Happy Birthday: Spaghetti Junction, 50 today

On the 24th May 1972 Spaghetti Junction officially opened after 4 years of construction and over £9mill spent. The wiggly roads are laid out across 5 levels, serves 18 routes, spans 30 acres, and in the most appropriate Brummie way, it crosses a canal. 50 years later, I’m taking time to reflect on why this section of motorway has fascinated me for a majority of my life.

This might seem to be a very weird thing to write about (and that is because it is weird). However there is something about this mess of grey bridges that I have always loved. This piece of practical architecture was so fascinating to me that I assumed everyone was amazed by it. I was so adamant about the fame and celebrity of an M6 junction, that when I went home to Scotland and saw my little classmates, I boasted about it. “Can you believe we drove over it like 6 times over the holiday? I looked all the way down to the bottom.”

It warms my heart to remember my best friend meeting my enthusiasm with a similar passion for the junction by Glasgow.

For me, Spaghetti Junction embodied that feeling you have when you see houses in the distance with the lights on – the realisation that in every room is a full person, living a complete life. That each of those lives are so wildly different from yours and you will never even lay eyes on the person living it. And then the lights turn off, or you carry on walking, and you never think about them or who they are again.

The mess of twisting roads, layered on top of each other right at what I (as a little kid) thought was the centre of the UK, offered so many possibilities. All those cars, all those destinations and reasons. At the time, I thought we were united by admiration for the bridge. I now realise that I was having a precious moment of wonder and although I admit it’s odd, where I grew up we didn’t really have motorways, let alone the M6.

It wasn’t until I moved here almost 2 decades later with my partner did I find out about that sneaky slip of canal at the bottom of the dog pile of road. Of course it inspired my poetry collection (WIP), and still today I drive the long way out of the city to take a little moment to start my journey by remembering my awe as a child and holding onto that as an adult.

Multi taskers

Writers tend to be multi taskers with a couple hats to wear. Whether you are a writer with a ‘money job’ – the thing that pays your regular bills – or a writer with a separate or linked career – like teaching or in the arts, you’ve got more hats than a man with a nervous hairline. 

Full time writers often build their career through writing their publications/productions, writing applications for competitions and funding sources, going into schools, leading workshops, coaching, as event speakers, copy writers, editors, proofreaders, guest bloggers, producers …. I’d like to say I can go on but I’ve run out. Comment what I’ve missed out!

And then within the ‘writing’ itself, there are a variety of styles: Non-fiction and informative writing, fiction in all it’s many forms and genres, poetry, script…. You have projects running along side each other and maybe use one mode of writing (like poetry or journaling) to warm up before jumping into another form. 

Writers become excellent multi taskers, however it has its down side. Running between projects and styles and roles can hold you back from making any meaningful progress in your work. Nothing quite seems to get finished. I like to think that because each of my writing projects is in a different form of writing that it’s fine. I can switch happily between my novel and my script and my poetry. It’s a totally different hat, right? 

About two years ago I spoke with a friend who’d recently been pushed to cut out the noise and focus to finish one project. I had to look at myself and how I was ‘working’. And yeah, I was getting words down, but my progress was slow and uninspiring. 

I decided to try something different. Instead of jumping between writing projects based on what I felt like writing, I tried to break up my year. It’s not a perfect system, but it helped me start completing drafts. It enabled me to become fully engrossed in each project to make some headway. Even when I’m not actually getting much writing done, I had space to work on ideas in the back of mind. It’s amazing how much thinking you can get done when you aren’t paying attention and taking it one at a time.

Try it yourself

List your current writing projects. Look at the year ahead and think about how you might want to divide up your attention. Be mindful of how the seasons affect your mood and productivity – does your poetry flow better in the sun? Does the sound of rain help your dialogue? Avoid setting goals or deciding whether you’ll be writing or editing or promoting. All you are doing is divvying up your time to each project and remember: only one at a time!

Light Journal Questions

As I discussed in a previous post, I had never had much luck with the Morning Pages, so decided to take more of a journaling approach. 

