A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia

Come,
in the owl-time, in the shy fox-hour, coyotes

still courting the moon, the silver creek
of the Milky Way glinting

above the Rappahannock River
in a fist of flung shillings –

come, dip your face
to the dew, each drop its own

loose change, waiting
to be slipped into the charity box of dawn.

Spend them liberally, soaking your cheeks
in the tears of your not-yet-country –

till, with a great stirring of snuff-dark breath
the sightless eyes of the household

blink awake, and the sun begins again
its daily scouring of the soil beneath tobacco leaves.

All day the plants will stake their hard
aromas to your brow, your unwashed palms.

All day you will catch your tongue
lamenting, reimbursing their murmuring aubade.

*

‘A 17th Century Guide to Beauty in Virginia’ was a finalist in the 2019 PBS/Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition.

A post about anxiety, cultivating creativity, and online resources for writers.

Three weeks ago, after passing through three major international airports in my attempt to get home from the Falkland Islands, I went into two-week self-isolation. Except that it doesn’t feel like three weeks ago. It feels like two days – and also about seventeen years. I don’t know whether anyone else has experienced this, but for me, time seems to be in limbo. The days just roll over one another, and it would be far too easy to spend them all staring into space, or at a screen, or at the birds in the garden. (NB: I have definitely done all of these things since lockdown began.)

Let’s start by saying that this wasn’t the post I was expecting to write for today. The one I’d scheduled was an update on how travelling for multiple consecutive weeks was affecting my writing process.

Obviously, I’m not currently travelling. I got about halfway through my epic trip (Argentina, Uruguay, Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, and Australia), before coming home. In fact, I was en route to Melbourne when Australia closed its borders, and I had to spend a frantic hour at Dubai airport, trying to persuade the Emirates airline staff to put me on a flight back to Manchester instead. (Luckily, they did – and when the lovely woman at the desk handed me the ticket, I actually burst into tears. But that’s another story.)

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

Right now I should have been in the middle of a 3-week writing residency at the KSP Writers’ Centre, in Perth. Part of me wanted to host my own in-isolation residency at home. After all – I don’t have to go anywhere, and isn’t that one of the joys of a writing residency? But I’ve also been finding it difficult to focus over the past few weeks. Which begs the question:

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

I’ve seen countless posts about this on twitter. People saying that the lockdown represents ‘ideal writing conditions’. People saying how much writing they’ve managed to accomplish now they’re not having to go to work. People commenting how they’re finding it impossible to write right now. People despairing that suddenly stories hold no interest for them any more, as how can fiction compete with our current reality? People clinging to stories and poems as lifelines.

In short: there is no right answer.

There was an excellent Anne Enright quotation doing the rounds on twitter a while ago, from an article in the Guardian:

‘Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.’

So let’s talk about solitude.

As writers, we often crave solitude. That time away from work colleagues or family or friends, where we can just be on our own, inside our own head, to write. Some of us travel hundreds of miles to go on residencies, just to get some of this solitude. Some of us usually find it in a public park, or in the middle of a crowded café.

Because solitude isn’t necessarily the same as being alone.

As Anne Enright says: ‘Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.’ And solitude is a kind of boredom. It’s a state of mind that writers can spend years learning to cultivate. It isn’t just sitting on your own at a desk, with nothing else you’re supposed to be doing. It’s a way of shutting off the critical part of your brain, to make room for the creative bit. It’s sitting with the door open and waiting for the ideas and thoughts and words to arrive. It’s an active and a passive state at the same time. Solitude, the way a writer needs solitude, is a way of being alone with the universe.

And it’s difficult to make room for creativity, when your head is full of external anxious thoughts.

Notebook and laptop on a kitchen table from above, with coffee, breakfast and a candle

Let’s talk about anxiety.

I mean anxiety with both a capital and a lower case ‘a’. Because these times are tough. All the clichés that have arisen over the past few weeks are true: this isn’t normal; these are difficult times; the world is upside down; it’s too big to process; we just have to get through this day by day.

There are times, sitting at my kitchen table with my notebook open and a pen in my hand, that I could almost imagine there’s nothing untoward happening outside my own four walls. There are days when I’m bored – in both the positive, creative, Anne Enright sense of the word, and in the listless, sour sense of it. And yes, I cultivate both of these. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t cope.

At the time of writing this, the UK death toll has almost reached 10,000. And that’s just the figures for hospitals – it doesn’t include all those people who’ve died at home or in care homes. Hospital staff and other key workers are going without adequate PPE. There are thousands of people who won’t get proper funerals. Who are dying alone, their loved ones having to say goodbye over skype. There are nurses sitting with dying patients, holding their hands, to stop them from dying alone.

When I think about all of this, I freeze up. It’s too much for my brain to handle. Possible, reading this, you’ll see this as me turning a blind eye. As choosing to live in my own (honestly quite beautiful) bubble, of sunny Cumbrian walks, and baking banana bread, and reading books. And yes, of course I choose that. When choosing between a meadow and the abyss, who on earth would elect to fall?

That doesn’t mean I don’t care. But I know what anxiety feels like (big and small ‘a’). I recognise those heart palpitations. The sweats. The sick feeling. The vertigo from looking over the cliff-edge inside your brain. Even writing this post has got me feeling all of that, feeling dangerously close to the edge. And if I let myself get stuck in those thought-cycles, I’ll be no use to anyone.

So I steer myself away. I try to read, when I can focus on it. On better days, I try to write. I bake. I make soup. I get in shopping for my parents. And, sometimes, I try to avoid looking at the news.

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

Of my first three weeks in isolation, I spent the first one writing absolutely nothing. I figured that was fair enough. I’d just come back from a massive round-the-world (or half-way-round-the-world-and-then-suddenly-home) trip. I was still jet-lagged, not to mention just generally tired. I needed time to adjust to what I keep seeing referred to as ‘the new normal’. And, to top it all, I had an exhausting cough that may or may not have been coronavirus. I gave myself the week off.

During week two, I also wrote very little – though I did find a way to ease myself back into creativity: Tania Hershman’s Arvon Short Story Challenge. The challenge consisted of five daily prompts, each designed to help you into writing a short story. What worked for me was that the prompts themselves only took about 20 minutes each, so I could do them without feeling like there was great pressure to spend hours in a state of focus, or to write something meaningful. It was like doing physiotherapy exercises after an injury, working a muscle back into life.

I did write a short story from the exercises. It took me two weeks, rather than one, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, the exercises opened a door.

That doesn’t mean that everything’s back to normal. There’s still that difficulty in focusing, and I’m still tired a lot of the time. (I don’t know if this is a hangover from the maybe-coronavirus cough, or just a reflection on my constant state of low-level anxiety.) But I’m managing to think about writing, and to write little bits. I’ve made a promise to myself that, during the weekdays of what would have been my Perth residency, I’m going to write something every day. It doesn’t have to be a lot. One day last week, I wrote 200 words, and I’m counting that as a success. The important thing for me right now isn’t volume – it’s keeping the engine running.

I’m currently working at between half and two thirds of my usual capacity – less for the creative stuff, but more for the practical and administrative side of things, which tends to require less head-space. Also, apart from writing this post, I took a full two-day weekend this week, and honestly it’s made a world of difference. I hardly ever do this, and this weekend has made me realise that I ought to do it more often. After all, writing is work, and it isn’t good for us to work 24/7.

So all in all, I’m doing surprisingly ok. Blips here and there of course, but getting through each day as it comes, and managing to think creatively, which is what I hold onto.

Notebook, pen, laptop and coffee mug on a kitchen table

A few online resources:

Stay safe & well – and happy writing, or not-writing, or whatever you choose to do with these lockdown days.

Kitchen table, with notebooks, pens, coffee and a vase of flowers. In the background, theatre seats and the bottom of a set of wall-mounted bookshelves.

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

At the roof of the Rockies is the watershed
of America, the great divide,

where you can stand astride
the continental split, can gob your spit

(each gene-coded cell of it) one hawk to east
then west – then watch as each

begins its slow
globular journey towards opposing waters:

Pacific – deep, entrenched
and quarrelling fire; Atlantic –

dogged wrecker of ships, beating grey
determination on its coasts.

This is how a body can be pulled
in two directions:

my mother, newborn and uprooted
to a hospital crib,

her parents’ marriage
gone to tectonic drift

and both her grandmothers warm
colliding fronts from either side.

They say this mountain was a man
once, who wished to go on forever

and was granted. A strong
desire phrased badly –

though I too have wished
to be landscape in a foreign age,

to be cribbed in whole forests of life,
to be more than enough,

to undergo
the conflicting tug

of oceans, take heart
from their fierce competitive love.

*

‘An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object’ was longlisted for the 2019 University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and was first published in the competition anthology, Silence.

I arrive at the castle one afternoon at the beginning of January. It’s only a couple of weeks after the shortest day, and the sun is already low behind the trees when I pull up at the unmarked double gate. There’s nothing to indicate that I’m in the right place – only a keypad, and a road winding away between the trees. I punch in the numbers I’ve been given in the email, and the gates swing slowly open.

Curling own the wooded driveway, it’s easy to think of yourself as descending not just into a valley, but into a story. Light flickers on the carpet of leaves to either side of the road, and the first signpost you reach is a small wooden notice, with one arrow pointing uphill towards the library, the other pointing down towards the castle.

When the road rounds its final bend, the castle comes into view: the red stone of the medieval keep looking warm and soft in the late afternoon light. Behind it, the valley drops away into a sway of dark green pines.

This is where I will spend the next month, in a room with a view of the turret, working on my poetry.

Mistake number one: I overpacked on warm jumpers, and underpacked on lighter clothing. Given that I was going to a medieval Scottish castle in the middle of winter, I expected it to be cold. I had visions of myself wrapped in a blanket, huddling over my desk and hugging a hot water bottle. Yeah. No. The castle has heating.

That isn’t to say that it never got cold – it did. It is still a medieval castle, after all. And it was still January. But when the heating kicked in to the full, it also got pretty warm – and I realised very quickly that I should have packed more layers.

I also should have packed fewer books.

In a way, it was good to catch up on my reading, and start making headway through my ever-growing to-be-read pile. But this also meant I couldn’t take full advantage of Hawthornden’s eclectic and highly extensive library.

Most former Fellows have donated at least one book. Then there are all the previous winner of the Hawthornden Prize, not to mention books that have just been bought by the castle, often at Edinburgh Book Festival events the Hawthornden Trust has sponsored. The result is three separate libraries, and numerous bookcases, stuffed with books.

How many libraries?

That’s right. Three.

The main library is actually in a purpose-built modern building a short walk up the bank from the castle itself. This consists of three main rooms (plus a warren of non-library private rooms, that I never quite summoned up the courage to go nosing around), and mostly contains books by former Fellows, and books that have been bought to keep the library in stock. There are fewer classics, and many more contemporary books, which reflects this.

The second library is in what gets called the Studio (it took me a while to figure out these were the same place), and is just beyond the Drawing Room in the main castle. This was by far my favourite place to work, because of the big table for spreading out my work, and because of the stunning views down the valley. The only downside was that, because it has huge windows on three sides, it got fairly cold in there, so that was one place I was grateful for those thick woolly jumpers.

We didn’t actually discover the third library till about a week into the residency. It was across the courtyard from the main part of the castle, through a heavy studded door in the medieval keep. Because it was in the oldest part of the building, and because it was the middle of January, it was quite dark and chilly, so I don’t think any of us really sat in there. It definitely felt as though, if there were ghosts in the castle, the Keep Library was where they would hang out.

And the other rooms?

At times, being at Hawthornden felt so much like being in Agatha Christie adaptation, that I almost expected to hear a scream as someone discovered a mysteriously placed body. The Drawing Room was particularly good for this – partly because just calling it the Drawing Room was enough to summon up the image of Miss Marple, but also because we all gathered here before and after dinner every evening, to unlock the mysteries of each day’s silence.

Luckily, were just had the aesthetic of a Sunday afternoon murder mystery, and nobody actually went on a stealthy killing spree.

The bedrooms at Hawthornden are all names after famous writers (I was in Bronte), and are quite varied in terms of size and furnishing. They all have a desk, a chair and a bed. Mine was quite cosy, and felt like a fancier version of an old student room. A few of them were much bigger (the ones on the first floor even had double beds), and felt more like guest bedrooms – which is presumably what they used to be.

And what about the bathrooms, I hear you ask? Like most things in the castle, the plumbing is a mixture of old and modern. There were two bathrooms and a separate toilet on my floor, and another shower room on the floor below. One of the baths had taps from 1929, and was probably the deepest bath I’ve ever bathed in. Soaking in the bubbles, looking through the window at the turret, thinking about my novel, is probably the best way to spend an afternoon.

Let’s not forget the food.

