ROBOTS!

I’m coming to this, typically, late (both because it happened two weeks ago and because I’m typing this at 1:30 in the morning), but let’s not that stop us. It’s busy at the moment, and busy with good things, so I’m not complaining.

Over half term I had the BEST time. I worked in libraries all over Sheffield with younger writers and we wrote about robots. We designed them. We made characters who were robots and characters who made and used robots and sometimes the stories or poems were funny, sometimes they were terrifying, sometimes they were filled with tension and were super action-packed, but they were all, always, brilliant. The best thing about this job is ideas, and it’s a genuine thrill sharing the ideas that other people have. It was one of the best weeks I’ve had teaching – I had an absolute ball and I’m so, so happy that everyone produced something good and had fun doing it. And I worked with a lot of people.

Huge, huge thanks to Sheffield Library Service for asking me back again and to all the amazing staff in Stocksbridge, Ecclesall, The Children’s Central Library, Chapeltown, and Darnall – and an even bigger thanks to everyone who came.

Watch this space for more soon… (I know the places filled up super quickly again and I’m sorry we couldn’t accommodate everyone who wanted to be involved – the waiting lists were bulging – I promise we’re all working really hard to accommodate as many as we feasibly can next time.)

And here’s some brilliant things…

Streetcake – Prize and Mentoring

I’m almost half way through the Robot workshops I’ve been running over half term for Sheffield Libraries and I’ve been having the best time. Honestly, it’s been exactly what writing should be: fun, bursting with colour and ideas, and a commitment from everyone to make those ideas into something others can enjoy – and that’s no small thing when you’re six years old. I can’t wait to share the results.

And I’m thrilled to announce that I’m one of the judges for Streetcake’s Experimental Writing Prize. I spend most of my waking life either encouraging people to look at things from different angles, and to express their feelings and observations in new and interesting ways, or trying my best to do that myself and I’m really looking forward to seeing the entries and mentoring the winner. And it’s not just me judging (I’m in the excellent company of Sascha Akhtar, SJ Fowler, and Ed Cottrell), and there’s not just one category, so you know what to do. Full details here.

Supported by the Arts Council England, streetcake magazine are launching an experimental writing prize for short fiction and poetry. The opening date for submissions is the 4th March 2019. Entrants need to be 18 – 26 years of age and will be in with a chance of winning the exciting first prize of mentoring from an experienced writer in their chosen genre, as well as personalised feedback and book bundles. Please visit the streetcake site for more details and entry information

February. Half Term. Sheffield. Robots.

It’s been a busy time since my operation and I’ve barely had time to catch breath – aside from trying very hard to recover (almost there!) I’ve been doing loads of good things (including losing a stone in weight!) – I’m finishing up the anthology of work for my First Story residency at Melior Academy, and I’ve been loving my other residency over at Leeds West Academy. Loads of cool Hive teachings too. Writing has been happening, editing, a lot of trains – the usual stuff. And it’s all been good.

There aren’t too many places for my half term workshops for Sheffield Library Service next week, but I’m sharing this just in case they might be able to squeeze a couple extra in. As usual, it’s going to be brilliant fun and I really can’t wait!

Arvon Anthology (and a few other bits)


I have absolutely no idea why I’ve not posted this before. Apologies. I know I meant to because it’s a wonderful thing, filled with wonderful things. Back in the summer I taught at an Arvon residential (with Jasmine Ann Cooray for First Story) and it was one of the best weeks I’ve had (you can read about the whole thing here). Arvon’s always magical and I love it.

An anthology was compiled of the best stuff from the week we were there and it’s incredible and, drumroll please…

HERE IT IS!

Read! Enjoy! Be amazed!

*

In other, less exciting news… I’m still trying to get myself back to normal after the operation. I’m just about walking about, which is a relief. I had an appointment with the GP earlier and I was a little bit worried about speaking to another actual human after being on my own for so long. I think I got through unscathed and unembarrassed. Anyway, I’ve another appointment next week with a specialist, so things seem to be moving in the right direction.

I’ve not been able to read much this week (fuzzy head and lack of concentration) but I have watched a few films I’d definitely recommend.

I adored Puzzle.

I loved Jeune Femme

And this is just a classic (and still delightful at almost 90 years old).

leaf

Christmas at Melior

I’m still in that weird/tired/recovering post-op fug (thank you to all who said nice, encouraging things – don’t worry, I have, for once in my life, taken advice and have been taking things exceptionally slowly). I’m able to walk around a little now – I even went outside earlier, but it’ll be a little while until things are properly back to normal and until I feel myself again, I think. And it’s been odd being inside for so long. It’s been strange not going anywhere or doing anything and being in bed early. But I’m starting to feel the benefits and, at the moment, I’m all for the positives.

