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?

My Writing

Creative ways to stay in touch

The lovely Happiful have published my article “Creative ways to stay in touch” today – take a read here. It’s also in the June issue of the magazine.

I’ve always loved connecting with people creatively, and now more than ever, when we find ourselves separated from so many we care about, it’s a great way to reach out.

postcards
When writing the piece, I thought especially about how I’ve stayed in touch with a close friend who now lives in a different country. She’s a visual artist, and naturally we’re both drawn to creative ways to connect – though we do still embrace WhatsApp and Skype. I love it when a postcard from her lands on my doormat, or when I spend time handwriting her a card.

One of the ways I explore is through crafting handmade zines – something I’ve written about on this blog before. There are also suggestions for putting together a playlist, sending a gift box or penning a poem.

How do you like to stay in touch with people? What’s helping you right now?

Uncategorized

Getting through

Who’d have known, as we watched the New Year’s fireworks bringing in 2020 and thought to the year ahead, that we’d soon be living in such a different world, where phrases like “self-isolation” and “lockdown” dominate our newsfeeds and conversations?

I very much hope that you are keeping safe and well. My husband and I have been self-isolating for four weeks now (we started a week before lockdown officially began due to health conditions). The first week was undoubtably the hardest so far, filled with so much anxiety and fear and heartbreak and hopelessness at what was happening. While I’m still – as so many are – struggling with these feelings, I am at least a bit more settled now. I’m finding my coping mechanisms, from Skyping family, to not constantly checking the news, to reading every day, and these are making things more manageable.

Placeholder Image

One thing I’ve not done a great deal of is writing. It’s not that I don’t have projects to work on, or ideas to develop, but my focus and energy hasn’t been there. When we started self-isolating, I thought, “Well, at least I’ll get to be really productive…”. But, bar the work I’ve done for my part-time copywriting job (that I’m very fortunate to have been able to do from home), that hasn’t happened.

I’m not the only one. Scrolling through Twitter, where I follow lots of other writers, it seems a common theme. I spoke to my agent on the phone a couple of weeks ago about my novel edits, and she told me how so many of her writers are struggling to focus on their work right now – and that there was no pressure to rush, that it was okay to not be feeling it right now, which was reassuring to hear. Usually, if I have writing to work on, I love to get started as soon as I can, and yet I haven’t touched my manuscript since that conversation.

I have found, though, over the past few days that I’m feeling calmer and less drained. My thoughts are starting to turn towards writing again, with more clarity and enthusiasm. I’m feeling – hoping – that getting stuck into my own writing might give me the positive distraction I need.

In ordinary times, I regularly make myself lists of writing aims for the coming week or so, but I haven’t done that for a month now. So that’s where I’m going to start. Not setting myself deadlines, not telling myself I’m going to produce a great body of work, but ideas of what to focus on. And, for the first time in weeks, I’m excited about starting to tackle my novel edits. I’m looking forward to planning some new article ideas too.

I’m also planning to add more content to this blog. A few months ago I posted a piece about finding inspiration for articles. Over the next few days or so I’m going to work on a follow up post with tips on how to research and analyse magazines, then later another about how to pitch articles to editors. The world of writing can be confusing to navigate, and I hope this series will help demystify the process of getting an article published. I’m also thinking ahead to what other advice and resources I can share on here – let me know if you have any thoughts on topics to cover, I love to talk writing!

While I’m glad to be feeling some level of creative energy again, I’m not going to push myself. I’ve seen a few posts on social media encouraging people to use this strange time to learn a new skill or to dedicate to a creative interest. If you have the energy and the focus, then by all means go for it. But remember that now is not the time to unfairly pressure yourself and feel guilty about not researching your business plan, writing a poetry collection, or learning to play the guitar.

Yes, I’m now hoping to get back into my writing over the coming weeks. I’m feeling in the right headspace for it. But that initial, “Well, at least lockdown will give me time to fully plot out and write my next novel” thought I had a few weeks ago is definitely not my approach now. It’s not about word counts or the number of pitches I send – it’s about enjoying it, about the little bit of hope I feel when I write, about getting, however briefly, lost in something I love.

