Like a lot of things this year, my regular blog posts have gone out of the window. After all, once I’d written about why I wasn’t really writing very much, what else was there to say?

But since then, things have started to pick up a little bit. I won’t say ‘get back to normal’, because that’s still a very long way off, especially with things like residencies and in-person workshops. But there are definitely more things happening. And a few things have slipped under the radar without my really noticing them.

So what have the past five months looked like for me?

A Few Good Things:

Writing:

To say I haven’t been writing isn’t entirely true – though at the beginning of lockdown, I did find it incredibly difficult to get even just a few words down on paper. But what is true is that my writing practice has changed slightly.

For one thing, the novel I was planning to work on has been put on hold. This is partly because, during lockdown, I haven’t had the brainspace for something as big an sprawling as a novel. There are just too many movable parts, and too many options, so it just wasn’t really working for me. I also ran into the problem of what to do about lockdown within the novel – something I know a lot of writers have been grappling with this year. Do you include lockdown, which probably drastically changes your story? Do you set the book in 2019, which feels weird, because you know that, whatever the ending, the characters are heading towards lockdown? Nothing felt quite right.

So, instead of the novel, I’ve been playing around with some short stories. In a short story, at least, it feels easier to suspend disbelief and forget about coronaviris for a few thousand words; it becomes easier to set them in the non-specific contemporary.

I’ve also been writing a little bit of poetry – although weirdly, a lot of the headspace that I’ve struggled with in terms of novel-writing has also been a struggle in terms of poetry. Something about the lateral way of approaching the world in a poem, which makes it a different process to write. I was lucky enough to have a poem included in Carol Ann Duffy’s Write Where We Are Now project, documenting the lockdown period through poetry.

I was also lucky enough to receive support from the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund, which has been a huge help in supporting me over the past six months, when almost all of my income has disappeared.

Bits of a manuscript laid out on a rug

Fellfoot Fables:

I say ‘almost’, because I have still had one project running. Fellfoot Fables was originally planned as a series of in-person schools workshops, engaging children from schools at the foot of the Pennines with their local landscape, and encouraging them to write about it through poetry.

Obviously, the in-person workshops weren’t able to happen, but we did manage to move the project online, so that the workshops could be delivered digitally. We’ve also branched out so that members of the community can get involved, too, and there are a series of video prompts to encourage you to write about your local area. (You don’t have to be in the Pennines area to do this – anyone can take part!)

Get involved in Fellfoot Fables here.

straight road leading away over the horizon - long grass on either side and a blue sky overhead

A lot of spending time outside:

Like a lot of people during lockdown, I’ve been spending more time outdoors – which always sounds counter-intuitive when I say it out loud, but also makes total sense. Very little work on means more time for walks around my local area, or planting potatoes, or whatever. Not being able to go to cafes has led to a lot more picnics. Needing to vary up my writing space, as well as being at home instead of on residencies that have been postponed, has meant spending a lot more time sitting in my garden shed (usually with the neighbour’s cat for company).

Since lockdown began, I’ve also managed to complete Couch to 5k! I hadn’t really run since school, so this has been absolutely huge for me. As well as the exercise, it’s also been a great way to get myself listening to more podcasts and audio books, and to get myself thinking differently about my own writing; what is it about being on the move that changes up our thought processes?

I’m not still doing 5k runs (I had a minor injury almost as soon as I’d completed the Couch to 5k programme – long story, but it stopped me running for a couple of weeks), but I am trying to keep up with the odd 3k-ish run, just to keep myself doing it, and to get myself away from my desk. And honestly, it’s been a game changer!

Looking forward to seeing what September brings…

The Past Five Months in Books:

I’ve been reading less than usual over the past five months. Something about the inability to focus for more than about 15-20 minutes at a time, which has led to a lot more Netflix binging, and a lot fewer books. So, alongside reading books for the first time, I also did a bit of re-reading – somehow I find it easier to concentrate when I already know how a book is going to end, as though the ending is a familiar face calling me to it.

  • The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey
  • Marine Objects and Some Language, by Suzannah V Evans
  • Terrific Mother, by Lorrie Moore
  • Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munroe
  • A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick
  • Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer
  • The Singing Glacier, by Helen Mort
  • Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Debutante and Other Stories, by Leonora Carrington
  • Dad, Remember You Are Dead, by Jacqueline Saphra
  • All the Harry Potters
  • Rendang, by Will Harris
  • New Hunger, by Ella Duffy
  • Bark, by Lorrie Moore
  • Shine, Darling, by Ella Frears
  • What Happens to Girls, by Jennifer Copley
  • Sabriel, by Garth Nix
  • Lireal, by Garth Nix
  • Abhorsen, by Garth Nix
  • Dancing Girls, by Margaret Atwood
  • Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, by Carly Brown
  • How To Wash A Heart, by Bhanu Kapil
  • Noughts & Crosses, by Malorie Blackman
  • The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O’Brien
  • Outsiders: a short story anthology (3 of Cups Press)
  • Ghostly Stories, by Celia Fremlin

The Past Five Months in Pictures:

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

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

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

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

Aeroplane wing over the Falkland Islands

So now what?

