Ever fancied penning your novel in a medieval castle? Or pouring over poems in a cabin in the woods? Working on your script in a little apartment by the sea? Maybe what you’re looking for is a writing residency. But what exactly is a writing residency? And how do they work?

What is a writing residency?

First things first: not all residencies are created equal. Some offer more than others. Some last as much as a year, some only last a week or so. Some offer individual accommodation, some offer shared. Some pay, some don’t. Some even expect the writer to pay to attend, but that’s not the sort of residency I’m going to be focusing on in this post (more on those further down).

So what is a residency? Generally speaking, it’s a combination of accommodation & time to write. You get somewhere to sleep and somewhere to work. Sometimes, you also get meals, and / or a stipend, and / or travel expenses.

Sometimes, the residencies ask you to run a writing workshop, or to give a talk or something, in return. Sometimes you have absolutely no commitments other than working on your own writing.

I went on 3 residencies in 2019, and I’ve got another 4 lined up for this year. Here’s a quick run-down of what they offer(ed):

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence, Cumbria, England: a month; a private study-bedroom in a shared house opposite Dove Cottage; payment; required to give a reading & run 4 workshops.
  • MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire, USA: 3 weeks; private bedroom in a shared house; a separate studio cabin in the woods; meals; travel expenses; no requirements other than writing.
  • Passa Porta, Brussels, Belgium: 4 weeks; private apartment in the centre of the city; travel expenses; stipend; participated in 2 translation workshops & wrote a blog post.
  • Hawthornden Castle, Scotland: 4 weeks; private room in shared medieval castle; meals; no requirements other than writing.
  • KSP Writers’ Centre, Perth, Australia: 3 weeks; private cabin; stipend; required to run a workshop, attend a literary dinner & give a library talk.
  • Gladstone’s Library, Wales: a month; private bedroom in residential library; travel expenses & stipend; meals; required to run a masterclass & give a talk.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage, Achill Island, Ireland: 2 weeks; private cottage by the sea; no requirements other than own writing.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

Residencies give you time to write, away from the pressures of everyday life. Whenever I’m on a residency, I switch on my Out Of Office, (mostly) prepare and queue up my blog posts ready to go, and ignore my admin. (Ok, I’ll be honest – I do sometimes check my emails, just in case. But I restrict my email-checking to the occasional evening, and even then I only reply to the absolutely urgent ones. At some residencies, such as Hawthornden, there isn’t any wifi anyway.)

It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a day when you don’t have to fill half of it with answering emails and trudging through invoicing & expenses & admin. Particularly if someone else is making all your meals for you, as is the case with some residencies.

My 6 most productive weeks of 2019 were the 3 weeks of my MacDowell residency, and the first 3 weeks of my Passa Porta residency. I wrote way more than I’d normally have written during that time, and when I looked back on what I’d produced afterwards, some of it was quite different to what I think I’d have written at home. For me, these residencies pushed me qualitatively, as well as quantitively.

But residencies can also be time to read, and a chance to experiment with your craft. In contrast to MacDowell & Passa Porta, I wrote comparatively little during my Wordsworth Trust residency (though still probably more than I’d have written during the same period at home). What I did do, though, was oodles & oodles of reading – reading both poems, and books about writing poetry. I spent a lot of time thinking about the craft of poetry, and experimenting with my own style of writing – something which I’m sure contributed to my huge productivity at MacDowell a month later.

This is the sort of craft development that can easily get pushed to the side in everyday life, particularly when you’re having to write for commissions & deadlines etc, and so every poem has to be ‘good’; it can become difficult to make time to explore & experiment. Residencies can provide that time.

They can also be a way of meeting other writers – though this depends on the residency. For those residencies where there are a number of writers all there together (such as Hawthornden), it can be an excellent bonding experience, where everyone is working so intensively on their own manuscripts during the day, then coming together to eat and talk during the evenings.

For those residencies that are multi-disciplinary (such as MacDowell), it can also be a good way of meeting artists working in other forms, and of finding inspiration in conversations with non-writers.

I’ll be honest, a large part of my initial motivation to apply for residencies was the opportunity to travel. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I love to travel, and residencies can provide a cheap way of doing that. If you can get a residency that provides travel expenses & accommodation, then you’ve essentially got a free trip to wherever it is that the residency is based.

Of course, residencies aren’t meant for sightseeing; they’re meant for working. But if you’re there for a reasonable length of time, then you’re going to need the odd day off anyway (trust me: residencies can be intense, and it’s good to break the cabin fever once in a while).

Another good way of exploring an area where you’re in residence can be to extend your trip. If your residency pays travel expenses, then there’s no reason you can find your own accommodation for a few days before or after your residency, and stick around to see the sights then.

Of course, beyond the tourism, travel & change of environment can be excellent for the work as well. Stuck on a manuscript, or just getting too easily distracted at home? A change of workspace could be exactly what the doctor ordered. And honestly, it doesn’t even have to be a beautiful cabin in the woods, or a medieval castle. I’ve had some of my most productive poetic breakthroughs in Travelodges.

But let’s look at the financial side of things for a moment, too.

Some residencies pay a stipend – which is sometimes a token amount to help you buy pasta & notebooks, and is sometimes akin to an actual wage. This means that you can actually earn money by staying somewhere gorgeous and working on your manuscript. Depending on what you have in the way of expenses back home, it’s even possible to save some of this stipend money to fund even more writing time back at home. In 2019, residencies formed a not insignificant part of my income.

Even for those residences that don’t pay anything, they can still make financial sense. For example: I live alone, in an old house that’s kind of pricey to heat, which means that my bills can be huge. By planning residencies during the winter, I can go whole months without having to heat my house. I might not be being paid to attend the residency (though fingers crossed I’d eventually get an advance on the manuscript I was working on during it), but I’m also minimising my outgoings enormously.

