Well, it’s officially autumn. The shops are filled with decorations for several different holidays at once, and I’m not sure if I should be preparing for Christmas, Halloween, Bonfire Night or all three. Unusually for me, though, the writing has really only been focussed on one project this month.

My writing life - Katie Hale

With a deadline of 31st October, I’ve been slogging away at the latest draft of the novel.

Coming from writing poetry, editing a novel has proved to be a wholly different experience. With poetry, I find the drafting process challanging, and the editing process significantly easier. After all, the actual idea is already on paper – all that’s left to do is shape it into its best form. And really that’s a process a bit like painting, as most of the time you can see the whole poem on the page and work with it either as a complete entity, or zoom in on a particular word or phrase. With a novel, it just feels so big, it’s impossible to hold it all in my head at once.

So that’s been the big focus this month.

Of course, as with any job in the arts, it isn’t all about the actual writing. This month I’ve also read at Borderlines Festival, as well as having a couple of interviews, which is always interesting. I’ve been in the November edition of Cumbria Life, and spoken to Amy Lord, who blogs at Ten Penny Dreams. You can read Amy’s blog post here: WriteNow: An Interview with Author and Poet Katie Hale

I’ve also been to a few poetry workshops this month, which has had me desperate to get back to writing poetry. Working on just a single project is wonderful in some ways, as it allows such in-depth focus. But at the same time, it reminds me that I don’t want to limit myself to one form of writing. It’s like an itch. Here’s hoping November will be filled with creative variety!

The month in books:

Not many books this month, unfortunately. That is, unless you count re-reading my own manuscript several billion times.

  • The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter
  • Grown Up Poetry Needs To Leave Me Alone, by Carly Brown
  • Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • 40 Sonnets, by Don Paterson

The month in pictures:

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October is the month of Halloween, so for this month’s prompt I’m suggesting a little bit of necromancy.

One of the things that always fascinates me about poetry (and about writing in general) is the way it is always a balance between the known and unknown, the explained and the imagined, the writing and the reading. How much is the writer telling us, and how much do we have to work out for ourselves? How much is recognisable and familiar, and how much is completely new to us? A piece of writing where we recognise nothing may be a great feat of imagination, but it requires too big an ask of the reader. On the flip side, a piece of writing where everything is so familiar that there’s nothing to surprise us may be easy to understand, but it does little to retain our interest. Writing, like so many forms of creativity, is about balance.

One way to achieve this balance is to take something recognisable and give it a new angle. Set a familiar story in a new location. Pick up a person we all know and drop them in a completely alien environment. Put Cinderella on a Blackpool hen party. Sleeping Beauty in a coma in a hospital ward. Hansel & Gretel in a refugee camp.

This is something Carol Ann Duffy does in a number of poems in The World’s Wife, giving stories and myths and historical figures a contemporary setting. In his newest collection, The Unaccompanied, Simon Armitage sets an episode from The Odyssey in Poundland.

So that’s my challenge for this month:

Take a figure from history, or a story, or a myth, and put them somewhere in today’s world.

How do they react to what’s around them? You could write the poem with your character confused by modern technological developments, as they probably would be if they’d been time-travelled across the years. Or you could keep the character the same, but put them in the modern world as though it’s their natural habitat. What new light does this process shed on the character? What new light does it shed on the modern setting?

Good luck, and happy writing.

For some reason, I thought things would quieten down once the Fringe was over. I thought September would be a fairly easy month, where I could focus on redrafting the novel without much distraction.

Wrong, as it turns out – though in the best possible sense.

To begin with there was a month’s worth of admin & emails to catch up with, where I’d spent the whole of August concentrating solely on the Fringe. Turns out that coming home to several hundred emails in your inbox does actually take some time to deal with – and catching up on sleep can be even trickier to fit in. But at least once that was all done, September could really get underway.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

I’ve had a couple of performances this month, the first of which was Lakes Alive Festival in Kendal. My performance took place in a giant teepee in the afternoon, but in the morning I created a Poetry Cairn. Over the course of a morning, I invited passers-by to talk to me about poetry. What does poetry mean to you? People were then encouraged to write their answer on a stone and add it to the cairn, so that by the end of the morning, we had built a cultural landscape marker of our own, marking people’s relationships to poetry.

I was also thrilled to be part of a second festival this month, hosting an Adult Youth Club event at Rheged, as part of Eden Arts’ C-Art Festival. Based on the idea that you’re never too old to have fun, the event featured music from Ekobirds and poetry from the fantastic Loud Poets collective, as well as a quiz, and tables strewn with crayons & modelling clay.

Katie Hale. Photo - Tom Lloydphoto: Tom Lloyd

And continuing on the poetry theme, this month also brought National Poetry Day. This year for National Poetry Day, BBC Local Radio commissioned 12 poets (one from each region) to write a poem based on a local dialect word. The project was called #FreeTheWord, and was run in partnership with the Oxford English Dictionary.

I was selected to represent Cumbria in the project, and wrote a poem based on the verb ‘to twine’ (meaning ‘to moan’ or ‘to complain). The poem is called ‘Ode to Twining’ and you can read it and watch the video here.

Click here to hear the poems from the other BBC regions.

But September has also been a month of fiction. Despite everything else, I’ve also been working on my novel, which is now at the redrafting stage. I think I expected this stage to be easier than writing the first draft. After all, at least I wouldn’t be confronted with the monolithic blank page. But actually I think it’s harder. There’s more pressure when you’re redrafting. Suddenly it starts to matter whether it’s ‘good enough’, whereas before it was just about building up the word count and getting the bones of the story down on the page. Suddenly, I’m having to try to hold the whole novel in my head at once.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable – which is a good thing, as I was worried I’d be less fired up by the manuscript once I’d written how the story ends. Hopefully, this means I’m doing something right. Penguin Random House seem to think so, so that’s encouraging!

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

And speaking of PRH… Last weekend I was invited over to Newcastle, to speak at the next round of WriteNow Live insight days. This is part of the shortlisting process of the second year of WriteNow, and as one of the first year’s mentored writers, PRH asked me to go and talk about my experience of the project so far, and the impact it’s had on me. Mainly, I talked about how being accepted on the scheme, and having someone champion my work, has boosted my confidence, and help me overcome those internal barriers to writing the manuscript in the first place. You can read the whole speech here, if you fancy.

Then suddenly September is over, October has arrived, and it’s well and truly autumn. Guess I’ll just have to spend those chilly autumn days snuggled up inside & working on my manuscript!

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The month in books:

It hasn’t been a bad month for reading, although as always, I wish I could carve out more time for it. Especially now the nights are drawing in; there’s nothing better than curling up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book.

