Heading into March like…

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…WTF/every moment is precious. Who’d have thought that on the tail end of a global pandemic, a new potentially world devastating event was about to occur. I am sick of living through historical moments and so, so sick of the word ‘unprecedented’. I want precedented times only now, please.

It feels entirely selfish and strange to be thinking about anything other than Ukraine and kyiv, and those incredible people taking up arms against Russia and how utterly 2022 is is to have a Ukrainian president who is famous for being an actor/comedian who played the president in a sit-com. What a time to be alive. I’m watching WW III beginning on TikTok and Twitter because this is the world we live in today, one of mass communication via social media apps. I genuinely think that while those platforms have and will be used to disinform they are also one of the greatest ways of informing people. I’ve just read that the hacking contingency Anonymous hacked Russian state TV and played either (depending on your source) the Ukraine national anthem or Rick Astley into Russian homes. I don’t know if that’s true, I desperately want it to be true.

And so I limp to the end of February literally not knowing what the future holds, but knowing this: the birds are building nests, the rooks are in the rookery that overhangs the road and are carrying twigs about, the snow drops are out, the daffodils are emerging. The corner of my garden which was horribly flooded by a burst pipe and completely dug out during the pandemic, the corner that just so happened to be my source of spring joy with its overflowing snowdrops has, this year, come back with even more snowdrops, as if the obliteration of the soil woke them up and made them work harder to be even more splendid. Spring is coming and I will be grasping it and enjoying it. I’m so ready for winter to be over.

This month I started submitting poems from the new, new collection, which is strange but satisfying and a bit terrifying. A lot of them aren’t there yet, and the collection has been put back due to funding, but that’s a good thing because it means I now have time to put poems aside and return to them, to submit them, to tweak them and to build something I’m really pleased with, rather than rushing it.

I’ve also made progress with the non fiction book, one chapter of which I am tweaking and changing after taking advice on it. More on that when I have more news.

Reading wise I have been a bit slow. I am determined to get through Gabriel García Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by the end of the month, it is something of a tome, and (spoiler alert) not one I’ve fallen in love with, but I hate leaving a book unfinished once I start it. Other books I read in February:

  • A non-fiction book, The Seven Daughters of Eve by Bryan Sykes, which is all about mitochondrial DNA
  • Naush Sabah’s poetry collection Litanies, which is beautiful.
  • Raymond Antrobus’s poetry collection, All the Names Given, which is a must read, genuinely brilliant collection.

I’ve been to several events and had the good fortune of hearing Polly Atkin and James Dermott read at the launch of issue four of Spelt magazine. Issue four marks a whole year of Spelt. We have made it through a whole year and we continue to build the magazine. It’s satisfying to see that the work we are putting in to building a platform for rural experiences outside the traditional, is beginning to work, that we are seeing more and more submissions from people who are often marginalised in the rural experience. It’s time to start thinking about funding for some of the bigger projects. The magazine pays for itself, the extra money we make on workshops etc goes into paying workshop facilitators and guest readers so that we can offer our launches for free. But we want to do more and to do more we need some capital. I imagine the next step is Arts Council Funding, but if you know me you will know how much I abhor the time it takes and the lottery that ACE funding feels like. Still, we feel we do something special with Spelt and if that’s how we grow, that’s how we grow, so watch this space.

I met new friends this month, went out for pints at the pub with one, coffee in a nice coffee shop with another and I made the effort to get myself out of the house, something I struggle with. It’s really nice to know more creative people and to have friends willing to go to events and perhaps even work on joint projects is lovely.

In February i found that the adjustment of my working life is really, really working out. I am able to fully commit to the work I am doing because there is less of it, and I am getting more time to write. Sometimes I get whole days to write, sometimes two whole days in a row and that is such a blessing. I am settling into this new routine, trying not to think too rigidly about it but becoming adept at recognising when I can realistically take time to write and it feels amazing.

I have a slew of readings coming up which I’ll update on my events page and some workshops I’ll be running and the big thing in March is the Spring Writing Retreat (digital) is all set up and full schedule details can be downloaded here. I’m excited about this and excited to be giving that whole week up for the event which, if it’s like the last one, will be wonderfully nourishing. It would be brilliant to see you there.

until next time

x

The Black Pheasant

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Sometime near Christmas, it might even have been Christmas day, a black pheasant appeared in the woods and tree-lined lanes round the village. I say it was black, but in actual fact it was the most lustrous dark green/black, an oily, moss black. I was out walking the dog when it appeared from the grounds of the manor house: elegant, watchful, picking and placing its feet among the beech leaves, moving forward in that slightly hunched-shouldered way. It had with it a brown, bog standard pheasant and they were moving through the murky, rainy dusk of winter without knowing how beautiful they were.

A very bad photo of a very good bird

It felt like some kind of ornithomancy, I kept reading into its appearance a dark mark. But it was/is so beautiful, I was always pleased to see it. I kept seeing it around the village when I was out and about, sometimes with its friend, sometimes on its own. I saw it after a flurry of snow had set once, it seemed to grow more elegant against the white. I wanted to write a poem about it, tried to write a poem about it and have been trying ever since. Nothing seems to quite do it justice, it slips from me, slips away from the poem and ends up being some Christmas card depiction of a pheasant. I can’t quite seem to find the way into the poem, the direction of it, the purpose of it. There have been some great poems written about pheasants, perhaps I should stop making myself feel bad about my own by reading them, but when I come across poems like this one by Graham Mort, on the Poetry Society website, it makes me want to read every poem ever written, and strive to create something better. Here it is on the PS website: Cock Pheasant. People are often caught by a regality in pheasants. You can see the sense of strangeness and regality here, in this Sylvia Plath poem:

Pheasant

You said you would kill it this morning.
Do not kill it. It startles me still,
The jut of that odd, dark head, pacing

Through the uncut grass on the elm's hill.
It is something to own a pheasant,
Or just to be visited at all.

I am not mystical: it isn't
As if I thought it had a spirit.
It is simply in its element.

That gives it a kingliness, a right.
The print of its big foot last winter,
The trail-track, on the snow in our court

The wonder of it, in that pallor,
Through crosshatch of sparrow and starling.
Is it its rareness, then? It is rare.

But a dozen would be worth having,
A hundred, on that hill-green and red,
Crossing and recrossing: a fine thing!

It is such a good shape, so vivid.
It's a little cornucopia.
It unclaps, brown as a leaf, and loud,

Settles in the elm, and is easy.
It was sunning in the narcissi.
I trespass stupidly. Let be, let be.

I wanted to catch a bit of that, but something else too; the view point of it’s special status, how it is only really us that see it, not them. I shall persevere.

I have been trying to write poems since January, not just poems about pheasants, but poems specifically for a new collection to be published by Smith-Doorstop. I’ve struggled a bit to push through imposter syndrome and also to remember how to write a poem. I heard this week that the collection has been put back a little, as have many other collections. I think the pandemic has had a big effect on the publishing industry and I do think the canaries are always the smaller, indie publishers. I thought I’d be disappointed, but all of a sudden, with the pressure off, knowing I have more time, I started writing more poems; in fact I started writing better poems and started to see how to edit and adapt the poems already written, how to push the boundaries in them. This week I finished the first draft of a sonnet crown I’d been working on since December, and whilst it needs fettling, needs the judders tuning and the angles sanding, I’m pleased with it. I’ve ended up writing about twenty sonnets in all, but my aim was seven, and I can see that the other thirteen sonnets are the tools I’ve been using to dig down to these seven sonnets, this sonnet crown. I collected all the other poems I’ve been steadily filing away as I try to reach this collection’s seam and was surprised to find there are about thirty six in all. I thought there would be about seventeen at most.

One of the things that has been blocking me is that I’m also trying to move the non fiction book forward, and in doing so I am waiting on various bits of news around it. I was worried how I would work on the two projects together and then, like I say, the collection got put back a bit and it opened up this gap of time where I could find the space to focus on the non fiction project, whilst allowing the poems to arrive when they wanted. They usually arrive in their own time, when I am relaxed and happy with time and space to write. I’m feeling good about the two projects.

This has been a much better week than last week. I am, finally, in a place in which work is not overwhelming. I have time to think and more importantly, time to write, so next week I’ll be continuing to try to tame the pheasant poem, but I’ll also be concentrating on the non fiction book. This week was very much about workshops, getting students to share work and engage with each other, and that will be happening a little next week, but while this week I did three nights working until 9pm, next week I only have one of those, and two afternoons of teaching and facilitating. I’ll get a chance to catch up on my ever over flowing inbox, to work through my ‘awaiting feedback’ folder and I will make sure I get some writing done.

