It’s astonishing how The House On the Corner takes us through eight years of the King family in just forty-five pages. How can a novella in flash have the feel of a saga? Each chapter adds layers to our understanding of the Kings. Woodhouse is skilled at taking her deftly drawn characters and revealing the quiet sadness inside them. There’s magic here in what’s unspoken. We recognise these people trying to make life work despite the disappointments. This is a tender look at a family; subtle, achy and memorable.
Thank you, Aaron Burch, for publishing Nine Endings at Hobart. (My first piece of nonfiction – which turns out to feel pretty exposing. Who knew, right?) Hobart has long been a journal I hoped I’d one day find a way into and I’m pretty damn chuffed. If you’d like to, you can read Nine Endings here.
I work in a prison library and alongside all usual library duties, I also run a creative writing group. I began it a couple of years ago when some of the prisoners said they’d really enjoyed a one-day poetry workshop and would appreciate the opportunity for a more regular creative outlet. As a writer and editor, I figured it was something I could offer to add value to our library. And so it began…
When I can, I run the group weekly. Each session begins with the men reading out the previous week’s homework – if they want to and if they have done it, neither homework nor sharing is compulsory. Then I set a writing exercise using prompts and the guys write for about 10 minutes and again share that work. I finish up by reading a story, usually flash, that highlights something we’re working on, or is simply good, and set the following weeks homework.
The trickiest thing is trying to make sure the exercises are enjoyable for everyone as there is such a wide variety of men who join. I like to think I create a safe space. Once you start writing and sharing work you reveal something of yourself and I have consistently been impressed by the respect and support these guys offer each other. I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent people take part. I’ve been moved to tears by some of the stories and moved to laughter by others.
I was invited to give a presentation on running a creative writing group last year at the Prison Libraries Training Day held by CILIP which was well received. This month I was delighted to discover I have won the Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 and one of the reasons given was because after my presentation several other prison libraries began creative writing groups. I’m so unbelievably chuffed. I truly believe creative writing is a powerful thing to do in a prison – or anywhere! Writing can be cathartic. It can be healing. It can be a release for all sorts of emotion. It can also be daft, shallow, and just for fun.
Anyway, I’m showing off and popping this here:
Excellence in Prison Libraries Award 2020 winner
The CILIP Prison Libraries Group is delighted to announce that the 2020 Excellence in Prison Libraries Award has been won by HMP Ford for its “Well-being Through Creative Writing” project. The project was devised and is run by Sara Crowley, Senior Library Assistant at HMP Ford. Sara is also a writer and Managing Editor of Forge literary magazine.
The project began as a six-week trial but became so successful that the group now runs weekly. They meet in the library and, as well as exploring creative writing, they also discuss reading. Sara is keen to point out that it’s not all serious – “we play word games, enjoy puns, tell jokes and laugh a lot. The men learn to express themselves better which is a useful transferable skill.”
The reaction from the men involved has been overwhelmingly positive:
“It’s been a great release for my stress. I’m so grateful.”
“It’s very calming and helps my mental health.”
“It gives me a means to reflect creatively; managing my emotions.”
“It’s a nice break from prison each week with the ability to unload in a safe space.”
Participants are encouraged to share their work if they wish to and some have entered national writing competitions – one member of the group won the East Riding Poetry competition.
The group has also been visited by some high-profile poets and writers, including Simon Brett, who have shared their knowledge and expertise.
The judges were particularly impressed with the way that this project works in a variety of situations. Sara has done sessions with literacy classes in the prison and with groups of library users “outside.”
Sara was invited to give a presentation on running creative writing groups at the Prison Libraries Group training day in 2019. She outlined the activities of her group and then engaged the delegates in various word play activities to show how easy it is to create stories. As a result of this presentation, several prison libraries have started groups based on this model.
This is an excellent example of how a project can inspire not just those taking part in it but can also reach out to a wider audience.
CILIP Prison Libraries Group – email@example.com
Mine is a familiar story. I was in total agony every time I had a period. In my teen years and twenties, I always knew at least 2 days of the month would be spent curled in a ball, weeping, puking, trying to breathe my way through the worst pain in the world. I had days off school. I walked out of classrooms and exams because I needed to vomit. (Nobody ever suggested I retook one A level that was completely messed up by my period and me walking out after only half an hour.) Nobody ever said being so sick wasn’t ok; hot water bottle, ibuprofen and bed was the only thing on offer. It didn’t touch the pain which was an endurance to get through. Now we have people like Professor John Guilleaud (University College, London) saying menstrual pain for some is as bad as having a heart attack. Back then I was told I had a low pain tolerance. I thought everyone suffered as I did but I was weak. (Hollow laugh.)
