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:

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

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

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

The Fringe in numbers:

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

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

CAST:

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

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BAND:

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

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CREATIVE:

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

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BEHIND THE SCENES:

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

Keep an eye out for the future of the show!

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

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

Poetry:

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed the lucky streak keeps going!

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

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

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

 

Fiction:

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

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

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

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on…

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

Theatre:

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

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

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

Hence rewrites and revisions.

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland

The months in books:

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

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

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

The months in pictures:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The month in pictures:

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Series 1, Episode 2: Stephen Hyde

Face to Face is a series of short monthly conversations with interesting people about the things that interest them. Phones down. Screens closed. Talking face to face.

S1 E2: In this episode, I talk to Stephen Hyde about the collaborative creative process.

Stephen Hyde is a composer, director and creator of theatre. Born and bred in Cumbria, Stephen moved to Manchester in 2009 to study composition at Chetham’s School of Music, after which he took up a choral scholarship at Merton College, Oxford. He is co-founder of touring Shakespeare company Three Inch Fools, and production company leoe&hyde, and his interests lie in aesthetics, Shakespeare, neo-noir film, musical theatre and folk.

I first met Stephen at Penrith Junior Players 15 years ago, when I was just 11.

Since then, we’ve worked together on a number of shows through the youth theatre – including his memorable portrayal of a Vicar for the first show I ever wrote back in 2007. In 2015, we co-created Yesterday: A Musical in Three Halves, which premiered at the Burton Taylor Studio in Oxford. Now, we’re rewriting the show for a Fringe production, and discussing future ways of working together…

The end of another year, and a whole 12 months since I gave up my main source of income in order to focus more on my writing. A whole 5 months since I went completely freelance. I don’t think it’s any less scary than it was back in January, but it’s a funny thing, looking back on a year. In some ways it seems like forever, and at the same time it feels like no time at all.

For instance, I feel a little bit like I’m still taking baby steps; I’m definitely still an ’emerging’ writer, though I’m not sure how I’ll know when I’ve actually ’emerged’. But then when I sit and list everything I’ve done this year, it feels like much more than a year’s worth of work.

Writing at the Wellcome Collection

Poetry

Most of my focus this year (as always) has been on poetry, and writing as much of it as I can. I’ve started going to Kim Moore’s Barrow poetry writing workshops, and Brewery Poets writing group, and a monthly poetry sharing evening in Shap, which have all been great for making me write more. So great, in fact, that I’ve started writing a new long poetry sequence (so a huge thanks to the Poetry Business workshop at Kendal Poetry Festival, for the spark which set that sequence off for me in June).

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also started a monthly wordy open mic night in Penrith. Word Mess takes place on the 3rd Tuesday of every month (except December & August) in the old mess hall at Penrith Old Fire Station (Eden Arts). Attendance has been building steadily, and we now have a lovely little group of regulars, and a slightly bigger group of occasional-ers – though whether they come because of the quality of writing or the quality of the bar is anyone’s guess! Maybe for both.

In terms of my own poetry, it hasn’t gone badly: a couple of poems in magazines, including one that’ll be in The North in January; a commended poem in York Poetry Competition; and being shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize.

Not bad – but it isn’t all about poetry.

I don’t know how other people work, but I meet a lot of people who categorise themselves. ‘I’m a novelist’, or ‘I’m a poet’, or ‘I write for theatre’. Obviously there are people who pick a form and stick to it, which is fine if that works for them – but I used to think that was the only ‘correct’ way to do things. In fact, I spent a couple of years actively not writing anything but poetry, because I had this bizarre notion in my head that writing prose or script would somehow make me a lesser poet.

script writing for theatre - Katie Hale

Theatre

Writing Yesterday with Stephen Hyde last year, the theatre bug bit me again, and those play ideas that had been simmering under the surface kept nudging at me – so this year, when I suddenly had more time on my hands, I decided to let them out.

This year I’ve drafted two play scripts – both of which are currently both sitting in a drawer fermenting, until enough time has passed for me to look at them with fresh enough eyes to give them a proper redraft. It’s been so great to get back into playwriting, that I almost don’t mind whether anything happens to them or not. The feeling of exercising those script-writing / dialogue / plot muscles was satisfying enough in itself. Like when you go for a run after a long period of inactivity, and you feel a kind of glorious ache in all the muscles you haven’t used for ages.

Then, while I was stuck in Tulsa airport for 24 hours as a storm raged in Chicago and the UK voted to leave the EU, I wrote the lyrics for a new song (also by Stephen Hyde), for the Three Inch Fools’ touring production of Macbeth. I think there may be a recording of this surfacing at some point in the new year, but for now, if you’re not already a Fools fan, you should definitely check them out.

