Back in January, I posted about my writing plans for the year (generally, I find, a good way to engender some sort of personal accountability around intentions). December feels like a good time to revisit some of those intentions – if only to remind myself that I’ve probably achieved more than I might think. 2022 has brought changes I hadn’t anticipated back in January, most notably a shift from full-time writing to working part-time for a local mental health charity. Domestic arrangements have also played into my capacity – my husband regularly working away from home means less flexibility around the care of our children, our dog and all the other things that constitute our life. Add in a year of house renovations, associated disarray, and not-new issues around anxiety and fatigue, and the scene feels set for what seems like a front-loaded litany of excuses. In light of it all, I’ll say something that doesn’t sit easily with me when I relate it in my own direction: I think I’ve done quite well. ‘Creative energy’ has been an important term for me this year and I’ve come to realise that the kind of energy I need to go for a walk or a jog at Parkrun is completely different to the kind of energy I need for writing. Similarly, recovery time is something I’ve had to consider – that after-event period when I spend three hours sleeping after doing some-or-other-thing. The result of all this is that I’ve become more and more protective of my creative time, a thing I hold close and wrap myself up in like a blanket. It’s meant stepping back from things that feel peripheral or don’t serve me, setting boundaries, and sometimes saying ‘no’. I say these words like someone who is fine with such things, while in reality, I often feel guilty about the lines I’ve tried to draw for myself. This year, though, I’ve come closer to accepting that there is only so much I can do and absorb while still being able to function and do my best. It’s okay, I think, to draw a circle around a few things and say, ‘these are the things I can focus on.’
So back to the writing, and the places I’ve sent my energies to this year…
Back in January, I said that in book terms, most of this year would be about consolidation. To a large extent that’s been true for me, and I’ve spent much of 2022 focusing on promotion and distribution of my existing books. While that’s not felt particularly creative or exciting, it’s also been useful. For example, this year my print books were listed with distributors like Ingram Sparks and Gardners, which means bookstores and libraries away from Caithness can order my novels – though it’s still up to me to persuade retailers to buy the books. Locally, the process is much easier and I’m grateful to the lovely Caithness businesses who buy books from me directly. If you want to buy copies of my novels in Caithness, you’ll find them at Alexander & Robertson Ltd. in Castletown, Eye Candy Thurso, Lindsey Gallacher Jewellery and Art in Thurso and Ortak, John O’Groats.
There was also some new-book excitement this year with the launch of Finn and Friends at John O’Groats, a children’s book I co-authored with three other local writers. When I wrote about my intentions for the year back in January, I’d known the book was coming, but it was still something of a twinkle in the eye. It was lovely to launch the book back in June (you can read about that here), and to see a year’s worth of collective effort come to fruition. One of the nicest things about Finn and Friends was its almost exclusively local focus, with illustrations by Caithness schoolchildren and design wizardry by local business Kerrie Moncur Typesetting and Design.
SHORT STORIES, POEMS, MAGAZINES, COMPETITIONS AND BOOK CLUBS
Back in January, I wrote that I’d like to spend more time focusing on writing short stories and poems, entering competitions and connecting with book clubs. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag here – I’ve written two short stories I was pleased with, but neither of them have found a home or been the recipient of any awards! On the other hand, an article called Stones of the Sky I submitted to Fieldfare magazine was published in May (a piece I was particularly fond of). My efforts with poetry have been less successful, and I haven’t quite achieved the stillness of mind required to devote to writing poems. On book clubs, I’ve managed to make connections with two local book groups who are soon to read my first novel Castles of Steel and Thunder (COSAT). Through my relationship with my lovely local library, COSAT will also be available to book groups more widely across the Highlands, a development which brings me joy! I’d still love to connect with groups a little further afield, but in all honesty, I’ve found it trickier to generate interest in my novels away from the north Highlands. One of my ongoing frustrations/contradictions is my desire to be immersed in all things Caithness while at the same time feeling slightly hemmed in as a ‘local writer’ – a narrative that, to be fair, I’ve somewhat designed around myself. Unfortunately, along with the many good things that label brings, it can also tend to engender a sense of confinement, and perhaps sometimes a feeling – or a perception – of being ‘less than’. It’s a contradiction I need to explore a little further. For now, I’m content with the progress I’m making in slow and steady steps.
PODCASTS, EVENTS, SPEAKING AND WORKSHOPS
One area where things have notably progressed for me this year is in the sphere of podcasts, events, speaking engagements and workshops. Strangely, almost as soon as my writing time reduced this year, I was presented with a growing number of opportunities to talk about my books! Amongst these were two appearances on Wick Voices (a social history project aimed at collecting and preserving local memories and information in oral form), where I talked about myself and my writing here and read a local legend from Castles of Steel and Thunder in this episode. This was followed by an appearance on the Olrig Observations podcast for the Castlehill Heritage Centre, in which I retold a local selkie (seal-person) legend, also featured in COSAT – you can listen to that here. As the year progressed, I was invited to run several in-person workshop events, and in September, I led a small writing workshop at Hannah Cambridge Illustration in Wick, which focused on the power of our senses in crafting words. In October, I ran a session on myths and legends for young people at Lyth Arts Centre as part of their Northern Stories Festival (in the middle of all this, there was also an appearance on the Scots Whay Hae podcast talking about the festival more widely). As part of the Northern Stories programme, I was also involved in an online discussion about place, belonging and northern identities called ‘Belonging in the North.’ This felt like quite a leap for me, as it was the first time I’ve spoken at a live-streamed online event, and naturally, I had a few butterflies. As things turned out, though, the session went very well, and I enjoyed the relaxed company of host Magnus Davidson and fellow writer Esraa Husain. At around the same time, I appeared at the Indie Book Festival in Wick, where I gave a talk on publishing options and my own experience of indie publishing. At the end of October, I was also on hand at the John O’Groats Book Festival to promote Finn and Friends with co-authors Ian Leith, Andrea Wotherspoon and Charlotte Platt. Much of my promotional work this year dovetailed with 2022’s theme of Scotland’s Year of Stories, and I rounded off events for the year with a Book Week Scotland session at my local library where I read from my novels and shared tales from local legend.