It was a matter of knowing it would end. That day one was worse than day two. I just had to keep breathing. Work was tricky. I knew I’d be ill once a month so I could never afford to have any other sick leave. I only had a small window once my period started before I began vomiting, so travelling home from the centre of London was nerve wracking. I have puked in a lot of public places. It just added to the humiliation.
It ruined holidays, parties, romantic encounters, fun, work, play.
A gynaecologist told me I was perfectly healthy and would get better after I gave birth. She was wrong!
On the ward after my emergency caesarean, I didn’t ask for pain relief and a nurse asked why. The truth was the pain was nowhere near the pain I endured every damn month – it was a breeze in comparison. After the boys were born, contrary to what I’d been told, it got far worse and I was in excruciating pain for 3 weeks out of 4. I was dismissed by the doctors, told I was neurotic. Despite me insisting the pain was all related to my menstrual cycle, I was told it was probably IBS. It’s hard to keep going when professionals tell you there’s nothing much wrong with you and your body insists otherwise. It took eight years before I had a laparoscopy which showed I was chock full of endometriosis. Bits of my insides were glued to each other. It was such a relief to be told that I would have a simple operation – “a spring clean” – and all would be well.
Of course, all was not well. There is no cure for endometriosis. With my first period post surgery, back came the pain.
No treatment is perfect. No treatment cures. They dampen symptoms but produce their own side effects. Mine lists the following: abdominal/pelvic pain, ovarian cysts, back pain, headache/migraine, nervousness, dizziness, nausea, bloating, breast pain, weight gain, acne, depression, changes in mood, loss of interest in sex, itching/skin rash, and puffiness in the face, hands, ankles, or feet. Such fun!
People don’t know what endo is, or they think they do and imagine it’s a bad crampy period. There’s no recognition of how debilitating it is. How destructive. How it ruins lives.
I sometimes wonder what I could have achieved if I wasn’t derailed by this damn condition so often. I know there’s no point on dwelling on what-ifs though and bumble on as best I can, but it niggles at me. Just when I make headway on a project along comes the endo to fell me. Everything I do has to be done when I can manage it and everything is stop-start.
That things still haven’t improved in the decades I have suffered says much about the lack of importance afforded to women’s issues. It’s heartening to see #endometriosis trending on twitter, but watching this video is heartbreaking.
Hell yes, endometriosis care needs urgent improvement.
I published a great little flash at The Forge today – Mams Being Mams by Sean Tanner. It packs quite the punch and you should go and read it here: https://forgelitmag.com/2020/10/12/mams-being-mams/
I also interviewed Sean and just as Susannah did he also chose Alf Stewart as his fave Neighbours character despite Alf not being in Neighbours. (I wish he was though.)
1) You are wallpaper. What is your pattern?
Excellent question. I would say something like the yin and yang symbol, or a snake eating its own head, or two pac men eating each other. I’m thinking eggshell white for a background with garish primary colours bordering the symbols to create a sort of auric effect.
2) What was your favourite book as a child?
My Dad used to read us a chapter of Shadow the Sheepdog by Enid Blyton every night before bed and we loved it. There was also Run With the Wind by Tom McCaughren.
3) Who is/was your unlikely crush?
4) Who is your favourite Sesame Street character?
Never really watched it to be honest, but it’s that guy who lives in the bin if it’s anybody. Probably the answer every writer will give.
5) What colour is Tuesday?
6) Have you ever had a nickname?
I tried to get my family to call me ‘waffles’ for a while (because I loved waffles) but it never caught on.
7) What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?
Swimming trunks I found on cape clear island, back when I was campsite warden there circa 2010 maybe 2011. They’ve faded from black to grey but have taken on sentimental value for reasons I can’t entirely fathom.
8) Do you have a favourite pen?
I tried the whole ‘good pen’ thing for a while, but I lost it several times and then they stopped making the refills for it, and while I enjoy the idea of a companion pen that I can somehow imbue with supercharged creativity, perhaps give it a pet name, and carry it everywhere for luck, it’s just not practical. Now all my relationships with pens are casual. I use them up and throw them away. I’m careful never to get too attached.
