Friday, 27 March 2020

We Need To Look After Ourselves

Good afternoon.

These are strange times. Over the past few weeks life has changed dramatically. Suddenly thousands or millions are finding ourselves out of work, and the Government is saying they will ban evictions, and pay some or all of our wages, for some of us at least. We're being told not to travel, to stay two metres away from others at all times (hello, dystopia!) and above all, never to go outside.

The mere act of being able to stand outside is one of the few things that can help keep writers sane ordinarily, in a life that usually involves spending a lot of time inside our own minds.

A lot of my writer-friends on that Virtual Writers' Staffroom, Twitter, have shared that they are finding it hard to write or concentrate at the moment. I have found this too, and I've made a few changes to my own routine that have helped massively in reducing anxiety and worry, so I'm going to share those in the hopes that they will help you too.

Switch off all notifications on your news apps 
This was the first thing I did, and it made a huge difference. If something bad happens, I don't find out about it straight away, in real-time. It waits until the main news at 6 o'clock, or maybe never. In fact, I've reduced my news consumption generally. I let myself look at the news once a day, at teatime, which I watch for half an hour on telly, and then switch it for something fun or funny, usually Seinfeld.

Delete Twitter app off your phone
It will reduce the amount of time you spend mindlessly scrolling and looking at dire things. Even if you kid yourself you're keeping yourself sane by looking at cute and funny videos, all those things are mixed in with news stories, unhelpful speculation, incorrect information or nonsense, and Bad Things. Just delete it already. I promise it'll make you feel better. I look at Twitter once or twice a day now, for five minutes, on the desktop computer. Usually turns out I haven't missed anything important.

Put phone in a drawer or something so you're not looking at it first thing in a morning
Seeing bad news first thing has a way of starting the day off on a bad footing. Before you know it, you're scrolling down onto other, similar bad stories, googling "can you catch Coronavirus over Zoom?" or second-guessing yourself to see whether that slight headache you've got, which you probably got by looking at your phone too much, is an early Coronavirus symptom.

Just put your phone in a drawer - or better yet, switch it off or better even, smash it with a hammer (JOKING) and don't look at it until you've done your work for the day. I promise it'll make you feel better.

If your workplace say that you need to have your phone switched on, I suggest putting the volume up, then putting your work mobile in a place where you can't easily see it or reach it, but where you can still hear it if it goes off. If you can get away with switching it off entirely though, I recommend doing that.

Do something mindful 
Anxiety has a way of spiralling. It tricks our brains into thinking that things are going to get worse and worse and worse, and never better. I know we all have real, pressing concerns at the moment, from losing our income to being worried about paying the rent, to worrying about how our elderly or vulnerable relatives can manage. All legit things to worry about. However, worrying about problems does not fix them. Worrying is like riding a rocking horse: it gives you something to do, but it doesn't get you anywhere.

How do you stop worrying? Well it's tricky, but one thing that has helped me massively is a mindful approach. Mindfulness is basically a technique that encourages you to pay attention to the things around you. It essentially encourages you to immerse yourself in the things you are currently experiencing, to take yourself out of that state of worrying.

There are lots of different things you can do to be mindful. You can watch the birds from your window. You can pet your cat. You can fingerpaint with your kids. You can do a jigsaw or read a book. (if you're finding it hard to concentrate, I suggest starting with something small and unchallenging, like short stories, or a book that you already know and love.) Obviously we can't all be mindful all day every day, but it's definitely a useful thing to do a couple of times a day, to remind yourself that there are real and beautiful things in the world, and to get your brain out of the spiral of catastrophising that tends to happen when you're anxious. I've been doing it several times a day recently and it has helped loads.

The goal is always to get your brain to think about something other than the thing you're worrying about, whether that's how soft your cat's fur is, or how funny birds look when they hop along a fence, or whatever.

Seek out things that are fun, or funny, or comforting
Seek out comforting or funny books and TV shows. Now is the time to rewatch all of Friends, or Brooklyn 99, or to re-read Bridget Jones' Diary. Watch or read whatever undemanding nonsense you like. We're all on lockdown, so whatever you choose to watch is between you and your Netflix subscription. Nobody's ever going to find out, so you might as well.

Try to have a bit of routine in your day 
Having your routine disrupted is in itself destabilising, but the good news is that developing a new routine, whatever that may be, can help. It will give structure to your day.

Mine's easy, because I've only really got myself and the husband to think about, and he can look after himself. Because I'm currently on furlough from my day job, I don't really have to think about working either. My routine is essentially: 8am, get up, get dressed, eat breakfast whilst watching Homes Under The Hammer. 9am, go to desk, work. 12pm, lunch. 2pm, relocate to another area in the house to watch a different episode of Homes Under The Hammer, or to finish the one I started watching that morning.