But enough of me. I’ve been writer in residence at Melior Community Academy at Scunthorpe (for First Story) since May and I’ve loved every second of it. The writers there are all terrific human beings and super talented and they’ve worked hard with me over this past few months and produced some genuinely remarkable work – funny, sad, fantastic – downright heartbreaking. So when Miss L, the amazingly brilliant teacher I work with there, suggested a Christmas showcase, with invited guests and parents and VIPS and cake, we were all super excited.

And it happened. Work was shared, readings were read and, honestly, it was one of the best things I’ve done all year. I couldn’t have been prouder or more pleased to see others genuinely loving what they heard or read – and I couldn’t be happier to see the writers getting the credit their hard work and brilliant words deserved. Thanks so EVERYONE who came and who helped out and were involved in any way. It was magic.

And here we are…

Drained

It was a strange sort of time for me over the holidays. I got to see my sister and her children, and family, on Christmas day which was lovely. But there’d been something I’d been struggling with for a while now that ended up dictating the way everything else went. I’ll spare the details but, after complaining something wasn’t quite right for a while, and after visits to the doctor and a couple of calls to 111, on Friday I was admitted to hospital with, what I can best describe as, an infection in my knee.

First, they aspirated it; the doctor telling me they’d be able to tell by what they took out how good/bad things were. And, once he started filling his syringes, he was able to say that things didn’t look so good and that I needed to speak to the surgeon.

Which I did. They operated that night (well, at about 2am).

There are many things you notice when you’re in a situation like that – how brilliant the NHS is; how great the doctors and nurses and hospital staff are; how you should really, not go in for something like that on your own because it’s lonely and there’s no-one there to keep you calm or to keep your seat if you need to go anywhere.

After signing my forms and after the risks had been explained to me I… You know what, I honestly don’t think I’ve felt so scared in all my life. I know it’s probably an exaggeration that hindsight’ll let me laugh at (and I’m sure I’d have been better if I’d had some time to prepare and process things), but the thought that something could go wrong, that this could be it, that I’d not finish this book, deliver those workshops, that there was nothing else – it was terrifying.

Anyway, I had the operation and I woke up and they’re good things (although, what they don’t tell you is someone comes every half hour to take your blood pressure/examine you, so rest was at a premium). They let me leave after three days (as long as I was supervised – thanks, Mum) and I’ve been doing my best to not do much. To keep my movement down, to keep my stress levels sensible, not get re-infected and, mostly, sleep. I’m still super drained and not quite with it. I am still recovering.

So I missed the new year fun and all that but that’s okay because I am still here and I will finish this book and do all the things I’ve been looking forward to and, as soon as I’m back on my feet and I’ve shaved my face and can walk properly, I’m going to jump head first into 2019. Because I can. Because I, like everyone else here, am far braver than I thought.

(And, as an aside, I’ve not been checking emails so if you’re waiting for something from me don’t think I’m ignoring you.)

Me, at about 4:20 am on Saturday morning.

Happy New Year

Wishing everyone a delightful, and healthy, 2019!

Nine-Show Week, with William Rycroft

Photograph © Pieter Lawman

I’m still struggling with a dodgy elbow but, while that’s recovering (or doing its best to) here’s long time friend of the blog and brilliant human, William Rycroft, on theatre. (He has a book out too, All Quiet on the West End Front. Details at the bottom…)

Christmas. Season of goodwill, comfort and joy. Time to gather with the family; eat, drink and be merry. Or at least that’s the theory. Are you going to see a show over the holidays? A panto perhaps? A musical? A show for the kids? Whilst many businesses can wind things down over Christmas, Theatreland speeds up, if anything; building into a frenzy of extra performances to meet the demand for family entertainment. So, if you’re off to see something this festive period, I want you to spare a thought for those sweaty performers on stage. They might be as nutty as the walnuts in the bottom of your stocking.

You see, most acting companies are used to an ‘eight-show week’ – performances each weeknight, two on Saturday and a mid-week matinee. Eight shows a week takes its toll, especially if you’re doing it for forty-eight weeks of the year. That’s what I did during my time at War Horse in the West End. Eight shows a week, forty-eight weeks a year, for four and a half years. Longer than the actual First World War. Except of course at least once a year, on top of all that, we’d have to enter the mythical territory of the – drum roll please – ‘nine-show week’.

