My visit to Arvon HQ

Writing's a funny old game. One draft, you'll be cursing every word you write, looking out of the window after every sentence, finding household chores to do instead of boring off on Word for an hour. It's rubbish, you may as well put it in the bin.

Then you might have a compliment about your writing, someone might retweet your tweet, you might win a competition or have a story placed, you might read something inspirational. The next thing you know, you can't stop: your WIP is dreamy, you can already see it on the shelves.

My boost happened this week. Since winning the Arvon Award, Ruth, the director of Arvon, and I have been in touch and she invited me to visit their London office and meet the team. I did just that, and I was asked to read one of my stories I submitted so Ruth's team could get a feel for my project.
I thought I'd be nervous, my lips sticking together and my voice pinballing around in the room, but Ruth's colleagues were all so friendly and accommodating that I soon felt comfortable.

And then they asked me questions – like a real author! I was asked about what inspired my collection (where do I start?!), how I found the songs to reimagine (my go-to resources), what else I am working on (a novel), whether I preferred long or short form (difficult one, that), whether I'd attempt another biography (yes!). One member of the team asked where she should start, as someone who had never written but was intrigued.

 When I reflected on my answers, I realised I knew what I was talking about – my answers were valid, are valid. I am a writer! I've been writing for years! I have experience to share, advice to impart!

 It was an exciting realisation. And guess what? I can't stop writing now!

The Free Word Centre, where Arvon is based, is a beautiful place. Drop in and hang out – you don't need an appointment or permission.

IRL: the positive benefits of work on writing

Since I was tiny and called myself an ‘authoress’ – seriously! – I’ve imagined my life as a full-time writer. I’ve always imagined the desk overlooking the hills, the latest novel up on the screen, my writing day punctuated by walks. I’d be happier, healthier, my house cleaner, my brain tidier. I’d have more sleep, I’d feel more fulfilled. I’d be able to keep a dog, make time for other interests, see more of my family and friends.

Of course, very few writers are able to write full-time. Most combine their writing with other, often better paid, work. Some are able to take employment that chimes with and complements the writing life: lecturing and teaching creative writing, copywriting, editorial services, working in bookshops (or even running one, in the case of Evie Wyld).

For the emerging writer, or the complete novice – the writer putting the finishing touches to her query letter to agents, the writer sending off his competition entry with crossed fingers – writing is a brain-sapping passion that happens in amongst the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life: the job(s), the household chores, the friends, the family. The thought of committing to a writing MA or jacking in the day job is not only a distant dream, it’s downright impossible.

Philip Larkin was well known for his employment at a library. (Image Creative Commons, but credited to Quite Adept)

Penned in the margins

But my experience so far – writing two non-fiction books and preparing a collection of short stories alongside a full time, busy job in a creative agency – has been a good one. My dream position of ‘full time authoress’ is receding: even if I was to land that dream scenario of tangible, we-can-live-on-this chunky advance, I now know that I’d spend a good proportion of my time in employment of some kind.

There’s a few reasons for that: some writing-related, some personal.

Firstly, I write better when I have a deadline, a goal, an aim. If there’s a competition deadline looming, or a ticking time bomb I’ve imposed on myself – I told myself to write ten short stories by the end of 2016 – then I’m prolific. I carve out time in the most unexpected places. I get the words down at night, during my commute, while I’m doing other things. So if my writing is restricted to evenings, weekends and holidays, I look forward to it during my working day, put on my invisible out-of-office and get to it. If I had all the time in the world, I have a feeling my productivity would go out the window – quite literally, as staring out of the window in a daze seems my procrastination habit of choice, these days.  

Thinking about writing is as necessary to the job as getting words down on the page, as is reading widely, and both of these things can still happen in and around my day job, for which I’m very grateful. I tend to do these things when actual physical writing can’t take place – when I’m squashed into a particularly unpleasant commuter train, for example. Working full time, and all its accoutrements, also aids writing in terms of subject matter: observations, colleague anecdotes, real life.

After all, writers solely writing about writers writing can be pretty unsatisfactory. (She says, in the formation of a blog post about writing).

Honing, skilling, developing

My working life has had a profound effect on me as a person, aside from the obvious benefits: regular salary, skills development. As an easily-anxious, often-unconfident graduate, my job of leading and managing both projects and people, and dealing with individuals, sectors and industries quite out of my knowledge range, has helped me sharpen up and assert myself. In my early thirties, I feel very different to the wavering-but-well-intentioned person I was in my early twenties. Of course, some of that is down to the ageing process and ‘finding my feet’, but much is thanks to my job. 

And this impacts my writing life, too. I can lead a community writing group, I invite and give constructive criticism, I accept rejections well, I prioritise and can focus on my priorities, I can sell myself and my work

I realise I am in the fortunate position of being in a day job I enjoy, with a passion I can pursue relatively freely outside working hours – which, of course, is not the situation enjoyed by all writers on the quest for publication. If I was to start a family, for example, I have a feeling my words would disappear out of the very window I once stared from. 

But for now, I’m treasuring my situation.

I'm a winner!

Yep, I can't quite believe I'm typing this, but... I won the Arvon Award at this year's Northern Writers' Awards! You can see the 'are-you-sure-you've-got-the-right-person?' expression on my face, with the official write-up, right here...