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

Should I be using this lockdown time to write?

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

In short: there is no right answer.

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

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

So let’s talk about solitude.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s talk about anxiety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freshly baked carrot cake muffins on a cooling rack

So how is my writing going with all of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few online resources:

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

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

Recently, I was asked to give the keynote speech at my former school’s A-Level awards evening. For me, ‘keynote speech’ always conjures up an image of corporate conferences, sharp suits, and glass tabletops that somehow never seem to show up anybody’s fingerprints but your own.

With that in mind, I decided to do something that was the antithesis of all of that, and to talk about failure. And because I failed to write a blog post for this weekend, I thought I’d share it with you here:

Failing at Your Own Game:

I was a student at QEGS from 2011-2018. I’m now a writer. When you say you’re a writer, something quite off happens in people’s minds – and most people picture something like this:

Or maybe this:

Or even this:

Either that, or they ask if you’re the next J K Rowling, and how many millions you’ve made from your latest novel.

I assume I was asked to come and give this talk because being a published writer constitutes some kind of success. And it’s true that being a published writer does mean you get to do book signings, and occasionally get your book in a bookshop window, or get to go on a writing residency abroad. I’m currently spending a month writing in a medieval castle just outside Edinburgh.

But the reality is that most days are far less glamorous than that. Most of the time, it’s just me, sitting at my kitchen table, trying to hit a word count, and drinking far too many pots of coffee.

So even though tonight is all about celebrating success – and congratulations again to all of you on your A-levels – I don’t actually want to talk about success. Instead I’m going to talk about failure.

I want everyone to stand up.

Take a moment to look at these books. Count how many you’ve read.

Ok. Now I want you to stay standing if you’ve heard of at least one of these books.

Now stay standing if you’ve read at least one of these books (or even seen the film). Two? Three? Four? Five?

Each of these books was originally rejected for publication. So for books that at one point in their lives were considered failures, look how many of you have read at least one of them.

(Ok, sit down now)

These are some of the more famous examples of books that have been rejected, which went on to be bestsellers, and some to become classics. But these books aren’t actually very unusual. All writers get rejected, again and again. I send work off to journals and magazines. I apply for residencies, and grant funding. I submit poems and stories to competitions. The majority of these get rejected. And this isn’t because I’m a bad writer (at least I hope not!). It’s just a normal part of being a writer.

In 2018, I decided to try to apply for 100 things – a mix of residencies, grant applications, competitions, journal submissions – anything that could result either in an acceptance, or in rejection. My idea was that I could then easily find out a percentage of how many applications were successful, with the idea of creating some kind of transparency around how much rejection writers are likely face.

I didn’t quite manage 100 applied, so I failed even in that – but I did manage 87. And then at the end of the year, I made a pie chart.

By the end of the year, over 60% of those applications had been rejected. 19% – less than one in five – had had success or partial success (so, publication, or a prize win or shortlisting). At the time I put this data together, I was still waiting to hear back from 18%, but I can now tell you that only one of those was a success – the rest were all rejections. So the overwhelming majority of my applications in that year were failures.

So my question is: what’s the point? If most applications fail, then why keep doing them? If to be a writer is to be a failure, why even keep writing at all?

The most obvious reason is that not all applications are failures. Some of them (even if it’s just a few) are successful, and of course you don’t know which those are until you’ve tried, so you have to keep throwing out your net in the hope of catching a fish.

But there are other reasons too.

One is that failure is something we can learn from. If I send a poem into a magazine, most of the time it’ll come back as a rejection. But this gives me an opportunity to look at what isn’t working in the poem – to rewrite it and make it better. Each time a poem gets rejected, it’s another opportunity to improve it, and another opportunity to turn that failure into some kind of success.

But I also think it’s worth challenging what we perceive as failure, and what we perceive as success.

To look at this firstly in terms of writing: there’s a great quote from poet Caroline Bird, which is: ‘Writing a poem is impossible and once you realise this, you’re free.’ What I think she means is that, when you sit down to write a poem, you have in your head the perfect image of what this poem might be. (I know not all of you are poets – stay with me here, I promise there’s a great life lesson coming.)

