Looking back with gratitude

As we approach the end of the year, it’s natural to look back. In some ways, I’ve had a terrible year. I’ve had stumble after stumble, I’ve hit wall after wall and I’ve had so many challenges that sometimes all I could do was scream into a pillow until I was so exhausted I fell asleep weeping. Despite that, there have been a lot of good things about this year. I learned a lot about myself and my resilience, and I’ve learned the immense power of gratitude.  

I’m grateful for my friends, for their support and understanding, for all the fun we have. I’ve been to concerts and plays with friends and been overwhelmed with happiness. I’ve had days out and fantastic company while I poke around old monuments and dank former prisons for my PhD. I have wonderful writer friends who keep me going and workshop my poems so that I can be a better writer. They don’t let me get away with any slacking off and I value their kind and insightful feedback. With my friends, there has been a lot of laughter, some hard work, a few tears and a sense that whatever may come, I will never be alone. 

I am grateful to all the editors who chose to publish my poems this year. I have had 13 poems published – unlucky for some, maybe, but to me each one was a reason to dance, an opportunity to share and take pride in my work. Each acceptance feels like a little miracle to me. I am also immeasurably grateful also to Indigo Dreams for choosing to publish my first collection in 2019. As I said, each magazine publication feels like a miracle and having a whole book published is almost so wonderful I can’t comprehend it. 

I am grateful for the support I receive at the University of Chichester. I completed the first year of my PhD and I am well into my second with a firm belief that I will achieve my goal. It’s not been easy, I work full time and I’ve had family commitments but I did it anyway. That goal keeps me going when things feel hopeless and dark and it’s thanks to the guidance of my tutor and the enthusiasm of the university that I can keep my eyes on that distant prize.

I am grateful to every writer who has taken me outside myself this year. Without books to sustain me, I don’t even want to think about where I might be. Art in general is a comfort – a movie that lets me forget my troubles or see them in a new light, music that uplifts me, podcasts that inform or entertain, stand up comedy that makes me laugh, theatre that takes my breath away. I live in wonder and I’m glad of that.

I am grateful for the headspace app. I discovered it this year after a friend recommended it to me and now I don’t know how I managed without it. The daily meditations have helped my creative practice as well as helping me cope with whatever life throws at me. The sleep casts are so very helpful, and most nights I drift away to the sound of the ocean and feel a small measure of peace.

I’m grateful to myself, too. I’ve had a rough year but I’ve held on to my dreams and my joys. I’ve kept myself positive and I’ve done everything I could to fight against depression or a sense of defeat. I don’t care if I look stupid and I don’t care where this fight takes me, I will pursue happiness and a sense of peace with everything I’ve got. The chief weapon in my armoury is gratitude and it is accompanied by a fierce energy. Whatever 2019 has in store for me, I’m going to hold on tight to all the good things. There’s a chance I’ll get kicked in the teeth more than once but I’ll keep going. Gratitude and ferocity might seem like unlikely bedfellows but to me they’re at the heart of everything I do and the reason I keep going. Amongst all the darkness, I’m choosing to be a motherfucking beam of light. 

The endless, powerful gift of a book

I am once again supporting the Book Trust’s Christmas campaign to send a book parcel to children who are vulnerable or in care. The campaign is an extension of their work through the Letterbox Club, which sends monthly parcels of books and educational materials to children. For some of these children, it may be the first Christmas present they’ve received, or the only indication that someone cares.

I support this campaign because books are important; studies show that reading to children has greater impact on improving literacy than any other activity. Reading improves vocabulary, reasoning skills and understanding of the world. For children who may not have had the best start in life, books can open up a route through education to a better future. 

When you’re a child, there are many ways that books are important beyond their educational value. I know this because of all the ways in which books were important to me as a child – and to be honest, all the ways they still are important to me. 

When I was little, I found myself very frustrated with a world I never seemed to fit into. I don’t know if it was my red hair, my left-handedness, or maybe I’m just an awkward piece of furniture but I never felt like I fit in. When I was reading, all that disappeared. The first book I remember reading by myself was The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and it’s a story about facing your fears. I think after that, I took flight in the dark just like that owl. Over the years, I learned about magic, animals, heroes and heroines. I learned about the Romans through Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, about World War II through stories such as Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom and Back Home, or Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. I’m sure my passion for the natural world and environmental conservation has more than a little bit to do with Watership Down and Colin Dann’s series The Animals of Farthing Wood. 

