The Animal Child

One of my non-actual-Nik-writing jobs is being Writer in Residence at Melior Community Academy in Scunthorpe for First Story. I’ve been there since last May (a year!) and I absolutely love it (in fact, I’ve just seen the anthologies comprising the best of the work that we’ll be launching next week – they’re so good – more of that soon).

And today, one of the brilliant young writers (and there are many) has a piece featured in First Story’s Friday story. Rosie’s in Year 7. Yes, I know…

Big thanks, too, to Olivia Moyes (who’s not at school) for her incredible illustration. I love it!

Tanaka Mhishi, poet and playwright says, ‘This last line is both sinister and bold. The voice of the hunter comes lunging up towards the reader from the page, and it’s especially brutal following the incredible tenderness of the rest of the poem. We know the hunter has caused a massive separation, and yet he has tied his story to the other characters irrevocably. It’s a hard thing for a writer to create a good villain, harder still to do it in a poem with so few words at their disposal. This is definitely how it’s done.’

Big Top!

The Big Top’s up now for my local arts festival. It’s blue and white and big and it’s on the rec. It looks very impressive whenever I drive past it. And so does the bunting. It’s all very lovely. But there’s a really scary message hidden there too.

Does it fill me with joy and pride? Nah. It really doesn’t. I think it’s brilliant that a small village/town like the one I grew up in, and have lived most of my life – the place where I’ve written all of my books – has a cultural event – and this, for the size of the place, is a four-yearly big one. I think it’s terrific. But there’s also something really uncomfortable about it too that organisers and participants might miss, and something hugely misleading. Something that can kill local art. (Because all art starts at home.) And it’s something that can limit the potential new stuff people are exposed to.

When I first started out having books and stories out there, I offered to be involved. They didn’t want me. Neither did the next bunch of organisers. Or the ones after that. Repeat: over 12 years. And that’s fine – I’m certain that anyone who ever volunteers to organise an event like that has the best of intentions. The trouble is, those intentions don’t mean they know what they’re doing. It means they probably know what they like and, as a result, that’s what gets put on. With, perhaps, not enough thought of the audience (and don’t get me wrong – if I was doing it there’d be Vonnegut interpretive dance and Aimee Bender mimes – immersive Asimov silent discos, and an imagined walk around Kawakami’s Tokyo). But then I wouldn’t be thinking of anyone else, would I?

My point is this. I have been trying to be involved for over a decade, and I’ve been ignored or told the same thing (ie it won’t be like this next time) and I’ve learned that it’s all quickly forgotten. I’ve given up now. I’d have done it for free – since 2004 I’ve been doing what I do really well all over the country and I’d have loved to have been able to give something back. To inspire people. To show them an uneducated local lad can get somewhere. Or just to talk about stories and celebrate them. To show that writing isn’t a closed door. That we can all do it or enjoy it.

But you know what’s really, really scary? If I’d have taken my home town’s arts people’s opinion as a measure of success I would have got nowhere. I would be a failure. I would have given up long ago. No Kensington Palace summer parties, no teaching at Oxford, Cambridge, the BBC. No being used on the same course as a Pullitzer prize nominee, no awards, prizes, brilliant residencies. No amazing experiences at other festivals (I’ve loved them all!).

No books.

Jesus, there’d be no career!

I have advice for people just starting out: get out of where’s familiar. Try new places. Do not EVER think you need to tick a small box before you move on to the bigger things. While there are tons of brilliant local writing groups and things like that where you can grow (don’t turn your noses up at those – they’re where great stuff is nurtured, where it grows – just don’t expect them to feed into anything bigger just down the road), look beyond them. Not every town aims for cultural diversity. Not every organiser even thinks of it. Aim high – you might not get there straight away (I didn’t) but at least you’ll be putting yourself, and your work, in places that might understand what you do better. (There’s a great segment on youtube where Ira Glass talks about you not being at the level you want to be at, but reminding you you know this because of what you know of the form you love. Chase that over local recognition.)

Aim to be brilliant. Keep your local writing buddies (they’ll get you, and support you) – Be brave – you’re probably a lot better than you think you are. And, if you can, find something that you love locally (I’m sort of hoping there’s more for you than there was for me here!) There’s a big world out there, and a lot of it will have far better taste than the one you might be living in right now.

New Stories

I think the weirdest thing about being a writer is that you can spend as much time as you want writing without feeling like much of a writer. I’ve always said that being in a room with other writers helps with that – it’s probably some sort of antidote to the hours we spend on our own and in our own heads – sharing space with people doing the same thing, or struggling to do the same thing, is a nourishing thing. Teaching, doing readings – they help as well because there’s a connection between you and who you’re working with and, I believe that writing, that stories, are always a sort of dialogue between reader and author, even when you’re not even in the same room.

The best connection though, the best thing about being a writer, is having work out there and having people read it (and enjoy it). And it’s been a strange couple of years in terms of output from me. I’ve spent loads of time writing, and I’ve written loads of stuff – some I’m really proud of, others that are best not remembered but, for a multitude of reasons, stuff hasn’t been getting out there. Mostly that’s because of time and me not actually sending things anywhere (which is a bad habit I developed – new writers: once you’re happy that what you’ve written is the best it can be get into that habit of sending stuff out there – and when it comes back, see if you can make it better and then send it out again – read the places who publish the sort of things you write, enjoy what they publish, and aim to be as good as them).

Which is a long way of saying that I’m delighted that two of my stories, one about a mistaken wink on a train, another about someone appearing, mysteriously, in someone’s morning cup of coffee, are live over at the brilliant Across The Margain. They’re both stories I’m proud of and I’m thrilled that they’re out there for other people to read. It feels good to be back.

You can read them both BY CLICKING HERE.

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!