Older Women Writers: Cheryl Powell

Continuing our conversation with older women writers, a contribution from Cheryl Powell who has a story in Menopause: The Anthology due out October 2023

If it wasn’t for the menopause and mid-life malcontentment, I wouldn’t have started writing. So, thank you, hormones. Without the hot sweats, anxiety attacks, brain fog and crises of confidence, I might never have explored the joy of storytelling.

So, this is how it happened. I was in my early fifties and had been self-employed in public relations and copywriting for more than twenty years. All going along without a hitch. Then one day, quite out of the blue, I had a meltdown. I felt I didn’t know what I was doing, couldn’t think straight; I was a fraud, an imposter and hopelessly out of my depth. Looking back, I realise I had typical menopause symptoms.  At the time, I wondered if I’d always been inept, but had only just rumbled it.

It was January, I took time out from work and – so I didn’t feel totally without purpose – did an ‘introduction to teaching’ course at my local college. By September I was teaching English GCSE to disenchanted car mechanic, social care, early years and hairdressing students, some of whom were on the course because they simply didn’t know what else to do.  My first class involved stopping motor mechanic students from dangling a tyre out of the window and trying to persuade them to sit down and put their phones away. If I’d wanted to throw myself to the lions in a fit of self-loathing, this was as good a start as any.

But, here’s the thing. English GCSE has a 40-mark creative writing question. I bloody loved that question.  I loved preparing class materials for it, teaching it and even writing a response to the question myself.   Even though my students were generally a tough crowd, there were occasions I felt I actually did teach a few of them something and, more importantly, helped them to find their inner creativity, which can do a lot to nurture self-confidence.

The upshot: I started writing. I joined a fantastic writers’ group in Solihull, submitted a few flash fiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, got one or two accepted, and submitted more. My stories are dark and speculative and explore what it is to be human, and the hell we bring upon ourselves.  Pretty glum, sometimes, admitted, but often with a knife-slide humour.  They’ve been performed by the Liars’ League in London and Hong Kong, and appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Arachne Press’s Menopause anthology, due out in October this year.

In 2018 I completed an MA in Writing at Warwick University. I had the absolute time of my life. Me, a woman of advancing years, a student again, in the much-revered Writing Room at Warwick. Well, how ridiculous. Yet, I found out that young people, though awesome, didn’t have the monopoly on creativity and talent. Some of the best writers on the course were those who, yes, had talent, but were also older and had life experience. That was heartening.

I now live in Worcestershire where I have started a local writing group, deliver writing workshops and also go on writing retreats twice a year with some longstanding writer friends. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”



older women writers: Kate Foley

Continuing our series of commentary from older women writers, here is Kate Foley on the huge gap between first experience of making poetry poet and actually getting published 45 years later. Also, video interview from when we first published Kate, in October 2016, with her collection The Don’t Touch Garden (also available as an audio book)

The Don’t Touch Garden

Up on the wild and lonely moors/ a keen wind is blowing./ The heather and the yellow gorse/ are in profusion growing….’  I wrote, aged 11 in my first convent grammar school year. ‘That’s poetry’  said my lion-headed English teacher. So I knew that I was destined to become a poet. 

My second stroke of luck happened when I was 56 at a bookshop ‘do’ when I’d thrust a few poems on Lilian Mohin, publisher of Onlywomen press, who raised her eyebrows wearily. Next day the phone rang and a voice said ‘I want to do a book!’ Now nearly 30 years and 11 publications later I still don’t know where the difference between being a poet and making poetry lies. Is it because I’m a woman in a world largely occupied by men in the being a poet bit? Nah! True but too easy! Time left only to savour that moment when one word fits another creating a nest for the rare and magical egg of poetry.

Tomorrow – Margaret Crompton

Continuing our conversation with older women writers Margaret Crompton, contributor to Arachne anthologies, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book, and  Tymes goe by Turnes, writes about her work as a playwright in her 80’s

 My first play was not a success. In Usurper Usurp’d, written for Junior Dramatic Society, the heroine conquers the heart of the conqueror’s son. The entire plot is in the title for, then as now, I had no idea how to develop action. After that,  play-writing was confined to my brief JDS portrayal of  William Shakespeare composing Macbeth’s Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech.

Many of my own tomorrows produced thousands of written words: articles,  lectures, poems, reviews, short stories, flash fiction, books and blogs. But no more plays.

A university boyfriend who planned to be a novelist took me to Nottingham in homage to D H Lawrence. But I chose the Drama option, two years with Greeks, Jacobeans and Ibsen. Voices. More voices in my postgraduate courses;  training for social work, I could remember and record an entire hour-long interview, word for word. Deep listening behind the words. Really hearing. Paying attention.