You sit down to write a poem, and you imagine it’s going to be deep and thoughtful, it’s going to be moving, and lyrically beautiful, and full of original and striking imagery, that people are going to be quoting for the next 400 years – and next think you know, you’re winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The poem I end up writing may well have some of those qualities (although I’m yet to be nominated for a Nobel Prize), but it’s never going to be as perfect as the poem I imagined in my head. There’s another quote, by French essayist Paul Valery, which is: ‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned’. In other words, there’s always more that you can improve on.

But that’s why I keep writing. If I can never succeed in writing the perfect poem, then in a way, every time I sit down to write a poem, I’ve already failed – because it’s never going to be perfect.

This could be a really depressing way of looking at things – but instead, I find it inspirational. If so-called failure is inevitable, then we need to rethink what success looks like.

I remember the poet Don Paterson talking about the process of getting a book published: how for years and years, you can strive to have a book of poems published, because this is your ultimate goal. You eventually manage to secure a publisher. You spend years sending the manuscript back and forth to your editor. Eventually, you’ve done everything you can. You’ve seen the cover design. The publication date is set. You’ve figured out what you’re going to wear for your launch party and invited all your friends. The box of books finally arrives and they’re beautiful – slim volumes of your poems, with that enchanting new book smell and your name printed on the cover. You open the book, scan your eye over the first poem – and realise there’s a typo on line 3.

You’ve finally reached your end goal – you’ve finally achieved what you thought was success, only for it to disappoint you.

So my definition of success as a writer isn’t about publication, or book sales, or winning the Nobel Prize (although obviously all of those things are lovely if they happen to you). It’s about being able to write, and to keep on improving my craft as a poet and a novelist. To always be learning more about how to write, and to keep on putting that learning into practice.

Once I started thinking of success in these terms, every day that I get up to write becomes a success. Every time I write a sentence that I’m particularly proud of, is a success. Every finished poem is a success. The only failure is not writing, and not engaging with the process of writing.

So ok, you’re not all poets – so what does all this have to do with you? Well, for any of you who do write, this might sound all too familiar. But as I promised, we can extrapolate these lessons out to cover any aspect of life, not just writing.

When I was at QEGS, I was one of those annoying students who was good at both maths and English. What I liked about maths was that there might be multiple ways of getting there, but in the end there was a single right answer. What I liked about English was that there wasn’t.

So what does success look like to you, personally?

It might be running a multi-million-dollar start-up, and having your own private tropical island somewhere. But it could equally be really getting to know that one aspect of something you’re interested in, becoming an expert in, say, coffee production, or the way a painting is put together. There’s no right answer for your life, and no one definition of success. The best bit about your life, is that you get to define what makes it successful.

When I was asked to give this talk, I had no idea what I was going to say to you all. So I asked a load of other people what they would want to tell their 18-year-old selves – and I want to end by sharing some of their thoughts:

  1. Be curious and pursue what you enjoy. Being an expert is safe and boring, and learning is much more interesting. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it.
  2. Look after with knees, because with luck, you have a long journey to travel together.
  3. As long as you’re kind to other people, it isn’t selfish to also be kind to yourself.
  4. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do with your life – you’ve got your whole lifetime to figure it out.
  5. The word ‘career’ also means ‘to travel downhill in an uncontrolled manner’. Job titles aren’t as important as you think. Lead with your heart, then let your head figure out how to get there. Remember that all those people who look as if they’ve got their lives completely sorted – they all have doubts and problems too. So resist the temptation to compare yourself to them.
  6. Enjoy the things that are enjoyable – don’t fall for the lie that there’s always a better party going on somewhere else. And if you do want a better party, by all means start your own.
  7. Whatever makes you different can end up being your superpower.
  8. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not capable of achieving your dreams. But make sure the dreams you’re dreaming are your own and not someone else’s.
  9. There are so many ways to get where you’re going; it might be university, or it might be an apprenticeship, or saving up to travel the world, or getting at job in Morrisons. What’s important is your own individual journey.
  10. It’s never too late to change your mind.

And lastly, because I’m talking about failure, I’m going to fail to stick to just ten points, so I want to add three of my own thoughts to finish on:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, particularly when it comes to crowd-sourcing your speeches.
  • Make sure you can cook at least one fancy meal, so you’ll always be able to impress people.
  • And lastly, and most importantly, keep on failing. Failing is a way to remind yourself what you enjoy about something. It isn’t the end result that’s important; enjoy the process. Learn. Develop. In the words of Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’ And I’m going to add to Becket’s words, and say: don’t bother striving for somebody else’s definition of success; find your own definition of success, and fail at that instead.

So congratulations again on the success of your results – and here’s to the rest of your lives!