I’m also getting stuck back into the rewriting process of Yesterday, working with Stephen. After a few months working very solidly on my own, it’s good to get back to collaborating again, and to remember that excitement of bouncing ideas back and forth between two people until they become something much bigger than either of you could access alone, and neither of you can quite say who came up with what. Much more of this to follow in the new year…

New York - writing in a cafe, Katie Hale

Fiction

Ok, so I haven’t really been a fiction writer for about half a decade. Like most writers, I guess, I started out writing fiction, because stories are the first creative thing you’re taught to write in school. But my poetry, and even my theatre, has superceded my fiction for the last ten years, and the fiction has been basically absent for around half that time.

And yet… Like a lot of people, I had a novel lurking. You know the one, swimming in the depths of your brain – the one that floats to the surface when you feel particularly inspired by a good book you’ve read, or when you’re trying to get to sleep, or doing the dishes.

This year, I decided to give it a go. So far, I’m only about half way through the initial drafting stage, so there’s no knowing whether anything will come of it, or whether (perhaps like the play scripts) it will just sit in my desk drawer. But already it’s looking hopeful.

Over the summer, Penguin Random House put out a call for submissions from minority writers, to receive a place on one of their WriteNow insight days, which includes a 20-minute one-to-one with an editor. Having submitted an application & 1000-word extract with my ‘I’m not really a fiction writer but I’ll give this a go’ hat on, I couldn’t really believe it when I heard I’d got a place on the Manchester insight day in February 2017 – especially when I heard that there were over 2000 applications for just 150 places. Talk about a confidence boost!

Even if nothing else comes of this, that acceptance email has given me the confidence to write a novel (well, novella) that otherwise would have remained unwritten.

Arts Award Discover workshops

Projects

Work-wise, my main project this year has been running schools workshops and delivering Arts Award Discover. I delivered I-can’t-quite-remember-how-many workshops in schools for the Wordsworth Trust, to tie in with their Arts Award Discover project, where the children wrote poems about places that meant something to them. I also ran Arts Award in Shap and Clifton Primary Schools, which was great fun – especially in Shap School, which was my alma mater. (Can you call it an alma mater for a primary school, or is that just for universities?)

As always, the children blew me away with the quality of work they produced. One particular phrase that I wished I’d written myself came from an 8-year-old, who wrote, ‘I am as shy as a funeral.’ I think I was too gobsmacked to think clearly for about 5 whole minutes. So that night I shared the simile on facebook, and got a whole host of gobsmacked reactions from other people, too.

Oh, and speaking of sharing…

This year I created Poetry Plaster Packs. The idea was to share little packets around Penrith on Valentine’s Day. Each one contains: a plaster (for the literal cuts and scrapes), a cheerful little poem (for the figurative ones), and a little gift – because let’s face it, who doesn’t love a present? I shared about 40 on Valentine’s Day, and a few more since. I suspect I may be distributing a few more in the new year, too.

I’ve also had 3 online projects this year:

The Sam Thorpe Trust Fund: I put together the website for this earlier in the year, and it’s worth checking out, especially if you’re in the Penrith area. The Fund gives grants to young people who want to do something extraordinary, and to schools / organisations that work with young people.

#SomethingGood: On Wednesday 9th November, I was sitting on my sofa in a state of shock, having spent an almost-sleepless night watching America elect a future president with no history of government but a long history of racism, misogyny, and abuse of power. I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. Some of my American friends were posting on social media about how to contact your senator to raise protests, but I’m not American; I don’t have a senator. Instead, I decided to do something quieter, but hopefully also positive:

The Tea Break Project: And speaking of America, I’ve also started a new travel blog this year. Some of you might remember my first travel blog, Second-Hand Hedgehog. I’ve now moved to a new online home: www.teabreakproject.com – with (hopefully) better content, better design, and better stories from life on and off the road. This year, my travels have included Portugal, Marrakech, Kansas, a massive road trip up the west coast of America and into Canada, and a week in New York.

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The Year in Books

Every year I make it my goal to read at least 50 books. This year I’ve read 57, which isn’t bad – although I haven’t read as much poetry as I’d have liked. Something to make sure I work on next year.

I have, however, read a lot of plays, thanks to my rekindled interest in theatre and writing for the stage.

I’ve also read a lot of contemporary literary fiction written in the first person, to try to get my head in the right place for drafting the novella. Among these, I’ve discovered Margaret Atwood. How it’s taken me till age 26 to read any Margaret Atwood, I have no idea, but I’m buzzing with that exciting feeling that comes when you fall in love with an author’s writing style. I have to physically prevent myself from running to the till every time I see one of her books in a bookshop.

As well as new discoveries, I’ve made a great rediscovery this year: The Little House on the Prairie. I re-read this in preparation for my trip to Kansas (and the real-life little house on the prairie just outside my great aunt’s home town of Independence). I thought I knew the story. What I hadn’t realised was that I’d only ever read that one book in the series, and that they were a fascinating insight into American history and culture, and why the middle of the country is the way it is.

My top 10 books this year (in alphabetical order):

  • Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
  • Zinnie Harris, How to Hold Your Breath
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House on the Prairie (series)
  • Helen Mort, No Map Could Show Them
  • Rory Mullarkey, The Wolf from the Door
  • Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
  • James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
  • Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth
  • Em Strang, Stone
  • Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

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The Year in Pictures

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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