It’s almost the middle of February already and I feel like my feet aren’t touching the ground still. However, this week saw me get through a load of work, events and catching up that I’d been planning for and trying to get through for months. Firstly there was a warm welcome in Leeds at Wordspace , which is a Leeds Trinity university led regular open mic, compered by the incredibly talented Hannah Stone. I’d been invited to be the guest reader by Oz Hardwick who, as ever, was the epitome of kindness and dry humour. It comes at a time (ongoing) where my confidence in myself as a writer as well as in just about every single area of my life has suddenly dropped away like an ocean shelf, and whilst I know from past experiences that pushing through the inevitable anxiety that accompanies these confidence drops is worth it as it helps me see myself as others might see me, and not just how to that awful voice in my head sees me, it was still really tough. There were several points where I didn’t think I’d be able to get up in front of an audience and read and I couldn’t for the life of me imagine how I might have done this before. My husband drove us over to the venue in Leeds which is roughly two hours going and an hour and a half back (due to less traffic) and I’m always so grateful for that little kindness that he does for me. When I’m overcome with this sort of anxiety it makes it very difficult to think and focus properly, which means it’s probably a bad idea to drive. We got there with enough time for me to get a nice hot cup of tea in and for Chris to start sampling the gorgeous craft beers available at The Hop Shack . It’s a really lovely venue, stylish and warm and with enough space for everyone to have a seat. The quality of the open mic was incredible, and the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm for poetry. There was a real mixed crowd of people: students and non students, younger and older, all there for the power of words. I’d met a few of them before at other events.
The thing that happened that made it one of my highlights as a poet was that Oz introduced my work, and not me. There was a blurb on the print out which was available to everyone, so anyone could read that I’d had this and that published, worked here and here…competitions etc, all of which look brilliant on my CV but somehow fail to satisfy this terrible thing inside me that is always telling me how shit I am. Instead, Oz described what he felt when he heard me read, what the poems felt like to him. He said I wrote poetry that you could ‘climb inside’ and that it was like an “earthed tuning fork, a concrete tuning fork, listening to the world”. It meant so much to me, at that point especially, to hear someone whose work I respect and who I respect so much as a person, to describe my work like that, and it allowed me jus enough breathing space from the shitty low self confidence to actually get up and read poems from the new collection. The new collection is brutal in its representation of my experience of death, and with how much I have hated my body and my self, and how the death of my daughter compounded that, how I live with that. It is not a barrel of laughs. Since writing it I’ve felt that I have moved through a part of grief that had me pinned down with guilt and some sort of desperate need to atone for some imagined thing that I did wrong and caused her to leave me, and with the desperation of writing to her and never getting a reply. I feel like I have moved through that now, I’m out the other side, but it is still hard to actually get those poems out and open that experience up and share it. However, it is my honest belief that poetry is an important art form and that connection between people, that mode of emotional communication that allows others, and myself, to say ‘yes, this, this is it, this is what life is’ that’s an important thing. Poetry is not just observation, you do climb inside poetry, and when you do give that cist, that you-shaped den over to someone else to climb inside, it’s terrifying. The poems went down really well. I had a half of beer afterwards and was able to enjoy the rest of the evening, but sadly had to jet off at half nine to make sure we got back to the dog before midnight. Chris and I chatted all the way back about our memories of embarrassing stuff we’ve done, and we laughed, nand we talked about our courting days and about the way our marriage is far more weighted towards the beautiful, good things that have happened, rather than the terrible things, and they really were terrible. I wish I could explain the value of poetry being out in the world. It’s not about therapy, and even when it is, it’s still important, and open mics and regular events where you get to read your work, they are important, not just for entertainment, but for communication.
After this is was only a two days before Chris and I were heading off to Flintshire in North Wales to Gladstone’s Library where I’d been invited to run a workshop by the Manchester Women Writer’s Group for their annual creative day. They very kindly paid my expenses, no mean feet for a small group and for me to come all the way across the country; a journey of seven hours, and obviously we had to stay over otherwise we’d never have made it. I’d been excited about this gig for ages, but the sudden slope off of my confidence made it very challenging. We were knackered when we finally arrived, but my goodness, buoyed by the beauty of the place. What a wonderful building, so tranquil and beautiful. I sort of felt a bit too working class to be there, like I might dirty the seats or stain the books with my presence, which is just what that inner voice tells me a LOT. We went for a drink in the village and had a really lovely dinner at The Fox and Grapes accompanied by a good, sharp cat’s piss and gooseberries Sauv. blanc and then went back to the library where we read our books in the beautiful common room.