Sometimes, of course, it seems that just when you get one area of your life sorted, back comes grief to knock you sideways. We’ll find out the treatment plan for my dad next week, and get some answers about his illness. So far the healthcare team are supporting my parents very well, which is reassuring. But still, what a shitty thing. A not uncommon thing (I don’t think I know anyone who hasn’t been touched by cancer in some form or another), and of course it is not unexpected that as your parents age you should face difficulties, and be prepared to deal with horrible, challenging situations, it’s inevitable. But still, what a shitty thing. I hate the waiting and the not knowing. I hate feeling this useless. But I’m also frightened of knowing. How strange to feel so much like a child and so much like an adult at the same time.

I’ll be sending the newsletter out this week, so expect some promo stuff around the Spring Retreat. I’ve started to get some info on what the workshops that the guest facilitators will be running will be and it is so bloody exciting. I’m ridiculously excited about it. I should be able to share the full programme next week.

In the meantime

take care

Wendy

x

A Challenging Week

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I find myself taking my time when returning from tasks outside of the house, taking the Ghost Lake route, my mind wandering the contours, the black peat fields, the terraced valley sides. I watch the crows, I watch the way the rain makes the leafless trees darker, so that their bark is black, the water filling every cell, every crevice, every crack. I feel like I am absorbing this week in the same way, letting the darkness of it into me, filling me up until it comes out of my mouth, or at least out of my fingers, leeching out of my finger prints, through the pen, the computer, onto the white of the page. This is where I am right now. This week has been hugely challenging. I had two writing days planned and ended up under a blanket watching rubbish on TV and weathering it out instead. I can’t talk about the thing that happened mid week, only to say that it upset me immensely, and ate into my confidence and made me question myself. It was to do with a teaching job I have. What happens sometimes, and this is not new to me, when you put yourself forward, when you get up in front of people and trust that you know something that is helpful, something you can impart to them, is that just by being in their line of sight you become a target, a kind of collateral damage, a place in which the fury of whatever is going on in people’s lives at that time can be thrown. Sometimes people don’t have the skills to manage their own emotional stress. Who the hell does, after the last two awful pandemic years in which all the ‘normal’ trauma of being a living human being has been neatly packaged inside the trauma of a disease that has picked people off with what feels like no rhyme or reason. We have all been in a state of pre flight or fight for so long, no wonder people are struggling to find outlets for it. But still, my confidence is knocked, my enjoyment of one area of my life that I was already pushing hard against the anxiety of self doubt is spoiled a bit. Still, small stuff, really. At the end of the week I found out my dad is poorly, proper poorly. The sort of poorly where you are waiting for news on outcomes, scans, treatments to see how the next part of your life will be. You have to just ride it out, I guess, there’s nothing to be done but to just do it, just get through the days and see what happens. There’s no controlling stuff like that, but I remind myself that I’m allowed to be a bit down about it all. It is not happening to me, but involves me, it’s happening to my dad and I struggle to imagine how this is going to effect him, how it will ripple through the family, how it will effect us all. The certainty is that whatever happens, things will be changed now, and a door is shutting behind us, there’s no going back. What I’ve learned to do it give myself an allotted time to be a complete drama queen; wallowing in my own misery, and then after that, until that ‘wallowing time’ is necessary again, I try to go back to what I am doing in my normal life, and to grasp it and enjoy it. When I wasn’t stuffing my face with wine and chocolate and whimpering under my blanket I had my planner out. Things like the negative ‘teaching thing’ that happened last week often feel like signs, a reminder that that I’m perhaps getting entrenched on the wrong route, that that part of my life has become bigger than it was meant to be, it was only part of the plan I set myself all those years ago, that it is a stepping stone to the big goal, the main goal. I opened an A4 page of my planner and put the Big Goal on the far side of the page, then separated the rest of the page into smaller and larger boxes, the stepping stones to get there. I always feel better when I have a clearly defined plan. And then I got my laptop out and wrote a flash fiction piece; something I wouldn’t normally write, to remind myself that I can, that I have talent, that I have ability, that I am not stuck in one place, that I am moving forward. The piece is good. Is it excellent? It could be, with a little tinkering.

Tomorrow is a new day, though the rain is set to continue for a good week. I have lots to look forward to: I am loving my own The Caged Bird Sings course, my Friday afternoon group are so engaged and willing, and kind and fun, it is genuinely the highlight of my week. Next week I’m also looking forward to running a workshop for the Poetry Business on de-romanticising the rural, you can book a place here. I love talking to people about poetry and finding new ways to write, so I’m really looking forward to working under the PB banner. And I’m looking forward to the private course chats I have scheduled over the week. I’m also meeting a new writer friend for coffee. It’s going to be a very ‘people heavy’ week, something I’m not used to, being the rural hermit that I am, but perhaps something that will do me good.

I see so many people facing so many challenges lately, I want to give us all a hug. Spring’s on it’s way, though, catkins in the lane, the jackdaws are poking their heads into last year’s tree-hole-nests. We just have to weather it out.

Until next time

x

Walking at Dusk

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The last two weeks have been a stress of deadlines: prepping to teach, getting the tax return in, finishing notes etc. But also sticking to my January goals: getting exercise everyday, treating my body well, treating myself well, remembering to enjoy the moment, building my ‘real world’ friendship circle and waiting on news for a project related to my long listing in the Nan Shepherd prize. Oh, the agony of waiting. All part of the journey in the world of creative writing, but goodness; that gap between knowing and not knowing; I have a skill for building storylines and situations that fit the space of ‘no news’. It does me no good. I’ve been frozen by the anxiety of it. All this desk work has meant I’ve been walking the dog later in the day and often catching only the last sliver of daylight. This is a good time of day to be walking – the air smells of earth and damp, grass and sheep, hedgerows filled with shouty sparrows preparing to roost. Sometimes the sun catches the tops of the beech trees as its setting, and the branches become rose gold in the light. The windows of the cottages are warm squares and the train, if I see it run through the village, is a gallery of empty seats, sleeping heads, newspapers, books and laptops slicing into the black. This winter we’ve been spoiled by some wonderful sunsets. I like to catch the sunset from a hill at the far end of the village, watch it slide down the valley, then turn and walk back as the dark encroaches, pulling the colour out of it all until the lane is silver, the hills charcoal, the village a brightness of lamps and warm living rooms.

The tax return this year was probably the worst I’ve had to submit in terms of complication and stress. Not helped by me accidentally printing out the wrong year of bank statements and not noticing until I’d spent two weeks adding them to my accounts. I kid you not, I spent days in my dressing gown crying over the computer. Happily, I have made contact with an accountant who is going to help me to get them in order for the next submission. This year I earned more, which is great, but as I was inputting my accounts I can see the months where I went work-mad and took on far too much. Doing my accounts for the tax return is a bit like travelling back in time, I can feel the anxiety and stress and weekend working leaching out of the numbers. It made me ill with stress, but also helped my business (my business being me, effectively) survive the pandemic. I lost work in lots of face to face areas and had to drive up business in the online areas and I’m proud to say that after seven years of being self employed and edging sideways towards making my living from creative writing with some tutoring and teaching, I earned the same in 2020/21 as I did when I left my job as a microbiologist. It was hard, hard work, but I have reached a bench mark that I set myself years ago, and that makes me happy. I’m still working out how to manage my time to give me more writing time, but it is happening. Small goals, small steps with an image of what the main goal is. I’m getting there. Sometimes I am so stuck in the stress I forget that the outside world exists. As soon as I’m out in the weather, though, it’s like I feel real, as if a papery version of me exists in my office, but the real me exists only outside in the dusk and the weather.

Organising courses and workshops takes a lot of work. Hours of preparation go into making sure that a mixed level group all get something out of any course session or workshop. It’s hard work but I enjoy doing it, and I’m particularly enjoying the course I’m running at the minute: The Caged Bird Sings, which is a good mixed group with enthusiastic members. It’s zoom based, but with extras like the facebook group and a non zoom prompt at the beginning of the week and because I’m working for myself and not for a university I feel I have more control. I’m still open to running courses and websites for outside opportunities too, which makes a refreshing break, and I’m excited to be running a workshop for The Poetry Business on February 16th, as well as my York Centre for Lifelong Learning Course. I’ve been running some short private courses too and they are enjoyable enough that I’m going to run some feedback and mentoring sessions via zoom, watch this space for more details. I enjoy working with people and helping them get the best out of their work, and this year I am also trying to do that for myself, I am really valuing the time I am getting to work on my own stuff. I’m getting more time to attend poetry readings too: Caroline Bird last week and next week Hannah Lowe, which I am so so so excited about. I’ve been raving about The Kids to anyone who will listen, it’s an amazing book of poems.