Take care, and stay safe.

My Writing

Flash fiction in Ellipsis Zine

Today I have a flash fiction story, “Two Weeks After The World Ended”, published by the wonderful Ellipsis Zine.

An earlier version of the story was long listed for the Flash 500 award at the start of the year, and I’m glad the story’s now found a home.

Take a read of it (and great stories by other writers) on the Ellipsis Zine website.

My Writing

Arvon article in Planet Mindful

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. I’ve started a new job that involves lots of copywriting (yay!), which I’m really enjoying. I’ve also been working on editing my novel that’s been my work in progress for a while now, as well as pitching and writing articles, and working on short stories too.

planet mindful.jpgI’m very happy to share that I have a feature in the current issue of the gorgeous magazine Planet Mindful. The article is about my experience of attending a residential writing course at the magical Arvon centre The Hurst earlier this year. Planet Mindful is a wonderful wellbeing magazine that I’ve enjoyed reading for a while, so it’s great to be published by them.

My Writing, Travel, Uncategorized

DadaFest Artist Development Programme and a day in Liverpool

Today I had a wonderful time exploring the city of Liverpool. I was there for a meeting with the disability arts organisation DaDaFest about being supported by their Artist Development Programme.

Blue Coat LiverpoolDadaFest are based at the Bluecoat creative hub in the city centre, in a characterful historic building. It was a really positive chat and I left feeling excited about what’s on offer, in particular setting up mentoring for me with an established writer to further develop my creative practice. I’ve now got some thinking to do around what support in particular I’d like from the programme to help with my writing career. This year I’m making a real push with my writing, and being part of DaDaFest’s Artist Development Programme looks set to be a big help.

My fiancé Gary and I then had a few hours to ourselves in Liverpool. I’ve only been once before, even though it’s not that far from Stoke, so it was good to have an excuse to explore. At Sam from DaDaFest’s recommendation, Gary and I headed to The British Music Experience on the Liverpool Waterfront.

The museum traces the history of British rock and pop from the mid-twentieth century through to the present day and has a whole lot of costumes, instruments and memorabilia, from the inevitable Beatles members’ guitars through to Geri Halliwell’s (in)famous union flag dress. Gary and I both love music and enjoyed exploring its history.

Caroline GuitarThe museum has selection of instruments for visitors to play, so Gary and I had a bit of time trying out various guitars. Gary showed off his shredding and serenaded me with songs from his band, Skybald (who have a gig coming up in Stoke, local music fans!), while I tried to remember the bit of Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day songs I learnt years ago (it’s a while since I picked up a guitar). We’d definitely recommend The British Music Experience if you’re ever in Liverpool.

There were several museums and art galleries that we didn’t get a chance to visit today, but we will definitely be returning to this vibrant city.

 

 

My Writing, Travel, Uncategorized, Workshop

A week at an Arvon course

Recently, I was lucky to spend a week away at Arvon’s The Hurst writers’ centre in the beautiful Shropshire hills.

As I sat in the bright book-filled lounge with eleven other writers who’d travelled from all over, including one from the US, I wondered whether I’d made the right decision coming here. A week dedicated to writing was a lovely idea, but would I find it too exhausting? Would I be able to make the most of my time, or would I run low on ideas? What would the people I’d be sharing this grand old house with be like?

The course was on writing young adult fiction, tutored by the wonderful authors Anthony McGowen and Sheena Wilkinson, and I knew it was going to be an intense week of workshops, tutorials and time dedicated to writing.

20190413_095338Of course, I needn’t have worried. Everyone – my fellow participants, the tutors, and the Arvon staff – were warm and welcoming.

Each morning we took part in workshops, led by Anthony and Sheena, from 9.30am-1pm. It sounded like a dauntingly long amount of time, but each session, covering topics as diverse as characterisation, dialogue and editing, was so engaging and enjoyable that they passed so quick. I filled my Moleskin notebook with notes and ideas generated from the writing exercises set by the tutors.

Our afternoons were less structured, with time to work on our writing, one-to-one tutorials with Anthony and Sheena, or walking in the grounds. The Hurst is set in beautiful woodland, and I took many opportunities to go exploring, both on my own and with fellow writers.