Now most of my tomorrows have become yesterdays. Every tomorrow counts. Every word. Every voice in my head. At 70 or thereabouts, I began a new adventure – I wrote a play.  That’s a story for another blog. It’s important today, because it has led to me writing this, when I should be preparing for tomorrow. A (much) older woman writer, on the eve of performance of Anne Askew, my fourth play for the small ensemble for which I write and direct (Script in Hand).The first performance was in the Assembly Rooms (2019), then Cathedral Chapter House (2021). Tomorrow will be our first production in a beautiful Medieval city-centre church, our first Saturday afternoon, our first collaboration with musicians from an Early Music ensemble (1685).

My scripts, and the fine Script in Hand actors, give voices to women with local connections. Through them, I have a voice. For example, Anne Askew read the Bible illegally in Lincoln Cathedral and was harassed by priests. In 1546, caught up in political conspiracy she was burnt for heresy, in London. Her courage, peaceful protest, and fidelity to her co-religionists, enable me to ask questions about freedom, loyalty, justice. Her father asks Eve, a woman of the present day, For what would you go to the stake, like my Anne?

Later,  Anne asks Eve: Do you believe you’re free to not believe whatever you choose? Eve answers: I haven’t thought about it.  Anne: “Not thinking” is the greatest freedom of all. But foolish.  Eve: Why? Anne Because if you are not aware of your freedom it may easily be stolen without you even being aware that it is lost. 

It takes a year to write a play. I revel in the research, ideas, finding ways to bring people to life through words. Whenever possible I use their own words (journals, letters). Dr John Bale selects points from the copious editorial comments in which  he embedded Anne Askew’s written record of her interrogations, (which had been smuggled out of England after her death). Bishop John Longland reads from his sermon. But my plays are works of imagination, not lectures. As I write, I listen to the voices,  attend to the people. I can even write for the actors, knowing their strengths and abilities. Then as we rehearse, I revise.

We have no problems about age. We’re all over 60, five of us over 80. In my first play, three actors began as schoolgirls. Writing for long-dead people disposes of any need to attempt physical resemblances. Anne Askew died at 25. In my play, she is played by two women: one reads from Anne’s own writings. The other meets Eve in the Cathedral in the present day. Performances are staged readings (we were all raised on BBC Home Service radio plays), in simple uniform.

I set Katherine Swynford and the Countess Joan in the Cathedral when visitors have left and remaining residents come out for a tomb-break, where they’re visited by friends and relations.  Although only the viscera of Queen Eleanor repose in her huge sarcophagus under the East window, (progress of the rest, taken to London, marked by the Eleanor Crosses),  I wrote a robust part for the actor to express – loudly and often – her majesty’s displeasure at her treatment.

No role is ever bland or simple. As I write, and even more as they act, I learn. Within the Queen’s bluster is distress. At first I hated Bishop Longland as Anne Askew’s enemy. But I realised that he, like Anne, had been committed to his beliefs, and his position had been perilous at a perilous time. When the actor plays his scene tomorrow, Bishop Longland will be real.

Every script is new, difficult, designed to challenge me, the cast, and eventually the audience. Where is the point otherwise? This is our time to take risk – to grow, learn, experiment, play. Adventures of the mind and spirit. Drama. Time out of time. Free of space.

I understand flow,  rise and fall, change of mood and speed,  and surprise. But I still can’t write a plot or develop action.

Tomorrow at this time it will be nearly over. Another challenge accepted. Another risk taken.

What next?

Margaret Crompton

31st March 2023

The performance is at St Mary le Wigford Church, Lincoln (beside railway station)
Saturday 1st April 2 pm 
admission free, donations invited for Historic Charities of Wigford Trust: JAQT – Relief of Need.
‘Script in Hand’ with musician from ‘Sixteen Eighty Five’ early music ensemble
bookstall with Prize for the fire by Rilla Askew – who will be present

Being Published for the First Time in Mid-Life – Lesley Kerr

Continuing our conversation with older women writers

Lesley Kerr

Lesley Kerr is a contributor to our anthology Where We Find Ourselves

Having my short story published in midlife in the anthology, Where We Find Ourselves has been an extraordinary experience which inspired me greatly.  It re-ignited my passion for writing by exposing me to authors and poets of different ages, races, and life experiences with amazing stories to tell.