  • Urban Myths and Legends (Emma Press anthology)
  • Often I Am Happy, by Jens Christian Grøndahl
  • Russian Roulette, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood
  • Imaginary Friends, by Philip Pullman
  • Room, by Emma Donoghue
  • The Power, by Naomi Alderman
  • The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage

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The month in pictures:

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

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

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

The Fringe in numbers:

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

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

CAST:

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

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BAND:

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

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CREATIVE:

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

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BEHIND THE SCENES:

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

Keep an eye out for the future of the show!

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With The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash opening in Edinburgh this week, I’m thinking in dramatic terms at the moment. BUT that doesn’t mean that you have to write drama for this prompt. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t…

This month, it’s all about the detail. It’s about observation and imagination. It’s about exploration on the most minute level.

This month, I’m challenging you to describe the events of a single second.

It’s up to you what happens in that second. It could be nothing much more than you, sitting on the sofa looking out of the window. Or it could be something much more dramatic, like a gunshot or jumping from a diving board.

Whatever moment you choose, try to imagine every single detail of that one action. Think of it like a single second of film.

What is your body doing (or the body of the person in the scene, if it isn’t you). How do the muscles move? What triggers them? Is it a reflex reaction, or the product of long deliberation? Is the action reluctant or keen? Are the limbs heavy, or quick and agile? What’s going through your mind / the character’s mind? It’s surprising how many things a person can think in one second. There are our active thoughts – the things we’re conscious of thinking, that we might narrate in a stream-of-consciousness. Then there are the other more subtle associations. The smell of herbs that half-take us back to that restaurant in Italy; the way the light catches the window, which makes us feel all warm inside. The things we feel without actually thinking them aloud.

Then of course, there’s what’s happening in the rest of the scene. Are the surroundings changing? Is there something happening far away that affects the mood? What happened just before? What’s about to happen next? All these things have an effect on the moment.

So that’s my challenge. Tell the story of a second. The whole story. In a single second.

Good luck!

Five minutes ago it was the end of May. Now it’s nearly the end of July.

When I think about it, it isn’t really suprising that the time’s gone so quickly. After all, it’s been a pretty busy couple of months…

Poetry:

BREAKING THE SURFACE: The main thing in my poetry life is that I’ve launched my pamphlet! Yes, that’s right: I am now the author of a slim volume of poetry which actually has my name on the cover and my poems on the pages in between.

Breaking the Surface officially came out at the end of June, but I sort of jumped the gun on that one, and had the launch on 6th June. Well, I say ‘the launch’ – what I actually mean is the first launch, because I had two.

The first was at Penrith Old Fire Station. I read poems from the pamphlet, alongside two members of Dove Cottage Young Poets, who also performed, and who pretty much stole the show: Hannah Hodgson & Emily Asquith. I say ‘pretty much’ because there was also an open mic, and – more importantly – a buffet. Always a good thing at a poetry event! (Or any event, for that matter…)

The second was in Crosthwaite Village Hall. This was a joint launch with Pauline Yarwood, whose pamphlet, Image Junkie, is published by Wayleave Press.

PRIZES: I’ve also had a lucky couple of months (following on from another lucky couple of month before that). My poem, ‘The Selkie’s Child’, was chosen by Hannah Lowe to win the Ware Poetry Prize. A couple of weeks later, another poem (‘Offcomer’) was shortlisted for the Frogmore Papers Poetry Prize.

Fingers crossed the lucky streak keeps going!

ALSO: As well as prizes & publications, there’ve been quite a few performances. (Alliteration – see what I did there?) Some of these were my own (I had a lovely evening as the guest reader at an open mic night at Cakes & Ale in Carlisle, and a trip to Derby to read for Derby Poetry Group).

Some of the performances, though, were other people’s. In particular, July saw the culmination of a schools project I’ve been working on with New Writing North. This year, I’ve been working with three schools across Cumbria (Barrow Island Primary School, St Bede’s Primary School & Monkwray Junior School), to write poems based on New Writing North’s children’s show, Hey Presto! – which toured libraries at the end of last year. The project culminated in the production of an anthology, called All the Things We Would Pull from a Magic Hat, and performances in Monkwray School and Barrow Library. Seeing the children’s pride in performing their poetry for an audience, and their excitement at having their names in a book, was the perfect end to the project.

Barrow Island Primary School - work with New Writing North and Katie Hale

 

Fiction:

The fiction has been largely in a ‘thought’ phase over the past few weeks. This isn’t a cop-out of saying that I haven’t been working on it. I have. But so much of a writer’s work goes on in the mind, and that’s what’s been happening with the novel.

In June, I went down to London for my first WriteNow mentoring meeting with my editor at Penguin Random House. It was such a rewarding meeting: to have somebody look at the first draft of the novel in its entirety and really examine what was working and what still needed attention. There was a lot of very encouraging positive feedback. There were a couple of sections that I wasn’t sure about, which Tom (my editor) highighted as needing work, so it was good to have that confirmation.

Generally, it’s left me with a lot to mull over, ready to start reworking the existing draft in the next week or so.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on…

The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash - a new musical at Edinburgh Fringe 2017, lyrics by Katie Hale & music by Stephen Hyde

Theatre:

The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash opens at Edinburgh Fringe in ijust a few days time! Which means the past 8 weeks have involved a lot of last-minute edits and adjustments as we work towards opening night.

Something fascinating happens when you give your words over to somebody else to work with. Suddenly, the words cease to be yours. Someone else takes them, rolls them around their mouth and delivers them back to the world in a voice that isn’t yours. It’s the closest I’ve been to becoming Frankenstein, literally bringing another human to life.

But of course, working with other people inevitables means changing things. One of the joys of working with actors is that they inhabit the character fully. Of course, this is something I try to do during the writing process, but I’m trying to juggle multiple characters, multiple storylines, and an overarching plot. Whereas for the actor, they focus on the one character and learn to inhabit their skin. They walk in the character’s shoes. They look through the character’s eyes – which means that they spot things that I don’t.

Hence rewrites and revisions.

The result? Hopefully a more rounded and complete show, with truer, deeper characters. Hopefully a successful run at the Fringe!

Find out more about the show and how to get tickets here.

Or read my interview with Gareth Vile, talking about the show here.

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So all in all, a pretty busy couple of months!

Oh yes, and I also went to Iceland with my friend & fellow writer Jess Rich. (The country, that is – not the frozen food shop.)

Iceland

The months in books:

I haven’t actually read as much as I’d like to these past couple of months – probably because I’ve been so busy writing, travelling, and tying myself up in admin knots. But what I have read has been a good mixture of new works (or at least, new to me) and old favourites.