As I became a teenager, my sense of not fitting in became more acute and I was bullied for most of my time at secondary school. Books were my refuge; my teenage friends were nearly all fictional characters. The courage and sensitivity of the teenagers in Judy Blume’s books, the resilience and guts of the family in Cynthia Voight’s seven volume Tillerman Cycle, the strange and vivid magic of Alan Garner’s books such as Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – I carry them all with me to this day. Ponyboy Curtis from SE Hinton’s The Outsiders made me think about how poetry could help me in ways beyond simply enjoying the words. (The three words still most likely to make me cry are “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”)

Now I have a kindle; it’s quicker and easier than ever to get books, simpler to get recommendations and yet books are still the ultimate luxury to me. Right now, my life is really complicated. I have a part-time job, freelance commitments, a PhD to study for, a book due to launch next year, my Mum isn’t well, my family isn’t getting on... Sometimes, if I think too long about the blank darkness of my future and how much it feels like I’m teetering on a sheer drop, I find it hard to breathe. Then, I’ll read for a while and suddenly all my concerns are in the background. When I resurface from whatever world I’ve been immersed in, I feel less alone and able to take on whatever challenges lie ahead. 

I hope you think about also supporting the Book Trust campaign. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where books were valued and available, trips to the library taken as a matter of course. For many children, that isn’t the case and that makes the Book Trust’s work all the more important. Think of all that books have given your childhood, your life - and then for as little as £10, pass that incredible gift on to a vulnerable child who needs the lifeline. 

Wherever you stand, writing workshops are magical

I really enjoyed speaking to the West Sussex Writersgroup last night. I don’t need much of an excuse to start enthusing about poetry or history and I was delighted to have the excuse to talk at length about both.

Although writing is mostly a solitary pursuit, I do think there’s a lot of value in spending time with other writers, whether that’s workshopping together or working separately on the same writing prompts. There was clearly something in the air last night as the talented audience produced some amazing work in very little time. I don’t know whether it’s the ticking clock that can push the imagination, or the invisible pressure of someone scribbling alongside you, but there is something very special about ideas that come from workshop prompts. It’s like the writing appears out of thin air and is conjured not by the workshop leader but the whole group, working together. 

It was quite strange for me to be on the other side of that dynamic last night. I’ve attended a lot of writing workshops and I will continue to do so because I love them and there’s always something new to learn. However, it’s one thing to attend respond to prompts in a workshop and quite a different matter to be the one wielding the stopwatch. Part of me wanted to join in and write away, but I didn’t trust myself to stay honest on the timing if I was suddenly seized by an idea. Despite feeling a bit awkward while I let everyone write, it was worth giving that time. My favourite part of the evening was hearing some of the rich, varied and often moving work that came from the prompts. The idea that I had watched the creation of those poems, perhaps even nudged them slightly into being, was really special. 

I was delighted to be welcomed so warmly by the West Sussex Writers and to meet so many talented and interesting people during the evening. If you’re a writer in the area looking to connect with like-minded writers, then this might be an excellent place to start. They have a fantastic roster of guest speakers and I was honoured to be listed amongst them. The group also runs regular meetings, events and competitions throughout the year.

And if you’re not local to the area, you might want to seek out a local group for support, inspiration and the occasional workshop. If all else fails, set yourself a timer and see what happens when you give yourself just five or ten minutes to crystallise an idea. If it helps, imagine there are writers all around you attempting to the do the same thing. Somewhere in the world, they probably are.

Maybe it’s just me… In praise of the writing workshop

I’m still getting my head around the news last week that I will have a collection coming out. It’s made me reflect on how exactly I got here and so in case it’s useful to anyone else (although mostly so I can understand it) I thought I’d take a look at some of the things that helped me achieve my dream. Writing workshops were the first thing that popped into my head, so I’m going to start there.

I am a part of two writing workshops – one with three incredible fiction writers, Richard Buxton, Tracy Fells and Bea Mitchell-Turner, and the other with the wonderful poet Raine Geoghegan. They both give me different things and I wouldn’t be the same without the patience, support and insight of these talented people. Each workshop meets once a month to share and discuss works-in-progress. Usually cake is involved. You’d think that was the best part, but for me it’s the chance to read some amazing writing from my fellow workshoppers and to get their guidance on how mine can improve.