Using questions that ask about joyful things, I let my writing bring out what might be bothering me under the surface. If I start to feel uncomfortable, I lean into it and seek what might be the troublesome root of my discomfort.

  1. What does your perfect front door look like?
  2. Where is your favourite holiday destination? 
  3. Describe a  window, what it looks like and what you see through it.
  4. Write a list of animal names and why you might call them that.
  5. What is your favourite meal to make and why?
  6. Write about a time you were physically hurting. 
  7. What does the perfect day look like? 
  8. Write about your five senses right now.
  9. Why is your favourite film your favourite film? 
  10. Imagine you are in a market – describe what you see and hear
  11. describe your favourite character in a TV series. 
  12. Think about a memory that always makes you smile. 
  13. Think about a romantic trope you like and why (e.g. enemies to lovers)
  14. What does coziness mean to you?
  15. Outline your perfect day trip in the UK.
  16. Write about a quality you appreciate in a loved one.
  17. When do you feel the most relaxed?
  18. How do you take care of yourself?
  19. Something you loved to do as a child, but no longer do. 
  20. Write about a time you felt loved. 
  21. What do you like to be complemented on and how does it make you feel?
  22. Describe an old bedroom you no longer live in. 
  23. Write about your childhood kitchen. 
  24. What are you most proud of yourself for? 
  25. Write about your favourite personality trait
  26. Describe your first friendship. 
  27. What five things are you passionate about?
  28. Are you an introvert or extravert, and why? 
  29. Pick one word to describe yourself, and explain your choice. 
  30. Re-write your favourite song as a story and how it makes you feel. 

When the Morning Pages don’t work

It’s not a groundbreaking statement to make that Journalling can help your writing. It is an art form in itself, but if like me, you want a way to quickly key into your creative side after a stressful day, it can be a resourceful tool. After many failed attempts at using Morning Pages to unlock my creativity, I decided to just accept that the system didn’t work for me. 

I enjoy writing by hand, but I do most of my writing on a computer, so I got cramp after one page. Also, three pages feels like so much to fill. I tried cutting down how much I aimed to write, but the thing that makes the Morning Pages so effective, is that you have so much space to write into. I couldn’t give it the time, I struggle to build routines, and it was becoming another stress for me. 

My alternative was to use journaling prompts to try and jump start the whole process. It gives my writing direction from the moment I put pen to paper. As I write, I am slower, because my only goal is to fill one page. I soon see what I am finding difficult to write about. If it makes me uncomfortable, I set my imaginary compass towards it and take that route. I think it is important to chase down the hard things: they are the silent blocks in our heads that hold us back. 

Journalling also allows you tackle it in different ways. You can be straight to the point, or, if you are not a particularly confrontational person, you can approach it indirectly. You can use questions that are more joyful – maybe about a time you felt loved, or write about your favourite childhood memory. Ultimately, you want to address the difficult things – the things holding you back – but by opening with what I call Light Journaling Prompts, you can start the process and when you are ready, address those issues under the surface. 

As you write, let yourself naturally uncover where you need to give your attention – look in the shadows, and find the thoughts that are trying to make you look away and ignore them – poke at them and see what lies behind. Then you can address it and heal, be powered by it, or explore it in more detail in your other writing.

The Scam

Earlier this month, a literary journal I followed on twitter was revealed to be a scam. This was devastating news for those who had been accepted (and rejected) by the ‘organisation’ but it was refreshing to see the online poetry community rally around each other and offer genuine support (such as allowing subs from people who had been ‘published’ by the magazine, or mass reporting the anthology to amazon).

Scams like this one unfortunately work because there is a shortage of opportunities compared to talented individuals – plenty of poets, fewer spots to showcase poetry. Artists must be vigilant, determined, and trust in their work and its value. Scrutinise every opportunity and think – is this legit? Is this safe? We assume the best in people, and in a creative community that can lead to wonderful things! But, it is also a weakness that can be exploited. Here are some tips I’ve gathered to protect you and your work. Let me know what is on your list to be mindful of!

