17/18

I’m not sure how to reflect on 2017. Personally, as politically, its events will be sending out after-shocks and having knock-on effects for longer, and in stranger ways, than I can begin to imagine.

At the very end of February, my first poetry collection was published, something I’d been aiming for for so long, that I still keep half-forgetting it’s actually real now. It did a lot to change the course of my year, carrying me to some joyful readings and festivals, and enabling some other things to be set into motion. Most of all, it emboldened me to stick to my decision not to apply for full-time work when my post at Strathclyde came to an end in August, and to focus on writing instead.

Partly this move was born from exhaustion and a desperate need to look after myself and my own work for once. When people have asked me what I’m doing now, I’ve found myself referring to it as a gamble, as a deliberate speculation. I hear myself telling a story about how I made a choice, but really, there was no choice. It’s hard enough being a writer in academia at the best of times, trying to squeeze two lives which both want to dominate into your brain and body at all times, but when you’re trying to manage chronic illnesses too, you end up with nothing left for yourself, let alone anyone close to you. My time at Strathclyde coincided with life-changing diagnoses. I signed the contract as a person who had been told by several consultants that there was nothing wrong with them at all, and closed it with two genetic, chronic conditions that need constant management, and bring a trail of co-morbidities and complications with them. It became more important to me to live as well as I can, day by day, than to achieve the things I used to think important.

So 2017 has been the year I decided to become a dedicated refusenik, to turn away from the productivity drive. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to: the measly 3 weeks of statutory redundancy pay tacked onto as much of my salary as I could save up has given me a bit of cushion to prop me up this Autumn. I’ve been lucky to have had more paid readings with the book, and a few other little bits of paid writing work. Most of all though, committing to not committing to full-time work has enabled me to apply for opportunities I wouldn’t have been able to in previous years, and some of them have come through shining.

They are the tip of the submission iceberg, of course: I’ve had as many rejections and disappointments as any other year (which are manifold, and wondrous in their variousness). What has amazed me is that I’ve also had some very exciting acceptances which are making 2018 seem both fantastical and terrifying as a prospect.

Here’s my 2017 a glance, both good and bad, and you can see how it’s weighing up just now:

Bad Things from 2017

  • Lots of EDS clumsiness, including smashing my favourite mug, ironing my stomach in May, breaking my toe crossing the room in October (just about healed now) and finishing the year with a great oven burn on my wrist. Thank goodness I had burn plasters left over from the iron incident.
  • Lots of the usual writing disappointments, topped by an unsuccessful job interview which cost me £300 in travel, accommodation, and changed plans.
  • Not being in control of my iron levels because Oh-Captain-My-Captain has been largely uncontactable for most of 2017.
  • The uncertainty and instability of having no guaranteed income.
  • Preparing for the winter solstice by having needles stuck in my thyroid.
  • Knowing I have to have more needles stuck in my thyroid in January.
  • The endless, planet-eating fatigue.
  • Not winning any money in the poetry lottery.
  • Winning a poetry prize, which ended up costing me more than the (non-monetary) prize was worth.
  • Not having students – I miss you!
  • Being really slow at getting on with my projects.
  • Burying a lot of mice, voles, and one juvenile rat.
  • The bad politics.
  • The bad things.
  • Not spending enough time with friends and family.
  • Did I mention the fatigue?

Good things from 2017

  • Dream readings, including Hay and Wigtown. If I had such a thing as a bucket list, there’d be some big ticks on it now.
  • I got a second niece.
  • Being picked as one of the four writers-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library for 2018, and everything that has followed (everyone is So Nice). This is my first residency, so a really big deal for me.
  • I got interviewed for some amazing positions I was honoured to be considered for, and had some lovely interview experiences.
  • My book is a real book! And lots of people seem to have liked it, and no one has [publicly, or in my sight] said it’s the worst thing ever yet either.
  • Spending more time with family and friends.
  • Spending more time with friends has meant spending more time on frivolously delicious essential things, like swimming in waterfalls with Emily Hasler.
  • Meeting new friends.
  • Being able to enjoy the autumn and the run up to Christmas without marking.
  • Reading. Actually finishing books.
  • Reading some really amazing books.
  • A truly magical book launch, thanks to so many people who helped make it happen, and who came along.
  • Winning a poetry prize which took me to a really heartening reading event, a chance to catch up with some old friends, and a remarkably nourishing residential course which brought new friends.
  •  The installation of a cat flap making it no longer in any way deniable that NotOurCat lodges here.
  • The good politics. Speaking about it.
  • Running the poetry reading group at Dove Cottage over the winter: such a pleasure to sit around the fire reading poetry, and so great to see such insightful readers.
  • Positive reactions to my book now it’s out in the world. I’ve been really touched by some mentions on social media, and a few really thoughtful reviews. A massive highlight of my year was Kim Tillyer drawing on ‘Jack Daw’ in a piece for a Cumbria Printmaker’s exhibition in Grasmere. Also overjoyed to see Jackie Morris tweeting about liking the book, because her work is just so magical. Also for the book to be named by John Clegg as an LRB Bookshop poetry debut of the year.
  • Making plans, and feeling hopeful about them.
  • Being picked as one of the 2018 Penguin Random House WriteNow Mentees. This has given me such an enormous boost, both in support of making the time and space for writing, making this ‘year of writing’ gambit seem almost sensible, and for the project. I’m getting increasingly anxious about the writing again now, in the lull before we start to work with editors, but it’s given me renewed faith in both the project of the book, and the project of the life.
  • Getting really good at catching live rodents by hand when NotOurCat releases them into the house.
  • Despite horrific late Summer/early Autumn weather, I kept swimming outdoors until the end of November. I missed out December, through ice and snow,and rain and just not feeling quite strong enough. Hopefully I’ll get back in in January.
  • Festival green rooms making me feel really fancy.
  • Winning a giant toy rabbit and a £50 voucher for naming a polar bear in a Christmas display. [edit: Will’s mum, who is tending said rabbit until we can get to Suffolk, begs to inform all readers it is only large, not giant]
  • The company of good-hearted poets.
  • Being braver, about all sorts of things. Saying what I need and don’t need. Working out what I can and can’t do, and communicating it. Going in the water, even when it’s cold and raining.
  • Writing.

My goals for 2018, if we can call them that, are much the same:

  • Refuse productivity for productivity’s sake.
  • Be kind to myself so I can be kind to others.
  • Swim!
  • Pace.
  • Spend time with loved ones and lovely ones.
  • Pass on the good things to others who need them.
  • Sleep.
  • Try not to break any bones or injure myself too badly.
  • Write.