One of the things I loved about the residency was the balance between structure and freedom. In many ways, my days were entirely my own, to do whatever I wanted – to read, to write, to edit, to wander the beautiful castle grounds. But the days were also punctuated by meals, which stopped me from lapsing into a totally nocturnal, structureless zombie, and ensured my days were as productive as they could possibly be. After all, it’s so much easier to work on a full stomach.

8am-9.30am: Breakfast

12-ish: Lunch (delivered to the rooms)

6.30pm: Drinks and gathering in the Drawing Room

7pm: Dinner

The food itself was delicious. I definitely put on weight at Hawthornden.

I had porridge for breakfast practically every morning (eaten from an old pewter bowl), and there was also toast, cereal and fruit if I’d wanted extra.

Lunch was delivered to the rooms every day in a Fortnum & Mason basket, left outside the door so as not to disturb the writing. It was soup, a choice of sandwiches (selected at breakfast), a choice of fruit, or carrot sticks with humus, and sometimes a Babybel. And, as if that wasn’t enough, there was always a plate of biscuits by the kettle, and a basket of fruit downstairs if we got peckish during the afternoons. (I think it would be impossible to go hungry at Hawthornden.)

Monday to Saturday, dinner was two courses (main & pudding), and was cooked by Ruth, the castle chef. Every single meal was so delicious, that I quickly had to make a rule for myself not to have second helpings. (Another writer had a similar rule, but hers was not to have thirds.)

On Sundays, it was a three-course dinner, served in the main dining room. Since it was January, we also had a Burns Night supper in there, complete with haggis and traditional speeches. As it happened, none of our group had dietary requirements, but I know that the castle does cater for different diets (vegetarian / vegan / gluten free etc).

What about the silence?

The other way that the days are divided is by the boundary between sound and silence.

One of the things that is best known about the Hawthornden residency is its rule of silence during the day. From the end of breakfast at 9.30am, till just before dinner, at 6.30pm, ‘silence must be maintained throughout the Castle’. This is to ‘preserve the atmosphere of “peace in decent ease” which William Drummond enjoyed at Hawthornden’.

Before I arrived at the castle, I was pretty nervous about this. I’m so used to living on my own, and talking to myself while I work, or bursting into song from time to time, that I worried I’d forget myself and break the rules.

And what if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, or I needed the loo during the day? Would my fellow writers all be irritated by the noise of the toilet flushing, or the kettle boiling, or just my footsteps in the corridor?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. While it’s true there were no long conversations during the day, we still all said hi if we passed each other on the way to make a cup of tea, and there was no weirdness about moving around the corridors and creaking the floorboards. It seemed to be the spirit of silence that counted, rather than actual silence.

The best bits:

Time to write: For me, the best bit of any residency is the time to focus on my writing. It’s being able to leave behind all the admin for a month – to set my out-of-office and know that nobody is expecting me to reply till the residency is over. At Hawthornden, this was even more pronounced, because there’s no WiFi at the castle, and even phone signal is patchy at best (though there are spots where you can get the odd bar – mostly in the Studio library, and sitting on the first floor toilet).

But it’s also all the extra time that appears in the day, when you don’t have to think about cooking, or washing up, or cleaning, or even doing laundry. The only thing you have to do is write.

Time to read, or walk in the woods: As well as doing the actual writing, it’s important to nourish the creative bit of the brain. Otherwise it’s like trying to draw water from an empty well. Luckily, Hawthornden was perfect for this. Not only did it give me time to catch up on my reading, but it’s also in the middle of beautiful woodland.

There are two walks in the castle grounds.

The Lady Walk is essentially a clifftop walk, from the castle to a set of carved stone steps, leading down to Wallis’s Cave, which is carved in the shape of a cross. It’s horrendously muddy, and quite high up in some places, so isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for bad weather days.

The Circle Walk takes about 25 minutes, and is, as its name suggests, a circle around the castle, which offers great views of the cliffs that the castle stands on, and can be extended to walk a bit further downstream along the river.

Inspiration: Let’s be honest: staying in a medieval castle, on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a forest in Scotland – bumping into deer while out in the grounds, lying in the bath and listening to the peregrine falcons, and falling asleep listening to the wind whistling around the turret – it would be difficult not to be inspired. And that’s even without the Pictish caves underneath the castle, or the view along the valley, or the occasional bus trip into Edinburgh city centre.

Other writers: As if staying in a fairytale medieval castle wasn’t enough, I was also surrounded by other creative people. There’s something about being in a building, sitting in your room and working, knowing that everyone around you is sitting in their rooms and working, too. It creates a spirit of endeavour.

In the evenings, this was followed by some fascinating discussions (punctured, of course, with some general chats about TV series, or anecdotes about our days). There were so many days at Hawthornden where my mind felt like it was working overtime, and I was making connections left, right and centre. Which is probably why the residency felt so productive.

Ok then – what did I achieve?

It’s often difficult to tell the impact of a residency till long after it’s finished. The mind is still busy turning everything over, processing all the thoughts you had there, and filtering them away for future use. I certainly had more ideas for things during that month than I had time to actually write about – many of which I might never get time to write about. In terms of ideas and inspiration, the achievements of the residency could keep coming long into the future. (Or it could not. Who knows?)

But in terms of physical output, I worked on both poetry and fiction at Hawthornden.

Poetry: I wrote some new poems, and edited some older ones. Some of these edits were the odd tweak here and there, but some were massive overhauls – the sort of thing where I need a concentrated period of very focused time to actually work my head around everything that’s in the poem. On a larger scale, I also edited (and re-edited, and re-edited) my collection – something I definitely couldn’t have achieved in the same period of time at home, with emails begging to be answered, and the dishes piling up on the kitchen counter.

Fiction: And, because I needed some space in between edits of my poetry collection, I spent the middle two weeks of the residency planning, and starting to write, my second novel. I’m only about 8500 words in at the moment, so it’s still a long way off yet. But I wrote enough to get my feet under the table, which is what I wanted.

I also took time to read, during the residency, without feeling guilty that I ought to be doing something else. For once, January’s books were a nice balance of prose and poetry:

  • The Secret Commonwealth, by Philip Pullman
  • The Hoopoe’s Eye, by Mark Carson
  • Festive Spirits, by Kate Atkinson
  • Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis
  • White Papers, by Martha Collins
  • Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston
  • Sisters, by Jennifer Copley
  • The Wonder, by Emma Donoghue
  • Sal, by Mick Kitson
  • The Craft, ed. Rishi Dastidar

Any downsides?

Any residency has downsides. One of the downsides of Hawthornden was the amount of weight I put on due to how delicious all the food was. (Though the couple of glasses of wine with dinner each evening probably didn’t help. And admittedly, this was pretty much entirely my own fault.)

But in all seriousness – the Hawthornden Castle writers’ residency is quite an intensive experience. You’re staying in a castle with four other writers for a month, seeing each other every evening and most mornings, depending on what time you all make it down to breakfast. You’re all also working quite intensively during the days, so it could be easy for things to get fraught if you let them.

Luckily, we all got along very well, and were all quite amenable. We did have some pretty intense, and occasionally heated, discussions, but we always took great care to come out of them still friends, and to leave any intensity within a particular conversation, rather than letting it carry forward into our relationships with each other.

But I can imagine that, if there was somebody in the group who you didn’t get on with, or if there was a big personality clash, it could make it a very difficult month. I think it’s important to go into the residency being aware of this – and for everyone to make the effort to get along, and to respect each other’s views and personalities. And I’m so glad that this was the case for my group!

Would I go back?

Absolutely! Unfortunately, you have to wait five years before being allowed to apply again, so I won’t be heading back any time in the near future. But I’ll absolutely be recommending it to other writers!

 

How to apply:

For the Hawthornden residency, you have to apply the old-fashioned way. There’s no online application, or public email address, so you have to write a letter to the director, requesting an application form:

Hawthornden Castle
The International Retreat for Writers
Lasswade
Midlothian
EH18 1EG

The application form, once you receive it, also has to be submitted in hard copy, along with two professional references. The application deadline is in June each year, for residencies in the following calendar year.

Also read: A Few Thoughts On: Writing Residencies

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

First things first: this isn’t just a post about social media. I’ve been to enough author events on ‘building your profile as a writer’, which basically consist of some variation on ‘this is how you send a tweet’. And sure, twitter can be useful – but it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all.

Secondly, everything in this post is optional. That’s the joy of being your own boss: you get to decide what’s going to work for you. If you’re super introverted and never want to talk to another human being, well, it’s going to be harder for you, but pick what plays to your strengths. Very few publishers contractually oblige their authors to use social media, for example. After all, you can always tell when someone is only tweeting because they have to, and we all know that it doesn’t work.

(Sorry – I promised this post wasn’t going to be all about social media, didn’t I?)

Anyway, the point is: there’s no single ‘correct’ way to be a writer. Every writer is different – both in their writing and as a person. And so every writer will be able to build their profile in the way that suits them best.

Ok. Caveats aside: one thing you want probably want as a writer is for people to read your work. For this to happen, people have to know about you and your work. In other words, you have to build up a profile – and here are a few ways you can do that:

Write:

Writing will always come first. Sure, we can all talk about writing till we’re blue in the face, and still never actually write a word. After all, while I’m writing this blog post, I’m not working on my second novel, am I? (Shh – don’t tell my agent.)

There’s no point building an audience if there’s nothing for them to read.

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 1: Learning to Write

So write, and get your writing out there – but only when it’s ready. If you send out work before it’s ready, you might as well not send out anything at all. If it’s less than your absolute best, then it isn’t ready. From my own experience: when you first think a piece of work is ready, it rarely is. Stick it in a drawer for a while. Give yourself some distance before coming back to edit it. Show it to trusted readers – a writing group maybe, or a friend who’s also a writer, or at least a good reader of your work. Edit it. Edit it again.

Then, when you’re certain it’s as ready as it can possibly be – then, send it out. Submit work to magazines and journals. Enter competitions. Query editors and / or agents, if you like. Build up your writer’s CV. Start to get your name known – just make sure it’s known for the right reasons!

The Writer’s Apprenticeship 2: Learning the Industry Ropes

But it isn’t just about wordcounts. What you write is also important. It’s part of your identity as a writer. Some people say you should only write what you know. Others say you should write whatever you want to write, or you should write whatever is hardest for you. What do I think? I think you should write about what obsesses you. Whatever it is that keeps nagging at your brain, that won’t leave you alone. There might be more than one thing. It might change over time. In fact, it probably will. But whatever it is that won’t leave you alone – that’s a thing to write about.

This doesn’t mean you’ll only ever write about one thing. If what obsesses you is, for example, ‘marriage’, or ‘travel’, or ‘desire’, there are a million different ways to write about each of those. But whatever obsesses you, whatever you write about, is part of your brand as a writer.

Build Your Brand:

I know, that’s a horrible, corporate-sounding word. But it’s useful for us to think about.

Often, when we think about branding in corporate terms, we think about a company’s logo. And for car manufacturers and tech companies etc, this is important – after all, most of us could name a lot of the world’s best-known companies from their logos.

But branding is about so much more than just having a single recognisable image. Companies with strong branding won’t just have a consistent logo. They’ll use a consistent font or fonts, which will be the same across packaging and printed publicity and websites. They’ll always write the date in the same format. When they talk about a product, they’ll always spell it and capitalise it and refer to it in the same way. They’ll use consistent colours or colour schemes.

Think about hotel chains, or chain coffee shops, or banks. There’s a decor that’s consistent across each of their branches, so that if you’re in an unfamiliar city or even a different country, if someone dropped you in, say, a Starbucks, you’d know that was where you were.

But still, branding is about more than that. It’s an ethos. It overlaps with company policy: how does this company treat its customers; what do they do in response to complaints; how do they treat their staff; what’s their environmental policy?

So how does this apply to you as a writer?

There are a number of ways you can build your own brand. As with companies, some of these are small, aesthetic choices, and some are larger decisions about your professional ethos. All of them should help you to appear more professional.