Whilst I was a shy child and spent a lot of time ‘in my head’ I had a vivid imagination and enjoyed making up stories to entertain myself and my siblings.  However, the idea of being a writer was never discussed as realistic career option for someone like me.  My dad wanted me to leave school after my ‘O’ levels and get a job to start contributing to the household, but my English teacher thought I should stay on to do A levels. As a compromise I went to a local college to do a one-year secretarial course – something solid and useful.  My dad’s attitude was not uncommon to immigrant parents who want a better life for their offspring.  He thought that one’s life purpose was to get a good safe job and do that until you retire in 40 years’ time, and only then can you do what you really want to do.  Fortunately, my secretarial training led me to roles in HR in the voluntary and public sector which I do enjoy.  However, my love of writing has never left me.  When my daughter was at school, I often found myself living vicariously through her schoolwork: reading the literature she was set and taking any opportunity to help with her essays and course work!

It was only when she went to Birmingham University that I thought about writing seriously.  Whenever I visited her, I would come away inspired by the university buildings and lecture theatres and thought how marvellous it would be to have my own further education – even if it felt slightly delayed.

So, I signed up to take a creative writing beginners’ class at the same college I went to more than 30 years ago!  As I waited nervously at enrolment for the first class, I couldn’t help but feel my age, seeing the last straggle of childlike adults leaving for the day in boisterous groups.  Many seemed younger than my daughter, and it made me wonder what I had let myself in for!  However, once I was in the class this feeling dissipated as I found myself surrounded by mostly women of a similar age to me or older, some who had, like myself, come straight from work, while others arrived after looking after grandchildren or spending the day in less strenuous retirement pursuits such as gardening or catching up with friends.

Many had files of manuscripts honed over the years, or folders full of poetry or prose.  The course taught me to express myself and to give myself permission to carve out time for completing writing prompts, which seemed to give my writing some legitimacy and feel less self-indulgent.  I learned a huge amount from the tutor but also my classmates.  One woman in particular encouraged me to not to downplay my ambitions.  I remember she encouraged me to have my photo taken in the class when I was placed third in a competition.  As my natural reticence took over, I remember her saying to me  “Oh go on up there, will you? When you’re a published writer you’ll look back on this….”  Her words seemed unbelievable to me at the time.

The range of writing styles showcased in class was also eye-opening.  I think that there are preconceptions of what women of a certain age want to write and read.  Rather than just cosy romances we heard YA fiction, folklore and fairy tales, crime drama as well as inspiring lived experience stories.

After the beginners’ class, I felt emboldened to take the Intermediate class and then joined Watford Writers to continue my writing journey.  I now have my own folder of work, and the start of a manuscript!

It has been inspiring to witness so many women expressing themselves creatively at a time of life when it has traditionally been that we come less visible and active as the years go by.  I am looking forward to contributing to the voices and adding my own stories to the discourse.

Older Women Writers – Arachne Press in the Guardian

You might have seen us in The Guardian online this weekend – in a piece about older women writers, the work that Arachne Press does to seek, support and promote older women’s voices, and the gradual sea change that we can see happening in the publishing industry as a whole. We were delighted with the article, but it is only the beginning of the conversation. Here Cherry Potts, owner and founder of Arachne Press, shares some more extensive thoughts about publishing talented, witty, clever and creative older women writers:

In the 10 years we have been publishing we have seen a noticeable shift in all kinds of diversity publishing with specialist publishers such as Incandescent, Jacaranda and Peepal Tree that I’ve not seen since the 80’s. We at Arachne are not specialist in our diversity aims, we are inclusive, and that includes older women. We have always actively sought, supported and promoted older women, and valued what they have to say. The existence of women’s writing networks and magazines like Mslexia (which has been there for 24 years) have made it easier for older women to find publishers like us. It started with independent presses, like us, who intentionally hold space for writers from underrepresented communities. We have always filled gaps we see missing in the commercial publishing industry; the ripple from that has been working through to the industry as a whole, it’s a steady improvement but there is plenty of room for more.

Author Jane Aldous © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/The Guardian

For many women it is impossible to focus on writing until later in life, women’s lives are trammelled with work and caring – children, if they have them, parents almost inevitably as they get older, it takes a strong woman to say no to looking after elderly parents – or a rich one – grandchildren… the list goes on;  and battering away at the glass ceiling (should we be so lucky as to not be working in some less inspiring job just to make enough to live on, as the gender pay gap still exists, with all that implies) there isn’t a lot of time for writing or pursuing a publishing deal. Sadly these responsibilities do still fall to women, and because they are usually earning less, they are less able to provide paid for alternatives, and are more likely the one in a heterosexual couple to give up work to care for whoever needs it.

