Cathy Grindrod on How to ‘Wave and Not Drown’ as a Professional Writer.
I first met Cathy Grindrod when she taught me poetry. It was a course I made myself do because I had to enter my ‘Room 101’. For me, poetry was a hell inflicted on you when someone who couldn’t teach English well knew you were a captive audience. It was a view brought on after years of being made to recite poetry that was considered to be literature that every well educated child should know. Wordsworth ‘Daffodils’ still creates an urge in me to run screaming from the room. Cathy is responsible to making me look at poetry from a different perspective and her influence has given me the desire to fill my shelves with books of poetry.
Later on, I was fortunate enough to win a place on a business course run by Cathy at the University of Nottingham (which she mentions in the interview). Once again she gave me the confidence to think of myself as a writer and encouraged me to try things I might never have thought of doing on my own.
Not that I’m trying to promote her services (her interview is far more eloquent on that score), but if you ever see any workshops with Cathy’s name attached, I urge you to attend.
Why did you want to become a poet?
I don’t think I actually ‘wanted to become a poet’. I think it was more that I dreamed of becoming a writer, probably from an early age, but when I was at school it was not one of those things that was thought of as a viable option by teachers or careers advisors! There were no projects that encouraged school children to write in the way that there is now. So writing was seen as something that you played at in your spare time. It took years before I thought about it seriously. I did English at school and loved it, but it wasn’t until I was in my thirties, when I joined a writer’s club, because I’d been thinking, ‘I’ve wanted to do this for ages, so now’s the time to get on and do it’ that I got on with it. I tried all the main types of writing for a year and decided by elimination that poetry was the one I couldn’t be without. So I thought I’d put all my eggs into one basket and concentrate on that.
So I think it was more that poetry found me. And that not writing wasn’t an option.
How did you acquire the skills to become a poet?
It’s like an apprenticeship. You can’t teach someone to write poetry. You can only write successful poetry by being interested in it and reading a lot of it, sharing your work with other people, looking at what other people are writing. Yes there are techniques that show you what you should and shouldn’t do, but there are very few of them and you can always break the rules anyway. So you can be taught to improve your technique, but I don’t think you can be taught to write poetry as such. My apprenticeship was very much about having a look at what everyone else was doing and reading some modern poetry because I didn’t have much of a clue when I started. I discovered different poets and went to different poetry readings to see what everyone else was doing and discovered the kind of things I wanted to be writing. I suppose you could say I improved by a process of osmosis. It ends up seeping into you somehow. I also learned by writing poetry – just doing it. Once I began to have success I began to feel I must be doing something right.
How did you know you were becoming successful as a poet?
Because when I joined the writer’s club they had competitions every month. One of them was poetry and I kept winning. Although it was limited to writing club members so there weren’t a large amount of entrants, a couple of the club members were poets, so this encouraged me.
After that it was about getting my first poem published in a poetry magazine. I got a couple of poems published and then I was a feature poet. After that it was a matter of constantly submitting single poems to magazines and going in for competitions. I got as many rejections and not getting anywhere in competitions as I did successful attempts. That’s how it works.
I also went to the arts library in Nottingham and read everything they had on poetry and how to get it published. I think if you’re serious about becoming a poet, you put as much effort into the practical business side of it as you do the writing.
I have to say my writing has changed a great deal over the years. What I wrote in the early years is very different from what I’m doing now.
In what way do you think your writing has changed?
I don’t need to think as hard, because I think words flow more easily than they did. I look back at my early work and think, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t do that now’. But I wouldn’t, because I’m a constantly changing person and my writing changes with me, as it does for everyone.
I don’t tend to search for subjects anymore, I just go with the flow. I don’t tend to worry so much about how much I’m writing or how little.
So what’s your technique? Do you just throw words down on the page, not worrying about how messy the first draft looks?
Yes I do, but saying that, because I’ve spent such a long time more recently writing for other people or specific commissions, I have found it quite difficult to get back to writing just for myself. But it’s happening. I have a list of poems I’ve just started, some that are part way through, some that are finished and then some that are just ideas that I need to develop. So I have plenty of my own stuff put to one side to work on for when I’m not busy.
This is good psychologically for me, because I like to have lots on paper and lots of mess, so that I’ve just got to edit it. A blank piece of paper is not good for me.
Now you’ve acquired a great deal of experience and an ear for poetry and you’ve got an idea of what works and what doesn’t, which helps you professionally. But what about people who are starting out as writers? How useful are these writers’ groups?
