A phase begins as I explore the world of creative writing. Join me in this new chapter as I embark on my MA at Newcastle University, and chat in this blog about my journey.

This was the module I was most looking forward to during my MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Ann Coburn, our tutor comes with a great track record, being an accomplished writer of middle grade fiction herself, but also from Alumni like Chloe Daykin, a local girl, whose writing for children I greatly admire. Chloe recently won Gandys Children’s Travel Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2020 for her book ‘Fire Girl, Forest Boy’, set in the jungles of Peru.

Fire Girl, Forest boy, Chloe Daykin
Fire Girl, Forest boy, Chloe Daykin

We got off to a great start and in the first workshop were told to put our protagonist in our hometown at the age he or she was in the story we were going to write. My mind went straight back down south to Worthing. I had a few rocky years during my teens, and my memory went back to one night in particular, when I’d gone on a bender after rows at home. I ended up on Worthing seafront, very much worse for wear. This was to be a gritty teen fiction about difficult relationships, alcohol and sexual abuse. I started doing my research and adding layers to the story. I researched Damian Le Bas and the travelling community and had them rescue my young girl and take them under their wing. I have always had a passion for flamenco, and my girl was to discover emotional freedom through dance. I struggled writing it though, and when the coronavirus hit, separating us from our family, it became one shade of darkness too many. It had to be parked for another time.

Worthing Pier
Worthing Pier

Lectures got cancelled and coupled with the lecturer’s strike earlier in the semester, and tutor absence due to illness, I felt that the module was fast becoming a disaster. Then one moonlit night, under the full moon, I watched a hare hop out of the little stone bothy in the garden and I had an idea. What if I were to bring my story up to Northumberland, leave my hometown and its tales of pain, and write a kind of ‘town mouse, country mouse’ story for middle grade children? What if my protagonist was a townie who was forced to come and stay with her bohemian grandparents in the country during lockdown as her mother was a doctor at a Newcastle hospital? I do believe my muse had just hopped across the moonlit garden.

Hare moon, Flower Moon
Hare moon, Flower Moon,

I’ve spent the past weeks writing three chapters of ‘Hare Moon, Flower Moon’ and have set in the time frame between the full moons of April and May. It has many layers, and I hope I have touched some of the issues that eleven-year olds will identify with. I have a tutorial with Ann Carson this week and she’ll give feedback on my first submission before I go on to finish editing my first three chapters. If all goes well, I shall continue to finish the book. I find I am loving writing for middle grade readers, and my love of the country and an alternative lifestyle are all helping me with my writing.

Here’s an extract from Hare Moon, Flower Moon. It’s a monolgue from Molly, and forms part of the prologue:

Why me? It’s just not fair. I’m old enough to look after myself. Does she not realise that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six months? Cook the tea Molly, put the washing on, Molly, run the hoover round, Molly. I’ve got a life you know. I’ve got friends. We have plans. Where are my hair straighteners? They were here a minute ago. I hate packing! What do I even wear? What am I going to do? Endless days of walks and reading, great! That’ll be fun, NOT! “Why not do a jigsaw?” Please! Give me a break. It’s only for a few days you say.  It’s the middle of nowhere! They live in a field surrounded by sheep. The house is freezing. Don’t get me wrong, I love them to bits, but small doses and all that. I know she’s got to work. I just want to stay here! You think I’m being selfish? You think I don’t know people are sick and dying?”

Flower Moon
Flower Moon

In no particular order of importance, each with its own list of merits, I have four reasons to celebrate.

Firstly, I give you my milestone of one hundred days sober. Well, its actually 112 as I type this, but I celebrated my centenary on 12th February, two days after my birthday. How did I celebrate? It wasn’t by pouring a large gin or by cracking open the fizz – I bought myself a new jumper from the lovely folk at Celtic & Co. (The one I’m wearing in the picture with Daisy, below.)

Playing farms with Daisy in new new jumper.
Playing farms with Daisy in new new jumper.

               When I started my sober journey, I hoped that life would get better, but I had no idea just how good it would be, one hundred days along the road. My confidence and ability to cope with life’s ups and downs has grown, my anxiety over social situations is so much less, and I have so much more energy. My skin feels great, the dark circles that I had under my eyes (signs that my liver was screaming at me) are so much better, and I feel as if I have had a facelift. My hairdresser even remarked that my hair felt different. No more waking up with a sense of dread and wondering who I’d offended the night before! My app tells me I’ve saved over £600 too – maybe not saved, but ‘diverted’ to more healthy purchases. If you are sober curious and would like to talk in confidence, then feel free to leave to drop me a line.

