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.

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.

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

What is a writing residency?

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

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

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

What’s so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Things About: Writing on the Move

What’s not so good about residencies?

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

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

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

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

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

The other issue I want to talk about is loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to survive a writing residency:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to watch out for:

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

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

Shared accommodation:

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

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

Application fees:

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

Fee-paying residencies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok, so where can I go?

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

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

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

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

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

The New Yorker: Little-Known Writing Residencies

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

Publications:

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

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

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

My Name is Monster: available from all good bookshops!

*

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

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

Read the opening poem from Assembly Instructions here.

Residencies:

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

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

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

Residency Round-Up: The Wordsworth Trust

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

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

Residency Round-Up: MacDowell Colony

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

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

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

And speaking of beautiful places…

Arts Council Funding:

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

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

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

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

Radio:

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

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

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

And the rest:

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

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

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

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

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

So what next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Month in Books:

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

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

The Month in Pictures:

Quite often when I go into schools to run writing workshops, I get the children writing about objects. This is useful because it’s something that can be done at any level of confidence or ability in writing, but also because there’s something about having the subject of your poem physically in front of you that makes matters easier; if you get stuck, you can just look a bit more closely at your object.

Of course, I don’t just give the children an object and then let them get on with it. That would be incredibly uninspiring. Instead, I give them prompts – ways of examining their object that they might not have thought of before. Usually, we spend quite a while just getting ideas down on paper before we actually think about the ‘poemness’ of our writing.

NB: While I usually do this as a poetry exercise in schools, it can just as easily be a prose exercise, helping you to practise your description, or to give particular weight to an object within a story.

Choosing an object:

Ok, so what sort of object can you write about?

The simple answer is, of course: anything. When I go into schools, I have a bag of objects that I take in with me, most of which are mundane artefacts you’d find in pretty much any household. These include:

  • a candle
  • a fork
  • a ladle
  • a glove
  • a scarf
  • a top hat
  • a claw hair clip
  • a clothes peg
  • a shell

There’s nothing dramatic or special about any of these objects. The only meaning they have is the meaning that the poet chooses to give them. In many ways, this makes them the perfect subjects for poetry, as they’re essentially blank canvases.

Then again, you could choose something that isn’t a blank canvas at all: an object that has particular emotional or historic significance for you. A wedding ring. Your grandmother’s spoons. A ticket stub from the concert where you had your first kiss. Choosing an object like this, that already has its own story lurking inside it, could also really work, giving the writing added depth, and a sense of an entier life behind it.

Why not try the exercise twice, once with a significant object, and once with something random you’ve picked up from around the house.

5 ways to write about your object:

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1 – Physicality

This is perhaps the most obvious way of looking at your object, but this means it’s a good palce to start. Begin by putting your object on the table in front of you, and looking at it. Set a timer, and look at it for a whole minute. Try to notice every detail, as though at the end of the minute, someone is going to take the object away and you’re going to have to conjur it entirely from memory. Think about what colour(s) it is. Does it look hard or soft? Big or small? Comfortable to hold or not? Heavy or light? Think about what shapes make it up. What is it made of? Something natural or man-made, delicate or industrial-looking? Does it look shiny or dull?

Once you’ve looked at it for a good long while, pick it up.

Think about what it feels like, how it sits in your hand. Does it make a sound of its own accord? What about when you tap it against a surface? If it’s safe to do so, see how it smells & even tastes. I’m forever telling children to use all of their senses, but it’s worth remembering that as an adult as well.

This is how your object physically occupies space within the world.

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2 – Uses & Changes

Once you’ve examined its physical properties, exploring it as an artefact in its own right, you can start to think about it in a social context, and within the context of time.

Think about what the object is used for. Does it have a purpose, or is it merely decorative? If it does have a purpose, does it have just one? Maybe it has a primary and secondary use. Maybe it’s an all-purpose gadget. If it’s an ornament with no particular use, then how does it work decoratively? What makes it a piece of decoration?

Then think about how the object might change. For example, a candle can burn, and it can melt (either from being burned, or from being left in the sun). What causes it to change? How does it look / feel / sound / smell / taste in its new form? Is the change reversible? Is it a desired end (such as with the candle), or a problem (such as a fork that might tarnish / bend out of shape, for instance).

From merely being a physical object existing in the world, the object now has context.

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3 – What is it?

This is a great poetry game (nicked from Liz Berry) to get children thinking metaphorically, without using offputting grammar words, like ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’. It’s called: it’s not this, it’s that.

Essentially, you’re trying to get back to your inner child, and to use your imagination. We’re not interested in what the object actually is – we’re interested in what it could be.

So, a candle might be a rocket, or a unicorn’s horn, or a wax crayon, or a skyscraper, or a rolling pin. A top hat might be a steering wheel, or a boat, or a drum.

Don’t be afraid to play with the object. Turn it upside down, or back-to-front. Put it on your head. Look through it. Make it move in some way.

It’s not a scarf, it’s a road leading over the horizon.

It’s not a glove, it’s a spider scuttling across a bedroom floor.

And of course, the richer you can make these metaphors, the better.

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4 – History

From thinking about the object as a general version of its kind (for instance, a fork like any other fork, or a candle like any other candle), now you’re going to think of it as specific.

Every object has a history. Even a brand new one has been bought from somewhere, or given to you as a gift. It has a life before the present moment. Whether it was on the shelf in a supermarket two days ago, or it’s been passed down through the family for generations, think about where this object has been. What journey has it been on? Whose hands has it passed through? Has it changed at all in that process?

Depending on the object, this could be something deeply personal. If you’re writing about your great grandmother’s wedding ring, for instance, then there’s going to be a lot of family stuff going on there. If you’re writing about that friendship necklace you traded with someone when you were seven, who you haven’t seen since you were twelve, then maybe you’ll end up exploring your childhood through the object.

This is the point where your poem opens out, from thinking about the object itself, to thinking about the world beyond – whether through the lens of your own life or otherwise. It’s often (but not necessarily) the point where the poem gains meaning.

And if you’re struggling to think of a historical journey for your object, think about what it’s made from. What’s the history of those materials? Where did they come from? Are they natural or man-made? What was their existence like before they were turned into this object here in front of you? Go as far back as you want. After all, every wooden spoon started out as a seed.

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5 – Who Am I?

One last little prompt, to take you in a slightly different direction: give your object consciousness.

You don’t have to give it agency, like the toys in Toy Story – but imagine it’s aware of the world around it. What does it see? What does it remember? (This is another way to approach the ‘history’ prompt.) Specifically as this object, does it feel to be held? To be used for whatever purpose it’s used for? What does your object want?

Try writing about the object in first person. What you may find, is that the poem becomes a kind of self-portrait, from the perspective of an everyday household object. If that’s the case, roll with it. If not, treat it as a useful exercise in exploring perspective within a poem.

And good luck!

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If you’re looking some ways to expand on these prompts, using the language generated here to create something more, with a rich sound-world, check out Five Poetry Prompts: Generating Material for a Poem.

If May felt like the eye of the storm, then June has been full-on hurricane. But, unlike most busy months, it’s mostly been busy with just one thing: the novel.

On Thursday 6th June, my debut novel, My Name is Monster, was officially released. If you weren’t aware of that, then either you’re new to this blog (in which case: welcome!) or you simply haven’t been paying attention. I’ve been talking about it a lot.

Understandably, the rest of the month has been pretty solidly dominated by that. I’ve just finished a run of talks and readings in libraries and bookshops – mostly around Cumbria, but also straying as far as Lancaster, and even to ‘that London’.

(Side note: when publishers put you up in a hotel that’s right next to a heap of excellent independent bookshops, it can be a dangerous thing…)

But the month hasn’t all been novel-related.

Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets

This month I also made my Radio 4 debut, with an episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets. The programme aired on 2nd June, during the Sunday afternoon poetry slot. And, for some reason I’m still not entirely sure about – maybe becaue my parents couldn’t get the house radio working properly? – we ended up parked in my driveway and listening to it in the car.

Poet and novelist Katie Hale explores the legacy of early dialect poets in her native county of Cumbria, to discover if dialect poetry is a way of expressing local identity.

Cumbria has a long history of dialect poetry, beginning with poets like Josiah Relph, Susanna Blamire and Robert Anderson, and continuing right up to the present day. Katie finds out more about some of these historic poets and their contemporary counterparts. She also speaks to Cedric Robinson – the Queen’s Guide to the Sands of Morecambe Bay – and to farmer and writer James Rebanks, trying to understand the connection between dialect, identity and the land itself. How does the place we live in shape who we are and how we choose to express ourselves?

From a ‘writing life’ point of view, this programme is a perfect example of how one project can lead to another. In 2017, I was commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day, in conjunction with BBC local radio. The poem had to be about a Cumbrian dialect word: ‘twining’ (moaning / complaining). As a result, the word ‘twining’ then made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, and BBC Radio Cumbria made a video of the poem.

Because the poem was part of a national project (with 12 poets around the country writing dialect-inspired poems), it was well shared and had pretty good SEO. Which meant that when the production company, Made in Manchester, were googling ‘Cumbria dialect poetry’, my name came up.

At the other end, following the programme’s broadcast on Radio 4, the Lakeleand Dialect Society (who I interviewed as part of the programme) was celebrating its 80th birthday. And so, Radio Cumbria had a few of us on to talk about the importance of dialect – and to give the Radio 4 programme a bit of an extra push. One thing leading to another, leading to another. It often surprises me how much of my career ends up working like that. (Maybe I’ll dedicate a full post to it at some point in the future.)