It is really important to get time to prioritise your own writing, and also to see and hear other writers performing, and to work with them. It’s why I’m so excited by the online Spring Writing Retreat I’m running. I’ll make a separate blog post about that, but it’s lovely to be joined by Steve Nash, Caleb Parkin, Naush Sabah and Kim Moore for workshops and readings and quiet writing and interactive writing. It’s going to be so much fun. I know I’m going to enjoy it as much as the attendees. Nearly half the places are gone for it, so if you are thinking about it, please don’t hang about and be disappointed: Book your place here.

Tomorrow I aim to get out with my metal detector for the first time this year. I have a nice field I’m quartering at the minute, though all it’s turned up so far is a wood splitter and a lovely big horse shoe, but that means the land has been worked. It’s a good quiet field, not a lot of rubbish, and that makes for an enjoyable few hours, head down, listening to the earth and the stories it has to tell. I’ll update you next week if I find anything good.

Until next time

x

A Sense of Belonging

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My first blog of 2022 and I’ve already broken my promise to blog every week. Oh well. Such is life.

The first two weeks of 2022 have been spent getting into a routine, finding a way to work and work. ie finding a way to do all the money paying stuff that pays my mortgage and bills and find time to write which does not pay my mortgage and bills, but is essential to me calling myself a writer, and has the potential to help pay my mortgage and bills later down the line. Growing a career as a creative writer is very much about offsetting time, working out what is worth and not worth doing. I am behind with answering emails (apologies if you’re waiting to hear from me, it’ll be this week) I’m behind with promotion stuff, and planning stuff and prepping stuff, but I am up, so far in January, seven new drafts of poems. Which is bloody good going as I’ve been under the cloud of imposter syndrome for a while. Imposter Syndrome is my biggest block by far. Some of the poems I’ve written are good, really good, some are utter crap. I have to keep reminding myself that I tunnel through the crap poems to get to the good poems. This is how my brain works. When I posted about this on twitter, the poet Jo Bell gave this piece of advice, which I have actually copied into my journal. Perhaps I should nail it to my forehead so I don’t forget:

Remember that if you write three crap ones and then a good one, the good one isn’t a fluke; it’s a direct result of the defragmenting and process of elimination that went on in the background, during the process of writing the first three. Nothing is ever wasted.

This is the best advice, and it is also the one that is so easily dismissed by worrying about whether you can actually write, whether you are the imposter, that your successes are flukes etc. I don’t know a single poet, or writer in general, that hasn’t had this train of thought. Write that advice down, putting where you can see it, remind yourself that writing is not a one time event, it is a series of events leading to something that is complete.

Social media has its upside and its downside. The upsides are obviously connecting to writers and poets further along in their careers who can impart wonderful knowledge to you. The downside is a weird sense of unreality. I’ve taken facebook off my phone this week because I find of all the social media sites that Facebook is the one most difficult to be on. Perhaps I’m just a sensitive soul. The thing about it is that it runs on algorithms, and you have to be constantly present on the site: posting, responding etc to have your posts seen, the less you post, the less your posts are seen. It gives the impression of cliques, playground gangs and everything feels like it’s based on popularity. I’m not off Facebook completely, but I’m cutting back my use of it and slowly disappearing from view. I find twitter an easier site to be on, I can manipulate the algorithms by reposting nature and art and poetry and by doing that I see much more nature and art and poetry. I keep the political ranting to a minimum and try very hard not to whinge and pity party myself on there. That’s the other thing about social media, it’s so easy to use it as a way to validate your pain, to validate your existence, but all that happens is that you end up not being able to tune in to your own sense of self validation, you become reliant on outside perspectives; the way people see you, you change yourself for other people and forget that really it doesn’t matter, that really you just need to get on with it, you need to be you. And of course, this ties into the writing. We write for ourselves, of course, but writing is a conversation; there’s got to be an audience. It’s hard to accept that if the audience doesn’t want to read your work, it’s ok, because the other half of the conversation, you and your creative exploration and impulse, is as important as the reception for your work. This goes for the need to have work published, the need to have your work recognised by your peers. Another great poet, Pascale Petit, posted this fantastic piece of advice on twitter last week, a thread which I’ll unroll here:

One of the big challenges of being a poet is keeping on an even keel. Rejections lead to depression, acceptances give a high, Winning or shortlistings for prizes & comps etc a hit. Beneath this rollercoaster are the highs and lows of the writing itself, the difficulty. Then you get a book out, the highs & lows of reviews or none. tips I’ve learnt: downer of rejections / bad reviews is to remember this WILL fade in days. Go out, walk, look outside the self. Another tip: don’t bring your partner down with you, keep perspective, their mental health on the highs. It is so important to celebrate the good things, prizes or whatever, mark them as special, they may not happen again, but trouble with that hit it’s addictive. So mark it for the gift it is, so you can look back on this joy forever, even if it never returns Another big antidote to getting down on the poetry rollercoaster is to be generous to others. Be happy for their wins. Enjoy their joy with them. Poetry is not really a competition, it’s a wondrous art and we could all help each other, we pass craft and praise on.

Out Walking

In my desire to challenge my own anxiety and to research for the book/s I’m writing and to reconnect with myself and the landscape, I have been taking some solo walks. I’ve been listening to the trees.

I’ve been back up to the beacon and the bronze age cemetery and I’ve been out to Star Carr and I have been finding myself and my life in these places. This week, as part of Spelt’s ongoing workshop series, we had RM Francis running a workshop on ‘Topological Presence. I didn’t attend the workshop as Saturdays are the day in which most of the Spelt work gets done, so I had to go to the post office. But I knew it would be good. I caught little bits and pieces of it as I was going about my work and picked up on one comment from Judi Sutherland, whose book Following the Teisa has just come out. She described feeling like writing poetry about landscape was a way to connect to the place she was in, having moved around so much. It struck a chord with me, for a different reason. I have always lived where I am, the landscape and the stories embedded in that landscape are embedded in me and are part of my personality. But I have never quite felt like I fitted in anywhere. It’s been a long journey to recognise my nerdy, quirky, not-pretty, not-slim self as entirely valid. In fact, it is this embracing of that nerdy quirky, sensitive person that allows me to write, so no wonder I write so much about the land I live in and how I fit into it. I’m looking for myself when i write about the land and I’m looking for where i belong, because I do feel like I fit in when I am out walking, or out in nature in general. I feel like I fit in when I am with animals and also, on the whole, when I am with creative people. Creative people are my tribe. I think most creatives have that sense of not quite belonging in one way or another. Being aware of this allows me to write, allows me to give permission to myself to be a writer, from my entirely valid point of view, which is of being my quirky, nerdy self.

I am finding that the new poetry collection is very much about that sense of roots and belonging that nature and landscape give. It’s not an easy collection to write, it’s so very different to the very personal stuff I’ve been writing with Horse; it’s a less compulsive way of writing. It’s difficult in another way, but I find I am enjoying that exploration, that challenge.

This week I gave my first poetry reading for Cafe Writers alongside Claire Dyer. It did me good to put myself in a place of vulnerability and read poems from the current collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse, but also to read a couple of new poems from the new collection. The new poems went down well. I feel like they are good poems. It was fab to be the support act too, as it meant I could go first, get the nervous bit out of the way and then settle in to listen to Claire, who was phenomenal, and the brilliant open mic. It was such a friendly, welcoming event, I’m going to start attending regularly, just to listen. It felt like coming home to family, and I have missed that sense of belonging. I have a bit more time to go to events and lectures and workshops for my own development this year, and I am going to enjoy it.

I spent all yesterday loading new courses onto the website, it’s one of those jobs that’s been waiting in the wings, and I am glad they are all up there now. There really is something for everyone, go and check it out: Courses and Workshops. I need to do some tidying and updating of the website as a whole, but that’s another job for another day. Today I am going to sit in my PJs and watch films. I hope you also have a restful Sunday.

Until next time

x

2021 – My Year in Review- Best Books, Best People, Best Moments, Best Foot Forward

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A Round Up of 2021

How is it almost New Year’s Eve 2021? This year seems to have zipped by in a flash. For once, it genuinely feels like I have made real, solid progress towards my big life goals. Buckle up for my yearly rambling round up.

