the write way up

Yes, everything is kind of f*cked but there’s still writing to be written and stories to be told. Some reflections on a month of writing every day while staving off the quotidian existential dread.

At the beginning of June I dusted myself off, avoided reading news headlines, and took a few things in stock. I have tried to move beyond the feelings of: “Jeez, this thing really IS going to kill everyone we’ve ever known and ever loved, and OMFG everything really IS shit, n’est-ce pas?” to a kind of acceptance that this is the way things are at the moment, to do my bit and follow the science rather than the spin-the-wheel-of-random advice from the current UK government. (AKA the cabinet of the contrary: “we’ll clap for carers but buggered if we’ll test them for CV19 or give ’em any PPE”. And, seriously, what’s with the  Berlusconi levels of machismo/pointless willy wanging push-ups? Our current PM is looking less like a Winston Churchill <em>Stars in Their Eyes</em> attempt and more like a thatched cottage after a rave.) I am worried that three weeks after “Super Saturday” the Nightingales may be at capacity. I have also been trying to avoid the horrific foaming racists on Twitter (report and block, report and block, report and block ad infinitum). For the avoidance of any doubt: black lives matter and do consider supporting the amazing black curriculum campaign and initiative.

And, finally, finally, finally, I *think* I’ve pulled myself out from that self-absorbed sad feeling of: ‘now I’m two years post-PhD viva everyone has moved on, and everything within that field is so beyond me that I’m less on the sheep dotted fringes and more floating just off the continent of WTAF’. I know it’s on me and I’m playing catch up in my reading, and doing the research and redrafting and updating my work from 2018 (see below).

Right, slightly ranty and rambling update out of the way for now and onto the creative process and progress goodness. During June I took a free course provided by Writers HQ (go and click on that link; they’re great) which was called ‘Couch to 5K Words’ (#C25KWords) riffing on running without breaking a cardio-related sweat. This was mostly to kick my arse back into a semblance of a writing habit again. Oh, and to work on what I think might be a novel. Like a proper novel. Like not one that might sit on my laptop and gather pixellated dust (looks at the ‘Ley’d’ file: 50,043 words of something). I have always thought that I didn’t have a novel in me but this time I might be wrong. Anyway, it’s sort of sci-fi/fantasy (naturally), climate crisis concerned (because stories are ostensibly about what it is to be human, this is a huge crisis and it involves all of us to process it and try to mitigate in whatever way possible), could be considered YA/crossover (if you want to simplify reading into banded ages and, spoiler, I don’t believe in banding reading in ages), and set in Manchester (but of course).

#C25KWords included daily prompts and writing exercises focussed on working up to 25+ minute writing sprints which I appreciated. I’m an enthusiastic fan of sprints; I discovered this while working on the writing and rewriting of my PhD thesis. I work better in focussed sprints, it might not work for everyone but it suits my easily distractible brain. (Oo, robin on the bird feeder! *looks out of the window*) Writers’ HQ also provides free dedicated fora in which to share victories and frustrations with other writers. Did I mention that I think they really are great? While I should have been running a writing working shop today – and, LOL, it was going to be focussed on “travel writing” – it’s lovely to find an online community of writers in (temporary) lieu of actual bodies in a room/outside. There are certainly pros and cons around online interaction (see, for example, Alicea Lieberman & Juliana Schroeder (2020)), however, it will do as a temporary measure until we can run physical writing workshops again.

As for Writers’ HQ online workshops? Well, I’m now toe-deep into the next course – yes, I bought a membership which I’ll offset next year as part of my freelance work – and it’s helping me to get my structure together for the novel. Who knows where it will go, possible nowhere, possibly somewhere. We shall see and I’ll add notes on the writing process as this interests me when I read / see others talking about their creative processes. (Plus, as a nerdy but precarious academic, I am fascinated by practice-as-research / research-as-practice so I would like to share some of my learning post-PhD in this area as well as continue my own learning.)