I’ve particularly enjoyed rereading the Harry Potter series. A few weeks ago, Harry Potter turned 20. So that evening, when I couldn’t sleep, I pulled my tatty, dogeared but very well-read Philosopher’s Stone from the shelf and immersed myself. What fascinated me most was how much more I noticed this time around. I’ve read these books several times; I thought I knew everything they had to offer. But this was the first time I’d read them since starting to write fiction of my own, and suddenly I’d become alive not just to the stories, but to the writing itself. One of the message’s in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel (which I also read recently) is that drawing an object helps you to observe and understand that object; it’s the same with writing. Now that I’ve tried to create my own story, I can observe and understand J K Rowling’s writing process in a completely different light.

  • Confabulations, by John Berger
  • Girl Meets Boy, by Ali Smith
  • The Character of Rain, by Amelia Nothomb
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J K Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J K Rowling
  • The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma
  • The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

The months in pictures:

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Poetry has a very close relationship to sound. It’s one of the things that sets it apart from prose, which is often read internally; poetry changes so much when it’s performed out loud. With its long association with an oral tradition, with ballads and song, with rhythm, meter and rhyme, the very act of writing poetry becomes an act of engaging with sound.

‘Poetry begins in those situations where the voice has to be raised: the hawker has to make himself heard above the market hubbub, the knife-grinder has to call the cook out into the street, the storyteller has to address a whole village, the bard must command the admiration of the court. The voice has to be raised. And it is raised in rhythm.’ – James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry (London: Penguin Books, 2003)

I actually ran a school workshop about poetry and sound just the other week. I was working with my regular group of Yr 4 pupils at St Patrick’s School in Workington, where we looked at John Clare’s poem, ‘Pleasant Sounds’. We talked about Clare’s use of ‘sound words’ (such as ‘pattering’ and ‘whizzing’), and about how some of the sound words he used were unexpected, like ‘flirt’ and ‘halloos’. Then the children thought about a favourite place, and wrote about all the different sounds they could hear in that place.

Which brings me onto this month’s challenge:

Write about the next sound you hear.

It could be a large sound, or a very small one. Whatever it is, I want you to focus on it. Describe it in as much detail as you can.

Start by describing the sound itself – what are the best words for the sound you can hear? Is it loud or quiet? Does it invade your ears, or do you really have to strain to hear it? Is it continuous, or short and sharp like a puncture?

Then expand the picture out from there. What’s making the sound? Can you see it? What does it look like? Whatever’s making it: does it change as it makes the sound? How does it affect the other sounds around it? How does it affect you? Does it remind you of something else? Another time you heard it, perhaps, or something else that makes a similar noise?

The trick with this exercise is focus. Focus all your energy and attention on that one sound, and let the detail fill the words.

As always, I’d love to see the results. Good luck, and happy writing!

After a month of writing very little while travelling around Cambodia & Vietnam, May has been full on. Honestly, since landing at Manchester airport at the end of April, I don’t think I’ve stopped.

Finding time to write in London
Finding time to write in London

After the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize’s award ceremony in Dublin, and the South Downs Poetry Festival weekend residential over the bank holiday weekend, May got into full swing with a couple of days hanging out on London’s Southbank and writing, as well as seeing ‘Consent’ at the National Theatre, and drinking wine with friends (always important).

From there, I headed up to Cambridge for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize award ceremony, held at Girton College. Judged this year by Grevel Lindop & Malcom Guite, the Jane Martin Poetry Prize is awarded annually to a poet under 30, for a group of up to four poems – and this year, I was lucky enough to win it. It was a really fun evening, with the award ceremony taking place in the old library, followed by a delicious formal hall dinner. I spent the night in the college, then headed home the next day.

Which was a good thing, because while I’ve been at home, there have been progressions with all three of my big current projects:

Poetry: This month I wrote a couple of new poems, but more importantly: I proofed my pamphlet. It was an odd (but satisfying) experience, seeing the printer’s proof arrive in my inbox – like spending years growing & nurturing a tree, then coming out of the house one day to find it suddenly in bloom. But that blossom will be turning into something even more substantial this week, as the pamphlet itself finally arrives, ready for the big launch on Friday. Very exciting!

Novel: A huge one this month, as I’ve finally finished the first draft of the novel! Which means that I actually got to the end, with no gaps in the middle which just say ‘write something here’. It may be messy, but it’s still a full complete draft. At that moment, when I plugged my laptop into the printer and pressed ‘print’, I was so excited I actually wriggled – like Christmas Eve when I was a child, and I couldn’t sleep for wriggling. Now, I just need to edit it. (I say ‘just’…) I have my first one-to-one with my wonderful editor on the Penguin Random House WriteNow scheme, Tom, in a couple of weeks, and after that I’ll have a better idea of how to move forward with the manuscript. But still: exciting times!

Musical: I’ve done very little actual work on the musical this month – and what I have done has only been in the past week, as we start to look at shaping this draft up into its ‘finished’ form, ready to workshop it with the cast next month. BUT that doesn’t mean nothing has been happening, because tickets for the musical (called The Inevitable Quiet of the Crash and co-written with composer Stephen Hyde) went on sale! The show runs 2nd – 26th August 2017, at the Edinburgh Fringe, and you can book your tickets nicely in advance here.

And that’s pretty much been my life this month! Lots of writing. Not a lot of sleep. Ah well. Maybe June will be a bit more relaxed…? (I doubt it.)

The month in pictures:

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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 can. 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 that ‘solving’ is often a misnomer anyway.

And often, once the root problem is addressed, or at least accepted, the writing will start to flow again. Not always, but for me, this can help. (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!

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:

About a month ago, I wrote a post about how not to perform at an open mic night. Today, I wanted to expand on that, and talk about how to behave in a workshop.

Now before I start, I want to say that I love writing workshops. I’m part of 4 separate writing groups who meet in person, I’m in a couple of online writing communities, and I have two friends who I submit writing to on a weekly basis. Feedback workshops were a big part of my Masters, and I’ve benefited from them on a few writing residentials, too. I also happen to run writing workshops myself.

And yet…

If you regularly attend writing workshops, then you’ll probably instantly be able to think of a few examples of people who’ve rubbed you up the wrong way. This is to be expected. You’re putting a group of individuals in a room together, and basically asking them to dissect each other’s babies. It’s not surprising that people can feel a little raw, and tempers can flare.

Still, it needn’t turn into Hunger Games-style armageddon, or some sort of Mean Girls back-stabbing exercise in passive aggression. It’s basically all about consideration for others.