You can listen to the Cumbria episode of Tongue & Talk: The Dialect Poets here, till Monday 8th July.

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Under Northern Skies

Back in summer 2018, I worked with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project, as part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response.

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write two more poems, inspired by the work the National Trust had done with other groups: pupils from Keswick School, and members of Glenmore art group and Glenmore creative writing group. These poems were a mix of original work, and words collaged from the work and conversation of participants.

The result: three poems, each then filmed by John Hamlett, which were played as part of an exhibition alongside artwork from the groups, at Carlisle Old Fire Station.

The month in books:

This month has been a bit slower than last month in the reading department. Blame it on all that dashing about between book events! It’s also been largely fiction-based, rather than my usual attempt at balancing fiction with poetry (and a smattering of non-fiction thrown in). Still, that’s ok. I’m on a bit of a fiction bender at the moment, and I’m sure in a month or so that will flip and I’ll be devouring nothing but poetry.

  • The Last, by Hanna Jameson
  • A Roll of the Dice, by Mona Dash
  • Crudo, by Olivia Laing
  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Being Haunted, by Jennifer Copley
  • Fen, by Daisy Johnson

The month in pictures:

With all the novel-related talk, it’s been a while since I shared a poem. Not since Easter, in fact. So, with summer (finally) here, I thought I’d share a swimming poem.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time revisiting places I used to go as a child – including several local swimming pools. On this occasion, I decided to spend about an hour swimming, determined to take a break from the desk life and get some exercise. Instead, I got the idea for the poem about fifteen minutes in, then spent the rest of the time holed up in a changing room cubicle, scribbling away. Oh well. I tried.

The poem is from Assembly Instructions (Southword, 2019).

1999

In the communal changing rooms where old women’s bodies
flapped and scattered droplets like pieces of crystal,
we contorted ourselves behind the bright flags of towels, wished
together for the other pool – the one with lockers and locked doors,

where the air was jungle-thick and cubicles close with damp –
where once I saw your chest raised like a ripple of water.
You whispered look, showed me the first kindling of hair,
and I had to ask does it hurt? so you said feel it – see? soft – like a bird – 

Though you meant only one bird, the sparrow in the old byre,
battering itself bloody against the glass, till your dad
caught it, said girls, said don’t be afraid, and kept it
quaking between his hands for us to stroke.

In the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man
with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim.

 

 

‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’
– Virginia Woolf

I’ve recently come home from seven weeks away from my own regular writing room (read: my kitchen table). During that time, away from my normal routine and my habitual space, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need in order to write. What are the circumstances that help me, the magical ingredients that go into the mix for creating inspiration?

During my 7 weeks away, about 2.5 of those weeks were spent actively on the road, never in one place for more than a couple of nights. Three of those weeks were spent on a residency at MacDowell Colony, and the rest was spent researching in New York Public Library. The writing circumstances across these weeks were about as varied as I could have asked for over the course of a single trip. And most of the time, I still managed to write.

Ok, so the amount that I wrote varied drastically. As you’d expect, I wrote far more during my three week residency than I did the rest of the trip – but I’m not sure this was entirely about having a room of my own (although my little cabin in the woods was undoubtedly wonderful). I think it was more to do with having the dedicated time for writing, and (that magical ingredient) headspace.

(Let me just make a caveat here: all of the time I was away was technically ‘poetry time’. Even when I wasn’t at MacDowell, I was either at a poetry festival, or in London for a poetry event, or actively dedicating research time to my current poetry project.)

So, building on all of that, what are five things I’ve come to realise about writing on the move?

1 – Writing on the move is just like writing at home

Every writer is different. Consequently, every writer’s process is also different, which means that every writer will require something different in order to feel at their most creative – whether this is nothing more than a stub of pencil and the back of an envelope, or a chaise longue and fourteen daiquiris mixed by a six-foot albino wearing a penguin suit and stilettos. (That isn’t my rider, I promise. Maybe it should be?)

The trick, I found, was to create the same circumstances for writing while I was away that I would normally create at home. For me, this is a quiet space (with plenty of natural light if possible), a notebook and a pen. It’s also about finding a time when I know I’m not going to be interrupted by anything or by anyone.

At home, I need to consciously carve out these occasions from the rest of my life. It’s all too easy to let admin and emails swamp the entire working day, then to get to the end of the week and realise I haven’t done any writing whatsoever. In order to make sure that doesn’t happen, I have to put in the effort. I have to set aside time for the writing.

On the road, it’s no different. I just have to decide that I’m going to get up an hour earlier, so I can write with a morning coffee. Or decide not to browse Twitter for the river crossing on the car ferry, but instead to use that fifteen minutes as dedicated free writing time. Or I have to set aside an hour for a coffee break, during which I work on a poem. The dedication needed is exactly the same.

2 – Writing on the move is absolutely nothing like writing at home

When I was a student, I used to write whenever I could grab a spare moment. Now, I like to lean a bit more into a routine. Ok, so maybe ‘routine’ is the wrong word, as that can vary at a moment’s notice. But I do understand the ways of putting my day together, so that I can choose the optimum time for writing.

When I’m on the moving, all that changes. I found myself aiming to write in the evenings, between dinner and bed time. Normally, this could be quite a productive time slot for me, but what I learned is that this doesn’t work if it follows on from six hours of driving, for example. This might sound obvious, but it quickly became something to factor into my planning. Instead, I ended up stopping en route for coffee towards the start of the day, so that I could write before my brain become too befuddled by all that travelling.

Instead of writing in the privacy of my own motel room, I ended up writing more in public spaces: coffee shops during the latter part of my trip, and, during the first part of the trip, New York Public Library.

Which brings me onto…

3 – Space

Unsurprisingly, the spaces I was writing in changed while I was away. In some ways this is obvious: I couldn’t write at my kitchen table because my kitchen (and the table) was a six hour flight away. So I had to think practically about what sort of space I need in order to write.

While I was at MacDowell, this obviously wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was an idyllic situation, as every day I could walk to my dedicated little cabin in the woods and write to my heart’s content, and where the only disruption to my day was when I had to get up to go outside and see if my picnic basket had been delivered yet for lunch.

But on the road, writing space needed more consideration.

What I found was that I can write in public spaces almost as easily as I can write in private spaces, given the odd caveat – such as nobody reading over my shoulder. I’m also not great with places that play music, particularly if that music has lyrics. I find myself listening to the words or the music instead of listening to myself thinking. Some sort of table (at table-height, rather than a sofa with a coffee table). Coffee helps, but is not essential. Ideally, nobody else there that I know – there’s something about anonymity in a space that helps with writing.

And that’s pretty much it. It turns out that I’m not nearly as picky about writing space as I thought I was. And it took travelling to the other side of the world for me to learn that.

(Of course, now that I’m back at home, I do still love working at my kitchen table. One of the downsides of writing in a coffee shop or a library is that you can’t really read your words aloud to yourself without getting funny looks…)

4 – Inspiration

So far, I’ve talked a bit about the limitations of writing on the move, and how I needed to adapt my writing style to the travelling lifestyle. But of course there are positive sides to it as well. The whole reason I went to the US in the first place was one of these positive sides: to research a poetry collection in the places where parts of it are set.

But travelling can also allow for unexpected inspiration. For me, that’s one of the best aspects of travelling. I’ve written multiple poems that I know would never have existed if it weren’t for travel. Which makes sense: life filters into art, and when we travel we’re more alert to life going on around us. We’re in a place, and often a culture, that we’re not entirely used to, and this makes us pay attention. And, of course, paying attention is exactly what provides quality material for writing.

I often find myself making notes while I’m travelling, so that I have something to look back on. Sometimes this takes the form of a diary. Sometimes it’s literally just a text note on my phone, with phrases and images jotted down in a long list. It sort of doesn’t matter, as long as I have something to look back on.

I rarely write complete poems when I’m travelling – although because of the specific poetry focus of this trip, I did end up writing a few complete drafts of poems while I was away this time. But more often, the travels will filter into the poems once I’m back: my experience percolating through my brain till they drip quite naturally into whatever poem is waiting to receive them.

Either way, writing or thinking about writing while on the move is a great way to inject some variety and freshness into the work.

5 – Managing your expectations

Last, but not least, I learned to be aware of my own limitations. This is probably something I need to think about in my life at home as well, but especially on the road – it’s so easy to create a plan for everything you want to write or to work on, and forget that, when you’re away, things take longer. I mean, getting from place to place always takes longer than the satnav says it will, because it doesn’t factor in stopping, or your slightly slower opposite-side-of-the-road driving pace, or getting lost. Getting fuel takes longer. Doing laundry takes longer.

As well as taking loner, all of these things take more energy, because you’re having to think about them a bit harder. Example: I went to buy shampoo, and whereas at home I would walk into the shop, pick my regular shampoo off the shelf and pay (all in the space of about three minutes), in America, I had to first work out which shop to go to, and then look at all the different brands and prices, and then work out the tax, and all the rest of it. Everything just takes that little bit more time and energy to figure out.

All of this is good in some ways, of course, as it feeds into Point 4, and that added alertness we have when we’re out of familiar territory. But what it does mean is that I had to manage my expectations as to how much I was going to write in a day. With the exception of the MacDowell residency, where I wrote way more than I expected, I generally wrote less while I was away than I would have done at home. But that’s ok. After all, it isn’t all about quantity – and the research and additional stimulation enabled by being abroad was, without a doubt, priceless.