And I’ve kicked out a couple of pieces for consideration. Fighting the fear that seems to stop me with getting work, and words, out there. If you’re writing, or making art, I hope that it’s going well. If not, I am sending gentle thoughts your way.

Next Thursday there will be a writing exercise which I ran back in March (AKA what feels like five years ago). Until then happy writing, happy reading, happy causing a ruckus against all the bad things.

WiP it good! (Writing works in progress for July / August.)

  • Blog post on Ashenhurst Pond (this will go up once I’ve researched some more, I’ve found a few maps but this will be a wait-until-the-libraries-reopen-job).
  • Tidying up some flash fiction for this year’s Mslexia competition.
  • Folklore piece (might film it, might not, depends how confident I’m feeling).
  • Slow progress on an article for an academic journal (for me, not as part of current PDRA role which does involve collaborative journal writing) which could be a long shot as I need to get up to speed with what’s been going on (see above).
  • Continuing work on a collection of short pieces inspired by fairytales  – this is a passion project / creative procrastination activity – and I’m taking my time with it.
  • Getting back to collaborative projects…

Reading round up, January – June 2020

An image of Jen Campbell's novel 'The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night' and a fossilised leaf next to it.

An image of Jen Campbell’s novel ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ and a fossilised leaf next to it.

Here’s a round-up of some of the books I’ve read between January – June and some brief commentary around the ones I felt strongly about. There are a few I enjoyed but I just don’t feel moved to write anything about them (e.g. Lethal White which I probably won’t remember in a few years time). I will not be writing about ones I really hated / DNF’ed this time though (hello, Mythos). I will be writing longer reviews of books going forward.

Jen Campbell (2018) The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night, Two Roads
This is an unusual collection of, I think it might be fair to say, experimental short stories. Jen is also a poet and this comes through in some of the more dreamscape-esque stories (e.g. ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’). The short story ‘Bright White Hearts’ mirrors some of the poems in The Girl Aquarium. I loved the opening story ‘Animals’ which had an Angela Carter fairytale bite to it.

While I absolutely loved some of the short stories in this collection, I felt that I just wanted, well, a little bit more from some of them. (Which is on me as the reader; I have greedy eyes and a hungry imagination!) It’s not that the writing wasn’t luminous nor that the weaving of fact/fiction/myth/fairy tale were not interesting devices; it’s that some of them seemed to end abruptly. I thought ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ was a fantastic concept with great characters and a creepy story building (in the vein of M.R. James) and then it felt like it ended without any conclusions and some questions unanswered. I love Jen’s poetic writing style, and the academic approach to inserting research, I just wanted more from some of these intriguing ‘monsters’ (I’m riffing on the Mary Shelley epigraph here). My favourites, though, in the collection are ‘Margaret and Mary and the End of the World’ and ‘Little Deaths’.

As a non-related book-ish note: I think Jen is brilliant; I’ve enjoyed her BookTube YouTube channel for a couple of years now. She is fiercely intelligent, comes across as highly personable, and a great advocate for disability rights and queer writing. Her YouTube channel is here and Patreon site is here.

Rosie Garland (2014) Vixen, HarperCollins
I wanted to love this book as much as I loved ‘The Palace of Curiosities’ and, while I didn’t get on with it as well as Rosie’s other novel (and her ace punky poetry), I did enjoy the fourteenth-century ride. I thought the research that went into this was brilliant and the dialogue work too. Again it has Rosie’s poetic writing coming through, and it seemed like every single word in the novel was read aloud and weighted before committing to the page. The weird, sensuous world of Vixen is surreal and visceral.

Audrey Niffenegger (2009) Her Fearful Symmetry, Penguin
I was a bit ambivalent about The TimeTraveler’s Wife and am somewhat ambivalent about this one too. I guessed the twist – that was finally revealed in the middle of the novel – from the start (no spoilers though) as, for me anyway, there were too many telegraphed hints. Solid place-writing in some of the descriptions of London though, if a little bit: “here are the tourist bits” heavy. It has made me want to visit Highgate Cemetery so I guess that’s sort of a win?!