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

Maybe by now you’re thinking it all sounds too good to be true. Obviously, nothing is perfect. For me, the positives of residencies have always outweighed any negatives. But I like to be honest on this blog, so here are some of the downsides to residencies:

When you’re in a place for a concentrated period of time, there can be a huge pressure to produce work. After all, you have this precious gift of time, and if you don’t use it to create something incredible, then doesn’t that mean that you’ve wasted it?

This negative aspect is largely self-inflicted. After all, it’s extremely rare that a residency will ask you for a quantative breakdown of what you’ve produced during your stay. Which means that the strategy for dealing with this pressure has to come from you as well. After all, you know your ways of working better than anyone. But just remember that you don’t have to write 17 novels and 53 essays during your residency. It’s just as vital to work on your practice in other ways, by thinking, by reading, and by exploring the way that you work.

Although, speaking of productivity, it is also possible for a residency to go the other way: that you’re so overwhelmed by the residency’s other requirements of you (running workshops / giving talks etc) that you end up with very little time or headspace left for actual writing.

This is largely down to the residency, to make sure that they don’t overload you. But you should also make the effort to be aware of what’s required of you before you start, and to raise any concerns you have about workload with the residency coordinator ahead of time. This obviously doesn’t mean you can be a diva about it – the occasional commitment is fine, particularly if the residency is paying you a fee or stipend on top of the accommodation. But if the commitments outweigh the writing time, or if they keep being piled on beyond what you originally agreed to, then maybe it’s time to say something.

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

Writing residencies can be intense, and they can also be lonely. Even when there are multiple writers / artists on the same residency, you can end up spending a lot of time inside your own head. And when it’s just you in an apartment, writing all day and reading every evening, then that loneliness can be hugely amplified.

Think of it like this: you’ve gone to a new town or city, where you don’t know anybody. You’re willingly spending hours (if not days) at a time shut up in your room or house or apartment. You don’t speak to anyone, much, except maybe the person on the checkout in the supermarket. You may not even speak the local language.

Now imagine this for four weeks. It probably isn’t long enough to make solid friends, the way you would if you were moving to a new city for good. But it is a long time to spend away from your normal social groups.

Of course, everyone reacts to isolation differently. There’ll be some people reading this, for whom even the thought of a few days without talking to anyone sounds horrific. There’ll be some of you who think a few weeks’ isolation sounds idyllic. At the end of the day, we all know our own limits – or at least we suspect them.

Take me, for example. I think I’m a fairly independent person. I’m an only child, so we never really had a houseful growing up. I live alone. I also live rurally. I work freelance, so I don’t have colleagues who I interact with on a daily basis. I’m generally faily happy in my own company, and I like knowing that I have my own space if I need to get away from it all.

But, during part of my residency in Brussels last year, I felt very, very lonely.

I was fine for the first two weeks, after negotiating the first couple of days of settling in – difficult whenever you go anywhere new. By week 3, I was starting to miss friends & family, but was still managing to put that aside to focus on work. I’d also starting going for days and afternoons out to explore a bit more, and to force myself out of the apartment. But by week 4, I was honestly a bit of a mess. I missed conversations with people. I missed the sort of interaction that comes from knowing someone really well – or from getting to know someone through shared intense experience.

Don’t get me wrong: the residency was amazing, the staff at Passa Porta were utterly lovely, and Brussels is a stunning city. I just realised that 3 weeks is pretty much my limit for that kind of isolated residency.

Which is fine. I learned something about myself during the course of the residency. I now know that I can discount any residencies longer than 3 weeks, if there aren’t other artists or writers in residence at the same time. I discovered the limits of my loneliness.

How to survive a writing residency:

That all said: what’s my advice for anyone going on a residency?

Do your research before you go. Because residencies can be so varied in terms of what they offer, and who they cater to, it’s worth knowing exactly what you’re getting yourself in for beforehand. This means there shouldn’t be any nasty surprises when you get there, and also that you can prepare for any talks & workshops before you go, so they don’t cut too much into your precious writing time.

Go with a project in mind. Remember that pressure to produce that we were talking about earlier? This can be exacerbated if you’re the sort of writer who works on more than one project at once. If you’ve only got the one residency, what do you start with? Your novel? Your poetry collection? Your short stories? Your epic fantasy saga spanning seven volumes? Do you try to dedicate a little bit of time to each? Knowing what you want to achieve from the outset can help you avoid wasting time on indecisiveness, and allow you to hit the ground running when you arrive at the residency.

Speak to people. A good way to combat the possibility of loneliness is to actually speak to people. This is obviously easier if it’s the kind of residency where there are multiple people there at once. But even if you’re on your own, make an effort to find people to talk to. Fellow writers. That person in the cafe. Even just a brief exchange with the person behind the counter in the shop can help with the feelings of isolation.

Take breaks. Yes, you’re there to work, and it can feel a bit like every day needs to be a 12-hour writing marathon, stopping only for toilet breaks and coffee. But that isn’t a sustainable way of working, and slowly concentration will begin to wane. Take breaks to read a book, to go for a walk, to sit in a cafe and drink coffee you haven’t reheated 3 times in the microwave. It’s a way of rejuvenating your energy – and it’s amazing how many Eureka moments can come when you actually step away from the writing desk.

Get out and about. By which I mean: don’t just take breaks in the immediate vicinity of your residency, but get even further away from the writing desk from time to time. During my MacDowell residency, a group of us took a whole day off to drive to a nearby town and try our hands at an Escape Room. It was completely unrelated to anything any of us were working on, but was also the best thing we could have done, to break that feeling of cabin fever we hadn’t even realised was beginning to set in.

Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not hitting your word counts. Yes, you’ve come with a specific project in mind, and you probably have goals you want to achieve while you’re in residence. But, while I absolutely believe that half the battle is just showing up to write, I also know that it isn’t a certain thing either. Sometimes, however hard you smack your head against your notebook or stare down that blank Word document, the words just won’t come. And that’s fine, too. You can have blank spells during a residency just as much as you can at any other time. The beauty of the residency is that you still have all that free time for creativity – so you can use it to read, or to freewrite, or to go for a walk and just think through your creative project. You can still be working, even when you’re not actually writing out words.

Pack snacks – and maybe a bottle of wine or two. This is a personal one, but I’m a big one for snacking, and I find it really hard to work if I’m hungry. So if I know I’m going somewhere that might not have easy access to a grocery shop, I always find it’s a good idea to stick a bag of biscuits in my bag – just in case. Even if I don’t end up eating them, I just like to know they’re there on the offchance I might need them. Plus, they’re a great way of breaking the ice. And the wine? Again: wine is nearly always a good way of making friends!

What to watch out for:

I said at the start of this post that not all residencies are created equal. The truth is that some offer much, much more than others. It isn’t always the case that the most respected residencies offer the most – but it is often the case that the less respected (and often less conducive to creativity) can actually take the most from the writer. The best way to avoid any upleasant surprises is to always read all the information available before you apply – just so you know what’s what.

A few things I’ve come across, which aren’t always bad, but which need to be noted, are:

Shared accommodation:

It’s quite common for residencies to offer writers a private bedroom / study-bedroom in a communal house, which may have shared bathrooms and communal workspaces – though you’re generally free to work in your room if you prefer privacy.

But I have also seen some residencies that only offer shared bedrooms (shared with another resident / residents, who you won’t meet till you arrive). I’ve even heard report of a residency that expected the writers to share a bed! Personally, I don’t think asking strangers to share a bed is ever appropriate, but I suppose the shared bedrooms thing is a matter of individual preference. If it’s something you’d be fine with, then go for it. Personally, I need my own space to work in.

Application fees:

A number of residencies charge a fee for you to apply. Usually, this is to offset the cost of processing the applications. After all, an individual residency might receive hundreds of applications, and somebody needs to process all of those, to check eligibility and ultimately to make a decision. That person probably needs paying, hence the application fee. Sometimes it can also go towards funding the residencies slightly, in the same way that the prize pot for a writing competition might be funded by the entry fees. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some highly respected residencies charge a fee to apply. It’s just something to be aware of before you decide whether apply, so that you can budget it into your decision.

Fee-paying residencies:

I mentioned this at the start of the post, and I want to talk about it here, because some residencies not only charge a fee to apply, but also charge a fee to attend. Sometimes this is nominal – just enough to cover a cleaner’s fee, or maybe put something towards electricity bills. But sometimes the cost can be as much as (or even more than) the cost of a hotel.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with paying for a room / apartment / cottage to go and write in, but I would argue that this is something different from a writing residency. I would argue that this is more like a self-guided retreat – like the kind offered by Arvon & by Gladstone’s Library. You pay your money, and in return you get to stay in a peaceful & supportive environment, and work on your manuscript.

But the thing about retreats like these is that they’re not selective. By which I mean: anyone can book and go on one, in the same way that anyone can book a room in a hotel. Again, that’s absolutely fine. There are hundreds of great reasons why these models work, and why you might want to pay to isolate yourself and focus on your manuscript – many of them th same as the ones above in this blog post.

However, if there’s a selective application process involved, and then you have to pay the full cost of the residency in order to attend, then I always wonder: why not just book into a hotel instead? Why bother with the whole hassle of writing & submitting an application, then waiting to see if you’ve been successful, when you can just book a retreat at Arvon or Gladstone’s in minutes – and know what you’re getting as well?

I’ve even seen so-called residencies that charge writers a fee to apply, and then also charge an astronomical amount for the writer to actually attend the residency. That’s like paying £20 to be in with the chance of booking an apartment on Airbnb, then having to wait 6 months to find out if you got it or not. Why would you do that?

Fortunately, there are plenty of residency opportunities that don’t try to make lots of extra money from the writer, and that aren’t commercial retreats masquerading as exclusive residency opportunities. So as long as you do your research, there should always be a residency that will suit the needs of each individual.

Ok, so where can I go?

There are residencies all over the world, and far too many to list here, even if I did know them all. I’ll start with the ones already mentioned in this post:

  • The Wordsworth Trust Poet in Residence is in Grasmere, Cumbria (UK), and has so far been running every couple of years. They announce call-outs for applications through the e-news, so it’s worth signing up to their mailing list in their website footer.
  • MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (USA) has regular call-outs for applications.
  • Passa Porta in Brussels (Belgium) runs its own writing residencies, which can be applied for directly. For UK-based writers, they work with the National Centre for Writing in Norwich, and applications are announced through their website instead.
  • Hawthornden Castle, just outside Edinburgh (UK), has an unusual application process, in that everything is done by snail mail, and by hand. To request an application form, you have to send a physical letter to: Hawthornden Castle, The International Retreat for Writers, Lasswade, Midlothian, EH18 1EG. Completed application forms (including 2 professional references) are then due to be submitted by the end of each June, for residencies the following year.
  • The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth (Australia), and runs a series of residencies for writers at varying levels of experience. These are open for application on an annual basis.
  • Gladstone’s Library is a residential library in Wales (UK), which means that anyone can pay to stay there. But if you’re looking for their writer in residence programme, then this is an annual application process, based around a published book.
  • Heinrich Boell Cottage is on Achill Island in County Mayo (Ireland), and is another one that requires a physical application. The deadline each year is the end of September, for a residency the following year – however, it’s worth noting that I didn’t receive a reply on my application till October the year after I submitted it (in the July), so this system may not be completely foolproof.

