Wet, wonderful and downright weird!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

My writing workshop at Off the Shelf!

On Saturday, I ran a writing workshop as part of Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words – a literary festival which has now been running for 22 years. I had been worried about attracting enough people to my course, as it was on the launch day of the festival, and I was competing with lots of other events, including a writers’ group fair and humorous poet and ‘Just a Minute’ panellist Pam Ayres.

My workshop was listed in the Off the Shelf programme and I’d advertised it on Facebook, but I needed to reach the right people. So at the end of September, I decided to put in some serious graft. I didn’t think there was much point spending a lot of money on printing flyers and posters, so I ran black and white ones off myself and put them up in cafes and venues where literary-minded people might congregate. I wrote a press release and sent it to every media organisation I could think of in South Yorkshire.

My master stroke was to email every writing group I could find locally! Luckily, my local writers’ development organisation, Signposts (now Writing Yorkshire – more on that later!) has a list of writing groups to suit everyone. Within a few hours of sending my press releases to them, the bookings were rolling in. I’d made the workshop day really affordable at £10 including lunch – it helped that Sheffield City Council had contributed towards the cost of running the course too!

I’d already planned the writing exercises we’d be doing in the workshop. I called it “Open Your Memory Box”. It was designed to follow on from memoir-writing workshops I ran in May this year. Saturday’s workshop was designed to take biographical details and turn them into poetry, stories and drama. All I needed to do now was check the venue at Bank Street Arts – an arts centre and cafe dedicated to the craft of writing, and finalise the details for lunch. Everything was fine, although I was a little nervous.

Saturday dawned grey and rainy. The perfect weather for a day spent indoors, writing. Unfortunately, the participants had to travel through the rain, but everyone arrived safely, and after grabbing a coffee, we settled down for a creative day.

I had such lovely, interesting participants that the day was a dream. I’d asked everyone to bring along an object that held a memory, and I was soon sucked into fascinating stories of hair slides, old photographs, charm bracelets, money boxes, a twig naturally shaped like a wood spirit, a treasured sweet packet, a gold sovereign and gold watches lost under the ocean.

As the day progressed, we tried various writing exercises, and I was so impressed by the standard of the poems and stories that I’m going to be putting some of them on my Wild Rosemary Writing Services website.

We even had time to watch a miniature theatre performance also taking place at Bank Street Arts on Saturday, The Ice Book, a wonderful story created from projections and paper shapes on the pages of a magical book. The fairy tale theme tied in perfectly with the exercises we were doing on folk tales and archetypes.

Straight after my workshop in the cafe was the launch of Writing Yorkshire, the new name for writers’ development agency Signposts. The team are now dedicated to helping writers throughout Yorkshire. They’ve certainly helped me so far, giving me advice on setting up my courses and my editing business. Some of my workshop participants came to mingle with me. Amongst the long queue of people waiting for free coffee and cake were lots of people I know: writers from the novelists group I run, people from the Writing MA at Sheffield Hallam University, and my managers from my very first post university job, working for the theatre company which has now evolved into Point Blank Theatre who run the Riverside pub venue in Sheffield. It felt really good to talk to my old boss about my new projects.

After cake, there was a really interesting panel debate with local writers, on the theme of making a living as a writer (a subject very dear to my heart!) The panellists were Joe Kriss, who runs Wordlife performance events in Sheffield and Beverley Ward, Writing Development Manager at Writing Yorkshire, and a fellow novelist, who has given me a lot of support and guidance so far in my freelance career. There was also Daniel Blythe, a Young Adult novelist and writer of Dr Who novels, and Stephen May, the writing development officer from the Arts Council. I was really pleased that they were advocating a “portfolio” career – building up a creative career with lots of different aspects – in my case teaching, editing and at the moment, building up as much experience as possible. It certainly makes life more interesting than sitting alone all the time, trying to create a masterpiece! It would drive me mad, even though it’s worked for some people. I am spending more time on my own writing though – getting up in the dark to snatch a bit of time every morning to write my second novel.

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club - sorry about the red eyes!

Colm Gray at the Crookes Folk Club – sorry about the red eyes!