However, if you're not in my position, and you're currently homeschooling your kids and trying to work at the same time, my advice is probably just try not to kill anyone, and try not to start drinking too early. I'm very sorry that I can't be any more helpful than that in this blog post.

Spot positive things, and enjoy them Yes, there have been plenty of wankers. We've seen people stockpiling hand sanitiser and selling it on for £30 a bottle. We've seen billionaire bosses making their staff either take unpaid leave, or worse still, continue to come into work in non-essential industries. The flipside of that is the amazing community spirit that many have shown. A neighbour of mine in her 70s has told me she's had so many notes through the door offering to help that she could almost light a fire with them. Thousands have signed up to be volunteer helpers getting food and medicine to the elderly and vulnerable. We are showing the best of ourselves as a society in this crisis.

Look to the future hopefully 
"That's easy for you to say!" you're shouting at your computer. (see, I'm psychic as well as annoying.) "If I have to spend another 11 weeks in isolation I might just kill somebody!"

One thing that has kept me going is to keep reminding myself that this is not forever, that one day it's going to come to an end.

The world may well have changed dramatically, and maybe that's for the good. Whatever else about lockdown is driving you / me/ us mad, one thing it has going for it is that it's extremely low-carbon. We're not travelling to work, very few people are flying, and lots of us are sourcing groceries within our local area. Lots of us are trying to grow our own veg (spoiler alert: any veg you plant now won't be ready for months!) and some of you might even have had a few disastrous attempts at baking bread. I can tell you there are a few underbaked, misshapen loaves in my own immediate future. If nothing else, we'll all come out of this more connected, very grateful to our essential workers such as nurses and teachers, and maybe with a few new skills as well.

Either way, I've got a projected end date for our current lockdown lifestyle marked in my diary, mid June, and I'm looking forward to it. I've started planning what I'll do when it ends: go to my favourite local beauty spot, have coffee in my local cafe, go on holiday to Northern Ireland and Donegal. I can't wait to see my nephews and nieces again in real life and to throw my parents their rescheduled Golden Wedding anniversary party. What a joy it will be to enjoy simple things like going for a pint, or giving a dear friend a hi-five or a hug. There are so many things I've been taking for granted and I can't wait to be able to do them all again.

Whatever you're waiting to do, remind yourself of it. Do whatever you need to do: list it, write it in a diary or calendar, make a mood board if you're a mood-boardy kind of person. Give yourself something to look forward to because one thing's for sure, one day all of this will be over, and when that day comes we will all be pale, we will all have very strange hair, but we will all at least be smiling.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Leeds / Dortmund 50

"Hanna was walking her dog in the field when she saw herself. The other her was coming back towards her, holding a worn red lead, at the end of which was a soft brown dusty dog, exactly the same as the dog Hanna had..."

I've written a story as part of Leeds Dortmund 50, a project celebrating the 50th anniversary of the twinning of Leeds & Dortmund. This project was set up by Peter Spafford of Chapel FM, and as part of the project I was paired with German poet Eva Von der Dunk and translator Rosie Shackleton. You can read my story, Meet Yourself Coming Back, on the Leeds Dortmund 50 website here.

Many thanks to Peter, Eva and to Rosie for the opportunity to take part in this project.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

A busy Autumn...

I've got a busy Autumn in the works: I'm teaching, talking, and appearing all over the shop, it seems. This October marks the launch of the Liminal Residency Alton Towers book, and I'll also be appearing at Morecambe & Vice Crime Festival, talking about organising small festivals in the North of England. Most exciting of all, I'll be speaking to the legendary David Constantine, one of the country's greatest living short story writers, and introducing his new collection The Dressing-Up Box, at Halifax Square Chapel.

September 23rd. An Evening With David Constantine. Square Chapel, Halifax. £5.
An evening celebrating a new collection of stories by David Constantine, the author of the short story behind the Oscar-nominated film 45 YEARS, who has been hailed as one of the greatest writers of the short story form. David has previously been awarded the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and the BBC National Short Story Award. Tickets here.

Sunday September 29th. A Festival Of Festivals, Morecambe & Vice, The Midland Hotel, 9.30 am.
"Festival organisers discuss what led them to partake in such insanity", it says here. Full programme for the M&V weekend here. 