Katie Hale, Cumbrian writer / poet, runs creative writing poetry workshops for young people and children in schools and colleges

HOW NOT TO TAKE PART IN A WRITING WORKSHOP:

  • Say, ‘Here’s what I think of this poem,’ and then rip the piece of paper into tiny shreds.
  • Bring along your best poem, which you have no intention of changing. After all, you’re not there to actually workshop your poem, are you? You’re there to impress everyone with what an amazing poet you are. And people will be so bowled over by the fact they can’t find a single criticism to make about your writing, they’ll instantly want you to be their best writer-friend.
  • Listen to everyone’s feedback, then say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not going change it because I’ve already published it.’
  • Bring along that 20-page poem that’s been sitting in your desk drawer (unless you absolutely know that this is the kind of workshop that accepts longer pieces).
  • Use the phrase: ‘This poem’s shit.’
  • Aggressively defend your poem. Someone has taken the time to give you their considered opinion, so surely it’s only right that you batter them back down over it until they see it your way.
  • On the flip side: aggressively attack someone else’s poem. Sure, it’s their poem, but if they don’t agree with a piece of your advice, then you should keep repeating it (getting louder each time) until they do agree.
  • Take a phone call in the middle of the workshop.
  • While someone else is trying to make a point, have your own conversation – especially if that conversation is about how bad the poem is.
  • If it’s the kind of workshop with writing exercises, wait till the end to tell the workshop leader that you hate writing exercises because you find them prescriptive, and therefore haven’t written anything all workshop.
  • Tell everyone that you don’t really like workshopping your poems, because you don’t trust other people to understand them.

Got any more workshop horror stories? I’d love to hear them! Comments below….

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.

I started going to open mic nights regularly when I was 18 and at university. Every week or two, I would catch the train into London and read at Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe in Covent Garden. It was a friendly and encouraging introduction to the open mic scene, and I became more confident performing my work to a bunch of strangers.

Since then, I’ve lost count of how many open mic nights I’ve been to. I’ve read in open mics at festivals, in bars, and in cafes, across two continents. I even run one every month at Penrith Old Fire Station.

Most of the time open mics are enjoyable and a fun way to spend an evening. But now and then, things happen. The balance tips, and writers start behaving badly. Sometimes, it’s a subtle thing that some of the audience may not even notice. Sometimes it’s so obvious it becomes a talking point for numerous open mic nights to come – a kind of writerly water cooler moment.

Guerrilla Poetry at Deptford Lounge

All of the following are based on real encounters at real open mic nights over the years:

HOW NOT TO READ AT AN OPEN MIC NIGHT:

  • Go over your time. Everyone has been asked to stick to 3 minutes, or 2 poems, and everyone obediently does. Not you though – you sneak an extra poem in there, and double your time. Nobody will mind, right? Not when your stuff is ‘so much better’ than everybody else’s?
  • Read an epic. It’s your pride and joy and took you years to complete – surely that means everyone else should sit politely through all 17 pages of it?
  • Stand up, announce that you’ve only ever written one poem but would like to take this opportunity to share it – then proceed to do so for the next 45 minutes.
  • Scroll through your phone and catch up on social media while other people are reading.
  • Have a chat in the middle of someone else’s set.
  • Leave as soon as you’ve read your poem.
  • Put your name down to perform, then leave without telling anybody before your set.
  • Keep your phone on loud. If you get a phone call in the middle of someone’s set, well that’s ok – your social life is much more important than their poem.
  • When that phone you forgot to put on silent does ring out: answer it, then have a conversation about how you can’t talk now, because you’re at an open mic night.
  • Heckle (unless you’re 100% sure that it’s the kind of night that allows this, and that the performer expects this). You think the performer is an ‘arrogant sod’? Well, why not shout out and tell him so in the middle of his next poem?
  • Film the performers without asking them first – especially if you’re not the organiser.
  • Use the last bit of your set to plug your own open mic night, which is ‘better than this one’.
  • Go to the bar in the middle of someone’s reading, especially if the bar is on the other side of the performance space, and you have to physically move the performer half way through their poem, in order to get past.

And that’s about it! Any other open mic horror stories to share? I’d love to hear them – share in the comments.

~ dates & details of Word Mess open mic night in Penrith, Cumbria ~

From beginnings last month, to endings…

This month’s writing prompt is about writing to a constraint. For me, some of my favourite writing has come from not being able to write completely freely. A good example of this is form.

‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.’ – Robert Frost

I’m not sure I fully agree with this quote by Robert Frost, as I think writing free verse carries its own challenges and subtleties. But I know what he means.

Sometimes, witing to a form can force you to raise your game. It forces you to take the poem in a different direction. If you can’t find a word that says what you want to say and still fits the form, then you have to say something different. Form can push you outside of your comfort zone, and force you to think outside the box.

(It’s actually the same reason I often won’t let my school groups write rhyming poetry, when I want them to focus more on freeing their imagination.)

writing prompt - Katie Hale

This prompt isn’t to use a traditional form, but it hopefully it will bring out something different and unexpected in your writing.

Write a poem using the end-words from a different poem.

Take another poem (by somebody else) as your starting point. Try to make it a contemporary poem that you don’t already know, so that you’re not constantly thinking of the original poem while you’re trying to write your own.

Don’t read the original poem; just write down the last word of each line.

Then, write your own poem, ‘filling in the gaps’. What you should end up with are two completely different poems (the original and your own), but with the same words ending their lines.

Obviously, once you’ve done this exercise, you can rewrite your poem and remove any of those end-words that really don’t belong, and edit your poem as normal.

Your original poem can be any contemporary poem (try to avoid anything too old, as you may get stuck with some anachronistic ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ language). But if you’re struggling to find one, here’s a suggestion:

Window, by Peter Dale

And if you don’t want to see the rest of the poem, the line endings are as follows:

gaze
seem
sun
it
mist
her
look
love
face
pass
sun
child
hers
personal

Good luck! I’d love to see any / hear which poems you chose. Comments in the boxes below 🙂

Series 1, Episode 1: Supal Desai

Ever notice how most of our interaction is now via phone, or messenger, or email, or skype? At least, it sometimes seems that way for me.

Face to Face is a new series of short conversations I’ll be having every month, talking to interesting people about the things that interest them. We’ll be chatting over cups of tea & pieces of cake, in my kitchen or wherever there’s a chance to stop and swap thoughts.

Phones down. Screens closed. Talking face to face.

S1 E1: In this first episode, I chat to Supal Desai about blogging and the creative process of writing a blog post.

Supal is the founder of a business risk consultancy based in London and the blogger behind the travel lifestyle blog, chevrons & éclairs. Her ideal Sunday would find her starting the morning in bed with a good book, newspaper or a cuddle, and then making brunch alongside music and endless cups of coffee. Her love for culture, art and history has taken her to the most exotic parts of the world, where she uses that opportunity to curate content that tells a story through fashion and food editorials.

So where do I come in?

I first met Supal in my friend’s kitchen, during our Masters year at St Andrews. She was cooking up something delicious-looking, and I was trying to convince her that haggis were little creatures that lived in the mountains.

Four and a half years later, we’re here:

Happy New Year!