It’s probably worth making a point here about this post’s title and my reference to ‘joining up the dots’, which links to a quote I once read from Steve Jobs.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.Steve Jobs
Looking back over the last year, I can see a lot of dots connecting. At times, my career path (for want of a better phrase), has seemed haphazard – a degree in Psychology, a decade in Training and Development, a pivot into various forms of self employment coupled with writing, and part-time work focused on offering emotional support and facilitating groups. This year, I’ve seen the dots starting to connect – the same skills of facilitation transferring across roles, the same support for individual development applied whether that be to course attendees, peer group members or people who attend writing workshops. Speaking at events – and in particular running workshops – has also given me the opportunity to earn extra income from my writing (as many authors will appreciate, income based purely on book sales tends not to go far!). Having a ‘paid’ job alongside my writing has also afforded me some extra confidence in terms of valuing my time – as much as I enjoy my day job, my employers would not expect me to do it without payment. In terms of how this relates to my writing, I can now see that I’ve often allowed my time to be devalued because writing is something I enjoy. Now that my writing time has been compressed, I try to remind myself that I can be flexible and kind while still understanding that my time and my creativity have value. Not always a comfortable or an easy transition to make, and one I’m still working on…
I’m not quite sure where all these dots are heading, but I’m curious and open minded about what the future holds.
BLOGGING, NEWSLETTERS AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Back in January, I said that I wanted to focus this year on things that felt creative for me – the areas I’ve already talked about as well as this blog itself, and my newsletter. Mostly, I think I’ve achieved this – although there haven’t been many posts on the blog this year, I’ve written when my capacity has allowed it, and crucially, when I’ve felt I’ve had something useful or interesting to say. My best post of the year, I think, was this piece on tourism, social media and our shifting sense of place in the north Highlands. In terms of engagement, my articles on the impact of the ‘NC500’ on rural areas are the ones that tend to connect with readers most. Every time I share articles like these, people get in touch to tell me that the words resonated with them, or perhaps expressed something they didn’t feel personally able to articulate. In that respect alone, I sense these pieces are important, and I feel a sort of personal responsibility to be a voice for communities who have been largely disregarded in terms of how the areas they live in are marketed, experienced and conveyed. My relationship with social media intersects here, and one of the reasons I’ve stepped back from Instagram – along with other concerns about its time-drain and mental health impacts – relates to presentation of place, influencer culture, and the individualistic and performative nature of some of the content I see there. More generally, I’ve become less engaged across all social media, mostly because I don’t seem to have the mental energy for that layer of commitment once the essentials in my life are done. I’m content to show up as and when the mood presents, accepting the guilt associated with not liking people’s posts or wishing every single person I know on Facebook a ‘happy birthday’. I’ve come to accept that I can’t function emotionally or in terms of energy while absorbing every issue or grievance the world of social media presents us with (were we ever meant to?).
Back to drawing a circle around the things we can focus on, and accepting that’s okay.
READERS’ CLUB NEWSLETTER
The penultimate area I’ve focused on in terms of my writing in 2022 has been my newsletter. This year, I’ve tried to curate my newsletter into more of a readers’ club, sharing details of upcoming events and books I’ve read, as well as offering the odd giveaway (something I previously did on social media, until I noticed that people often engaged for giveaways and nothing else). I don’t blame people for this at all, but this year I’ve tried to evolve my newsletter into something that hinges less on the vagaries of social media algorithms, and instead speaks to the people who are genuinely interested in my writing. I suspect I still have some way to go on this, but subscribers to the newsletter have now reached around 300, many of whom seem engaged with the content I send out each month. If you’d like to subscribe, you’ll receive a free short story and an update from me at the end of every month (due to the festivities, the next one will be at the end of January). Have a look at November’s update here to get an idea of the content. If it’s the kind of thing you’re interested in, you can sign up here.
The last area I’ve been working on this year is, of course, a new book project – a piece of non-fiction which combines memoir, nature writing, mythology and place-stories from Caithness. My writing process involves spending thirty to sixty minutes on my manuscript daily (the same routine I used when I wrote Castles of Steel and Thunder years ago). This book isn’t likely to appear any time soon – it took me over two years to write COSAT, and this particular project has proved trickier than I imagined (mainly due to issues around structure and the vulnerability associated with writing memoir). All that being said, I think I’ve finally now hit on a structure that should work.
As with so many of the things I’ve talked about, it’s about making progress, being curious, learning, and – one way or another – moving forward.
I’d like to wish you and your families a happy and peaceful festive season, and all the energies necessary to pursue your own creative, important and beautiful passions in 2023.