But of course, there are hundreds of other places to look for residencies. Good places to start your search might be:

  • ResArtis is an online database of residencies. It allows you to search for residencies with current application opportunities, as well as to filter by artform, accommodation type, and geographical location. Be aware that this website also features residencies where the writer has to pay to attend, so be sure to read all the details before you decide whether to apply.
  • Simliar to ResArtis, the other one to check is TransArtists. This online resource also allows filtered searches, and also features fee-paying residencies alongside ones where the writer doesn’t pay.
  • Arts Council England runs two mailing lists: ArtsJobs and ArtsNews. These sometimes advertise residencies, so it’s worth signing up to them. It’s also worth signing up to the relevant equivalent mailing lists if you’re based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, too.
  • Sign up to the mailing list of your regional writing organisation. For me, this is New Writing North, who are based in Newcastle. They also share residency opportunities, as well as lots of other useful info.
  • If you want to travel, then periodic checks of the opportunities page on the British Council website aren’t a bad idea, either, as sometimes these include residencies & travel opportunities for individual writers.
  • Another option? Sit down one evening with a couple of hours to spare, and a big glass of wine, and google variations on ‘writing residencies’ or ‘writer in residence opportunities’. Keep a list of anything that comes up, whcih you think might interest you.

If you’re applying for a residency, or you’re off to participate in one, then the best of luck! And in the meantime, here’s my favourite list of ‘residencies’ for you, from the New Yorker:

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

Some years just rattle over from one to the next, with very little sense of change or progression between them. Then again, some years are like fireworks, bursting into a glorious array of sound and light, leaving you dazed and slightly dizzy in their wake. 2019 has been one of those years – summarised as best as I possibly can here, in a mix of words and pictures.

Publications:

Let’s start with the big one, which I’m sure everyone reading this is already well aware of, as I’ve barely shut up about it for the past 12 months: my debut novel, My Name is Monster, which was published by Canongate in June.

From the moment I first saw the proposed cover design for the book, I fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of proofreading, launches, and two (yes, two!) dedicated bookshop windows! I did a series of events in some of the amazing bookshops and libraries around Cumbria, and appeared at a bunch of festivals, including Cheltenham, Edinburgh Book Fest, Port Eliot & Borderlines.

Seeing the book in print, and even more seeing it on the shelves in bookshops, has been a phenomenal experience. It still feels strange to know that something that started off as a vague idea somewhere in the recesses of my brain, has been made into an actual physical object, that people can pick up and buy and read and take their own thoughts from. It’s like some strange form of alchemy.

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

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In the poetry department, 2019 also saw the publication of my second pamphlet, Assembly Instructions.

Assembly Instructions was published in March by Southword, after winning the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. And, because Southword are based in Cork, I got to travel to Cork Poetry Festival to launch it, and to read from the book at Cork Library.

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

This year, I’ve learned that residencies are like buses. You spend years applying for them, and then suddenly all the successful applications come through at once.

My first residency was for the month of February, with an organisation I know well, having run numerous schools workshops for them over the past 5 or 6 years: The Wordsworth Trust, in Grasmere.

While I did, of course, write poetry during the residency, what proved most valuable was the time to read, and the time to experiment with poetic practice. These are the things that so often get pushed to the side, in favour of admin and deadlines, so it was hugely important to have that time to focus on the poetic craft, without the pressure of having to ‘produce’ something.

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

I’m certain this time was instrumental in setting me up for the amount of work I produced during my second residency of the year: MacDowell.

MacDowell Colony is a multi-disciplinary residency, set across an area of woodland in New Hampshire, USA. Each resident gets their own studio, which takes the form of a little house or cabin in the woods, and gets their lunch delivered to them in a little picnic basket. Breakfast & dinner are communal meals in the big house.

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

The main thing I noticed at MacDowell was how much time there was in each day. Having someone else cooking my meals for me freed up way more time than I’d anticipated, and I had possibly the most productive 3 weeks I’ve had all year – rivalled only by my first 3 weeks at Passa Porta.

Passa Porta was my third residency of the year, in Brussels. It was a month-long stay in an apartment in the centre of Brussels, through a partnership between Passa Porta, the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. It gave me the chance to finish a first (very rough) draft of my poetry collection – and, of course, to eat a lot of waffles!

Each of these 3 residencies had a very different feel, and I learned a lot about myself and about my ways of working by doing them. (I think I may write a blog post about it sometime in the new year. Watch this space!) But in the meantime, I’m just celebrating the opportunity to live and work in such beautiful places, and to meet so many interesting people.

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

At the end of 2018, I was lucky enough to be awarded a DYCP (Developing Your Creative Practice) Grant from Arts Council England.

As well as buying me time to write this year, the grant also paid for me to go to the US to research my collection. This was split between 10 days in New York, using the collections at New York Public Library, and around 10 days driving between Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, following the historic route that my ancestors took towards Missouri, and eventually to Kansas.

The opportunity to research the collection in the actual places where so many of the poems are set was incredible. I met some hugely interesting people along the way (and had some conversations that still leave me reeling – some of which have made it into poems), and got to drive through some utterly stunning landscapes. Honestly, I think I’m still processing the trip, and working bits of it into the poems. I’ll probably still be processing it long after the collection is finished.

(Side note: if you’re considering applying for a DYCP grant, go for it! it’s a [relatively] straightforward application, and it’s proved to be invaluable for me.)

Radio:

This year, I’ve also slipped, almost accidentally, into the world of national radio. Specifically: Radio 4.