Saturday October 5th. Alton Towers Liminal Resident Book Launch, North Stafford Hotel, Stoke.
Encompassing a waterpark, two hotels, an 'extraordinary' golf course, and a range of peripheral attractions, Alton Towers is the oldest theme park in the UK. This is the launch of the resulting 90-page book from our writing residency at Alton Towers, and features work by Julia Deakins, Claire Fuller, Gaynor Jones, Alison Powell, Eloise CC Shephard, and Krishan Coupland. Book tickets here.

Saturday October 26th. Write A Horror Story in An Hour at FRIGHTFEST, The Leeds Library, 2.00, £6.
I'll be teaching a mini-workshop as part of FRIGHTFEST, where you can use prompts to create your own scary story super-fast. FRIGHTFEST is a one-day minifestival of horror writing all taking part at The Leeds Library, which is the city's oldest and most haunted surviving subscription library, and there's also an event with Alison Littlewood & Lucie McKnight Hardy. More info & book here. 

Wednesday October 30th. RESIST! book launch with Gaia Holmes, Hyde Park Book Club, free.
After a long wait, I'm really pleased to see the launch of this book, part of Comma Press' acclaimed Protest series, which pairs authors with historians and activists who were actually there, to write stories about key moments in British protest. Come along to this FREE event to hear myself and Gaia Holmes talk about our respective stories.

On the whole, I think I might be doing one too many things, but never mind, I can always dose up on Lemsip.

Currently reading
The Arabian Nights
The Barbarous Coast Ross MacDonald

Friday, 7 June 2019

Alton Towers Liminal Resident

Me and Gaynor Jones in the titular Towers. That's me in an Alton Towers branded cape. It was raining. A lot. Photo by Alison Powell.
"Alton Towers is the oldest theme park in the UK, situated on the border of the village of Alton in the middle of the Staffordshire countryside. The resort encompasses the park itself, a waterpark, two hotels, an “extraordinary” golf course and a range of peripheral attractions. At the centre of the complex stands the neglected remains of a once-magnificent stately home, which has fallen into disprepair even as the modern park has developed around it." [Liminal Resident website].

I recently spent several weird, and deeply enjoyable, days at Alton Towers as part of the Liminal Residency. It was a wonderful and extremely strange weekend, and it was great to spend time in the company of a bunch of extremely talented writers.

Julia Deakin, Alison Powell, Krishan Coupland, Eloise CC Shepherd, Claire Fuller, Gaynor Jones
We stayed in the Alton Towers Hotel (where the lifts play music!) explored the original Towers in the rain, looked at starfish in the Aquarium (it was raining - the rollercoasters were closed) ate expensive, terrible food in a restaurant with FAKE CURTAINS. It was a brilliant weekend of oddness and beauty, and I'm incredibly grateful to have had the chance to go on it. Many thanks to Elly and Krishan for organising.

Krishan Coupland & Eloise CC Shepherd of the Liminal Residency

"I often say that I like to write about real things. I suppose by that I mean things that actually happened, stories that are little told, or that other people don’t think about or write about." You can read my interview about the experience here.

The writers who took part in the residency - Alison Powell, Gaynor Jones, Julia Deakin, Eloise CC Shepherd, Krishan Coupland, and Claire Fuller - have each contributed a story or poem inspired by the workshops and experiences of the weekend, It also features a story by me, but don't let that put you off. Pre-order your copy here.

Currently Reading

Theft By Finding: Diaries by David Sedaris
Nudibranch Irenosen Okojie  

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Next appearance....

Saturday June 1st, 4.30-5.15: Resist! Stories of Uprising preview event. £4 / FREE. Tickets here. [note: event may appear as "Protest II" on Carriageworks website.]

Northern Short Story Festival, Carriageworks, Leeds, with Lucas Stewart, Uschi Gatward and Jude Brown.

Following on from Comma Press' hugely successful Protest anthology, Resist is another of Comma Press' "fact into fiction" anthologies, where authors are paired with historians and academics to re-tell incidents of protest and resistance. I'll be talking about my story about the 1590 Enslow Hill Rising, and am looking forward to appearing with 3 hugely talented short story writers who will be talking about their own stories. Event hosted by James Nash.

The "Creative nonfiction for punks" workshop that I'd hoped to run at Ante Art Festival on May 5th now isn't happening, but watch this space, as I hope to run it at another time or place.

That's it for now, and I hope to see some of you in June.

Currently reading

Watership Down Richard Adam

Sunday, 24 February 2019

"Which organisation are you from?"

With Rachel Connor at The Northern Short Story Festival, 2018

David Cundall & Koyejo Adebakin at the
Remembering Oluwale launch.
A couple of weeks ago, I helped with the Northern Short Story Festival / Big Bookend event, a free event that we called "Speed Dating for Writers." It wasn't a 'dating' event (yes, I know the name's confusing.) It was an event aimed at helping writers meet & network, for support and solidarity.