  • Choose an image. This isn’t exactly a logo, but when people ask for an author photo, don’t use a different picture every time. Personally, I have two photos that I regularly send out when an organisation wants an author photo: a headshot, and a full-body shot. In both of them, I have the same hairstyle, so I’m recognisably the same person. These are also the images I use across all of my professional social media, too. (The flipside to this is that you need to remember to update your author photo if/when your appearance changes drastically, so that your author photo is still recognisably you. For instance, if you chop all your hair off, or get a massive face tattoo, or just get older.)
  • Pre-prepare different versions of your bio. As with author photos, organisations are going to start asking for your bio. Each organisation will have its own stipulations for this – particularly in relation to length. Most will want it to be in the third person, and professional-sounding (occasionally you may get asked for a ‘fun’ or ‘informal’ bio, or one in the first person, but this is quite rare). Of course, what you say in your bio might well vary depending on what it’s for – for instance, I focus on different things depending on whether the bio is fiction- or poetry-related – and it’s definitely going to change as you gain more experience and add more achievements. But it’s worth writing a few different versions of your bio all the same: let’s say, a long version, a medium version, and a short version. This way, when someone asks you for one, you at least have something you can use and modify, which fits who you are as a writer.
  • Choose a font & style. Whenever I write, I use the same font and page layout. I do this because I know the style I’ve chosen looks professional, and it saves me from having to constantly make decisions about aesthetic style. Instead, like a newspaper or a magazine, I have a house style. It makes my life easier, and it makes my work look more professional. It’s recognisably mine – which is useful if I’m sorting through a bunch of post-workshop pages and am looking for my own. This style, like my biographies and my author photos, are part of my writing brand. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the style is: Garamond; font size 12; justified; title in size 14 (left-aligned for a poem, centred & underlined for prose); standard margins; poetry 1.15 line spacing; prose 2 point line spacing; prose paragraphs indented; header right-hand-aligned, containing name, title & page number. Obviously that isn’t the only option – it’s just my personal preference. As long as your work looks professional (no weird fonts, and definitely no Comic Sans), then that’s what’s important.
  • Choose an outfit style, if you like. If you want to take this aesthetic choice thing further, choose the sort of outfit you’d want to wear to an author event. Then create a number of variations thereon, always in the same style. This has 3 advantages: it becomes part of your ‘look’ as a writer; it makes you recognisable to readers; it saves you from getting anxious about what to wear every time you do an event. I know someone who always wears the same (quite plain) outfit for readings, but with a different vibrant scarf each time, to add variety. You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but it can be useful to have a ‘look’ – at least for professional purposes. If you turn up to one event in a cocktail dress and killer heels, and to the next in a hoodie, jeans & UGG boots, you’re giving off a different impression each time. And I know, this sounds shallow. I know, we shouldn’t judge people on appearances. But we do make aesthetic connections – and if you want to stick in people’s minds, then sending mixed stylistic signals might not make that any easier.
  • Know your own obsessions. This one is less about style, and more about content. You know what we said earlier, about having your obsessions as a writer, and writing about them? Try making a list of them. Write them down. Then, once you’ve identified them, find out more. Get involved with other people who have similar obsessions – not necessarily writers. For example, if your obsession is travel, speak to adventurers and gap year students; speak to pilots and people who work on ships; follow expeditions on twitter. This will help you in your writing – it’s always good to get a more in-depth knowledge of whatever obsessions you’re writing about. But it will also help you to connect with readers who aren’t writers, who aren’t in the book world. You’re building your brand, and building a potential audience at the same time.
  • What’s your ethos? What do you believe? Not necessarily your private beliefs, but your public ones. The ones you’d be happy to talk about in an interview, or a blog post, or on social media. What do you stand for? As a member of society, but particularly as a writer. I can think of writers, and individuals within the publishing industry, who stand strongly for: transparency of wages in publishing; fair payment of writers; the promotion of working class writers; the accessability of nature writing; the non-violent treatment of women in thrillers & crime fiction. For each of those issues, there’s a single name that comes to mind for me, of writers for whom this is part of their brand. This isn’t a false thing. It isn’t a case of saying ‘what can I stand for that will fit with my brand’ – like a company that uses meat pastured on deforested rainforest, but preaching about saving the environment. It’s about knowing what you stand for anyway, and doing it consciously. For example, I believe that the writing community needs to support one another, and that helping other writers is a good thing to do, because by helping other writers, I’m helping the institution of writing as a whole. It isn’t some twee thing to make me sound nice; I believe it with all my soul – that we, as writers, are colleagues, not competitors. So, I put this into practice by sharing my own experiences, and by sharing opportunities I come across with other writers – sometimes individually, often on twitter. This is part of who I am as a writer. If you like, it’s part of my brand.

Talk To Other Writers:

We all know that social media is a great way to connect with people, but there are the more old-fashioned ways as well. Such as, you know, in person.

One of your greatest resources as a writer (other than books, and maybe coffee) is other writers. You’d expect engineers to talk to other engineers, for accountants to meet with other accountants, for teachers to talk about how to deal with a challenging pupil with other teachers. So why do some of us think that writers should be stuck in a garret somewhere, eating crusty bread and not speaking to other writers?

Other writers can be great first readers of your work. They can be people to share experiences with over wine, and people to help you with your professional problems. I have writer friends who I send my first drafts to, who’ll tell me honestly what is and isn’t working. I have writers I share reading lists with, who give me book recommendations that are always reliably excellent. I have writers who I message when I’ve got a deadline looming that I don’t know how to meet, or when I’m struggling with a plot point, or when I can’t work out what to put as expenses on my tax return. I have writers who’ll celebrate good news with me, and who’ll comiserate with me when something doesn’t go so well. I have writers who’ll spend the day at my kitchen table with me, both of us just working on our own writing, because it makes a nice change from being on our own.

In short: other writers are my colleagues, and I couldn’t do without them.

So how do you meet other writers?

  • Writing groups: Joining a writing group is a great way to meet other writers – particularly if it’s the right sort of group for you. Try to find a group of people at a similar experience- or commitment-level to yourself, who have a similar creative ethos. If a writing group really isn’t working out for you – if you find it’s having a negative effect on your writing – then feel free to leave it. A good writing group should challenge you, but it shouldn’t leave you weeping in the gutter because nobody understands your work. (The flip side of this is: if you try numerous writing groups, and not a single person at any of them understands your work, then maybe this is the time to think about what the common denominator might be…)
  • Writing courses: There are hundreds of different options for writing courses, from university-level courses, to week-long residential courses such as Arvon and Ty Newydd, to online courses such as those run by The Poetry School, to locally run evening classes, to one-off workshops and masterclasses at festivals, or run by arts organisations or local libraries. These can be a great way of meeting fellow writers (feel free to try the post-workshop announcement of ‘I’m going to the pub afterwards if anyone fancies joining me?’) – not to mention improving your writing at the same time. And the best bit? If you’re registered self-employed as a writer, then this is technically professional development, so you can claim it as expenses on your tax return. (At least, you can claim the course fee. Not so sure about those post-workshop drinks at the pub.)
  • Book events: Attending book events can be an inspiring way of hearing from professional writers, and getting to know a bit about whoever’s giving the event and their work. But the chances are, you’re not the only writer in the audience, either. If you feel up to it, get chatting to some of the other audience members. Talk about what you think of the speaker, or what you thought of the event. Whether or not that person turns out to be a writer, they’re probably at least interested in the same sorts of books as you. And if you attend a literary festival, then there are even more opportunities for these kinds of conversations. (Pub!)
  • Networking events: If you don’t like the idea of just going up to someone and starting a conversation out of nowhere (I’m terrible at it, unless it involves some sort of ultra-British complaint about the weather), then maybe you could try a networking event, where the conversation isn’t out of nowhere, because it’s expected. Sometimes, writing organisations (such as the Society of Authors and Mslexia) will run events that specifically allow writers to network with one another. Often, these events will also feature talks by professional writers, which will of course be incredibly useful as well – but don’t skimp on the networking bit. And the good bit about networking as a writer? You basically just get to have lovely conversations about books, usually with other introverts.
  • Social media.

Yes, OK – Use Social Media:

I suppose I can’t go through a whole post about creating a profile as a writer, and not talk about social media. The problem, I think, is that too many people see social media as the be-all-and-end-all of creating a profile as a writer, and as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t. It’s just a way of implementing all the things we’ve already talked about.

For instance: building your brand as a writer? You can do that through social media – through the profile picture you set, through what you choose to talk about, who you follow, what topics you engage with, what you retweet, the language you use, how you conduct yourself.

Networking with other writers? Social media can be great for that – particularly if you’re not in the position of being able to regularly access physical get-togethers with other writers.

Engaging with your obsessions? Following non-writers who are interested in the things that obsess you? Twitter!

Talking about books? Hearing about books? Finding out about opportunities that might be available for you as a writer? Social media is good for that, too!

The important thing to remember about social media is that it isn’t necessary. If it works for you, then great. If it doesn’t, then that’s fine too; you just need to find your alternative.

You also don’t need to be on all social media platforms. You don’t need a professional Snapchat, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Soundcloud, YouTube, Vimeo, Bebo (does that even still exist?), whatever. You don’t need to blog and vlog and post your word count every hour to Instastories. Do what works for you.

Oh, and one last thing…

Debunking The Myth:

I once read a blog post about building up your profile as a writer, which was essentially a long list of things you needed to do before you wrote your novel, or whatever. These included things like: creating a successful book review blog; gaining a lot of followers on twitter; getting articles into lots of journals; post short stories to your blog, preferably so that one of them goes viral; get a lot of followers on GoodReads; build up a social media profile so that you have an audience waiting for you when the time comes; get your professional headshot taken; practise your autograph; invent delicious calorie-free chocolate.

Ok, I made the last one up. But you do see posts like this doing the rounds. And while all of these things are fine to do once you’ve written the book (and if you do succeed with that last one, be sure to drop me a line), they’re all secondary to the actual writing. The most important thing is to just write the book.

I’ll say that one more time, for effect: JUST. WRITE. THE. BOOK.

But when the writing is done, or well underway? Well, then it doesn’t hurt to spread your wings a little.

*

Good luck! And happy writing.

 

If you want a sell-out event at a literary festival, call it something like ‘How To Get Published’. I’ve been to numerous of these types of talk and panel discussion over the years, and they’re always well attended.

In my experience, there are four main types of people who attend these events:

  1. Those who’ve spent years honing their craft and writing their manuscript, who want to start querying to agents, but find the publishing industry a bit tricky to understand, and want to get to grips with how it all works.
  2. Those who don’t have anything publishable at the moment, but also want to understand the industry they’re aiming to be a part of, and also to meet other writers / network with industry professionals.
  3. Those who are starting out (or have started fairly recently) and want to get a sense of what’s involved in seeing this whole writing thing through.
  4. And, inevitably, those who just want a quick fix to make them a published writer.

If you’re the fourth kind of person, then sorry, but the road to publication is long and hard, and there are so many steps before you even get that far. If you’re one of the first three, then you’re probably already aware of this, and will therefore probably get a lot more out of this kind of event.

But I’ve also been to events where an audience member has asked ‘how do you get a book published’ and the panellist has, slightly sniffily, said that you need to write the book first – as if everyone who might be interested in how to get published is Person 4, not Person 1-3. Sure, Person 4 exists (and I’m sure we’ve all met one or two of them in our time), but they’re not the only type of unpublished writer out there.

Thankfully, not all panel events are like this. The other week, I went to a refreshingly honest event at the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing, with hugely useful advice and experience sharing from all sectors of the book industry – from writers all the way through to booksellers. If you can find events like this, they’re a great way of learning how the industry operates.

Because let’s be honest, the publishing industry can be incredibly confusing.

Like any industry, publishing comes toting its own bag of jargon: advance, acquisitions, UKCW, ARCs, earning out… And even if you sit down with some sort of bilingual publishing/standard English dictionary, the process can still seem somewhat mysterious. After all, what does an editor actually do? How does a commissioning editor differ from an editorial assistant, or a proofreader, for that matter? How does it all work?

There’s no quick answer to all of this. Partly because, like any industry, publishing has far too many layers to unpick in a single blog post, and partly because every publishing house operates slightly differently.

Usually, it operates a bit like a flow chart: the author writes the book (or pitches it if you’re writing non-fiction), and then submits to agents; once accepted by the agent (‘representation’), the writer will usually work with the agent on the manuscript, before the agent then tries to sell the rights to publishers; once a publisher has agreed to publish the book (‘acquisitions’), the writer then works directly with the editor at the publishing house towards a final version of the book, which is then published.

Of course, there are many more steps within that – and even these steps are subject to variation. For instance, some publishing houses don’t require you to have an agent, and if you’re writing non-fiction, you’ll often pitch the book to agencies and publishers before you’ve finished writing it. There is no single path to getting published.

I repeat: THERE IS NO SINGLE PATH TO GETTING PUBLISHED.

So if there is no single path through the publishing process, how do you go about figuring out what any of those paths look like, and how do you know which one might be right for you?

the writing desk

Author Events:

I’ve already mentioned this, but it’s worth mentioning again. A lot of literary festivals will have events specifically geared towards people who are looking to publish a book. Often this will take the form of a panel discussion, featuring a writer or two, and a couple of people who work in publishing (maybe an editor and an agent). They tend to being with each person describing something about their role in the publishing process, and then open up to a Q&A. Of course, there are other formats, too, but this one is fairly common.

These events can be incredibly useful for helping writers to get a grip on how the whole thing works, but also for making the whole thing seem more human. After all, although from afar the publishing industry might seem like a great big faceless machine, it’s really all about individual people, who all have individual tastes.