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…

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

March has gone by in a whirlwind. A literal whirlwind at times, as a storm blew in at the start of the month and I had to force myself to leave the house. But also, obviously, a metaphorical whirlwind. And that’s just because there’s been so much going on.

(I’m going to keep this post deliberately personal and non-political, because I feel like crying every time I watch the news at the moment, either from anger, frustration or despair.)

In many ways, for me, it’s been a month of contrasts: from the start of the month, where I had days on end of not leaving the house, of burying myself in admin work at the kitchen table and drinking and endless supply of cups of tea; to the second half of the month, where my feet have barely touched the ground, and left me hopping from home to Manchester to Cork to London to NYC! So I guess it’s hardly surprising that I look up from my desk and suddenly it’s practically April. Not that April won’t be its own brand of exciting, to, of course…

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A few good things:

The great big trip: I’ve been talking about this one for a while, but it’s finally here: the great big Poetry Trip to America! I’m currently in New York (actually, I’m currently in New Jersey because it’s much cheaper to stay just across the river rather than in Manhattan itself), where I’m researching my collection-in-progress any New York Public Library, thanks to a Developing Your Creative Practice Grant from the Arts Council. (If you haven’t applied for one yet, let this be your incentive to go for it!)

I’m nearly at the end of my week in NYC, but after that it’s up to New Hampshire (by means of an excruciatingly long Greyhound bus trip) for a three week residency at MacDowell Colony, where I’m planning to put all this research to good use by drafting plenty of poems – and keeping my fingers crossed there are a couple of OK ones among them.

And speaking of poems…

Assembly Instructions: This month, my new pamphlet, Assembly Instructions, was published by Southword Editions, as a result of its winning the Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. I headed over to Ireland for Cork International Poetry Festival, where the pamphlet was launched, where I read alongside Regina O’Melveny and Breda Spaight, whose Southwod pamphlets were also being launched.

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Gretna: From Ireland, I hot-footed it to London in time for the Marchland Arms season at Ye Olde Mitre: a sixteenth century pub in Holborn. There, I saw Northern: a series of three performance pieces concerned with the borderlands between England and Scotland. One of these was Gretna: a semi-dramatised version of a series of poems I’d written about Gretna Green, performed by two actors and including music from folk musician Lora Watson. It was fascinating seeing the poems being brought to life by other people, and experiencing them with the added level of such beautiful music.

School workshops: Although most of the early part of the month was taken up with pre-trip admin, I also managed to run a couple of school workshops – including one on World Book Day. I didn’t get to dress up as a book character, unfortunately (which is a shame, because I love a good excuse for fancy dress), but it was such a wonderful day, filled with some amazing poetry crated by the young people, and I came away with a bag of handmade cards and intricately folded letters which the Creative Writing Club had made to present me with on my visit.

The National Trust: I also spent a slightly soggy day being filmed reading a couple of poems for the National Trust. These were both commissions for the National Trust’s Tables Turned project, which also saw me writing a poem inspired by a workshop with a group of former miners in Whitehaven last year. Unlike the miners’ poem, however, these two new ones were both filmed outside: one in the Borrowdale valley, and the other in Carlisle overlooking the River Eden. Let’s just say I had a lot of drying out to do on the drive home.

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The month in books:

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I haven’t read as much as planned this month (do I ever? Still testing myself at the new year’s resolution…), since I’ve been spending almost every spare moment trying to catch up on all the admin I didn’t do while I was Poet in Residence at the Wordsworth Trust in February, as well as trying to get ahead with all the admin that I won’t get done while I’m away in the US in March and April. So maybe it’s natural that the books have got pushed a little to one side?

But the good thing about being away, and about being here solely for the purpose of poetry, is that now I’m able to push them back into the centre a bit more. I’ve been rocking up to Bryant Park in NYC an hour or so before the library opens each morning, purely so I can spend some time reading before I start the day’s research. (Oh all right, it’s also an excuse to get coffee and pastry – but those things just go so well with books!)

  • The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr
  • Salt on Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie
  • other gods, by Regina O’Melveny
  • The Untimely Death of My Mother’s Hens, by Breda Spaight
  • Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
  • Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine

The month in pictures:

 

 

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have noticed me posting photos of a sleek blue chapbook with a bold yellow title. This is my new pamphlet! Hurrah!

Assembly Instructions is published by Southword, after it won the Munster Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. It’s a slim & visually stylish volume (thanks, lovely Southword folks!) about how we put ourselves together, and the formative experiences that make us who we are.

AVAILABLE TO BUY HERE

Although it technically came out a couple of weeks ago (and is available on Amazon here, and will soon be available directly from Southword here), I’ve only just got my hands on them. 

This week, I was invited to Cork International Poetry Festival, to launch the pamphlet at a reading. I read in the Grand Parade library, at a free event alongside two other poets, also launching chapbooks: Brenda Spaight and Regina O’Mulveny. Sometimes, I feel as though pamphlets or chapbooks published by the same press, or discovered through the same competition, can have a sort of homogeneity to them – but it was a lovely event, with a really interesting combination of voices, each of which felt very different to each other. 

In fact, it was a lovely festival overall. I almost want to say that everyone should go and enjoy Cork International Poetry Festival – but then if everyone descended on it, it might lose some of that intimate feel that it currently has. Because although the festival is international (and very much so, pulling an impressive list of participants from Ireland, the U.K., the rest of Europe and beyond), it feels like a small, friendly community. A well-kept secret that everybody is sort of in on. During the three days that I was there, I met some lovely people, and discovered some incredible poetry. What a wonderful festival to be a part of! 

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I was born in the morning

slithered out of the cut in my mother,
a thing no bigger than a bacon rind

and squalling. There was something
of the nymph about you
, she said later,

a dragonfly lifted too soon from the lake.
She watched my birth

in the sheet-metal ceiling,
her other self a storm cloud

brewing at dusk, a small fire
far too far from the beach.

When my mother unfurled her body,
her arms were scrubbed toufh

and she caught me. All through my life
she has rocked my reflection,

as we head for the unchartered deep.

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‘I was born in the morning’ is taken from Assembly Instructions. It was first published as part of a group of poems shortlisted for the 2018 Manchester Poetry Prize.

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A couple of years ago, I listened to Liz Lochhead being interviewed on Desert Island Discs. One of the songs she selected was Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Some Days There Just Ain’t No Fish’ – a 1947 song written by Bob Russell & Carl Sigman.

I’ve used a fishing metaphor on this blog before, when talking about submitting work to magazines & competitions, but it applies equally well to the actual creative process, too. The more often you sit down and try to write – the more often you cast your line – the more likely it is that inspiration will catch.

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

Which is all very well and good, and a useful maxim for forcing yourself to write when you think you’re too tired / hungover / busy / distracted etc etc. But what about when there’s something deeper going on, that’s in some way blocking your creativity?

I’ve talked a little bit before about what I think are the different types of writers’ block: the ‘I don’t really fancy writing at the moment’ type, and the ‘there’s actually something major that I need to deal with in my mental health that is completely prohibiting me from writing’. (Clue: the first one is much easier to solve, and basically just requires discipline; the second one is much more tricky.)

So what do you do if you’re experiencing that second type of creative block? If you’re turning up to the writing desk / kitchen table / cafe / train commute every day with your notebook and pen, and it doesn’t help? If you’ve found a stack of writing exercises to work your way through, but nothing comes out right? If you’ve been keeping a writing routine for weeks, waiting for that inspiration to come and find you working, and yet you still feel blocked?

This is the sort of thing some writers have nightmares about. When I was younger, I used to be one of them – I saw writers’ block as some mythical disease, like a witch’s curse that could descend on me at any time and leave me unable to string a sentence together. But the truth is, as I’ve got older, I’ve learned a bit more about my own brain, and about how my mind works. And I’ve learned that writers’ block isn’t so much a disease as a symptom of something else.

About three years ago, I started to experience some pretty hefty anxiety. I say ‘started to’, but it had sort of been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to recognise it for what it was – partly because I just didn’t know enough about anxiety, or about my own brain, but also because up until then it had always been a kind of low level burn, like the sound of a waterfall, always there in the background and sometimes louder than others, but never enough to make me stop and pay attention for very long. Then, at the start of 2016, there came a flood, and suddenly I was drowning in it.

For six months, I barely wrote anything. I tried. I really, really tried. I’d just left one of my two part-time jobs to give myself more time for writing, but whenever I sat down and tried to write something, it felt like someone had put a cement mixer in my brain.

Eventually, I went to the doctors, and refused the offer of pills (I knew that wasn’t what I wanted, and while they are absolutely the right course for some people, I knew that I wanted talking therapy instead). I was referred for therapy – or rather, I was given a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told to refer myself. I never rang the number.

(This isn’t a blog post about how the NHS, for all its strengths and qualities, is hugely lacking when it comes to supporting mental health – though if it were, I might point out how I told the GP that the very reason it had taken me several months even to go to him was because my anxiety kept preventing me, and so this tactic of asking me to jump through that appointment-making help-seeking hoop again was highly flawed. But that’s another argument.)

After 7-and-a-bit months, I got over my period of anxiety. No, that’s a lie. I didn’t ‘get over it’ (hateful phrase) – but the flood-rush subsided and the waterfall went back to its normal level, and the words began to return. A number of things helped me with this, particularly friends and books. I read an awful lot during that time, and although I didn’t realise it then, this reading was feeding my creativity. I might not have been producing anything, but the creative process was still going on, under the surface, building my understanding of story, of language, of creative thought.