This started at the end of last year, when I was asked to write & present the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets, for independent production company Made in Manchester. The programme was one in a series, exploring dialect poetry in regions across the country, and its continuing impact today. I was given the Cumbria episode, which I used to explore the intersection between dialect poetry, place and identity – particularly looking at what it means to be an ‘offcomer’ in Cumbria. The programme aired at the start of June, just before My Name is Monster was published.

Then, since My Name is Monster came out, I’ve also been on Radio 4 a couple of times to talk about that. The first was on Open Book, from the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, talking about the book in the context of millennial writers / readers. The second was just a couple of weeks ago, on Front Row, which was based around the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe, and why we’re still drawn to survival stories. An interesting one to talk about the day after the general election…

And the rest:

2019 has also been not a bad year for prizes – though mostly in the ‘almost, but not quite’ category. Still, given the calibre of some of the competitions, and the high quality & quantity of entries, I’m over the moon to be shortlisted, or even longlisted! This is something I’m a firm believer in: there’s so much poetry & fiction out there, that any positive recognition of a piece of work is something to be hugely proud of, whether it wins the big first prize or not.

This year, those successes have included: being shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, the Mslexia Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize; coming 3rd in both the Magma Editors’ Prize and the Plough Short Poem Prize; and being longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition. I’ve also had individual poems published in Magma magazine, Under the Radar, and in Mslexia – which I’ve been tryingt to get a poem into for the past decade!

To add to the other poetry, this year I was commissioned by Théâtre Volière to write a series of poems exploring the history of women in and around Gretna. The poems ranged from the more well-known stories of elopements, to the women who worked at the nearby ‘Devil’s Porridge’ munitions factory during the First World War, to those who worked the land and fished in the Solway. The poems were performed at Ye Olde Mitre pub in London in March, along with music from Scottish fiddle-player Lori Watson. They were then performed again in October, at the RADA studio in London, as part of an event launching the anthology of commissioned work.

I also wrote a couple more commissioned poems for the National Trust this year, as part of their Tables Turned project: a three year participation project, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

Having written a poem in response to meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was then commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants. The result? Three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of the Under Northern Skies exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

So what next?

2020 is already shaping up to be as busy as 2019.

I’ve already got 4 residencies lined up for next year, to continue working on my poetry collection, and to (hopefully) make a start on drafting my second novel: a month at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland; 3 weeks at the Kathrine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Perth, Australia; another month at Gladstone’s Library just over the border into Wales; and 2 weeks at Heinrich Boell Cottage, on Achill Island in Ireland.

To tie in with the Australia residency, I’m also planning an epic trip in the first part of next year (think multiple countries & continents!), during which I’ll turn 30! It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes ago since I was making my ’32 things before 30′ list, so it’ll be good to look back and see which ones I’ve managed to achieve.

And when I get back? There’s always Kendal Poetry Festival to look forward to (I’ll be orchestrating a guerrilla poetry project for that again in 2020), and a bunch of workshops that are already booked into my diary.

Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough – next year will not only see the release of the paperback of My Name is Monster (with a new & equally beautiful cover that I can’t wait to share!), but will also see the book published in German, as Mein Name ist Monster! World domination here we come…

In the meantime, I guess I’ll just continue working on my poetry and my fiction, and sharing the occasional blog post.

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Hope you’ve had a wonderful 2019 – and all the best for the new year. Happy writing!

One of my big poetry achievements this year has been to finally have a poem published in Mslexia – something I’ve been trying to do for around a decade. And, as it happened, I ended up with poems in two consecutive isues! Funny how these things work out.

Here’s my poem, ‘Feathers’, which was submitted for the open callout on the theme of ‘journeys’.

Feathers

I don’t know what I’m trying to say
exactly – only that today, commuting the hangdog
length of the river path, I spied
for the first time this season

a flight of silver breaking from the broad
shoulders of the water:

the metal undercarriage
of an office chair, unheeding
of predators, basking in the knowledge of itself,
its wheels uplifted to the weak sun,
a cursive uncurling towards the sky.

I swear I heard it calling reassurance to its young
on the brambled bank, a sudden circular song.
I swear I heard their ruffled hope reply.

*

‘Feathers’ was first published in Mslexia, Issue 83: Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to write. Obvious, right? Right. I mean, if you wanted to be a concert pianist you’d expect to have to learn to play the piano first.

But there’s this weird thing that happens with writing, where some people think that, because they can write words down (a shopping list? An email? A letter to a friend?) they can write a story or a poem or a play, or whatever it may be. After all, they use words every day – surely it’s just a matter of choosing the right ones?

If you’re reading this, then you’re probably already well aware that it doesn’t work like this. You have to understand the craft of your writing – to learn about narrative arc, voice, dialogue, sentence structure, point of view, figurative language, rhythm and meter, pacing, imagery…

Sure, you can write without understanding any of this, and if you’re writing solely for the pleasure of it and it isn’t about writing well, then fine. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t mean we have to monetise it – whatever capitalism has to say about it. After all, I’m a far cry from selling out a solo gig at the Royal Albert Hall, but I take huge enjoyment from singing in the shower now and again.

But if you want your writing to be good, as judged by industry expectations, then you’re going to have to learn it, just like any other craft.

So how do you learn to write?

Books at Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)
Allan Bank, Grasmere (National Trust)

Read.

Before you even pick up a pen, you need to read as widely and as deeply as you can. You don’t have to be a particularly fast reader, but you have to read well. By that, I mean you have to read with a critical eye. You’re not just reading for the story any more, to find out what happens. Instead, approach each book as a training exercise.