They’re also a good way of networking with other writers who are probably in a similar position to you, and at a similar stage of their development as writers. After all, you’re all trying to figure out how it works together, right?

However: while these events can be incredibly useful, be aware that they come in all shapes and sizes – and at all kinds of cost. The biggest, most expensive event isn’t always the best. In fact, it’s often the smaller, more personal event that can be the most useful for something like this.

Also beware of blanket statements. As I said, there’s no single path through the publishing industry, so what is true for one person (even if they’re a commissioning editor at a massive publishing house) might not be true for another. I’m obviously not saying to ignore professional advice, because if you’re going to do that, then there’s no point going to these things in the first place – but just take things with a pinch of salt. Ask yourself if it rings true to your own experience. For instance, I’ve heard of events where writers have been told things like ‘nobody’s publishing young adult fiction any more’ and ‘you can’t be a writer if you live somewhere rural’. If there’s anything like this which strikes you as untrue, don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

Google:

And where to get that second opinion? If the in-person events don’t help, or if you’ve got points that need clarifying, then don’t be afraid to google it.

I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often I speak to people who don’t understand how the publishing industry works, and have never even thought of using the internet to help them find out. Granted, it isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and like anything online, you have to take it with a pinch of salt. But it’s a free way of getting your head around how it all works – ideally with a glass of wine or two.

And if you’re not sure where to start with your googling, here are a few online resources to set you off on your search:

WAY:

I’ve already mentioned Writers & Artists above, but as well as having a plethora of online resources, they also publish the annual Writers & Artists Yearbook. This is a hugely useful resource for anyone who’s on the brink of looking at publication, with listings of agents and publishers, what sort of thing they’re look for, and details on how to submit to them.

If you’ve done all your writing bits, and your editing bits, etc etc, and you’re looking at securing an agent, or publication through a house that accepts unsolicited submissions, then sit down with a copy of the Writers & Artists Yearbook. I’d also recommend using it in conjunction with agencies’ own websites, and combining book research with online research. (If you don’t want to buy a copy of the Writers’ & Artists Yearbook, then check your local library to see if they have it in stock.)

Acknowledgements:

If you’re looking for representation or publication, then try making a pile of books that have something in common with yours. Are there books written in a similar style and genre, which you think would complement your own? Books that deal with similar themes? Books aimed at a similar audience?

Agencies and publishing imprints tend to have specialities. So, if there’s a book that you think might sit well alongside your own, do some digging on it. See who it’s published by. See who the writers’ agent is. (This is something you can google, or just look in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. If an agent is any good, the writer should have thanked them there.)

I’m not saying that this agent will therefore definitely want to represent your book as well. For a start off, most agents probably won’t want writers on their list who are too similar, as they’ll end up in competition with one another. But it’s a good guess that your book might well be their sort of thing. It’s a place to start.

Mentoring Programmes:

I’ve already said that there’s no single path towards getting published. One alternative to traditional methods (or working alongside traditional methods) can be mentoring.

Mentoring programmes for writers seem to be on the rise, which can only be a good thing. They vary massively in terms of what they offer – from a promise of publication at the end of them, to financial assistance, to developmental support, to editorial guidane. They also have varying criteria for applicants.

I’ve benefited from a couple of mentoring programmes over my career so far. One of these (through the Wordsworth Trust) helped me get my first poetry pamphlet ready to submit to publishers. The second (WriteNow, run by Penguin Random House) helped me to write my first novel, and to get an agent.

From Idea to Book: My Journey to Publication

When you’re trying to get your foot through the publishing door, it can be helpful to have somebody pulling it open from the other side.

*

Next week: The Writer’s Apprenticeship 3: Building a Profile

 

Writing can be a solitary business. As writers, we spend a lot of time inside our own heads, working. But if we’re stuck in our garrets all day long, scribbling away at our latest manuscript, how do we find out what’s going on?

Last week, I created a twitter thread of resources for writers. Most of these are organisations and resources that I wish I’d known about when I started out writing – though some are things we may already know about, but perhaps just need a bit of a reminder.

I thought it might be useful to share those resources as a blog post.

Made yourself a cuppa? Cut yourself that slice of cake? Ok then. Here we go:

  • The Society of Authors is a must-join for all writers. They’re your union, and as such they are great at advocating for writers’ rights. With your membership comes access to a whole bunch of PDF guides (such as a guide for going into schools, or a guide to royaties). If you want specific advice, such as for them to check over your contract with your agent for you, then they can do that. They also offer public liability insurance at a reduced rate for members, and the opportunity to apply for grants to help you complete work in progress.They also run a series of annual awards.
  • For similar reasons, check out The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
  • The Arts Council is England’s national funding body (there are equivalents in Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland), and they give out grants. The main options for writers are the Developing Your Creative Practice grant (DYCP) and Project Grants.
  • Run by Arts Council England, Arts Jobs & Arts News are free e-newsletters for anyone in the arts. They’re sent out every Sunday, and are a great way to find out what’s going on in the arts world, and what opportunities are out there.
  • Similarly, Arts Professional covers this sort of content from a position external to the Arts Council, which means they’re not bound by anything to be complimentary about the Arts Council, if necessary. They also have a weekly mailing list, including job opportunities.
  • Have you looked at your regional writing organisation? For me this is New Writing North, who offer support and opportunities for writers all across the north of England – including funding through the Northern Writers’ Awards. (Elsewhere in the country, check out Writing West Midlands, Writing East Midlands, Commonword, Literature Works, New Writing South, Spread the Word & the National Writers’ Centre.) It’s also worth following organisations for regions other than your own. For instance, the National Writers’ Centre in Norwich sometimes has opportunities that are open to writers from anywhere within the UK.
  • If you’re based in Scotland, make sure you’re aware of the Scottish Book Trust, for support for both readers and writers.
  • The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is released annually, and is a highly useful resource, particularly if you’re at a stage in your career where you’ve developed your craft and are querying a manuscript with agents / editors. I’d recommend using it in conjunction with the internet, and the publishers’ / agencies’ own websites. And if you don’t want to buy a copy, then you can often get hold of a copy through your local library.
  • NAWE (or, the National Association of Writers in Education) is another membership scheme, for – you guessed it – writers in education. They offer advice as well as free public liability insurance if you’re a member. But it’s also useful to check out even if you aren’t involved in education in any sort of way, as they often post opportunities and information about funding on their website.
  • If you write (or illustrate) children’s books or YA, then it’s worth getting to know about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), who support writers of work for younger readers.
  • If you’re looking to sharpen your creative craft, then check out Arvon. Arvon courses run for a week (or sometimes a long weekend), and are led by professional writers. They can be a great way to engage with some incredible tutors, and to meet new writers among your peers on the course. Arvon sometimes have bursary places, either means tested or for young people (or both). Other places that offer short-term writing courses are Ty Newydd in Wales, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland.
  • For poets, check out the Poetry Foundation, for their online collection of poems and articles about poetry. They also have a newsletter you can sign up to.
  • Poets should also check out The Poetry School, for blog posts, courses & tutorials.
  • And writers of all kinds can find coaching courses, and help with beating procrastination, on Prolifiko.
  • On a local level, seek out local writing groups that you can join to workshop your writing, and hunt for open mic nights where you can share your work. Library noticeboards & regional writing organisations are good places to find these. And if there isn’t one already, start one!
  • If you’re a young poet (or even if you’re a not-so-young poet), sign up to the Young Poets’ Network mailing list. They run opportunities for young writers, and publish poems and articles that are worth reading whatever your age.
  • I highly recommend that anyone who’s even remotely interested in writing follows Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) on twitter. As well as being an excellent voice for authors’ rights, her #TenTweets threads are always good advice for writers.
  • One mainly (although not solely) for female writers: Mslexia publishes and supports writing by women, as well as running annual competitions for female writers in various genres. They also share advice on writing, which is applicable to writers of any gender.
  • If you write musical theatre, then you ought to be aware of Mercury Musical Development and Musical Theatre Network, for support of new writing – including pitching opportunities & resource sharing.
  • Another one for poets: check out the National Poetry Library – in person if you can get to London, or even just the competitions and journals listings pages of their website, if you can’t make it there geographically.
  • Speaking of libraries, don’t neglect your public library. I repeat: DON’T NEGLECT YOUR PUBLIC LIBRARY. Whether for author events, or workshops, or access to the internet, or a warm place to work away from the distractions of being at home, or just, you know, for the old-fashioned resource of BOOKS – don’t forget what you can access with a simple library card.
  • And did you know you can get a Reader Pass for the British Library? Here’s how. And the Library also offers free Discovery & one-to-one sessions. All highly useful if you need to do some research for your creative project.
  • You don’t always have to go to a physical library to use their collections. New York Public Library, for example, has digital collections that can be accessed from anywhere on the planet. Useful for research, or just for general inspiration. (Their image archive is particularly good.)
  • Every writer loves free money. If your work is published, then make sure you’re registered for ALCS and PLR payments, when your work is copied or broadcast, or borrowed from a library.
  • If you want feedback on a work-in-progress, then The Literary Consultancy offers a well-respected manuscript assessment service. (There are a lot of organisations that offer this service, but it can be difficult to judge the standard of them. TLC is respected across the industry.) They also offer Free Reads for writers from low income backgrounds, and for LGBTQ+ writers.
  • If you’re looking to do a residency somewhere, then ResArtis isn’t a bad place to start searching. The database is massive, and caters for all artforms, so it takes some time to trawl through. The residencies listed are also pretty varied in terms of what they offer – from those that offer full board + travel + stipend, to those where the writer is expected to pay (which feel a bit more like a glorified hotel). Make yourself a big pot of coffee and give yourself a couple of hours to search through for the ones that might suit you.
  • Or, if you’re looking for funding, Jerwood Arts funding opportunities are highly competitive, but potentially life-changing if you can get them.
  • For opportunities abroad, keep an eye on the British Council. We live in an increasingly global world, and if you’re interested in sharing cultural ideas & creative practice across national borders, then there could be opportunities here for you. Sometimes these are aimed at organisations, sometimes at individuals.
  • Check out Angela T. Carr’s blog: adreamingskin.com. She publishes the most comprehensive monthly list of poetry opportunities I’ve ever come across. It’s always worth perusing to see which journals and competitions have open submission windows during that month.
  • There are also numerous writers with great blogs, sharing poems and prose, and talking about various aspects of life as a writer. As well as this one (obviously – but if you’re reading this they you’re already here), I’d recommend Stella Duffy’s and Kim Moore’s.

I hope you found this list useful. There will, of course, be things I’ve left off, and I can only apologise for that. Just goes to show how many resources for writers there are out there!

And lastly, as I said on the twitter thread: if you’ve found this list at all helpful, please do consider showing your thanks by voting for me in the Edinburgh First Book Awards. It’d mean a lot to me, and it’s so simple that you can do it while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.

Thank you!

We’re well into September, now. The new school year is underway, and with the initial rush over, some schools will be starting to think about getting writers in. And some writers & arts organisations will be starting to think about going into classrooms.

I’ve been going into schools to run writing workshops professionally for the past 6 years. I worked with schools, children and older young people on a voluntary basis for 4 years before that. I’ve seen teachers struggling under the weight of what’s expected of them. I’ve seen teachers who are hugely engaged and passionate about their job. (These two categories are, obviously, not mutually exclusive.)

I’ve run workshops that have been a joy to facilitate. I’ve had workshops where it’s been a struggle to get the children (and the teachers) to engage. I’ve run one workshop where I wanted to scream in frustration. (I may write more about these specific incidents in a future post.)

All of this has added up to a lot of thoughts on the relationship between a teacher and a visiting writer, both in the classroom, and before and after the workshop.

So I decided to write a couple of blog posts setting out some of those thoughts. Next week, I’ll give some advice about what writers ought to think about when going into schools. But for now, it’s the turn of the teachers:

Arts Award Discover workshops

Writers in Schools: A Few Notes for Teachers:

There are joys and pitfalls to teaching. Of course there are – and you certainly don’t need me to tell you that. On the one hand, that moment when a child finally gets something they’ve been struggling over? That’s the moment that can make your heart soar. But the pressure and the paperwork and the marking? I’m not surprised if that gets you down from time to time.

So here are a couple of notes on working with writers, that might make life easier for everyone:

1 – It’s supposed to be fun.

Whenever a visitor comes in, it’s exciting for the children. New faces always are. But it should be fun for you as well. This is a chance for you to learn something new as well. It’s an opportunity for you to think about writing & creativity in a way that doesn’t have to be goal-focused. It’s also a chance for you to see the children in your class engaging with work in a different way. It’s a chance for you to work more closely with some of the children, while somebody else is leading the session.