9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?
Oh, I believe all sorts, spontaneous combustion is the least of it.
10) What’s your most vivid childhood memory?
My memory is terrible, I think I’ve killed that part of my brain. Some things persist I guess, certain songs on the radio as we drove off to do the weekly shop, the smell of my mother’s perfume, the sound of her voice on the phone. Perhaps my mother comes to mind because it’s memories of her that I most often try to recall since she passed away.
11) Do you actually have a Jesus clock?
Just a regular one, but I would rather have none. I’d rather throw my watch in the dirt like that scene from Easy Rider.
12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?
Alf from Home and Away.
13) What’s your favourite sweet?
I wouldn’t deign to raise one sweet above the others lest the other sweets feel left out. I love them all equally.
14) You hold a dinner party and can only invite writers. Who do you invite?
I don’t really know any writers, and the idea of a party full of them is nightmarish. Not sure why the idea is off putting for me, maybe it’s the fact that I’d have to cook?
15) Do you have any writing rituals?
Just a good strong cup of tea with a spoon of honey.
16) What would your karaoke song be?
Oooft, so many to choose from. I like the sound of nights in white satin coming out from deep inside my belly after four to six beers.
17) What was your first concert?
Moby? Or maybe Bryan Adams. Again the memory is not great.
18) What was the last gift you gave to someone?
Marrow by Robert Reed to my sister in law. Great book.
19) What is your phone screensaver?
My son arsing about in the front of my van.
20) What question should I have asked you?
The answer to life, the universe and everything.
I recently published a gorgeous nonfiction piece by Susannah, https://forgelitmag.com/2020/09/14/hartlepool-beach-extras/. I read it as not only being a memory of a very particular time, but also a meditation on the importance of creativity in a life whether or not anyone else is there to see it. I also interviewed Susannah about the really important stuff; biscuits, drinks and Airwick, amongst other things:
1) How do you organise your bookshelves?
No need—my husband does it. He’s like a librarian—all alphabetised and by subject. He’ll be adding little dewey decimal stickers soon and I’ll get fined for leaving towers of them under the bed.
2) What is your favourite biscuit?
At the risk of sounding utterly pretentious…there’s a little biscuit factory on the road to Mont St Michel in Normandy. I used to be a tour guide and we used to stop there on the way back from the monastery. They sell sablés. Grainy, chunky discs of butter and sugar. I’m glad they are so far away.
3) What is your default pub drink?
Nothing beats a pint of Kronenburg after a long hot walk. Otherwise I’m a middle-aged cliché: prosecco.
4) Do you have a poster/picture on your wall? Describe it.
The house is full of prints and paintings as my parents are artists. But I don’t have any in my writing room. Instead, I have two very shabby felt teddy bears, hand sewn by my twins when they were five. They are glue-stained and wall-eyed and spilling stuffing. I have them to remind me that the liveliest and most interesting creativity isn’t always pretty and tidy.
5) Do you have any phobias? What?
Daddylonglegs aka Craneflies. It’s hard to love a flying spider that swoops at you. I try and fail. Not reached that ‘fail again, fail better’ stage with daddylonglegses yet.
(And it’s the season – arrrggghhh.)
6) Can you make up a poem about an Airwick?
The category of those who make me breathless subdivides into a) ay-ay! rhapsodic beauties of flesh, fur, foliage and b) ack-ack! snatching for my blue inhaler. Don’t take it personally, but, Airwick, love, you’re b.) You’re down there with Lynx.
7) Have you ever had a nickname?
Spuggy. It’s the Geordie word for sparrow. I grew up in Newcastle. My family all still call me Spuggy. But no one else does or should.
8) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?
Shakespeare when he was writing Macbeth or Lear or Merchant of Venice. I’d love the visceral experience of being in his body and mind when that poetry is pouring onto the page. I want to know how he arrived at it, whether he knew how good it was, or was just hacking it out in time for rehearsals.
9) Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?
I believe absolutely anything is possible, so yes.
10) Have you ever written an angry letter to a magazine or newspaper?
Yes, as a self-righteous teen. Never since.
11) Have you ever read someone else’s diary?
