Saturday, 22 October 2016
OCTOBER STORIES by Kate Swindlehurst
It’s that time of year again. All those years of teaching with barely a break after school and university has meant that the shifting season signals the start of a new chapter for me. As the summer stutters to a close, the weather lurching from seaside sunshine to tropical storm, that restless feeling grows. My dreams are peopled with difficult students and critical colleagues, my competence questioned, my confidence challenged at every turn. I am late, unprepared, clueless. In the real world, I try desperately to recover a working routine but the fallout from the summer lingers in piles of washing and domestic chaos. Jack moves back in, and out, again. I wave him off with a heavy heart. The Cumbrian house is on the market, again and suddenly, after years of lingering, seems to have been snapped up. Unsettled to the point of neurosis, I become obsessed, again, with the idea of moving. I want to clear the ground, dig out what remains of the old plantings, put down new, permanent roots.
On mornings like these, though, I’m caught between nostalgia and longing. Somehow it’s the season for renewing old acquaintances, rediscovering lost loves. I return in my mind to Mexico, those magical early mornings, frost sparkling under sun from clear blue skies, when the usual smog cleared and the volcanoes shimmered in the distance as I walked up the hill to work. Out of sync with the rest of the world as always (my mother’s name for me was Contrary Mary) I took my gap year twenty years late. Looking back, though, at my astonishing naivety then, I might as well have been eighteen. I’m further unsettled by the late holidays of friends who send thoughts from abroad. Despite Cambridge’s loveliness in early autumn, long shadows and rustling willows and sparkling water, I wish I was anywhere but here, with anyone but myself. School dreams give way to turbulent erotic scenes which leave me bemused on waking. And then there’s the botanic garden, a second home for almost two years. I rarely get there now.
As for the writing: there is a lot to be said for sticking at it. I am in the very fortunate situation where I can do that, without paid work wearing me out or children clamouring for my attention. Even more privileged to have a brother happy to share his lovely cottage in Norfolk, so that I was able to take myself off for the month of August and write there. It’s my ideal situation: just me and the laptop, a book or two, a pair of walking boots, the unassuming Norfolk countryside. I came back with a first draft of a novel almost complete. I am happiest when I can reproduce something like that routine here: up early, read a bit of hard stuff with a pot of tea, write for the rest of the morning, perhaps an hour or two of editing in the afternoon, a chapter or two of fiction at bedtime… Often I don’t manage all of it and it does make it difficult to fit in other essentials – tango, exercise, shopping, friends – but I keep coming back to this: it’s what I do. Or, like Simon in Lord of the Flies, ‘What else is there to do?’
To keep going, I have to believe that some of what I write is important in some loosely political way, an exploration of pressing concerns – or that, even if it’s mainly for fun, it’s as perfect as I can make it. I have to silence that critical voice which says ‘This is rubbish’ or ‘You don’t know enough.’ I remember a workshop with A.L. Kennedy in Norwich in which she offered this advice: get rid of your nerves, don’t allow your negative energy to crush or sabotage you, think of your reader as intelligent and interested in the same things as you and, what has stayed in my mind above all, make sure you give your reader your best shot – as if you are writing for someone you love.
There is something deadening about writing in a vacuum, though. So, although self-publicising goes against the grain, the other thing I’ve tried to address in the last six months or so is to get my work out there. And it has paid off. Two of the stories from Writing the Garden, completed during my residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, are due to be published in Crisp, ARU’s new anthology of creative writing, next month, and a third will be the featured story on Litro magazine’s #Story Sunday slot this coming weekend. Finally, as a result of a competition which I’d forgotten I’d entered, a publisher is looking at the latest novel. And there’s my blog, of course: I’d forgotten the pleasures of this kind of sharing…
To read 'Inside' go to www.litro.co.uk and click on #Story Sunday. After publication on Sunday 16 October, the story should be available on the page for some time.
‘Heartsease’ and ‘Classical Studies’ will appear in Crisp, to be launched on 2nd November at the 12a Club in Cambridge and available from ARU thereafter for £6.99. Or, if you’d really like to own one, I might be persuaded to pick one up for you at the bargain price of £5.00 on the night!
After thirty years in the classroom, Kate Swindlehurst has been writing full-time for ten years. She gained a distinction in the creative writing MA at Anglia Ruskin University and won an Arts Council Escalator award enabling her to complete a novel based on Argentina’s disappeared. She has also produced a memoir dealing with the impact of Argentine tango on Parkinson’s disease and two short story collections, the second inspired by a 20-month residency at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where she was mentored by author Ali Smith. Kate is currently working on a novel dealing with our responses to the refugee crisis. A northerner by birth and habit, she now lives and works in Cambridge.