Catherine Storr (1958) Marianne Dreams, Faber and Faber
I read this on recommendation from one of the Rachaels of our library service. Although it purports to be a children’s novel it is creepier than any horror film that I’ve seen recently. No jump scares but the menacing rocks and the power creating a world through childish drawing is psychologically frightening. I swear I had to sleep with the light on one night! I am 41 years old. . .

Melissa Harrison (2018) All Among the Barley, Bloomsbury
I’m cribbing my GoodReads review for this one: it’s the 1930s, it’s agricultural England, and we’re on the fringes of another war. This book is a warning about the dangers of nostalgia and the fascistic ideologies of race purity and the imagined rural idyll. It feels both a literary historical novel and contemporary too. Brilliant portrayals of the surrounding place/s and wildlife which are just as important as the human characters. Fantastic. Also, landrails (Crex crex) are ace.

Emily Morris (2017) My Shitty Twenties, Salt
An honest, humourous portrayal of life as a smart young single mum. I enjoyed this a lot, Emily writes about place and the pregnant body, really well and feminism runs throughout like a hot sharp knife.

Maz Evans (2017) Who Let the Gods Out?, ChickenHouse / Audible
A middle-grade book that’s enjoyable for everyone in my opinion. Maz narrated the book on Audible and she’s a fantastic storyteller. The scene with the queen is quite possibly genius (I defy you not to laugh out loud).

Ocean Vuong (2019) On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Audible
Another crib from my GoodReads review: A complex, multilayered novel, a dizzying feat of beauty. Ocean Vuong’s novel has the feel of the contemporary ‘great American novel’. Dealing with the fallout of the Vietnam war, what it is to be alive, what it is to be ‘other’ and intersections of otherness, on place and places and memories, the beauty and terrifying nature of migration, on the body, on how fleeting life is. Huge fundamental questions on what it is to be alive, on equity, on empathy. It’s poetic, it’s unflinching. Basically, I loved this; it’s affected me deeply, and I didn’t want it to end.

Mona Awad (2019) Bunny, Audible
Another GoodReads crib: Well. That was quite unashamedly bonkers, possibly giving new meanings to the term “unreliable narrator”. I don’t think I can write anything that isn’t spoiler-y here. Things I loved: the pacing, the swirling plot twists, some of the characterisation, the sheer postmodernist madness of it all. I think, however, it’s going to be of most interest to MFA/MA audiences who may recognise notions of e.g.: plot bunnies, killing your darlings, “the work”. I did like it, in an “I feel seen” way, though, as I think I’m probably a target audience member (MA in poetry)! And I will reread at some point as I think it would be of interest when teaching creative writing which I do now with a community group! If you loved Lena Dunham’s ‘Girls’, the movies ‘Heathers’ and ‘Mean Girls’ and like an Angela Carter-esque dollop of fairytale magical realism then I think you may like this book too.

I’m keeping a book log here and will be updating the TBR semi-regularly (and I’m always up for a recommendation or twenty)!

I would love to know what you’re reading at the moment too. Until next time, happy reading.

Well-worn paths

Image

‘Originally erected 1815 to commemorate the surrender of Paris to the Allies after the Napoleonic Wars. Rebuilt, after collapse, to a new design by John Green (Portsmouth, Todmorden) in 1856 by public subscription. Restored 1889.’ Historic England

View from Stoodley Pike to the eastern track of the Pennine Way.

View from Stoodley Pike to the eastern track of the Pennine Way.

Stoodley Pike, obscured by the clouds from the bottom of the valley. Pronounce it “stud-lee”. Victory monument, a stocky stone peace memorial. Ascend from Mankinholes Bank from the busy, pedestrian-unfriendly, Causeway Wood Road. Slip down Lee Lane, take a left near Lee Dam (observe a group of wild swimmers preparing to bring in the New Year through goosebumps when they dash into the icy waters). Squelch through the muddy bridleway, past Incredible Farm (site of organic growing, site of heated debate on online fora). Up to the stone flags past the sheep (Swaledale? Rough Fell? Lonk?) and a photogenic ram.