Our open anthology calls consistently attract older women, but we’ve noticed an increase over the years, which led to the idea of our menopause anthology, collecting stories and poems from women in peri/post/menopause exploring the massive changes in their lives that occur as a result. (We will be announcing the contributors on 8th March, International Women’s Day.)

For women who were children during World War II, teenagers in the 50s, young wives or career women in the 60’s, feminists in the 70s, peace campaigners in the 80’s and so on (and some still campaigning!) there is so much they have to bring, and living in their women’s bodies, and coming to terms with all the changes that involves. They are looking back at those changes with the eye of experience and aren’t squeamish about talking about it, as many younger women might be.

Now feels like the right moment for taking all women writers seriously, refusing to conform to the traditional packaging of ‘women’s fiction’, and actively promoting radical, edgy writing – and forms of writing – from a demographic that has a tendency, in the face of the evidence, to be seen as a bit safe, perhaps even cosy.  Our older women writers are far from cosy, and they aren’t just old; they are lesbians, (Kate Foley & Jane Aldous) they are disabled (Kate Foley, Jane Aldous and Jennifer A McGowan), they started their lives in this country as refugees (Anna Fodorova) they live somewhere isolated (Clare Owen, Ness Owen, Jackie Taylor) and are (increasingly) from the global majority (Anita Goveas, Seni Seneviratne, Yvie Holder, Victoria Ekpo, Lesley Kerr, Lorraine Mighty). These are just the tip of the iceberg.

Author Anna Fodorova © Michael Ann Mullen / The Guardian

Often we are publishing women in their 60’s plus, who are still writing, or just beginning to write, or more specifically just beginning to publish, having written all their lives. These women are not coming straight into a publishing deal from an MA in creative writing, or off the back of a career writing in TV, or film, or radio,  or journalism where they have already have the right contacts to find a deal and get a raft of reviews (and more power to those who do). We are talking about the women who are onto their nth career (Kate Foley worked as a midwife, a cleaner, and an archaeological conservator before finally publishing (as I did, with Onlywomen Press), and won a prize with her first book. In fact I read Kate’s first collection in manuscript! When I started Arachne Press it was with the hope that I would publish writers like Kate, and hers was the first poetry collection we published. We have just published her eleventh collection, Saved to Cloud, having published two previously The Don’t Touch Garden and A Gift of Rivers. 

Saved to Cloud

The story here isn’t really that we publish older women (why wouldn’t we?) but that they come to us. It isn’t about debuts, many of the poets (particularly) whom we publish are award winning writers with several collections to their names. But they still send work for our open call anthologies, and that makes space for the debut writers to be published alongside them, and for us to make discoveries.

It’s about women writing quirky, difficult, often angry poetry and short fiction.

It’s about the writers choosing to send us their work because they recognise that we will find a way to overcome the difficulties they face with time and mobility and geographic isolation and anxiety – or whatever it is that gets in their way. We have worked hard at creating a community for our writers, putting them in touch with each other, inviting them on writing weekends, asking them to be guest editors, running workshops, and enabling them to run workshops and panels to discuss what matters to them, work together, explore, make friends, raise their profile… and confidence, if they need it. We don’t start from the assumption that older women (or anyone, even debut authors) need support, but it’s there if it is.

We don’t just publish the anthology, if a writer engages with us, we take an interest in who they are and what they do – their multifaceted careers have found us translators and cover artists among our writers, and anyone who really impresses us gets ‘the email’ saying what else do you have?

We are proud to be one of the primary presses publishing older women and their incisive, imaginative and glorious stories.

Upcoming Real life book launches

Wednesday 22nd February 6.30pm, we are launching our first book of 2023, Saved to Cloud, by Kate Foley, at Keats House.

The algorithm
of my own life, faded
and spidery,
is written,
not keyed in.

Kate takes a slightly jaundiced but clear-eyed look at the state of the planet, and our over-reliance on technology as a lens to review her relationship with religion and memory.

Free Tickets

And for International Women’s Day on Wednesday 8th March at 4.30pm, we have a prepublication event for More Patina than Gleam by Jane Aldous at St Colomba’s-by-the-Castle Church Hall in Edinburgh.

In her 70th year, Jane decided to write a novella in seventy poems, exploring a fictionalised version of a life she almost lived.

This series of poems, based in post war Edinburgh, tell linked love stories, including the story of Linda, fleeing with her eleven-year-old daughter from England and an abusive relationship. In hiding as a lady’s companion in one of the city’s suburbs, mother and daughter settle into their new life in Elsie’s rackety house, and encounter a variety of characters who will change their lives forever.

Free Tickets

Both books are part of our continued program of publishing older women, and in this case, lesbians.