I entered the Northern Writers' Awards to try and win development time for my short story collection, currently in progress. The collection is comprised of stories based on or influenced by English folk song – reinterpretations, reimaginings – as a challenge to myself, to meld my love of folk song and fiction, but also to demonstrate what a strong, fascinating canon of folk song we English people have, much of which gives an insight into the lives of our ordinary ancestors: how they worked, how they loved, how they played. I believe our folk song is a rich compendium on which artists can draw – and thankfully, Ruth Borthwick, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the Arvon Foundation, thought so, too!

Last Thursday, Chris and I travelled up to Newcastle to collect my award. It was such an exhilarating day! Firstly, I met the other award winners at the Northern Stage, where we chatted about our works in progress and got to know each other over tea and cake. I met some truly lovely, interesting people who I've vowed to stay in touch with as our year with New Writing North unfolds.

Then, in the evening, we went along to The Sutherland Building for the dinner and award presentation ceremony. A variety of different people spoke about their experiences of the Awards: New Writing North staff and trustees, judges and other writers involved in the judging process, and previous recipients, while each judge gave a heartwarming account of why they chose the winning entry they did. I must admit that when Ruth took to the stage to talk about my 'ambitious' project, a stray tear did make its way down my face...

I'm now able to attend an Arvon course of my choosing – dream come true! – and attend other development sessions and opportunities courtesy of New Writing North. It's going to be a fantastic year.

And I'm one of those writers that firmly believed 'it won't happen to me...' If you're deliberating about whether to send in that entry, do it. You never know what might happen!

My friend, the novelist

All The Good Things, by Clare Fisher. Published by Viking, 1 June 2017.

I first met Clare when we were both shortlisted for the Ideastap / Writers' Centre Inspires mentoring programme almost three years ago exactly. Neither of us knew a soul at the masterclass we were invited to, but we – along with another member of the group, Alice – gravitated towards each other and have stayed in touch ever since. In fact, it's been more than a case of staying in touch: the three of us have become firm friends, meeting regularly for dinner or writer talks and, crucially, swapping work.

I wasn't at all surprised when Clare told me she'd signed with one of the longest established, high profile literary agencies in the business, nor when she added that her first novel would be published by Viking, a subsidiary of Penguin. Clare is one of those people who sets out to achieve and when she has her mind on something, when she is captivated by something, she does it. Reading, writing, teaching, running, Clare sets the bar high and goes for it. The short stories I read of hers zip along with a voice that feels funny and wry and shrewd, and most definitely hers. She reads widely, she writes prolifically. She suffers from the what-a-load-of-shite days that we all do, but she tries again, reads something else, tries again.

I couldn't wait to read All The Good Things. I decided to wait until publication day to get my hands on a copy, rather than badger her for sneak previews, and I'm glad I did. Alice and I went along to the launch party at Waterstones, Leeds, and enjoyed her in her element, answering questions with insight, humility and humour and signing the stacks of books before her. We took away a copy each, I started it on the train home – sorry Elizabeth Gaskell, I'll come back to you now, I promise! – and I've already finished it because I couldn't put it down. Of course, I have vested interest – I enjoyed pinpointing elements of Clare-the-human in Clare-the-writer's writing, for example – but I can honestly say that it's a fantastic debut. The writing pops and crackles with new ways of saying and being; the voice is as strong as any of the short stories of Clare's I'd read earlier; the empathy and compassion for the characters and their circumstances is particularly welcome at this time.

And then I reached the acknowledgements...

I'm so thrilled! My first, proper acknowledgement! Thanks, Clare, and massive congratulations.

Music journalism vs fiction

Music writing has taken a (conscious) back seat for me of late. I've been writing music news, reviews and interviews since I was 15, which has been a great way to develop my style and practise 'the craft' while getting all the experience that comes with submitting work for publication.

However, with all those deadlines and a day job, I found that my fiction writing was always left for those moments when I had the headspace – which, as the day job grew in importance and responsibility, were becoming fewer and fewer: a weekend afternoon, holidays, an occasional long train journey.

I had to make a decision. If I was to really give my fiction writing a chance, if I was really going to take myself seriously – which is hard with fiction writing, as some days you want to laugh at your pathetic efforts! – then I had to let go of some of my writing commitments. I made that decision quietly, but funnily enough, it came at the right time: one editor moved on, another publication folded, and I kept my head down.

And it's worked. It was the right decision to make. I took a short story course to boost the morale and reinstate some deadlines, I founded a community writing group, I performed a creative non-fiction piece at Manchester Literature Festival, and I had some stories placed for publication. It feels like progress.

But when Mark from Folk Witness got in touch, asking if I'd be interested in contributing a piece or two, I couldn't refuse. It's a blog I've admired for some time. The writing is interesting and well thought through, the tone familiar without being jokey. He knows his stuff and he loves it (I just sung that to the tune of Katie Perry...)

So, this is a very longwinded way of saying: I'm writing about music again, and it feels like a lovely release.

Here's my first piece for Folk Witness on 'my' new discovery, Kaia Kater.

Streetcake story

I'm really rather chuffed: I have a short story in the latest issue of Streetcake Magazine! You can read 'Silence Surrounds Her', my take on the song 'The Cruel Mother' (Child 20, Roud 9) in issue 52 right here...

There's so many great versions of this song, but one that sticks in my mind is Kerfuffle's 'Down By The Greenwood Side'. It's that sauntering percussion; it makes me think of lazy, sauntering hoofbeats on a summer's evening, which is kind of paradoxical given the lyrics and makes the 'find' seem even more sinister. Have a listen here.