2018 was my first full calendar year of freelancing, an implausible dream when I decided, after my academic contract ended in August 2017, to try it for six months and see how far I could get. Just before the close of 2017 I found out I’d been chosen as one of the writers to be mentored in the second year of Penguin Random House’s WriteNow programme, to help me work on a prose book about living with chronic illness. I began the year thinking that I’d just concentrate on trying to write the book, but it filled up in unexpected, lovely ways, and turned into a year of readings, discussions, and workshops, of meeting new people and catching up with old friends.
This is a brief digest of the year and what it held for me, where it took me to.
My year began with a series of needle biopsies of an awkward but apparently unimportant nodule in my thyroid, which wasn’t the most pleasant start, but improved with a trip to Aberdeen to meet members of the Aberdeen University Swing Dance Society and write a poem about them, for a project co-organised by Voluntary Arts Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library. Dance was one of my great loves as a child, but also one of the first things I was forced to give up because of joint problems when I was still in primary school. I was worried in lots of nebulous ways about this trip and the commission. Could I even do it? Would it be too upsetting? But the group were amazing. I learnt dance steps, a lot about why dance is important to people, didn’t pay too much for it, and got the beginnings of the poem stepped out during the trip.
February was the month I lived in a library. I wrote a short account of the month for the Gladstone’s Library blog which I hope gives some sense of what a disconcerting, productive and social time it was. It was the first time I’ve become emotionally attached to a desk, and I still daydream about my corner in the library. The residency also gave a validation to my gamble on forgoing regular paid work to give more energy to writing. On the way to Hawarden I stopped off at Lancaster Royal Infirmary to have my first venesection for a while, after a problem communicating with my consultant. Not the normal way to begin a residency, but it was at least on topic for what I was writing about when I was there.
Early March always means StAnza to me now, and it was a delight to be there for the whole festival, and reading from Basic Nest Architecture. Some of us even dipped in the sea at castle rock (literally a dip for me – far too cold to put shoulders in safely) which in over twenty years of visiting is the first time I’ve more than paddled there.
The following weekend I raced against the mini-Beast-from-the-East to get to Leeds for my event with Zaffar Kunial at Wildlines festival. The snow fell thickly as we sat in Leeds Library discussing poetry and the world around us. It was amazing to come out to find a deep swathe of it over the city.
The next week held the first big London meet up for WriteNow, which was both encouraging and slightly terrifying. By the time I caught the train home I realised I had a kidney infection, which had been building up since StAnza, and would take the rest of the Spring to get over properly.
I was kept busy with the first couple of my Read Regional readings (Hebden Bridge and Hartlepool Libraries), and finalising the text for my new pamphlet, With Invisible Rain. I had another venesection which finally brought me properly into ‘maintenance’, the zone where our iron stores are considered low enough to need monitoring, not constant treatment. I would only need one more this year, in July, to keep my levels low.
May held another Read Regional reading (Hexham Book Festival), a delayed and long-awaited trip to London to see Hamilton, and the launch of With Invisible Rain (New Walk) at Five Leaves Books in Nottingham.
May is always one of my favourite times of year in the Lakes. Bluebell season, the first warmer swimming days. This May two of my favourite swimming companions visited at the same time, just as the weather started to turn hot, to coincide with the Pavilion Poets reading at The Wordsworth Trust.
I was back in Nottingham again at the end of the month for a conference, at which I gave a paper about environmental writing, ecopoetry and ableism for the first time. I started to have B12 injections and realised how much my low B12 levels as a teenagers must have contributed to my fatigue and deep lethargy. They don’t by any means take away the pain and fatigue, but they do reduce it, and it’s impact. The frustration I felt thinking about how much difference it would have made to me back in 1997 was counterbalanced by the relief at finding something that does actually help.
June began with my last Read Regional event (Keighley), continued with some schools workshops around Cumbria for National Writing Day and a talk at Keswick Mountain Festival about disability and outdoor writing for Waymaking, and ended with a trip to Vancouver Island for the biennial ALECC conference.
We squeezed in a few days at the end of the conference on Salt Spring Island, where we had stayed in a cabin next to a lake, surrounded by Hummingbirds. It was genuinely magical and I can’t stop thinking about it, about those hummingbirds, about how amazing it would be to have time to sit at a table like that with them flitting about you and just write.
On the way home we had to dash between ferries with our cases and I pulled something out in my elbow which didn’t click back into place for two and a half weeks, during which time I couldn’t straighten it properly, incase you thought I was having too much fun.
We came back to the beginnings of the infamous heat wave, and a request that I step in and run a workshop for the Rural Writing Institute, after the programmed poet had to pull out for personal reasons. This turned into a real highlight of the year. I spent the day on the farm with the participants and came away so full of ideas and passion.
I also began working with the Wordsworth Trust’s Outreach programme, running a workshop with West Cumbria Carers. To prepare, I joined in on one of their Poetry and Paint workshops run by Cumbrian artist Alison Critchlow: a whole Saturday once a month of experimenting with ink and paint. Getting to know the group, and being given the space to do something creative that wasn’t work, made this one of the highlights of my year too.