Ram posing face on to the camera, there are two ewes in the background which is a sloped field.

Curious ram

See him pose for a few photographs before he shakes his tail and trots off to find better grasses to chew.

It’s sheltered along the wall but the gentle mizzle provides a gossamer veil over my glasses.

Follow the path, the flat flags, the gritted surfaces maintained by Calderdale Council (signs decree that no mountain bikes are allowed nor horse riding along certain parts of the Pennine Way). Some of the nearby surfaces are carved by intertwining thick lines, telltale cycle tracks. This is no wild landscape; it’s carefully maintained and gleefully used. Even if I tried to avoid it, following this path to the Pike is inevitable.

An uneven flagged pathway through fields

The flagstones of the Pennine Way from the southeast approach to Stoodley Pike.

These flat, uneven teeth bisect the field. Looking around see how the grasses sweep back in the wind like hair. Like a comb-over. The blond and russets yield in this extreme breeze.

A landscape photograph of different fields, the landscape slopes down towards the market town of Todmorden.

Russets, blonds, and greens.

Approach the pike from the southwest like our ramble, or the steep, precarious northwest. Or from the east, the way from Cragg Vale. Approach it with your eyes down to the ground against the wind, the ends of your fingers reddening in gloves. (You may feel almost a tingling sunburn feeling on your face later from the relentless wind.) Leap onto the erratic boulders that jut out, avoid the peaty mulch of the ground between the gritstone rocks. Be grateful that this isn’t tick (Ixodida) season. But do wonder where the insects are as you stare down. Stumble the last few hundred metres to the pike. Shelter on the eastern side from the wind, pass and say hello (many “hellos”, many “nice weather for it!”s). Clamber up the dark spiral staircase – bring a head torch! – within the pike and risk a lookout over the barrier, take a picture in spite of this tumultuous weather. And consider the route down to the market town. But first, before returning, consider the nearby pub to defrost and have a pint to celebrate a kind of success.

Stoodley Pike monument is in the distance of this image where millstone

Life in a cloud.


I’ve lived in Calderdale for nearly three years now and hadn’t visited Stoodley Pike. Which is daft, really, as it is a less scrambly venture than several other walks I’ve done since living here. Time slips past, wind through the grass.

I know it’s been a while, nearly two years, since I last blogged. There are myriad reasons for this. (Life happened, basically, as well as other reasons including bouts of fatigue, job hunting, losing my writing groove a little post-PhD.) I know this is imperfect; the grammar is all over the shop for one thing! But this is a way back into writing, a way back into blogging. Well-worn but it works. (Not that I’m ever worried about experimenting and going off-piste rather than off pissed.)

And in a world that’s increasingly frightening, I’d like to find my path back to being able to process and write about things in a way that could be helpful for others. (Either through creating, either through signal boosting information.) So yes, I’m following familiar metaphorical paths (writing, activism, making) but implementing some changes along the way as well as trying to not overstretch myself which I’ve had a nasty habit of doing to the stages of burnout over the years. To stretch the walking metaphor further: I’m exploring the many erratic boulders of ideas that are poking up in my mind. Observing, following, or willfully neglecting any waymarkers – to stretch that metaphor to absolute breaking point. I’m changing direction, a little, in that my online presence is changing. This site will now be dedicated to blogging which will include writing anything I like, reflecting on creative practice, sharing ideas (which I really hope get some engagement as I love a good debate), and keeping notes for folkloric work I’m planning to do during this year. The latter will be just for fun, just to keep making and exploring some creative pieces that I’m not sure fit anywhere, also I want to sing and make music again. This creative work may not lead to anything but I know I will put my heart into it as there’s no pressure and so no anxiety over it being “perfect”. (Whatever “perfect” is anyway.)

Academic work, research, tutoring, and what I consider – possibly somewhat flippantly – the “grown-up, professional stuff” will live on the other website for now. I may integrate the two in the future, I may not. The URL £ rent isn’t mega on either so they’ll be separate for now. As for posting, I am working on having loosely scheduled writing going out. I do still offer freelance project/ad hoc work, but I’m employed in two different – but not completely unrelated – jobs where I’m on a casual contract so any planning is mostly on a week-by-week basis in the short term.

Until then, I hope all is is well in your worlds and that you can safely get out into the elements at some point.

 

Day 18: fangirling and other tales #40daysto40

Today I went to “Hebden Rag”, a haberdashery and all things thread-based day organised by Hebden Bridge Women’s Institute.

I managed to buy some very lovely things including nearly 3 metres of high-quality black linen, pretty viscose, four skeins of fingering-weight yarn, books, a steamer (to dye yarn in) and some other bits and bobs. We also met Mr X Stitch briefly so I did have a small fangirl moment. (My heroes seem to be educators, creative types, artists, writers, and NHS staff!)

Signed by Mr X Stitch!

Signed by Mr X Stitch!

I moved to Todmorden over a year ago now and I’m still finding my feet a little. I’ve found that as I’m getting older it’s become harder to make friends. I have some wonderful people in my life who I do get to call friends so all’s good really. I do feel grateful and blessed to have met three wonderful women who live nearby.

Day 16: out of the woods into the woods #40daysto40

I recently finished another draft of my PhD thesis. I’m still very, very tired from it all which is why I’ve missed a couple of days. Today I caught up with a lovely friend for some lunch, a walk in the woods, and a sneaky gin.

IMG_20181004_153446 IMG_20181004_155954 IMG_20181004_154211 IMG_20181004_154128 IMG_20181004_154058 IMG_20181004_154048

So I’m (nearly) out of the metaphorical woods in terms of another hard thesis edit, but it was wonderful to get physically back into the real woods.

[I’ll go back and fill in the blank days later for sake of completion.]

Day 13: body says “no” #40daysto40

Having one of those weeks where your body just says no. Last week was punctuated by aura migraines – the shimmy, opaque trippy spiky eye illusions that they cause (I call them “disco hedgehogs”). And mild labyrinthitis-like dizzyness. (Since my first bout of labyrinthitis, accompanying an Oxford folk festival weekend (my timing is impeccable) this sicky-feeling dizziness now accompanies flu, blocked sinuses, and colds. Yay. At least I’ve never struggled with travel sickness and don’t throw up easily; I hear that if you have travel sickness then labyrinthitis can be so much worse.)

Today: painful period contractions (yep, went there) like a fist pulling downwards on my lower back. They’re rare, only every other month over the last decade, but these are the screaming ones. The I-can’t-quite-open-my-mouth-loud-enough-to-make-a-noise-that-befits-the-cramping. Then curl into a ball — a shape like a nautilus — tucked into myself. And then the big clots of blood.

If you’re reading this male. Lucky you.

I can’t really push myself as hard as I used to. Over the last month, I’ve pulled several writing all-nighters and, when I do get some sleep, afterwards — my word! — I feel as if I’ve been hit by multiple bricks. Sluggish and slow. When will I learn?

While I feel well, and relatively happy, I forget how frail and fleshy and easily broken we actually are.

I guess as I get older, there will be more aches and pains to come. And I’ll learn how to deal with it. At least, I hope I will.

Day 12: On honesty #40daysto40

You know those Instagram-perfect desk pictures. The ones with the iPad, almond-milk cloudy coffee in a gorgeous ceramic mug – possibly Denby or Anthropologie, a fountain pen, a Leuchtturm notebook with fancy calligraphy and Washi tape. Probably something seasonal too like some pine cones, cherry blossom, sunflower seeds, a novelty bauble, whatever. Artistically arranged on a tabletop of rustic wood or marble. Photographed from above with a mobile phone with excellent pixel potential or fancy DSLR camera. Well. Here’s some honesty heading at you.

This is how I write.