Pantomimes famously have insane schedules with two or even three shows a day but those runs are at least limited to a fixed period over Christmas. You buckle up, give it your all for a few weeks and if you’re the celebrity drafted in to get bums on seats you buy yourself a new house afterwards. Over at War Horse, an extra matinee in the week before or after Christmas, coming after an arduous year, might have been enough to tip some of us over the cliff-edge of sanity and into the precipice of mixed metaphors.

So how did we cope? Well, Christmas is all about family, and if work kept me away from my actual relatives until the day itself, then I was lucky enough to have a company of people around me that functioned like a slightly dysfunctional surrogate. You support each other with concern, kind words, back rubs and post show drinks. You eat festive treats, hang decorations and observe the most important ritual of any work-based Christmas: Secret Santa. In the West End, we’d heard that musical companies would often get some kind of celebrity in to play the role of Santa. No such glamour for us. Each year, those gifts were handed out by a member of the company dressed up as some kind of bastardised version of Father Christmas. Usually avuncular, often vaguely seedy, it’s a unique Christmas when ‘Santa’ is wearing a form of red tunic/WWI uniform hybrid. 

Photograph © Pieter Lawman

And the same rule applied at this time of year as any other: no matter how exhausted you might’ve been when the show began and the company assembled onstage for the opening song, looking out into a sea of a thousand expectant faces had the effect of filling you with the energy required to do the show justice and to tell them that important story. This is even more the case when the audience is filled with children. Your responsibility isn’t just to tell the story; this may be their first time in the theatre and its within your power to enchant them with its possibilities or turn them off for life. So you take a deep breath, look out to them all, and remember what the words you’re singing really mean – ‘Only remembered for what we have done…’

So have a good Christmas, enjoy the show and, if you think they deserve it, then a standing ovation is a great way to send actors off for Christmas with a spring in their step.

All Quiet on the West End Front is available from Waterstones and the other place and also on Kindle

Weird Tales Radio

Very quick post from me today (I’m nursing a very sore arm) but… a little while ago my good, old friend, Charles Christian, asked me if I’d come on the radio and talk writing advice. So I have. And you can listen to it here. I’m about 15 minutes in.

LISTEN HERE.

This is About Freya J Morris

And we’re back to letting you know about good new stuff today. It’s a pleasure to welcome Freya J Morris here, whose new collection, This is (Not About) David Bowie, published by Retreat West, is out now. And, specifically, she’s talking about finding her voice. So giver her your ears…

Finding your voice

On this day three years ago, Bowie released the song BLACKSTAR. A song that inspired the story ‘Lifeline’ in my collection: This is (not about) David Bowie. He sings about not being a popstar or a marvel star, not being a gangstar or a filmstar – He is a blackstar, born the wrong way around.

Don’t we all feel a bit like that? That we’ve been born a bit wrong? If there’s one thing that Bowie embodies – it’s giving yourself permission to be who you really are. To find your voice. That’s something writer hear all the time: find your voice.

I am an intensely emotional person deep down. I have so much feeling and had no way to manage it. I love to get to the root of people, to find out who they are, why they are, and how they came to be. But with that comes an intense amount of empathy. 

Feelings. Oh how the brits hate their feelings. And here I am – QUEEN OF FEELINGS! I used to be ashamed of it. I’d hide it. I’d supress it. I’d bottle it in and collapse in on myself. You’re ‘too sensitive’ I’d hear.

And it was true. Partly. The words were true but the tone wasn’t. When I started to write This is (not about) David Bowie, I began to OWN it. To embrace who I was. I had been treating this thing-that-nobody-understood, this intense-ability-for-empathy as a flaw. But in fact, it could be a strength if I could see it differently. 

That’s how I discovered my voice. That’s how I found my space. That’s how I became my own black star.

‘Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.’ David Bowie.

That quote, along with some other Bowie-wisdom runs through my collection. He was a living contradiction. He was the King of Pretending and the King of Truth. And if you’re a writer, you’ll know how wonderfully human that is. 

I wanted this collection to embody that messy truth, because that’s what Bowie did for me. When someone asked me if I’d write a collection, it gave me permission. It also gave me a deadline to stop getting in my own way.

Permission. It’s such a weird thing. Permission to show up for yourself. Permission to define yourself. To let go of that impossible ideal. Bowie is an impossible ideal. Having a collection orbit around him was risky. In most cases I wouldn’t have dared use his name in vain. 

But I knew how important it was to get out of my comfort zone. 

So I hope when you read the crazy-weird oddities in my collection, that they will inspire something in you. To really see yourself, flawed, complex, full of contradictions, and wonder at how amazing that all really is… 

You’re a blackstar.

And here’s a sample of the good stuff…