Workshops can teach you not to be too precious about your work – you may have written a line that you love, but if no one understands it then you might have to give it a rethink. What you write as a result will always be better. Of course, this only works if kindness is a pre-requisite. If you know all feedback is only meant to help you then it stops you taking it personally and you can focus on the work. It doesn’t mean writing by committee – the decision remains yours, always. Often the feedback I get is split – some people love something that others don’t even understand and in those cases, I have to trust my heart and the poem. Feedback doesn’t take control out of your hands – knowledge is power and the more knowledge your fellow writers share, the more power you have to make your work better.

I appreciate that I got very lucky in my choice of workshop participants. We started during the dissertation for the MA when we all wanted to help each other along. We have all been through the same supportive workshop process at the University of Chichester – and the tutors’ advice on how to run a workshop has been some of the most invaluable in my writing career. I feel fortunate that the people I work with on my poems are people that I also count as very valued friends. We don’t just talk about the work, we cheer any success and offer words of condolence and encouragement when things get tough - not just with regard to our writing, but all aspects of our lives. Even if I have nothing to report but a string of rejections and a half-written sonnet, I still get the chance to read some great work (and enjoy a slice of cake) and that’s worth the world to me.

Regular workshops are also great for keeping you on track. Nothing improves my production rate more than the ever-efficient Tracy sending over her latest early or kindly Raine telling me how much she’s looking forward to our catch up. Writing can be lonely, as can studying for a PhD, but these regular reminders to complete work are great motivation and help to make sure I don’t get lost in the enormity of what I’m trying to achieve. 

I know there are a lot of horror stories about workshops and clashing egos – and believe me, I know how painful they can be. It’s worth taking the time to find the people who are right for you, and those are people you can laugh with, people who put kindness over competition and above all, people who know the importance of cake.

Apple Water: Povel Panni
By Raine Geoghegan

What happens when you actually win?

I was so overwhelmed and delighted by the news yesterday that I had won the Indigo-First Collection competition that for the first time in a long time, I didn’t know what to say. It was a really strange day for me – I had achieved something I’ve been working towards for a very long time, but I also had a job to do. As the congratulations poured in over twitter I was actually writing a press release for a local firm of accountants. When I finally got home, I still didn’t know what to say, or quite what to do with myself. I am an inveterate planner, but I don’t think I’d ever planned for this.

It’s interesting that I’ve spent a really long time getting used to rejection. I have an efficient submission system which means when poems get returned to me, I send them swiftly back out somewhere else without a second glance at the rejection. Every single time I get an acceptance, it’s a thrill and an honour. Every single time it is a surprise. I’m not sure I ever want that to change, it is a little miracle to have something you’ve created out in the world where it might comfort or inspire a total stranger. So, I’m OK with rejection because it is all part of the magic of publishing.

I’ve also spent a long time building my resilience. I don’t want to get into a long list of complaints, my life is a fortunate one in so many ways, but the last ten years have thrown a lot at me, from losing a job to losing a parent, and pretty much every kind of petty annoyance and major heartbreak in between. After every setback and obstacle, I’ve taken a deep breath, swept aside any inclination to whine about the unfairness of it all (eventually) and kept on plodding forward. I’ve completed an MA and am currently studying for a PhD whilst working full time, and it’s never been easy. I have wanted to give up more times than I can count. It’s only now that I know I keep going for moments like yesterday, when I achieved my dream. I feel like I’ve just received the final link in my chainmail armour of resilience. Now, next time I have to pick myself up, I finally know what it’s all for.

I don’t know if I can say I’ve learned anything yet. I can say that whatever your dream, don’t give up. If you’re an artist, focus on your work and try to tune out what the rest of the world is doing. Let your friends and loved ones believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself and you’ll get a chance to repay that faith one day. And maybe plan just a little for success, so you don’t end up sitting in your kitchen with a mini bottle of champagne and no earthly idea what to do with yourself. 

Thanks go to everyone who’s kept me going over the years – family, friends, tutors, fellow writers – you’re all incredible humans. Fist bump to my fellow winner, Ben Gwalchmai, whose work I can’t wait to read – the title alone is intriguing and perhaps puts mine to shame (although it makes me laugh every time I read Hag: Zoe Mitchell, so no regrets on that score.) Huge appreciation and big hugs also to Ronnie and Dawn at Indigo Dreams for supporting my work and helping me fulfil my dream. What a day yesterday was, and what a wonderful time we have ahead. I seem to have gone slightly off-plan and it feels like I’m walking on air.