Health and Wellbeing

Mainly, the year has been about dealing with the emotional fall out from Chris’s stroke. For many reasons, recovery for Chris has been easier than acceptance of the future as someone who has had a stroke. What do I mean by that? Chris is a very positive person, very stoic. Chris is also very goal motivated, he was very fit before the stroke and when he came home from hospital in July last year, he set himself a series of goals to get him back to health, back to the gym, back to himself. He did phenomenally well. He’s a genuine inspiration. I recorded some of his home physio exercises, days after he came home, when he was spending most of his day on the sofa, exhausted from the stroke, hoarse from the damage to his throat, needing me to help him get up and down stairs. It’s an emotional thing watching the video footage of him from that time, it’s like watching another person. Now he is back to fitness, back at the gym, back at work and I guess that people look at him and think he is 100% recovered. But the truth is, like with most people who have experienced life changing physical and/or emotional trauma, he will never be 100%. He has recovered to around 90% which is excellent. There are so many places where the road to recovery could have diverged and things would be a lot different. He could easily not be here at all, and we are eternally grateful that he has done as well as he has. But that 10% is still felt keenly, in so many ways. once you reach the point at which no more recovery is possible, all that’s left is to live with it. And that is a real challenge. He struggles with the numbness down one side of his body and his face and hates the idea of needing so many medications. When something like this happens, you don’t return to the former you, you have to pick up the pieces and create something different. It has taken a lot of adjusting, a lot of acceptance, and with that acceptance comes grief. So that’s been a big overarching theme of the year. Layered with pandemic misery of course. We’ve still had some extraordinarily good times together this year, one of the highlights was staying in Great Ayton in a little lodge and walking up Roseberry Topping, another big thing was travelling to London for Chris’s graduation. While Chris was recovering from all this stuff, he was completing his business management degree. What an incredible achievement. I was so proud to see him up there in cap and gown. And we had a fab time in London, visiting the museums and parks and mooching around together. I am blessed to have Chris in my life, and it has been lovely to spend Christmas together watching films and playing board games and generally just enjoying each other’s company. A lovely, lovely Christmas.

When I look back at previous goals and roundups from around this time of year, I can see that pretty much every year I say I am going to cut back work, live a healthier lifestyle, live a ‘less chaotic life’ and have never quite managed it, until this year. My favourite mantra of this year, and one I’ll be taking with me into next year is ‘Everything in your life is a reflection of a choice you have made. If you want different outcomes, make different choices.’ Changing habits, changing learned behaviour, thought habits, unhealthy coping strategies etc is not about will power. Will power plays its part, but rather than being a shield you use to protect you from cravings, will power is tool you can use to reinforce the positive habits, affirming to yourself that you are worth change, that you are worth nice things, good health, a happy work/life balance. This year I managed to over work myself to a point at which I triggered an underlying heart condition and very high blood pressure. In fact, what I’d thought was the menopause turned out to be my body struggling with what I was doing to it. The doctors I spoke to told me I needed to cut down caffeine, alcohol and stress to manage it. Reader, I did not know who I was without caffeine, alcohol and stress. I cut back caffeine consumption to just first thing in the morning and the occasional afternoon cup of tea. Knowing I could still get my Wendy strength coffee first thing meant I was happy to cut back for the rest of the day. The stress and the booze were much harder to cut down. I enlisted the help of a personal health trainer to help me change my terrible relationship with alcohol, which you can read about here and reader, it worked, it continues to work. I had my first hangover in four months this week. I’ve taken the brakes off a little over Christmas and drunk more than I have been doing and amazingly found that I don’t really want to drink much anymore. Which makes me a cheap date and a complete and utter lightweight. This is my biggest achievement of this year. I know there will be people who don’t really understand that cutting back booze is a big achievement, it’s not like I have gone Tee Total, but the change in my health, my happiness, my anxiety and my self confidence is noticeable. I’m not going back. I’ve done this before and never quite managed it because I gave booze up completely without changing my thought process around it. This time it really does feel different. I have altered my thinking, altered my motivations.

And then there was the over working. Oh, the chronic, chronic over working. I had to change my thought processes around this too. There was a simple solution, but it relied on me having increased self confidence and reduced anxiety to be able to take that step. The solution was to charge more; to value my own time more, and to make solid boundaries. That meant I was saying ‘no’ to low paid and free work. The aim was to work less hours. Essentially I had to stop being a people pleaser and start being the person I wanted to please. Which is what I did. To start with it felt like completely the opposite of what I should be doing. It felt intensely selfish to put my own needs first. But after a while I found that saying no meant more time which meant I was a more productive person, that the work I was able to do in the time I was able to allow for it was of a higher standard, a higher quality. I found that I was getting through my To Do list. I found that I was enjoying working with smaller groups of people, the anxiety around zoom was less, the anxiety around saying ‘no’ was less. I was able to offer more, because I wasn’t trying to tick a billion things off a list, I was no longer working from 6am to 9pm, I was getting weekends off to clean the house and walk the dog and do stuff I enjoy and rest. And that chance to recharge meant I was more focused, with more energy. Although I have been working weekends lately, It’s mainly to clear the backlog of work I’d taken on. I’ve started to change the way I run my courses, I’ve incorporated a bit more zoom, and some new styles of course and I can honestly say, hand on heart, I am loving it. I am loving my work, I am feeling enriched. From January I am going to be using a small grant for works in progress which I received from the Society of Authors to work on the new poetry collection, and I think with the new way of working, I should be able to fit writing time in every single day alongside that. My goal is to have two days a week to write, for the rest of the year, but we’ll see what happens once the grant runs out. I’d like to think that the new working strategy may get me at least one full writing day a week, but we’ll see. I’m very optimistic with my time, it doesn’t always work out the way I think it will.

Writing

My big things this year:

  • Receiving a grant from the Stephen Joseph Theatre to work on my novel which allowed me to travel to Haworth and do some on site research, as well as taking a month off work-work to really bed into it. This was fantastic. I got more work done in one month because of this, than I had in six months previously.
  • My Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet competition winning collection, When I Think of My Body as a Horse was published and was received really well. I am immensely proud of this book and so very grateful for everything Smith/Doorstop have done for me and for the people who have read and bought the book. Thank you!
  • I received a Society of Authors work in progress grant to spend some time working on my next collection which will also be published by Smith/Doorstop. I don’t want to give anything away really as it’s very much in progress, but hope to be updating with some news in the next couple of months. Exciting!
  • I was long listed in the Nan Shepherd prize with my other work in progress: The Ghost Lake. This is a creative non fiction book, you can read about it by following the link above. This, alongside my new poetry collection, will be the project I spend 2022 working on.
  • I published three issues (fourth going to print in January) of my magazine, Spelt, we started running workshops and co ed Steve and I have big plans for Spelt 2022.
  • I ran my first ever Writing Retreat (read about it here) and I’m planning the next one in March. (book here)

I am very happy with this list and some of the things on this list are creating the structure to go further in 2022. This pleases me.

My Best New Habits

  1. I began starting the day on the patio or in the conservatory (currently I am in the living room with the windows open) listening to the world. This is an excellent way to start the day. I started doing this when we were away in Great Ayton, and carried on the habit when I returned home. I listen to the birds, smell the weather, feel the breeze on my skin. Even if it is just for ten minutes. Next year I’m hoping to start incorporating a brisk walk to the start of the day. I then write my journal, read ten pages of poetry and a chapter of whatever novel or non fiction i’m reading while I have my coffee. I used to have coffee at my desk or in bed, but this small sliver of quiet time is exactly what I need to start the day in a mindful place.
  2. I took up a bullet journal, alongside my passion planner. If you don’t journal, you won’t know what i’m talking about. If you know, you know. My bullet journal becomes a more creative brain dump, where as my passion planner is very much goal orientated. It works well. I may do a blog about time management and goal setting.

My Books of the Year

I read a lot of books this year. As usual, I set out to make a record, got bored and did not make a record. Next year I am going to try and do a twitter feed of the books I’ve read. Anyway, here we go. I realise these are very nearly all by white women, which isn’t great as a marker of diversity. I can absolutely promise you I did read books that weren’t by white women this year! But I obviously need to challenge myself to read more books by non white, non women writers. Challenge accepted.

Poetry

Small Collections/pamphlets/chapbooks

Alison Lock’s Lure, from Calder valley Press.