Some red flags to watch out when submitting your work:
Micro fees: e.g. submit for £1, they bargain on a lot of people thinking ‘I might as well’
No free / discounted copies: this is more concerning if it is a digital format. It suggests that perhaps the audience and the contributors are one of the same
Can’t find the staff these days: ‘a team of volunteers’ is a common phrase, but if you are struggling to find the name of the editor or figure head (or that name does not seem to match up with an actual human) it might be time to slow down, and ask around
The wording: typos, insensitive or clumsy sentences are all signs it may be a quick fix. Literary mags and presses tend to be careful about these small details.
Timings: did they accept your work without leaving much time to read and consider it? Or have they not even received the actual work yet?
Poor Communications: Have you spotted any mixed messages, were you rejected and then accepted? Are they not quite responding to your question – it could be a mass email or template.
– Money: Publishers will never ask for money – They make money from selling your work, not from your pocket. They are investing in you, it’s not the other way round (that would be independent publishing, which you manage yourself)

How to protect yourself and peers:
– Take your time: Your work is important and deserves to be nurtured.
Ask: The poetry community is an amazing tool. Not sure of a press or mag? Ask good ol’ twitter.
– At an individual level: Try not to defend others if you don’t know for absolute certain that they are legit. Leave space for magazines and presses to defend themselves.
– At an organisational level: Vet before promoting. A retweet from a trusted account suggests that they are safe and also furthers their reach.
Check them out yourself: Look up their previous publications (you are probably doing this already to check your work is suitable). If you cant afford to make a purchase and they have shown interest in you, it may be worth asking for free access to view the quality of what they produce.
– And finally, avoid sending everything at once: It is hard to revoke access to your work when they have a full copy. If they are asking for a full manuscript, check out their reputation before sending.

Happy hunting for the perfect home for your poetry!

Burns Night

Happy Burns night! I thought I would share a few words today since I grew up in Rabbie’s hometown – kind of, I went to school there and lived rurally.

Robert Burns was a prolific writer. Often unnecessarily compared to William Shakespeare, you will have heard his songs without realising it : Ode to a Haggis quoted below, Auld Lang syne, or My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose for the sappy poetry lovers. I’d describe his work as sassy, poignant, fun, and rebellious yet palatable.

Burns Night (or week) was both wonderful and also a massive pain in my neck. As a kid with a welsh name no one could pronounce, an English mother, and a Northern Irish dad my accent had no idea what was going on. Most of the time, it was subject to light teasing, but then, as it did every year, came the Burns preparations.

We’d spent months learning the Gay Gordans for Ceilidhs and now we were back after Christmas break and it was Scottish Poetry time. In many ways, it was wonderful. In the majority of ways, it was traumatising. We would be sent home with a poem to memorise and perfect, and then we would compete against each other. The best readers from the school would go on to the Burns night at Burns Cottage and perform.

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great Chieftain o’ the Puddin-race!”

This beautiful celebration of Scottish literature made me hyperaware of how much my voice stuck out. Even my best friend’s mum sitting down with me and helping me through my poems was no hope. When I moved to England I practiced and practiced until my mutated Scottish accent totally disappeared. I regret that now, but at the time I was just happy to fit in!

Robert Burns is the poet I return to most – he reminds me of a part of me that feels totally invisible. Although this year we can’t share a haggis or dance at a ceilidh (not that there is much of that down here anyway!), maybe take a couple minutes to watch this performance of poetry from the man who embedded himself into English Literature without even writing in English.

NaNoWriMo: 29. She Thinks It’s All Over

The past month has scooted by and to my surprise, I have hit my final word count and completed National Novel Writing Month a little early. It snuck up on me, if I’m honest.

I’ve been updating the official websites count, but my main focus was on my own little graph, where I thought I had fallen behind. I was counting in increments of 1000, so if I wrote 1500 words, I only counted it on the graph as a thousand. Apparently, these little lost numbers have added up and rather satisfyingly paid off in an early finish.

