Tag Archives: Cherry Smyth

‘Words worth’

An article ‘revealed’ this week what writers, I’m sure, have always known. Most of us earn very little.piggy bank If you want to put an exact figure on it, the average yearly salary for an author was quoted at around the £11,000 mark. The cited research indicated a drop in the number of full-time authors but did, however, offer some hope by way of self-publishing as an up-and-coming ‘tidy little earner’ for those striving to live ‘by the pen’.

This, at least is good, but it puts me in mind of a book I read a year or so ago (and mentioned in one of my very first blog posts) called New Grub Street (by George Gissing). Great book. Look a little closer and you may well ask if anything much has changed for writers struggling to earn a living… On the surface, yes, but dig deeper and decide that for yourself.

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl - Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

Symphony in White no 1: The White Girl – Portrait of Joanna Hiffernan

I spoke with London-based author Cherry Smyth recently, whose novel Hold Still, presents a snapshot of the art scene during the 1800s, namely through the eyes of James Whistler, Gustave Coubert and their artistic muse, Joanna (Jo) Hiffernan. Cherry told me that writing the novel also gave her a chance to highlight the parallels between the art world and women’s place in it then and now – and to show how little things have really changed. For me, New Grub Street, does the same for writers.

However, in my own forays into writing I know, of course, that opportunity abounds, as it does with any craft, if you look for it, chase after it and, well persist. And, as I mentioned before in reference to self-publishing, it’s true that success looks different for everyone. Not all writers write for money, nor feel they ought to. Most realistic writers also know that authorship is always destined to be something they do ‘on the side’ of a more regular job. You don’t have to look far in history to see that lots, if not all, of ‘the greats’ wrote in and around their day-to-day post. Writers have generally always had to expect little in financial return for their work.

Arts Council logoOn a personal note, I’m delighted to report that I am the recipient, this year, of a great opportunity for writers in Northern Ireland, as I have been awarded a National Lottery-funded grant on behalf of the Arts Council NI as part of their Support for Individual Artists Programme. The grant will support me in writing a collection of short stories and poetry and, given what we know about writers’ earnings, it’s very gratefully received.

Those who are trying to earn a living by the pen may rightly feel frustrated at the way in which words are so easily dismissed when it comes to valuing their worth in hard cash, but thankfully for us all, there are organisations like arts councils and the like who understand the effort involved, appreciate the output and are prepared to support writers in their work.

It sprinkles a little gold dust on those quills and reminds us that our words have worth…


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Poets and painters

‘The English sonnet has the simplest and most flexible pattern of all sonnets…’

So began the third and final week of my peace poetry workshop in Derry, which saw us take on the sonnet and free verse to inspire our submissions for the project. As it turns out, most of the poems I write are in these two forms, and it was nice to look at some professional examples, including Shakespeare and Christina Rossetti.

An interesting way in which we have begun a few sessions, is doing 10 minutes of free writing before we start – i.e. this week, we wrote about a favourite place before using the writing to inspire a subsequent sonnet. It’s a good way of getting ideas onto the page before you begin, and is different to my usual method of writing on the hoof – refining and reshaping as I go.

In terms of the free verse, there was a bit if a debate over what constitutes poetry, when we were presented with Charles Bukowski’s ‘gamblers all’ piece. Most of us loved it, but there was a little contention as to whether it should be called poetry or prose – what made it poetic? True, if you put it into the style of a story, it reads more prose-like than some poems, but, my theory was just that – it is laid out poetically, and it evokes a wealth of imagery which prose would perhaps take longer to do. My favourite explanation of what poetry is, however, came from Catherine, our facilitator (and, I summarise):

‘Poetry makes you consider something you see on a daily basis (or are so used to, you don’t give it a second glance) in a more meaningful way – it makes you see it afresh, through new eyes – as if you’ve never seen it before. That’s why poetry often appears difficult or abstract.’Ewagorals

I love this description – and it’s worth being reminded of. Poetry refines our senses – it can take a simple moment or a seemingly unimportant object and elevate them to something beautiful and wonderful and fresh and new. Seamus Heaney of course, is one such example of a poet who captured ordinary moments perfectly in his writing by doing just this.

Poetry makes us think of things in a different way – presenting the world to us more creatively and more potent with energy.

I liked ‘gamblers all’, as it provides a perfect snapshot into the mundane drudgery of a 9-5 lifestyle – where we are all sucked into the inevitable rat race whether we like it or not, and have no choice but to ‘enter the arena once more’. This line in particular, is perfect poetry – it says so much in just five words about the state of so many people’s working lives…

I similarly loved the next poem we studied – Advice to a Discarded Lover by Fleur Adcock, which was deemed a little harsh by some, but was, I thought, a wonderful description of how someone felt about – well, a discarded lover. Comparing them to a dead bird – ‘eaten up by self-pity/crawling with unlovable pathos’? The imagery is just brilliant!

