The Reality of Being a Writer in Poverty

Photo by Steve (via Instagram)

These past two weeks have been really difficult and, honestly, I’m feeling really low right now. You would think I’d still be top of the world since the wonderful news of my last post but, as often happens in life, good news was followed by bad. But let me rewind for a second, in case you’re still catching up:

Just over two weeks ago, I shared the wonderful news that I’m one of the lucky applicants to receive a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to help support me as I write my second novel.

As of today, I’m still waiting on that payment. What has happened in the meantime is that our dog got sick and needed to go to the vet, the vet fees used the last of our food money, we struggled to cover the basics of just bread and milk for four days, in the middle of which, my laptop died. As in completely dead. Unrecoverable.

Needless to say, not only has my attempt at NaNoWriMo stalled, but writing in general is not exactly going well.

I know things are not as bad as they could be — after those particularly bad four days I mentioned, my husband received a welfare payment, taking the pressure off again, and my dog is mostly better. Steve has been lending me his laptop, and the Arts Council money is still coming (I dread to think what I would do if t wasn’t!) — but, even so, I’ve been in a bad headspace.

There’s still a fairly prevalent stereotype of starving artists, and how they almost need difficult circumstances to help fuel their creativity.

Well, I say bollocks to that.  Continue reading

Oxford and Everything After

Seeing as I opened Pandora’s box in my last post, I thought I might as well finish going through the rest of the contents before I put it all away again.

Here we go.

It was September 2011 – one year since I left Lincoln – that I moved to Oxford for a job with the church. That summer I had been doing some children’s work at a Christian festival.

The guy that ran the children’s programme was based in Oxford and he was the one that told me about the opportunity there.

I had a lot of different tasks, from more children’s and youth work to setting out tables and chairs, helping with meals for elderly people and audio-visual displays.

And I loved it. For the very first time in my life, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile. Making a difference.

From that September to December, I gave it my all and I got a lot of confidence and self-esteem in return.

Then I returned to Northern Ireland for Christmas.  Continue reading

Lincoln and What Happened There

***Trigger warnings apply to this post. Please read at your own discretion. 

My recent post about my time in Lincoln has got me thinking about a lot of stuff that happened back then. It’s things I’ve touched on elsewhere, previously, but not really something I’ve gone into detail about to any great extent.

I want to go into it now.

At some point, I want to really delve in and talk about my childhood as there’s: A, a lot to say there, and B, it gives so much context to all of this. For now, though, I will preface by saying I had very limited experience of life and/or the “real world” when I went to uni. I had very few social skills and even fewer social graces. It’s not that I wanted to be rude, or anything, I just literally didn’t know any better. Having had just one friend in high school can kind of leave you blinkered to what’s acceptable. But anyway, the point is I was fairly clueless. So there was a steep learning curve.  Continue reading

A Love Letter to Lincoln

For Culture Night Belfast this year, the theme was love. Women Aloud NI had two events in the programme. At the one I read at, each of the readers was given a letter and told to write a love letter to it. I got the letter L, and this is what I made of it:

Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England: the place I lived for three years in my late teens/early twenties.

When I thought about what I wanted to write about for this love letter, there were a lot of options, but I think a part of me will always come back to Lincoln.

While at university there, I learned a lot – a lot of it the hard way and absolutely none of it to do with the actual subject I was supposed to be studying.

I fell in love with the city before I had even visited, having poured over guidebooks, maps, and watched a ton of tourism videos. Then, when I did get to see the place in person, for an open day, I knew it was all going to go well from the moment I slipped on some wet leaves while walking down the big hill and ended up with brown sludge smeared all over my backside for the rest of the day as I met other prospective students as well as my future lecturers.

It was all uphill from there. Then downhill for a bit, then uphill again, before finally going up in flames. Which is to say, my experience in those three years was… mixed.  Continue reading

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.

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

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

On Headspace

It’s been just over a month since I published a blog post about having limited time/energy and how that finally made me decide to cut out some things from my day-to-day.

Before that, I had been trying to cut back on my responsibilities for a long time, gradually decreasing the number of hours I spent volunteering and doing client work; because I was strongly aware I was doing too much but couldn’t find another way to live. I can’t think how many times I burned out just in the past two years.