But all of this relies on you being present and engaged. Some of the best things I’ve experienced from teachers in workshops:

  • Helping the pupils to link what they’re learning about in the writing workshop with other things they’ve covered in class – particularly if something connects to a special topic. (For example, I was once running a winter-themed workshop based around Edward Thomas’s poem ‘Snow’, which the teacher helped them link to their project on World War I & remembrance day.)
  • Building a larger topic around the workshop & the themes it raises.
  • Displaying the work created in the workshop – either on the wall or creating a booklet of the work which goes in the school library.
  • Sharing the work produced at a special assembly – particularly if the rest of the school is there to hear it and / or the parents/carers are invited.
  • Sharing experience of the workshop with other teachers in the school.

And some of teachers’ most unhelpful behaviour has been:

  • Spending the workshop catching up on marking. (This is not PPA time.)
  • Talking to individual children (either about the workshop or, even more commonly, about a completely unrelated piece of work) while the visiting writer is trying to explain something to the group.
  • Leaving the classroom entirely to put up a display in the adjoining corridor.
  • Telling the writer (in front of the children) that poetry is pointless as they don’t have to write it in the exam.

Creative writing workshop in school for Beneath The Boughs poetry exhibition

2 – It should be enjoyable for the writer, too.

If a writer doesn’t enjoy working in schools, then they’re not the right person to be running the workshop. But just because a writer enjoys working in schools in general, it doesn’t mean they’re going to enjoy every single workshop. I’ve certainly had workshops that I didn’t enjoy – usually for the reasons listed in the point above.

Because 99% of the time, an unenjoyable workshop is not the fault of the children, but of the teacher. I’m aware that soudns accusatory, but the flip side is that, as a teacher, it’s almost totally within your power to make the workshop enjoyable for the writer – by making them feel welcome (talking to the writer in the staff room helps – I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in a staff room and been completely ignored for an entire lunch hour), helping the children to get excited about the visit, and making sure the writer’s job isn’t made more difficult than necessary. (Again, see above.)

3 – Treat the writer professionally.

There’s this weird myth that writers write solely because they enjoy it, and therefore don’t need to be paid. Ok, so the first part is generally true, but the second part definitely isn’t. Writing is a job like any other, and writers (just like everyone else) have bills to pay.

When you’re booking the workshop, you should agree the fee with the writer. Often, the writer will have a standard rate for a school workshop. (This could include travel costs, or they may charge extra for these. Similarly, they may charge extra for additional requests, such as incorporating a special topic, or doing a reading in an assembly.)

Most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

I repeat: most professional writers will charge a fee for a school workshop.

There are a few exceptions – such as when an author is promoting a book that they’re planning to sell to the pupils, or when the writer’s fee is being covered by a third party, such as a library or an arts organisation. But mostly, you should expect to pay. You’re paying for the writer’s professional skill and experience, after all.

Consequently, there should be a contract between the school and the writer – or at the very least, a written agreement of what the writer will be offering, and what the school will offer in return. (If the workshop is booked through a third party, such as an arts organisation, then they will have this agreement with the writer, and your agreement will be with the arts organisation.) It should be understood what will happen if, for example, the workshop has to be cancelled – either by the school or by the writer.

Unlike most teachers and school staff, the writer is almost certain to be working freelance – so it’s doubly important that, when the writer submits their invoice, it gets paid on time. It’s all about recognising the writer as a professional, and not leaving them unable to buy groceries that month.

Arts Award Discover, Shap Primary School

4 – If you want something specific from a writer, don’t be afraid to ask.

Sometimes, it’s hard to find space for things like a writing workshop within the limits of the curriculum. Writers understand this – and although most of the time we don’t agree with it, we recognise that this directive comes from the government and not from the individual schools. We know that teachers, like most of us, never have enough time in the day.

But there are ways to incorporate a writing workshop into the regular learning day. The most obvious, perhaps, is to link it with literacy. I’ve run workshops within literacy sessions, incorporating a recap on similes / metaphors / kennings…

But I’ve also run workshops to tie in with special topics. You’re doing a class topic on the jungle? Or on Greek myths? Or on the Anglo Saxons? Or the Victorians? Or the arctic? I can run a workshop to tie in with this. (And yes, all of these are examples of topics I’ve run workshops on in the past, at the request of the teacher.)

Unless a writer is promoting a specific book (in which case, you’ll probably have a slightly different arrangement with the writer anyway), they may well be able to adjust a workshop to fit a theme. At the very least, you can ask. The worst that can happen is that the writer says it isn’t possible.

Of course, if you’re going to request something like this, make sure you do it when you’re initially booking the writer. In some circumstances, the writer may need to charge an extra fee in order to do this, as it might mean planning a whole new workshop, or working in a different way, so it’s good for them to know straight away so they can factor that into their quote to you. At the very least, you need to make sure you’ve made this request before the writer’s already gone and planned / prepared the workshop. And certainly don’t leave it till the writer rocks up on the day. (I’ve had this before. Needless to say, the teacher was greeted with a firm ‘sorry, but no.’)

5 – The children should be present in the sessions.

If you want a class to engage with a visiting writer, they have to be in the classroom (or the library, or wherever the workshop’s being held). Obvious, right? But the number of times I’ve got to a school to run a workshop, and half the class haven’t been present for a chunk of it, is staggering.

A common scenario is this: I get to a school to run a 1.5hr workshop over an afternoon. There are 30 children in the class. Once the register has been taken, about 5 minutes into the workshop, 10 of the children disappear. ‘They have IT on a Tuesday afternoon,’ says the teacher, ‘In groups.’ The 10 children are out for about half an hour. By the time they come back, the bulk of the introductory exercises are done, and we’re starting on writing our poems, leaving the 10 children struggling to catch up, and me having to rush them through the first part of the workshop in hushed voices so as not to disturb the rest of the class. Meanwhile, the next 10 children (who have just started getting into what they’re writing) are whisked away for their own half hour of IT. This happens with each of the three groups – with the result that none of them engaged with the full workshop.

I know this is common practice in schools – for different groups of children to be doing different things at the same time, and for children to be in and out of class for things like reading practice or extra maths or music lessons. I know that full-time teachers work like this all the time – and believe me, I have huge admiration for anyone who’s able to work like that.

But if you invite a writer into the classroom to run a session, they need to be able to run the whole session to the full group. As much as anything else, it just comes across as rude, and suggests the school places no value on what the visiting writer has to offer.

But it’s more than that. The workshop is an experience for the children. It isn’t like English, where there’ll be another English lesson next week. It’s a one-off. And sure, some of the children might just see it as a doss lesson – a chance to not worry about how a piece of work is going to be marked. But that playful imagination is important, and something we’re in danger of losing with the current curriculum.

And for some of the children, this could be a workshop they remember for decades to come, and which inspires them well into their adult career. I know this, because I was one of them.

*

Next post: Writing in Schools: A Few Tips for Writers

Summer’s pretty much over, and the nights are drawing in.

I always find this time of year vaguely comforting. Maybe it’s something to do with getting to light the fire now and again in the evenings, or digging the warm jumpers out of the bottom of the drawer, but I often feel very content on the cusp of autumn. And often very productive, too – possibly because I still associate it with beginnings and the start of a new school year, or because it’s a time when I end up harvesting a lot of vegetables from the garden. Or maybe just because the hectic summer is over and September tends to be a slightly quieter month: one for getting back into a routine before the year rushes too quickly towards its end.

Whatever the reason, I love it.

A Few Good Things:

Edinburgh Book Festival:

Following on from the epic library / bookshop tour of My Name is Monster straight after it came out, I’m now into a more leisurely spattering of book festivals, averaging at around one a month for the rest of the year. I said ‘average’, because this month there were two.

The first was Edinburgh Book Festival: a wonderful festival, which, in its own words, ‘welcomes around 900 authors from over 60 countries in more than 800 events for adults and children each year’. This year, two of those events were mine – or at least, partially mine.

The first was a discussion of My Name is Monster, chaired by novelist Angela Meyer, and followed by a book signing. The second was a special recording of Open Book with Mariella Frostrup, which aired on Radio 4 the following Sunday, and which you can listen to here. The programme was a discussion of what young people are reading and writing – and covered both YA fiction and millennial writers & readers. With such a broad topic, I felt like we barely even scratched the surface – and I don’t think I was the only one on the panel who felt we could have gone on discussing it for hours! (And a couple of us did just that afterwards on the benches in the authors’ area. So you know, if anyone fancies commissioning me to write an opinion piece on it…)

As well as the events, the festival also runs the First Book Award, which is awarded to a debut novel whose author appears at that year’s festival, and which is decided by public vote.

Vote for My Name is Monster here!

Tidelines

August’s other festival was a much smaller affair: Tidelines Festival, in Grange-over-Sands.

A new festival this year, Tidelines is a two-day festival run by Thornleigh Hotel in Grange. I was invited to give a talk about My Name is Monster in the evening, followed by a signing. But I also spent a good chunk of the day there, listening to the other talks and soaking up the atmosphere.

Also at the festival were some of the Dove Cottage Young Poets, running an open mic and busking with typewriter poetry: poetry written quickly on request to anyone willing to make a donation. Matt Sowerby also debuted his incredible one-man poetry show, about young people in politics, climate change, and mental health, which had the entire audience utterly rapt. If you see him performing anywhere near you, go and see it!

Writing

I’ve actually got back to writing this month. After a much-needed post-book tour break, I’ve started writing poetry again. Honestly, I couldn’t not. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true: I felt that itch to write, and I couldn’t ignore it.

Occasionally, I go through phases where I wonder what my life would be like if I weren’t writing – if I just chanelled those energies into something else instead. Blogging, for example, or travelling, or orchestrating arts projects to facilitate other people’s creativity. These are all things I do anyway, but things that I try and force to take second place in my life to writing. For a while, though, I let them come out on top. After all, you can’t write all the time.

A Few Thoughts On: The Writers’ Productivity

In doing this, I got my answer: if I stopped writing altogether, I’d only start again. Either that or be totally unsatisfied all of the time.

What is it that makes me constantly yearn to record things, to interpret them, to think my way through the world by putting pen to paper? I don’t really know – but whatever it is, it’s definitely there. And finally, this month, I gave in to it. And I wrote.

The Month in Books:

I’ve read a lot more this month than I did in July. Partly because I’ve had a lot of free evenings, which I’ve been using to curl up on the sofa and read. I’ve also been snatching those rare sunny moments to sit with a book in the garden – not to mention the train journey up to Edinburgh and back (including a packed out train where the only available seat was on the floor, but never mind).

Surprisingly (at least, to me), I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction this month. I wanted to read books by Patrice Lawrence & William Sutcliffe before appearing on Open Book with them, so that explains three of the YA novels, but I’ve also been rereading Anthony Horowitz (for pure escapism that doesn’t involve a screen) and Philip Pullman (in advance of The Secret Commonwealth coming out soon, not to mention the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials). I love reading YA, because I love the way it can be well written and ‘literary’ without sacrificing story or character, and because of the way it doesn’t pull its punches where you might expect it to. Honestly, it isn’t something I read often enough.

  • Skeleton Key, by Anthony Horowitz
  • Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin
  • Primers: Volume 4, by Lewis Buxton, Amelia Loulli & Victoria Richards
  • The Gifted, the Talented and Me, by William Sutcliffe
  • Rose, Interrupted, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver
  • Until the Flood, by Dael Orlandersmith
  • Orangeboy, by Patrice Lawrence
  • Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
  • Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith

The Month in Pictures:

After the post-publication whirlwind of June, July has slowed down a pace – which I’m hugely grateful for. It’s quite fitting that my only blog post July blog post was about writers’ productivity, and the need to take a break. True, I have been doing the odd bit of writing, but most of that has been in-situ descriptions of Cornish beaches, or jotting down thoughts, or just playing around with forms and ideas. The sort of stuff that will probably never be anything finished, but is just a sort of practice. I think of it like practising scales for a musical instrument: not a finished piece, but necessary for honing skill.

So if I haven’t been writing anything fixed, what have I been doing? What does the writing life involve when there’s no fixed writing project?

Port Eliot Festival

Although my crazy 3 weeks of post-publication book events finished at the end of June, I’m still promoting My Name is Monster, at an average of roughly one festival a month. July’s festival was the wonderful Port Eliot, in Cornwall.

As well as my own event (talking alongside Yara Rodrigues Fowler, author of Stubborn Archivist), I got to enjoy the whole weekend of fantastic literary, music & comedy events. Not to mention the most amazing mussels & chips from a stall by the river. Highlights included: Robin Ince’s impression of Brian Cox as Alan Bennett; Antosh Wojcik’s incredibly moving poetry/drum show, How To Keep Time; fellow WriteNow mentee Elizabeth Jane-Burnett talking about The Grassling; Charlotte Church’s Late Night Pop Dungeon; and hearing Patrick Gale talk about his writing process.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I decided to stay in Cornwall for a few extra days. The idea was to soak up the sunshine and spend some time sitting on the beach reading books. In reality, there was a violent storm the first night and it poured it down the entire next day – which meant I got soaked on my walk into town, and spent most of the day eating Cornish pasties & looking round the shops & museum instead. Neither of which were bad ways to spend the day, obviously.

