I think I was nine years old when I started telling people that I was planning to become a poet. It was cute at first. ‘A poet, eh?’ the adults would say, and raise their eyebrows. I knew they were laughing at me, but it was friendly enough. Everyone enjoys a little pomposity in the pre-pubescent. It’s adorably naive, and they figure that life will knock it out of you soon enough.
By the time I was thirteen, my literary ambitions elicited something closer to disgust. The sentence ‘I want to be a poet’ produced grunts of laughter from fellow teenagers, and outright suspicion from adults. It was a ridiculous aspiration, and it revealed a shamefully inaccurate view of the Real World, and How It Works. ‘You’re a clever girl,’ said my school’s careers advisor. ‘Have you thought of working in the Prison Service?’
I’d like to pretend that this was the point I decided to nurture my ambitions in secret, biding my time until I could burst unto a kinder world, where people understood me. Instead, I stopped writing. I took all my beautiful notebooks, filled with turquoise-inked poems (okay, I regret the turquoise now), and bound them up with sellotape, and buried them deep in the kitchen bin underneath the greasy butter wrappers and vegetable peelings. I can still remember the relief I felt when the dustmen came the following Monday and took them away. They were irretrievably gone. I had pulled off the perfect murder.
But they haunted me like revenants. In any quiet moment, they would stand at my side and chime my own words back to me. I bitterly regretted how much they meant to me. I thought that I might finally leave them behind when I finished school, and I took the precaution of not studying English Literature - by far my best subject - at university. Whoever I was, I had nothing to do with the act of writing. Not me.
But then, if I wasn’t a writer, what was I? It felt a lot like nothing. At the Fresher’s Fair, I signed up for pottery class and yoga, but still I found myself straying into the offices of the student newspaper on recruitment day. Halfway through the Editor’s opening remarks, I thought Goddamnit Katherine, what the hell is wrong with you? You. Are. Not. A. Writer. I apologised and left.
I finished university and limped my way through a series of jobs that I hated. Every single one of them seemed to spin stories for me. I couldn’t stop them. A daily commute to London made me yearn to write character sketches of everyone in the train carriage; a temping job in a former mortuary made effortless ghost stories. Writing kept coming back to me, punching its way out of whatever grave I dug it. I just couldn’t kill it: there was no silver bullet, to stake, no incantation that would slay it.
I had no choice but to bargain with it. Listen, I said to it, I’m going to offer you a deal. If I indulge you a little bit - take you up as a hobby, perhaps keep a diary - you have to agree to settle for that. I am not willing to embarrass myself by trying to be a writer. I have a day job, and I don’t have the heart. I haven’t read enough. I didn’t study literature at university, so I’m not entitled. But I will write - in private. And if I do that, you have to pipe down.
Writing gave no indication whether it was mollified or not, but I set up a study in the spare room. On my desk, I put a vase of blue hyacinths, and a fresh notebook: hardback, cloth-bound. I lined up three sharp pencils. Then I pulled up a chair to this sacrificial altar, and urged myself to say something meaningful.
After an hour, H came in to ask if I wanted anything from the shop, and I yelled at him to get out and to leave me alone while I was trying to write. As he closed the door looking startled, I realised that I had hastily shielded my notebook with both my arms, not because it was full of my most profound thoughts, but because it was covered in amateurish sketches of hyacinths.
Through all my brave rejection of the writing life, I had been making one basic assumption: that writing was my path to reject. In that hour spent in my makeshift study, I learned many things: that a childhood talent does not necessarily translate into an adult one; that your craft will die if you don’t nurture it; that your most profound thoughts seem shamefully thin when they’re at risk of appearing on a page.
Most of all, I learned that I wanted to be a writer. And that I would have to start from scratch.
Courses are finally here!
I’m excited to reveal my new set of online courses! I suspect today’s story emerged from all the time I’ve been putting into writing them - it’s led to a lot of reflection on why and how I teach writing. I guess I needed to write my own creation myth first. I also needed to work out how to do it my way.
I’ve always loved to learn rather than to be taught - I don’t think there’s one way to do anything, least of all writing. So that’s what’s informed the creation of my courses - they’re an insight into my techniques and ideas, they’re gentle and flexible, and they aim to open up space into which learners can bring their own ideas and preferences. They’ll all be about non-fiction writing and authorship.
For all the writers who are struggling right now, Wintering for Writers launches on 30th July. It’s a self-paced, reflective course to help you to find your way out of the fallow periods in your career or practice. Booking is open now - there’s a special offer for £20 off if you book before Monday 6th July.
For a deep dive into the craft of writing creative non-fiction (memoir, nature writing, subjective journalism, narrative non-fiction), then my Writing Your True Story course runs weekly from 7th September - 23rd October. Places are limited and the price is lower for this first iteration (while I get the hang of the software) - book here. There will also be a free Zoom coming up later in the summer to talk about writing non-fiction proposals - let me know if you want me to email details when I have them.
I’m really keen to form a community of creative non-fiction writers, so I’m starting a separate newsletter where we can all talk about the issues, debates, trends and controversies in our beloved field (also, the fiction writers get far too much attention IMHO). Sign up here if you write from real life - or indeed if you’re an editor, agent or very keen reader.
Forthcoming: I’m planning to open up a ‘pod’ of writers who are writing a memoir and aiming to get it published, and who would like to access monthly mentoring and feedback as part of a small group - please message me for more details.
My first public event since lockdown
For Exmoor-dwellers, and lockdown permitting, I’ll be the guest of the lovely Number Seven Dulverton on Saturday 18th July for a socially-distanced walk, talk and swim, part of their regular walking book club. Tickets are £17 including a signed copy of Wintering - book by calling the store on 01398 324457 or email info@numbersevendulverton.
The Wintering Sessions
Episode 4 of The Wintering Sessions went live this morning! You can now listen to Penny Wincer, Leah Hazard, Catherine Cho and Rebecca Armstrong on your favourite podcast platform. Thank you to everyone who’s listened so far, and if you’ve not subscribed yet, there are some treats coming up, including Raynor Winn, Jini Reddy, Rebecca Armstrong, Rachael Lucas, Nicola Slawson, Tanya Shadrick and Angela Barnes. Links to various podcast platforms are here.
What I love right now
This month, I’ve watched two documentaries about my writing heroes. The Center Will Not Hold is a fascinating and thoughtful exploration of the life of Joan Didion, and The Pieces I Am covers the extraordinary career of Toni Morrison. Both come highly recommended, and Toni Morrison in particular left me inspired to make a bigger contribution to this world.
My favourite read this month has been Jay Barnard’s Surge, a poetry collection that joins the dots between two fires - the New Cross fire of 1981 and Grenfell Tower in 2017 - and their link to racism. It’s a brilliant and affecting piece of work, capturing so many different London cadences.
I also enjoyed Allan Jenkins’ Morning: How To Make Time, a hymn to the pleasures of the quiet, early hours which means I now identify as ‘a waker’. And I’m about to dig into an advance copy Raynor Winn’s The Wild Silence (out September), which is extremely exciting.
Finally, I charged through The Prison Bag podcast, which looks that the inhumanity and excessive control that’s built into the British prison system, and particularly the way that it punishes the families of the people inside. Look out for my walking buddy Lesley Somerville in episode 4, talking about the care system.
I think that just about wraps it up for this month! See you next time.
All good wishes,
If you enjoy my letters, your tips are appreciated & help me make more time to write :)