I saw this fabulous show at the Stephen Joseph last week, I loved it. Wonderfully atmospheric, very beautifully created. Here’s my review at The Stage:
I saw this fabulous show at the Stephen Joseph last week, I loved it. Wonderfully atmospheric, very beautifully created. Here’s my review at The Stage:
I’m going to say it loud and clear, for all to hear: I am ambitious. I want to be the very best that I can be. I want to create the best work that I can create. I want to set goals and meet those goals.
My main ambition in life is quite simple: I want to be able to be a professional creative, doing the work I love for a wage that equates to the one I left behind as a microbiologist. I want the work I produce to be of high quality and to reach a wide audience. I want my work to have value, to mean something, to help people and I want it to help me too.
Why, in the creative arts especially, is ambition seen as something wrong? It’s seen as greedy, something that leaves a bad taste. It’s seen as uncouth, bullying, grabby and self serving. But sending the elevator down, helping others be successful and being ambitious for yourself are not two mutually exclusive things, they can and should go hand in hand.
I recently had a bit of a spat over on twitter with a gentleman who had an extended go at me. I had a great deal of respect for this writer so I was surprised when he became so offended by something so trivial. It came out of nowhere. And ended with him telling me he’d bought one of my books, but had I bought one of his in return? The answer, incidentally, is no I hadn’t. Selling books is part of my income, I’m a professional writer, and while I try very hard to buy the books of my colleagues, in support, I mainly do it because I think I’ll enjoy them. What I do do is review other people’s books, when and where I can, and encourage them to submit to publications that I have a hand in, so that I can promote them. That’s all beside the point. The whole thing came about because I’d posted something following the brilliant night I’d enjoyed at the SJT (Read about it here) and how valuable it was to meet other writers at different stages to see how they were building their careers. He insisted, at the end of a prolonged exchange in which he repeatedly told me that I was wrong to be ambitious and that other female writers in history hadn’t been ambitious (to which I wanted to bang my head against a brick wall because without the ambition of the women that came before me I wouldn’t be a able to do what I’m doing now) that I had misinterpreted what he was saying. With all the good will in the world, even accepting that I had misinterpreted what he was saying (I don’t believe I did) at the very best he refused to acknowledge that my opinion and my point of view were valid at all. It was very disrespectful, in fact it was rude and I ended up blocking him. I only ever really block racists, randoms who comment with sexually explicit comments and accounts that are obviously fake. It all threw me a bit, and upset me a bit in the way that horrible behaviour takes one by surprise and leaves one feeling vulnerable, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since because, actually, this is a commonly held view in the arts sector. I’ve talked about it before, this overriding impression that because we aren’t fixing plumbing or whatever, we are all supposed to work for the joy of creation, rather than payment, and at some point some rich aristocrat will become our patron and buy us a house and we can just create forever. Alternatively we should be impoverished, living off orange rinds and the generosity of our friends so that we can create. And we should never, ever want to better ourselves because creation is a reward in itself.
I guess ambition can be seen as something ugly, if, for example, you trampled over the heads of your fellow artists, didn’t share the opportunities that were available, perpetuated the smoke and mirrors effect of the arts world which is that success simply happens and anyway, you shouldn’t want to be successful because, again, creating art is its own reward.
Wanting to be the best you can be, wanting to make a career of your work, wanting to reach a wider audience because you’re an artist with something to say, that’s not wrong, far from it. Ambition is not a dirty word.
Perhaps the thing that annoyed me the most was that this sort of ‘ambition is wrong’ viewpoint keeps the working class writer exactly where they have traditionally been – the cogs for middle/upper class machine. If you can afford to not be ambitious, if you can already simply be an artist and enjoy the gateways to platforms where your work will be enjoyed and recognised, good for you. But we don’t all have that.