The second day was a bit more what I’d had in mind: a 5-mile walk along the coast, past Polridmouth Beach (the inspiration for the beach in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) and along the cliff-tops; followed by an afternoon on Polkerris Beach (snoozing and people-watching as much as reading, really); and a bracing dip in the sea.

Tidelines workshops: ‘the moon’

Speaking of festivals – I’m appearing at Tidelines festival in Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, and in the run-up to this, I ran poetry workshops in two local primary schools: Grange and Cartmel. Tying in the Usborne poetry competition about the moon, and with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, these workshops were moon-themed. As always when I run workshops, I was bowled over by some of the things that the children came up with.

One of the exercises I gave them was to create similes & metaphors for their poems (we did this through games, and through imaginative play). Some of my stand-out favourites were:

  • ‘the moon cold as a frog’s skin’
  • ‘earth spinning like a lazy Susan’
  • Neil Armstrong’s footprint as ‘a maths lesson of parallel lines’

Some of the children will be reading their poems at Tidelines on the morning of the 17th – and I can’t wait to hear them again.

Actively not working

Last but not least, I’ve been actively not working. This goes back to what I was talking about in my previous post, about the need to take a break. Sometimes, the brain just needs a rest. The body, too – particularly after a period of non-stop busy-ness. And let’s be honest, the last time I actually stopped and spent long periods just sitting, and being, and doing very little, was probably sometime before Christmas.

And now?

August is still less hectic than previous months have been, but I’m shifting firmly back into productivity mode. For a start, I’ve got a whole heap of admin to get on top of. Not to mention a dangerously tall pile of books on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Then, of course, I could do with getting back into writing mode – even if it is just doing fragments / little bits of observation that never go anywhere.

And I’m appearing at two festivals in August.

The first I’ve already mentioned, which is Tidelines at Grange-over-Sands on 17th August, where I’ll be talking about My Name is Monster and doing a Q&A.

The second is Edinburgh Book Festival, where I’m doing two events:

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: an author event, talking about My Name is Monster, on Sunday 18th August, and

OPEN BOOK WITH MARIELLA FROSTRUP: a special edition of BBC Radio 4’s Open Book, alongside Michelle Paver, William Sutcliffe & Patrice Lawrence.

You can also VOTE FOR ME for the Book Festival First Book Award!

The month in books:

As I’ve already mentioned, July has been a slow month in a number of ways – and this has included in terms of books. Only 5 of them this month: four (very) contemporary novels, alongside more of a classic from the 60s – Mary McCarthy’s The Group, which was recommended to me by Julia Armfield and which I thoroughly recommened in turn!

  • Remembered, by Yvonne Battle-Felton
  • Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Tentacle, by Rita Indiana
  • Stubborn Archivist, by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
  • The Group, by Mary McCarthy

Here’s to a more productive reading month in August.

The month in pictures:

A stone cabin in the woods. Outside, the snow is falling in big wet flakes. This is probably the last snow of the season, although it’s impossible to tell for sure. It settles on the bare open ground between the edge of the cabin and the beginning of the trees, and on the dirt road that leads back to the main house. The trees are still and unusually silent.

Inside, the cabin is cosy and warm. On the red brick floor, spilling from underneath the enormous plush rug, are the blackened patches marking where the cabin burned down in the 70s, and the floor was the only thing able to be saved. The wooden table you have been using as your desk is a wide stretch of possibility, covered with books and page markers and bits of leaf you’ve brought in from the outside to try to describe. Your poems are laid out in neat rows on the rug behind you. You twiddle your pen between your thumb and forefinger. You listen to the clicks and taps as the heating reasserts itself. You begin to write.


For three weeks, I was an artist in residence at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. Every morning after breakfast, I would walk from my room in the shared house, along the dirt road through the woods, to my studio to write. While there, I was writing poetry, working (very very gradually) towards a full collection. I would sit in my studio, in the most peaceful surroundings, writing or reading or collecting ideas, until my lunch was brought to me in a little picnic basket. At which point I would stop, eat lunch, then carry on in the afternoon. Sometimes I would stop to go for a woodland wander and some fresh air. Sometimes I would try to figure out chords on the studio’s Steinway, for no other reason than that I enjoy using my brain in that logical, pattern-based way now and again. In the evenings, I would go to Colony Hall with the other artists in residence – up to 24 of us in total. Afterwards we would listen to someone present work, or I would read in the library, or we would watch a film. This was my life for three incredible weeks.
The days themselves were hugely productive. Even on the days I didn’t actually write very much, I did so much reading and thinking and pulling together ideas for the collection. It’s amazing how much extra time there is in a week when you don’t have to worry about cooking / buying groceries / ploughing through admin.  MacDowell Colony’s motto is ‘Freedom to create’, and it definitely lives up to its name.

What MacDowell provides: 

  • Accommodation, either in a bedroom in a shared house, or in a live-in studio
  • A studio (aka a cabin in the woods)
  • 3 meals a day, including cooked breakfast, lunch delivered to your studio in a picnic basket, and communal dinner
  • Access to the collections in the James Baldwin Library – one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever worked in
  • An optional lift into town twice a week
  • Coffee (or tea) available all the time – such an essential for writing!

You can also apply for a stipend to help fund your time away from regular life, and for a travel grant.

What I liked most about the residency: my top 3:

  • My cabin in the woods: let’s be honest, what writer out there hasn’t daydreamed about getting to work in their own little studio surrounded by beautiful trees?
  • Meeting other artists: MacDowell accepts residents in all art forms, so the range of interests and practices at MacDowell was such a treat to immerse myself in – and wonderful to hear the other artists sharing their work.
  • Time: I’ve already said this, I know, but I can’t emphasise enough how important it was to have that time to write, with absolutely no other commitments. Such a luxury, that meant I was able to eat, sleep and breathe the project I’m working on.

Special mention also has to go to Frisky (the director’s gorgeous dog, who popped into breakfast every morning for a scratch behind the ears, and to check if we’d dropped any bacon on the floor) – and to the cat we nicknamed Baldwin (after the James Baldwin library). Baldwin eventually turned out to be a missing cat from a house down the road, but in the time it took to figure that out, she’d already become a firm friend, and followed me around the campus.

The only problem? Three weeks definitely didn’t feel like long enough. I could have spent so long there, revelling in the opportunity to be creative with no distractions from the outside world!

 

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past few weeks working on poetry as part of my MacDowell Fellowship in New Hampshire. I’ve also been spending a lot of time sitting in the beautiful James Baldwin Library at MacDowell, looking out at the gorgeous views of meadows and forest beyond.

With both of those things in mind, I thought I’d share a poem.

‘In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss’ is a poem in my second chapbook, Assembly Instructions (Southword Press, 2019). It was written following a workshop I ran a year or so ago, at my old school: QEGS in Penrith, Cumbria. I was working with the school’s creative writing club, exploring poetry and its relationship to place. The workshop took place in the school library…

*

In the yellow library where in 2004 I had my first kiss

the students are writing poems. I say,
write in an animal. Include an insect –
make the poem crawl. End
with something that opens, give it space.
What colour is your poem? Blue, they say, or Green.
One says his poem contains a bird and birds
always make a poem purple.

What colour was that Friday afternoon
before the buses came? Some now-or-never
shade – when never was Monday and weekends
were an ocean –
and I remember his mouth was the pink
cavity of a conch, and the books were grey with dust
and undisturbed, though I swear behind their spines
they whispered. I swear they’re whispering now.

The boy’s tongue tasted of pennies and rich tea biscuits
and there was too much of it. Our kiss
was the colour of water.

I say, put water into your poems.
Like the sea?

Yes, I say, or a vase or tap
or gob of spit.

                        But Miss, they say,
that could be anything.

And I say, Yes. Exactly.

 

‘I guess I should be writing but I can’t think what to write about…’

Sound familiar?

Sometimes, it’s true, our brains are overflowing with ideas, and the only problem is how to get them all down on paper fast enough. But as most people will know, that isn’t always the case.

A few weeks ago, I posted 5 poetry prompts designed to generate poetic material by making language work to produce itself. Which is all very well and good if the ideas are already there, but sometimes it can just be useful to have someone to give you a nudge. So in this post, instead of suggesting an idea for a poem, I’m going to do even better than that: I’m going to suggest five.

*

1 – Abstract Object

This one requires you to find an object – preferably one you find interesting in some way. It may be particularly tactile. It may be intricate and beautiful. It might be old and falling apart. It doesn’t really matter what it is, so long as it’s something you think you can use to write about. Go outside and rootle around your garden, or wander through the park till something catches your eye. If it’s raining / you don’t have a garden / it’s the weekend and the park is full of children, then find something inside your house. Pick a couple of objects, if you like, then you can decide which one to write about later.

Of course, you could just imagine the object. After all, I’m an entire internet away, and I’ll never know whether the object is actually there in front of you or not – but you’ll probably find this exercise easier if it is.

Once you have your object, spend a good few minutes exploring it. Look at the object from every angle. Think about what it feels like. Does it have a smell? Can you see the object’s history in its physical appearance at all? Does it tell a story? How do you hold it – if you hold it at all? Try to notice something about it that you wouldn’t notice at first glance. It might be useful to set yourself a timer (2 minutes? 3 minutes? 5? Whatever you feel comfortable with) and allow yourself to do nothing but focus on your object until the buzzer goes.

Now you’ve got to know your object, you can begin writing. The exercise is this:

Choose an abstract noun, and describe it as the object.

The easiest way to do this is to choose an emotion as your abstract noun. And the best way to think of the poem is in terms of metaphor. So, you might want to start your poem by saying your abstract noun is your object. E.g.

Love is a sheep skull.

Sorrow is a standard lamp.

Hatred is an acorn.

Loyalty is my grandmother’s wedding dress.

Desperation is a new biro.

Joy is a chipped plate.

Try to be as specific and physical as possible in your descriptions. Not everything will work with the abstract noun, but that’s ok – you can edit later. For now, you’re just writing. And the more physical description there is, the more rooted & grounded your poem will feel.

image

2 – Praise

Our second exercise is to write an ode: a poem in praise of something.

This might sound fairly ordinary – but there’s a twist. After all, it’s easy to write a poem praising sunshine, or payday, or a person you love. (And let’s face it, those poems can also get kind of sacharine.)

Instead, write a poem praising something that’s normally looked down on. Something normally seen as inferior, or best kept out of society’s gaze. Something most people might not even notice – or if they did notice, wouldn’t give much thought to.

If you’re stuck, try writing a poem in praise of one of these:

  • the shopping trolley in the canal
  • chewing gum on pavements
  • ugly babies
  • tumble dryer lint
  • the draught
  • empty beer bottles
  • stretch marks
  • peeling wallpaper
  • rising damp

We’re doing a number of things here. We’re treading new ground, speaking about an ordinary object in an unexpected way. We’re elevating the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary. We’re forcing ourselves to think about something in a way that surprises us as well as the reader – a bit like the first exercise, we’re getting to know something well.

This could also be a good opportunity to practise writing in a different register, or tone. You may just want to write a descriptive poem about your subject, describing it in a positive way. But you may decide to write your poem addressing the subject, which may lead to you writing in a heightened register. Think: ‘O shopping trolley’.

*

3 – Excavating the Cliché

This is another prompt that involves looking at things unexpectedly. It’s an exercise I use in workshops quite a lot, because it can be done at any level or in a number of different styles. It’s easy to adapt to a way in which you feel comfortable writing, while also challenging you to think outside the box.

For the prompt to work, you need to start with a cliché. I know, I know. Normally we’re told to avoid them like the plague. They’re ‘dead language’ – which means that we’re so familiar with them, we’ve stopped truly seeing the images inherent within them.

Example: I cried a river. 

We’re all familiar with this expression. It’s overused, to the extent that now we usually just see it as over-dramatic. What we no longer see is the inherent image of the tears flowing, so many it’s like a literal river. We know that’s what it means, but we don’t see the river in our mind’s eye. Instead we just see a person crying, potentially into a glass of wine.

So for this exercise, I would excavate that image. Mine it to its full depths, and write a poem about it. You cried a river? Ok. What kind of river? Was it a brook tinkling down the mountainside? Were there cataracts, and sheep drinking from its banks? Or was it the Ganges? Was it a slow brown ooze? Was it filled with people washing and praying? Were people cremated on the river of your tears? The richer you can be with this exercise, the better.