But the real turning point came that summer, when I travelled to America to do an enormous road trip up the west coast with two friends. We spent three weeks on the road (as well as a week or so either side and my friend’s house in Oregon), and it threw me out of myself in exactly the way that my brain needed at the time.

In his book, The Idle Traveller, Dan Kieran talks about travel as the process of forcing your brain to pay attention. When we’re surrounded by the unfamiliar, our survival mode kicks in, and we’re forced to notice everything around us. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is about assessing the new environment for potential dangers, but it also serves the mind creatively. We have to be switched on. We have to exist in the moment, and to really pay attention to what’s around us. In other words, we have to be mindful.

While travelling up the west coast of America, we stopped in San Francisco. Sitting on a bench on Pier 39, sharing fish & chips with the two wonderful friends on either side of me, listening to the buzz of people and seagulls and the distant slap of water against the docks, I burst into tears. They were happy tears. For the first time in over half a year, I felt happy. Completely and utterly happy. I was able to be absolutely 100% in the moment: that almost meditative state that’s so important for mental health and for the creative process.

That evening in our AirBnB, I jotted down a couple of lines for a poem. Back at home a few weeks later, I started writing the poems that will hopefully form my first full-length poetry collection. A couple of months after that, I wrote the first scene of my novel.

So what’s the lesson here? I’m not trying to tell you how to cope with anxiety or any kind of mental ill-health, because all our minds work in different ways, so that’s going to be different for everybody. But what it taught me is that, whenever I feel blocked in my writing (as in, really truly blocked, not just procrastinating because checking twitter is easier), there are things I can do. I can read. I can go for a walk. I can travel. Not necessarily a long way – even a day trip somewhere local will do, as long as it’s somewhere I don’t know well, somewhere that I have to be fully present in.

So I guess the lesson, if there has to be a lesson, is that it’s ok not to be writing all the time. There are so many other things we can do to feed our creativity. Whether we’re writing a poem every day or just giving our minds a fallow period – as long as we’re stimulating our minds, that creative process never really stops.

And although at times you get a messful
Other days are less successful
Some days there just ain’t no fish

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:

Recently, I wrote a blog post sharing five fiction prompts, to help you get to know your character. In the interests of balance, I thought I would write a post with some poetry prompts as well.

None of these prompts suggests a subject for a poem, or tells you what to write about. (I may do this kind of prompt post in the future, but I’ll see how it goes.) Instead, each of these prompts is a way of generating material using the language itself.

Language makes up the bricks and mortar of our work. It’s what allows us to build. So, to continue this possibly-a-bit-overplayed analogy: these prompts won’t tell you what kind of house to build, but they will help you create more (and hopefully better) bricks.

Ready? Got your notebook handy?

Then I’ll begin.

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

1 – Freewrite

Different writers use freewriting in different ways, but for me it’s a bit like practising scales on an instrument, or like doing stretches before a race. I tend to freewrite for 5-10 minutes at the start of a writing morning / writing day, just to clear away the cobwebs and warm up the writing muscles. Sometimes, the thing I write becomes the basis for a poem, and sometimes not. I doesn’t really matter either way; the point is the writing of it.

So what is freewriting?

The idea is that you write without thinking too hard about it. You set yourself a timer (3-5 is probably a good amount, particularly if you’re new to freewriting), and you start writing. You don’t stop writing until the timer goes.

It doesn’t really matter what you write, and it certainly isn’t supposed to be a poem, or anything ‘poem shaped’. The aim is to just get words down on the page without worrying whether they’re any good or not. You can’t stop to censor yourself, so you just keep going. If you get stuck, write the first thing that comes into your head – even if that’s ‘I don’t know what to write about’.

The hardest bit about freewriting is working out how to start, so it can be useful to have a stock list of phrases or first lines as a jumping off point. Some of mine are:

  • I want to give you…
  • There was something about…
  • Do you remember…
  • What happened was…
  • That was the day…
  • It tasted of…
  • My body is…

Or another good exercise, when you’re feeling particularly creative, is to come up with a list of 5-10 first lines you could use for poems that you haven’t written yet, and then use them as the starting points for freewrites – one a day until you run out of first lines, and have to come up with another list.

You can use a line from someone else’s poem as a prompt, but of course if the freewrite does turn into a poem in its own right, make sure you change your first line, or credit the original writer.

Freewriting can be useful in two ways: one is to reach past all the day-to-day fluff that clutters our brains so much of the time, and allow you to access the edge of the dream state that exists just below the conscious mind; and the other is that you actually end up writing down all of that day-to-day fluff and clutter, but at least that clears it out of the way ready for you to move onto some other writing afterwards. Either way, you’ll probably come out with some words / phrases / ideas that you weren’t expecting.

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I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

2 – Phrases Breed Phrases

Sometimes, you write a phrase that won’t let you rest until you’ve written another phrase. I don’t mean those instances where you get so caught on the excitement and inspiration of writing that you can’t bear to put your pen down even though you’re desperate for the loo – though those moments can be very useful as well. Instead, I’m talking about the phrases that demand a certain syntax, which in itself demands that you write more in order for the sentence to work as a grammatically correct sentence.

For example:

Even though the dark was coming in.

is not a complete sentence in its own right. It’s only half of a thought, and as such it leads us asking questions, wanting to know more. It’s an idea that demands to be completed: Even though the dark was coming in… what?

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.

Now I’m not saying that’s a great line, but it’s certainly fuller than it was a paragraph ago. The syntax of ‘even though’ has forced me to add a second part to the sentence, which suddenly doesn’t just contain the images of darkness and of a drawing nearer, but also contains a lake, a silence, and me as the speaker of the poem. The picture is starting to build.

Good beginnings for this kind of enforced building up of a sentence are:

  • Even though…
  • And if…
  • Because…
  • Before…
  • After…
  • Once…
  • Under…
  • Despite…

Each of these are words you can use to begin a sentence, that force you to take the sentence somewhere new part way along. And if you want to get even more mileage out of your words? Then you can repeat your start words to build up a bigger picture. E.g.

Even though the dark was coming in, I couldn’t leave the silence of the lake.
And even though the air was full of midges, I sat without twitching.
And even though someone was calling me, far away, from across the fields, I pretended not to hear.

These might not all make it into a final poem, but it’s a way of getting words and thoughts on the page.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

3 – Repeat Yourself. Repeat Yourself.

Repeating yourself might sound like a cheat’s way of generating material for a poem, but it can actually be incredibly useful in providing a structure and a music to a poem. This can be repeating an entire line, as a kind of chorus returning us to the same idea, or it can be a word or words, woven through the poem like a tapestry.

  • Repeat the start of the sentence (anaphora): e.g. I went down the stairs. I went alone. I went because I wasn’t afraid of the dark.
  • Repeat the end of the sentence (epistrophe): e.g. The room was old. Everything about it felt old. Even the darkness felt old.
  • Repeat the end of one sentence at the start of the next (anadiplosis): e.g. I went down the stairs. The stairs creaked in the dark and the dark swallowed the torch beam.
  • Repeat a single word or its derivatives (polyptoton): e.g. The room was old and dark. In the darkness, I felt my fears darken.
  • Repeat the sentence structure (isocolon): e.g. The room was old and dark. My torch was weak and flickering.

This is a great exercise to use for generating material. Do it with your writing hat on, and leave your editing hat well and truly to the side. Don’t worry about whether you’re repeating things too much – just write and use it as a way to discover thoughts and images you didn’t know were hiding in your brain.

Afterwards (and only afterwards), you can put your editing / shaping hat on, and heed this word of caution: repeating anything has to be handled with great care, particularly in poems, which tend to be short enough that repeating any word anywhere is noticeable and so has to be deliberate. Make sure you’re repeating something for a reason, not just because it’s an easier way of making the page look fuller. Is the repetition adding something to your poem? Meaning? Rhythm? Music? Connection between apparently disparate ideas? You don’t necessarily need to be able to specify exactly what each repetition is adding, but you have to be able to feel it.

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writing prompt - Katie Hale

4 – A Brave New Word

Words have a wonderful way of suggesting other words – a bit like with the freewriting prompt, or the phrases breeding phrases prompt, above. Those two prompts both work on a syntactical level, and speak to our human need to complete and organise; we have an incomplete sentence, and we force ourselves to finish it. However, this next prompt works in much finer detail, on the level of individual sounds.

The first step is to pick some words you would like to include in your poem. These can be anything, but try to make them words that you like the sound of, and preferably words you wouldn’t normally use in your poetry. For example, for a while I had a tendency to put ‘meagre’ into everything I wrote, so I wouldn’t be allowed to choose ‘meagre’ for this exercise, as it’s already too heavily placed in my active writing vocabulary. We all know those words that we keep coming back to – our own little writing tics that we can’t seem to shake. Stay away from them – for this exercise at least. Find something more unusual to you – a new word you want to try out. Flick through books, if you like. See what kind of vocabulary other writers use. Choose one or two of their words (though not too many from each writer, or it’ll make it too easy to slip into attempting that writer’s voice as well).

My words might be: shotgun, fascinator, primal, staccato, grudge, cormorant, startle

Don’t worry – you don’t necessarily have to put all of those into the same poem. Although you can do, if that’s the sort of challenge you want to set yourself. Instead, you’re going to focus on the sounds. For each word, you’re going to build up a sentence that contains more of the same consonantal sounds.