It's a simple format. Writers get paired up, they're given a question, and allowed 2 minutes to talk. At the end of 2 minutes, Rachel Connor rings a bell, and one writer from the pair has to get up and move around, so that everybody forms a new pair, who then chat again, for another 2 minutes. And so on, and so on, until the discussion at the end.

At one point in the evening a lady turned to me and asked, "Where are you from?" meaning not where do you come from, but which organisation. It had slowly dawned on me during the group discussion, that there were certain things this group of writers wanted that we, as a voluntary-led organisation ("we" being The Northern Short Story Festival) couldn't provide, either because we haven't the time, or we haven't the resources, or the infrastructure, and that some of them wanted to know WHY NOT?

Afterwards, Jenna and I got to talking, and she said, "You should do a blog post about running a voluntary arts organisation", and she was right, I should, so here it is.

Hello. My name's SJ, and for the past 4-10 years, I've been a voluntary arts organiser. I started out running a writers' social night called Fiction of Every Kind, back in 2010. Later on, I edited an anthology called the Remembering Oluwale anthology, which won a Saboteur Award. More recently, I've been director of the Northern Short Story Festival, which is part of Leeds Big Bookend. [I recently wrote about 'My Small Press Writing Day' about how I manage all this alongside a day job, and you can read that post here.] I also am Fiction Editor at Strix magazine.

Every single one of these endeavours is run by volunteers. Fictions is a voluntary organisation, Strix is a voluntary organisation, the Northern Short Story Festival is a voluntary organisation, and none of us who do any of it, including me, don't get paid anything at all.

So why bother?

Quite aside from an almost pathological need to be busy, there are a couple of reasons why I organise cultural stuff. In short: I want cool stuff to happen near me, and if I want cool stuff to happen, I'll either have to do it myself, or get involved with a group who are.

Years ago, when I first moved to Leeds, I got pretty involved in the strong DIY music scene here. Around that time, 2001-ish, there were loads of exciting things going on. Bands like Send More Paramedics, Bilge Pump and later on, Cowtown, were bands who organised their own gigs and played and put out their own music for the love of it. There was a strength of feeling against the mainstream way of doing things, where bands got ripped off by unscrupulous labels and managers, and where so much personality and truth was ripped out of the music in pursuit of producing something with mass appeal.

It was an exciting time. I put on gigs and played in bands myself. I went to gigs in basements and in squats, and drove around the UK in the back of a Mercedes splitter van playing gigs in rock clubs, in houses, and on one particularly memorable occasion, inside a flat, where the guy who lived there set off a couple of glitter cannons at the end of the gig. We all slept on the floor and I left my towel there, a moment you might recognise if you've read Guest.

Photographic proof that I used to be in a band.

There were only two of us in the band: me, my friend Nicky, and our Yamaha QY48 sequencer. We were quirky and poppy and weird. We were unique amongst DIY bands in that our ouevre was pop melodies, programmed drum beats from general MIDI sounds, and synchronised dance moves.

Unforgiveable! To have a sense of humour, to dance, to be stupid, not to care about not being cool, unforgiveable! To actually not care about being cool, as opposed to just pretending you didn't care about being cool - these things were Verboten in some parts of the DIY world.

A group from Fictions at Chapel FM 'Writing on Air' festival,
April 2017.
We were unpopular. People didn't like us. They wouldn't put us on. Somebody once wrote a review of one of our gigs that said we both deserved to be shot in the face with a big gun. Another time, we played a gig in Harrogate, where everybody left and we played to the sound guy, the band we'd gone there with, and a bloke from one of the other bands who, inexplicably, was wearing a Viking hat.

All of these experiences taught me, more than anything else, not to worry about what other people think. That if you want to do something, you should go ahead and do it. (There was also certainly a misogynistic element to some of the bad reviews we got, but that's a topic for another post.)

If you do something, not everybody is going to like it. Also, if you want something to happen in your backyard, go ahead and do it, don't wait for somebody else to do it for you. A fine example of DIY attitude is Strix magazine, started by Andrew Lambeth and Ian Harker. It's an excellent print magazine which is based in Leeds and which you should definitely buy.

L-R Sarah Brook, Moira Garland, Fay Kesby, Ian Harker,
Lizzie Hudson
Strix reading event, NoShoSto 2018.