Photo of a messy desk with empty coffee mug and random ephemera

I call this art piece: ‘ephemera’

Taken with my mobile phone with nothing cropped or photoshopped (although I use GIMP). I’ve just scaled it from around 4,000 pixels to 800 by 600 so it will upload.

I cannot even claim that this is ‘organised chaos’. What you can’t see on the other side of my ancient, heat-guffing laptop is: a lamp, the other speaker, a used cotton “man-sized” handkerchief, a pile of dog-eared PhD thesis notes, a spool of Gütermann thread (colour = 890), and a tennis-ball sized stress ball in the shape of the earth.

(In defence of my own writing wankery. Yes, that IS a Leuchtturm notebook with my original #40daysto40 thoughts. I like the binding, nifty envelope at the back, and note paper; it’s more durable and leakproof than Moleskine paper. I normally use a fountain pen – the second cheapest Parker (the Urban) is the preference if you’re really interested – with refillable cartridges as I have some sort of weird belief that they’re more environmentally friendly.)

Honesty, dude, it’s the way forward.

As I’m getting older I care less what others think. I care more about being kind and honest.

(And with that in mind – I do have to admit that some of the Insta desks are very pretty in an impossibly aspirational kind of way. Sadly, it’s just not how my own entropic life works. Although I may go and try to find some pine cones later. To tell the weather with obviously!)

Day 11: I am not a poet #40daysto40

I have decided to break up with poetry. Oh, Poetry. It’s not you, it’s me.

Now, I’m not expecting a stampede. A chorus of ‘don’t do that’. I am just done with writing poetry and will be concentrating on other writing. At least over the next year or so anyway. I’m going to concentrate on writing other things like stories and non-fiction pieces. (I know that I’m excellent at describing things. Which is, to be frank, a useless skill. Unless I’m planning on moving into the catalogue industry.)

As Marianne Moore puts it in her poem ‘Poetry’:
‘Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in /
it after all, a place for the genuine.’

So, I will still flirt with poetry. Trying to discover ‘the genuine’. I’ll metaphorically flutter my eyelashes at it, offer to buy it a drink. If it’s a fine piece of poetry then I’ll listen to the music of its words and allow myself to sink into it.

Loving poetry is a fine, and perfectly, acceptable practice.

But poetry writing – you and me are o.v.e.r. And don’t you dare give me a “booty call”. . .

Day 10: never turning back? #40daysto40

It doesn’t bother me that I’m getting older and I don’t mind talking about money (or, more often, the lack of it). This, I believe, is not culturally English. I’ve only lied my age before I was eighteen to get into nightclubs – and even then I wasn’t ID’ed until I was 26. I’ve been thinking about the idea of returning or looking back. Visiting places where I’ve lived, perhaps. Or considering Googling ex-partners to “see what they’re doing now and where they are”.

It is so tempting, so seductive. I think we mostly live in memory and through experience – even if there are plans made. I’m not sure whether we’re built to be “future” thinkers that can consistently live in the ‘then what’ rather than the now. (Not everyone, I recognise this is just conjecture.)

And then there are the roads not taken, the regrets, the choices we didn’t make, the things left unsaid or un-did.

And I know that there is no going back in my life to take back some of the crappy things I’ve said or done to others. That a “sorry” is neither desired or enough.

The past holding hands with the future.

And, in some respects, I’m nervous about the future. I’m nervous about the knackering impact that humans are having on this planet. I often find myself thinking about wildlife, in particular hedgehogs. Will we live to see the extinction of these mammals in England? And raptors – will we live to see an extinction declared on hen harriers in the next few years? I do hope not. I hope that the decline in other species can be slowed down, I do fear that it cannot.

And then I think of the human aspect again. I think of loss and the people that I would love to talk to again. To speak with. Some are dead, some are no longer in my life.

If someone asked me “what years would you ‘do again'” I have a vague idea, although they’d play out just the same into the years that I wouldn’t ‘do again’.

No returning.

Going forward.