What a fantastic collection. I felt like I had been on a journey. Fluid, elegant writing and sustained power from start to finish.

Hannah Hodgson’s Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow from Verve

Incredible pamphlet by Hannah Hodgson. Full of visceral, defiant, angry, necessary, challenging poems, poems that should be read by everyone. Highly recommend.

Rosalind Easton’s Black Mascara (Waterproof) from Smith/Doorstop

You’re going to want to keep an eye out for work by Rosalind Easton. She’s a new voice in the poetry world and a fellow winner of the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet competition. I was blown away by the accomplished, moving, witty, clever poems in this pamphlet.

Lynn Valentine’s A Glimmer o Stars from Hedgehog Press

I love it when poets take risks and bring something interesting and unique to their work. The idea of Scots alongside English translations works really well, and the poems in the pamphlet are beautiful. Highly recommend.

Angela Readman’s Cooking with Marilyn from Blueprint

Loved this beautifully written collection by Angela Readman. Every poem is a picnic of lush, dark imagery. Love the title poem in particular.

Full Collections

Jacqueline Saphra 100 Lockdown Sonnets from Nine Arches

Cheating a bit because I’ve not quite finished this one, but will have by the end of the year. I didn’t want to miss this one out as it is so very, very good. An incredible journey through the pandemic, wonderfully authentic poems within the structure of the sonnet form which manages to condense the emotion. It’s a brilliant achievement. Go buy it.

Steve Ely’s The European Eel from Longbarrow Press

Steve Ely ‘s book is a phenomenal achievement. It combines in depth scientific research with the creativity of a poet who knows how to tap into the ancient and incredible. Beautifully illustrated, absolutely fascinating. Incredible writing.

Katrina Naomi’s Wild Persistence from Seren

This collection from @KatrinaNaomi@SerenBooks is wonderful. I read it slowly, a few poems each morning, as I sat on my patio watching the seasons change. The poems are both vulnerable and bold, honest and playful, thoughtful and beautifully observed. I can’t recommend it enough.

Victoria Kennefick’s Eat or We Both Starve from Carcanet

I read lots of poetry collections, it’s my job. I can honestly say that this is one of the best I’ve read, certainly my book of the year so far. Fantastic, clear, cutting, clever poems. Incredible imagery, and the theme is woven so perfectly, I’m in awe.

Kim Moore’s All the Men I Never Married from Seren

Incredible collection from the super talented Kim Moore. It’s a difficult read in places, and absolutely should be, the content is challenging. But Kim manages to carry the poems along on perfect, precise imagery and an underlying wit. Every poem is excellent.

Fiction

Max Porter’s Lanny from Faber

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book. It’s magnificent. Incredible writing. It’s strange and moving and I didn’t want it to end.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi from Bloomsbury

I enjoyed this book so much that I dreamt about it. It’s another one that I sank into, wanting to never to leave it. Wonderful.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun from Penguin Randomhouse

Kazuo Ishiguro is my favourite author. I absolutely loved this. Like a beautiful, mythical, sci fi folktale. Wonderful. Would highly recommend.

Non Fiction

Rebecca Wragg Sykes Kindred from Bloomsbury

Absolutely fascinating. A deep dive into the world of our Neanderthal cousins. No stone left unturned.

Professor Alice Roberts Ancestors from Simon and Schuster

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It’s a fascinating exploration of the human need to do ‘something’ with the dead, encompassing revelatory scientific methods in archeology around genomes. Prof. Alice Roberts has a beautiful writing style. It’s excellent.

Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead

An old book, new to me. Absolutely loved this book on writers and the writing process. Would recommend to any writers, teachers or those just interested in the purpose of, and drive to, write. Rich in resources, yet accessible and witty. Brilliant.

My 2022 Goals

I’m setting myself challenges rather than resolutions this year.

  1. To continue the good habits I built in 2021
  2. To walk 1000 miles
  3. To finish the Poetry Collection
  4. To finish the non fiction book

That’s it. I’d like to find a publisher for the non fiction and I’d like to get an agent to represent it. Mostly, I’d like to have a happy and peaceful life. I wish the same for you.

Thank you to the people who have continued to support me, especially in times when I have struggled with my mental health and been at my wits end. Thank you to the people who cheered for me and helped me have the confidence to move forward and go for my goals. Thank you to the people who have come to my classes and workshops, to the people who have read my book and told me about it, and told other people about it, thanks to the publishers who have published my work, thanks to Steve for being co ed at Spelt and putting up with me messaging at half six with crazy caffeine fuelled ideas, thanks to my husband for being himself and thank you to you, for reading these blogs.

Have a very happy New Year.

Until next time

Stay safe

Wendy

x

Retreating from the World

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It’s taken me a while to get round to updating my blog. Last week I ran an online writing retreat with guest readers and workshop facilitators. It was a full on week, but goodness, completely and utterly enriching for me, and I hope for the participents. I’m going to tell you a little bit about it. Forgive me for going on, but this was one of those events that marked a high point in my career as a facilitator as well as a writer, and something that I never, ever thought I would be in a position to organise. I enjoyed the experience so much that I am currently organising the next retreat. Details to follow.

One of the reasons it has taken me a while to get the blog updated is because I decided to place myself fully into the running of the retreat and to use all time between hosting events and running workshops to rest. There were things that couldn’t be put off – emails to answer, the magazine to run – but mostly I went into the retreat knowing it would feel overwhelming if I didn’t allow myself some downtime between the events. Obviously this meant a backlog of small jobs built up in the meantime, and I’m only just getting on top of it. I’m hoping to finish work on 23rd December and not return to my desk until 3rd of January 2022, so I am currently in full scale work mode, catching up to have a week off from which I will have to catch up from.

Anyway, back to the retreat. As far as retreats go, it was a small group, just eighteen people plus myself and, surprise surprise, all women. I’m not sure what it is about me that puts the men folk off working with me. (because I refer to them as ‘men folk’ perhaps?)I do get the impression that I’m not really taken seriously as a writer or workshop facilitator by some men, perhaps because I write about, or have written about baby death and pregnancy and infertility. Traditionally ‘women’s issues’. Maybe it’s because I am ‘friendly and approachable’ which seems to translate as fluffy and inconsequential in some circles. There are, of course, women writers who don’t take me seriously either. Although it irritates me slightly; this feeling of not being taken seriously as a writer/facilitator, I have an inkling that it might well be more about my own insecurities. You can’t please all the people. And I know I carry my working class background on my shoulder, not like a chip, more like a parrot; always telling me that I don’t fit in and am not good enough. The same parrot tells me all sorts of awful stuff about how ugly and fat I am and how I won’t fit in because of that too and how I am totally unlovable. I’m not going to lie, the parrot is a nasty little bitch. But I’m sort of used to it now, the parrot, and mostly it is fairly inconsequential to me, mostly it doesn’t rule me, mostly I find that a bit of kindness to the parrot goes a long way. Maybe it just wants a cracker and a dark cover and some sleep in a safe place, I don’t know. I have stretched the analogy of the parrot too far now. It is dead. It is no more. etc. Anyway, back to the retreat. To be honest, to be able to share the week of the retreat with an all woman group was something very special indeed. What I’ve learnt as a facilitator is that to be able to provide a safe, warm, welcoming place where people, and in particular women, can just be, is important. And that’s what the retreat was like. We had people from all backgrounds, people with all sorts of personal life difficulties, all looking for something special to them. I wanted to create a place that felt like a retreat in the true sense of the word, where just for a few hours in the day, people could come and prioritise themselves and their writing. There were opportunities to hone writing skills, to be prompted to write new work, but there was also plenty of opportunities for quiet, no pressure, group activities, just writing together, talking, sharing our thoughts. And, of course down time/writing time. The evening reading events were a real highlight, in particular our last guest of the week, Jonathan Davidson, who’s honesty about the writing world, about the working class poets who never got their chance, about his own journey and the people who he had met on that journey was filled with love and humour.

