Twenty-third in a series of author-to-author interviews to distract them, and you, from lockdown torpor.
Nina: What motivates you? How do you ensure you get the motivation you need?
Cathy: I’ve written since I was a child, and I read and wrote throughout a very unhappy childhood. Books were my escape then, and they’re my pleasure now. Both reading and writing, I still feel that urgency, that excitement that I felt when I was little—particularly that charge one gets when reading a book that one knows is going to be special. Sometimes I lose myself in writing a piece that works, and feel that same urgency. Not always! But I don’t need extra motivation—writing is what I do and who I am, and always has been. Though money is useful too! I know I’m supposed to be above such things as a writer, but I still have bills to pay.
Nina: What throws you off? What do you do to regain your composure?
Cathy: Physical pain, due to arthritis and fibromyalgia and a bunch of other stuff. It’s why I can’t keep a regular routine of the type that is supposed to be so helpful. What I do is let myself off the hook—it’s not my fault, after all. I can also use the time for daydreaming (i.e. constructive idea generation!) or other mind exercises.
Nina: Tell me about a collaboration that was unexpectedly successful. Or, conversely, recall a collaboration that should have worked well but did not.
Cathy: They say don’t work with animals, children—or your spouse. Keir worked with me and several others on the three Best of Manchester Poets anthologies, and it was a wonderful experience. We all discussed and debated things and did a fair bit of complaining, but, on the whole, it was a warm and empowering project. One launch night we had 42 poets performing, and we finished on time and with everyone happy!
Another experience that stands out was working with a dancer for an ‘Inspired by Tagore’ performance run by Sampad. My poem had won a competition with them, and as I read it to the audience, a dancer called Shuma Pal danced. It was very special. She wasn’t happy with her performance, but I thought she was wonderful!
Nina: What skills would you like to learn/acquire? If you could learn anything, and time/money were no object, what would it be and why?
Cathy: I’ll be honest here—fighting pain is my main goal, so that I can continue reading and writing as much as possible. Taking care of my health is a boring but necessary job. If I could learn anything: flying aircraft, dermatology (since I had to work on someone’s cyst I’ve been peculiarly enthralled—yes I know it’s weird!), goldsmithing, botany (so I wouldn’t have to say things like, “That puffy bird that looks like a sponge was on top of the bush with red bits this morning,”), and I’d write a disabled Kama Sutra (one can get great wedges and supports and things these days).
Nina: What type of information do you seek and consume daily? How useful is this information to you? How does it affect your work?
Cathy: I do read a bit of the news—as much as my mental health can stand. Sometimes I write topical poems, political satire and so forth (a recent example is a poem called, Donald Trump Cures Everything). Since we moved into our own home last year, I’ve had a garden for the first time since leaving my parents. I’ve been learning the names of the plants and how to care for them. I’ve always loved birds, and some of my significant childhood experiences centered on them, so now I’m trying to get to know those in my garden. Recently I’ve been writing about a female blackbird in our front garden who seems to be in love with her own reflection, and tries to mate with herself. So nature is featuring more in my recent work. There’s also the journey of marriage, which is a strange and wonderful garden in itself, and which I am stumbling through!
Nina: If you are a goal-setting kind of writer, what are your goals for the rest of this year? What, in your opinion, would be one practical thing that a creative person should accomplish in, say, six months?
Cathy: I think it depends on the writer. These set goals can be impossible for those with chronic health conditions or disabilities. I would say, just keep trying, keep writing when you can, and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Research apps or other software to help with health problems—for instance, speech-activated dictation software is much improved.
Nina: What practices do you have in place to ensure that you solicit frank feedback that is helpful to you?
Cathy: Submitting my finished and proofed piece to a litmag that pays. I used to go to writing groups a lot, but having recently moved I’m still looking for the right one here. As far as feedback from editors goes—if they accept it, they like it, which is useful and remunerative feedback. If they reject it, sometimes they add a note saying, “We loved this except for…” which is incredibly useful. Appreciative and constructive editors are pure gold.
Nina: What public/media engagements have you found to be most effective in promoting your work? What kind of opportunity do you wish to see more of? (pardon the clunky grammar).
Cathy: I like clunky grammar—it’s human and fun! I am limited with performances by my mobility problems and mental health issues. This makes me appreciate my publisher, Cherry Potts at Arachne, even more—I can’t be the dynamic person zooming around festivals and doing performances every week. I use social media—I love Facebook, and as I love to entertain people, I do share links to my work there with any funny poems or posts. I am conscious that I don’t do enough.
Nina: In your typical workweek, what tasks do you tend to complete first? What resources do you regularly draw upon?