One Hundred Days Sober
One Hundred Days Sober

               I wasn’t the only one to have a birthday recently. Daisy, my granddaughter was 2! It’s amazing how time has flown in the last two years, and I am so grateful my daughter lives close by so we can share looking after Daisy while she and Daisy’s daddy are at work. ‘Nanny, sing to me’, she says and we sing songs that my grandmother sang to me, we play making dens, we paint, we bake cookies and after all that, she’s a dab hand at making Nanny a cup of tea in her kitchen. I consider myself very blessed. We bought her a Playmobil toy farm (second-hand) for her birthday, and as we were leaving, she said ‘Dandad, thank you for my farm’.

Making nanny a cup of tea
Making nanny a cup of tea

               After almost thirty years of having one of my ‘children’ in the house, my youngest moved out. He’s done so well, and thanks to house prices being relatively cheap here in the north-east, has managed to save enough for the deposit on his first house. I am immensely proud of him. He’s moved to Greenside, which is a lovely village, on the outskirts of Gateshead, but surrounded by countryside and woods. An avid cyclist, he is now able to cycle to work and get out and about on his bike. I sobbed, and as I stood in his empty bedroom, said goodbye to that chapter of my life. Being a mum to my three continues but will never be quite the same again.

New Beginnings
New Beginnings

Tim and I went out the night John moved out, to Northern Stage, and saw The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff by The Young’uns. It was a fabulous production and told of the tale of a young man’s fight against fascism through song. It felt like I was on a date, and as we came home, it reminded me of the time we were newly-wed, before we had kids, although Tim declined to carry me over the threshold when we got back. We set about making John’s old bedroom into a fitness room, and with the help of my new book, ‘Feel Better in 5’ by Dr Rangan Chatterjee’, I have rolled out my yoga mat, and am doing five minutes of yoga in the morning, as well as some of the other ‘health snacks’ the good doctor recommends.

Feel Better in 5 by Dr Rangan Chatterjee

Last, but not least, the marks came in for my first submissions for the MA in Creative Writing I’m doing at Newcastle University. I got 64% and 67%, both Merits. There was some great feedback, and I have taken all the comments on board. I was happy to read that my writing was considered ‘interesting, humorous and evocative’. There is considerable room for improvement but considering I haven’t written anything for assessment since I bashed out essays for my teacher training qualification back in 1984 on a typewriter, I was pleased to get the two merits.

First submissions, both merits
First submissions, both merits

I’m now four weeks into the next module on the Creative Writing MA, ‘Writing for Children and Young Adults’ with a fantastic tutor, Anne, Coburn. I’m discovering a whole new area of fiction, and last night saw me reading well into the night as I wanted to finish the gripping story by Liani Taylor, ‘Daughter of Smoke and Bone’. But I’ll write more about my reading and writing plans for this module next time…..

Liani Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Liani Taylor, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Thanks for reading! It’s been good to catch up.

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I’ve just finished reading Salley Vicker’s latest novel, ‘Grandmothers, bought for me this Christmas by my daughter. I’m a Salley Vickers fan, having first discovered her when I went to Venice for my 40th Birthday, and followed in the footsteps of Miss Garnet’s Angel. In Grandmothers, there was a lot of tender, well observed detail, that made the characters believable.  The detail may well have come from Salley’s own experience of both being a grandmother and remembering her own. My prose tutor tells us that remembered detail is very important to making characters believable, and with my paternal grandmother’s birthday this week on the 23rd January, I thought I would write a little piece by way of introduction to my grandmothers and jot down some of the detail from my memory of them.

               I had two grandmothers: Nanny Dora and Nanny Gwen, both living close to home where I grew up in Worthing, on the Sussex coast. They had both lived in the village of Durrington as single parents to my mum and dad, on the same estate, having both had marriages that suffered as a result of the war, but that was where the similarities ended.

Nanny Gwen
Nanny Gwen

               Nanny Gwen, my mother’s mother, with her love of lilac had a ladies dress shop in Hurstpierpoint when I was a small girl, and one of my earliest memories is of her flat with its sloping bedroom ceilings and single beds with purple patchwork quilts, one of which I proudly own. Nanny Gwen made little paste pots of jam, dainty scones and had beaded cotton covers for her porcelain milk jugs. She had a fluffy cat which my father, who detested cats, would throw his coat over when he arrived. Nanny Gwen was nervous of men and would hand a male visitor the newspaper on his arrival; a huge fan of the Royal Family, this was always the Daily Mail.