Held up by invisible strings

This week, I had a bit of a day. It was never going to be a good day because it’s the anniversary of my Dad dying but I was ready for that. I wasn’t so prepared for the rest of it. I work at home, and I logged on early to make up some time as I had to pop out to the doctor later that morning with someone in my family. I couldn’t log in, couldn’t work and spent an hour and a half on the phone to the helpdesk before I had to leave to make the doctor’s appointment… which I did by running right across town. 

The doctor’s appointment took longer than planned and was not good news. Not terrible news, not impossible to surmount but upsetting and stressful and altogether a bit emotional. However, I’m behind on my work from the IT problems, I’ve got freelance work to do which is essential for paying the bills, so I put that aside, promise to return later that evening, get back in my car and head home. The work IT problem hadn’t been solved in my absence and appeared impossible to do remotely, so I let that go, suggest I’ll head into the office the next day to get it fixed and make up my hours, and think I’ll just focus on the freelance stuff, on my own laptop.

A couple of weeks ago, my broadband was cut thanks to an administrative error and I’m still waiting to have it fixed. However, I’m zen about that - I’ve got my phone, so I link that to my computer and off I go. Then the phone dies. Now I have no broadband, no way of getting my work done and no way of calling anyone to help. I panic a bit. Cry. Scream. Then I recognise I have to calm down, think of my headspace app as the perfect way to give me some time out and laugh bitterly when I remember it’s on my phone. I drive back into town hoping the shop can give me a quick fix.

The time in the shop also took longer than planned and was not good news. After my phone couldn’t be revived, I had to go through getting a new phone. When I finally walked out, I was connected again to the world, but had none of my apps or settings that help me keep in touch with people. Then I spent some time reconnecting my various email addresses, apps etc. and patchworked all my contacts and settings back together as best I could. I now have an hour, so I work away, hunched in a coffee shop, and then off I go to my family.

By the time I get home, it’s 8.30 and I’ve got a whole day’s work to do. I do as much as I can, remind myself I can work on the train early the next morning before I head to the office for my other job. Just as I go to bed, my old phone springs to life. I don’t know what I was meant to do, but I laughed for a really long time.

It all made me realise just how reliant I am on technology. I appreciate that’s a choice, but that’s not the whole truth. I need broadband to make a living. I need to be in touch with people because of what’s happening in my life at the moment. I am very happy for people who choose to switch off and disconnect, but there’s a great deal of privilege that comes with that and I don’t have the advantages needed for that option.

All this made me think about the invisible strings that hold my life together – broadband, the miracle of all that my phone contains – and realised that at least there were others that couldn’t be so easily severed or disrupted. My family are good, supportive people. My friends are always there for me, even those who live far away. On the drive home, the music in my car lifted me up and kept me going. I told myself this was a bad day, I’ve had worse and got through them so there I am, my own support, another string, or perhaps a rod of steel right down my spine. Love, art and my own determination got me through, and they will again.

Pinocchio may claim that his strings hold him down but I realised this week there are plenty of strings on me, and they hold me up. I’m grateful to them all, including this incredible cover which came on in my car at just the moment when I needed it the most.

Generation Sensible and the art of living well

I have mixed feelings about the statistics released today which have meant that young people are being dubbed Generation Sensible. On one hand, I think it’s good that education campaigns have clearly worked, but on the other, I worry about what this means about the world these kids have been born into and the unprecedented amount of peer pressure that social media exerts. 

The reason it worries me is because it feels like young people are getting more conservative, more afraid of getting caught and I wonder what that means for the long run. I did some stupid things when I was younger and I can’t bring myself to regret them. It’s not just that I found out who I was through making mistakes and taking chances (my absolute favourite being the time I went to a rave and found myself a nice quiet clearing to drink tea, which is the best possible way to describe who I am). It’s also that those experiences can teach you not only about yourself, but about other people.

These days, if you get drunk, date the wrong person, make any kind of mistake it can be recorded, shared on the internet and out in the world forever. That can impact your relationships and your job prospects and so I wonder whether kids today are more sensible or just more afraid because there’s more to be afraid of. I remember a time I walked miles home with a friend of mine after a night out because no taxi would take us because she kept being sick. I never left her side then and if that wouldn’t make me waver in my friendship, nothing ever will. I could share multiple examples of me in similar situations and that same friend has helped me so many times, through bad times and good, because we know we’re not perfect and we don’t have to be.