For a while, it seemed like I was going to be permanently exhausted no matter how much I tried to lessen my load, because it was still too much. Nature, they say, abhors a vacuum. Well so, it seemed, did my calendar. Before I even began a month, it would be filled with so many appointments and events that I felt exhausted just looking at it. Not exactly the best start.

The problem, I think, was the mental energy my responsibilities were taking more so than the physical work or literal hours. I get anxious, and everything seems worse in my head. Overwhelmed became my state of being.

So how’s it been, now that I’ve gone from trying to do less to literally giving up some of my roles? In a word: amazing. Finally, my calendar is under control and I can actually think straight. I cannot emphasize enough what a difference it’s made to both my mental health and to my writing.

What a novelty, I can actually write! You know, that thing that was always supposed to be my main priority and the main reason I tried to do all of the other things to “support” it.

The number of blog posts I’ve been able to write in the past month alone speaks volumes. They’re like my journal to the world, bringing all of my thoughts and feelings into a single narrative and making sense of them. There’s a direct correlation: if I’m blogging a lot, my mind is processing things well and not just stuck on sending out distress calls.

The way I was[n’t] functioning before was counterproductive. Now I’m back to being productive, and nothing makes me happier than getting shit done.

Lesson learned; experiment successful. Yay me!

Sutures, Stockings, & Silver Awards: Health Update, June 2018

Not long after I posted my first health update last month, I got a call offering me a surgery date. So, yesterday I had “investigation under anaesthetic.” (The urology appointment was a dead end, it turned out.)

I’m tired and a little sore but mostly okay. The worst part of the day was the waiting. I hadn’t slept the previous night, as I generally don’t sleep at night and was told to come in early (around the time I would usually be going to bed). In the end, though, they kept me for restless hours at the back of the queue to have my procedure last.

The bed wasn’t comfortable and the days are getting unbearably warm again, but I shouldn’t really complain because the NHS is a godsend and I’m incredibly glad to have it.

Steve has been great keeping an eye on me even though he too is exhausted and melting in the hot weather.

I have some super sexy support stockings that are supposed to prevent DVT (which I’m apparently at risk of). They need to stay on for 7 to 9 days, which is how long I’m supposed to be on bedrest.

Prior to going into hospital, I was continuing on with Slimming World and had just hit my silver ‘Body Magic’ award for exercising. So I’m just taking a brief break before starting work towards my gold achievement.

By the end of my 7-9 days, my stitches should be dissolved. What happens next is that I’ll be sent for an MRI to get an even better picture of what’s going on with me, and then I progress from investigative surgery to corrective surgery, which could involve two or three separate procedures.

Needless to say, I still have quite the road to still in front of me, but I’m thankful it’s fairly mapped out and I know what to expect. The previous uncertainty had been driving me mad.

Writer Confessions

I never read much as a child. In fact, as a very young kid, I remember having problems physically reading out loud – trying it would make my breathing go all weird. Maybe it was an anxiety thing, similar to a stammer, I don’t know, but I’d have to stop after each word – each and every single word – and gulp down a breath before I could try the next. That was when I was first learning to read and, as you can probably guess, wasn’t a positive experience.

Around that time, I remember being at a meeting between my teacher and my mother. They were discussing problems I was having with learning to write – my handwriting being unreadable, spelling being way off, and a bunch of my letters muddled, backwards, or in the wrong order.

As an adult looking back at that memory, I shake my head and wonder how on earth it didn’t ring alarm bells signalling something was wrong. But, well, either the alarms didn’t go off or no one was listening.

I was almost twenty when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Huzzah! Suddenly, everything made sense, even if it was a bit late to save my university career.

In the intervening years between my early school experiences and my later ones, I fell in love with books. Or, at least, the idea of books.

I had started collecting books that seemed really interesting and made a list of books I wanted to write but, while I was writing a little (mostly emo poetry and short stuff that should never and will never see the light of day), I was intimidated by anything over three pages and didn’t actually try and read any of the books I acquired.

Actually, I was so clueless about which books were age appropriate and what might suit me that the ones I did have – picked out of a box at a jumble sale based completely on the covers and how cheap they were – really only worked as pretty things to look at and collect. I’d bought huge, dense tomes that most adults would struggle with and had no idea what genres I liked or even what a genre really was.

It’s not the beginning you would expect from someone who now writes professionally and reads roughly fifty books a year, right?  Continue reading