Let’s take ‘shotgun’. The word ‘shotgun’ contains 4 consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘t’, ‘g’ and ‘n’. So you might want to make a list of words that include those sounds: nag, gin, gaunt, shatter, tosh, shutters, tiger, grain, grant, train, shunt, gauche, hunt

So your sentence could be: The tiger was gaunt and hunting, but the shotgun was a train shunting through the trees, shattering the jungle.

You’ll notice the use of words that weren’t on my original list – particularly ‘trees’ and ‘jungle’. That’s ok. After all, we don’t want a completely homogenous sound world in our poems, and the sentence needs to make sense as well. Having said that, ‘trees’ pretty much belongs in this soundscape anyway, with that ‘t’, and the ‘s’ that sort of speaks to the existing ‘sh’.

And as for ‘jungle’? Well, that definitely belongs.

Why? Consonants have pairings and groupings that give them a similar music. This is easiest to spot in the voiced and unvoiced versions of consonants, such as ‘b’ and ‘p’. Try saying these two letters. You’ll notice that one of them (b) uses your vocal chords, while the other (p) is composed of nothing but air. That’s because they are, in a sense, the same letter, but formed either using or not using the voice.

The same is true of ‘c’ and ‘g’. And ‘t’ and ‘d’. And also ‘ch’ and ‘j’ – which is why I said that ‘jungle’ belongs in the sentence above: ‘j’ belongs in the same sound world as ‘ch’, and ‘ch’ is not a million miles away from ‘sh’ (the only difference being the hard beginning on the ‘ch’ sound as opposed to the ‘sh’).

So what does this mean? Effectively, it just gives you a bigger sound world to play with. Suddenly, the word ‘shotgun’ lets you play with more consonantal sounds: ‘sh’, ‘ch’, ‘j’, ‘t’, ‘d’, g’, ‘c’, ‘k’, ‘ck’, ‘n’ and ‘m’.

So my list of words might include: danger, ticking, marked, shake, dodge, juggernaut, decode, game, knocking, cudgel, untangle, conglomerate, tug, ghost, gamut, mango, teach, crèche, niche, manchego, jumping, imagine, dawn, need, meadow… The list goes on and on.

Some consonantal sounds that go together:

  • b / p
  • c / g / k / ck / qu / x
  • d / t
  • f / v
  • h
  • j / ch / sh
  • l / r / w / y
  • m / n
  • s / z

Play around with these, using the sounds within a single word to create a sentence within the same musical soundworld. Often, this will force you to put words and images together that surprise you – and the added bonus is that it nearly always sounds beautiful and musical.

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Writing poetry in a cafe in Grasmere

5 – Challenges

This is a technique I use a lot when I’m working in primary schools, as it keeps children on their toes during the writing process, and it gives them something to work towards if they’re struggling for ideas. As with many of the exercises I do with children, I find that it can also be fun and challenging for adults, too. It’s a good exercise to use when you’re freewriting / jotting down ideas for a poem, as a way of forcing yourself to include images you wouldn’t ordinarily have thought of, or a way of taking your thoughts in new directions.

Essentially, you challenge yourself to include something in your poem. You might want to choose 3 of the following, and challenge yourself to include them in your next freewrite / your next poem:

  • an insect
  • some sort of water
  • a landscape feature
  • something made from wood
  • a municipal building
  • a plant
  • something dead
  • something alive
  • some kind of weather
  • an organ (bodily or musical – it’s up to you)
  • a piece of furniture
  • a bird

You can include these in a literal way in your poem (e.g. a grasshopper was announcing the evening), or you can use them to form your imagery (e.g. my heart was a grasshopper in the uncertain grass of my chest).

The trick with all of them is to try to be specific. So if you choose ‘water’ as one of your challenges, don’t actually use the word ‘water’, but something like ‘puddle’ or ‘dripping tap’ or ‘river’. Even better, be specific about the type of puddle, or dripping tap, or river. Is it a clear stream tinkling down the mountainside in summer? Or is it a gushing river, brown, full of silt and swollen with too much rain?

Use these challenges to force yourself to think outside the normal bounds of your creative comfort zone, and to generate imagery.

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And those are the five. Notebook at the ready – and good luck with your writing!

When I was a small child in the early stages of primary school, we learned about jobs – a slightly tricky concept for a child who has very little understanding of money and absolutely no grasp of what an economy is. But I knew that I loved stories and books, and I loved making up little stories of my own. So when I learned that there were people who wrote the books I loved to read, and that writing books was a type of job, I was overjoyed. While most of my classmates were fighting over being vets and tractor drivers, I came home and proudly announced to my mum that I wanted to be an author.

In true down-to-earth motherly fashion, my mum assured me how proud she was that I’d chosen a career (at the tender age of probably about five), but that if I wanted to be an author, I’d need a ‘proper job’ as well. Writing books, she told me, was something most people did on the side. I’d need to find a way to pay the bills.

For a couple of weeks, I thought about this. At that time I’m not sure I had any idea that some jobs paid more than others, so it was a lot to get my head around.

After much consideration, I came back to my mum: ‘I still want to be an author,’ I told her, ‘but I’ve decided what I want my proper job to be as well.’

My mum was all eagerness and congratulations: ‘That’s wonderful! What do you want to be?’

I grinned from ear to ear, ‘I want to be an actress.’

Bookcase bookshop, Carlisle

As adults, we know that some jobs pay more than others. We also know that some jobs pay enough to live off, whereas others do not. And let’s be honest, writing has always had a pretty bad reputation in terms of salary. You’re either J K Rowling, or you’re stuck in a garret somewhere with no heating and only half a heel of mouldy bread. As far as many people believe, there is no in between.

Not true, of course. There are plenty of authors who make a reasonable living from their craft, without become yacht-owning multi-millionaires. Just as there are plenty of authors who make an ok amount of money, but still need to keep another job to make up the rest. As with most careers, there’s a huge range of income levels, and a lot of that depends on the writer: what they write, their level of output, and what else they do alongside the actual writing to keep the wolf from the door.

In this post, I’m going to talk a bit about different ways to make a living as a writer. I’m then going to unpack this, and (with the help of some pie charts and a couple of line graphs) talk about what this looks like in practice in relation to my own income as a writer.

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Ways to make a living as a writer:

There are many different ways that a writer can make a living. Some of these depend on what you write (for example, poetry can look very different to commercial fiction), and some just on the preferences of the individual writer. Some means of earning an income will be directly related to the writing, and others less so. It’s all about what works for the individual writer.

As I write poetry and fiction, that’s what this post is focusing on. If you write scripts of any kind, or creative non-fiction, your outlets, and therefore your potential income streams, might be slightly different – although many of the following apply across genres.

So how do you earn a living as a writer?

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

1 – From your book:

This is perhaps the most obvious way for a writer to earn money – though many writers probably don’t earn as much from this as you’d think. It’s not uncommon for debut authors to get an advance of £5k, 15% of which goes to the agent. Hardly enough to live on, especially if you’re only publishing a book every few years.

Other ways your book can earn you money are through royalties from book sales (once they exceed what you’ve already been paid in your advance), and through the selling of additional rights, such as film rights or foreign rights. This effort to sell further rights to your book will be done either by the agent or by the publisher, depending on the terms of your contract.

Note: the above applies to fiction / non-fiction. If you’re a poet, you might earn enough for a couple of bottles of wine from selling your book, but I wouldn’t put the deposit on that mansion just yet.

2 – Readings / talks:

Usually once the book is published, an author will do events connected with that book. These could be anything from a reading of a section of the book, to a Q&A about their publication process, to a talk or panel discussion about some theme connected with the work. Often, they’re a combination of aspects of the above.

These opportunities aren’t always paid, but they should be. (See the Society of Authors’ page about where they stand on paying writers for appearances at festivals.) Thankfully, more and more, festivals and organisers seem to be wising up to the fact that this is work, just like any other job, and that authors need paying accordingly.

As you might expect, writers who publish once every few years tend to get more of these talks & readings in the years that they have books published. And, like everything else, certain writers’ work goes in and out of fashion, as do certain ideas. Which means that, while giving talks & readings can be a good way to supplement an income, it isn’t a steady constant.

3 – Workshops / teaching:

Many writers pass on their craft to other writers. This can involve running writing workshops in schools, or for adults – either through festivals, residential writing courses, or self-organised. Many writers also offer mentoring to other aspiring writers (either paid for individually by the mentee, or funded through some sort of arts funding), and / or teach at university level.

However, like any type of teaching, each of these has its own set of skills, which are themselves distinct from the skills you need simply to be a good writer. There are plenty of writers who run workshops because it’s the ‘done thing’, who realise quite quickly that they don’t enjoy it. My advice: if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Your workshop participants will pick up on your lack of enthusiasm, and you won’t be doing yourself (or your participants) any favours.

On the flip side, if you enjoy running workshops, then go for it! There’s huge benefit to anyone in being taught by a skilled writer who’s passionate about passing on the skills of their trade.

4 – Funding:

I mentioned the F-word. Sorry. But there are a number of different ways to access funding as a writer.

One of these is to do a fully funded PhD – which essentially means you get paid to write for around 3 years (which is normally the length of time a funding body will fund you for a doctorate). These aren’t always easy to come by, and you have to be certain you want to dedicate 3 years of your life to doing a PhD, but if you can get one, it’s a great way to make sure the bills are paid and still have plenty of time to focus on writing / studying some aspect of your writing.

