My Writing, PhD

A walk through other people’s expectations

Anyone else feeling relieved that spring is nearly here? I’ve been loving the fresh smell in the air and the sight of crocuses and daffodils on my daily walks. I love that it’s lighter each evening, and the increasing warmth each day brings.

I’m excited to share that I’ve had an article published today by the Wellcome Collection, entitled “A walk through other people’s expectations” – it’s available to read here. The article is structured around a hike up Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District and weaves together two of my interests, disability and hiking, in an exploration of what it means to be a visually impaired walker.

A photo of a view from a mountain walk, looking down at a lake

This was such an enjoyable commission to work on. The ways disabled people often have to navigate other people’s perceptions and expectations of us is something I’ve been acutely aware of for many years as a visually impaired person. It’s also an important theme emerging in my PhD so far – the idea that societal expectations of disability affect how disabled people feel and behave, like feeling apprehensive about using a white cane or other mobility aid.

I hope the article resonates with other disabled people, as well as giving an insight to nondisabled people about this topic.

Photo shows the view from the summit of a mountain, with a man holding a map and looking ahead

It was also lovely to be writing about my favourite place, the Lake District, in this article. I can’t wait until I’m able to visit again and go fell walking, and maybe even dinner and live jazz at the wonderful Zeffirellis restaurant in Ambleside…

I’m really lucky to have other articles due to be published in the coming months that I’m excited to share, and other writing I’m working on, as well as of course my PhD. Lockdown is a challenging time for everyone, and while, of course, I completely agree with the restrictions, it is still hard being away from friends and family. My mental health was really affected in the first lockdown last year, and I’m glad to say that this time round I’ve found it easier to manage. Maybe it’s the spring-like weather, but I’m feeling cautiously hopeful about the future. I can’t wait until we can safely meet up with loved ones again, sitting out in the garden in the warmth. Until then, I’m fortunate that I have plenty to keep me distracted at home. I hope that more good times are ahead.

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Artist one-to-one session with Appetite

Earlier this week I had a really useful 1:1 session over Zoom with Kat, the Producer for Appetite. Appetite is an arts programme, funded by Arts Council England, that aims to get more people in Stoke-on-Trent and the Borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme to experience and be inspired by the arts. Over the past eight years they’ve led a host of cultural events, from vibrant street performances in the city centre to the current Familiar Faces project that was created to capture the familiar faces and the unique welcome of Newcastle town centre through the power of photography.

Photo of someone typing on a laptop

Appetite are currently offering 1:1 artist support sessions with local creatives as an opportunity for us to talk about our ideas and get guidance on next steps around making cultural projects happen in our communities.

We had so much to talk about in the hour-long session. I chatted about my creative career so far, and what my hopes are going forward. Kat gave some really great guidance on how to think about community engagement, and we talked through some rough ideas I have for projects. I’d like to build on my experience of running community writing workshops, and I left the session buzzing with ideas, my notebook full of thoughts to develop further.

I’d really recommend other artists in Stoke or Newcastle-under-Lyme to get in touch with Appetite for a 1:1 session. Whether you’re just starting out and want to get a better sense of the local arts scene and how you can get involved, or already have an idea for a cultural project that you’d like some specific advice on, it’s well worth getting in touch. You can find out more about the artist 1:1s here.

My Writing, PhD

Winter thoughts

Like much of the country, there has been snow here in Staffordshire the past couple of days. But despite the cold, there are signs of spring emerging. I’m lucky to be getting out for a daily walk around my neighbourhood, enjoying the daylight and the frosted trees, looking out for snowdrops peeking through the frozen grass.

Photo of snowdrops in the grass

I’m fortunate that I’ve had a lot of writing to keep me busy over the past few weeks. The main focus in January was preparing for the mid-year review for my PhD, which involved submitting a sample of my writing and a research statement outlining my project so far and how I hope for it to progress. Thankfully I got that all submitted in time for the 1st February deadline. In a few weeks’ time I’ll have a mini viva interview to assess my work so far and check I’m on track. I find talking about my research can be really interesting, but I still feel at the stage where articulating it all feels challenging! But I am enjoying my PhD, and have been doing some really interesting reading for it this past week, exploring published mental health memoirs, as well as doing my own creative work. I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to focus on something I’m so passionate about.