Her birthday was on 23rd December, and the family would gather to watch her open her presents, which were many, and the present opening ceremony to this small child who would be perched on the settee, alongside her younger brother and cousin, best behaviour expected, would take hours. With each new parcel. Nanny Gwen would look up, with watery eyes, and genteelly ask, ‘is it for me?’ taking her time to carefully slit the Sellotape with her ornamental embroidery scissors before remarking on the beauty of the wrapping paper and ribbon, and carefully folding it to be used another time.

               Enterprising and crafty, she would make Christmas and Birthday presents for us, although these were often the same year in year out. There is a limit to how many string tins, made from Lyons coffee tins, covered in pretty, sticky backed plastic and braid my father needed. We had a glorious collection of Nanny Gwen’s homemade waste-paper bins, made from liver tins collected from the butcher, and covered, you guessed it, in sticky backed plastic and braid. For those also born in the sixties, you will remember sticky backed plastic was quite a thing, especially for my Nan and Blue Peter presenters.

     I was given a variety of crochet ponchos with tassels, pom-poms on strings and matching berets. There was a handy bush on the way to school where these well-meant gifts could safely be stashed until the walk home, to avoid social suicide. Red, white and blue were popular themes, her being a devotee of the Royals.

The Seed Merchant, Copied by Gwendoline Ellen Dewar, my Nan.

               Nanny Gwen had beautiful handwriting, having learnt calligraphy skills, and I treasure both letters she wrote to me when I had left home and was away at college, and a picture she drew in pen and ink called ‘The Seed Merchant’, which hangs on my study wall. I’ve just come home from shopping in Hexham with a bunch of the new season’s daffodils, which I buy every year in memory of Nanny Gwen who did the same. The china cow was hers too, and although has been glued together on countless occasions is a much loved memento of this fine lady.

New Season Daffodils in Memory of Nanny Gwen
New Season Daffodils in Memory of Nanny Gwen

               Nanny Dora in contrast was rather more ‘down to earth’. She called a spade a spade and had would make her feelings about people known. She was not averse to talking about ‘that dreadful man’ when walking past a house, regardless of the fact his wife was pruning her rhododendrons within full earshot. Mrs Brown, of Mrs Brown’s Boys reminds me of my Nan. She was not course or vulgar, and would not have sworn, well, at least not in front of us kids, but she did wear a nylon housecoat, and would have a man’s hanky in her pocket. She was a smoker, up until Grandad died of lung cancer, when they both gave up, but until then, had smoked from being a teenager. She only ever smoked y the kitchen door to the garden, ‘nasty filthy ‘abit!’ I loved rolling her ‘shag fags’ with the little red rizla rolling machine, but we kept that from my Mum, who wouldn’t have approved. Desperate for her to give up when we were older, and witnessed her hacking cough, we would hide her Old Holborn and Rizlas, much to her vexation. ‘I’ll tan your backsides’ she used to say, but she never did.

Nanny Dora

               She had a glorious ‘telephone voice’ dropping her h’s and adding them on and would get words jumbled in a most endearing manner. A trip to London, to the Halbert ‘All, was rounded off with a meal at a Berni Inn, where she had a ‘hoppin’ great pork chop and a side saddle’.

               She was my best friend in life when I was growing up. ‘What’s that ruddy church gone and done to you now’ she would say, as she greeted ‘her precious’ with open arms at the doorway to her bungalow, smelling of face powder and stale tobacco. I loved the safety of those arms.

               We spent many a night having sleepovers at Nan’s – memories of eating crab and prawns on Cream Crackers, whilst watching the wrestling on a Saturday afternoon when Grandad picked at winkles with a pin, having come home with leftover scraps from Mac Fisheries. On rainy days we were allowed to heap the settee cushions on a pile and jump on them or would have drawing competitions – she always won! On sunnier days we played or helped Nan in the garden. She grew trays of bedding out plants in wooden kipper trays and we set up shop and sold these out the front of her house, along with tomatoes and runner beans from the greenhouse. I feel her presence sometimes, when I’m picking tomatoes in my own greenhouse. There is something so evocative about that smell.  

               The bedtime routine involved getting undressed in front of the roaring coal fire (everywhere else in the house was Baltic) having had a bath in two inches of scalding water and being sat on the loo until you had done your number two for the day. She would then tuck us up in bed, a mug of milk with skin on the top cooling on the bedside table, where she knelt and serenaded us with ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’ pausing to cough and splutter, then kiss us, her face all whiskery and powdery. I loved my Nan so much.

