Ta-ra, Festival of Words

Photograph: Nottingham Post

About three years ago at an AGM at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio we asked members what things they would like to see happen at the studio and within the wider community. Quite a few members, such as John Lucas and Michael Eaton, mentioned their desire to see a city-wide literature festival. To our astonishment, we realised there hadn’t been one for over thirty years.

Plans were quickly drawn up and in 2013 we put on the inaugural Festival of Words in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and Writing East Midlands and the two universities. The festival had many flaws in that we had over programmed, events competed with each other, and we were simply a little too ambitious. But this was hardly surprising given how long we had had all waited. There was no funding, either, which meant we ran completely on goodwill and the incredible effort of many volunteers.

2014 was a completely different beast. We went for a more devolved approach whereby both universities planned and coordinated specific events that saw the likes of Ali Smith and Will Self on the streets of Nottingham. We received a grant from Arts Council England (up to 15k) and at the very last minute additional funding came through to put on an international series of talks from writers from afar afield as Hungary, China, and Afghanistan.

It was an incredible week (with additional fringe events that are still going on, such as Judith Allnatt talking about her WWI novel The Moon Field) and was generally very well attended, which the first festival was not. In between the meetings and emails there was also time to be creative. For the first Festival I did a literary walk with Michael Eaton and for this one ran a game of Masterbwainz, whereby we brought back dead writers from Nottingham’s past to raise awareness of local literary history.

There were teething problems with the festival which were inevitable given the small turnaround in which we had to structure the programme and market events, but overall I think it was fantastic and something I feel very proud to have been involved with. There are still areas in which we need to improve; in particular defining roles and how we communicate internally and externally. Agreeing on the identity of the festival and its function is important too, but we’re nearly there in that we are a Festival of Words rather than a Literature Festival. And the website desperately needs tarting up so it has a bit of magic. These things are possible with time, the thing all of us are chasing.

I stepped down as a director of the Festival on Wednesday because I feel as if my work is done. Although stepping down doesn’t mean I’m free. There are still ways in which I will be involved but not at the forefront or in an official capacity. More of a gobby backseat driver.

The Festival is in great shape and with a bit of preening here and there will become a handsome devil. NWS is already represented by Anne McDonald so there is no need for two of us to be involved. At NWS I have slowly tried to devolve roles for the Board and Anne’s role has been working on the Festival, so it makes complete sense for her to carry on in this capacity. And she has done an incredible job and deserves full credit, alongside Jacqueline Gabbitas, Sarah Dale, Pippa Hennessy and many many others. Nottingham, you don’t know how lucky you are.

There are quite a few reasons for stepping down, which I expressed with a few people prior to the festival. Firstly, I am worried that the local literary scene is getting too incestuous. I have too many ‘hats’ on and this could create the impression the literature scene is closed off. It’s not. You get sucked into a lot of things through being the Chair of NWS. Secondly, wearing too many hats can create a conflict of interest which can lead to miscommunication. Thirdly, the devil is in the detail. It is simply not possible to give things your full attention when there is so much else going on. My priority is now with the UNESCO City of Literature bid – which is something that, in many ways, has been born out of the festival as it helped to bring organisations closer together. And lastly, I’m sick to death of emails and meetings and so need to trim these away a bit to concentrate on my two very needy children who I love dearly. They are Dawn of the Unread and Being Arthur (The Sillitoe Trail: II).


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‘The young and the beautiful have nothing to fear but time (management)’

‘The young and the beautiful have nothing to fear but time (management)’ is a slight reworking of the old W B Yeats quote to accommodate the writer. I say this because the last two weeks have been absolutely awful when it’s come to deadlines and has meant I’ve had to be at my sharpest ever to ensure everything gets done on time. A heavy workload is something a hack should never complain about because it means work is flowing but being realistic is just as important, as one missed deadline can invariably cost you in the long run. Editors take such things incredibly personal as they are reliant on you to produce the goods and failure to do so inevitably reflects on them.

One of the biggest drains on my time is research – which I should also point out is one of the most pleasurable aspects of writing because it provides knowledge, the drug on which writers of all persuasions live. A recent example of this is when I chaired a panel on ‘Community journalism and blogging’ at the Writing Industries Conference at Loughborough University. Not only was research required on the subject itself but knowledge of fellow panellists also. You don’t want to be offending someone you’ve met for the first time because they’ll hold on to it with just as much energy as a bitter Editor. It’s about respect and professionalism – which are just as important in gaining you future work as the words before you.

The next edition of LeftLion has been particularly draining with a ‘literary timeline’ of Hood requiring research into five and a half centuries of ballads, poems, plays, books etc. Naturally I haven’t read them all but I’ve certainly dipped my toes, courtesy of google. Similarly an interview with David Horspool of the Times about his historical masterpiece the English Rebel required much background research to ensure the right questions were asked and just as importantly, the right kind of relationship was formed. Gentle introductions, polite email correspondence, knowledge of who he is from radio interviews, television shows and readings his work and reviews were just as integral as reading his mammoth book and thinking about the right questions. Then of course there is the time taken to edit down these 3,000 odd word interviews into a package of 1,200 for the magazine – before my own editorial fights begin to steal valuable magazine space from other word hungry writers. The end product is important, but failure to suitably engage with a big hitter on the Broadsheets could be disastrous as far as our reputation is concerned.

So how do you manage time? To adjust another famous quote, this time from Wall Street, ‘sleeping is for wimps’. You certainly don’t need more than six hours a night. The body can be conditioned to do anything, it really is that malleable. A diary is useful as well. I use two. One is through my Outlook Express which is full of calendar entries that flash up on screen as a visual reminder. The other is written down into my page-a-day diary that lives close to my chest and is always worth glancing over in those invaluable moments of solitude on the toilet. Blutaced notes on the wall are also useful but lose their purpose if there are too many. Remember this next time you go into the kitchen at work and see a thousand photocopied signs in various fonts all saying ‘please wash-up’ so that you no longer notice them anymore. But for me it’s largely all in the head. The brain is far more effective than an excel spreadsheet and faces and times seem to pop up before my eyes constantly vying for attention.

Time is nothing without discipline and this was a point wonderfully articulated by Graham Joyce, the guest speaker at the Writing Industries Conference. He explained how a writer will find absolutely anything to distract themselves from the actual task of writing itself, from trying to perfectly balance a pencil on a table to finding an excuse to hoover the house every five minutes ‘this place is filthy, how can I be expected to write here’. The answer is simple. Switch off the TV and hide the remote, don’t text your friends or check your status update and simply crack on and write. A blog like this of nearly 800 odd words can be whacked out in twenty mins flat once the brain muscles have been conditioned and disciplined to work effectively. It’s a lovely feeling if done regularly and improves your writing by making it second nature. I’ve now got 48 mins to get showed and walk to work. Maybe my time management isn’t quite as good as I thought…

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