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.

Variety at the John Hewitt International Summer School

“Raise your hand if you identify as more than one thing.” That’s what Raymond Antrobus instructed us – the people gathered at the Market Place Theatre to hear his poetry – to do.

We all raised our hands, and this was when the theme of my week at the John Hewitt International Summer School really sank in for me.

Officially, the theme was “Facing change, shifting borders and allegiances.” When I first read it, it struck me as a little odd; like something that was better suited to a political conference than a writing school.

But that’s the thing: there’s crossover there.

John Hewitt – the man himself – was as much a political commentator as he was a poet.

The quote from himself that kept popping up in various places was, “Celt, Briton, Roman, Saxon, Dane, and Scot. Time and this island tied in a crazy knot.” Which says so much. About being everything and nothing, anything and something. Being complex. Multivarious. All of the above.

Continue reading

Five Years Writing FanFic!

When I first heard about fanfiction, I thought it was a fantastic idea. I didn’t start reading it right away, however, and I told myself I was not – absolutely categorically NOT – going to start writing it.

Why? Because I recognized it for the rabbit hole it was. I knew that if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Regardless of knowing that in advance, though, and no matter how much I told myself I wouldn’t give in, temptation finally got the better of me.

And, as it turned out, I was right. Fan fiction kind of took me over, just like I thought it would. Do I regret that, speaking from my place now five years down the line? Nah! It gave me a lot of writing experience I wouldn’t have had otherwise and, aside from all that, it was fun!

It’s still fun.

If and when I get traditionally published, I plan to continue with fanfic on the side. Granted, I’ll no doubt have a lot less time to devote to writing in other people’s worlds, with other people’s characters, when I’m also trying to focus on my own, but I’m no longer in denial. I’ll still dabble any chance I get.

Continue reading

Letter to my Past Self

Dear Eighteen-Year-Old Ellie,

First things first, you change your name to Ellie. It’ll take a while for you to figure out, but the person you’ve been to this point isn’t the real you. More on that later. In terms of the name change, though, it’ll be easier for you from a practical point of view if you do it before you go off to university. Getting people to call you your preferred name is a lot easier when it’s the one you introduce yourself as.

And speaking of university… I know you’re excited, but don’t study forensic science, it will kill all of the interest you have in the subject. Also, you don’t have enough knowledge about politics outside Northern Ireland to study criminology. Come to think of it, you don’t have enough knowledge of politics inside Northern Ireland, either. I know you have a lot of strong opinions, but most of them are ill-informed.

The world is not as black and white as you think it is.

I know this is going to come as a pretty huge shock, but you will lose your faith. You will make your peace with that. I promise it’s not the bad thing you think it is. Honestly, the change makes you less of a dick. Religion, as you’ll find out, is mostly a tool used by privileged people to hate and oppress others. You won’t want a part in that once you’ve seen the damage it can do first hand.

Try and minimize your own personal range of damage. Don’t hate on your own gender, or those who make decisions differently to you. Learn to listen instead of arguing ­– you are better than the example that has been set for you.

You are not your mother.  Continue reading

Armagh Here I Come!

I’ve already announced this on social media but, in case you missed it, or if you wanted further explanation of what it all means: I have been awarded a full bursary to the John Hewitt International Summer School this year.

This summer school – based in Armagh, Northern Ireland – runs all of next week and is an intensive programme of events for writers.

There are talks, workshops, theatre shows, showcases, panels, exhibitions, and more (see table, below). I’m about as excited as I am intimidated.

The list of people taking part is impressive and, here’s the best part, I’m getting it all for free! This is made possible via the bursary scheme, which offers the opportunity to people who wouldn’t be able to avail of such events and teaching otherwise, and is funded in part by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. My particular bursary sponsor is the Community Relations Council.

For my set of three creative writing workshops, I’ve picked studying fiction under Bernie McGill, though I’m sure I’ll glean lots of things about poetry from other parts of the schedule, too. Oh, to be spoilt for choice! Already I have my reading material for the week picked out, though I’m not sure where I’ll find time to read the book of poems by the man himself.  Continue reading

Things I Wish I’d Known About Counselling

I finished a series of counselling sessions recently which I found very helpful. I’ve had good counselling experiences before that, too, but I’ve also bad ones. Because of this, and because getting help can be a daunting experience, I wanted to impart some advice. So, here’s some things that I feel should be common knowledge but aren’t, necessarily:

1. There are different types of counselling

There can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to mental health because we’re individuals and all of our issues are entirely unique. When most people think about counselling, they imagine sitting talking through their issues, either one by one as they occur to them, or as a kind of word vomit that they’ll then sift through (hey, no one said it would be pretty). This is ‘talk therapy’ and it’s what I personally prefer, but there are a million other ways of doing things. Some will suit you, some won’t. Some are best suited to dealing with different kinds of things, it depends what you want out of therapy. If you want to change or stop a destructive habit, for example, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might be for you.  Continue reading

Story Triage

One of my husband’s favourite authors is Dan Abnett. Recently, he was reading a book by him (The Magos – part of the Warhammer series) and was surprised/amazed/amused to hear him describe a little bit of his writing process in the introduction.

Dan writes a lot of books – his Goodreads page lists him as having 1,403 distinct works – and, by the sound of it, he has ideas for at least ten new writing projects for every single one he completes. How does he carry all of that around in his head? Well, imagine his brain as a waiting room…

“At any point in the last decade,” he said, “I could have told you, in order, what books I’d be writing this year, next year, and sometimes the year after that.” He explains that most of his novels “plan their visits” months or years in advance. “They line up, take a number, and then go and sit in the waiting room, glaring at me, surrounded by their carrier bags of reference books, clutching their lists of problems and demands.”

On the other hand, some of his books “turn up without warning.”

Sounds intense, right? I’m sure most writers don’t ascribe to the same system, and almost no one else to that degree or volume. But when my husband read me the introduction, awe in his voice, I looked back and him and was like, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

Which is to say, I’m not normal either and I’m thankful for it.  Continue reading