When I was running Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) young writers’ group, I used to send the young writers a writing prompt every week. I missed doing it, so I’m going to share a writing prompt as part of my weekly (weekend-ly) blog posts. I’m not Jo Bell, and this isn’t 52, so I’m going to share one a month rather than one a week: the first Sunday of every month.

And because this is January and it’s the first one, I thought I’d share a prompt about beginnings.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

If you think about famous novels, there are probably at least a few whose opening lines come to mind. Which makes sense – the beginning of a book is the part that’s supposed to grab us and make us want to read further.

For me, a good opening to a book is one that draws me in. It’s one that raises questions, or suggests a struggle that needs to be resolved. Sometimes it puts us right in the middle of the drama, straight away.

Take these examples – which, because we’re still within the festive season, I’ve done as a quiz (answers at the bottom of the post):

QUIZ:

  1. ‘It was a cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’
  2. ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’
  3. ‘When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.’
  4. ‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’
  5. ‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’
  6. ‘Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.’
  7. ‘When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.’
  8. ‘It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.’
  9. ‘He was afraid to go to sleep. For three weeks, he had been afraid of going to sleep.’
  10. ‘The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.’
  11. ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
  12. ‘The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.’
  13. ‘They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved.’
  14. ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’
  15. ‘Like most people I lived a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle.’

How many did you get? Answers at the bottom of the post…

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Writing a gripping first sentence is all very well for the opening of a novel, which sets up plot and conflict and character and story. But what about poetry?

I wonder how many of us think about setting up conflict and character and story in the opening of a poem? I wonder how many of us write opening lines to grip people with the drama of the poem, the way we might in a novel?

So that’s my prompt:

Write an opening line for a poem, which sets up drama and / or mystery, and whose sole purpose is to grip the reader.

Then, and only then, you can try writing the rest of the poem.

Here are a few poems that I think grip the reader really well:

‘Here, Bullet’, by Brian Turner

‘Bird’, by Liz Berry

‘Kiss’, by Ruth Padel

Happy writing!


ANSWERS:

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  2. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  4. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemmingway
  5. Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
  6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
  7. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz
  8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller
  9. Strange Meeting, Susan Hill
  10. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
  11. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  12. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  14. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  15. Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

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.

Sheep and sheepdog puppets, a trip to Beatrix Potter’s farm, and an old shepherd arguing with Wordsworth and Wainwright: next time somebody asks me about Cumbria, I will direct them to The Shepherd’s Life

~ Dominic Houareau (community cast), Janine Birkett (Jill / Jean / Mrs Heelis), Joseph Richardson (Pupeteer / Joe / Ronnie / Ewan Goode); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Dominic Houareau (community cast), Janine Birkett (Jill / Jean / Mrs Heelis), Joseph Richardson (Pupeteer / Joe / Ronnie / Ewan Goode); photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

‘The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives.’ This is certainly true of The Shepherd’s Life, which combines traditional theatrical devices (with some of Kieran Hill’s speeches almost having the tenure of Shakespearean soliloquies) with what feels overall like a thoroughly modern play.  Chris Monks’ adaptation of James Rebanks’ bestseller is not only a successful adaptation of the book, but also a deservedly ambitious play in its own right.

Although Rebanks’ book was only published last year, the play had the feeling of a folk tale.

Monks’ adaptation beautifully encapsulated that sense of a past stretching back through the generations, and the deep connection to the land that it brings.

But watching the play also felt like I was participating in a communal oral history, perhaps because of a shared contemporary knowledge of Cumbria, and because of shared memory.

This is a play on home turf, where the field of theatre extends from the stage into the auditorium, and then out of the doors and up onto the fells. Consequently, the laughter that rippled through the audience was often a knowing laughter, born of experience, and there was an audible collective shudder at the mention of Foot and Mouth.

But it was not just the Cumbrian element of the story that made this play relatable. At its heart, The Shepherd’s Life is a story of family, of love for life, and of home; like all good theatre, the story it tells is at once unique and universal.

All members of the cast were strong and versatile (with nearly all taking three roles), and were supported by a fantastic community cast. Particular mention goes to the three children, who held their own alongside some outstanding professional actors.

Kieran Hill (as James) was the backbone of the production, bearing the narrative of the show with ease. It was through the development of James’ relationships with his father Tom (Martin Barrass) and grandfather Hughie (David Fielder), that the depth of family history was felt, and the true importance of the farm was conveyed, while Martin Johns’ set and Andrew J Lindsay’s lighting design brought the vast expanse of fells and sky into the main auditorium.

During a memorable scene at school, James talks about the dangers of seeming too clever, and the importance of being ‘quietly smart’. This may be all well and good or the young James, but Theatre by the Lake should definitely not be ‘quietly smart’ about The Shepherd’s Life; instead, their cleverness should be shouted from the mountaintops, because they have produced a truly remarkable show.

~ Herdwick Flock operated by community cast, Kieran Hill (James); photo by Keith Pattison ~
~ Herdwick Flock operated by community cast, Kieran Hill (James); photo by Keith Pattison ~

 

My Writing Life: Weeks 10 & 11

A fortnight of updates this week – which is my way of skirting round the issue of not posting last weekend. Largely becauuse of the hearty poetry overdose mentioned above.

The fortnight in numbers:

  • 1 completed draft of a play script
  • 1 funding application submitted
  • 1 review written for Words by the Water
  • 2 festivals (StAnza Poetry Festival & Words by the Water)
  • 3 strolls along the St Andrews sea front
  • 4 bookshops visited (including a beautiful new one in St Andrews)
  • 5 prompts written for my young writers
  • 6 books read / partly read
  • 8 trips to various St Andrews cafes
  • 9 teddy bears donated for an upcoming project
  • 16 new books acquired (oops!)
  • 35 (ish) events worked on / attended
  • Countless coffees / teas / chai lattes drunk

Hence only 1 blog post.

St Andrews castle & Castle Sands beach
St Andrews castle & Castle Sands beach

Over the past two weeks, I’ve attended two festivals. I volunteered at StAnza Poetry Festival (St Andrews, Fife), and then received a young person’s bursary to attend Words by the Water in Keswick. (I’m going to miss being a ‘young person’ once I turn 26. Goodbye rail discounts and cheap theatre tickets. Hello adulthood.)

StAnza was a wonderful whirlwind of poetry. I counted up from the brochure, and I think I attended and / or worked on around 25 poetry events over 5 days. Poets from Jo Bell, to Don Patterson, to Lemn Sissay, to Sean O’Brien, to Matthew Sweeney, to Em Strang, to Fiona Benson… The list goes on and on.

Words by the Water was slightly less hectic: only 10 events, and I was only attending those, rather than working on them. I was also lucky enough at Words by the Water that one of my bursary tickets was for James Rebanks’ talk, which was completely packed. I think every single seat in the house was taken – which is around 500 seats. (I wrote a review of this event, as part of my bursary agreement. Hoping it should be on the Words by the Water website in the not-too-distant future.)