You can also find funding to write from other sources, if you don’t fancy doing a PhD. These include things like the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice grant, which gives artists up to £10k to focus on developing some aspect of their creative practice, and so far seems to have a roughly 1 in 10 acceptance rate, which isn’t bad. The Society of Authors also gives contingency grants and grants for works in progress.

If you want to run another writing-related project, which isn’t just your own writing, then there are funding bodies you can apply to for that as well, including places such as Arts Council England (or Creative Scotland / Arts Council of Wales / Arts Council of Northern Ireland, depending on where you’re based), the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Fenton Arts Trust, and the Jerwood Foundation, to name just a few. Most of these require your project to work with other people, and have some sort of outreach / public impact. Some can be applied for as an individual, and some require you to work with an organisation.

5 – Commissions:

A commission is when somebody (an organisation or another person) pays you to write something for them. This could be anything, and commissions vary in terms of how prescriptive they are. For instance, some give you quite a bit of free reign to interpret the creative brief, whereas others have a very set idea of what they want you to produce.

6 – Residencies:

As with commissions, writer in residence positions can be extremely varied in what they offer. Because this is a post about earning income, I’m going to leave aside talking about the sort of residency where the writer pays to attend, and focus on the more generous sort – some of which will pay the writer a fee, some will pay transport & a small stipend, and some will just provide the free accommodation and maybe a few meals if you’re lucky. It all depends on the individual residency. Even the residencies that don’t directly pay a fee can be a huge financial benefit though – particularly in winter, when the heating bill can be enormous, and you’re effectively living without having to pay bills.

In the same way, different residencies will require different things from the writer. Some will require very little, and will instead allow the writer to write at their own leisure for the duration (which can be anywhere from a week to several months to even a year). Most require some sort of reading of work-in-progress at the very least, and some require engagement with the local community, either through workshops or school visits or talks.

These sorts of residencies can be quite competitive, particularly for the more lucrative / prestigious ones, but the time to write can be invaluable.

7 – Prizes:

Equally competitive (if not more so) are writing prizes. These can be prizes for anything from a single poem, to a collection of poetry, to a short story, to a full novel. As well as the famous ones like the Man Booker Prize or the Costa Prizes, there are the prizes that unpublished writers can enter. Many of these charge a submission fee, though, so some careful calculations need to be made about how many of these to enter (and which ones) if you’re going to make money rather than lose it. And even then, it definitely isn’t a reliable source of income.

8 – Other writing-related work:

I’ve already sort of mentioned this when I was talking about funding a few points up, but there’s plenty of other work a writer can that’s related to their creative practice, but isn’t just writing. Many writers work as editors, either for publishing presses or for independent magazines. Some also hold other jobs within publishing, or work as reviewers. And you know those prizes I was talking about? Most of those are judged by writers, who are (mostly) paid to do so.

9 – Other arts related work:

And if it isn’t work directly linked to writing, then there are other ways to work in the arts. There are arts organisations, theatres, galleries and museums across the country, all of which need people working in them to make them run. A lot of these also offer part-time jobs, which can be ideal if you want to work part-time, and dedicate the rest of your week to your writing. (I’ve spent the past 6 years working part-time in arts administration, on and off.)

10 – Any other work:

Or, if a writer prefers to keep the artistic section of their brain separate from their other job, then there are plenty of other ways to earn money. I know writers who earn their income working in call centres, clearing tables and pulling pints. As long as it allows them to write, and to pay the big red bills when they come through the letterbox.

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Ok – so what does all of this look like in real life?

The term for this type of living seems to be ‘portfolio career’ – which sounds much more impressive than saying I do ‘bits and bobs’. More accurate, too, because I often find that the various aspects of my career inform one another. For instance, experiences in the workshops sometimes feed into my own writing, and connections made through my arts administration roles have led to commission opportunities and appearances at festivals.

So how did I earn my income last year?

I’ve broken my income down into sections: earnings from commissions; earnings from running workshops (for young people and for adults); income from competition wins; earnings from readings / talks etc; money from my advance on my novel; income from other arts-related work (mostly, but not limited to, arts administration roles).

For 2018, the proportions are as follows:

As becomes clear very quickly from looking at this pie chart, over half of my income last year came from the advance from my novel. That makes sense. Depending on your publisher, an advance is usually paid in 3 or 4 installments. Mine is paid in 3, and because of various things to do with timings, I just so happened to get the first 2 installments in consecutive months last year. But, as I mentioned earlier, unless you’re publishing a book a year, you’re not going to get regular advance payments, which makes this year a slightly special one – and means that 2018’s income is highly skewed because of it.

(Since advances are usually negligible to non-existent for poetry, this is more of a feature of income streams for novelists and non-fiction writers.)

So let’s take that advance out of the equation, to try to get a more useful sense of proportions:

What we’re left with is a much more honest illustration of this type of portfolio career: just under half coming from workshops; around a third from other arts-related work; a reasonable chunk from commissions; and a smattering from competitions and readings.

CAVEAT: These proportions are specific not only to my career, but to this very particular year of my career. For example, the 2% for readings / talks is because I only appeared at one festival in 2018. This isn’t particularly surprising, when you think that the only book I had out was my pamphlet, which had come out the previous year (and I’d already done quite a number of events for it in 2017. If I do another pie chart at the end of 2019, when I have a poetry chapbook and a novel coming out, it’ll probably have different proportions here.

(Not included in these figures is the grant I received from the Arts Council’s Developing Your Creative Practice fund, as all of the work that will pay for is happening this year, and so I haven’t yet allowed myself to treat it as income.)

So how does this variation play out throughout the year? If a writer’s earnings can vary so much from one year to the next, what do they look like from month to month?

Again, these levels are skewed because of the novel advance. If you compare this graph to the first pie chart, we can see that I received 63% of my 2018 income in two consecutive months. But, as I said, this is kind of an anomaly – at least for me.

If we show the monthly income without including the advance, those August and September plot points look a little less drastic – though hopefully the varying of levels of income throughout the year is still apparent:

Even without the anomalous skew of the advance affecting the shape of the graph, April was a tough month. If every month was an April, then I’d definitely have had my electricity cut off by now. But then, April in 2018 contained Easter, along with all its attendant bank holidays, not to mention the school holidays. So suddenly this dip starts to make a lot of sense.

But if we look at the overall picture of the graph, rather than just month-by-month, my income has (generally speaking) improved as the year has progressed. Certainly I earned more in the second part of the year than I did in the first. I’m attributing this to the general progression that my career has undergone this year, rather than to some sort of shift in availability of work in the earlier to the later months.

But whatever the reason, it certainly shows that a writer’s income is far from reliable. It’s sporadic to say the least, and generally requires not only a willingness to juggle a portfolio of different income streams, but an ability to save for the leaner times as well.

 

‘Yes, but what do you actually do all day?’

I keep hearing this from people, most of whom probably imagine that I spend my days loafing about in an oversized white shirt, drinking coffee and penning the occasional deep & meaningful couplet. While this isn’t 100% incorrect (at least, I do spend most of the day drinking coffee), there’s actually a lot more to writing, and to being a writer.

I’m going to separate those two things out here, because so often they get lumped together, and in my opinion, they’re actually slightly different things. There’s writing. Then there’s being a writer.

So what’s the difference?

Well, writing is the act of sitting at the computer or notebook or even vintage typewriter, and forcing yourself to get those words on the page. Being a writer is all the other stuff that comes along with that, so that your work doesn’t just stay on that computer or typewriter or foolscap paper.

A lot of people who are starting out, who dream of being the next J K Rowling, tend to wish they could skip the ‘writing’ stage and get straight to ‘being a writer’ – though this is often because they believe the oversized-white-shirt-wearing, coffee-drinking, inspirational-loafing myth. The writers who know what’s really involved are the ones who want to push aside all the ‘being a writer’ stuff and get back to the more wholesome business of ‘writing’.

the writing desk - February 2018

So what does ‘being a writer’ really involve?

The 3 main things a writer needs to do (the ‘essential skills’ on the job description, if you like) are:

Write:

This goes without saying, I suppose, but it’s important to remember that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write anything. It’s all very well owning a rack of flouncy white shirts and a feather quill, but it’s the words on the page that are at the forefront of the job. They’re your product.

Imagine a biscuit factory. It’s got a killer marketing campaign, a red-hot accounts department, wonderful managerial staff… In fact, everything it does is first class. Except it never makes any biscuits. Well, no, not quite never. I mean, it made a biscuit once. Or rather, it mixed up the cookie dough, but then never got round to baking it. But still, it loves to talk at parties about how it’s a really really great biscuit factory.

It just doesn’t work, does it? If the biscuit factory doesn’t make biscuits, then it has no product, and nothing else really matters. (If talking about poetry / fiction / any other form of writing as a ‘product’ offends you, then I’m sorry. But this post is about the business of being a writer, and any business needs a product, no matter how soulful and erudite that product may be.)

Read:

Following closely behind writing is reading. Though really, I should say that reading comes before writing, rather than after it. Because the reading, as I’m sure we all know, informs the writing. To continue the biscuit factory metaphor: you need to have tasted biscuits before to know what they’re supposed to look like; you need to have seen a biscuit recipe to know what normally goes into them; you need to know what other biscuit factories are making if you want to make something that’s truly your own.

