My first poem, where I imagine the beams from streetlamps pulling my parents’ ancient car homewards, was published in the school magazine when I was 12.
It set the tone for my entire writing life.
Whether working in poetry, drama, short story, fiction or memoir, I always end up drawing on the life I know best (or think I do): mine. Then I try to add a bit of magic.
I went to school in Nigeria, which gave me the bones of my short story collection Bushmeat. Everyone in my family is a hypochondriac, which helped me write my novel Stretching It. And my memoir Ted the Shed is about my late Dad, a tough, resourceful man who got an allotment at 86 and shared it with me for ten years, during which time his impression of me as a clueless wimp only deepened.
Since that early car trip, my writing has taken me on many journeys, from bellowing my poems out to unreceptive commuters on a train in Yorkshire through winning the top prize at a writing awards ceremony in Cardiff and working as Writer in Residence in Washington DC.
But one thing hasn’t changed and that’s the thrill I feel when I write something about my own life that chimes with another human being – because somehow it’s about their life too.
I love literature of all kinds. Books saved my bacon when I was a troubled teenager. So I try to share the passion wherever and whenever I can, even if it’s just recommending books to friends on Facebook.
A more substantial contribution is through my work as a teacher on Insight Timer, where I read bedtime stories, always aiming to bring forgotten classics back to light. The work of Aberdeenshire writer George MacDonald is a good example. Although he influenced many important fantasy writers such as J. R. R. Tolkein and Lewis Carroll, his work isn’t widely read today. But his stories strike a contemporary note.
Find out more on the Sleep stories page.
I really enjoy competition judging. I have been a main judge occasionally but the bulk of my experience comes from my ten year stint on the Board of llkley Literature Festival, when I was resident sifter for their short story competition. I learnt a great deal, especially about the subjects which crop up again and again in competition entries. I learnt that judges quickly tire of repetitive subject matter. That’s why it pays to write something a bit different!
Creative Writing Tutoring
I worked for many years as a creative writing tutor, mainly at Leeds University, Leeds Beckett, the WEA and the Swarthmore Centre. I also ran a writing summer school at Leeds Uni and a poetry summer school up in the North East. Although these days I prefer to focus on my own writing, I still run occasional writing workshops when someone asks me to.
One group I’ve really enjoyed working with is Carte Blanche, a group of women poets based in the North East. They write to a high standard. I’m also sometimes invited by Hall Garth Poets to run a poetry summer school in Middlesbrough, something I always enjoy.
I worked for several years (with funding gaps) at Leeds General Infirmary as Writer in Residence. I worked with staff and patients, either mentoring them with their own writing or chatting to them about their experience in hospital then writing a poem about what they’d told me, which I gave back to them. A hospital stay seems often to give people an opportunity to take stock of their lives. It was a very moving and memorable time and I felt privileged to be trusted with people’s memories and thoughts.