10 Writers I Look Up To

It seems to me that, in most cases, the people we admire and aim to emulate often have no idea how well they’re thought of. Particularly, I think it’s true of women. We often don’t know our worth, and how would we when no one really talks about their inspirations?

I’m here to change that. Because I know that, on the occasions people have given me encouragement and/or praise, it makes a world of difference. It matters because those people you think are so great have just as much imposter syndrome as the rest of us. Sometimes more, if they’re successful.

It can be easy to think that there’s no need to tell someone with awards coming out their ears how their work impacted you – because surely they should already know, and doesn’t it go without saying?

Dear reader, say it. Always tell your heroes how you feel, just in case they’re not feeling so heroic.

I’ve been thinking some more about the specific people I really respect in terms of writing. This is in addition to Colin Dardis and Anna Sheehan, who I have previously recommended on this blog, and in a similar vein to a post I wrote for ‘Women Writers, Women’s Books’ a long time ago.

My list is as follows:

Jen Campbell

I found Jen through her YouTube channel and have been falling in love with her words ever since as she continues to bring out wonderful book after wonderful book – short stories, bookish non-fiction, poetry, and children’s books.

Malorie Blackman

When I started to read as an adult, Malorie’s books were the first I picked up. No matter than most of her writing is targetted at under eighteens. I actually have a picture book by her that I tresure.

Claire Savage

Claire impresses me on multiple fronts as she turns her hand to poetry, copywriting, journalism, and books for children and is fantastic at all of them.

Continue reading

Obscure Writing Prompt Responses

A year ago, near enough to the day, Belfast Writers’ Group started up again after too long apart. When we got the gang back together, one of the first things we did was work on a crazy series of prompts that, first time around, had me writing about a dead body in a chocolate scullery. Because we’re wildly obscure like that.

Purely by a coincident of timing, we tried the same writing exercise again last week. This time I was to write about rotting turnips in an interview room made of platinum. Below is the madness I came up with.

Being the most expensive palace in the world that no one’s ever heard of, Killasia had its own version of everything – its own swimming pool and helipad, naturally, but also it’s own prison system and jail.

The only thing it didn’t have, until now, was anyone actually trying to break in – it’s difficult to have people after your goods if they’re secret, after all.

Even so, it was fortuitous that the eventuality of a criminal had been thought of and prepared for, because when Mickey Keystone Lennon happened upon the place and decided to try his hand at breaking and entering, the guards had somewhere to put him.

His eyes were wide as he looked around the interview room with its shiny, cold-to-the-touch walls. He wasn’t entirely sure but, if pressed, he would guess they were made out of solid white gold or platinum.

There were no windows in the room – not even one of those fancy two-way walls of glass that allowed people to look in on interviews – just some air vents stopping the space from being completely closed in.

Even the door had a seal around it.

Mickey was too surprised by the placement of his predicament to be worried; at least, at first. After what felt like an age but was probably an hour or two, he began to sweat.

He’d expected to be released soon after his capture, as soon as they figured out he hadn’t got very far into his crime and hadn’t actually managed to nab anything. The place was so big, after all. A palace the size of a country must be subscribed to the Geneva Convention or UN human rights laws or something, right?

By hour four, he was no longer feeling so hopeful. Not only was he not offered a representative, still no one had actually come to question him. That was bad for two reasons: his increasingly urgent need for the toilet, and the turnips he’d hidden in his socks that had been in contact with the heat of his skin so long, the started to rot.

Mickey cursed his decision to raid his neighbour’s allotment, and his stupid urge to follow the hidden path he’d found under a trapdoor he’d found there. Just look where it had landed him – eternally tapped in a platinum-coated interview room with nothing to occupy him but rotten turnips.

Not exactly your usual Thursday.

Life Update – September 2018

Back in June, I posted a life update in which I said I had laid down some roles to allow myself some time and energy to focus on some other things I had planned, coming up. One of the things I gave up was being Project Support Officer for Women Aloud NI and one of the things I intended to start was an A Level to prepare myself for starting a degree.

About a month after that, I published another blog post about how great it has been having room to think and write with fewer things distracting me.

On both these counts, I have further news.

As anyone who has been reading this blog over the past month will know (because I haven’t shut up about it), I attended the John Hewitt Summer School in July. Three key things happened during it that relate back to the topic at hand:

  1. I really surprised myself with how much I was able to do/keep up with
  2. I had two in-depth conversations about going back to school (/college/uni.)
  3. I agreed to be Women Aloud NI’s representative for the Belfast area

Without rehashing the long conversations about the pros and cons of studying, I will cut to the chase and just say that – for now – I’ve put that idea on the back burner and will not be taking a course this year.

This is actually the first academic year in which I’m not studying anything. It feels… weird, I guess.

I mean, even when I dropped out of university and moved back to Northern Ireland for a year before I ended up in Oxford, I took some classes at Crescent Arts Centre. Then, while I was working in Oxford, I was also taking a course in Youth Work. Back at home again after that, I was back at the Crescent Arts Centre learning things there and doing a few other things on the side.