I had set aside July as a writing month, knowing I didn’t have much paid work booked in, and hoping I could get a first draft of my nonfiction book finished. The first half of the month was scorching – two full weeks of blue skies. It was hot couldn’t drink my coffee unless I iced it. It was even hot in the house. I swam through clouds of damselflies. I know the heat wave had devastating effects for some animal and insect populations, but in Grasmere everything seemed to thrive. I’ve never seen so many insects, including this blue which I’ve not seen here before.
Inevitably, it took me twice as long to finish my draft (like any building project), and I sent it off to my mentor at the beginning of September. But I did it – 74, 000 words at that point.
Meanwhile, the rains had started, I’d spent my birthday driving to Stirling to meet with a scientist, Blaise Martay, who I was collaborating with for the Magma Climate Change issue, done a guest reading at the delightful Garsdale Retreat and caught up with my old friend Rhian Edwards in the first time in a decade, and gone back up to St. Andrews for a family gathering. I took myself off to Spain and wrote 12, 000 words in a week and went almost entirely nocturnal. I came back to find I’d received a grant from the Society of Authors to help me finish the book, which would allow me to go on some research trips, and also support me over the coming months.
September began with Kendal Poetry Festival, followed by a visit by Jackie Morris to Grasmere, which was another implausible joy. I bought a wetsuit in the sales with the determination to swim all winter. I took on the design and teaching of a Creative Nonfiction course at Cumbria University, and Will and I went back to Canada to follow up with some author and publisher interviews in Toronto, and for a conference he was speaking at in Ottawa. We managed to get to Toronto just in time for Word on the Street, and I was so impressed by such a large literary festival, with author talks and readings, and craft talks, all free to attend.
At the beginning of October we had Whitney Brown in Grasmere reading from her memoir Between Stone and Sky, and I got to interview James Rebanks on stage at Borderlines book festival as a last minute stand-in for Hunter Davies, when he was taken ill.
The following weekend held the Edinburgh launch of Spark: Poetry and Arts Inspired by the Novels of Muriel Spark, one of several anthologies I was really proud to have work in this year.
Then on the 20th I travelled over to Stockton to perform a piece on in/visibility, disability and shadow portraits for the Deranged Poetesses series run by Apples and Snakes North, on Crones.
Before the end of October I managed to squeeze in my research trip to Rathlin Island and the Antrim Coast – my Haemochromatosis road trip – following the trail of ancient holders of the same mutations that make me overload my body with iron. It was a stormy week, and I ended up with the B&B to myself on Rathlin for two days when my hosts couldn’t make the crossing. Visiting in October meant that for those two days, I seemed to be the only tourist on the island. When I walked to Rue Point to see the seals I passed no other human on the road or the paths. I’d like to go back in Puffin season and see Rathlin busy and bustling, and get a glimpse of the fabulous birds, but I know I’ll miss being the only person on the path.
Travelling by yourself with chronic illnesses is always a bit frightening – what if something goes wrong? What if I need help or can’t get home? I took things slowly and factored in rest time, and was lucky that nothing went awry. I kept wondering why I hadn’t done this journey before – it was so easy to drive through Dumfries and Galloway to get the ferry – and the coast was so beautiful – then reminded myself. I was only able to do it because of the grant I’d received. The ferry crossing was convenient and simple, but astoundingly expensive, especially when compared to the crossings we’d taken in BC earlier in the year. I was left baffled as to how people who have to commute regularly manage it. It was a privilege in many ways to make the trip.
November was another month of schools workshops and literature festivals, beginning with Poetry in Aldeburgh (after which I was lucky enough to get to swim in Emily Hasler’s beloved river with her), via a research trip to Creswell Crags, then a trip to London for another WriteNow meet up, a reading in Grasmere by prize-winning local novelist Amy Arnold, launches of the new Cumbrian poetry anthology This Place I Know and the Waymaking anthology at Kendal Mountain Festival, and the new Beautiful Dragons anthology Watch the Birdie, culminating in a poetry reading at Bookcase in Hebden Bridge.
December followed on in a similar pattern, with schools workshops and reading events, including a visit to talk to Creative Writing students at Leicester University, and a guest slot on Radio Cumbria’s Arty Show. We came to the end of the first full year of the ‘Discover Poetry’ reading group, which runs once a month in Dove Cottage. I finally managed to see orthopaedics about a problem with my left foot I’ve had since breaking my toe last year, which means that January will once again be a month of needles and further tests, but we made it through (if it’s not tempting fate to say it too soon). There we are – or here we are – another year over.
I’ve written the first draft of a difficult prose book, a great deal towards a second poetry collection, published a pamphlet I didn’t think anyone would consider, and got better at talking openly about things I’m afraid people might not want to hear. In doing so, I’ve found communities and kindness I’m unspeakably grateful for, and I’m going into the next year a little less afraid.