Oh, Lord, I so wanted to lie in this answer. But yes. Once. A famous actress was lodging in my parents’ house when we were the only two people in the house. I idolised her, so I snuck into her room and read a couple of pages. She must have realised because she hid from me. I never even got a glimpse of her. Never again. I feel very guilty about that. It’s just wrong. Diaries are not meant from public consumption and they are not, I believe, even true reflections of how people feel—they are steam release. I’ve had my diary read too. Horrible experience.
12) Who is your favourite Neighbours character?
Alf Stewart in Home and Away. I had a very niche crush on him when I was younger.
(To be fair, I agree and still kinda do although I think I might want him to be my dad.)
13) What’s your favourite sweet?
Nougat with almonds.
14) Have you ever seen a ghost?
Apparently. In primary school I was walking to the public baths for our weekly swimming lesson in a crocodile with my friends and we passed a house where an old woman was waving at us through the window, so I stopped and waved back, making the crocodile back up. My friends said, ‘What you doing?’ and I said, ‘Waving at that woman.’ They all said, ‘What woman?’ We all stared at the window. I could see her. They said they couldn’t. And then a girl who lived in that street told me the house was empty and an old woman had died there earlier that week.
15) What is the most over-rated novel?
I can’t pick one but I do think all those pompous, misogynistic, middle-aged white men we were forced to take seriously in the Seventies, who think they have the right to bore on page after page about their groin aches and if you dislike it, you don’t appreciate high art, well they’ve aged pretty badly, haven’t you Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow?
16) Who is your writer crush?
Graham Greene makes me cry. I want to write as well as him so much it hurts. Same is true of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. Recently I snaffled up everything Deborah Levy has ever written and my jaw is on the floor at Michaela Coel’s script for I May Destroy You. I wish it was a novel so I could keep rereading it.
17) What’s your favourite swear?
My husband says arse-biscuits. I have borrowed it from him. It’s very satisfying but breaks a sweat in genteel Surrey where we live now.
18) What would your karaoke song be?
I absolutely can’t sing. The right notes sound in my head, clear and perfect, but an entirely uncontrolled elephantine grunt comes out of my mouth. But if I could sing…ooh… Nope. The idea of singing in public is so appalling to me that my mind has blanked. Can’t even think it.
19) Write me a question for the next Smash Lits interview I do.
Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?
20) What question should I have asked you?
What else do you do with books besides read them?
I hate how it often feels as if the writing world is only opened up by having money. If you can afford to pay for an MA, a writing retreat, a workshop, then you not only pay for the knowledge you gain but also the connections you make. The internet is a leveller. I joined a brilliant online writing group and have learned heaps from other writers, for free. However, if I want to submit my work to competitions there is usually a fee. I moan about this to anyone who will listen. Who will win a flash fiction competition that charges £9 to enter? A writer who can afford it. Someone kindly suggested on twitter I could email competitions and ask if they have reduced entry fees for those with a restricted income. It’s a terrific idea to offer such places. The truth is I can pay a £9 entry fee if I really want to, but I choose not to. I want the playing field I am on to be as open as possible.
I’m the Managing Editor of The Forge and we pay writers thanks to the generosity of John and Yosh Haggerty and the writers who submit using our $3 tip jar option. I know it’s unusual to have this private backing and it’s a privilege. I understand the need to charge money to make the prize fund. But… £9 for 300 words?
We are holding our annual flash competition this September and the prize is $500, publication, and, a 2-year subscription to Duotrope (thanks Duotrope). It is free to enter until we hit our Submittable limit of 300. There is also a tip jar option. Our tagline is “Literary excellence is our only criteria.” And it’s true. We are looking for stunning writing and that’s it. We are open to all voices with any background, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual and personal identity. I’m very proud of what we offer and would be grateful if you spread the word. Because it is rare to offer something for nothing I expect we will be inundated so to be sure of free entry get ready to sub asap. I know the writer tendency is to wait for the deadline (September 14th) and then fling something in just before midnight in a last-second scramble but we open on September 1st.
I’m looking forward to reading your work.
(I’m posting this on my personal blog because these are my personal views and I don’t speak for any other member of The Forge.)
This is one of those deceptively slight books – it is packed with meaning. Offill writes bitesize witticisms (perfect for these tweety doom days) as we spend time with Lizzie the college librarian, a woman who feels so familiar to me, only way smarter and funnier than anyone I actually know.