Looking for some clichés to get you started?

  • My love is deeper than the ocean.
  • I’m free as a bird.
  • My mind is a prison.
  • There are walls around my heart.
  • The wind whispered in the trees.
  • Her face lit up.
  • You are my sunshine.
  • We hammered out our differences.
  • Breaking the ice.
  • He threw a tantrum.
  • Her face fell.
  • Time flies.
  • Old as the hills.
  • Fit as a fiddle.

Remember, the more detailed you can make your image, the better – and the further it is from being a cliché.

image

4 – Use Your Senses

Ok. We know this one. If you want to write well, you have to describe things using your senses. We were probably taught this at school, when we learned to do ‘descriptive writing’. Using the senses helps to bring the reader into the world of the poem, or the story, or the memoir, or whatever it is you’re writing. It places them there. It gets their neurons firing and they imagine themselves in that place or situation. It starts to create empathy.

So if we already know all this, why am I saying it here?

Partly, I’m saying it because, even though it’s something we know we should be doing, it’s surprising how often people forget about at least two of the senses, possibly even three or four. We’re generally pretty good at describing how things look. We may also be good at describing feel, or sounds. But a lot of the time we forget about smell, and about taste.

Which is crazy, when you think about it, as there’s tonnes of research linking the olfactory senses to memory, and memory is a goldmine for poetry.

So I want you to write a poem in which you smell or taste something. It can be something pleasant, or something not so pleasant. But try to make it something specific. So not just ‘pie’, but ‘blackberry pie’ – and not just ‘blackberry pie’ but ‘the blackberry pie your sister made on the first time in her new kitchen’.

Try writing the poem in the present tense (so you’re in the moment of smelling or tasting whatever it is), but try to also link it to memory in some way. It can be a real memory or an invented one, as long as it’s something ‘past’. Something that gives the poem an expanded sense of time.

(If you’re not sure what I mean by this, try looking at Louis Macneice’s Soap Suds or Kim Addonizio’s Wine Tasting.)

And, just as with the other exercises, try to be as detailed as possible.

*

5 – Things Behaving Badly…

…or at least unexpectedly.

For the last prompt, I want you to give yourself free reign. Embrace the childlike. Remember that this is a poem, not a piece of journalism, and things can behave however you want them to.

So if you want to write a poem where buildings get up and walk away, you can do. Or if you want to write a poem where planets are coins dropped by the gods, or where all the birds leave and are replaced by flapping books, then go for it.

Whatever it is that takes your fancy, try to pick just one thing. So for example, you wouldn’t write a poem in which the world was flat as an LP and every time it orbited the record player everyone had to jump the needle AND where people outsourced their souls to computers. You’d pick one of those ideas (or, more likely, your own much better idea) and focus on that. So you’re sticking within the rules of your own unexpected world.

And again, try to be detailed. Be specific, and ground your poem in physical description. Use those senses. That way, whatever bizarre thing is happening in your poem, it will still retain a sense of realness.

*

And that’s it! I hope you find these prompts useful for generating material. And if you get something from these prompts, but are struggling to take your initial ideas further, then feel free to mix and match these prompts with the 5 prompts on using words to generate more words. Good luck, and happy writing!

 

I arrive in Grasmere on one of the coldest nights of the year. The stars are already growing crisp and cold in the sky, and the car park is an ice sheet worthy of Torvill and Dean. Cut to three weeks later, and I’m outside in the sunshine overheating in my t-shirt and jeans. My residency at the Wordsworth Trust has been varied to say the least.

I was living on the top floor of one of tall the Victorian houses in Town End, owned by the Wordsworth Trust. (There was some discussion over whether we were calling this my ‘garret’ or my ‘penthouse’, which mostly seemed to depend on how cold the weather was being at the time.) From my bedroom, I could see a sliver of the edge of the lake, and the fells rising beyond. From the bathroom, I could see Dove Cottage itself.

The residency lasted for four weeks, which seemed to go unbelievably quickly – perhaps because there was a lot to fit in during that time. Some of this was work connected with the residency: I ran poetry workshops in 5 schools, gave a poetry reading at the Wordsworth Trust itself, and did two reading / workshop events with other poetry groups connected with the Trust. Then there were the other things, which weren’t a structured part of the residency in the same way, but which I was desperate to fit into my four weeks: the walks, the visits to Grasmere’s wonderful cafes, the many writing-based chats with Polly Atkin & Will Smith (not to mention sampling Will’s delicious baking). And of course, the poetry.

As with most things, before I started the residency, I had a plan. I would write a number of poems during my stay in Grasmere, and read a whole host of poetry collections.

Also as with most things, it didn’t quite work out the way I planned. Some of this was because of all the other things that ended up being factored into the residency weeks, but some of it was also just because I ended up changing my practice once I arrived on site.

Part of the beauty of the residency was the lack of pressure to produce anything. For the first time in a long time, I could just play with poetry, and experiment without having to necessarily complete anything. This might sound counterproductive, but it was actually an enormous creative luxury. I started to think about it like an artist’s sketchbook. Rather than forcing myself to create full watercolours, I could create sketches, ideas and studies for poems.

At the moment, most of these are still sitting in my notebook, waiting for me to do something with them – or not, depending on how each idea grows or diminishes over time. It’s a hugely invigorating feeling, to know that my notebook is positively bristling with keys that could unlock poems. It’s the kind of concentrated exploration that I never normally get time for as an artist.

I may not have come out of the residency with a huge body of poems as I was expecting, but what I gained was something more: a chance to focus on the practice, and to connect with the part of myself that all the poetry stems from.

A few good things:

Frankenstein:

One of the perks of the residency was getting to engage with some of the Wordsworth Trust’s extensive collections. There’s a whole host of incredible things in their archives, but one of the things that most fascinated me was the first edition copy of Frankenstein.

It lives in the Reading Room in the Jerwood Centre at the Wordsworth Trust, behind a glass door with hundreds of other books, in its own little non-descript-looking cardboard box, with FRANKENSTEIN scrawled on the side in pencil. Appearances can be deceiving, however, because not only is this box custom-made to fit the book exactly, but inside is a first edition of what, for me, is one of the most fascinating novels in the English language: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Getting to hold this – to carefully unwrap it from its cardboard box and then from the older box inside that, and finally to pick up and open one of the volumes – was easily one of the highlights of the residency. My debut novel, My Name is Monster, is in part inspired by Frankenstein. Holding that first edition brought it right into the present for me. It felt as though I were in conversation with Mary Shelley and with the original text across the decades – part of a literary heritage through prose as well as through poetry.

Manchester Poetry Prize shortlisting:

The night before I arrived at the Wordsworth Trust to begin my residency, I spent the evening in Manchester, where I was shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize! It was a really great night, with a reading in a room filled (as you might expect) with incredible writers – on the shortlists, on the judging panel and in the audience. The winner was Molly Underwood, for a truly beautiful selection of poems based around books of the bible. You can read the full shortlist here.

Plough Short Poem Prize:

And continuing the theme of prizes – during my Wordsworth Trust residency, I learned that my poem received 3rd place in the Plough Short Poem Prize, judged by Pascale Petit. You can read the poem here.

The residency month in books:

As with writing, I ended up not reading as many books as I expected to this month. What I did get a chance to do, though, was to read poetry in-depth. I rarely get the time to sit and really pour myself into a collection of poetry: to sit and read a poem, then put the book down and think about it for a while, then to pick the book back up and read another one. This kind of slow, thoughtful, deep reading isn’t generally conducive to the hectic freelance lifestyle. But during a residency, particularly when the weather’s beautiful and you can walk up a hill and stop every few minutes to read a poem? Perfect!

  • Tibor Fischer, The Collector Collector
  • Zaffar Kunial, Us
  • Sally Rooney, Mr Salary
  • Suzannah Evans, Near Future
  • Haruki Murakami, Birthday Girl
  • Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
  • Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf

The residency month in pictures:

‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.’
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I love Octobers. I love the excuse to curl up in front of the fire and drink hot chocolate. I love the changing leaves. I love it when the clocks go back and I get to sleep for an extra hour. I even love the darker nights, because they somehow make everything seem closer and cosier. What I don’t love is how my house suddenly becomes full of horrifically gigantic spiders. Urgh.

That aside, I’ve had a wonderful, if very busy, October this year. So busy that I think I blinked and suddenly it’s November. Which means not all that long to get things ready for Christmas… But I’m going to leave that can of worms well and truly closed.

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

A Few Good Things:

There are quite a few things to celebrate this month, starting with my poem, ‘Bugs’, which received second place in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, judged by Kayo Chingonyi. This is one of those poems that I’ve had kicking around for a while, so I was particularly overjoyed that it was selected for this. (You can read my poem, and the other prizewinners, here.)

And speaking of selections: a week or so ago, I also learned that I’d won the Munster Literature Centre’s ‘Fool for Poetry’ chapbook competition! This means that my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published and launched at Cork International Poetry Festival in March next year.

On this fiction side of things, I received the proof pages for My Name is Monster this month, so I’ve been working through those while drinking copious amounts of coffee. But the plus side is that it means proof copies are about to go to print – which means that soon I’ll be able to hold a copy of my novel that looks something like an actual book!

But plenty to be getting on with in the meantime – like the many school workshops I’ve led this month, including a full day at my old school, QEGS in Penrith. Last time I led a workshop there, I blushingly confessed to the librarian that I’d had my first kiss in that school library over a decade earlier, so I was slightly entertained when she introduced me to the students as, ‘Katie: a former QEGS pupil who knows this library extremely well!’ I was even more entertained by the sign that I spotted in the library this time around, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t there before:

And while we’re on the subject of the past…

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in front of a camera on two separate occasions, filming commissioned poems with an historical twist. The first was a poem written for the National Trust, as part of an oral history project working with a group of former miners in Whitehaven, using their words and mine to create a poetic response to what they told us about their memories of the mines.

The second was for BBC Radio Cumbria, to be aired as part of the First World War centenary commemorations in November. We were lucky enough to be allowed to climb Carlisle Cathedral bell tower to film this on the roof, which was 130 (incredly steep and narrow and slightly terrifying) steps up, but which had a magnificent view across the city. So I’m looking forward to seeing the finished result for both pieces.

I’ve been up in Carlisle quite a lot over the past few weeks, as it happens. Early in October, Carlisle saw the 5th year of Borderlines Book Festival, where I led a poetry workshop on inspiration and ‘Provoking the Creative Brain’, as well as reading at the launch of This Place I Know: the fantastic new anthology of Cumbrian poetry from Handstand Press.

And then on the Monday, I was back up to Carlisle and in the Radio Cumbria studio. For anyone who hasn’t yet listened to BBC Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show, you definitely should. It’s 3 hours on a Monday evening, with a real variety of interviews / features / music – and they always have two studio guests with them for the duration, discussing their art forms and providing commentary on the programme’s other features. And on Monday 8th October, I was a guest on the show, along with stone sculptor Shawn Williamson.

Cumbria

When I haven’t been hanging out in Carlisle, I’ve been in the south of the county. My friend Jessi came to stay from Edinburgh for a few days, during which we went to a weekend workshop on editing and structure, run by Zosia Wand at the Reading Room in Ulverston. It was such an inspiring and useful weekend, and a wonderful opportunity to focus very specifically on structure for two whole days – though admittedly by the end of the Sunday we were shattered and our brains were completely worn out. I guess there’s a limit to how much creativity you can (or should) pack into a day!

On a more personal note, this month my grandma turned 98, and on the same day my friend Tam got married in a beautiful (if chilly) outdoor ceremony at Arnos Vale in Bristol. And of course there was Halloween, which meant trick-or-treating with my goddaughter; she was dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, her mum was dressed as a grandma, which left me to be the wolf. So, obviously, I made my most elaborate attempt at wolfish facepaint – which I then had to wear to teach my youth arts class at The Brewery in Kendal, because I hadn’t had time in between to change.

The Month in Submissions:

As I’ve mentioned before, I originally wanted to attempt 100 submissions this year so I could show how slim the odds are on each individual submission being successful. For a while it was working, and I was getting nice big packets of rejections every month – but October has definitely bucked the trend. For the first time since I started measuring the outcome of my submissions in this way (actually scrap that, I think for the first time ever), I’ve had the same number of successful replies as unsuccessful ones.

  • Submissions made: 8
  • Unsuccessful: 5
  • Successful: 5

Three of these successes are under wraps till further notice (though make no mistake, I will be making a song and dance about them when the time comes). The other successes were coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and winning Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. Not bad, as months go!

The Month in Books:

Only 4 books this month, and one of them was very short. But I’m hoping that November will provide a bit more reading time, as I’m planning to be spending a bit more time on public transport of one sort or another, which is usually pretty good reading time. Fingers crossed.