The psychological impact of coming from a background in which university isn’t a given, upward mobility has a glass ceiling and you are expected to go into roles that are financially secure and safe, is that working class people tend to worry about ‘getting too big for their boots’ and ‘knowing their place’ and it’s a real struggle to even make the break, to move away from the traditional employment routes that we are brought up to accept are our lot. The working class person might never have experienced true poverty, though many have, but they’ll have seen it and they’ll be aware of how close it is, how easy it is, with just one or two experiences of very bad luck, to fall off the world and become un-personed, to lose their place in society.
Necessity is a driving force in most working class writers, once you make the leap to being self employed and relying on your art for an income, it becomes quite important to get the money to pay your bills. I don’t make a great deal from my creative work, I tend to butter my bread by running courses, mentoring, editing and freelancing for magazines and journals. Some months are better than others, this month, for example, is particularly poor; I’ve been waiting for a client to pay me so that I can replace my broken fridge freezer, which has been out of use for two weeks. We have limited savings and I’ll need them to live off if work doesn’t pick up, but my dream – no – my ambition, is to make a living solely from my creative work. This was my choice, I chose to take this route and I have no regrets, but pulling that self worth out of the hat to keep going, to keep pushing forward, inching forward is hard. So it’s a bit shit when people slap you down for moving forward.
And I will get there, not by trampling on my colleagues, but by sharing knowledge and with my colleagues. The best thing about being working class is that we help each other out where we can.
So, yes, I’m ambitions. You can choose whatever you want to be. The great thing about life is that you are in charge of your own choices, if you are where you want to be, great! If your life plan isn’t as go-get-them as mine, it doesn’t make it wrong, it just makes it different. Different is not the same as less than, and I think people forget that. But it is a shame when people feel the need to slap others down, I’ve noticed it quite a lot lately, it makes it a bit scary to share news of success because who wants to be faced with the snide facebook posts or the out and out offensive twitter posts. However, I WILL share, and I will remember how I want to be treated by others and I will congratulate and celebrate with other writers and I will push on, push forward. I want to be the very best that I can be, and I’m happy that I am doing my best to do that.
Don’t forget the new course starting in June . It’d be nice to have you along for the ride!
I am so proud of all the hard work that the April Write-a-thon attendees put in. It was a wonderfully warm and supportive group and some smashing work was produced. Please enjoy this free online anthology featuring 30 pieces of creative writing kindly contributed by attendees.
And don’t forget I’m running a NEW course in June, details can be found here
Come and join us at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough 7.30pm in the bar on the 22nd May for an evening of poetry written and performed by women poets. Th event is organised by Nadia Emem who will also be performing her own poems. Join Nadia, Zara Jayne (who was incredible in Martha Josie and the Chinese Elvis – read my review for The Stage here) Hayley Green, Sue Wilson and myself as we celebrate women. I’m going to be reading some stuff from the new book about body ownership and learning to love yourself and I’ve chosen to read one or two Plath poems too. It’s going to be a fab night.
Full details here
And don’t forget, there are still places available on the online course I’m running in June. Want to reconnect to your creativity, this four week online workshop will help you. Details here
I was eight when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on April 25/26th 1986. I don’t really remember it, if I’m honest. It must have been on the news, at some point, but it passed me by. As I grew up I became aware of myself in a world setting, especially in the form of environmental awareness – the ozone layer, ice caps, greenhouse gasses, sea levels and yes, nuclear power and the dangers of it, which was always referenced with the Chernobyl disaster. To a fourteen or fifteen year old, the disaster must have seemed a long tome ago, something in the past from which, one assumed, lessons had been learned.
I picked up Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy on the recommendation of my husband who had heard about it on the radio. As I stood in Waterstone’s choosing what to read, I was impressed by the weight of it; by the massive amount of references in the back. The scientist in me recognised the work that had gone into it and I was interested in a world history event which had happened within my life time but about which I knew very little. I finished reading it last week, it took me two months to read. It took me so long because I am so very swamped with work right now and only get short spaces of time to read for pleasure, but partly because the book is so incredibly dense in factual information. How could it not be? For a start the average person in the street doesn’t really know how nuclear fission works in detail, I had a vague understanding about it, but couldn’t have told you how the energy is ‘managed’. To understand how the accident happened one needs to know how nuclear power plants work. The book explains this without expecting you to be a physicist, which is good, as I was (still am I guess? ) a microbiologist. This is irrelevant, anyone would understand it, science background not necessary, but by god I spent four years at uni studying for my BSC and thirteen years as a microbiologist so I like to drop it in where I can and get my money’s worth.