It’s useful because people usually start writing in isolation, sometimes hiding it under the bed or in a drawer, especially if you start as a teenager, as I did. There comes a point where you can’t write in isolation anymore if you want to write seriously. The first step is to find other people who are also doing the same thing. Having other people look at your work and you looking at theirs changes how you think about your writing.
Going to writing workshops or classes can also be good for your writing, because this means you can learn from what everyone else is doing and helps you to get some idea of where you are in the scheme of things. So yes I think it’s really important.
Having said that it’s important to find the right sort of group for you, where you feel comfortable, where you’re getting the right sort of feedback that’s constructive.
Although it very much depends on what stage you’re at. For example, if you’re just beginning to think about writing then you need to be in a group where they’re writing just for pleasure and not critiquing writing. It’s a case of getting together and getting used to reading your work out.
I have groups of many kinds – some with writers who are just starting out, some who want to improve and some who want more in-depth constructive criticism.
I tell people that it’s important that you should always enjoy writing and find the best way for you to be with other writers that can enhance that enjoyment.
So what sort of groups do you run?
I’ve run a variety of courses, from university level writing modules in writing poetry, feedback on your writing, and how to become a writer working in the community, to writing for wellbeing groups. The wellbeing groups are for mental health service users and others. They set their own aims, write for pleasure and also enjoy the social aspect of writing. They enjoy learning and challenges and do brilliantly. The work is very rewarding and the group’s great fun to work with.
I also run a poetry group that’s been going for some time now. They are different again. They all write to a high standard and some of them have begun to be published. They do intense critiquing and learning when they meet.
I have just started a writer residency in a secondary school, where I will lead weekly writing sessions with a group of 13-14 year olds after school for the First Story project. Another group I lead is a creative writing group for the over 55s who meet weekly – this group is a mix of writing for pleasure and improving your work with group feedback.
I wouldn’t say that intrinsically any of those groups are so different. There is a slightly different focus, but I often end up doing the same exercises. In fact I could use the same exercises that I do with seven-year-olds as I do with the over seventies, because they can all be adapted to meet everyone’s needs – and adults need to ‘play’ with writing as much as children, maybe even more so.
Why did you decide to become a professional writer and how did you know you could make it as a professional writer?
Well I couldn’t be sure I could make a living from it. I began by writing in my spare time and began to be published. My paid job was in administration. What happened was that the two came together. I was made redundant in 2000 just as a job for poetry co-ordinator came up in Newark and Sherwood. They wanted poetry bringing to the whole district for a year. So I thought, ‘Well that’s a bit of risk, it only lasts for a year’ but I took it on anyway.
I loved it and it worked well for me because it needed the type of admin and project skills I already had, plus the interest in writing, which I wanted to develop. So I spent the whole year doing that and it was a real baptism of fire. It was all about people and getting them to write and asking poets to participate in various activities and events. I ran the first Southwell Poetry Festival, helped out with Lowdham Book Festival. There were all sorts of things I did in that year. All the work then ended up in a publication of a book of everyone’s poetry at the end of it all.
I knew after that, that I wanted writing to be involved in my working life full-time. The job had involved lots of lone working and was quite stressful, but was what I wanted to do. At the end of it there was part-time vacancy for Literature Development Officer for Nottingham City Council. I was able to secure that job because of my experience in Newark and Sherwood. It was a part-time job, so I needed to find freelance work alongside it, such as tutoring. It worked well because I live in Derbyshire so I could support and develop Nottingham writers, but develop my own work in a neighbouring county so there was no conflict of interest. When the Literature Officer job ended, I became freelance and developed the writing side of my life further. I’ve been freelance for five years. There are ups and down, but I’ve been able to successfully earn a living. But it has meant that I have had to do lots of different things; have many strings to my bow.
Yes because most writers can’t make enough money just from writing can they? So if you want to be involved in writing full-time you have to be fairly flexible?
Yes, without a doubt. It is largely writing related activities, rather than the writing itself that brings in the money. Even for very successful writers. So the best jobs are the ones that involve your writing with other people’s writing, like Residency positions, so you’re getting paid for a bit of both which is nice.
I have done a range of different things as a writer, including tutoring, consultancy work and project and event management, including projects at HMP Nottingham and HMP Sudbury.
What services do you offer for writers apart from workshops and courses?
I offer mentoring – this can take any form, and can concentrate on either ‘the writing life’ or critiquing of work – and Professional Development Planning (PDP) sessions for individuals and groups. The latter is designed to set goals for improving the balance of writing in your life and setting writing goals, and developing a new approach to your working life. It can be particularly useful at a time of change, for ‘taking stock’. I can also run ‘Business of Writing’ courses or sessions for writers wanting to become freelance to any extent. These can all be done individually or a group of writers can form themselves into a group to share costs.