Going back to the deceased parrot- I’d happened to mention that I was feeling a bit bruised by my book not having made it onto any lists – not award lists, not book of the year lists (It is continuing in great strides to not make it onto any lists at all by the way)- and how, even though I knew I had done what I needed to do with the book, that I felt it covered what I wanted it to cover in a way that made sense to me, it still stung a bit, but that as writers you are not meant to really say that out loud. As writers we are supposed to be slapped in the face by rejection after rejection and just get on with it, because it’s part of the job. And we do, but do you know what, it hurts still. Why wouldn’t it? Every poem has a sliver of yourself in it, especially the personal ones. What I got back from sharing this was such good, solid, kind, appreciative feedback, because the people on the course had read my book. They had heard poems from it in workshops, stuff I didn’t know anything about, and I can’t tell you how much it lifted my spirits to hear that the book, the book that launched in a pandemic, was finding its way around the writing community and being used in workshops and doing good stuff for people. I do not need the lists, I need this, these moment of recognition from readers. I had been a bit blocked and that seemed to free me to be able to work on new poems for the new collection. It shut that god damned parrot up.

When I went into running the retreat, I was worried about how stressful it would be. I had plans and lists and timings and all the suff that helps me to create good structure. What I hadn’t expected was to feel so enriched and so nourished from the experience myself. To sit quietly working with a group of other writers, other women writers, was perhaps the highlight for me. So simple, but so wonderful to watch the sun coming up in a virtual room that felt warm and happy. All those years ago, when I was seeking the stepping stones to get from my old job to a career in the arts, when I was walking dogs in the p*ssing rain and scraping money together from down the back of the sofa to pay the bills, working out how we could make it to the next week while I built a ‘career’ that I wasn’t even sure was possible, I never dared dream that I would be making a living doing work like this. I had hoped, I had wished and hoped that I would, and I put a lot of work into building the career, but to be here now, doing this and thoroughly enjoying it, thoroughly enjoying it and feeling like I have found my place in the world? I was scared to even imagine it.

I know there are people reading this that will think I’m being terribly over the top about it, over emotional, over sensitive perhaps, but I don’t care. You have to celebrate the small things, because sometimes the small things are big things. I am managing my anxiety and doing the things that make me happy. A small thing, but also a big, big thing for me. I cannot wait to reproduce the experience.

I’ll do my end of the year round up next week, with favourite books of the year and with goals for 2022 laid out, but you won’t be surprised to know that more of this, more of this taking the time to enjoy the work I do and organising my workload according to what brings me joy is a goal for 2022.

I’ve set up the next retreat booking button, you can find the link here, you’ll need to scroll to the bottom: shop. It’s going to run from 21st to 25th of March. I’ll be announcing the guest readers and workshop facilitators in January. I have some absolutely top class facilitators lined up for this one. It will be Spring themed. I am so, so looking forward to welcoming the new season with a new group of participants.

Last blog of the year next week. See you then.

x

The Sestina Form

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I work mainly in free verse these days, a style of poetry that has its own subtle structure, but after finishing up my last collection When I Think of My Body as a Horse, I find myself returning to traditional structured forms for the next collection. Why am I returning to structured forms? Because the topics that I am dealing with are difficult to pin down. I’m trying to bring several points in time into the same poem, for example. Working within a structure is almost like using an extra layer of figurative language, it allows me to communicate that concept without being too obvious about it. The structure is able to convey something extra about the content. I find that the people I work with are often afraid of structured forms, but structured forms are just another tool in the poet’s tool box. What do I mean by that? I mean that they are more than a way of showing off your poetry puzzle solving skills. Apart from the fact that working within a structured form helps you to distill a poem, helps you to force it down to a point; to really, really think about the words you use, using a structure as a skeleton under the skin of your poem is a way of communicating something else to the reader. It is challenging to work within a structure, but it can absolutely lift the poem off the page.

A good example is Marvin Thompson’s 2020 National Poetry competition winning poem ‘The Fruit of the Spirit is Love (Galatians 5:22)’ which is a take on the villanelle form. The poet uses that repetition to layer up ideas around race, acceptance, the way we speak as children, the osmosis of viewpoint from parents, Marvin Thompson uses that repetition to emphasise that layering, asking the reader to turn the poem around in their hands and look at the same thing from different angles.

You can find the poem on the Poetry Society website: The Fruit of the Spirit of Love

I am particularly fond of repeating forms. I like the way they build narrative. I can get lost in a repeating form, sestinas in particular, like this one from my 2015 Flarestack Poets pamphlet, Lapstrake:

Dead Whale Dreams of God


A post-mortem examination 
was being carried out, yesterday,
on an eight metre Minke whale,
believed to be a female, washed
ashore on Holbeck bay, first spotted
by the crew of a pleasure cruiser, early

Wednesday afternoon. Say it is early,
for me, say, it is an examination
of my soul, the fin-back, side-slapped, spotted
light diminishing my life. And yesterday
I swam in the black depths and was washed
away in the ocean, speaking in whale,


speaking in whale echo.  The whale
had died before it came ashore, and early
disposal of the corpse was expected. It washed
up whole, with no tissue missing, an examination
and post mortem concluded. By yesterday
it was partially destroyed; people were spotted

climbing the corpse for photographs. Spotted
fish-spindled-wings came near and whispered whale
in the lost hollow of my ear, and yesterday
and yesterday the light became like early
morning, misting the surface, this examination
of the light drew me in, I named it, washed


my body in it and cried. Minke whales being washed
up or stranded are not unusual, several pods are spotted
off this shore each year, RSPCA inspectors stated, examination
by post mortem on several other Minke whales
have been inconclusive, their seemingly early
deaths attributed to confusion. And yesterday


and yesterday is tomorrow and tomorrow is today, yesterday
is now and past and future. I am called, I am washed
in sound and light and make my way towards my early
time,  closer to the light, the dapples, the spotted
deep becomes wider, a great eye opening, a whale’s
sigh breathing me up  to meet God’s examination,


and I belly onto the gravel. The examination, completed yesterday
and tomorrow, I dreamed in Whale and washed myself

in deep air, spotted sky, sunk, I was completed early, the corpse disposed of.

For this one I wanted to bring in two voices, two points of view looking at the same thing, and I wanted to cement the connection between those two voices whilst building a narrative. Sestinas are a tricky form to get right. The dead whale poem now feels old to me and I would edit it a bit if I was to use it again in anything else, but I stand by my choices and my use of this particular structure for what it does to lift the poem.

Like I say, sestinas are a tricky form, but they are also an intensely rewarding form. What are the difficulties with the form? It’s length, for starters, it’s a long poem, which means that you risk losing the reader unless you can find a way to hold their attention. Word choice is key, and the manipulation of the words over and over to create a poem in which the structure doesn’t crush the life out of the poem and make it a nonsense that the reader can’t follow is also a challenge.

I like a sestina that surprises me, where the poet works with the form and pushes it to enhance the content, like this one, on the Poetry Foundation website, where the poet makes each line a statement: of defiance, of instruction, of rebellion, of acknowledgement: A sestina for a black girl who doesn’t know how to braid hair.

I love the way that the sestina feels loose, but at the same time the foundations of the form are clear, it feels like building a poem with blocks. It’s thrilling to discover new sestinas. And it’s thrilling to write them too.

I am finding working on the new collection liberating. For some reason I thought I’d not be able to write poetry again after Horse. I was a bit worried that my dead daughter was my only muse. Turns out she wasn’t, that life itself, the landscape, time, history, connection are all my muses. I’m enjoying the journey into these new poems.

If you’d like to work with me on building your skills in the sestina form, I’m running this small group two week course (also available as a private course) in January. I have five places left. Details here: Sestina

Until next time

x

Jackdaws

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Storm Arwen came and stripped the cover off my rabbit enclosure. It sucked two plant pots off the small wall between the patio and the garden, and smashed them to bits. Other than that, we didn’t do too bad. Even the dilapidated fence stood surprisingly firm and I was relieved to see the very old willow at the end of the village had survived. Scarborough had a lot of trees fall and someone in Filey had their car crushed by a falling tree. It was a bad one. I woke at five to the booming wind that sounded as if it wanted to rip the room straight off. But it didn’t. The next morning it raged on, the rabbit enclosure roof finally gave way and I decided enough was enough and the rabbits would have to come in. So with one soft white body under each arm I wrestled my way up the garden and shoved them in one of the larger indoor hutches. Reader, they are not happy. The outside rabbit enclosure is 16 feet by 10 feet. They did not want to leave it. Still, sometimes these things are necessary and I think they might have literally been blown away if I hadn’t got them in. The trees are bare now, winter has landed. We even had snow. Usually we avoid snow when the rest of the country is knee deep, on account of being on the coast, but not this time. As I sit here writing this it is all gone, leaving a slimy mush of leaves.