It would also be really easy to present the disaster from a modern, western perspective, but examination in hindsight, from a completely different set of experiences never fully addresses the issues, so the book places the events in the context of the soviet union, it’s history and the lives of every day people living and working in the state. It goes into incredible detail about the soviet union, the style of leadership and the economic situation at that time. It’s another area that I had a very vague knowledge of, and it’s been a real eye opener.
It turns out the disaster did not just occur in April 1986. On the fateful night there was the explosion, the worst nuclear disaster ever, but what followed was a thirty year long failure to manage the disaster, and a massive cover up which has caused thousands and thousands of innocent people to die and to suffer from cancer. This is a disaster that will continue to occur for another 24,000 years. I’ve never really been sure why Nuclear power is hailed as a clean energy when there isn’t an effective way to get rid of nuclear waste at the best of times, but in the event of a disaster like this the whole planet could be wiped out, and so very very nearly was. Even with all the safety precautions in the world, and the highest level of expertise in managing what is, effectively, an incredibly unstable source of power, we cannot predict everything. Just look at Fukushima.
Reactor four was not the only reactor on the Chernobyl site. One of the reasons for the disaster was poor construction due to the intense pressure to produce energy. So I was shocked to read that the last unit at the Chernobyl site was finally shut down and decommissioned in the year 2000. It won’t be possible to dismantle the reactors themselves until 2064. I might just see it in my lifetime. That’s what I find truly terrifying. The steel cover that covers the original concrete cover was only finished and in place in 2017. It will need to be replaced in 100 years. Chernobyl is an ongoing process of management, and will be forever. It frightens me that in a world that feels so unstable, we have to trust that this management will continue to happen. And still, and still, nuclear power plants are being constructed around the world.
I won’t bore you with anymore details, you should read the book, it should be taught in schools, we should all be aware of this event and the implications of nuclear energy. They are still regularly testing the soil in Europe (inc. Britain) to determine the nuclear contamination from the fall out cloud of Chernobyl. As an indication of how Europe affected, here’s a link to a video on youtube which shows how the cloud moved: Cloud Movement . I can’t verify how accurate it is, but it is one of many produced by environmental agencies. My friend got thyroid cancer a few years ago, and thankfully survived it, she was born in the eighties. I remember having conversations with doctors at the time of her diagnosis, when I was working in the NHS, about the prevalence of thyroid cancer on the east coast and I can see why there is such a prevelence now, looking at that video.
For those interested, and I know a fair few people who have read the book too, and are enjoying (is enjoying the right word?) the Chernobyl series on Sky (it’s brilliant) this is another video which is really helpful as the to scale reconstruction of the plant in its post explosion state is incredible. I couldn’t quite visualise how the lid of the reactor had blown off, and then fallen back in place, until I watched this: Video. It also has some facts about the contamination and the massive explosion.
Back to the book. It is intense, dense in facts, often quite dry, but also compassionate and pulls no punches, it exposes the very inner workings of the soviet union to show exactly how this happened, but more than that, it explains the very very real danger of something like this happening again. Go read it.
Do you remember why you began writing? If you close your eyes and settle your mind, can you remember the feelings you experienced when writing your first story, your first poem or even when you read your first book? Does the process still spark the same joy?
In this month long, online course you will be invited to reconnect with your beginner’s mind and explore your creative process not from a new perspective, but from an old perspective, casting off the self doubts and worry that often accompany the writing process and embracing the mind of the beginner.
