It’s the launch of Pushing out the Boat Magazine today, and I’m reading my poem, Farmer, from their current issue. I try not to be a writer writing about writing, but after I really had trundled behind a load of manure wondering what it was all about, this happened:
Trundle a house-sized load of turnip-fragranced earth along the B6365.
Pile up shite in steaming heaps edged with frost.
Bring the cows in. Bring the cows out.
Leave fifteen sheep in a field full of cabbages.
Combine-harvest a field in the dead of night.
Bring the cows in. Bring the cows out.
Perhaps all work is, from outside, baffling.
Words put down in one order, shifted to another field,
the excess loaded onto a trailer,
carried with care along the B7476
as a line of cars trundles behind me, mystified.
This week’s blog is a sort of guest post – I’d like to share this blurb about my pamphlet.
Parent. Worshipper. Carrion. is a powerful collection of poems that touch on core but often under-represented aspects of what it is to be human. From parenting to gender, religion to mental health to the natural world, the themes of this pamphlet may be specific to Stella Hervey Birrell’s own life but they are also universally recognisable. Stella has a gift for finding the quiet truths in moments when the balance of life is shifting. These poems are skilfully crafted while still retaining that rawness that makes you sit up and say, “This is it – this is the real thing.”
Rae Plummer, author of Wain.
A link to Wain, which you should buy if you haven’t already.
A link to Parent. Worshipper. Carrion.
I’m super late to the party, but me and Mr HB have finally started watching West Wing on All4. So, of course President Bartlett has filled the role of ‘favourite fictional character,’ previously held by Atticus Finch.
One of his signature phrases is ‘what’s next?’ It’s meant to show his enthusiasm, his thirst for everything he can fix.
I can do that, too. With this pamphlet coming out, I’ve already got my eye on the next thing. What would be a good next step for me? How can I build on this success?
But I don’t think this is the time for that. This is not the time for ‘what’s next?’ This is a time to acknowledge my achievement, and the recognition of the quality of my work. I need to hold onto this feeling, however fleeting it may be.
In between the published works –
the novel that did OK
a story in that collection put together by MA students,
a poem here, a poem there
the joy of a short-listing
the folder of ‘no longer on submission’ scribblings
there is the ‘other’ stuff.
I couldn’t fit it all into the bookshelf:
hours spent tinkering with broken friends, instead of broken sentences;
days spent with Netflix, instead of cutting, instead of copy-pasting;
weeks spent holding the cat, instead of the pen
piggy-bank empty and smashed. All spent.
Tears leaking from the hot water tank
shredded text messages used for mouse nests
reams of progress stacked, dormant
still in their polythene. Sterile blank pages.
Where is all the work I could have done
if other people had been
kind? accepting? loyal?
had trusted my life had to be lived this way?
Mr HB and I went for a walk the other day, and for once he wanted to talk about my writing (this never happens). It turns out he wanted to check whether I still wanted to be a writer. ‘It doesn’t seem to make you happy. At all,’ he said.
I was a bit shocked! But then I remembered. His perception is based on me whining: another rejection, another novel that will have to go in a drawer because it doesn’t quite work, another opportunity that went to someone else, another year with not much or no money.
So I reminded him that I don’t do this for money (just as well!). And I told him that, contrary to appearances, I love to write. It keeps me sane. That feeling, when I get into flow and an hour goes by …
I am just settling back down to work. Chapter two of Novel number 4 – a woman sits in an office, trying to work on her PhD. Her phone rings: it’s her mother in law. Her phone rings again: this time it’s her friend.
The Spotify playlist I’m ignoring stops playing, my phone rings.
It’s Mr HB. Well, it’s Mr HB’s phone. My youngest had asked if he could ring, and Mr HB thought he wanted to say hello and ‘some other nice things.’
Fat chance. He had rung to tell me how bad his day had been.
Then Mr HB told me the oldest had been in trouble again. I listened as they lost screen for the afternoon and melted down.
Mr HB apologised. I went back to work. The woman got some work done. Her phone was silent: for now.
As a woman with mental health issues, and the parent of an enby kid, I’m often aware of other people’s male-cis-het-ableist privilege.
Today, however, I have the most privilege I’ve ever felt in my life.
- I am in an air bnb (financially secure enough for this, and multiple trips to Tesco for cashews and vegan chocolate)
- for two nights (not in a nine-five with four weeks of holiday a year)
- my children being looked after by their dad (co-parenting: surely the ultimate privilege?)
- writing (able to pursue this un-lucrative work for many years now)
- listening to music and podcasts (having decided I can afford Spotify: currently on free trial)
- and reading (only one was free from the library).
This is heaven.
This. An accident of birth, and race, cisgendered heterosexual marriage, and secure family that led me to this point.
For the last six weeks, I’ve been escaping from the teatime/bedtime routine and driving myself into Edinburgh.
I’ve been learning how to build a character, a setting, dialogue, and how to put these elements together into a short story, all under the magnificent captaincy of Dr Claire Askew.
But by far the best part has been meeting the rest of the group. My WLAG colleagues. Writing with them, sharing with them. We have already started championing each other’s work and projects – a meet up is planned at my next spoken word gig! I can’t wait to see what each of them go on to do next. I’m looking forward to saying ‘yes, we did Write Like a Grrrl together.’
Writers work alone. But we need that community, too. That encouragement. The busy silence of a roomful of writers, writing.
There is no future in looking sideways.
Do not pay attention when people look sideways to your path: do not start to compare yourself to others. How can you compare a palm leaf and a pine needle? And yet, both carry life, are beautiful, bring green, bring oxygen, bring peace to the forest, the desert.
We are here to do our work. Not to wonder whether we should do our work, or leave it to other people that we think are better, braver, luckier, richer.
No one else can make what we can make, not in the way that we could make it. A twig can’t be a leaf, a branch can’t be the tree’s trunk.
Your stories have value. Your creative works have substance.
You are not a good judge of the quality of your own work.
Oh it must be Spring. I’m busy!
I like to be busy, but not as much as the average … person? Person in the UK? Person of my generation? ‘Busy’ doesn’t take long to develop into ‘stressed,’ and ‘stressed’ has developed into psychosis – only twice, and a long time ago now, but… I don’t have the option to push myself like other people.
What has been particularly wonderful about this year, as opposed to other Springs, when I was busy with the kids, or busy with work, or busy writing things no one was interested in, is that this year I’m busy with paid, creative work. Sometimes. Other paid work has to fit around the writing, not the other way round.
Meanwhile, the children have to fit around creativity AND paid work, and are no doubt feeling very hard done by!