  • How is this author creating suspense?
  • How do they make you like their protagonist?
  • If the book feels a bit slow or you lose interest at some point, why is that?
  • How could you avoid making the same mistakes?

If you don’t like to read (and, believe it or not, I have actually met people who write, who say that they hate books), then you need to question whether you really do want to be a writer. If it’s just because you like the sound of your own voice, then record yourself reading the phone book or something instead. Writers need to read, the same way that painters need to look at other paintings.

I’ve also met people who say they don’t read because it’ll influence what they write.

Good.

Let yourself be influenced by others. That doesn’t mean you have to copy their ideas or steal their characters (in fact, there are laws against that sort of thing). But if a writer has a particularly engaging way of writing dialogue, so that you can actually hear the characters coming off the page, then absolutely study their technique and let it influence yours. If you’re an aviation engineer, you need to study the concept of how an aeroplane wing works or the plane will fall out of the sky. If you’re a writer, you need to study how to string a sentence together, or construct a plot, or develop a character, or your book will never get off the ground.

writing prompt - Katie Hale

Read widely.

Reading in your own genre is great. If you write crime fiction then sure, read crime fiction. Figure out what other crime writers are doing, what they have done in the past. Where do you fit within the genre? How can you do something different?

But read other stuff as well. Let yourself be influenced by writers of all kinds. Read thrillers and romance. Read literary fiction. Read poetry and play scripts. Read classics. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Heck, read a picture book. As long as you read critically, you’re growing your craft. And the variety of your influences may just give you your distinctive voice.

As well as reading other types of fiction, and poetry, and scripts, and creative non-fiction, try reading books about writing. Study what other writers do, and study what other writers are telling you to do.

There are literally hundreds of ‘how to’ books out there. (Ok, probably there are thousands, but obviously I haven’t counted. I’m too busy reading and writing.) So how do you choose which ones are worth your time?

Honestly, it’s probably going to be trial and error. Recommendations are great, but what works for your friend might leave you high and dry, whereas something another writer has found completely useless might be like gold dust for you. We’re all different writers and, crucially, we’re all at different stages of development in our writing. So we’re all going to be looking for something different. If you want to try a few without a big price tag, see what you can get from your local library. You can then dip into a number of options, and if you find one you like, potentially buy a copy afterwards.

In the meantime, here are a few books on writing that I would recommend:

  • Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
  • Louise Doughty’s A Novel in a Year
  • Renni Browne & Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
  • Will Storr’s The Science of Storytelling
  • Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems
  • Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry

new year writing resolutions: Katie Hale

Write.

Reading is all very well, but of course you also need to write. Just as a concert pianist learns to play sonatas by practising scales, so you can learn to write by writing. You can write exercises, or you can write that epic novel that you’ve had in the back of your brain for ages. It doesn’t really matter, so long as you’re writing, and you’re working out at all times how you can improve.

Try different voices. Try different forms. Try using techniques you’ve observed in your reading – how do they work for you?

Practice makes perfect – and although I’m not entirely sure I believe in ‘the perfect novel’, at least practising can help to get you closer.

Social media addiction - Katie Hale, Cumbrian poet, writer and artist

Join a writing group.

Once you’re on the way with your writing, you’re going to realise what a solitary process it can be, if you haven’t already. I guess it’s a bit like parenting – sometimes you just need to talk to other people who are going through the same thing.

Writing groups can take any form. They can be workshopping groups, where you get together to comment on each others’ works in progress. They can be support groups, where you share opportunities and talk about the problems you may be facing. They can be physical groups (at someone’s house, in the pub, in a specially booked room somewhere), or they can be online groups. They can be mixed ability, or grouped so that everyone has similar levels of experience.

I’m in a number of writing groups, each with its own focus:

  • A poetry group that meets once a month, where we each bring in a poem to workshop as a group.
  • A group that focuses more on fiction (and scripts), which also meets once a month, and for a full day. In the mornings, we do a number of writing exercises, usually with a specific theme or focus, and in the afternoons we workshop bits of our works in progress, which we circulate about a month in advance.
  • A WhatsApp group of other debut writers, which we use as a support group for sharing experiences / successes / difficulties etc, rather than for sharing actual work.
  • I also have a number of friends who are writers, who I often share things with individually.

I’ve also been in a number of other groups over the years, as I’ve moved around geographically, and as my focuses have changed. For me, the groups that seem to work best are the ones where everyone is at a similar level – if not of experience or knowledge, then at least of commitment. As with many things, it helps if everyone is coming from a place of similar understanding.

If you’re looking for a writing group in your local area, and you’re not sure where to start, try by googling, or by asking at your local library, arts organisation or community centre. Talk to other writers in your area – particularly ones who write something similar to what you write. If you’re not sure who these might be, try asking at any local bookshops.

Still can’t find anything? Start one yourself!

script writing for theatre - Katie Hale

Look at writing courses.

This one isn’t essential. You can absolutely become a good writer without ever going on a writing course. After all, most of the hard work is done between you and the notebook, and it takes time. It isn’t something someone can teach you in a week, a month, or even a year.

That isn’t to say that writing can’t be taught. Writing is a craft, and any craft is teachable, as long as the student has the willingness, passion and skill to learn. But it takes time. You might learn to play the odd tune on the piano in a year, but you won’t yet be a concert pianist.

But, with that caveat made, there are still a number of really good reasons to explore courses as a means of improving your writing.

  • You can learn from experienced tutors.
  • They’re often a good way of meeting other writers, who’ll have similar writing interests to yourself – and whom you may also be able to learn from.
  • If you’re stuck in a rut with your writing, a course can help you to see things from a new perspective.
  • A course can give you confidence as a writer, and goodness knows we all need that from time to time.
  • Particularly with residential courses, or longer courses such as an MA, they can be a good way of forcing yourself to carve out writing time from your daily life.
  • They’re also incredibly fun!