Because here's the thing. Publishing industry, all of its infrastructure, and the corporate and mainstream parts of the "corporate arts world", if you want to put it that way, are based in London, and getting projects funded by the Arts Council is a lengthy and bureaucratic business. I realised that nobody is going to come and rescue you. If you're in certain parts of Yorkshire, or maybe Stoke, or parts of Wales, say, there's not really much point in sitting around waiting for somebody else to do something. If you want somebody else to organise the events your local area needs, whatever those may be, and you're going to sit around and wait for some statutory body to come and organise them, well... you're going to be waiting a long fucking time.

The ideas that I was introduced to during my formative years - those ideas about doing it yourself, about creating your own culture, about making the things you want to happen, happen - those ideas stuck. Those are the ideas that led to me starting Fictions of Every Kind and later, the Northern Short Story Festival.

A photo of my cat for no real reason.

In all of this, one thought that's guided me is something that the much-beloved and much-missed Archie once said to me at a house gig: that if you're doing something voluntary led, that if you're trying to provide something that exists outside of the mainstream, that's not an excuse to do it badly. "If you're trying to provide a true alternative," he said, "You should always try and do something better than what's out there in the mainstream." Do it with everything you've got, and do it to the best of your ability, and that's what I've always tried to do.

Running a voluntary arts organisation is sort of fun, in a weird sort of way, and it's definitely something that you need a particular mindset and set of skills to do. Having said that, anybody can learn skills, given the guidance and opportunity. There are lots of different ways to be an arts organisation, and arts organisations do lots of different things. You can be a charity or a registered company, or you can have no formal structure at all (though if you want to do bigger things and apply for funding, this last one's a no-goer.) You can run no-budget things, or you can spend time applying for funding, and run some-budget things. Either way you'll forever be teetering on the edge of having no funding, and wondering how you're going to manage, because there's no money, and not enough time. Again, this is something I'll write about in more detail another time.

FYI, the NoSho does a mixture of no-budget and some-budget, and we are extremely grateful to arts@leeds and to our supporting organisations for helping keep going. We pay every single writer who appears at one of our events. Fictions also pays authors, but it is much more locally-based. As an organisation, Fictions is pretty much no-budget, so we rely on our door take at events to pay authors. Another time, I'll write a bit more about running low-budget vs. no-budget organisations, and what the hurdles are. Warning: expect ranting.

Currently reading

On the Beach - Neville Shute
Fresh Complaint - Jeffrey Eugenides 

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Give The Job To Lisa

A couple of weeks ago, I joked that, in the absence of real leadership and decision-making by our politicians, that they should all stand aside, and let me have a go at running the country. I've never held any sort of management position in a large organisation, nor run a logistics company. I've never even run a ferry company, not even one with imaginary ships, but even so, I still reckon I could do a better job of running this shitshow better than Theresa May or anybody else.

Having said that, in the past few weeks things have progressed bewilderingly and upsettingly quickly, as they are wont to do in our Brexit-hurtling wasteland, so now, all things considered, I'd like to downgrade the offer of running the country myself, and instead propose that the job of running the country is given to Lisa, my old manager from when I used to work at the council.

Lisa was one of those all too common managers so beloved of local authorities, a person promoted just above their level of incompetence into a job they can't do. Lisa did not know how to calculate staff costs-per-hour, nor how to update the spreadsheet for the departmental annual budget. More than once she'd text me at 10 at night (me, a part-time member of staff on a zero hours contract!) to say "OMG hun quarterly stakeholders mtg at 8.30 AM tmrw, can u print spreadsheat from google docs link THNK U XXXX." Lisa frequently lost equipment and members of staff. Was known, in important indepartmental meetings, when time was short and business pressing, to jump up, mutter something like: "My God, this floor's filthy," and disappear for half an hour to go and find the building caretaker, to find the key to unlock the COSHH cupboard, then come back and sweep the floor, ludicrously, ineffectually, and at length, whilst other managers tried to get on with discussing the matter at hand.

Yet, despite Lisa's many and varied shortcomings, I now think of her with affection. Would she were to be Prime Minister, she could bring great colour and relative effectiveness to the whole Brexit situation. Or at least, those below her could "manage up" and do the job on her behalf.

If not Prime Minister, why not Leader of the Opposition, or if even that's beyond Lisa's capabilities, perhaps she could lead a breakaway party with six of her mates, where within hours of holding their press conference to announce their intentions, one of them goes off and says something racist on TV, where literally anybody could see it?

Whether giving contracts to companies where their T&Cs are cut and pasted off Just Eat, leading a party where there's an open goal that nobody seems to be shooting at, or starting a political party that offends everybody before the end of its first day: all of these and less seem to be well within my old council manager Lisa's gift. Please won't you accept my suggestion for the immediate political leadership of the country, and vote for Lisa?

Currently reading 

French Exit Patrick DeWitt