I won’t include any of my own offerings this week, as they are being refined ahead of being sent into the project co-ordinator, Leon Litvak, but suffice it to say – I gained a lot from the workshops and have plenty of inspiration for writing my own peace poetry…

Staying on the subject of poetry, I was delighted to discover this week that a poem I submitted to the Community Arts Partnership in Northern Ireland on the theme of ‘still’, is to be included in an upcoming anthology. The book launch is on March 23 in Belfast, so I am looking forward to that! I only hope my peace poem is as successful…

Cherry Smyth

Cherry Smyth

Meanwhile, at the end of a rather busy week, yesterday, I enjoyed a book reading by the lovely Cherry Smyth at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. A talented poet, her debut novel, Hold Still, is my current reading material, and it was particularly interesting to learn more about the painters she refers to in the novel, in between the extracts she read. Well worth checking out…

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John Hewitt Summer School!

John Hewitt masthead

Following on from my jaunt to Carnlough for Cherry Smyth’s creative writing class in May, which was part of the John Hewitt Spring Festival, I decided to apply for the bursary for the 2013 John Hewitt Summer School in July. Having perused the programme for the School the past few years, I had never yet managed to get down to experience it for myself, what with clashing schedules, dog-sitting arrangements to organise and the cost etc etc.

ImageSo, it was with much delight that I read an email from the John Hewitt Society yesterday which informed me that I had been granted one of the bursaries to attend this year’s Summer School! The bursary is one of two grants made available by the Coleraine Borough Arts Committee, which I was able to apply for via Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. In fact, this year they actually made two awards available, so I await news of the second recipient!

As part of the award myself and other bursary holders will stay in Armagh for the duration of the five-day Summer School, with access granted for all workshops, talks and events. The guidelines stipulate that we should attend at least 70% of these but I don’t think that will be much of a problem, as I fully intend to make the most of the opportunity and go to everything that I can! I will also write a report of my Summer School experience afterwards and will of course be blogging about it all and writing an article or two for The Chronicle.

It will be the best kind of busyness and I look firmly forward to July 22!

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Carnlough creativity!


Cherry mobile pic

Last Friday I took a very scenic trip along the north coast to Carnlough, passing through barely there villages and driving curiously along little twisty tree-lined roads and spacious mountain thoroughfares. I ended up in a small town snuggled against a beautiful backdrop of mountains and fronted by a calm blue bay. I was there to sample a creative writing class led by former Portstewart and long time London-based poet/author Cherry Smyth (see above) as part of the 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival and the journey was certainly well worth it!


I was a little early but the room, complete with fireplace and antique bookcases, soon filled with fellow writers – of prose and poetry – and introductions over, we got stuck in.

I’ve been going to quite a few one-off writing classes recently and there’s always the risk that things can get repetitive but this wasn’t the case in Carnlough, as Cherry’s exercises breathed inspiration afresh into our minds. In fact, it was breath that we first focused on.

We were asked to close our eyes and focus on our breathing – be aware of it – before writing, stream of consciousness style – about our breath. How was it now, how was it before we wrote, whilst we wrote? What was it like when we were afraid, stressed, excited, when do we take a sharp breath and so on. Cherry prompted us a little as we scribbled frantically and a few people shared their efforts at the end, but it was a good opener to the class.

Cherry quoted from the French writer Hélène Cixous‘ book, ‘Coming to Writing’ before the session, in which it says – ‘writing was in the air around me… Write me. Are you going to write me or not?’

The quote (which was longer than this, but that’s all I remember!) really struck a note with everyone and for writers, is a lovely answer to why, perhaps, we write – because words are in the air around us and because we have to. The writing needs to be written and our own particular writing can only be composed by us so… are we going to write it or not?

Next, it was the turn of the left hand (or whichever hand you don’t normally use to write with) to take centre stage, as we wrote a few lines in our childish, spiky writing from its point of view. For some, this meant a surge of creativity, for some, a freedom in their writing and for others, frustration and an annoyed leftie getting even! The it was back to the ‘right’ hand again, the underlying reason for all of this an exploration of not being able to communicate.

‘What could it stand in for?’ Cherry asked us. ‘What else could we use it (the exercise) for as a metaphor?’ For example, not being able to write could be used as a metaphor for humility, learning to trust, or falling in love – ‘like putting your left hand into a right-handed glove’.

We then had to think about one of our first experiences of learning to write and compose a short piece, referring to the sights, sounds, smells and memories that went with this, which resulted in a wonderfully varied collection of stories.