We also had a film showing at Penrith Old Fire Station this week: This Changes Everything, followed by a discussion about climate change (which got quite heated, ironically).

Other highlights of the fortnight? I completed a draft and a redraft of my play! I also discovered a lovely new bookshop in St Andrews, where there are sliding ladders to reach the top shelves and they give you a cup of tea while you’re browsing.

The week in books: week 10
The week in books: week 10

The week(s) in books:

  • Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Brittain
  • Joshua Levine, The Secret History of the Blitz
  • Caroline Moorhead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
  • James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
  • David Hare, Amy’s View
  • [currently reading:] Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

An unusual amount of non-fiction recently. Partly because I’ve rediscovered the joys of research (seriously: finding stuff out can be so much fun!) and partly because I’ve been wanting to read James Rebanks’ book for ages, and it’s just come out in paperback (much more affordable than hardback)!

I was also lucky enough to see David Hare speak at Words by the Water, so raided a second-hand bookshop any came out with Amy’s View – now signed by the author.

As for The Blind Assassin: it’s been on my bookshelf for years, so I thought it was high time I actually read it. Only on about page 200, but so far hugely enjoying it.

The week in books: week 11 - David Hare / James Rebanks / Margaret Atwood
The week in books: week 11

The week(s) in pictures:

My Writing Life: Week 9

Posting a day later than usual this week, due to a slightly hectic Sunday. (For ‘hectic’, read: writing a scene of a play, completing two funding applications and working on the bar at Box of Tricks’ Theatre Company’s show, Chip Shop Chips.)

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Which pretty much sums up the whole week, really. In the best possible way.

As well as the Sunday madness mentioned above, this week has seen: a meeting in Kendal for some work I’m doing with Curious Minds (through New Writing Cumbria) – followed by a chai latte at one of my favourite Kendal Coffee shops, Brew Brothers; a comedy night at Penrith Old Fire Station to raise money for Cumbria Flood Appeal, ft. Rory Bremner, Justin Moorhouse, Fred MacAulay and Wendy Wason; a trip to Penrith’s independent cinema to see the NT Live broadcast of the National Theatre’s As You Like It; a very successful meeting at Clifton Primary School to talk about Arts Award; a trip to Carlisle to visit Prism Arts’ Creative Arts & Conversation group; cooking this week’s communal lunch at Eden Arts; writing a couple of new scenes of a play; and another funding application.

Phew!

And you know what it’s made me realise? That I don’t do enough.

No, I don’t mean that in terms of work. In terms of work, I don’t really stop. This is because I’ve spent several years cramming all of my writing and my freelance work into my spare time. So now, having freed up a lot more time for writing and freelance work, I should have lots more spare time. All that time that used to be writing time should now be free.

But there’s a problem: I no longer know how to spend free time.

I know that sounds stupid. But seriously: I had a couple of hours the other day and I seriously couldn’t work out what to do with them. It’s like I’ve forgotten what to do with time that isn’t spent reading or writing.

So that’s one of my targets: to reclaim my free time. More particularly, to reclaim my weekends. (Getting out of bed on a Monday morning is so much harder when you’ve just spent the whole of Sunday working flat out.)

I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with this free time that I’m determined to make. Something non-word-based. Maybe something outdoors-based? I think I’d like to get back into photography. And maybe do more crafting as well – something I’ve done very little of so far in 2016.

But something that doesn’t let me suffer from creative burnout.

Watch this space!

The week in pictures:

My Writing Life: Week 8

There are good weeks, and there are bad weeks. This week has probably been a bad week.

It started well, with me finishing a scene I’d been struggling on. It ended well, with me finishing (a draft of) another scene I’d been struggling on. The bit in the middle was a little bit less of a cause for celebration.

What can I say? Sometimes, no matter how hard you work at getting words on the page, what you produce just isn’t right. This week has been one of those.

But, as today is Sunday and Monday is all about starting the ball rolling again, I’m determined that next week will be much more productive. (She says, trying not to look at the appointment-packed week ahead of her…)

In other news, tonight I watched the series finale of Dickensian. (IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS, STOP READING NOW!)

Dickens character sketches at Withnail Books, Penrith
Dickens character sketches at Withnail Books, Penrith

Have to say, I was quite disappointed in it. My favourite thing about the show (apart from Tom Weston-Jones, who, by the way, I’ve recently discovered is a fellow Royal Holloway graduate) is the concept of putting all of Dickens’ fantastic characters into a big melting pot and letting them bump up against one another, to who knows what ends? A mixing together of novels to create a new plot entirely: something that the Jacob Marley murder investigation was a brilliant tool for.

Unfortunately, with the murderer identified, the characters seem to have not only retreated back into their own books, but also to be following their own plot-lines.

Not letting Little Nell die earlier on in the series felt like a promise that the stories wouldn’t come to their expected conclusions, yet now at the end of series one, we’re left with Miss Haversham abandoned on her wedding day, refusing to take off the wedding dress or let anyone touch the cake. Big surprise. Oh, and what have they done to set us up for the next series? Showed us Scrooge about to be haunted, and Oliver hanging out with the Artful Dodger. Not exactly what I’d call an original plot…

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’ll still watch it if/when it returns to the screens, if only so I can desperately hope that they haven’t completely done away with Tom Weston-Jones!

But enough Dickens. It’s also been a week where I’ve rediscovered my love of jigsaw puzzles and read a couple of books:

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The week in books:

  • Jackie Storer, Hidden Stories of the First World War
  • Pat Barker, Regeneration

Reading-wise, it’s been very First World War-based this week. Hidden Stories of the First World War is a library book, as, yes, I’m very proud to say that I have got back into the habit of taking books out of my local library. Particularly references books. Novels, poetry and plays I tend to get attached to, and want to go back to time and again, so I like to have copies on my shelves.

One book that I’ve revisited a number of times is Pat Barker’s Regeneration. I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve read it (I think 7, although it may just be 6). Re-reading it this week, I realised that it may have, very quietly and without me noticing, become one of my favourite books. It’s just such a good mixture of plot, characters, history, poetry and good writing. I’m sure I’ll end up re-reading it again at some point.

The week in pictures:

Here’s to a much more positive week ahead!

My Writing Life: Week 7

You know those weeks where you think you’ll take it easy and focus on one thing, then by the end of it, you’ve created two new arts projects, drafted three new poems, written 25% of a play, read four books, kept up to date with all your admin, and somehow managed to find time for a bit of a social life as well?

No?

Well this week has been one of those.

The ‘one thing’ I was planning to focus on was the play, so actually 25% is slightly (though only slighlty) under what I wanted to write of it this week.