Weirdness aside, I’m confident the break from studying will not be a break from learning and that it is the right decision for me right now. I mean, I have such a good thing going at the minute in terms of my writing and mental health, why risk burning out again by taking a course I don’t *actually* need to take?

If things change again – which they may well do – I can sign up for something in January and that’ll be okay. The main thing is that I’m not stressing out about it.

Healthwise, I’m doing okay in general which is also a big plus.

I am feeling excited for the next twelve months and whatever they bring.

Attention (Microfiction)

This is the final piece of writing I did during Bernie McGill’s fiction workshops at the John Hewitt International Summer School. Short but, I hope, still able to strike a chord. Based off prompts given in the class.

She always said I was useless, though she never said it to me; never looked at me long enough to realize I was there, and could hear.

The worst decision I made was to make her aware of my presence.

I find myself now in the cupboard under the stairs, the door locked.

I am here because I couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed attention. I needed her to look at me.

In my pocket I am carrying the hair she pulled from my head when I spoke to her.

When people look at me, they see my bruises. They gasp and look away again. I hear them whispering.

The truth is, I think maybe I deserve to be here. I think I must be the worst kid in the world. Why else does my grandmother hate me?

A Women Aloud NI Appreciation Post

I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about the John Hewitt International Summer School but, before I truly give it rest, it would be remiss of me not to give a special shout-out to the members of Women Aloud NI I spent my week with.

Of course there were fantastic people in attendance not of our number and yes I’d met many of my fellow WANI women before, but getting to know these particular women better was a real highlight for me.

I’m not a particularly social person, usually liking to keep my own company and spend my time behind either books or computer screens, but the company and conversations during my time in Armagh were really precious to me; maybe more-so because I’m naturally introverted but mostly, I think, because these women are brilliant – both individually and as a group.

I’m nervous to list them lest I accidentally leave anyone out but, really, they deserve their own individual praise. So, thank you Gaynor, Angeline, Karen, Byddi, Annie, Trish, Sarah, Jo, and Yvonne for being part of such a short but valuable time in my life. I trust it was just as good for you.

My Problem (Microfiction)

Another short piece written during Bernie McGill’s fiction workshops at the John Hewitt International Summer School, based off the prompt, “A time the teacher caught you doing something you should not have been doing.”

Talking was always my problem. Well, that and maybe not listening. I think that’s what they always used to say anyway. I was always being told off for something. If you ask me, my poor hearing was part of the problem. But, well, no one did ever ask me and apparently it was no excuse anyway.

Anyway, this one day, my ears were real fuzzy – like never before. The teacher was looking at me and I could see his mouth moving, but I thought to myself, surely he can’t be telling me off, I haven’t said a word!

Well, as it turned out, the homework that day was to work on an oral presentation and I’d forgotten. The one time I was actually supposed to say my piece, and I got in trouble for keeping quiet.

Bloody typical!

On being “Very Young”

The evening before this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School kicked off, I was sat on a bench out the back of the Charlemont Arms hotel alongside some of my fellow bursary students, sipping a pint of Diet Coke while others had a smoke. The group of us had only just met and were getting to know each other ahead of the crazy week-long adventure we were about to have.

“You’re very young,” I was told by one of them, with a tone somewhere between surprise and confusion.

“Okay,” I replied, because I had no idea how else to respond. I found it kind of amusing, I suppose, that this was someone’s initial reaction to me.

When the week started in earnest, though, I heard the comment again. And again.

“Everyone keeps telling me I’m really young!”

“Well, you are.”

This got me thinking, because I was certainly not the youngest person there and I’m not particularly babyfaced. I am, in fact, almost thirty.

In reply to my initial post about JHISS in which I said I was intimidated by the heavy schedule, someone said, “If you feel intimidated, imagine how I must feel!’

What I conclude, taking those bits of context into consideration alongside the “very young” comments, is that people don’t think I’m young in per se. If you’re one of the people who made these comments, you can correct me on this, but what I think is happening is that I – somehow – have given the impression that I’m accomplished, or established, or vaguely know what I’m doing, or… something. The surprise seems to come from the fact that I have achieved this mystical level of influence/achievement at my age whereas for most people it comes much later if even at all.

Just typing that out makes me feel uncomfortable; like I’m bragging or something, but I don’t know how else to figure it. I certainly don’t feel impressive for my age. In fact, I panic fairly frequently that I haven’t done enough and should be doing more – should be being more.

On these expectations, I have also been musing.  Continue reading

Babies and Broken Skies (Results from a Writing Prompt)

Today, I want to share another short piece I wrote during Bernie McGill’s writing workshops at the John Hewitt International Summer School. We were given a list of first lines from existing stories, without initially being told what those stories were, to see what ideas we could spark off them.

From the list, we were only supposed to pick a single line to start, but of course I broke the rules from the off and took two different lines and put them together.

Here are the lines I used:

From ‘The Pram’ by Roddy Doyle: “Alina loved the baby.”

From ‘A Priest in the Family’ by Colm Toibin: “She watched the sky darken, threatening rain.”