It would have been the perfect time to light the log burner, and I nearly did, except that I’ve got two massive holes in the upstairs chimney breast because a couple of weeks ago a jackdaw got trapped in the chimney. I was sat at my desk, in my office upstairs, when I heard the sound of scratching and frantic wing beats. It sounded like it was just behind the wall, like the house had developed its own heart, had grown something into itself. In the silence of the mid afternoon I listened to it scrabbling about and to the other jackdaws up above calling down to it. I feel like I have a relationship with the jackdaws. They’re a constant, a background to my work. I watch them arrive from their tree roosts on a morning to settle and squabble on the roof top, they nest in the chimneys during spring and summer and in the evenings one of my favourite sights is them returning to the trees, calling and cawing. Occasionally I will look up and see one leaning over the guttering to stare in at me. I watch them attempting to drive the seagulls away, having arguments with the local crows. One crow (is it the same one each time?) likes to creep up on the jackdaws and pull their tails. I watch them moving around the village, living their lives. They have their routine, I have mine. Occasionally I’ll throw food for them onto the shed roof, in the hope that the cat won’t get up there and go for them, because I think he would. He’s a bit of a bruiser. There wasn’t much I could do about the bird in the chimney, to start with. My first thought was to phone the RSPCA but they wouldn’t come out for it, and then I had to teach, so the day got away from me. I realised as I was teaching that I hadn’t heard it for a while and hoped it had managed to get out on its own. Earlier, when I’d gone outside to see what the other jackdaws were doing, I could see them calling down and even dropping bits of bread down to it. They’d been calling back and forth during the day, but then while I was on zoom there’d been nothing. Silence. By the time I’d finished teaching it was dark. The roof jackdaws had returned to their roosts. I switched my computer off. Sat silently for a minute. And then I heard it calling softly. I put my ear to the wall and listened, barely daring to breathe. I could hear it moving about, and then, again, that soft call. It was quite heartbreaking.

The next morning as soon as the sun was up, the jackdaw was moving about and its family were back, calling down to it. I realised they were making the same sort of calls that they make to chicks when it is fledging time, and I guess that makes sense. They were trying to fledge their friend from the chimney, encouraging it to fight against the bricks and twigs and get out into the air. I rang my dad for advice, and rang the Whitby wildlife centre, who were great. But the only real option was to tear a hole in the chimney breast to get to it. Lots of people kept telling me there was no option but to leave it to die, and I couldn’t understand that, or rather I could imagine understanding it, but couldn’t imagine myself doing that as, clearly, there was an option, it just meant making myself and my poor husband uncomfortable and destroying a part of the house. My dad came up with his tools (despairing of my lack of tools), and he knocked a massive hole in the chimney breast upstairs, and the chimney breast was full up of fallen nesting materials. So we started gently pulling it all out as fast as we could until we realised there was no bird in the chimney. The bird, it seemed, was on the other side, in the chimney breast that ran through the other bedroom. My dad had gone home at that point, and I was clearing up the mess. Initially I thought it might have gotten out by its own accord, but soon it became apparent that it was, in fact, still there and not in the chimney in my office, but the chimney in my bedroom. I live in an ex council house. I’d never thought about the amount of chimneys it has before. It has a lot. My dad came back, which was very good of him, (though I do think he likes knocking big holes in stuff, especially if he’s not doing the cleaning up), and we knocked another massive hole in the other side of the chimney and went through the same process of pulling stuff out and then, suddenly, there was the jackdaw, both matt and silk, claws and beak and eyes tight shut. It must have died just before we got to it. I had the chance to look at it up close. Female, I think, not as big as a male, its neck was ruffled, its feet were beautiful, slate clay and each toe ending in a serious hook of claw. It was not in great condition and I wonder now whether it hurt itself trying to get back out, whether it was poorly. I’d used gloves to handle it and disinfected them thoroughly. What strikes me most is how fragile it was, how strange it was to see this vital, clever, sociable creature so still, screwed up tight against what must have been terrifying banging and noise in its last minutes. It made me incredibly sad. But I did the best I could and feel happy about that. My husband is a very understanding person. He says he likes that I stick to my principles. I hid the worst of the chimney holes with bookcases. All pain can be alleviated with books, in my world.

Amongst the detritus of the nesting materials that I pulled out of the chimney I found sticks, lots and lots of sticks, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream containers (yes, plural), raw hide dog treats (plural) rabbit fur My efforts to give the nesting birds the rabbit grooming fluff has paid off), a hair brush (not mine), wrapping paper, white paper, newspaper, feathers, the bones of what might have been another bird, pebbles (how?), hair ties, a part of a cat toy, twine that I recognised as coming from the bales of hay I order for my rabbits, moss, shiny paper, shiny ribbon. There was something quite moving about the amount of non twig material. I could imagine the group moving about the village, collecting the items, studiously examine everything then dropping these treasures down the chimney. I have left bread out for the jackdaws almost every day since, as a kind of apology, an offering to the god of birds. They didn’t return to the roof for a few days, but now they are back, all seems to be forgiven.

The jackdaws matt black shapes are finding their way into the poems for the new collection. I am beginning to find my feet with the new poems and am enjoying that feeling of sinking into them. All is good.

Until next time

x

The Winter Writing Retreat

Photo by Ioana Motoc on Pexels.com

The nights are definitely closing in now. I’ve just come back from lunch at our village pub where the log fire and hand pulled Guinness were very welcome. The pub is just over the road, so hardly a trek away, but still- that whipping, biting wind, the bareness of the trees, the general dark cold days that have appeared without warning, somehow taking us from autumn to winter like a shutter coming down- Brrrrr. It’s Sunday and I’m working a few extra hours as the latest issue of the magazine I edit alongside Steve Nash just come back from the printer’s, so there are launches to organise and copies of the magazine to post, publicity stuff to organise etc. etc. and that has to be done around my work commitments. Running Spelt rarely feels like a chore, I love the energy behind it and I’m proud of the values we’ve built into the magazine. I feel like we are really doing something about the need to articulate something about real rural voices, real experiences. This issue has been a challenge, I’ve had a lot of work on, so has Steve so we’re a bit behind. But I think that makes me even more proud, because we put the effort in, and the magazine looks amazing as ever and it’s a genuinely good feeling to give back and provide a platform for these poems, these creative non fiction pieces, these voices. I love that feeling, it’s addictive. You can buy or even subscribe to the magazine here and if you want to come and celebrate with us, the launch tickets can be obtained here. We’ve got Caleb Parkin reading from his Nine Arches Press collection This Fruiting Body and our Spelt Competition judge, Maggie Harris is reading too. It’s going to be a really nice evening, and it’s a Friday so no work the next day!

This week I’ve been busy setting out my stall with all the courses I’m running over the next few months. In January I’ll be using my Society and Authors Grant to dig into the new collection which means everything has to be set up and laid out now, so that I’m not using writing time to do anything but work on the poems. It’s a complicated business being self employed, I have to think three steps ahead of myself all the time and that sometimes feels exhausting, but I also love my work so can’t really complain. I’m living the life I want to and that means that work is on my own terms. The thing about being self employed is that nobody tells you to get out of bed in the morning, no one is going to tell you to go to work or to push yourself, no one’s got your back, but also no one’s on your back. No one is going to sort out all the niggling tech stuff, or answer emails for you or sort out your taxes, that is all on you. And that takes a certain mind set, I think. But also, I have absolute freedom to be who I want and to make my life the way I want it. And that is absolutely priceless. I can work anywhere, I can set my own work schedule. and now I’m starting to get more writing time, more blocks of time to settle into projects and it feels amazing.

The first of my ‘courses’ is the Online Winter Writing Retreat. It starts on the 6th December to 10th December inclusive and it is a chance for participants to write and reflect during these dark wintry days. It’s on zoom, which makes it easier to access the events around your own life. This is the first retreat I have run and I’m really excited about it. I have just five places left on it, plus one fully funded place for a writer of limited means. Drop me a line if that’s you! (wendyprattfreelancewriter@gmail.com). I’m undoubtedly running a lot of the retreat but I also have the wonderful Jonathan Davidson running both a workshop and giving a reading. AND I have the brilliantly talented Gill McEvoy running a workshop and giving a reading, and last but not least my co-ed at Spelt Steve Nash will be running a workshop.

Here’s the full schedule, it is jam packed with workshops and writing events but with enough time away to prevent it from being overwhelming. I think there is something for everyone.


Monday 6th December

9am-10am Meet and Greet

Your chance to meet with other participants, introduce yourselves and find out about the week. Don’t worry if you can’t make it, we’ll get to know each other the curse of the week. 