As with writing groups, there are all kinds of different courses available, depending on the needs, experience level and budget of the writer.

  • Arvon and Ty Newydd are well-known as centres for tutored residential courses, usually over a weekend or a week.
  • Online courses such as the Poetry School.
  • One-day workshops, as well as longer evening / afternoon courses run by adult education providers.
  • One-off workshops through libraries, arts organisations, bookshops and book festivals.
  • I’ve also heard great things about Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme for writers.

If you want to go down the university route, there are undergraduate courses (usually 3 years full-time or 6 years part-time), or Masters level courses (1-2 years full-time and 2-3 years part-time). Beyond that there are PhDs, if you’re more advanced.

These courses vary hugely in terms of cost, and of course we know that even well-established writers are rarely rolling in it, let alone writers who are just starting out. But many of them will offer bursary schemes for writers on low incomes, so they’re still worth exploring, even if your budget isn’t huge.

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And there are my thoughts on learning to write!

Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Ropes of the Industry

 

There are a number of questions I get asked about being a writer. Inevitably, these include: Have you written anything I’ve heard of? Are you going to be the next J.K.Rowling?

And, sometimes, What do you do all day?

I can’t really answer the first two questions, but I can definitely have a crack at the last one. This question usually comes from people of a generation where working from home is still a largely recent possibility (though not always), and is often asked with a look of concern that I don’t have a ‘proper job’. It’s also quite frequently followed by: But how do you earn a living?

The other way I get asked about my daily routine is more along the lines of, How do you stay motivated? If you don’t have a boss telling you to be at your work station at a certain time, then how do you make yourself get out of bed and do the work?

These are both huge topics in their own right: what constitues the job of being a writer, and how writers can earn a living. I can’t tackle the here; they both deserve their own blog posts.

(I’ve talked a bit about motivation & celebrating success as a writer here, and about a writers’ income here.)

But for now, let’s focus on our initial question: what on earth do I do all day?

the writing desk

Morning:

I like to start the day with the most important bits of being a writer: the writing. (Actually, I like to start the day with coffee, but maybe that is the most important bit of being a writer? Then once the coffee’s made and is slowly waking up my brain, I can move onto the actual writerly bits.)

I’m sure many of us have seen that inspirational message that does the rounds on social media from time to time, about how we should fill our time with the important things first and foremost, rather than cluttering it up with the little things that don’t matter. Just in case you haven’t, I’ll paraphrase:

If you take a glass jar and fill it with ping pong balls, the jar will appear full. But then if you take a handful of beads you’ll find that you can still fit them in the jar, because they’ll filter down the gaps. Once the beads are added, the jar will appear full again. But you can still add sand to the jar, as this will trickle between the beads and fill up all the really tiny gaps. But if you’d started with the sand, and then added the beads, you’d find that you wouldn’t have enough room for all the ping pong balls. The message is this: that we should make room for the big things first – in life as well as in jars.

Ok, so I admit it’s fairly corny, but it’s also true. Make room for the important things, and all the little bits and bobs will fill up around them. But if you fill up your time with all the little things, you’ll soon find you run out of time for the important stuff.

Which is why I reserve the mornings for reading, writing and editing. Sometimes I’ll do some of each ot these in a morning, and sometimes I’ll stick to just one. It depends where I am in a project.

What’s really important is that I leave all the admin bits to the…

Afternoon:

The afternoon is sort of a free-for-all. Sometimes I’ll carry on with whatever I’ve been doing in the morning. Sometimes I’ll switch to all the other stuff that makes the one-woman writing business tick (and if you’re doing it professionally, then it is a business).

What does this include? Everything from emails (don’t we all have to do these?) to submissions to competitions and magazines, to residency or funding applications. Sometimes, I try to get outside to go for a walk or something during the afternoons, to get some fresh air and get my sedentary self moving – but I’ll be honest, this happens far less than I’d like it to.

(Residencies are another matter – when I’m lucky enough to be on a residency, I can step away from all the admin bits, which means the freedom to spend some time thinking / walking / exploring my new surroundings.)

And in the evenings?

My evenings are technically non-work time, where I can read or watch Netflix or whatever, but this rarely actually happens. Often the emails and/or the admin bits drag over, and I find myself switching off my laptop much later than I’d like. This is less than ideal for a number of reasons, but especially because it means that, when I go to bed, my brain is still whirring with everything on my to-do list, and so I don’t sleep as well. So, when I have to get up and write the next day, it isn’t from quite as good a place as I would necessarily like it to be.

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2019 was to keep my evenings work-free. Like most resolutions, I did pretty well in January. But of course, it started to slip. I guess it’s one I need to reinstate.


Caveat: like most day-in-the-life pieces, this is an idealised version of my writing day, and is often discarded in favour of an all-day workshop and / or a frantic rush to meet deadlines. But this is the template I try to fit my other days around, and sometimes – just sometimes – I manage to make it happen.

 

Eleven years since I left school, and September still feels like back-to-school month. I feel as though I should be out buying new pens and novelty rubbers and things. I guess I did start a new notebook this month, so maybe that counts?

After festival-season in August, September has been a month of quiet work. I quite like months like this from time to time: a chance to get back on top of the admin, and quietly work away at the writing. Not too many events. The odd workshop. A chance to think.

That said, this month hasn’t been entirely without festivals. Last week I went to the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing in Haworth, with three other Cumbrian writers. It was a lovely festival: big enough that there was a really interesting range of speakers, but small enough that it was possible to go to everything. It also felt incredibly honest, with writers, editors, agents and booksellers sharing their experiences in a way that felt generous and encouraging.