For October, though, my reading was:

  • playtime, by Andrew McMillan
  • My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal
  • Create Dangerously, by Albert Camus
  • All the Journeys I Never Took, by Rebecca Tantony

*

The Month in Pictures:

September always feels like a reminder that the world is turning on its axis, that time is moving steadily on, and that the seasons are changing. I’ve dug out my ankle boots from the box under the bed, and rescued the woolly jumpers from their summer storage in the ottoman. And nothing makes time feel swifter than a busy couple of months.

A Few Good Things:

The main news this month is this: that in 2019, my debut novel will be published by Canongate.

This is something I’ve known about for a while, but have had to keep quiet till the official announcement was made. And a note from experience: it’s incredibly difficult not to shout about something like this from the rooftops straight away. But luckily, it’s all out in the open now, so I can celebrate to my heart’s content.

A novel about power and “the strength and the danger in a mother’s love”, My Name is Monster centres on a young woman called Monster who believes she is alone in an empty, post-apocalyptic version of Britain. Slowly, piece by piece, she begins to rebuild a life. Until, one day, she finds a girl: another survivor, feral, and ready to be taught all that Monster knows.

– quote taken from the article in The Bookseller. You can read the full article here.

The novel comes out next year (Thursday 6th June 2019, to be very precise), in hardback and ebook. So I’ll definitely be planning some sort of celebration for then!

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, Festival Survival Kits

As well as the novel, it’s also been a busy couple of months for poetry.

A couple of days after handing in the final version of the manuscript of My Name is Monster, I was at Castle Green Hotel in Kendal, distributing mini envelops to a room packed with poets. This was Kendal Poetry Festival. For the festival’s third year, it moved premeses, in order to be able to have space for its growing audiences. I was also asked to introduce something a little…different to the crowd.

Following the success of last year’s Postcard Poems, I created three guerrilla poetry projects for Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: the River of Poems, the Festival Survival Kits, and a day of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre.

The River of Poems was an installation of contemporary poetry, displayed along the river walk in the centre of Kendal, next to the Waterside Cafe (where the festival’s ‘Opening Doors: Open Mic’ event took place). It was formed of poetry by members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets, and was in place during the week preceding the festival, as well as during the festival itself.

Also during the festival itself, audience members were given ‘survival kits’. The idea was that the Festival Survival Kits contained everything needed to keep a poet or an audience member going during the festival: some tea & Kendal Mint Cake (for energy), a plaster (just in case), and, of course, poetry.

The poetry contained within the Festival Survival Kits was also the work of members of Brewery Poets and Dove Cottage Young Poets. The kits themselves were sponsored by two Kendal companies: Farrer’s (who provided individually wrapped teabags containining their signature Lakeland Blend) and Romney’s (who provided after-dinner portions of Kendal Mint Cake). During the festival, 300 survival kits were distributed to audience members.

And last but not least, a few members of Brewery Poets also staged a number of ‘impromptu’ pop-up performances at The Brewery Arts Centre on 1st September, as part of their Creative Community Open Day. Highlights included reading to a woman sitting outside the cafe with her dog (the dog was also very appreciative), and our final performance of the day, after which a woman in our unsuspecting audience put up her hand and asked if she could read out one of her poems as well. Which, for me, is what guerrilla poetry is all about: making space for poetry within the everyday.

As if all that wasn’t enough – there was also the festival itself, which was a veritable poetry feast. I quickly lost track of how many events I’d attended over the weekend, and how many poets I’d heard read, whether that was the poets listed in the programme, or the Dove Cottage Young Poets, who provided the ‘warm-up acts’ for the listed poets, and who were equally amazing. And I came away with a stack of books that I’m incredibly excited to eventually put some time aside to get stuck into.

And finally in the poetry-related news… A few weeks ago, I learned that I’d won the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, with a poem inspired by a road trip across America in 2016.

Since my last post, I also learned that I was shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize, and highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize – both with poems that I wrote on an Arvon course back in June.

So needless to say, I’m feeling on a bit of a writing high at the moment! As for October, it’s already lined up to be another busy month, with lots of schools workshops to see me through to half term, a weekend workshop to attend, and a poetry commission to complete. Time to put the kettle on and get writing!

The Months in Submissions:

Back in January, I made a decision: that in 2019, I would make 100 submissions and / or applications. The idea behind this was twofold. The sheer number of applications would hopefully mean that I would at least be successful with one or two of them. As well as this, I wanted to highlight just how many rejections writers face.

Well, I’ve definitely had my fair share of rejections. But I’m not sure that I’ll achieve my goal of 100, as my current tally is 74, which means another 26 to go over the next three months. This isn’t wholly impossible, but the problem (and it’s a good problem to have) is that there are a fair few things that there’s just no point in applying for now, because I wouldn’t be able to fit them in even if I were successful! Which, I suppose, is the real reason behind all this anyway. So that’s a good thing.

With that in mind, here are August & September’s combined submissions statistics:

  • Submissions made: 13
  • Unsuccessful: 6
  • Partially successful: 2
  • Successful: 2

The partial successes were my shortlisting in the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Competition, and the highly commended in the Otley Poetry Prize. One of the (fully) successful submissions was the Buzzwords Open Poetry Competition. The other is under wraps for now…

The Months in Books:

(I’ve been editing and copyediting these past couple of months, so I’m not going to count rereading my own book about fifty thousand times…)

  • He is Mine and I Have No Other, by Rebecca O’Connor
  • Music, Love, Drugs, War, by Geraldine Quigley
  • The Republic of Motherhood, by Liz Berry
  • The Summer of Us, by Cecilia Vinesse
  • Folk, by Zoe Gilbert
  • Once, by Morris Gleitzman

The Months in Pictures:

This January has been all about getting the ball rolling (in some cases literally, as this month I also went bowling for the first time in nearly a decade – but that’s a separate story).

I always feel like January’s an odd one. In some ways, it’s all about positivity: looking forward to what the new year might bring, blasting through that to do list with all the optimism of being at the start of something. Then again, it’s also a weirdly long month, filled with post-Christmas blues and bitter weather. That’s pretty much how the month has been for me: filled with lots of exciting writing-related things, but also lots of sitting in my lonely kitchen, forcing myself to confront my manuscript.

Good Things:

St Ives: Having wanted to go on a writing retreat for ages and never quite got round to it, I was thrilled to be invited on one with a lovely group of poets, at the Treloyan Manor Hotel in St Ives. Five of us (me, Emily Hasler, Holly Hopkins, Kim Moore & Hilda Sheehan) spent five nights there, and five days strolling by the sea, eating the most enormous amounts of food, and occasionally writing a poem or two. It was exactly what I needed after the post-Christmas rush, and the early-January onslaught of admin. A chance to refresh and let the sea breeze blow away the cobwebs. I came away from the retreat thinking that, even though I hadn’t written much, it was probably good for my creativity all the same. Then I got home and looked in my notebook, and realised that I’d actually written loads! Strange how creativity can creep up on you like that.

Barbican Subject to Change: As part of the Barbican Centre’s ‘The Art of Change’ programme for 2018, twelve poets have been selected to write poems for the Creative Learning department, each inspired by something that happened in a given month. I was given January, and so decided to write about the ‘honey’ incident that took place on Virgin Trains at the start of the month – when a Virgin Trains East Coast customer, Emily Cole, complained on Twitter about a male staff member’s passive aggressive use of the word ‘honey’. Rather than acknowledging the situation, the company’s initial response was to ask if she would ‘prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time’. This led me on to thinking about gendered language and micro-aggressions, and the way that even inoffensive language can be used as a way of exerting power. You can read the full poem (and more about gendered language, and poetry as a vehicle for change) here. Or watch the film of the poem:

Schools workshops: With the new year has come a new set of schools workshops – and of course continuing with some existing favourite groups. (New career milestone: going for a meeting in the school library where, nearly half my lifetime ago, I had my first kiss.)

T S Eliot Prize readings: Oh, and I also had a great night at the T S Eliot Prize reading at the Southbank Centre. So much fun seeing so many poets in one room – even if it is a very very big room.

St Ives writing retreat

January Submissions Statistics:

This year, I’m aiming to submit to / apply for 100 things. This isn’t just some masochistic attempt to deny myself a social life while I type CVs and artist statements deep into the night. It’s about providing clarity, so that at the end of the year, I can give an accurate percentage of how many of these submissions resulted in rejections, acceptances, or even partial acceptances. It’s about honesty: showing that the writing life isn’t all sunshine and roses, competition wins and launch parties.

Of course, it’s also about making the effort to put my work out there.

So with that in mind, here are my stats for January. (NB: I know they’re kind of high on the submissions, but low on the replies. Which makes sense if you think about it. January is always the month when people tend to be most eager about keeping new years resolutions, right? And a lot of these things have really long turnarounds.)

  • Submissions made: 23
  • Rejections: 1
  • Partial successes: 1 *

* This month, I successfully applied for a grant from the Cumbria Community Foundation Cultural Fund, which will part-fund my place on an Arvon course later in the year. I’m really excited about this, as I’ve wanted to go on an Arvon course for years, and never been able to afford it. (I’m counting it as a ‘partial’ success because I didn’t quite get the full amount I applied for, but make no mistake – I’m still counting partial successes as a success in their own right!)

The month in books:

It’s been a very poetry-heavy January this year – though I also read Erling Kagge’s Silence in the Age of Noise, which reads less like informative non-fiction and more like meditation. Which, at the time, was exactly what I needed. Aside from that one exception, though, this month’s reading has been decidedly poetic: a mixture of re-reading collections I’d already read, thoroughly reading collections I’d so far only been dipping into at odd intervals, and exploring new collections – mostly from the T S Eliot Prize shortlist.

  • Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe
  • Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald
  • A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, by Laurie Ann Guerrero
  • Little Gods, by Jacob Polley
  • Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong
  • Silence in the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge
  • All My Mad Mothers, by Jacqueline Saphra
  • The Radio, by Leontia Flynn

The month in pictures:

Last night I went to see the fantastic Andrew McMillan perform at Poem & a Pint. He read from his multi-award-winning (make that multi-multi-award-winning) collection, Physical, and then tantalised us with material from his upcoming collection, Playtime.

Playtime doesn’t come out till next year, but in the meantime, here’s on of the poems I performed at one of the open mic slots last night. As you may have guessed, it’s titled after a Joni Mitchell song. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize and features in my pamphlet, Breaking the Surface (Flipped Eye, 2017):

You’re in My Blood like Holy Wine

The nights we came home drunk and every night,
we sat side by side, toes curled over the cliff
of the bed in your Oxford bedsit, and talked

about nothing. I know this, because it struck me
how precisely we controlled our breath,
how intricate each flex and shiver of skin

for words that no one cared about. We talked
about next door, the radio constant
through the brickwork, clutching at stations

before moving on. Sometimes, our arms
brushed and for a second, I spiralled
like smoke. There were always cigarettes

and the faint smell of apples, your burgundy
sweater, and the bristled curve of your throat.
There were dark thumbprints in the bowls

of old wine glasses, stacks of plates
like unopened letters, crumbs
sharp as insects littering the rug –

and all the words I didn’t know how to say
were crows, flapping their frantic wings
against the inside of my mouth.

I swallowed, and they clawed my stomach
raw and sick. I’ve tried to drown them
in spirits, thick and toxic as the dark,

drown them till they tasted of nothing
but iron and burnt toast, and my body
was a smudge of wings on a pebble beach.

I’ve tried to speak. Once, I twisted my fingers
in the duvet, as if there would be ripples
that could reach you: your solid, immovable legs.

You shut the blinds, switched on the desk lamp
and Joni Mitchell – how I could drink a case of you
and I would still be on my feet – but before the end

you cut the track to watch the trailer
for the new James Bond. You said, I know
how you feel about me, and I believed you.

*

Remember the Church of the Assumption
of Our Lady in Mosta? Where the bomb
that plummeted through the roof in 1942

into the middle of a morning mass
without exploding was still on display,
and the little card proclaimed this a miracle

in several languages. Remember
how we watched it for almost twenty minutes,
how its silence filled the room

till we imagined we could hear it ticking:
a gunmetal heart; the weight of a hammer
raised above a head or bell

about to be struck; the stretched skin
of a drum anticipating thunder.
Or maybe it was just our own blood

beating against our ears like fists
against a door. Remember how I said, I wish
it would do something drastic, I wish it would explode?

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:

Save

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!

*

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

*

The month in pictures:

Save

Save

Save

Save

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.

*

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:

Save

Save

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:

Save

Save

BREAKING THE SURFACE

{pamphlet launch, reading & open mic}

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

FREE*

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

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

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

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

Breaking the Surface is published by Flipped Eye.

*Please bring food to share. Bar on site.

Let me know if you’re coming HERE.

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!

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.

*

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: