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…

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.

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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 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.

Day 8: write rewrite edit edit #40daysto40

Like many other writers, I write because I feel compelled to write. I’m one person in a larger herd of word nerds. I write to make sense of the world. To try to find, and write, the right words for the right moment. I can trace back my first attempt at fiction writing to something I wrote when I was about 9. It was an epic science fiction story about an alien who landed in the back garden of a young girl called Clare Anderson and it was up to her, and her parents, to help get the titular Poor Little Alien back to their spaceship and then home. (OK, it was the late 1980’s and E.T. had probably been a heavy influence.)

Over thirty years later I’m still making stuff up. Had a couple of rejections for work recently so I’m trying to lick my wounds and carry on. I’m also finishing off my PhD corrections (that includes critical and imaginative writing). It is the biggest piece of work I’ve done since my MA poetry portfolio between 2013/2014.
I’m still learning, and practising — if not making perfect — will make my writing better.

I have ideas for other pieces and, when my brain is less full, I’ll work on them. Until then, I have a load of other people’s novels, poetry, and short stories that have been piling up over the last four years and I can’t wait to go through them.

I hope that over the next forty years I’ll carry on being a writer (and still feel all right about determining myself as such) and bookworm.

Day 6: on not being able to find the words #40daysto40

It has been seven years, well, it will be seven years at 14:07 BST. Today is the day you were stillborn. I would write you a poem if I could. I am struggling to find the words. I still think about you every single day. If I were still in Stockport, I could visit where you’re buried, give you once again a small token: an autumn leaf, one with bright colours – perhaps a Japanese maple – with neon greens, sunshine yellow, firey red.

Sometimes, still, when I’m in the most unlikely of places, I’ll see a piece of clothing, or a soft toy with big plastic baby eyes. I’ll think of what could have been. And then there are silent tears, in T K Maxx, or in a supermarket aisle next to a selection of tee-shirts or flannel bigs. I’m sorry. I just cannot seem to think poetically any more. And I will think of you today in the words that I have. I mourn the words I don’t have yet. I will remember you.

Day 5: wandering and wondering #40daysto40

Oxford, 2006: Feeling unworthy. Tired all the time. More down than up. Overdrawn, heading deeper into the red. Overweight and gaining no matter how far I cycled. Trying to do all the things, then not being able to get out of bed nor open overdue bills. Although I didn’t have a name for it at the time: I was depressed, completely burned out. My doctor at the time, rather than throw antidepressants at me, prescribed: getting out ‘into nature’ and going for lots of walks (plus, consider changing job). Then he gave me a copy of The Guardian newspaper. . . Walking: along the Isis to Iffley lock avoiding vicious looking geese, squidging through Port Meadow, walking near ‘The Kidneys’, cycling to the various college parks – sneaking in and picnicking next to heavily scented and bee busy flowerbeds. Swimming in the canal near Donny Bridge, in the river during full moon. Boating adventures with ‘borrowed’ canoes near Magdalen college.

Todmorden, 2018: Still overweight, still slightly skint, but so much happier.

Sunday walk: through Buckley wood and around The Ridge, headed – almost vertically! – up towards Woodfield top, following country roads with whimsical sounding names: Doghouse Lane, Parkin Lane, Sourhall Lane.

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Descending to Gorpley Clough and following the slightly busy Bacup Road. Then, following the brook as if backwards and against the course.

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Through Gorpley Woods (deemed ancient woodlands).

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Up to Gorpley reservoir and the vista. Windblown and walking along the shallow wall of the reservoir – admiring the meld of late Victorian engineering, the human-shaped landscapes, the geological formation of the hills.

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Gathering leftover pieces of fleece to felt, the sheep gently munching and slightly inquisitive.

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Then home again via a pint and some chips! It reminded me that when I can – time and back willing – walking helps clear my head. Shared walking is even better.

Walking has helped me. Getting out into the woods and beyond does offer what author and naturalist Richard Mabey calls the ‘nature cure’. I think emerging oneself in wildlife is helpful but, for me, it’s not quite a panacea. (Sometimes I can’t walk as my lower back won’t let me. Sporadic sciatica, not bad enough for prescription drugs and never for ignoring without the addition of over-the-counter painkillers and some light stretching.)

Hopefully the next forty years, back and health willing, there will be more walks, more green, more lanes to tread, hills to climb and wildlife to meet.