But, as seems to be my new norm, I’ve been slightly distracted by the poems clamouring for space in my head. I tried (not entirely successfully) to save up the poetic energy till yesterday – when I took part in Kim Moore‘s Barrow Poetry Workshop. As always, I came away from the workshop with something that I want to work on. Poetic energies = successfully channelled.

As for my other artistic energies?

As I was driving home from a busy day at Eden Arts on Tuesday, I started thinking how it was over 2 years since I’d done any guerrilla poetry style projects (the last one being Beneath The Boughs at Lowther Castle in 2013), and how I should probably think about doing another one in the next year or so. By the time I pulled into my drive, I had fully planned not one, but two, new arts projects. By the time I’d made and drunk a cup of tea, I’d ordered all the materials for one of them.

Project 2 is still under wraps for now (though if you have an unloved teddy bear you want to donate to it, drop me a line), but I launched the first project today:

Poetry Plaster Packs aim to spread a little poetry, joy and healing. Each one contains:

  • a plaster (for the literal cuts and scrapes)
  • a cheerful little poem (for the figurative ones)
  • a little gift – because let’s face it, who doesn’t love a present?

Today, I left 40 little Valentine’s Poetry Plaster Packs around Penrith: under car window wipers, stuck to ATMs and inside phone boxes, on dryers in public toilets, and stuck to parking meters.

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I’ve already had a couple of lovely comment from people. One recipient tweeted this:

While someone else emailed me via my website: ‘With my 3 year old daughter and locked my keys in the car.. your little plaster pack brightened up my day.. and the sweets kept my daughter entertained until the spare set got to me about 40 minutes later. So thank you.’

So far a success! Definitely more Poetry Plaster Packs to follow…

In other news, the Cumbrian weather finally feels like it’s turned (though I’ll say that cautiously, because I don’t want to jinx it). At least, it’s currently snowing, which makes a change from rain, and we’ve had a couple of sunny days, which have meant I’ve been able to go for little strolls along the lanes whenever I’m struggling with a piece of writing: something that never fails to help me find a solution.

The week in books:

  •  Duncan MacMillan, Lungs
  • Nick Payne, Constellations
  • Zinne Harris, How to Hold Your Breath
  • Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden

A week of theatre this week, in an attempt to keep myself in the playwriting zone. Death and the Maiden has been sitting on my bookshelf for sometime, just waiting to be read, so I figured it was probably about time to give it a whirl. Definitely a good decision to read it.

The other three are more recent plays, and are the three that I (perhaps rather extravagantly) bought last week at the National Theatre bookshop. But money spent on books is never a bad thing, and these three were all such great plays that I’m not sorry at all. How to Hold Your Breath is particularly one that stayed with me; after I read it on Tuesday night, I had a really unproductive morning on Wednesday, as I just couldn’t stop thinking about it! Definitely the mark of a good play.

The week in pictures:

My Writing Life: Week 6

It only feels like a day ago that I was writing last weekend’s blog post, and yet, it also feels like months ago… One of the sure signs of a busy week.

Busy, yes, but also satisfying, hugely enjoyable, and out of the ordinary. In fact, I’m beginning to think that this new life doesn’t have an ‘ordinary’ at all…

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It’s been quite exciting admin-wise. During my day a week at Eden Arts, we set up and organised a monthly wordy open mic night, Word Mess, which will start in March. I’ve also been handing out leaflets and posters for the Three Inch Fools’ Easter Shakespeare workshops.

Aside from that, it’s been almost a direct split between writing and relaxation.

I spent a couple of days in London, staying with the lovely Supal for a much-needed catch-up and a wander round the capital. We spent a good deal of time in independent book and coffee shops – including the delightful Primrose Hill Books, where I impulse bought a book called The Penguin Lessons (about a teacher at an Argentinian boarding school who rescues a penguin from an oil spill and takes it to live on his terrace at the school). Because let’s face it: who can resist a book about a penguin…? Certainly not me!

I also finally made it to the Attendant Cafe. Attendant is an underground cafe, created in an old public toilet. I’d heard about it ages ago on a couple of travel blogs, and couldn’t wait to visit for myself. (I have a bit of an obsession with toilets; when I was travel blogging I used to publish a ‘Loo witha View’ series, of unusually beautiful views from toilets from my travels). Fittingly, then, this trip to Attendant also doubled up as a chance to chat about blogging and travelling with Supal, who runs chevrons & eclairs.

But London wasn’t all coffee and sightseeing. I also spent some time sitting in one of the work spaces in the National Theatre, via spending a little more money than intended at the National Theatre Bookshop. As you may guess from this week’s reading list (below), I’m currently in playwriting mode. I couldn’t think of a better place to work on a play than in a quiet corner of the National Theatre itself.

Back up north, I spent a day at a poetry workshop at Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery. Tullie House are currently hosting the National Portrait Gallery’s Picture the Poet exhibition. As part of the exhibition’s outreach programme, they’re working with Apples & Snakes to run poetry workshops (leading to a showcase) for groups around Cumbria. One of these groups consists of Tullie House Youth Panel, along with one of my young writers from New Writing Cumbria’s Rabbit Rabbit (rabbit) group. They’re working with poet Jenny Lindsay, who ran a fantastic worksop, as part of a series that will eventually lead to all of the young people writing an individual poem and a group piece.

Needless to say, I took advantage of the workshop and drafted a poem of my own. I may be attempting to focus on playwriting, but somehow poems just keep popping up in my head – and who am I to deny them their existence?

The week in books:

The week in books

  • Sarah Corbett, And She Was
  • Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and F***ing
  • Sarah Kane, Blasted
  • Tom Michell, The Penguin Lessons
  • April de Angelis, Plays: 1 [Ironmistress; Hush; Playhouse Creatures; The Positive Hour]

This week has been largely about drama. It’s been a mixture of re-reads (Blasted, Shopping and F***ing and Hush) and new reads (Ironmistress, Playhouse Creatures and The Positive Hour), which has been both fun and refreshing.

I also read Sarah Corbett’s And She Was, which has been sitting in my car for the past few months, begging to be taken inside / into a coffee shop and read. I saw Sarah perform at Ilkley Literature Festival, and got her book (along with Mona Arshi’s Small Hands, also published by Pavillion Poetry) shortly afterwards.

There was also, of course, the book about a penguin that I picked up in Primrose Hill. Because, once I’d bought it, I could hardly resist reading it, now, could I?

The week in pictures:

A little bit of everyday life this week, from insightful passages in books, to cafes, to birthday cake:

 

My Writing Life: Week 4

I’ve always been a bit contrary. Even when I was at school, I never wanted to do the thing I was supposed to be doing – but in my own special geeky little way. I still worked hard, but I did French homework when I should have been concentrating on maths revision, and then maths homework when I should have been learning French vocabulary.

This week has been a little bit like that.