I’m not saying that things like getting drunk or dating a heartbreaker are cool, but it’s only through making those sort of “mistakes” that you learn understanding, patience and nuance. That last one is really important. The world is increasingly polarised and common ground is harder to find. Retreating into safety, or never emerging from childhood is not going to help that at all. I am sure someone will tell me that young people are simply intolerant of intolerance, but I don’t think it’s that simple. It feels like they’re cushioning themselves to any other point of view.

In addition, what does it mean that these kids are ‘Generation Sensible’? What if you’re one of the outliers that did get pregnant as a teenager, or doesn’t want to stay in and watch Disney movies or find the perfect shot for Instagram? How are they judged by their peers? What is the end game here? It feels a bit like unquestioning obedience, with no chance to build any resilience and that worries me. 

I’m currently reading The Suicide Club by Rachel Heng and it’s a fascinating and slightly chilling novel about the current obsession with health, looking good and living longer. Playing the scenario out to the extreme, the novel asks us what all this is for, and whether it’s simply a new form of tyranny. Certainly, as we see on social media, anything outside the acceptable range of experience can already be subject to severe judgement. It’s worth stopping to ask where we think we’re going with all this.

We shouldn’t be asking how we can live longer, or safer, but how we can live better. That means not sanitising the world to the point where we don’t have perspective. It means not judging people for making different life choices to us. Living better almost inevitably means making mistakes, and there has to be room for people to make those mistakes. Every artist knows this, it’s only through mistakes that we improve, and only through taking risks, learning hard lessons and seeing how incredible people can be even when we’ve fucked up monumentally that you really get to the heart of the human condition. 

Good luck to Generation Sensible. They don’t need an old bat telling them what to do of course, but if I did have any advice it would be to let go of perfect, to allow for people to make mistakes, to stop being quite so sensible and to never, ever stop asking questions.

I can manage

I’ve been working on various applications recently and I’ve found that it’s easier to write about anything other than myself. I think that’s going to hold me back, both in the career I’ve chosen in poetry and because of the ubiquity of social media. I don’t really know what to do about it, because at least some of it is just the way I am, but I think it’s also something to do with class.

I come from a working-class family and that means that you don’t complain. I think it’s great that things are changing. People can now talk about their difficulties, particularly when it comes to areas like mental illness, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that it’s almost essential to share every aspect of yourself.

If you don’t have much, you learn to cover it up without anyone telling you to do so. You keep things nice, or paper over the cracks so they don’t show. I don’t know why this is, why there’s an internalised shame about having less money than other people. In the case of my parents, they were both nurses, which is a noble reason to be broke so of course it would be great if that changed. However, it hasn’t changed yet and that means there are generations of people who grew up thinking that it’s important not to let these things show, even when other people are doing so.

There’s also an emphasis on work – having parents as nurses meant that there was literally no chance of me faking being ill to get out of school. I don’t think it’s just my experience, though. I think again there’s something about weakness, about soldiering on, and that perhaps class lies somewhere near the bottom of it. Again, I’m not saying it’s a good thing but I am saying it’s there. 

Finally, there’s a certain amount of pride. When I was at university, both the place and the subjects I chose meant that a lot of the other students had come from private schools. I felt some weight to, as my Dad would have said, “show ‘em what you’re made of,” and that meant to do my very best on their terms. I never thought about how they would have had extra tuition, or didn’t have to work to get through university. I didn’t ask for concessions because that wouldn’t be showing them, at all. That would be something else, something that would have felt like pity, or a pat on the head.

I don’t think these things are right, but I do think they’re embedded and it means that if you’re trying to get ahead in the arts, then as well as the obvious barriers that face people from the working class, there are also invisible, psychological barriers. I think at the root of it is that often people don’t ask for help because they don’t know the help is there. Even if they did, they wouldn’t necessarily believe any help would be forthcoming. 

Social media is changing things; a lot of younger writers are digital natives. That means that it’s second nature to share their thoughts and feelings online, ask for what they need and even demand a seat at the table. I don’t know if I’m just too old to change, but I’m not comfortable with that. It doesn’t matter how much I read about it, in my bones I don’t believe that any cry for help I uttered would be answered, and to rely on such a thing happening could be my downfall.

