This year you come to me in the rain,
your name a sudden shock
on the lips of a passing woman
to her daughter, out walking in the lane.
The two recede. Her daughter’s back
Is sullen under black layers.
The passing cloud
of your impermanence drifts through
and for a second I am in the dark
lush of your watery air. For a second
I think I feel you there, your shadow
bridging the gap between us,
petrichor of your shampoo, slight
weight of your body next to mine,
columns of you drifting across
the distant valley of me.
This week I made the move to combine my blog and my newsletter and to move this over to substack. Substack has more options for reader engagement is a bit of a hub for writers and artists, it already feels like a place where I can spread my wings a little and create some events and interactions with readers. I see the new substack page as a new project in its own right. It’s called ‘Notes from the Margin.’
Notes from the Margin is a kind of commonplace book in which those small points of connection are gathered. The margin of the title is both the place at the edge of a page where notes are made, and a place of in-betweens, of not quite being identified or categorised. These are places of profundity and revelation for me.
This is also the best place to find my latest news: courses and workshops I’m running, publications, books, readings and events. This newsletter publishes every two weeks.
When you subscribe you will receive Notes from the Margin direct to your email inbox free of charge, every two weeks. You will also receive occasional emails to let you know of upcoming courses, workshops and retreats with me, or through the magazine I run, Spelt. I promise not to spam you!
This time of year always makes me itchy to move forward. Is it the snowdrops, and the green shoots of daffodils bravely spearing through the frost? perhaps. Perhaps it’s the subliminal effect of blackbirds beginning to sing in the morning, the way I now sit at my desk in the early morning writing hour and see the sunrise, rather than the dark. And it is writing that I am doing now, every day. A while a go (a year? Two?) I began to change practice. I wanted to move away from so much workshop facilitating and teaching, and work on progressing my own writing career, but I wanted to do it in a way that meant that my life had a slower pace, I wanted to grow into myself, grow into my work. Focussing on my own work over facilitating and helping to develop other people’s work meant that, shock horror, I accomplished some of the things on my long term plan and took several steps towards being paid as a creative writer. My dream is to be a writer, that one day I will have that as my main focus, that all things that I do that are not writing will facilitate the creativity and peace needed to write. It feels like a very 19th century sentiment, to have a goal that involves simply living and absorbing, thinking and interpreting life in order to create. We live in a society in which everything is geared towards success, and success equates to popularity, it is difficult to identify the core of the creative process, which is the creative process itself, the development of the artist and their discoveries of communication, connection, which is then shared. Or something less pretentious.
January was a month of an absolute grinding To Do list, funding application, tax return, judging two poetry competitions, mentoring, setting up courses and on top of that trying to prioritise work on a book that now has a deadline (more on that in another blog) . It meant that the magazine I run got way behind, there was no time to work on it. At the end of the month, as the flood waters of work receded, I began to think about how this all fits in to my desire for a more focussed, less fussy life, the creative goal. I realised I’d reached yet another place of decisions. Something has to go. I worked so hard to pare back the workload I was carrying last year, taking a pay cut along the way, and found that switching focus had worked well enough that I need to make more changes. I became a little stuck, not by the idea of change itself, but by the idea that changing my work would impact on other people. Stuff that I’d been able to fit in (endorsements, for example) would have to be turned down more and more, along with other paid work, in order to move towards a different kind of life. It feels like turning an enormous ship, changing direction, moving something that is zipping along under its own momentum and turning it towards something else. There is the fear, the fear that all self employed people carry, that changing direction might be the wrong choice, it might mean accidentally tipping all your passengers into the ocean, and what do you do then? (I’m really pushing this analogy).
I’m starting the next phase of changes slowly. I’ve decided to start with my newsletter and my blog, combining them and switching over to a substack, which feels like it has more scope to be a substantial project on its own. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take my wordpress blog followers with me automatically, and my mail chimp followers, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. There’ll be a link to the substack in the next couple of weeks anyway, if you want to come and join me over there.
There are other big changes happening, but I’ll talk about those another time.
Thanks for listening to the navel gazing, let me know if you’ve had similar experiences turning your ship, setting up a substack or slowing your life down.
January is nearly over, but have you met your submissions quota for the month? Don’t let your New Year’s submissions commitment slip away, here are five poetry competitions with a deadline of tomorrow. Sit down, tidy your work and submit. Face the fear and do it anyway, the worst thing that can happen is that they say ‘no thank you’ and then you get them back to send out again. Exciting!