You’re a good example of engaging in all sorts of different writing, because you’ve branched out into more than just poetry. Would you talk about that?
I think two things happened. Firstly I was Consultant to the Derbyshire Wellbeing project, which involved setting up and leading wellbeing writing groups, which led me to leading general creative writing sessions, rather than specialising in poetry, so it all developed from there. If you’re teaching people creative writing you naturally learn quite a bit more about it yourself. After this my own writing became more general. But it was also a matter of needing some variety and a new challenge. That was when I got accepted on the playwriting project. I’ve written two short and one long play since then.
What I loved about playwriting is the fact that for me, scriptwriting involves a completely different process in which I get totally immersed for hours, whereas poetry has always been for me, a portable art, good for writing in cafes or on buses and trains. I also enjoy the chance to collaborate with other people. In scriptwriting, once it gets to a certain stage, it goes to other people who have to act it and direct it, with your input. I love all of that collaborative process. I feel at home with it.
So as a professional writer it’s a case of having a lot of transferable skills?
Yes, it’s the key. It’s also a case of realising, which I didn’t for a while, that when you’re a writer, you’re a writer. So I am a writer who mainly writes poetry and plays and that’s how I describe myself now. But if I wanted to, I could do other types of writing. So I do think it’s important for a writer not to see themselves as boxed in. It a matter of realising you can write anything, but you have chosen to specialise in particular areas, and can diversify if you want to.
What about these plays you have written? How did they come about?
I’d written a monologue because I’d seen a competition ‘Arrivals and Departures’, organised by New Perspectives Theatre company in and they wanted a fifteen minute monologue on that theme, the winning ones to be performed.
So I thought ‘surely it can’t be that difficult to write a monologue?’ I’d never done it before, so I did a web search to get some information on how to write a monologue, then I wrote it! I had what I thought was a good idea to use and it won second prize. I was amazed. But when I wrote it, it felt like a good piece and I don’t often say that, but I do sometimes know when I’ve done something that’s ok. So that was how I got the bug. Because seeing my work performed gave it a whole different angle.
After that I went on a scriptwriting weekend to try writing plays. That was what really got me interested. That course taught me the basics in a day. Then I applied for the ‘Crossovers’ project, which was a scheme for established writers moving genres. I got a place and it was a brilliant project. It was a Theatre Writing Partnership initiative and we got quite a lot of intensive theatre writing workshops with various people, and theatre visits to productions so we could see theatre in action. We also had a mentor to take us through the process. The deadline for producing something was six months later. We had to come up with a half hour script that was going to be showcased at Leicester Curve. Once that had happened we finished the work and my full play was performed the following year at Derby Guildhall Theatre.
I found the experience very daunting at first, although I made a good friend on the course, who is also a poet in Leicester. In a break in the first workshop we looked at each other and said, ‘Do you think we’ve possibly set ourselves an impossible challenge here?’ I think of that sometimes because we’ve both gone on to write successful pieces and it’s how my whole career has been – ‘say yes, try to believe you can actually do it, then do it’.
It was difficult at first writing the play, because I learned so much about plays and playwriting that all that information was flooding into my head while writing. I think we all went through a period of just not being able to move forward. Then I had a breakthrough when I realised that what I had to do was leave what I’d learned aside and just write what came naturally. Then think about what worked theatrically afterwards. Once that happened, I really began to enjoy it. I began to use a quite different process from writing poetry. I would need a few hours at a time to sit down and take the play forward, because I needed to immerse myself so much in it. I’m never like that with poetry. Poetry is ‘on the hoof’, a bit at a time and just drop it. But the play really needed me to concentrate. It was amazing how fast time went, when I did this. I had never been so totally immersed in what I was writing. It almost became as if someone else wrote the words.
So has that changed your approach to poetry or your writing in general?
No. I’m still writing poetry in the same way. It just that they are two different processes, so I approach them in two different ways. But it’s very refreshing to do something different. So I would like to do more scriptwriting, especially as it’s collaborative. I wrote the libretto to the oratorio ‘More Glass Than Wall’ as part of a large project, working in collaboration with composer, James Redwood, and I loved that collaboration as well.
It seems from what you’re telling me that getting work as a writer can be through word of mouth, but are there other ways a writer can find out about job opportunities and particularly getting funding?
There are positions advertised in the arts jobs sections of some websites and in newsletters. If you’re on the right mailing lists you can get to hear about what’s happening. Writing East Midlands advertises regional events and opportunities regularly.