Of course, this isn’t just about class, or about age - it’s also about personal preference. I’m not great at asking for help. My Mum used to say I would have “I can manage,” on my gravestone because I insist on doing things my own way, usually on my own. But as much as I acknowledge that this is a weakness of mine, I also resent that it’s expected. Why do I owe the world all my pain before it takes my work seriously? And is it taken seriously, or am I just getting a pity vote? How will I know the difference? 

I watched Hannah Gadsby’s stand up show Nanette last night and I had a really visceral reaction to it. I saw how powerful it was that she told her story, and that she had every right to, but I also saw exactly what it was costing her to do so. I don’t like the idea that opening up your rawest wounds for all to see is the price to pay for being considered genuine. Gadsby herself challenges the notion of the suffering artist and sometimes I wonder if all these personal narratives aren’t partly responsible for perpetuating it. 

I’m not saying that we should go back to the days of papering over the cracks or maintaining the British stiff upper lip. However, I don’t think the world is owed my story, my pain or my troubles, either. If I want to talk about those things, I will. But if I choose, as I do, to send my work out into the world and keep any difficulties to myself, I think I should be allowed that too. It doesn’t mean the work is any less heartfelt, or that I’m any less sensitive. It just means that I’d appreciate the help immensely but honestly, I can manage. 

The organised poet and other stories...

I have become a very organised person and people don’t expect that of a poet. Poets are meant to be spontaneously creative and sensitive souls, not advocates of online project management tools with supporting apps. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be the sort of poet people expect; presumably it’s a life of just wafting about, swishing a Stevie Nicks-style shawl wherever you go. There’s no inherent harm in this – and really if you get any chance to be more like Stevie Nicks you should take it – but it does hide some pretty damaging assumptions. 

I live on my own and I’m currently completing a PhD whilst also working. If I didn’t have everything carefully organised, some aspect of my life would collapse pretty quickly. I don’t have any rich relations to subsidise my choices and even on the day-to-day level of things like remembering to pay the electricity bill, there is no one around to share the workload. I don’t expect a medal for all my careful organisation but I think it should be acknowledged as a valid part of creative practice. It is only because I run a tight ship that I can have the time to work on my poetry.

Poets don’t all live in ivory towers and perhaps if we acknowledge this, then there could be more diversity both in the writers published and the readership of poetry. Working class artists don’t have the luxury of being scatty, distracted or temperamental. Every hour of creative time is hard won, having been clawed back from other obligations. Not having endless resources means saving up for every book you’ve ever owned, it means budgeting for every artistic competition you’ve ever entered. In short, if you’re working class and you want to pursue the arts, you’ve had to plan for it. 

The other reason this idea of chaotic genius is so frustrating is that it denies the very real work that goes into creating anything. It’s a romantic idea that writers have a single eureka moment and then somehow draw together about six layers of meaning within a complex metaphor. It denies all the planning, research, reading and revising that goes into the work. Every writer gets a flash of inspiration from time to time, but those ideas won’t be realised without a lot of hard work. 

Although the idea of the “born artist” – too sensitive and pure for this world – can be seen throughout the arts, it’s particularly prevalent in writing. Chen Chen’s recent discussion of how writers of colour are expected to focus on suffering – as if this will, by default, lead to art – is a case in point. 

Apart from the obvious problems with this expectation discussed by Chen Chen, the idea denies the extensive work behind the literature. Similarly, this article by comedian Jamie Kilstein discusses the idea that comedians are expected to be funny off-stage. It seems we want comedians to be naturally funny, not men and women who spend time writing, editing and refining their performance. We want comedians to be constantly happy the same way we want poets to live in worlds of heightened emotion or writers of colour to share their pain. 

Why do we revolt against the idea that artists often work very hard for what they create? And by association, why is any ability to plan ahead or organise your time seen as the opposite of being artistic? Both of these concepts – that art is work, and that work must be planned for – demolish the idea of the sensitive artist… or the privileged artist who has the time and money to wait for the Muse and have someone else pay the rent and remember to pick up the milk. There’s something distinctly unpleasant beneath those stereotypes because it implies that creating art is something you have to be born into, like royalty, rather than worked at like any other craft or skill. It implies, also, knowing your place and staying within it, even within a field that is meant to celebrate freedom.

Acknowledging the work that goes into writing does not diminish the creative achievements of the writer; it celebrates them. It also means that any writer from any background can write what they wish. There are, of course, structural issues to do with race, class and gender to consider before you can simplify it as far as saying that anyone can do anything with hard work. It would be a start, however, to demonstrate that creativity isn’t something you’re born into, or born with, and you don’t necessarily need a year off and an ivory tower to write your magnum opus. 