Recently, I’ve been thinking in plays. I firmly believe that different ideas come in different shapes: some are poem-shaped, some feel like pieces of drama, and some are undoubtedly novels. Recently, I’ve been having a lot of play-shaped thoughts, so at the start of the week, I decided to focus on playwriting and start drafting a piece of theatre that’s been gestating in the recesses of my brain for the past few months.

But, in typical me fashion, no sooner had I started getting words on the page, than my brain started firing off poems with all the frequency and urgency of a machine gun. Which is wonderful! But also slightly irritates the planner in me.

But the plus side of all this is that this has been my most productive week for poetry in over a year, which is wonderful.

It’s also been a week of meetings, starting with a very positive meeting at Shap School, about the prospect of running some workshops there, followed by the lovely weekly informal over-lunch meeting at Eden Arts (the first I’ve been able to make in a long time), and rounded off with a great meeting with James of Three Inch Fools (touring Shakespeare) to talk about marketing for their Easter workshops and performances.

It’s also been a week of flooding and books…

The week in books:

  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
  • A S Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories

This week has been a week of modern fairy tales. (I was tempted to add Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted to the list, but I figured I should probably spend the time writing instead.) On Tuesday, I’d planned to pop into Prism Arts in Carlisle for a catch-up, but the wind and rain were so wild that I decided it was safer staying at home. As the river crept further and further back up the road, I snuggled up in front of the fire and read a book that’s been on my to-read list (and on my bookshelf) for years: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. After that, I was on such a roll with fairy tales, that I decided to also read A S Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories. Not only were these great reads, but I think they maybe had a slight influence on my wrting this week, too:

 

 

Not really any pictures from this week, but I did make a little for-fun video of last week’s trip to Morocco. The main outcome of this was my realising that I need to take much more video footage when I travel somewhere:

 

72 hours in Marrakesh from Katie Hale on Vimeo.

My Writing Life: Week 3

Three weeks into my new writing life, and I finally feel like I’m getting into some sort of rhythm. Which is strange, when you think that I haven’t yet had a ‘normal’ week. Take this week, for instance, where I spent the first two days of it in Marrakesh, bartering, discovering and soaking up the sun instead of writing. (Don’t worry, though – I’ve had a few very productive days to make up for it.)

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But it hasn’t just been poetry I’ve been writing this week, though I have written and edited a good deal of that. I’ve written a little bit of drama. I’ve also been writing tweets.

Yes, this is the week that I created a trending hashtag on twitter.

For those of you who saw it, I’m talking about the #derangedpoetess controversy. For those of you who didn’t see it, let me give you a brief bit of background:

In last week’s Sunday Times, journalist Oliver Thring published an article about recent T S Eliot Award-winner Sarah Howe. On Friday, sparked by a tweet from Amy Key, a number of poets accused the article of being sexist.

I saw Amy’s initial tweet, followed her link to the article, and watched the responses begin to unfold. To be honest, my opinion was that the article probably wasn’t intentionally sexist; it was just bad writing. But you can read the original article here and decide for yourself.

If you ask me, the really unforgivable sexism set in when Oliver Thring, rather than holding his hands up and apologising for any accidental offence, tweeted this:

Well, it isn’t every day you get to respond to a term like ‘deranged poetess’! I tweeted a photo of myself writing, looking very calm and serious, and captioned it as a ‘definitely deranged’ poetess. Then I made it a hashtag.

The hashtag then began trending, and was even written about in a Guardian article! The rest, as they say, is history.

It hasn’t all been social media controversy this week, though. Aside from writing in my now Moroccan-goods-filled house, I’ve also been getting over a cold – aided by some medicine I picked up in a Berber pharmacy in Marrakesh. It’s a black powder, which you wrap in a hankie and inhale the scent, a bit like an olbas inhaler. It instantly clears the sinuses – like a miracle cure! Though I would quite like to know what it is that I’m inhaling… Anyone have any ideas…?

It’s also been a week of reading (though not quite as much as I’d have liked), arranging meetings and organising some volunteering work. And socialising! I know – very unlike me… Apparently writing and having a social life actually can go together!

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The week in books:

  • Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong
  • Ella Hickson, Eight
  • Mona Arshi, Small Hands

A novel, a play and a collection of poetry: feeling pretty well-rounded in my reading this week. I actually bought Small Hands way back in October at Ilkley Literature Festival, and it’s been sitting in my car ever since, waiting for me to take it into a cafe and start reading it. Unfortunately, my cafe time has been a bit limited since then. But I must say, the little book has waited very patiently, and was well worth it. Some beautiful poems, and also a couple that I could use for teaching, which is always a bonus.

The week in pictures:

As promised last week, this week I’m sharing my photos from Marrakesh. Not necessarily very writer-ly, but full of beautiful bright colours and gorgeous blue skies.

My writing life: week 2

Writing poetry with a cup of tea. Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet / writer etc
Poetry & a cuppa

Confession: at the time of writing, the week is not yet over. I wrote and scheduled this post on Friday. Why? I’m currently in Marrakesh.

Bearing that in mind, it’s been a much shorter-than-usual week for writing, truncated even further by the fact that I’ve spent two days at the New Writing Cumbria office, rather than the usual one. I’ve also been delving into the joys of my tax return.

But even despite all that, I’ve been loving the writing time.

I wrote a poem about a whale, which I think is already very close to the final draft stage. I also discovered a very old draft of a very old poem (well, 3 years old), which I had completely forgotten about, and was able to rework into a completed piece. To make matters even better, it became a gogyoshi-ku. Thanks, BAR poets and Jacob Sam-La Rose, for introducing me to that particular poet form. Oh, in case you were wondering, a gogyoshi-ku consist of a gogyoshi (5-line poem that otherwise has no formal structure) followed by a haiku.

I also did something faintly amazing, and organised my computer filing system for my poetry. Whereas before I had one folder called ‘Poetry’, full of everything from finished pieces to brief jottings that should probably never be revisited, I now have a beautifully streamlined system of folders that gives me a geeky little tingle every time I think about it.

For the organisation geeks among you, my ‘Poetry’ folder is now organised like this:

  • Finished Poems
    • Published poems
    • Waiting for news [submitted to magazines]
    • Other poems
  • Poems to work on
  • Misc. documents
    • [archived drafts and jottings, filed by year]

And, inspired by the wonderful Kim Moore, I’ve now also created an Excel poetry submission spreadsheet, with a list of poems down the side, a list of magazines & journals to submit to across the top, and colour-coded boxes according to whether the poems have been accepted or rejected, or are waiting a response.

Now it’s just a case of making those systems work!


The week in books:

  • [still reading] Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong

(Though in fairness, it is a long book. And with the train ride to the airport and the long-ish flight to Marrakesh, I may have finished it and be onto something else by the time this post goes live.)

The week in pictures:

Photos of Marrakesh to follow next week!