I’ll admit that reading is often the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m struggling for time – something I’m really determined to work on this year. But it’s amazing how many people think they can skip over the reading bit. I was once chatting to a guy before a poetry open mic night, and during the conversation I asked him who his favourite poets were. With a look of greatest derision, he replied that he didn’t read poetry, because it would cramp his writing style and he wanted to remain individual. Needless to say, his poetry was not individual, but instead was universally bad. (This was also the guy who, later that evening, told me my poetry was ‘unfeminine’, and that I should write about ‘nice things like flowers and rabbits instead’ – and then later proceeded to aggressively heckle a poet who was performing a more political piece. But that’s another story.)

Edit:

This is another absolute must for writers: once you’ve read plenty of books, and you’ve written your own creative work (whether it’s a haiku or a 100,000-word novel), you need to edit it. For some reason, this is another step that people sometimes think they can skip, as if the words they first scribble onto the page or bash away on the keyboard are somehow divine and Must. Not. Be. Tampered. With.

I don’t know whether this is because we’re lazy, and once we’ve written ‘The End’ we just want it to be over. Maybe we’re all just too eager to move onto the next thing. Or perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves into believing in the sacred moment of inspiration as some sort of untouchable perfect truth. Whatever reason, it’s almost always completely and utterly wrong. The work needs editing. Writing is a craft as well as an art, and a piece of writing needs to be crafted.

This doesn’t just mean checking for spelling and punctuation errors, either. It means rewriting. It means reworking, as if the poem/story/whatever is a piece of clay and you have to mould it into the shape it ought to fit. Sometimes it’s like a house that needs tearing down and building back up again, with the same bricks all present, but just a different architecture. Editing is a skill in and of itself – and it doesn’t stop once you hand in the manuscript to your agent / editor and get it accepted. The editing goes on and on, usually for months.

*

I bought some fancy coloured gel pens for editing

These are my three absolute essentials to being a writer. The ‘necessary skills’ on the job description. The rest of it sort of depends on what sort of writer you want to be, and how you want to run your business. But here are a few common ‘desirable skills’, which can definitely help you on your way to being a writer:

Emails: Ok, I know it’s obvious, and I know it isn’t particular to writers. But it’s worth mentioning, if only because it takes up so much blooming time. Whatever business you’re running, dealing with emails is an important and time-consuming aspect of the job. It’s just the world we currently live in. And being a writer is no different.

Submissions: If you want people to read your work, you’re going to have to make some sort of effort to get it out there. Of course, one method of doing this is going down the self-publishing route, but I’m going to leave that to one side for this post – partly because it isn’t my field of expertise, but mainly because once you’re self-publishing, you’re not just being a writer: you’re also being an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, a designer, a marketing person, a sales rep, and a whole host of other things besides. So looking at the more traditional route: submitting your work. This can be as big and momentous as submitting a novel to agents, or as frequent as submitting poems to journals or competitions. Either way, the skill set is the same: research your options and opportunities; tailor your submission to the recipient; create some sort of system so you know which pieces you’ve sent to whom, and when; try not to get too disheartened if / when it comes back as a no.

Applications: In the next column over to submissions is applications. This is about looking for those other opportunities for you as a writer, which you can apply to – such as funding opportunities, residencies, and any freelance work that might be up your street. (Rather than submitting your new type of biscuit to a ‘biscuit of the year’ competition, you’re looking for a council grant to help you build that new wing of the biscuit factory. That sort of thing.) There’s no rule that says you have to do this, but if you get a grant to buy you time to write, then that’s got to be a good thing. After all, if you’re thinking of your writing as a business, then you need to find a way to make that business pay. (I’ll talk about other ways to earn a living from writing in another post.) But warning: depending on the application, these can be incredibly time-consuming, which means lots of time writing applications, less time writing the real creative stuff.

Marketing: Again, there’s no rule that says you have to do this as a writer, but more and more, it’s expected that writers will assist in marketing their own book. As well as the book, however, writers often find they have to market themselves as people. Luckily, there’s no set way of marketing yourself, or your book, which largely means you can tailor it to what you feel comfortable doing. If you love making YouTube videos, then great, you can start a book vlog. If you hate the idea of filming yourself, but you’d love to go out and run events in local bookshops, then that’s also great.

Blogging & social media: This is probably really a part of the ‘marketing’ point above, but it’s such a major thing that I think it deserves its own subheading. Often with these things, you’re not marketing a specific book (or one particular type of biscuit), but you’re marketing yourself as a whole brand. And you’re doing this not by shouting into the twitter-void in the hope that someone somewhere will hear your echoes. You’re doing this by connecting with people: with your readership, with fellow writers, with other people in the literary industry. All too often I see writers tweeting things like ‘Buy my book!’ followed by a link and 9-10 hashtags. Once or twice this is fine, but when this is the only thing a writer ever seems to tweet, then you have to question why you’re following that person. After all, if you had a choice between eavesdropping on, or even engaging in, an interesting conversation, or standing beside the man in the sandwichboard continuously yelling about some promotion or other, I can guess which one you’re most likely to pick.

Talks / Panels / Readings: Again, the days where writers wrote a book, came out for a signing or two the week it was published, then returned to their garret to work on the sequel are long gone. It’s very common for writers to give readings of their work, or to be expected to talk on subjects related to their book – either individually or as part of a panel discussion. This isn’t just a case of showing up and rattling something off, either. Like anything else, all these appearances require preparation. The ability to prepare for these, and then to perform well in them, is another skill in the writer’s job description.

Writing (again): As well as working on your own creative projects, as a writer you might also be expected to write articles and commissioned pieces. This is much in the same vein as giving talks or appearing on panels, except that it’s written down and published, instead of spoken live.

Workshops / Teaching / Project Management: And lastly, there are all the ways that a writer can make money, which are indirectly related to writing, but not writing itself. Many writers teach, or run workshops, or mentor other writers. Or they manage writing-related projects, or work for literature-based organisations. All these things have their own job descriptions, but I wanted to make a nod to them here, just to illustrate the sheer variety of skills required to ‘be a writer’, beyond just the skill of ‘writing.

*

Good luck – and keep writing!

It’s that time again – the time for looking back at the year gone by and wondering where the time went. Though for once, this year doesn’t feel like it’s rushed by me in a blink and a blur. For once, I can look back and think that 1st January 2018 actually feels like a full year ago. Maybe because so much has changed since then.

I’ve talked a bit about this before, how luck can suddenly change and how validation can come at the drop of a hat, but it’s such a big thing that I want to talk about it again. Because this time last year I wasn’t quite making it as a writer. Don’t get me wrong – I was pleased about how things were going. I’d had some poetry successes in 2017, had taken a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and was several drafts deep into a novel. But it wasn’t financially sustainable. The writing itself was going well, but I was struggling to pay the bills.

And then, along came June: the month that turned it all around. Within the space of a few weeks, I’d received a grant from the Arts Council and Canongate had acquired my novel. And just like that, I could afford to put the heating on. Just like that, my dream of being a completely freelance full-time writer looked financially viable.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising how much of a difference money makes. After all, it’s what drives so many people to get out of bed in the morning, and what stops so many more people from getting to sleep at night. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how much that financial stability meant to me – not least because it means time when I can write, without worrying about how to buy groceries or fill the car with petrol or anything else so quotidien. Instead, I can worry about much more interesting things, like line breaks and plot and structure. Which is exactly the sort of thing I like to be worrying about.

Poetry:

In terms of poetry, 2018 has been a year for residentials, commissions and prizes.

I started the year with a poetry residential in St Ives, which was a week-long retreat at a hotel with four other lovely poets and lots and lots of scones. I then went on my first ever Arvon course in June, which was hugely inspirational, and where I wrote probably more poems than in either the 6 months before or since – before rounding off the year with 4 days at Kim Moore’s Poetry Carousel in Grange-over-Sands: 4 workshops with 4 different tutors, and once again buckets full of inspiration.

What was so lovely about each of these occasions was that they gave me time to focus on what the poetry I wanted to write, while also pushing me and my work in new directions. These opportunities were particularly helpful, because most of my other writing this year has been either fiction, or has been commission-driven.

Given that I completed my first ever commission in the second half of 2017, I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed with the commissions I’ve had this year – which just goes to emphasise how quickly things turn around and take on a positive streak.

It started in January, with a poem for the Barbican Centre‘s Subject to Change project. The poem was called ‘Honey’, and was written in response to an incident that occured on Virgin Trains’ East Coast service at the start of the year. This commission was followed by one from Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, which is still ongoing, and another from the National Trust: as part of their three-year participation project, Tables Turned, I was asked to meet a group of former miners in Whitehaven, and to use their memories of working in the mines to write a creative response through poetry. The result was ‘We’re still here, with luck’, using comments made by the miners interspersed with my own words:

I’ve also been working on a commission from a theatre company, Théâtre Volière, to write a sequence of poems about the history of women in the area around Gretna Green. Théâtre Volière will then collaborate with musicisn Lori Watson to create a theatre piece, Gretna, which will be performed at Ye Olde Mitre in London next March.

And, while we’re on the subject of history, my final commission of 2018 was from BBC Radio Cumbria to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, in response to Carlisle’s Armistice Day celebrations 100 years ago. The lovely people at Carlisle Cathedral were then good enough to let me climb the (very very very steep) stairs to the roof of the bell tower with Radio Cumbria’s Belinda Artingstoll to film it.