Feeling tired but elated, it was on with my marathon day. I caught a bus to my old stamping ground Crookes for a gig at the Crookes Folk Club at the Princess Royal pub. The main artist was Colm Gray, a young folk singer and guitarist I’d seen at Bearded Theory in May this year. He’d managed to blag his way into busking backstage, and impressed the organisers – and the singer from the Levellers so much that he’s booked to play the main stage at Bearded Theory, and also to play the Levellers’ own festival Beautiful Days next year.

The Princess Royal is an unassuming back street pub. It’s weekly folk club has been running for several years now, with talented artists performing in the intimate upstairs room. The place was packed for Colm Gray, who was fresh from supporting Levellers singer Mark Chadwick in Derby the night before. Colm is a striking-looking young man with razor-sharp cheekbones, with an almost ethereal presence and singing voice. He played a mixture of traditional tunes and his own songs, such as Collie Dog Blues to a spell-bound audience, Originally from Kilkenny, Colm is now touring the UK, breaking into the conscience of the nation the traditional way, travelling up and down the country in a Transit van, playing folk festivals and charming his way onto festival bills. He’s well worth catching on his wanders – hopefully he’ll play Sheffield again soon.

Monday was another Off the Shelf day. The rain was heavier and the skies. At the start of the evening, I braved the wet to meet novelist Gavin Extence, author of ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’, a quirky yet moving book about an unlikely friendship between Alex, an isolated teenage boy and Mr Peterson, a lonely old man. Gavin was really interesting to chat to – and we had a really interesting discussion with him about the themes in his novel and his writing career so far. That’s a great story in itself – after gaining a degree in English Literature (from the University of Sheffield, just like me!), and then a PHD, he was struggling to get a job (this sounds familiar too!) Gavin’s wife suggested that he put all of his energy into writing (and presumably the household chores too!) The hard work and dedication paid off, as ‘The Universe Versus Alex Woods’ is now a best-selling novel, and certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year, funny and thought-provoking.

I had the pleasure of Gavin’s company for a bit longer as I was giving him a lift to Bank Street Arts for “Sheffield’s Got Fiction Talent”, a “fiction slam” event, where local writers competed against each other, each having a minute to pitch their novel in the first round. Gavin Extence was a judge, and I was a competitor. I was disappointed not to make it past the first round, where audience members voted for their six favourite pitchers, but the place was packed, with over twenty writers competing for six places in the second round. I put a brave face on it. The night was a great success – partly because two people from the novelists group that I run came joint second, and some very talented writers were showcased – and were critiqued by the fearsome panel (not so fearsome, it was all great constructive criticism)!

I went to bed feeling alright – pleased that I’d met some interesting writers, and only mildly disappointed. However, my mental vultures were already circling. Sometimes I can feel devastated even when I’ve got things to be happy about. it doesn’t happen often, but when the wrong circumstances combine, I feel really depressed. Minor setbacks, combined with fluctuating hormones, the way people treat me, for example, a small, easily mended tiff with the other half, leave me tearful and hopeless. A turning point came a few years ago, when I consulted a doctor and she suggested a prescription of antidepressants. I realised that this wasn’t the way to help myself. I’ve been determined to know myself; to get to the root of my problems and do something about it. I’ve been on a mission to get rid of those mental vultures, otherwise known as the “top dog” or the “shitty committee”, who tell me that I’m worthless and talented, and that everyone who sees me can look right through me and see that I’m hideous, stupid, insane and deluded. It’s pure craziness to think like this.

But every time I feel like this, the positive voices get stronger. I realise I’m no longer alone in thinking negatively about myself. My wonderful “free range” colleague Lotte Lane has written (and filmed herself) about exactly what I’m talking about. This struck such a chord with me that it brought tears to my eyes – not tears of self-pity this time, but tears of recognition and hope. http://www.lottelane.com/meet-shitty-committee/

Some people would shy away from mentioning the downs in life as well as the ups. But I want to be honest. By talking about things like this, it means that we’re no longer suffering alone. I’ve recognised my feelings and now I’m on my way to bouncing back, with new ideas and a refreshed perspective. We have to work hard to maintain and create the positive, creative things in our life, but they’re worth fighting for.