I’ve also had a few articles to work on recently, as well as seeing ones that were commissioned towards the end of last year being published. My feature “Art in the Everyday” is in the current issue of the absolutely gorgeous Oh magazine. I love the front cover of vibrant daffodils – I can almost feel the spring warmth and scent of flowers just looking at it! My piece is about how we can all make art and poetry out of the items we’re surrounded with, drawing on the idea of found object art and movements like surrealism and dadaism. It was a fascinating feature to write, and I’m so pleased to have it published in such a wonderful magazine.

Photo shows front cover of Oh magazine with an illustration of daffodils

There are a few more articles of mine due to be published in the coming months which I’m excited to share. I also submitted a draft of my new novel to my literary agent recently, and I’m nervously waiting to hear her thoughts. She really gets my writing and always has valuable insights into how to make it better, so I’m confident that her feedback will be so useful.

I hope that you’re doing okay in this difficult winter lockdown, finding ways to get through. I can’t wait until the evenings are light again so I can go on an after dinner walk. And, of course, I can’t wait until things are safer and lockdown can start to ease. I hope things will get brighter soon.

Books

What I’m reading

I spend a lot of time reading. I have a lot of reading to do for my PhD: often memoirs, as my research is into life writing around disability, and then also academic texts on areas like literary theory and disability studies. I’m really enjoying my research, but I’m also making sure to give myself time each day to read something non-PhD related. For half an hour each night before I turn the light off, I love losing myself in a good book. It’s nice to have this bit of ‘me time’, and it helps me unwind and relax at the end of a busy day.

Here are some of the books I’ve been enjoying recently.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M Danforth

I read a lot of young adult novels. Partly because I write young adult fiction and so it’s useful to be familiar with it, but also because I genuinely enjoy it. One of the best young adult novels I’ve read recently is The Miseducation of Cameron Post. As well as the way it so deftly deals with LGBTQ+ identity and discrimination, I also loved this novel for its beautiful writing. The vividness of characters and place (it’s set in Montana) is so well done, and I was immersed into this evocative, powerful book.

A Snowfall of Silver by Laura Wood

A Snowfall of Silver is linked to another of Laura Wood’s young adult novels, the gorgeous A Sky Painted Gold, which I absolutely adored, so I was very excited to read this when it came out a couple of months ago. Set in the 1930s, it sees eighteen year old Freya leave her sleepy Cornish home and travel to London with the hopes of becoming an actress. Laura makes the historical setting so real and enticing, and I immediately warmed to the humour and enthusiasm of Freya and the other characters. It’s a believable, touching story by one of my favourite young adult authors.

The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

I love a good short story collection. I think it’s the way you can experience a short story in one sitting, and how a collection can take you through so many different lives. I haven’t read enough Ali Smith (I desperately need to read her much-praised seasonal quartet) so decided to give this collection a try. I like the slight surrealness of some of the stories, the unexpected directions, and the way she addresses questions of perspective and narration.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Over the past few months, my lovely sister-in-law and I have been recommending each other books. I love hearing her thoughts on books I mention to her, and trying the ones she suggests. Reading is naturally quite a solitary thing, so having someone to send WhatsApp voice notes to where I share how I’m finding her recommendations is really lovely, and so far we’ve had some great conversations and seen much-loved books from new perspectives. A Thousand Splendid Suns came highly recommended, so I started reading a couple of nights ago. It is set in Afghanistan and follows the story of Mariam, a young woman whose story I’m already feeling so drawn into and moved by. I’m only a few chapters in, but I can tell this is a novel that deserves the high praise it receives. I’m looking forward to reading more.

My Writing, PhD

Writing hopes for the festive season

As I eat mince pies and try not to spend too much time reading the news, I’ve been reflecting on what my writing hopes are looking ahead.