What is the beginner’s mind? The expert’s mind is full of knowledge, it knows about technique and is widely read, the experts mind is full of purpose and definition but is also constrained by them, worrying about ‘getting it right’. The beginner’s mind is open to new experiences, new ways of looking at the world, the beginner’s mind is free to express itself. In the beginner’s mind, creativity is the key part of the writing process.
This four week course/online workshop will help you reconnect with your beginner’s mind. Each week you will receive a ‘lesson plan’ with a simple mindfulness meditation exercise to try, a weekly writing focus, resources, writing examples, tips and guidance. You’ll also receive a daily, optional, creativity prompt to help stimulate your writing potential. These will be delivered directly to your inbox. There will be a closed Facebook group, which is optional, where course attendees can chat, exchange ideas and share work for gentle and constructive criticism.
Ready to embrace your beginner’s mind? Places are limited so book early to avoid disappointment. The course begins on 1st June. The price for the full four weeks is just £20, to be paid upfront through Paypal.
On Wednesday it was the Second Stage event at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Along with six other writers, my play To Be Undone was showcased: an extract was read on stage by a professional actor, Oghenekevwe Emefe . It was an entirely positive experience for me. It was wonderful. Obviously it was amazing to have this first experience of seeing my work, my words, alive on the stage, in someone else’s mouth, but more important than that, I got to meet and chat to other writers at different stages in their careers, other writers who were working in different mediums and facing similar and different challenges. Without doubt I was the newbie in the group, but I didn’t feel excluded or looked down on because of that, on the contrary, it was absolutely fascinating to discuss my own writing process as a poet coming to script writing, with people who had found their way there through different routes – acting, drama school, and also working class folk coming into the profession because of passion and determination. I could have sat and chatted all day to these people who had come from as far away as Suffolk and London to come to Scarborough to see their own work performed. And I have to applaud the SJT for being a beacon of inclusivity and support especially because they paid travel and accommodation expenses for those coming from a way away. I am fairly new to the theatre world as a writer and I don’t know if that’s the norm, but in the poetry world this is not the norm. In the poetry world we tend to sell books by going to readings and performing, and for the most part this is for free, unless you are very well established and can command a fee. Even at poetry festivals, unless you are on the top tiers of professional poetry, you are unlikely to get your accommodation and a travel expenses paid. It really brought it home to me how much of a struggle it is to make a living, and I’m going to say it again….especially if you are in a rural area, as a writer, especially as a poet. I met another writer that night who came from similar rural situation and, oh my god, how good was it to say out-loud to someone ‘this is really hard isn’t it’ and not feel guilty because I’m doing the work that I love, for a living, something that other people might not get an opportunity to do, and perhaps I shouldn’t be moaning about that. But, to be able to moan about fees and slow payments and the difficulties of getting paid for what you do and what it’s like to apply over and over again for funding and not get it was such a tonic. The sudden realisation that I am not on my own, I am not ‘getting it wrong’ which is always the worry when you are finding your feet in a new genre, it is just hard, it’s hard to make a living as a writer.
I’m going to keep the memory safe, treasured, like I keep the memory of my first poetry gig treasured, my first submission, my first acceptance, my first book. I shall go back to that night, in the hushed auditorium, and my name being read out, my hard won words expressed clearly and beautifully, while my husband and a few of my friends watched too. It is a feeling that simply cannot be beat. I can feel myself stepping forward, almost literally straightening up, lifting my head, owning myself as a writer. It makes the 5.30 am starts and the low paid, non paid work that I’ve been doing worth it.
To celebrate this movement into what feels like another stage of my career, I had all my hair cut off. I’ve been wanting to start bringing my natural colour out for a while now. My natural colour being silver. I started going silver in my early twenties and, whilst I am not quite ready for a full head of silver, I wanted to see what it looked like on show. So I had it cut proper short, and in a statement style. I wanted a strong haircut to match how I am feeling about myself and my life at the minute. My brilliant hairdresser Corine at Hairitage House did not let me down. I feel powerful, strong, capable, talented, alive. I feel like me again.