Kent and Sussex Poetry Society Open Poetry Competition. Fee: £5 per poem o three or more for £4 each. Full details can be found by following this link: Kent and Sussex
Teignmouth Poetry Competition. Fee: £4.50 for first poem, £3.50 for additional poems. Full details can be found by following this link: Teignmouth
Storytown Poetry Cmpetition. Theme: ‘Doorways’ Fee: £4 per poem or £10 for three. For full details follow this link: Storytown
Magma poetry competition. Fee: £5 for the first poem, £4 for the second poem, £3.50 for the third poem and any subsequent poems. For full details follow this link: Magma
Dorset prize for a full collection of poetry. Fee: $30 (US) for full details follow this link: Dorset Prize
I have somehow fallen into a January ritual of reading one year of Samuel Pepys’s diaries as my first book of the year, every year. I’ve done so since 2020, starting with 1660. I’m currently up to mid September of this year’s diary, 1663. The diaries are a fascinating glimpse of the every day life of someone who is a fairly ordinary person working their way up in an administrative job. There’s a lot about the navy and the admiralty in the diaries, a lot of interesting stuff about Charles II and the way the court and parliament worked. But for me the really interesting bits are always the human encounters. There seems to be a lot of trouble with turds in Pepys’s world; lots of basements flooded with crap. Sanitation is still a bit random in London in the 1660s. Each year he is intent on bettering himself; always, trying to rise up the ranks. His house is something he’s proud of, he makes alterations, improves it while he is living in it. He helps his father and his brothers out, helping his kin to attain good positions, lending money, sorting out the wills of his relatives. He reads interesting books, he buys scientific equipment; and is interested in the arts, science, astronomy. he loves the theatre but tries to ration himself as it distracts him from work. The working day in Pepys’s age is not 9-5, it is all days, but with life threaded in and around it. he goes to his office at a ridiculously early hour – 4-5 am in summer, but also goes to the theatre midday and out drinking, then returns to his office. He travels all around and about taking coaches, walking, going by water. He is very good at his job, and is, in many ways, god-fearing, attending church regularly and trying to live a good, clean, christian life. Except for the women. Flirtations, sexual misconduct, affairs that he constantly asks God’s forgiveness for, but does not not seek. And he is a complete hypocrite and, sadly, he is cruel to his wife. We know so much about Pepys, we know so much about him as a person, but his wife is known only through his words. Elizabeth was just fifteen when she married Samuel, who was twenty two, in 1655. It isn’t that he disliked Elisabeth, he loved her. He wasn’t cruel to her because he hated her, but, I think, because he felt it necessary to have the right kind of wife. Pepys is insecure about his place, his value. When he was away from her he pined for her. When they were both happy and content they shared a great deal of intimacy. Many of the references in the diaries are about talking to his wife, about all sorts of things, not instructing her, but lying abed on a morning and chatting about life in general. But that doesn’t justify his cruelty. In the 1663 diary Pepys records that she tells him how lonely she is at home, without him and without company and without many friends. She tells him how she wants to learn new skills, have some interests of her own. Pepys is a keen musician, Elisabeth doesn’t seem to have a great aptitude for music, but does like to dance. Pepys hires a dance instructor, male, Mr. Pendleton, to teach his wife and then almost immediately becomes insanely jealous about him. Pepys’ is insecure. He knows he is insecure. He knows he is jealous but can’t seem to help it. He is cruel to his wife. Every time she says aloud that she thinks she is good at something, dancing in this instance, he pulls her down, or at least he pulls her down in the diary, maybe not to her face. He thinks her stupid because she can’t write or read as well as he does, and when she writes a heart felt letter to him telling him how sad she is, how lonely, he throws a fit of anger because she has written it in plain english, and left it where anyone could find it. He tears it up in front of her, he goes through her things and tears up all her letters, including love letters from him, that she had treasured, in front of her. He feels bad about it. But he doesn’t really apologise, or if he does, he doesn’t record it.