Cathy: The morning is for admin, as it’s my best time physically. This is the time for proofing and submitting work, for editing and emailing. I subscribe to Duotrope—it pays for itself every year, for me—and have a lifetime subscription to Firstwriter. I use these and many more websites to collate my Comps and Calls, a monthly list of opportunities for writers. I only list free writing competitions (yes, they are worth doing—I won $1000 for a previously published poem, among many other wins) and submission calls without entry fees (which fees I consider an abomination). Afternoons are for rest. Evenings are for dreaming and writing.
I also take a lot of meds. If I gave a speech, it would begin, “I’d like to thank tramadol, naproxen, bendroflumethiazide…”
Nina: Who are the people/groups to whom you turn? What resources do you still need?
Cathy: I do Napowrimo every year now, as I always seem to get about ten decent pieces out of it. The pieces that aren’t great have still exercised my writing muscles, got my brain working.
The people I turn to are my friends—I have many wonderful friends who are writers too. The writing community is one of my favourite places—so warm, so understanding, so helpful to those who want to enter it, or are having problems within it. I owe a great debt to other writers.
Keir and I are both writers, so we bounce ideas off each other all the time.
Nina: When people seek you out, why do they turn to you in particular? What do they want from you? Are you comfortable with that, or would you rather it were something else?
Cathy: When people turn to me, it’s usually because of my writing success—27 literary awards and writing competition wins, plus several books published, plus hundreds of pieces in litmags. They ask all sorts of things, from how to write a great book, how to find an agent, how to get their stories and poems published, what terms mean (such as ‘MS’ or ‘spec fic’) or if there are any litmags available for people of their nationality, or age, or belief system. I do my best to answer helpfully, remembering the free help I got when I needed it and was broke. But it’s impossible to give everyone the in-depth help they need or want. I just bumble along, doing my best when I can.
Once Robert Graves received a letter from a businessman. He wrote that he’d had a good year, and as he enjoyed Graves’ work he was sending him £400. Now that’s the sort of message I’d like to receive! I do get fan mail sometimes, and it fills me with joy. I still have a need for validation, and when someone messages me to say that they enjoyed something I wrote or performed, I’m walking on air for days. People do donate to keep Comps and Calls going, and I love them for their thoughtfulness.
Nina: How’s your social media presence? Is there anyone whose social media presence you feel is useful and meaningful?
Cathy: I spend too much time on Facebook, though I’ve also had great opportunities from there. As so often, my inspiration there comes from other writers, and editors and publishers—I’ll name a few names here: Dominic Berry, Karen Little, Ayesha Kajee, Cherry at Arachne, Teika Bellamy at Mother’s Milk, Rosie Garland, Angela Smith, Sheenagh Pugh and Steve O’Connor. Fiona Pitt-Kethley is astonishing in all sorts of ways. Apologies to those I haven’t mentioned, a good gross or so of whom (clunky grammar alert) are extremely important to me—the above list is a cross-section.
Nina: How can one make money from writing?
Cathy: There are loads of ways, though my health makes many of them impossible. Dominic Berry goes into schools, for instance, and entertains the children and gets them interested in poetry and writing poetry—he’s the most lovely writer, performer and person. Then there are poets such as Akiel Chinelo who go into prisons and help the inmates via poetry. These are ways of earning money while helping people and writing, all at the same time. Some folk of an academic bent have become creative writing lecturers, a proper job based on writing. Other writers—and I can think of two fabulous ones, who might not want to be named—take the corporate wage and become either content writers or in-house writers. This is less creative but more remunerative, and it depends on each writer’s circumstances what is appropriate.
I struggle to do these things as I often have to cancel events due to my health flaring up. I do run the occasional workshop (£80 per two-hour session if you’d like to hire me, folks), usually specialising in getting published and/or entering writing competitions, as these are my specialist areas. Mainly for me, though, I make money from winning writing competitions, and submitting my stories and poetry to litmags. This is not a way to get rich! I’m very prolific, so I write and submit loads—over 400 submissions one year.
Bonus: What question would you like to be asked?
Ooh! Ooh! Exciting! Umm….what would I like for my birthday? I don’t know, so not that…
What do you need to do, Cathy?
I need to stop self-rejecting my manuscript of woman-centered science fiction and fantasy stories. I keep thinking, I’d like to write an intro or afterword to each piece, and an introduction. I keep thinking that it might not be good enough for Arachne (I know that lockdown is a rotten time to publish, so I’m not sending them off anyway at the moment). In other words, I’m doing all the things that stopped me from submitting my work for decades. [Note from Arachne. We have told Cathy she is a noodle and to send at once.]
I need to remember that almost all writers feel like that.
I need to remember my own writing mantra: give it a go. Keep trying. have a go!
You can buy all the Arachne books mentioned from our webshop, we will post them out to you.