I also had a commission this year to work with Kendal Poetry Festival to create a ‘guerrilla poetry‘ project – except that, being me, I sort of got a bit carried away with it, and instead of creating one guerrilla poetry project, ended up creating three. These were a River of Poems, which wound alongside the Kent from the weekend before the festival, a series of pop-up performances at the Brewery Arts Centre‘s community open day at the end of August, and a whole great sack of Festival Survival Kits, which were distributed during the festival itself. All three projects featured poems by member of Brewery Poets and members of Dove Cottage Young Poets.

And while we’re on the subject of festivals, this year I achieved a long-term goal and performed at StAnza Poetry Festival. For those who don’t know, StAnza is a lovely festival that takes place every March, and I’ve been desperate to read there ever since I was doing my MLitt at St Andrews in 2012/13. This year, I not only got to do a reading, but I also got to perform at the festival launch event (at the same event as Barbara Dickson!) and to appear on a panel at the festival finale. Huge shoutout to StAnza for the opportunities and their support!

And, completing the trilogy of festivals, this year I was also invited to run a poetry workshop at Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. Borderlines is another festival that I hold close to my heart, as I remember being in a meeting a few years ago when they were talking about plans for the first one, and it’s been hugely exciting to watch it grow, and to keep attending events and workshops there over the years. And even more exciting to be allowed to run one of my own!

Continuing the Cumbrian theme, 2018 also saw the publication of the much-lauded (and rightly so) anthology of contemporary Cumbrian poetry, This Place I Know, published by Handstand Press – which I am very pleased to be a part of.

Kendal Poetry Festival 2018: guerrilla poetry, River of Poems

As well as publication, it’s also been an amazing year for prizes! I’m putting this down to my 2018 resolution, which was to send off 100 submissions / applications during the year. I didn’t quite make the 100 (more on this in a later post), but it did mean an unusually high number of submissions, which happily meant an unusually high number of successes. These have included winning the Buzzwords Poetry Competition, coming second in the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, and being shortlisted for the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize. As well as individual poems, I was also delighted (and very surprised) to win the Munster Literature Centre’s Fool for Poetry Chapbook Competition. As a result, my chapbook, Assembly Instructions, will be published by Southword in Spring 2019, and will be launched at Cork International Poetry Festival. I also found out just recently that I’ve been shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, which I find out the final results of at the start of February. Fingers crossed!

And rounding off an already-pretty-round year of poetry success, I want to mention the one that marked the start of it all turning around, that took me from being end-of-the-line defeatist to writer-actually-earning-a-living-from-it: the Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England. Funding to research and write a collection of poetry, including a research trip to New York, Virginia & Kentucky, which will take place next year. Talk about exciting opportunities!

Editing the novel

Fiction:

Last year, I drafted a novel – something that was as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. As I’ve already talked about in a number of previous posts, this came about because I got a place on Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme. Earlier this year, my time as part of that mentoring scheme came to an end (though not before a lovely meet-up with some of my fellow WriteNow mentees at the Penguin Random House offices on The Strand in a sizzling hot day in April). There was a bit of back and forth for a few months, but over the summer I got the news: that Canongate wanted to publish my book.

As a result, My Name is Monster is coming out in June next year!

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.

The proofs for the novel arrived while I was on holiday in November, and they look beautiful – there’s even some lovely shiny copper foil on the cover. But what got me most is the fact that it also smells like a book: that beautiful new-book smell that speaks of all the possibility hidden between unread pages. June is going to come around so quickly!

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale - proof copy

Other Things:

Fitting with the mix of things this year has brought, I also went back to working in an office for part of the year. For around nine months, I spent a day a week working at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal, doing admin in the Youth Arts department. It was so so lovely having colleagues again: people that I see and get to chat to and work with every week. That’s something I can really see myself missing next year.

I also led a series of workshops while I was there, as part of a pilot project working with young LGBTQ+ people in the Kendal area, which was really good fun. As was the young filmmakers’ class I ended up running! And no, I’m not suddenly a filmmaker. It was a self-led group of young people, and I was just there to keep them on track in a support role. The plus side is that I learned a lot about film along the way!

I’ve also run an awful lot of schools workshops this year, in both primary and secondary schools, which have been really fun – particularly the one I ran in QEGS library (which was the scene of my first kiss over a decade ago!) and the one I ran for a group of teachers from different secondary schools, where I got to push them out of their comfort zones and get them to see poetry as play. (That said, most of them didn’t actually take all that much pushing!) Alongside these, I’ve run a fair few Arts Award Discover days in schools, and was also invited to co-run a workshop at the Barbican Centre with friend & fellow-former-Barbican Young Poet Kareem Parkins-Brown.

A bit closer to home, I was a guest on Radio Cumbria’s new Arty Show a couple of months ago, which was a really fun few hours talking all things arty, listening to lots of music and interesting interviews, and eating chocolate biscuits!

Dove Cottage, home of Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth

What Next?

From the look of it so far, 2019 is shaping up to be an even busier year than 2018!

I have my poetry chapbook, Assembly Instructions, coming out in March, and then My Name is Monster coming out just  few months later in June. So there’ll be plenty to do in preparation for both of those, and then of course readings and events around them after the launches themselves.

And speaking of events – I also have Gretna: a theatre piece created in collaboration wtih Théâtre Volière and musician Lori Watson, exploring the borderlands between England and Scotland from the perspective of the women so often written out of its history. Gretna is showing in London in March, for two performances only!

Luckily, there’ll also be plenty of time among all of this for writing, as I have three residencies and a research trip lined up for next year. The first of these is a month-long residency at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere. I’ll then be spending another month in Brussels at the other end of the year, with Passa Porta, in conjunction with the National Centre for Writing and the Flemish Literature Fund. And in between the two, I have three weeks at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, which should provide a calm oasis of writing time in the middle of a hectic research trip to New York, Kentucky and Virginia.

So onwards into a brave new year!

The Year in Pictures:

Six weeks ago marked the centenary of Armistice Day: 100 years since the official end of the First World War. The atmosphere was a strange mix of learned horror and official pomp and circumstance, with a disturbingly celebratory and victorious tone to some of the remembrance events. Six weeks on, I want to share my own poem about the centenary, which was broadcast on Radio Cumbria on 11th November 2018.

‘When there was peace’ was commissioned by BBC Radio Cumbria’s Up For Arts project, supported by Heritage Lottery Funding. It was recorded at Carlisle Cathedral.

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to work with a group of former miners from Whitehaven on an oral history project. This was part of Tables Turned, a three year participation project run by the National Trust and partners, which is all about bringing together community groups, young people, historians, curators and artists in projects that deepen understanding, build new partnerships and inspire creativity.

After meeting the miners and listening to them recount their experiences of working in the mines on Cumbria’s West Coast, I was commissioned by the National Trust to write a poem in response. The result is ‘We’re still here, with luck’, whose title comes from something one of the miners said right at the end of the meeting, as we were packing away all the chairs and biscuits and recording equipment. Quotes from the miners are threaded throughout the poem, which was then filmed by John Hamlett.

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‘We’re still here, with luck’

 

                                       You can tell a miner from the scars,
                                       blue with coal dust, like free tattoos.

A miner wears his memory in his skin –
the mines and all the men who mined them,
screen lasses who sorted the coal

                             with good shoulders, shotputters’ shoulders.

Sitting in a circle in the church hall
in the room with custard creams and a serving hatch,

                                                     we teeter above a shaft
                             of stories, hanging like the cage at pit top
                             over a 1200ft drop. Outside,

boarded shut at the backs of houses and the edges
of fields, are beginnings of tunnels
like the town’s capillaries.

We bring them in,
till the adits are the mouths of the men

and the conversation goes back generations.
There’s a seam we keep following,
because these men remember the town
before they were born, can mine
stories and places passed hand to hand –

                                       black dust on Golden Sands

                                        and watter runnin’ in like hell

Some say the pier at Parton
was blasted by a storm, others
how Lowther pulled it down –
their tales like passageways that intersect
then channel on.

                                       No seam lies in a perfect plane.

In the deep, their memories
grow big and spacious as a ballroom, a new face
waiting for the goaf to drop:

                                       rippled, like being on a beach,

the fat clams of ironstone nodules, marcasite
like fish scales
where the rock
dances to the muscled band of the seam,
where the girders bend and break
and we wait.

           That waiting was the most profound sound you ever heard

like the stillness after the last reverberation
of a cathedral bell.

From their mouths come the names
compressed and precious as a litany, as coal:

                             Haig, William, Wellington, Lowca, Kells.

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:

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:

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

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

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

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

So that’s my challenge for this month:

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

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

Good luck, and happy writing.

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

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

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

Poetry Cairn, Lakes Alive Festival

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

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

Katie Hale. Photo - Tom Lloydphoto: Tom Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

Penguin Random House: WriteNowLive Newcastle

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

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

*

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck!

Reading the Signs

That was the summer we blatted the ants
with bits of kitchen roll, smudging
their miniature bodies between the countertop
and our thumbs. It didn’t rain for six long weeks
and in the spare room, a business of flies
crawled into the gaps around the windows
to feast on the wood’s protective coat.
A sparrow flung itself into the glass
of the front door. It lay broken on the step,
its wings and feet at wrong angles, till I shovelled it
into a polythene bag – though the grease spot
stayed on the window for weeks.
We slept in different rooms, agreed
that all these things, these signs, were unconnected.


‘Reading the Signs’ was first published in The Compass