I know my cat will be happy this month is over. It has been satisfying and working to a deadline has been really helpful in pushing through those days where I really didn’t want to write, but it has been my priority and I’m looking forward to having a little more free time for myself, Glen and Merfyn.

What I have learnt from this month is that those ten minutes here and there are worth it. They add up and I’m now, magically, near the end of my first draft. Yes, I’m going to have to go back and rework plot points and swap scenes around, but fiddling is going to be easier to do when I know the overall shape of the story. In an effort to take advantage of my momentum, over the next week I’m intending to write a couple hundred words a day. Lets see how it goes….

Wordcount: 50,020

NaNoWriMo: 22. Getting Sluggish

In light of my attempt this month to embrace and allow for my limitations and mistakes, I’m not going to let myself focus on the days I have not hit my targets. Instead, I’m going to celebrate that I have finished the first draft of Part Two and reflect on what may have been holding me back so that next week I can avoid them.

This week my routine saw a lot of changes. My work schedule moved around and as a result my daily wordcount targets weren’t always feasible. Unfortunately, I found it disheartening that early on in the week I was not going to be able to hit a day’s target. The thought that I was going to catch up at a later date meant that I wasn’t pushing myself to hit my target, thinking that later in the week I would make up for it…. and then that didn’t happen. I’m only a couple thousands words behind my target for this week, but it is the first Sunday where I haven’t been on or ahead.

Knowing what threw me off, I’m going to redistribute each day’s wordcount and update the graph tracking my progress. Hopefully, with realistic targets I’ll be able to push through this last week and finish on time.

Wordcount: 39,586

NaNoWriMo: 15. Half Way Through

As expected, this week was harder than the first. My energy was draining and I struggled to prioritise hitting my word count each day when it was no longer a shiny new task.

I also moved on to the second act of the novel and I find the middle part of a story can be the most challenging. It’s harder to keep focus and the plot purposeful in that awkward space between the opening and the ending thirds. I’ve ended up spending more time thinking about what needed to go into each chapter and on two occasions didn’t hit my daily target. However that time thinking (rather than writing) helped me hold the direction of the novel in the front of my mind as I caught up on my word counts.

After two days writing a little extra this weekend, I’m back ahead of my target which I’m pleased about, especially since I suspect that this week I may have a couple evenings taken up with Zoom calls and less time to get my words in. After some time dedicated to Christmas decorating and crafts (yes it’s early, but late for me!) I’m feeling refreshed and ready for a productive and fun week moving through my novel.

Wordcount: 29673

NaNoWriMo: 8. No looking back

One week in and it’s going well. Todays word count finished off part one and I’m about one third of the way through the book. I’ve found today and yesterday much harder than the previous days and I think it is because of the point at which I was in the story.

I struggle with moving on to the next task or section while feeling like the first part isn’t perfect. I didn’t realise how much this was holding me back until recently when I was attending a workshop and the tutor (discovering most of us were struggling with progressing our work) told us to stop looking over what has been written. It might be hard, but keep moving, keep going forward.

It takes a surprising amount of energy to retrain myself to not return to chapter one and re-write it (the whole reason I decided to do this novel in a month was because I had hit the 20,000 – 30,000 words mark and would then re-start). You can’t tell whether it’s working or not if you don’t get far enough into the story to follow through for the pay off. I’m trying to push my self doubt to the side and sprint to end.

As I wrapped up Part One, I realised there are characters I need to introduce earlier on and that there is a whole subplot that actually came out clearer and more self contained than I expected. I desperately wanted to go back and fiddle with the foundations, but I’ve resisted. I promised myself I can rip it apart later, when I’ve got to the end of the whole thing and have a full idea of the shape of the book.

So, first week done. I feel like week one is always the easiest – you’ve got energy, you’re brimming with ideas, and it still feels new. Next week may be a little more challenging, but of course I’m still proud of what I have achieved.