20190410_155428After a delicious dinner (cooked on a rota by participants), each evening held something different – readings from the tutors, a guest author, and a free evening on Thursday. All accompanied by copious amounts of wine and writerly conversation. The Friday evening was a celebration of our work, where we each read a five minute piece of our own writing. It was wonderful to hear everyone’s pieces, ranging from the humorous to emotional.

As I was waiting for my fiancé to pick me up on the Saturday morning (we did a trip to the historic town of Shrewsbury on the way back to Stoke), I couldn’t resist looking on the Arvon website to see what other upcoming courses they have. I know I will definitely be returning – whether to The Hurst or one of Arvon’s other centres in Yorkshire or Devon. I left Arvon with a renewed confidence in and love for my writing, and the promise to myself to dedicate more time to this passion.

MA, My Writing

Handing in my final MA assignment

It’s taken a while, but I have handed in (well, emailed…) my final assignment for my MA in the Teaching & Practice of Creative Writing!

The assignment was really interesting to write. It’s a mix of my own creative work and research into life writing, especially in relation to mental health. I, like many others, find writing cathartic and it has helped me through some very difficult times. While working on the assignment I came across a word for this: “scriptotherapy” – the therapeutic value of writing about traumatic events, and crafting your own narrative to explore your life.

After doing this MA for so long, it feels weird to think that it’s done. It’s going to be a strange feeling no longer being a student – I have some thoughts about progressing further with my studies, but for now it’s a case of just waiting to see what happens. I’ve found that’s a common theme in a writer’s life: waiting. Waiting to hear back on assignments, on pitches, on submissions. Being a writer is a lesson in patience!

Still, if all goes to plan and I haven’t spectacularly screwed up this last assignment, I should be graduating this July.

 

My Writing

Setting writing goals for 2019

I regularly review my short term writing goals, such as planning to pitch an article by a certain date or to hit a certain word count on a longer piece of work. As 2018 ends, I find myself thinking about what I want to achieve in 2019.

Book SimonOver the holidays I’ve been reading The Positively Productive Writer by author Simon Whaley. It has been helpful in setting myself some pretty ambitious writing targets for the coming year. Unlike many of the writing books on my shelves, Simon’s isn’t about the art of writing itself but, rather, how to be a positive, productive and therefore hopefully more successful writer.

He covers areas such as how to set yourself a mix of short, medium and long term SMART goals, dealing positively with rejection, and organising your writing life. I really want to make a big push with my writing career in 2019, and this book has been useful in planning ahead.

My fiancé, Gary, and I had a wander around Hanley earlier today, weaving through the crowds of post-Christmas sales shoppers to go for a coffee and mince pie at Caffe Nero (it is honestly one of my favourite places) where we chatted about our respective resolutions for 2019 (his music, mine writing), followed by a browse around Waterstones. I picked up a copy of Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2019, which is an invaluable guide with lists of magazines, publishers and agents, as well as containing useful articles about various aspects of writing. I’m going to be making the most of the remainder of the Christmas break by reading through this book with a highlighter, finding inspiration for possible places to send my work in the coming months.

What are your writing aims for 2019? What helps you set them?

My Writing, Uncategorized, Workshop

Writing and wellbeing feature in Mslexia

MslexiaI’m really thrilled to have a feature, “Writing in the World: Mental Health”, published in the current issue of Mslexia magazine. I’ve been a Mslexia subscriber for years and it’s a publication that is well regarded in the writing community, so seeing my work in its pages is pretty exciting.

The article shares my experiences of running community creative writing workshops and how writers can work within a wellbeing context to support participants in a way that is inclusive and encourages creativity.

As I wrote the feature, it was useful to reflect on my practice as both a writer and workshop facilitator. Mental health and wellbeing is a topic very close to me, and I’m passionate about the benefits of art and creative group work – I’ve experienced these benefits myself through periods of ill health when I have been one of the people around the table who’s apprehensively taking part in an artistic activity, rather than being the one delivering it.

It made sense to write an article that combined these passions of mine, and they are areas that I’m hoping to explore further in my writing.