Time crept on however, and although we had two hours in the end, the minutes whooshed by like arrows and our final exercise was inspired by a sonnet – ‘The Children Of The Poor’, written by Gwendolyn Brooks. For this, we read the first verse and then picked a line which stood out to us for whatever reason and then write a poem with each line ending in a word from our chosen line or using that line as a title for a piece of writing. I chose the opening line – ‘People who have no children can be hard’ – as did a few others and, as Cherry said afterwards, the responses were a lot more intense with this class, given that it wasn’t just full of students, but had a more varied age range.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my taster of the John Hewitt Festival experience and am now considering applying for the bursary to attend the Summer School in Armagh in July. There are two bursaries up for grabs in the Coleraine area (forms available from Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart), so it’s worth a try!

In more writing news… I met with Portstewart young adult author, Debbie McCune, today at lunch to have a chat about agents, publishing and writing in general and came away with some good advice. Nothing beats talking with fellow writers and sharing experiences and she was very helpful in explaining how she landed her book deal and the ups and down of her writing journey so far. Image

For example, after a lot of hard work in writing her first novel, which was given the thumbs-up by agents and a top publisher, the marketing people then pulled the plug on Debbie’s first book, as they said they had already taken on enough novels of that genre at the time. As soul-destroying as this inevitably was however, Debbie kept on writing and it paid off, as she managed to get ‘Death & Co’ picked up by Hot Key Books and was also approached by a publisher regarding her original manuscript at around the same time!

It is of course, a tough business to break into, but there is nothing to be gained by not trying, so my next steps are to contact a few more writers I know and ask for feedback on a chapter (or as much as they would like to read) and Debbie has agreed to have a look at chapter one in the meantime (once things have calmed down with her own deadlines and engagements!) As she said – it helps greatly to network and meet people face-to-face and in the end, most writers do find that they just happen to be in the right place at the right time… well, the work needs to be sparkling as well!

There are also more writing events coming up in the near future which I hope to get along to and of course, El Gruer’s writing class (now delayed until tomorrow evening rather than tonight), which never fails to inspire! (Although, I think I need a new word for ‘inspire’ – I use it A LOT!!)

Anyway, I leave you now with a suitably atmospheric picture of The Vanishing Lake at Loughareema, which I snapped on Friday on the way home from Carnlough. Only thing is… the writing on the sign, courtesy of my flash,  seems to have vanished along with the lake!



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I may have to admit that I’m missing NaPoWriMo… just a little. The demand to write a poem a day was sometimes quite stressful but then again, they got written and May has brought with it a distinct lack of poetic creativity! (Well, so far). 

Anyway, I wasn’t able to go to Ms Gruer’s writing meet-up this week, due to work commitments, but I understand she posed some abstract questions to the writers who did make it, such as ‘what can you catch on your tongue?’ and ‘what would you do with a tail if you had one?’ I might have a think about those myself!

What I have been doing (other than posing with my Blackstaff Press books for a wee story in the paper!), is cracking on with ‘The Draft’ and seeking feedback… First up, I met with my friend (picture-book Jenny) at the weekend to exchange some encouraging words on our respective projects. Whilst I am poring through my novel making amendments, Jenny is currently crafting her picture book and I really enjoyed hearing what she had written so far. 

We both identified local writers we could approach about our writing and I will be having coffee with one of these – young adult novelist Debbie McCune – next Tuesday in Portstewart. Having just seen her book ‘Death & Co’ published (and so far very well received), Debbie has very kindly agreed to read a few of my chapters when she gets through her current flurry of PR activities. So… I will update on that as and when it happens.

Meanwhile, Jenny has now read my first chapter and delivered a very nice review, so that has boosted me quite a bit and added to the hope that it is actually, maybe ok after all… I was worried about getting the portrayal of my main character just right and her comments have helped allay the fear that I hadn’t described her as she was in my head!

As far as my editing goes – I’m now mid-way through the third read-through and this time around, it is much easier to spot phrases or paragraphs which need tightening up or simplified, having already corrected bits and pieces on previous occasions. It’s surprisingly sometimes what you can miss! After these corrections though, I’m confidant I will have a manuscript poised for the next step…

I may have missed El’s class this week but tomorrow evening I will be taking the scenic route to Carnlough – to the Londonderry Arms Hotel to be precise, for a creative writing workshop with poet, critic, curator and now novelist, Cherry Smyth, who is taking part in 11th John Hewitt Spring Festival. I’m looking forward to both the class and also to meeting more writers and seeing bits of the north coast I have to admit I haven’t seen before, so… more details on this next week! Image

I actually had the pleasure of chatting with Cherry this morning, as I’m writing an article for the paper about her writing experiences and the forthcoming publication of her debut novel ‘Hold Still’. So… I will leave you with some of her words…

“Life-changing events… are very very affecting. Poetry is a cure for that. You can look back and see the state you were in and see yourself coming out of it from the poem.

“I love having those sort of verbal trophies. It’s like an image of the struggle and the poem is the prize.”

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