Photo of an open book and a Christmas mug next to a Christmas tree

It feels hard to think ahead when so much in the world seems uncertain. But over the festive period, I’m hoping to plan more pitches ready to send out in the new year to a range of publications. I also have some PhD writing to work on, preparing for the mid year review that comes at the start of February to evaluate my progress so far. And a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of a new novel. Soon I intend to sit down and read through the manuscript and make a start on the next draft so I can get it to a stage I feel ready to share it with my agent. I’m a big believer in messy first drafts, so I’m expecting it may need quite a bit of work – but I actually really enjoy editing! For me, getting the words down in the first place is often the hardest part, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in on the second draft, as that’s when it feels like it starts to really come together.

It’s nice to be ending this strange year with two more articles published. The Dec / Jan issue of PosAbility magazine features my article “Getting Creative”, where I explore how disabled people can get involved in the arts. I reflect on my experience of being supported by DaDaFest’s Artist Development Programme last year (something I’ve written about on this blog before), and how this helped me as a writer. I also talk about what support there is for disabled artists and highlight some of the great disability arts organisations we’re lucky to have.  

Photo showing the front covers of the two magazines referred to in the article.

And my feature “Connect with Nature Close to Home” is in the January issue of Happiful magazine. It’s all about ways we can celebrate nature and the changing seasons without having to go far beyond our front doors, from learning about local wildlife to snuggling down with some great nature writing.

Photo showing the article on connecting nature close to home in a magazine. The image includes a drawing of a bird wearing a scarf and a snowy wintery scene.

This Christmas may look very different to what we’d hope for, especially after such a difficult year for us all. I hope that whatever you’re doing this festive season, you manage to have a restful, enjoyable time.

My Writing

Full Moon Rise short story

This evening I’ve had a flash fiction story, “Full Moon Rise”, published by Crow & Cross Keys. You can read it here.

Crow & Cross Keys are a wonderful new literary journal “that plucks fiction and poetry from skeletal trees and gives it a place to take root.” They focus on speculative writing, whether flash fiction, short stories, or poetry.

“Full Moon Rise” was shortlisted for the Flash 500 competition last year, but hadn’t been published. When I saw Crow & Cross Keys put a call out for submissions a few months ago, I realised they may be the perfect place for this slightly otherworldly piece. I spent some time tweaking the story before sending it off.  

I’ve loved reading what they’ve published so far since launching on 31st October (naturally), and I’m so happy that my strange story has found a home with them.

I’m excited to read more from this literary journal, and maybe send another story their way soon.

My Writing

Coming to terms with a long term condition

I have an article in the November issue of the always wonderful Happiful magazine, and also available to read on their website. My piece has ideas on how to come to terms with a long term health condition or disability, drawing on my own experience of living with a visual impairment and mental ill health.

The feature includes suggestions such as connecting with other disabled people, how to talk to your loved ones about your condition, and using creative activities to help you work through your thoughts.

Disability has always been part of my life, and sometimes it has been hard for me to make sense of my feelings about it. I hope this article helps others, whether dealing with a new diagnosis or having experienced an impairment their whole life.

I always love writing for Happiful magazine, and I’ve enjoyed reading through the November issue, which has some great features on topics like understanding our surge capacity and signs of anxiety. I recommend taking a look at their website or picking up a copy of the print magazine for some wonderful articles exploring all aspects of mental health and wellbeing.

My Writing, PhD

Starting my PhD

I’m excited to have, since last week, become a PhD student!

My PhD is in Creative Writing and is on memoir as counter narrative: using creative nonfiction to explore visual impairment and mental illness and challenge dominant models of disability. It’s wonderfully being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council / Midlands4Cities – I’m very grateful for their support.

I’m studying at De Montfort University in Leicester, commuting from Staffordshire once I’m able to do face-to-face learning again – until then, it’s Skype / Teams, which so far is working well. It’s a little daunting of course starting something so big, but I’m looking forward to seeing the journey this PhD takes me on.

I’m feeling very lucky and still slightly bewildered to have this opportunity to research and write about something I’m so passionate about.

My Writing

Misconceptions about sight loss

I have a feature in the September issue of the lovely Happiful magazine that explores common misconceptions about sight loss. It’s also available to read on their website.