It is very difficult to make a moral judgement on him, though even at a time when wives were property and men were in charge of ‘keeping them in order’, people knew what cruelty was, and what unfairness was. He knew when he was being unfair to her, when he was emotionally hurting her and he did it anyway. He records his shame over it, but does it anyway, and keeps doing it, keeps being jealous, keeps being insecure. See also countless affairs, often with the household maids, in Elisabeth’s house. Right under her nose. They never had a family. Elisabeth never became pregnant. As I read through the diaries in my annual time travel period to the 1660s, I often wonder about her and how she felt. She almost certainly had endometriosis, she was often bed bound with period pain. I wonder what she thought and felt, did she feel the years of not having a baby, did she feel devalued by the society, her market value decreased, as Pepys’s property? I wonder how she felt, this ghost in the margins of Pepys’s diaries.
In one passage in the 1663 diaries, they have a blazing row, and Pepys calls Elisabeth a ‘beggar’ because she brought no dowry to the marriage and she responds by calling him ‘pricklouse’ (which vexed him) referring to him being the son of a tailor. A cracking insult. Since I read this altercation I have seen her in my mind’s eye, mad as hell, sitting on the bed with balled fists fuming at him. I wonder what else she was mad at. Pepys records how often she fell out with servants and lady’s maids, probably because she saw his eye turned to them. What a precarious thing it must have been, to live at that time and to be owned and how did those women create a life within the prison of their husband’s lives? I wonder what she would think of me, remembering her and her flung insults, 360 years after she flung them. She died of typhoid in 1669. Pepys had stopped writing his diaries by them, but there are letters to naval captains excusing himself from work for a good four weeks because he is so devastated. After her death he was in a long term relationship with Mary Skinner, but never married her. When he died he was buried next to Elisabeth.
The diaries can be quite challenging; they are, after all, written in a world very different from our own. But at the same time, there’s a thread of human behaviour which simply hasn’t changed and I love that. That the complexities of human behaviour are still complex, that marriage and love and this short span of life in which you try to do your best, and fail and win, that hasn’t changed. Mrs. Pepys, Elisabeth, today I remember you and your life; as a person separate from your husband, though I don’t know you but through your husband’s diaries, I acknowledge your life and your anger and your love and the short span of life you spent on the earth.
Back into the routine this week – 7am at my desk, entering into that place between dreams and waking where the writing seems to live. I watch the burnt orange sunrise and the jackdaws returning like a song, a score, streaming in single file to the beech trees outside my window. Then my second cup of coffee in the big mug with the speckled glaze, a chapter of my book (Samuel Pepy’s 1663 diaries right now) and a walk out with the dog, whatever the weather. This is what it is to be alive in the winter, not powering into resolutions, but, for me, it is about searching for that mid-winter peace. So often I have gotten lost in the cold and the dark of January. So often I have found myself winter-sick and waiting daily for spring. This year I decide to bed into it, to wear the fluffy socks, to tie my hair in a bun and wrap myself in a thick cardigan, to read by lamp light when the sun sets at four, to get out in my fleece lined walking trousers and pull down my bobble hat and head out into the sleet and the rain, across the valley, to sit on the bench in the wind and watch the fieldfares and rooks, to listen for the buzzard’s cry. It all sounds very romantic, but I find even here work needs to be done to find a way to find the peace. Paid work has to be moved around to fit a walk in, writing deadlines have to be prioritised, always, so some days are still spent at the desk. My desk looks out onto other houses in the village, but from my seat behind the computer I see only sky, one rooftop, beech trees. The perspective means an almost constant flow of birds balancing on the updrafts and breeze that blows off the Wolds or off the sea is visible to me between dawn and dusk. This, in itself is a place of peace amongst the stress of grant applications and tax returns, deadlines and submissions. Friday afternoons in January I run a poetry group, a small band of poets seeking the same thing, I think: a way into poems, the promise of absorbing the craft, of finding voice and finding paths through the words. This is how I work. I like to work with others in the same way. This week while the writers were working, studiously, heads down, involved in their own internal world, I drank my earl grey from my wide rimmed cup with the blue hares running round it and allowed myself to sit and watch the sky. The sun was setting, the jackdaws were leaving to their overnight roost. One day I shall seek out the evening roost. In that moment when i could feel the joy in my chest, watching them stream across the frame of the window, I realised I had found the peace I was looking for.
Even if this all changes again and I no longer have the privilege of seeking peace through my working day, I have it now. You have to love the things you have, in this world, and if you don’t then you either change the things you love, or you change your life until you love the things that are in it. I feel like I have been far out at sea for years, and now am resting on the shoreline I was seeking.
Next week I run the Dawn Chorus and will be joined by other writers in my writing hour, for that quiet pocket of writing time. I look forward to being in a room of people wanting the same thing.
