Words, hunger and overwhelm

There is always a ‘psycho’ on the train. Once, coming home from Exeter, I had the company of a chap who’d absconded after his rehab class (he had a tin of still-warm sausage rolls in his lap) and thus set off the ankle bracelet he was obliged to wear after committing GBH.

A fortnight ago, I got the train to Derby for Swanwick Writers’ Summer School. It was a Saturday morning in the school holidays: the train was full. Perhaps a third of the passengers were wearing masks. I spent the first ten minutes resisting the urge to run up and down the aisle shrieking ‘let me out!’ I calmed down enough to fish out my headphones for some quality time with Jeff Buckley: banging tunes, the voice of an exiled angel, and sufficient melodic interest to hold my attention. What I forgot to take into account is that when I am listening to songs (as opposed to ‘desk music’) I am on my feet, either doing cardio or pushing the hoover round etc. In other words, when I listen to songs, I move. Twenty minutes in, I opened my eyes to discover I was being stared at. A middle-aged woman, moving to music no-one else can hear. Must be a total psycho!

By the time I’d reached Swanwick and found my room at The Hayes, it was time for the Chairman’s Welcome. For the past eighteen months I have been in a household of three, only encountering the crowds during efficient raids on Tescos. Suddenly I was in a conference hall with 200 people and no social distancing and barely a face-covering to be seen. The demographic was (predictably enough) white, predemoninantly female, middle-aged and upwards (with a small cohort of millenials who’d won their places in writing competitions), and middle class. It would be interesting to learn how many of those present were hobby writers on holiday, and how many were professional writers doing CPD.

The opening event set the tone for the week. In the following days I began to suspect that an edict had been passed demanding that anyone seen sitting quietly alone had to be ‘engaged with’. I was neither lost nor lonely: I am an introvert with limited capacity for social interaction. I was doing my best to manage constant overwhelm. Everyone I met was great. Individually. Successively and en masse I began to view them as an ordeal.

Mealtimes in particular were a source of ongoing stress. I was looking forward to a week of not having to think about food for a change. I was not expecting to be hungry for much of the time. I’d been assured that a plant-based diet was catered for as standard. ‘Standard’ evidently includes hastily reheated leftovers (served with an apology) from the previous day. Half a small baked potato with a splash of passata, two broccoli florets and a spoonful of peas is apparently a ‘standard’ evening meal. I am a creature of energy and appetite: it was miserable!

I didn’t take part in the many social activities, partly through disinclination, partly through Covid-caution and partly through physical and emotional exhaustion. I did attend as many classes and workshops as was feasible. The highlights were Roy McFarlane’s four-part course Eliciting the Past, Present and Future Through Poetry and Della Galton’s hour-long session The Magic of Characterisation.  Roy’s approach focuses on ‘habit, habit, habit’ as the means to get poems written. To my delight, he even set homework! I wrote three new poems and came away with the seeds of several more. Those sessions were an absolute tonic: they were vibrant and inclusive and on the final day he gave us a fifteen-minute set. Mercy, can that man perform a poem!

Several times a day I asked myself if I would like to come back next year. Several times a day my answer changed. Back home, and after a few good dinners, I realise I appreciated my time at Swanwick more in retrospect than while I was actually there. Given a nicely full belly, less Covid-related anxiety, and not so much bombardment by the new, I would have the resources to appreciate it more. I might go so far as to actually enjoy myself! I think I would like to go back.

Zooming, stumbling, feeling the way

So. I’ve gone from being a Zoom newbie in March to attending five sessions in one week: two for NaPoWriMo; a mentoring catch-up meeting with Juliette from Dialect; the first of six Poetry and Journalling workshops; and Writers’ HQ’s weekly ‘flash face-off’ event’s 1st birthday party.

I have mixed feelings about Zoom. Yes, it makes ‘things’ possible (and I have attended readings and festivals etc. that were out of the question, pre-pandemic). But it does resemble an open-plan office. I find myself stressing about inefficiency every time the chat strays off-topic.

I do realise it is about more than getting work done and being efficient. And I do value being in a room with others who ‘get’ the writing thing, especially the poetry thing. I miss the monthly writing days with Writers’ HQ (and not just because of the sandwiches and cake, though that was obviously a draw). One of my worries about the mentoring is that when it comes to an end I will be returned to my disconnected, isolated routine, writing in a vacuum. I love my ‘anchorage’ and my solitude: loneliness is another matter altogether.

I would be more at ease on Zoom if I were good at making witty, insightful, or even coherent observations off the cuff. I like to consider things, have a good long think about them. I need to write things down (or draw, or paint them) to make sense of them. It surprises me this isn’t more of a writer-thing. The Whisperer, of course, tells me my lack of immediate response is construed as rudeness or stupidity. To my discredit, it’s the charge of ‘stupidity’ that bothers me the more of the two.

In more tech-related news, I have belatedly bought (pardon me, invested in!) a new tablet. My ancient laptop has become, at this point, a magic typewriter with email. I underestimated the degree to which it was exhausting me, all the hours spent peering into the screen of my phone. In the past fortnight, my new kit has gone from being a complete revelation to almost invisibility.

There is rather a lot of writing being done. In one week I have written good drafts of five new poems, all of them begun from prompts in the Zoom sessions. I am not necessarily writing the collection I thought I was, though. Some of the new pieces clearly belong to it, but other stuff is tugging at my sleeve, too. Is this a distraction? A new direction? I don’t know. Maybe I need to get these things out of my system, to clear the way for what I am meant to be writing. What I do not want to do at this stage is to veto anything.