The article explores some of the views I’ve come across about what it means to be blind or partially sighted. It looks at things like the perception that anyone who uses a cane has no vision at all, whereas many of us with a visual impairment have some level of sight. Personally, I use a cane in busy or unfamiliar places to signal to others that I’m not being rude if I bump into them and that I may need some extra space to find my way about – this is especially true right now with social distancing being so important when out and about.

Other areas covered in the feature include how we access sports and the arts, visual impairment and work, and how people with sight loss can enjoy fashion and beauty.

I loved writing this piece – disability is one of my key areas as a writer, and I enjoy drawing on my experiences in a helpful way. I’m happy too that it’s my third article published by Happiful this year. Happiful is a great monthly magazine focused on wellbeing, and they also have a brilliant website that’s well worth a look.

Books

What I’m reading

I read pretty much every day. I think it’s one of the best things a writer can do – read as often as you can, and read widely. Over the strangeness of the past half year, my reading routine has been a bit off. Sometimes I’ve lacked the energy or focus, but fortunately I’ve still regularly found myself lost in other worlds for blissful hours.

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading recently.

books

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

More novella than novel, this is one of my all time favourite books, and earlier this year I decided to reread it. Which is a rare thing for me – I’m not a big re-reader and it takes some real passion to delve back into a book I’ve already read. I kind of have the mentality of there are so many books out there to read, I can’t keep rereading when there’s so many I haven’t read yet!

I love the effortless gothic writing of Shirley Jackson, and how instantly you’re grabbed by her characters. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is told from the point of view of a young woman called Merricat, and there is instant intrigue into her life in a small New England town in the 1950s. Why does Merricat hate the townspeople so much? Why does she live such an isolated life with her sister and uncle? What’s the story behind the death of the rest of her family?

Reading it for a second time, I picked up on details and hints that I didn’t before, and loved being drawn back into Merricat’s strange and alluring story.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The first book in the seven that make up Maya Angelou’s autobiography, this memoir explores her life growing up as a black woman in 1930s southern America. Angelou’s writing is so evocative of her childhood in Arkansas and I got such a strong sense of the people in her life, her family, the places she lives, all told in beautiful, engaging prose. Her experiences of racism are shocking, and the historical and political context of her work makes this a particularly vital read.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Confession: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book. I’ve read Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife over the past couple of years and… they didn’t grab me. I could tell they were good, but I didn’t feel the love for His Dark Materials that I knew others do.

Taking the final novel of the trilogy off the shelf, I almost felt I was reading The Amber Spyglass because, well, I’d read the first two, it’s such a famous series, etc. etc…. It almost felt like an obligation, which is not a good way to feel before you read a book. But soon I was up late engrossed in Lyra and Will’s story. Perhaps it was how the many threads of the narrative were coming together and the sense of satisfaction that brought, perhaps it was I just found the events in this last story in the series more interesting – whatever it was, it clicked, and I finished The Amber Spyglass a Pullman convert.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

I love short stories – writing them and reading them. Despite this, I’ve rarely read a collection of stories by a single author cover to cover, instead just dipping in, but decided to give it a go with Dear Life by renowned Canadian short story writer Alice Munro. Some of the stories were wonderful, and I was grabbed by how Munro tells of the small extraordinariness of ordinary people, beautifully observed. “Gravel”, “Train”, and “Night” in particular stayed in my head for a while after, which I think is a sign of good writing, where you find yourself mulling over a character or detail or just the overall ambience long after you’ve put the book down.

Just Kids by Patti Smithpatti smith

After enjoying rereading We Have Always Lived in the Castle so much, I’m currently rediscovering another book: Just Kids by Patti Smith. I first read this memoir when I was working a job I wasn’t particularly enjoying, and my bus would often get me there way before my start time, so I’d get a coffee and sit and read for half an hour, which became something to look forward to when my alarm went off each morning.

Just Kids is one of the books I read during that time, and it made me imagine another life, the life of artists in New York City, and I got a vicarious enjoyment and also a wistful pining as I read, and then I’d look at the time and realise I needed to finish the page I was on, slip the book into my bag, and walk the five minutes to the office. I’m only about 50 pages in so far, but already I’m remembering why I loved Just Kids so much the first time around.

What books have you been enjoying?