I hope you are navigating midwinter, and finding the things that bring you peace.
In between reading work for Spelt, research papers and research books for my current work in project, journals and magazines, I managed to get through fifty poetry, fiction , narrative non fiction and non fiction books this year. In a year that was challenging at times as I dealt with grief around the death of my dad, books became my friends and my escape once again. Thank you to every writer who courageously puts themselves on the page, who creates something amazing out of the sparking of neural pathways in the brain, thank you to those who quietly wait for their books to be noticed, thank you to those who shouted from the roof tops, I salute you. You make the world a better place simply by doing the work that you love. Here are the fifty books I read in 2022:
Poetry – Much With Body – Polly Atkin
Non fiction – The Diary of Samuel Pepys v. III 1662 – Samuel Pepys
Poetry – Are You Listening?- Gill McEvoy
Poetry – The Kids – Hannah Lowe
Non fiction – The Seven Daughters of Eve – Bryan Sykes
Poetry – Litanies – Naush Sabah
Poetry – All the Names Given – Raymond Antrobus
Fiction – One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Marquez
Non Fiction – Meadowland – John Lewis-Stempel
Non fiction – The Cure for Sleep – Tanya Shadrick
Poetry – Like a Tree Walking – Antony Capildeo
Non fiction – Mantel Pieces – Hilary Mantel
Poetry – Life’s Stink and Honey – Lynn Valentine
Non Fiction – Becoming – Michelle Obama
Non Fiction – Why I Write Poetry – Various authors
Poetry – Field Requiem – Sheri Benning
Non Fiction – Tamed – Professor Alice Roberts
Non fiction – Body Positive Power – Megan Jayne Crabbe
Poetry – Geography III – Elizabeth Bishop
Non fiction – A Journey With Two Maps – Eavan Boland
Poetry – Untanglement – Matt Nicholson
Non Fiction – Manifesto – Bernardine Evaristo
Fiction – Grown Ups – Marian Keys
Fiction – Normal People – Sally Rooney
Poetry – Shelling Peas with My Grandmother in the Gorgiolands – Sarah Wimbush
Non fiction – Madhouse at the End of the Earth – Julian Sancton
Poetry – The Battle – Antony Owen
Non Fiction – The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd
Poetry – Panic Response – John McCullough
Poetry – Girl Parts – Betty Doyle
Non Fiction – The Grassling – Elizabeth-Jane Burnett
Poetry – The Illustrated Woman – Helen Mort
Poetry – 163 Days – Hannah Hodgson
Non Fiction – Islands of Abandonment – Cal Flyn
Fiction – Black Car Burning – Helen Mort
Non fiction/fiction – Wild – Amy Jeffs
Non fiction – Fen, Bog & Swamp – Annie Proulx
Fiction – The Luckiest Girl Alive – Jessica Knoll
Fiction – The Book of Form and Emptiness – Ruth Ozeki
Poetry – Following Teisa – Judi Sutherland
Poetry – Dust – Kathryn Anna Marshall
Poetry – My C&A Years – Roger Waldron
Poetry – a girl in a blue dress – Rachel Burns
Non fiction – Maid – Stephanie Land
Poetry – The Telling – Julia Webb
Historical fiction – The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers
Poetry – Unexhausted Time – Emily Berry
Fiction – The Lost Daughter – Elena Ferrante
Fiction – Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan
Poetry – Bunny Girls – Angela Readman
And my top five books of the year, the books I fell in love with and know that I’ll return to again (in no particular order):
Much With Body – Polly Atkin (Poetry)
The Cure for Sleep – Tanya Shadrick (Narrative Non Fiction)
Mantel Pieces – Hilary Mantel – (Non Fiction)
Normal People – Sally Rooney – (Fiction)
Why I Write Poetry – Various Authors (Non Fiction)
Happy New Year readers, I can’t wait to start my next book on January 1st. Thanks for reading this blog!
It’s that time of the year again. Right now you’ll be rushing towards getting all loose ends tied up in time for the Christmas break (unless you’re self employed in which case I salute your ambitions to have any time off at Christmas). But now is also the time to start thinking about how you will go about moving your writing forward in 2023. Here are ten top tips top help you get yourself sorted on focused on your 2023 goals.