So yes, I have a pretty detailed spreadsheet to manage my PhD, very accurate filing (in hard and soft copy), a white board, regular reminders set up in my phone and routines which keep life ticking over. It’s only because I do all these things that I can spend a (planned-for) hour tinkering with a poem’s title, or bury my head and my heart in a new poetry collection or literary magazine. It is not the case that I am organised despite being a poet; it is that I am a poet because I made space for it by being organised.

Empathy for the incel

There were many reasons why I decided to study witches for my PhD; I don’t think I’d considered quite how relevant it might be to the world we’re living in. From the near-constant misuse of the term “witch-hunt” to describe the #MeToo movement to the frankly absurd claims from incel-enabler and pseudo-intellectual Jordan Peterson and the ooze of misogyny emanating from it all, I couldn’t possibly have picked a more newsworthy subject. That is at once fascinating and profoundly depressing.

Peterson recently claimed in an interview that we all know that witches live in swamps and witches are real. Other than Peg Powler, who is better known for haunting waterways than swamps, I can’t think of one. I can’t see either the ferocious Baba Yaga or the heroic Nanny of the Maroons hanging out in a swamp, to be honest. I know fairy tales aren’t documentary evidence but if we’re talking about myths made real, then witches live in the forest in remote cottages, they live in castles and they live amongst us. That is rather the point of the witch myth. 

However, if we’re looking for a root of evil, I don’t think it’s witches we should be looking at. Witches are not spending their time cursing people any more than feminists have monthly meetings to decide who women will and won’t sleep with. The absurdity of the conspiracy is exactly what made people believe in witches in the first place – the reasons are so complex and multi-layered it’s easier to find a single focus to apportion blame. If Peterson is even half as intelligent as he claims, he knows that. He makes a lot of money from exploiting the insecurities of hopeless young men and puts many more people in real danger – as does his publisher and the media outlets that give him air time.

However, witches do have something to teach us. In magic, there is the “rule of three” which suggests that anything you send out into the world returns to you threefold. That means there’s a very specific reason why those young men pouring their vitriol and misogyny on the internet can’t get girlfriends – they’re putting out a measure of obnoxious fuckery which gets returned to them in spades. Even if you don’t believe in magic, it’s pretty clear that if you are rude then you aren’t going to get people falling over themselves to get to know you.

Historically, witches were often independent women with a measure of knowledge and a general attitude of not giving a damn what society thought of them. That’s the reason they’re considered a threat. All the whiny young men thinking they deserve a medal for figuring out how society works and how unfair it is are missing the point. If you can see that you have a lowly position in a hierarchy, you are entirely free to not give a fuck about that position. The dual tyrannies of status and looks don’t have to be obeyed – and they don’t have to be taught a lesson, either.  

I’ve been trying to write about this. I’m a single woman in my forties; in short, just like those angry, entitled incels, no one wants to fuck me either. My first idea was to have a bunch of middle-aged women taking to the streets with machine guns demanding young men sleep with them. I stopped because it seemed too comic – young women wanting sex may be slutty, but if you’re over 30 it tips over into ridiculous and vaguely pathetic – and I don’t think there’s anything funny about this. Then I had an idea that you could riff on Swift’s Modest Proposal with an “Immodest Proposal” that those incels sleep with the middle-aged women no one wants to admit have sexual impulses. In the end I abandoned that, not just because it is not incumbent on women to solve this problem but because I realised – I don’t care enough about the issue. Sure, no one wants to date me. Sometimes, it sucks. I still have a vague hope that I’ll meet someone at some point. Most of the time, though, I am way too busy with my friends, my family, my work and the many delights and adventures they bring me. I have a lot of love in my life and honestly do not care what other people think of me. 

There’s another lesson that witches can offer us – empowerment. They don’t ask permission, they don’t wait for some arbitrary allocation of status and they don’t sit and complain about how unfair life is. In that way, women are often like witches. The single women I know don’t worry about how they rank within arbitrary beauty standards, or what their status is and how other people view them. They’re way too busy living their lives. Actually, the women in relationships are the same. As are the men I know. The difference between this and a world view which sees violence as the inevitable result of perceived unfairness is empathy. I think that’s the reason I’ve been struggling to write about this. I know I need to have a measure of kindness that’s going to take time to get my head around.