“I remind myself (as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.”
Unsurprisingly for a book called Weather, Lizzie is deeply concerned with climate change but Offill has a light touch. Her pithy paragraphs contain wit, science and fun and carry the weight easily. Her brother is an addict, her husband works in IT, she has a young son, she works in a library where she is a research goddess, and she spends time answering emails about climate change sent to a podcast.
Honestly, this is my book of the year so far. I love how the fragments and thoughts and tips build and build and become a portrait of a woman looking at the end of the world. It feels honest and frightening but also beautifully human and hopeful.
Of course, my favourite line is, “How do you know all this?” “I’m a fucking librarian.”
(I’ve recommended this to a ton of people already and all of them have loved it too. Do it!)
The Levitation is a brilliant one-sentence story by Jennifer Todhunter – do read it. Jennifer also took part in one of my Smash Lits interviews. (I so agree about the peanuts and chocolate thing.)
1) What is your favourite cheese?
2) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?
Bacon-wrapped tofu. They’re both winners in my book.
3) What colour is Thursday?
Sort of a see-through/shimmery colour, like everything in the Night on Earth documentary.
4) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?
Alice Munro because she’s a short story master and because Munro’s Books is in my hometown.
5) Do you believe human beings can levitate?
I believe human beings want to believe they can levitate.
6) Buffy or Veronica Mars?
7) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?
Fossils I found in the clay banks outside the pub my parents owned. A snail, in particular.
8) How do you stop procrastinating and get on with writing?
Insomnia and sporadic workshops.
9) Do you have any recurring dreams?
When I was a kid, I dreamed about my house burning down while I watched from the driveway a lot. I remember knowing what was coming and not being able to wake up, which was the worst.
10) What’s your favourite sweet?
I’m down with any peanut butter/chocolate combo. A friend told me he ate peanut butter + nutella today and that sounded like the best. I might actually try that now.
11) Do you have a fave meme? What?
I don’t, I’m sorry. I’m a pop culture idiot.
12) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?
His name was Casey. He lived next door which apparently confused our neighbour.
13) What did you do last Saturday night?
It was mellow. There was a bonfire and sweet tunes, so the best kind of mellow. Best kind of night, really.
14) Who is your writer crush?
Currently, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Samantha Irby. I can’t pick one, their work kills me in different ways.
15) What are your windows like?
Dirty and wide-open.
16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Jenny Offill?
I’m more of a soup person, and I feel like Jenny Offill might be too? I’d bring tortilla soup with all the toppings: tortillas, avocado, sriracha, cojita, cilantro, lime. The soup would be spicy enough to make the insides of your eardrums itch and would leave you wanting more. Speaking of wanting more, peanut butter + nutella = heaven on a spoon.
17) What question should I have asked you?
Late nights or early mornings? (Both.)
18) What’s your favourite swear?
I love a good fuck.
19) What word or words make you cringe?
I have three cringe-worthy words, I recently told my kids what they were, they won’t stop saying them, so you’d better believe I’m not telling the interwebz.
20) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.
Favourite-all-time-forever-never-let-you-down song? (Blind Love by Tom Waits.)
I’ve been working in a prison library and teaching creative writing there for a few years now. I’m fortunate to do a job I love and find meaningful and I spend a lot of time talking to prisoners about their lives. It’s pretty impossible to take part in a creative writing group without revealing something of yourself (although at least one person has managed) and I see it as a privilege to be part of a process that helps people open up and explore their creativity. I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed away from writing any prison based fiction for so long. I want to be respectful and would hate to be exploitative. I try to encourage the men to write their own stories. (Saying that there are a few guys whose stories I would love to write. I do have a little fantasy of doing a Three Women kinda thing where I could follow up on their lives for 10 years or so – it’d be fascinating – before and after prison. I’m fairly sure the prison wouldn’t agree though.)
When you spend time in a place it inevitably seeps into your writing and I have begun a series of short prison stories. They are fiction and aren’t based on anyone real. I am, however, grateful to some of the guys for their assistance with details about kettle cooking and help with language. I learnt some stuff. Apparently, nobody would ever call another prisoner a dude unless they were a “middle class, middle aged wanker from Cornwall.” Also, if you need to know how to jam a kettle switch to make it a hotplate, I’m your gal.
Thanks to The Mechanics’ Institute Review for publishing my story, Doing Time.