Identify Your Goals – Try not to think in terms of what would make you a ‘proper’ writer, but in terms of what would make you happy. If you you are drawn to writing romance novels that have happy endings, don’t let anyone take that away from you. Write the novels! There’s a market for them, and you’ll be a happy writer enjoying your life. Not everything has to be high brow literary, there’s room in the writing world for all sorts of writers and styles. Similarly, if you’re thing IS high brow literary writing, do that, even if your background means you don’t fit the mould for ‘writer’. The big secret is that there isn’t really a mould, there are just people trying to do what makes them happy. There are different types of goals, but the ones that you can see and potentially accomplish in 2023 are probably best. You might well have in your planner or notes ‘write a bestseller’ and that’s all well and good, it’s grand to have ambition, but the book has to begin somewhere, so make a concrete goal to sit next to your big goal – write 80,000 words of a novel by November 2023, submit to 20 agents by New Year’s eve 2023, for example. You could even break that down further – Goal 1 – create a writing space just for me Goal 2 dedicate 1 hour every day with no excuses to sit down and write Goal 3 join a free writing group to get feedback Goal 4 apply for funding/save up for a mentoring session with a writer I respect Goal 5 reach 80,000 words by November 2023 Goal 6 Submit to 20 agents by New Years eve 2023. Break your big goals down and create stepping stones to reach them.
2. Be Realistic With Your Time – Work with the time you have, not the time you’d like to have. This is a biggie. We are all optimistic with our time, but if you are going to get that novel/poetry collection/play written, you need to be realistic, otherwise you will become disheartened and end up not getting it done. If you can, find the extra time. I am a great believer in finding five minutes here, five minutes there to reach a goal, but what has worked for me recently is committing to getting an hour of writing in at 7am on a morning. Coffee on at ten to seven, at my desk for seven. It’s not always easy, but you will come away feeling like you have accomplished something, even if you just manage a couple of lines. I’m running an early morning writing group in January – link to eventbrite details
3. Build A Structure That Will Support You All Year Long – My biggest piece of advice is to put the work in now, at the beginning of the year when you are motivated. Build a structure that will support you when you are not motivated. When you are on the tail end of twenty rejections in a row and feeling like you just want to give up, a decent structure with a plan of what you’re doing next will save you, it will be the life boat in the rough sea of trying to get your foot in the door as a writer. What does it look like? For me, it is a spreadsheet. I am currently compiling a spreadsheet with a page for each month with lists of opportunities – grants, magazine submission windows, competition deadlines, retreats etc, with at least four things on each page. The work is getting done now, the details will be laid out for me, I will have written a biog that I can update, I will have an author photo I can use, I will have a generic cover letter that I can up date and amend when necessary. That’s the tool box, I just need to do the writing.
5. Follow Writers on Social Media – Lots of writers share the love by posting opportunities on social media, some also now post lists of opportunities directly to your inbox, and this can be a great way of staying on top of, and adding to your opportunities list. Google searches and social media are your friends here. Follow writers on twitter, follow writers on facebook, follow writers on instagram. Find those writers that can give you a lift up, and don’t forget to give back – share opportunities YOU come across too.
6. Keep a Record of Your Work as You Write it – At some point you’ll see a call out for a poem on a theme that you KNOW you have written about, but you’ll not be able to find the poem/short story/essay for love nor money. Keep a record (I keep mine on my spreadsheet) of poems/stories/essays you have written once they are finished so you always know exactly what work you have.
7. Keep Good Submissions Records – It’s not rocket science – you need three columns – title, where submitted, response. You can expand on this, as I have, with dates of expected results, whether you have chased them up, whether they accept sim subs etc , but if you want to keep it simple – title, where, response.
8. Be Your Own Cheerleader – Getting validation in the form of celebration or commiseration from your social media friends is great, it serves a bonding purpose, but it can be addictive. You need to find that validation inside yourself otherwise you’ll be reliant on other people’s validation to keep going as a writer, and that can lead to writing for other people. See point 1. do what makes YOU happy, not what you think other people want to read. And remember that everyone feels kicked in the crotch by a rejection, even if they are well established. Learn to tell yourself that your voice is as important as anyone else’s, that your work is valid, that you don’t need permission to write what you write. Give yourself permission, be your own cheerleader.
9. Keep at it! – You’ll want to give up. Don’t.
10. Remember Why You Started Writing – because it gave you a sense of joy and purpose. Hold that thought in your mind and when you feel like you are not being true to the original impulse to write, check yourself, check what and why you are doing and reassess your goals and priorities.
Last blog of the year next week. Thanks for reading!