Apologies, this is a bit of a long winded something-or-other about making the choice to work during the pandemic. Very self indulgent. This is a strange year. When the pandemic hit and everything went into lockdown I realised I had to make this awful choice between being selfish and being altruistic and doing my bit. My default position is always to try and help. I think with most people it is, but I am ex NHS, a qualified microbiologist, so I imagine there would have been a role for me somewhere, and I could have made a small difference somewhere. I didn’t. I chose to continue working and spending the time I had free on my writing. I’m self employed, and my ‘business’ is myself. I’m a writer, yes, but I make my living from running workshops, editing for publishers and private clients and mentoring. I’d like that to be the other way around at some point, and I do feel like I am heading towards that point, but it’s been a long gruelling road to get there. No one can see into the future, and I was aware that there would be economic fallout from this virus, as well as huge loss of life. There will be jobs lost at some point, my husband may be one of those who lose his job so I felt it was very important that I worked as much as I could to fill the gaps while the company he works for is closed and so that we could shore up some savings to see us through. I doubled up on my paid work, and haven’t had a day off since lockdown began (tiny violins begin to play) though I have had an afternoon here and there and have made sure to take three hours off on a Sunday, usually. My alarm goes off at five, I’m at my desk at six am, I generally leave my desk at six pm. I try and fit in a dog walk and a workout for sanity. I’m feeling the constant work a bit a the minute, if I’m honest, but I love my work so I am immensely lucky. I did have spare hours here and there, hours when I wasn’t reading and responding to course attendee poems, or editing or organising one-to-ones with mentees and in those spaces I worked, initially, on the novel (this was supposed to be the year of the novel!) and then because I couldn’t get anywhere to research for the novel, I put the novel to one side and I picked up a non fiction project, a project which I had previously written a chapter for, and which is now my main project. I could have donated those hours, and I didn’t and I feel a real sense of shame and guilt about that. There weren’t many free hours, to be honest, and my work is unpredictable, so I’m not sure how it would have worked, but I’m sure I could have done more somehow. Instead I did my mum’s shopping sometimes (She’s shielded) and offered to do the shopping for vulnerable people in the village, to pick up prescriptions and such like, but there are a lot of retired people helping out in various forms so I haven’t really been needed. I’ve reduced prices on my courses as I know people don’t have money, organised courses which have been centred around wellbeing and sharing experience, building communities and avoiding loneliness, I’ve encouraged people to find ways of expressing their frustrations and fears through creative writing, but really that’s just hippy dippy bollocks compered to really helping people.
Anyway, that was what I chose to do. I chose to be a writer, and, amazingly, the last couple of months have seen my biggest breakthroughs. First being one of the winners in the Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition and then being long listed, then short listed for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize. Both of these are massive things, partly because they are achievements to strive for, prestigious and career enhancing, but more so because of the work that actually won. You might remember me talking about my next collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse which was due to be published by my previous publisher Valley Press. Unfortunately VP hit a real rough patch and lost out on a grant, which meant the book was delayed and after having worked on it for seven years at that point, I had a chat with my publisher and with his absolute support, we decided, over a couple of pints, that I would submit it elsewhere and see if it placed and then bring it back if it didn’t. He even helped me compile a list of publishers because he is a genuinely nice guy and I I hope to work with him again. I spent about eight months sending it out, getting it shortlisted with publishers but never quite making it through, and then I entered the PB competition and it won. I cried down the phone when they told me. Though I don’t know if it will be a pamphlet or a full collection yet, I’m happy either way, to be honest. All I know is that this is the collection in which my grief broke like a fever and I wanted it to be published. In his judge’s report Ian McMillan said the poems were about recovery, and I had never thought about them like that, but that’s exactly what they are, they are about recovering from an absolute shit show of a time that ground on for thirteen years while we constantly had to learn to live with a new grief: infertility, death of our daughter, clinical negligence and knowing we’d lost her unnecessarily, miscarriage and eventually childlessness. That book has my heart in it, and I am so glad it found a home.
The Alpine Fellowship was a complete surprise. The theme for this year, Forgiveness and Retribution, fitted in with the theme for the book that I wanted to write so I decided to write a scaled down chapter for the book and enter it as a creative non fiction essay. I was gobsmacked when it was long listed and nearly fainted when it was short listed. I dare not think too hard on it, because it’s too painful to hope. It’s a big cash prize that would give me the six months to a year that I need to write the book. But if nothing else it has given me the boost in confidence I needed to send a proposal out to some agents.
But here’s the thing, while I am super happy, just super happy and excited by these two cracking things, forty thousand people have died. In America black folk are fighting for recognition, the situation is beginning to look like a civil war, in the middle of a pandemic. People are losing their jobs, people are not able to see their loved ones while they are dying, the world is on fire, and I am winning these things that mean such a lot to me but mean nothing to anyone else. There’s no answer to this. I think a lot of people are feeling like this and added to that the frustrations and the fear of infection, of losing people to the infection, fear for loved ones. If you’re someone who lives with anxiety and depression, it’s going to really effect that, I know it is with me. I feel sunk by it all and not sure how I should feel about the good stuff, or if I even should be happy about the good stuff. But I am happy about it. But I also feel selfish and guilty and a bit ashamed about being happy about it. It’s made me quite needy, reaching out clumsily to people who are already under pressure, with stuff that I should just get on with. It’s also made me wonder if this is how people felt, announcing their pregnancies to me after Matilda died. That must have been tough for them. Every experience is a lesson, isn’t it, though I’m not sure what this lesson is, perhaps that I should stop whining, embrace the happiness that these two big steps have given me, and get back to work.
Anyway, until next time, stay safe.