up to the desk…)

Good luck, and happy writing!

Poetry can be about anything. In many ways, that’s a huge advantage. It gives you freedom to explore any subject that interests you, and to view it through whatever frame seems appropriate. As I like to tell children in my schools workshops, there are no rules in poetry.

But all those options can be a little bit daunting. You know that feeling when you’re looking at a menu and there’s too much to choose from, it’s overwhelming, and suddenly you don’t want to eat anything at all? Sometimes I feel a bit like that about poetry.

So I thought I’d create a prompt that restricts that slightly.

Your goal? To write about something blue.

It can be anything you like – big, small, bright blue, sky blue, azure, navy… Maybe a poem about a shallow coral sea, or the depths of the Pacific. Perhaps the sky on a summer day, or a swimming pool in a fancy hotel. Or maybe it’s a smaller object: a blue bottle, a favourite pair of denim dungarees, bathroom tiles. Perhaps you want to write about blueness in the figurative sense, about being blue, or playing the blues.

Whatever you choose, start with the object and its blueness. Continue writing from there, and see where the poem takes you.

As always, I’d love to see anything you come up with.

Good luck, and happy writing!