And here’s the resulting story:

Alina loved the baby. She watched the sky darken, threatening rain, trying to focus on it and not the churning inside her.

The mum had the baby out in his stroller, rolling it back and forth in front of Alina’s house as if she knew what torture it was to her and was inflicting it on purpose.

Didn’t she care that it was going to rain, and the baby would get wet and cold; or that she’d been trying – really trying – for more than a year and just couldn’t do it; couldn’t make her body work to the same result?

It was cruel. Alina decided that the mother was a right bitch and didn’t deserve to have a little one. She cast her eyes to the clouds again, squinting at them as temptation warred within her.

It was safe to focus on the cool of the day. It helped her balance out the heat of her blood, for a while, but at the end of it, the tempest still raged.

She couldn’t really do it, could she? Was it abduction if the child needed rescuing and was calling her? Wouldn’t that make it a mercy mission?

The wind picked up, rattling the window, and the mum looked to see where the noise came from. Alina ducked from her line of vision.

The mum took the baby inside as the storm began in earnest.

JHISS Highlights

Hopefully, from my first post on the matter, you got a taste for how great the John Hewitt International Summer School is. If you’re a writer who has never experienced it first-hand, I hope the jealously these posts no doubt engender within you push you to go next year. If you’re a sponsor of one (or more) of the bursary places, I hope you see what a wonderful thing it is you’ve enabled. And, if you’re a prospective funder, I hope this convinces you to invest in the arts. It is sorely needed.

Already, I’ve talked a little about what the summer school has taught me and shared some of the work it has helped me produce – I plan to share more on both those topics in the coming weeks – but what I want to do in this post is shine a light on specific events within the programme that particularly blew me away.

So, without further ado…

Day one, for me, started with an Ulster Fry at the Charlemont Arms. So far, so good. You’ve got to get a decent breakfast in you if you’re to make it through twelve hours of programming in a single stretch. Each day I ate lunch and dinner in a different place, trying to experience as much of what the city had to offer as possible.

I was not disappointed. The ice cream, in particular, was a favourite.

As someone who often finds themselves lacking in energy, I had a game plan when it came to the week. This was two-fold:

  1. I was going to pace myself, aiming to attend the recommended 80% of events but not stressing if I came in at 79% by the end of it all.
  2. I was going to avoid going back to my room during breaktimes, knowing full well that if I did I would get comfortable and fall asleep, despite my best intentions.

On both these counts, I was successful – as successful as I hoped but rather more successful than I actually realistically expected. I’m genuinely proud of how much I threw myself into everything. Continue reading

Dystopia in the Modern Day?

While at the John Hewitt International Summer School, I took a three-day workshop with Bernie McGill and, over the course of those three days with her, I completed a few different writing exercises. Below is what resulted from one of those. I was given a photo prompt and some starting words. I’m not sharing the photo for copyright reasons, but you should be able to gather from my description what it depicted.

I read the final piece at the JHISS Showcase at the end of the week and it got some really strong reactions. It was labelled dystopian and I suppose it is but I think, for some people, the word dystopia conjures up the idea that it’s set in some distant or alternative future where everything has fallen apart, but that’s not where my mind was when I wrote it. Maybe not here in the west but, as far as I understand it, the things I mention can and do happen here on earth, in this reality, in the modern day. In a lot of ways, I think that makes it more striking. But enough preamble, here is the piece. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I can’t remember my name anymore and I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what age I am, or how old she is either, though she’s smaller than me. She can’t talk, but she clings to my side. We stay together on the streets and I keep her safe from the dogs and the bad men.

I wasn’t born on the streets, but in a house. It had one big room, and there were many of us. It was always warm, and there was always a fire.

It is still warm outside, the sun making the dust on the road rise up and burn in our throats. We cough and, despite the heat, cling harder to each other.

I like her close to me. I like to think of her as my sister, though I don’t know where she came from. She was never in the house with the rest of us.

I don’t like that I don’t know where they went –– all of my real brothers and sisters from the house. The night they were taken, everything was dark and loud. I ran and hid until the sun came up. Then I found her.

The last time I saw my mother, she was stooped over the fire, stoking it. She didn’t look up at me and I can’t remember her eyes, but I dream about them. The girl has nightmares, most nights, and I try and tell her about my dreams; about my mum’s eyes. She stills and listens to my voice until her breathing slows again.

I wonder if I’ll ever see my mother again, or if I’d recognise her. I wonder if she’d take my sister in, too, if she came for me.

I remember one day my brother found a dog and brought it home –– it wasn’t angry like the rest of them. My mother said we couldn’t keep it and my brother cried. She hit him for ‘acting out’, then told him to leave the dog and go fetch more sticks for the fire.

I watched her kill the dog and mix the meat in with the rice.

I have always wondered if my brother knew. He didn’t ask for the dog after the first time, when she hit him again, and he didn’t eat dinner that night.

I was angry with my mum for doing it, but when I look at my sister and hear her stomach growl, I wish we had a dog I could kill for her. The ones in the street now are too big, though. I worry they’ll get us first.