One thing I took away from the weekend (other than a horrid cold – I guess that’s what happens when you visit the 19th century?) was to remember all the things I used to know. When you’re starting out as a writer, people will often tell you that you need to practise self-care, that you need to spend time focusing on craft and not to rush, that you need to celebrate smaller milestones along the way. But I’d forgotten a lot of that. My next milestone was ‘finish writing the second novel’. (Side-note: I haven’t even started writing the second novel yet.) That’s too much. A novel’s big; if I don’t get to celebrate success until I’ve finished the thing, then that’s a long time to wait. A person can get pretty down in that time. My decision? To set myself some markers in the interim. When I get to 10k words, for example, I’ll take a moment to be proud of that achievement. It’s about motivation. I may write a blog post about this in the future.

And speaking of successes, I haven’t been taking enough time to celebrate them lately, so here are a few that have happened over the past couple of months:

KSP residency: The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre is in Perth. Perth Australia, that is. And I’ve been invited to be their Emerging Writer in Residency in April 2020. Going to pack my strappy tops and flip flops! (Sorry, singlets & thongs.)

Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence: Next May, I’m heading over the border into Wales, to spend a month writing at Gladstone’s Library. This is something I’m particularly excited about – partly because I’ve looked at pictures of the library, and it looks like the dream place to sit and draft a novel. But also because I’ve heard glowing recommendations, both for the library itself, and for their scones! Expect me to be significantly larger by next summer…

University of Canberra Poetry Prize longlisting: Another one with an Australian theme – I recently learned that I’ve been longlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, which is announced at the end of October. Last year I managed to make the shortlist, so keeping my fingers crossed for this year. Either way, though, it’s a huge prize, so just to make the longlist is a fantastic affirmation.

Mslexia: And finally, this month I achieved a decade-long ambition, and got a poem into the most recent issue of Mslexia. It’s always lovely when a publication likes your work enough to print it, but there’s something particularly special about it when it’s a publication you’ve been aiming towards ever since you start to write poetry.

In the interest of balance, I should also say that I’ve received 17 rejections so far this year, out of 22 things I’ve heard back from. It isn’t all cause for celebration – which of course makes it doubly important to celebrate the good news when it does come along.

And, last but not least, the next couple of weeks are your last chance to vote for My Name is Monster in the Edinburgh First Book Award. It’s run on public vote, and voting only takes a moment, so please do click through and support!

The Month in Books:

It’s been a slightly slower reading month than last month. I sometimes find it works like that, at least for me: that reading, like writing, comes in waves. Perhaps that means that next month I’ll read absolutely loads? Still, if you’re only going to read four books in a month, these are a pretty good four to choose:

  • Walt Whitman Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)
  • The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
  • The Island Child, by Molly Aitken
  • Black Car Burning, by Helen Mort

The Month in Pictures:

I’m sitting in the back corner of Brew Brothers café in Kendal. It’s just after 5pm on a Friday night. Outside, the street is full of people gearing up for a big night out, or trudging home after a difficult week at work – but in here, it’s warm and bright. There’s a mellow buzz of conversation against the backdrop of music: a mix of people meeting up for post-work coffees, or a pre-dinner glass of wine. One or two other people also have laptops. For me, at this moment in time, there’s just the right level of background stimulus to provide a productive atmosphere.

Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

I haven’t always written in cafes. When I was a student, I found it next to impossible – too easy to be distracted by what was going on around me. But since then, I’ve started to lean towards it more and more. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe something to do with how our brains change as we get older, or the fact I have exponentially more admin than I did as a student, trying to distract me from the creative stuff. I still do the bulk of my writing sitting at my kitchen table – but when your writing space is the same as your living space, sometimes it can be good to take a break.

The seat I’ve chosen in this cafe is significant. It’s in the corner, with a view of the rest of the café. Separate from everyone else, not overlooked, and yet with a view. The other people with laptops have taken up similar seats.

There’s an evolutionary theory that most humans would plump for these sorts of positions, away from the door but with a view of the rest of the room. Prehistorically, it means we were far enough into the cave to be safe and warm, yet able to see the entrance in case a predator should approach. Calm, yet alert.

Like a lot of evolutionary theory, this is probably largely guesswork, but it imitates the state I tend to occupy when I write, halfway between relaxed and on edge. Or, as X-Men: First Class would have it, ‘somewhere between anger and serenity’.

There’s something about being in a café that provides this carefully balanced feeling. But, as with all balances, it can quickly tip one way or the other. I have to be picky not only with the seat I select, but with the café that it’s in. Somewhere with ambient noise, but not too much of it. Somewhere bustling, but not too full. And above all, somewhere with good coffee and cake.

MY TOP 5 CUMBRIAN CAFES FOR WRITING IN

Of course, there are downsides to writing in cafes as well. One is that you’re always dependent on it not getting too busy. Another is that, really, there’s only so much time you can spend in a café, unless you want to spend your money on buying your lunch and a lot of coffees there. (I mean, it’s probably still cheaper than renting an office space if you’re someone who can’t write at home.)

And for some people, any noise while writing is something of an abhorrence. We all have our different practices. The important thing is finding what works for you, or for this particular project, or even for this particular scene or poem or whatever.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for a while.

This is one of a number of pieces of advice that I sometimes hand out in creative writing workshops. It comes from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, written by Sister Corita Kent (though often incorrectly attributed to John Cage). It’s a list of ten ‘rules’, which urge the writer/artist to develop a work ethic, and to engage with the world around them.

Finding a place you trust is rule number one.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a café, a pub, your attic, or a park bench. I think the important thing, for me, is that it’s a place that allows for that feeling of intense focus that comes from being both calm and alert simultaneously. And then, once you’ve found it, you have to trust it.