Contrition and Catharsis

Manic Street Preachers at the O2, December 2011

Manic Street Preachers at the O2, December 2011 – a cathartic, celebratory night

This week, I had an argument with one of my closest friends. At its peak, a really tempestuous argument which involved slamming doors and shouting like a fishwife, which is something I don’t do very often but am actually quite good at! Later, we managed to have a good talk and get a lot of our emotions and the issues which had been simmering around under the surface out in the open.

It’s important to move on from these times, and perhaps they are needed – big arguments are a pretty rare occurrence in my life but are always significant. There are things I’ve got to look at

I’d been burbling on about the plans for the launch of my new writing business, as I’ve just booked the dates for the first taster course I’m delivering. This is all very exciting, but very scary! I’ve just come up with a new business name too. As soon as I’ve got everything sorted, I’ll let you know!

Therefore, my excitement was tempered with anxiety and insecurity. After a long day at work, moonlighting occasionally to scribble my own ideas and to book the venue for my taster courses, I was bursting to tell my friend. I hadn’t stopped to reflect all day. At the moment, I’m compelled to spend every second when I’m not sleeping or working in my day job, planning, writing and doing things to get my new life started, step-by-step. My life needs to stay afloat, and keep afloat when I finish work in a few weeks.

I appreciate that I’ve been irritable and have “snapped” at my closest friends and family, when they are just trying to make sensible suggestions or give me advice. This is partly a reflection of my own fears and doubts. I’m glad I’ve been “pulled up” about this. I’ve still got a lot to learn about myself, not least that I need to keep focussed on positive things. I’ve got to embrace my emotions as they come along, rather than pretend that everything’s great but I shouldn’t expect my friends and family to validate every idea I have – otherwise, I probably wouldn’t do anything! I need to listen to them and respect them though.

The same can’t be said for the “top dog”, otherwise known collectively as the “shitty committee”* that lives in my head and feeds me negative thoughts, just like those school bullies when I was thirteen who treated me like a freak, when, I realise now, that I was just a normal teenage girl who wanted to be an individual. The trouble is, for a while, I believed those voices, real and imaginary. I know I keep going on about this but the lovely world of Free Range Humans finally helped me to understand that I’m not mad, but that EVERYONE has these voices. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be “normal” be if you didn’t have them! The trick is kicking them into touch as soon as they arise. I’m not sure why I’m using a rugby metaphor here because I have absolutely no understanding of rugby, but that’s what you’ve got to do – jump up and down on the heads of the shitty committee until they realise that you’re just not taking their shit anymore!

On my long drive to work the next morning, I was still feeling chastened, but calmer. I felt the urge to listen to something dark and loud, to meet any negativity I was still feeling head-on. So I blasted ‘The Holy Bible’ by Manic Street Preachers down the M1 to Derby, singing along to the lyrics I’ve managed to decipher. For a while, I thought “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” from Faster was “so damn easy to Kevin”! It’s a notoriously bleak album, but I always find it very cathartic.

At work later that morning, I sneakily checked Facebook on my phone and Download Festival had posted that it was the 19th anniversary of Kurth Cobain’s death. I was 17 when Kurt Cobain died, and a big Nirvana fan. Nirvana are another band that can make you feel better if you play their music. Millions of teenagers from my generation onwards have felt the therapeutic effect of jumping up and down and crashing into each other to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Negative music can often have a happy effect. It’s s shame that it doesn’t always have a positive effect on its creators and Richey Edwards and Kurt Cobain are still very much missed.

Anyway, now I’ve cheered you up and brought you down again, here’s an article about an academic research project that proved that goths “grown old gracefully”, although I’d dispute what he says about people growing out of punk and rave from my direct experience. The journalist has clearly not been to Beautiful Days festival. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/24/goth-culture-research

*I got the term “shitty committee” when I went to see Dudley Sutton at Beautiful Days festival last year, AKA Tinker from antique / detective show from the 90s, Lovejoy! He is absolutely amazing and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Watch this. He is a legend!

Things this blog is about…