Then to bed. My favourite sound in the world is the wind through trees and there were trees right outside our window, which I found very relaxing, along with the gentle bells from the church chiming the hour. However, the anxiety made it impossible to sleep properly and in the morning I actually had to find a chemist to get something to help settle my stomach I was so nervous. I was checking and rechecking notes, checking and rechecking my appearance, over and over and was just thankful when the time came to go down and meet the group and get going. I hate how anxiety dominates my life like this, but I have to say, it’s not usually as bad as this, I don’t know what’s going on with me. Perhaps just a bit run down. Anyway, the group were absolutely lovely, a real mix of genres and experience and all incredibly enthusiastic. I pushed a lot of exercises into the session, because I wanted them to really get pen to paper and break through the invisible barrier of the FEAR. The fear inhabits a blank page or a blank computer screen and is so powerful it can stop you writing. But such is the power of the word, that one is able to defeat this foe by just writing without purpose of fear of judgement. At the start of the workshop I was falling over my own words, but once I got interacting with the group and sharing the work, it went well.
I think they enjoyed it, they seemed to. And I really enjoyed it. I forget that there is a reason that I do this for a living, that I chose to be a full time writer, mentor, workshop facilitator, and it’s not because I’m shit at everything else, it’s because I’m good at this, I’m good at what I do. I forget that bit about the journey that I’m on.
We left almost immediately after the workshop to get across the country home. There’d been a storm over night and I was quite worried about flooding round our area, which usually knocks train times out and causes delays. The last thing you want on a seven hour journey is delays. I love travelling on the train, though, and it was just wonderful to go through my favourite northern cities and to revisit the Calder valley which looks like a beautiful art animation through a train window. But I missed seeing Suzannah Evans who’s new book I was hoping to get signed. She was running a workshop in the afternoon and I think is going to be a resident at the library for a whole month too.
I’d also been thinking about the play, writing the play. It’s become somewhat obsessive. I’d decided against crowd funding to make time to write the play. I’d decided, instead, that I would push back against the lack of confidence, which I felt was being exacerbated by feeling like I couldn’t get away from ‘work’ to write, by doing the thing that I advised my mentees and course attendees to do, which is to MAKE time, and not try to ‘find’ time. It’s so much less passive. So I had been getting up early, aiming for a half four/five in the morning start in order to get chunks of play writing done. On the first day I sat down to do this I was extremely surprised when an entirely different play to the one that I had spent months planning and working out the plot for, appeared on the screen as I was writing, and into which I fell heavily, like falling into a fast flowing stream. It was wanting to be written, and I am happy to say that the first draft is now actually written. I’d worked out that it needed roughly 200 hours of work on it to get it to a place where it would be ready to submit, and I had seen an award prize that I wanted to submit it to, which closes on Sunday. This had seemed impossible, just an impossible mark to aim for so that i would come in knowing I’d achieved something, even if I didn’t make that date, but some how it is burning into being and I’ll probably put a good twenty-thirty more hours in before Sunday to get it ready. It feels like a beautifully furious type of writing, a little like it did when I poured myself over my collection when I was a bit mad last year writing it. I feel less mad, but just on the cusp of euphoria with it all. Might be a good idea to have a few days off after I finish it. The play feels like it is good writing, but of course it’s almost impossible to tell if it is or not and I don’t want to say what it’s about, only that, whilst it draws on some of my experiences in life, it is NOT ABOUT ME. Which is brilliant. I’m not in this one, it’s not my story, and that is a freeing position to be in after the pure personal quality of the last ‘project.’
In the meantime the new course ‘Poems to Save the World’ is going very well. The course attendees are writing about Trump, Brexit and personal feelings around politics and doing an incredible, brave amount of writing. it’s a really supportive little group again and I feel like I have gotten to know a few of them quite well now, but it’s so lovely to have new people jumping in too. It’s a real pleasure to run these little workshops. I’ll be re-running The Wild Within in March, it was a very popular workshop last time, so you might need to book early if you want a place this time. Look out for details tomorrow.
Thank you for allowing me to waffle on, apologies that it was mainly about my jittery nerves.