11am-1pm A Walk in the Woods: Writing Workshop with Wendy Pratt

Using a series of videos as inspiration we’ll be writing winter themed walking poems, using metaphor and simile to explore the sensory experience of being in nature.

2pm – 3pm On the Nature Table Today – Hosted by Wendy Pratt

Come and see what we have on the nature table today and let it prompt you to find your own way into a poem. A different set of natural objects will be presented each session for inspiration, they’ll be identified and explained by Wendy and then you are free to draft up a poem based on them. This is an unguided drop in session, feel free to turn up when you want, within the hour. This is a non-silent writing session so feel free to chat among the group. 

Tuesday 7th December 

9am-10am Dawn Chorus Silent Writing Group

A quiet start to your writing day. The session begins at 9am sharp with an inspirational quote or a poem reading by Wendy before you settle down to an hour of self-guided writing. Bring your current work in progress, whatever it is, and get into your writing groove. The idea is to create a ‘room’ where we will all be working together, but separately with cameras on and microphones muted. Get your morning cuppa, set your intentions in the chat and let’s get some writing done!

11am – 1pm Winter Ekphrastic Writing Workshop with Wendy Pratt

In this two hour workshop we’ll be looking at winter themed art and writing poems in response to it. There’ll be a chance to read some ekphrastic poems for inspiration and discuss art, poetry and the ekphrastic style, as well as getting down to business and writing some poem drafts. 

2pm-4pm Finding the Line: a Steve Nash Writing Workshop

Join celebrated poet and performer Steve Nash for a workshop exploring the fine line between personal expression and universal engagement. In this session participants will be introduced to some key critical theories of writing and practical exercises while exploring ways that writers tuned into their own unique ways of seeing the world produce metaphors that speak to a universal human experience.

7pm – 9pm Evening Event – Wendy Pratt reads from her latest collection, When I Think of My Body as a Horse plus Open Mic

This evening event is the perfect end to a day of writing. Sit back and enjoy the reading, then join in at the Open Mic. Bring your own bottle for maximum enjoyment!

Wednesday 8th December 

9am-10am Dawn Chorus Silent Writing Group

A quiet start to your writing day. The session begins at 9am sharp with an inspirational quote or a poem reading by Wendy before you settle down to an hour of self-guided writing. Bring your current work in progress, whatever it is, and get into your writing groove. The idea is to create a ‘room’ where we will all be working together, but separately with cameras on and microphones muted. Get your morning cuppa, set your intentions in the chat and let’s get some writing done!

11am-1pm A Light in the Dark Writing Workshop with Wendy Pratt

In this two hour workshop we’ll be looking at poems that bring hope in dark times and poems about ancient traditions. We’ll be writing poems to prompts based on the theme in a friendly and relaxed environment. 

2pm – 3pm On the Nature Table Today – Hosted by Wendy Pratt

Come and see what we have on the nature table today and let it prompt you to find your own way into a poem. A different set of natural objects will be presented each session for inspiration, they’ll be identified and explained by Wendy and then you are free to draft up a poem based on them. This is an unguided drop in session, feel free to turn up when you want, within the hour. This is a non-silent writing session so feel free to chat among the group. 

7pm – 9pm Evening Event – Gill McEvoy reading plus Open Mic

This evening event is the perfect end to a day of writing. Sit back and enjoy the reading, then join in at the Open Mic. Bring your own bottle for maximum enjoyment!

Thursday 9th December

9am-10am Dawn Chorus Silent Writing Group

A quiet start to your writing day. The session begins at 9am sharp with an inspirational quote or a poem reading by Wendy before you settle down to an hour of self-guided writing. Bring your current work in progress, whatever it is, and get into your writing groove. The idea is to create a ‘room’ where we will all be working together, but separately with cameras on and microphones muted. Get your morning cuppa, set your intentions in the chat and let’s get some writing done!

11am – 12pm A New Language for Winter? Writing workshop with Gill McEvoy

Join celebrated poet Gill McEvoy for this hour long workshop. Participants will be encouraged to think about what their local winters have been like in these days of changing climate and consider how we can write about that, and to imagine how winters may change in future years if nothing is done to delay climate change.

2pm – 3pm On the Nature Table Today – Hosted by Wendy Pratt

Come and see what we have on the nature table today and let it prompt you to find your own way into a poem. A different set of natural objects will be presented each session for inspiration, they’ll be identified and explained by Wendy and then you are free to draft up a poem based on them. This is an unguided drop in session, feel free to turn up when you want, within the hour. This is a non-silent writing session so feel free to chat among the group. 

Friday 10th December 

9am-10am Dawn Chorus Silent Writing Group

A quiet start to your writing day. The session begins at 9am sharp with an inspirational quote or a poem reading by Wendy before you settle down to an hour of self-guided writing. Bring your current work in progress, whatever it is, and get into your writing groove. The idea is to create a ‘room’ where we will all be working together, but separately with cameras on and microphones muted. Get your morning cuppa, set your intentions in the chat and let’s get some writing done!

11am – 12pm Hearing and Writing – writing workshop with Jonathan Davidson

Join celebrated poet and author Jonathan Davidson for this one hour workshop. How poems sound is important. The silence wants good words! Learning to listen intently and reading aloud with confidence can help us as poets. This one hour workshop will include listening to exquisite poems and writing responses that are satisfying to hear and to read aloud.  

2pm – 3pm On the Nature Table Today – Hosted by Wendy Pratt

Come and see what we have on the nature table today and let it prompt you to find your own way into a poem. A different set of natural objects will be presented each session for inspiration, they’ll be identified and explained by Wendy and then you are free to draft up a poem based on them. This is an unguided drop in session, feel free to turn up when you want, within the hour. This is a non-silent writing session so feel free to chat among the group. 

7pm – 9pm Evening Event – Jonathan Davidson reading plus Open Mic

Our final event of the week and the perfect way to round it off. Sit back and enjoy the reading, then join in at the Open Mic. Bring your own bottle for maximum enjoyment!

Workshop Facilitators and Guest Readers

Jonathan Davidson is a poet, writer and literature activist. He lives in the English Midlands but works internationally. His poetry has been widely published and he has also written memoir and criticism. His radio dramas and adaptations have been broadcast by BBC Radios 3 and 4. Much of his work is focussed on how writing – especially poetry – is experienced by readers and listeners. His most recent collection is A Commonplace (Smith|Doorstop, 2020) and was included in The Morning Star’s best poetry books of 2020 and has been widely reviewed, including in Under the Radar, TLS and Racine. His previous book, On Poetry (Smith|Doorstop, 2018), a combination of memoir and manual, was included in The Guardian’s Top 10 Books About Creative Writing 2020. His blogposts about poetry and the poetry sector are at www.jonathandavidson.net.

Gill McEvoy lives in Devon, belongs to Simon Williams’ Company of Poets in Totnes. She has had 3 pamphlets published by Happenstance Press, one of which “The First Telling”won the 2015 Michael Marks Award. She is a Hawthornden Fellow (2012). Two collections from Cinnamon Press. Recent collection “Are You Listening?” from Hedgehog Poetry Press and in 2022 Hedgehog will be publishing a “Selected” collection of her work. She is about to start a regular poetry reading group here in Devon, from September onwards. Other than that she is involved with Bee-wild, a group focused on rewilding parts of the village where she lives. She is also  a member of YEG, the village Environment Group

Wendy Pratt is a poet, author, mentor, and workshop facilitator living and working on the glorious North Yorkshire coast. Her latest full collection, When I Think of My Body as a Horse, was one of the winners of the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition 2020. Wendy is also founder and editor of Spelt magazine, a magazine dedicated to celebrating and validating the rural experience through poetry and creative non-fiction.

Steve Nash is a writer, performer, and musician, born in Yorkshire and raised on army barracks across the UK and Europe. A widely and internationally published poet, in 2014 Steve won the Saboteur Award for ‘Best Spoken Word Performer’ from a shortlist that included Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish.


There’s an emphasis on quiet, friendly creativity and the use of ‘retreat’ in the true sense of the word: as a place to back away from the busy pressurised world, the rampant consumerism that defines Christmas and the business of life in general, and to come and reconnect with yourself and your writing and, I hope, with nature too. It’s a bargain at just £125 and you can book your place here.

I have no other news this week, except that life is good, that I’m still here, still writing, still absorbing the world quietly and I genuinely hope you are too. Remember to take some time for yourself this week. The dark can feel claustrophobic, but it can also feel cosy.

Until next time

x