My work comes from a mixture of applying for positions and by word of mouth in that people tend to recommend me to others in the same field. Networking at meetings and events helps – purely because people take the opportunity there to discuss projects. The more people that know your face and what you’re doing, the more likely they’ll want to collaborate with you. There are lots of organisations that are just general arts organisations, who don’t know any writers and when they find out you share the same agenda, they will discuss ways you can work with them.
If writers have an idea for a project involving others, they can set up their own organisation quite easily in order to apply for funding from various bodies. I highly recommend NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education), Writers’ Compass and the Arts Derbyshire website for information for those wanting to work in the writing world.
You have been involved in some quite notable posts, the poet laureate for Derbyshire, being one of them. How did you get that job and what did it involve?
I applied for it. It was a post advertised by Derbyshire County Council Leisure and Community Services department. There were three main specifications to the job. You had to live or work in Derbyshire. You had to be someone with experience of leading workshops and similar activities. You needed to have a passion for poetry that you could pass on to other people.
It was a brilliant experience. I was paid to write six commissioned poems, lead several workshops and make a number of public appearances But I could also choose to take on any other work requested of me by organisations.
I was lucky because the scheme had a very good manager (Alison Betteridge, the Literature Development Officer for Derbyshire), who really made the post work. In fact it worked so well they extended my post to two years. Derbyshire now has its fourth Laureate in place, so it has become a very successful and popular scheme, now in its eighth year.
I actually wrote over 30 poems about Derbyshire in those two years, not because I had to, but because I was out and about and seeing a lot of Derbyshire and discovering things about the area I didn’t know. It also gave me a keen interest in local histories and I gained a lot of ideas and inspiration as a result of this. I think being valued as a poet, and being paid for my work gave me assurance and was a validation of my poetry, making me prolific during that period! Writing among people with purpose certainly beat writing alone in my garret, and my poetry went to the places it was meant for, for a more general and wider audience.
So it was a useful experience both personally and professionally. It was a defining experience because after that I was offered a lot of different job opportunities that led me into all sorts of different directions.
I know you’ve been a writer in residence at the University of Nottingham, but what is a writer in residence?
Residencies mean you are attached to a place for a certain period of time. I suppose the Laureate was a residency, but for a whole County. The University scheme was one of many things I have done under a ‘residency’ banner.
A residency is usually about your own writing, plus the writing of other people, each inspiring the other.
I’m just starting as Writer in Residence for two terms at Ellis Guilford school in Nottingham where I’ll be resident for two terms, working with an after school group to produce an anthology.
The University residence was very specific because it was a residency on the business of writing and they wanted me to engage some of the students doing the BA in Creative and Professional Writing, who wanted to become professional writers. This was to enable them to find out from someone in the business, what that life was like and what you could do with it. So it was very much about me sharing my experience. The writing associated with this job was about producing a piece of creative non-fiction about my writing life, which is ongoing. I do specialise now in helping writers to become more versatile.
Residencies can happen anywhere from prisons to schools to supermarkets to football clubs, from markets to railway stations and for any number of different organisations.
What would you say to someone who wanted to become a professional writer?
I would say, ‘Don’t leave your day job’ because it does take time. It is an evolving process. For me it took 8 years to develop a career. Have a steady part-time job if possible, and build up your freelance work in your free hours.
It’s very hard work and it definitely takes you away from your own writing, because all the professional things you can do as a writer are always going to be about other people’s writing and helping other people. So this is always time when you’re not helping yourself.
It’s certainly something you need to think carefully about. Some writers do it completely differently and have a main career in something else. I recently met a prizewinning writer who deliberately works part time on data input, because it’s repetitive work and frees his mind up for the creative side of his life. Of course, writers can become freelance in smaller ways – working with others now and then when time allows.
If you choose the full time route I’ve taken, you do have to do many different things to bring the money in, as well as being your own secretary, accountant, PR expert etc. It can burn you out. So I would really hesitate before I advise anyone to go freelance, especially these days, because the recession has made it a lot harder to earn a living this way.
You also have to have a head for business to some extent, because business skills are vital if you are to be successful. And to learn what jobs to take and not take on; focus is vital.
I won’t pretend it’s not very hard at times, but it’s a great life and I love it. When I’m driving my favourite Derbyshire route to lead a certain group eager to read out their ‘homework’ and will have us all laughing throughout the session, I usually think at least once on the journey, ‘Not bad getting paid to do this’.
Cathy will be at the Theatre Royal’s 55+ Writing Group presentation of their work. Sunday 17th February 10.00am – 11.00am NTU Newton Arkwright Building. The Nottingham Festival of Words.