               I wrote a short story about Nanny Dora, and the jug I own that was hers when I applied for Uni, and as I write, I have her photo by the side of my laptop. I miss her. I hope very much I can revisit my memories of both Nanny Dora and Nanny Gwen, and they like will appear as characters in a story. There is so much more to write about them. Now I am a Grandmother myself, I wonder if little Daisy will one day be reminiscing about the times she had at ‘Nanny’s house. I hope so.

Daisy Reading with Nanny
Daisy Reading with Nanny

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A golden glow greeted me as I stepped out of the Percy Building in the quadrangle at Newcastle University last Wednesday afternoon. The setting sun in the west had a clear corridor past the Hadrian Building and The Boiler House and struck the willow tree (I stand corrected if it isn’t a willow) outside the Hatton Building in front of the iconic arches on campus and lit up its branches like a flaming torch.

I was feeling proud of myself. Usually full of self-doubt and self-deprecation, I allowed myself a moment of congratulation as I stood on the steps watching my fellow students scuttle home from lectures.

I’d done it. I’d handed in my first submissions: a short story and two reflective essays. The last pieces of academic work I’d written were done on a typewriter with carbon paper. I had fond memories of staying up all night with my flatmate Jane, who was on the same course as me, with a packet of Bensons, a bottle of gin and cherry brandy to make Singapore Slings and the toaster and a packet of Mother’s Pride on the table spring to mind; but that was back in 1984.

Who knew that there was a tab on my laptop for adding footnotes when referencing? It had taken me three days of cursing and searching for tiny symbols before I realised this. (I am now a dab hand at adding footnotes if anyone else is stuck!) I was pleased with what I had written, and how I had got to grips with formatting and word processing.

I wrote an email to my Prose tutor, Lars Iyer, at the beginning of term after fudging an answer like a politician in class. Not understanding the question, let alone being able to come up with an answer, I had felt inadequate and had waffled something in reply. I’d beaten myself up on the train on the way home that night as I mulled over the question and in hindsight came up with an understanding of what I was being asked and what I should have said. I felt so stupid, blamed my age and doubted my academic ability. I explained that I felt like I’d arrived in Switzerland and was at the foot of a mountain. In one set of lectures, ‘Process’ we are wandering the green lower pastures and are gently learning about the process of becoming a writer. It is fairly light touch as we learn about keeping a notebook, developing the habit of daily writing, reading like a writer and learning to listen; all very important skills, and all well within my grasp. However, in the ‘Prose’ workshops I felt like I had arrived at the rock face. I had no idea where to put my hands or feet, and the other students, some of the fresh from undergraduate studies, were scaling up the mountain, way ahead of me. I felt stuck, unsure if I had the skills to climb. I was no academic, I was a mature student, a grandmother, having last written an essay over thirty years ago. (Mind you, I was very good at writing essays back then, and used to help other students write theirs.)

A gentle and kind email came back from my tutor, thanking me for my honesty in what he said was a ‘moving’ email. He said to relax, academic thinking would come, and besides, creative writing was not all about academia. They took mature students such as me on to the course for a reason. We had much to offer in terms of life experience and the stories that came with that. (I certainly have a few stories to tell!)

Last week I had a tutorial with Lars, following the submission of the first thousand words of my short story. After correcting some syntax and formatting errors, he suggested I cut the preamble of my story at the beginning as he wanted to get straight to the character’s monologue, which he had enjoyed. He said I had a wonderful narrative voice and had skills as a writer that couldn’t be taught. You could have knocked me down with a feather!

I’d come a long way from the therapy session when it was suggested I do an MA in Creative Writing to satisfy the urge in me to be radgy, but also to give me a conduit to get my story told. Little did I know that that conversation would lead me to be on the steps of the Percy Building having handed in a piece of memoir writing about a very painful time in my life that I had not dared visit for an awful long time. Not being good enough has been a recurring theme throughout my life, but here I was, standing on the steps of the English Department, having handed in my first pieces of work.

Looking at the golden glow in the branches of that tree, I felt a golden glow inside of me too.
Enough of this self-doubt and self-deprecation. That’s the last you’ll hear of it. I am good enough.

Handing on my first submissions. An essay on self-doubt and self-deprecation
A Golden Glow. An Essay on Self-Doubt and Self- Deprecation.

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Are you a ‘morning’ person? I am, and mornings for me can be anything from four a.m. to seven a.m. Although now I’ve stopped drinking alcohol, the four a.m.’s are getting fewer.
I first came across morning pages when given a reading list for a week’s writer’s retreat in Tuscany at The Watermill. Jo Parfitt was our tutor and she recommended Julia Cameron’s book. The Artist’s Way as preparatory reading. The week focused on memoir writing and was my treat for myself after giving up The Woolly Pedlar. I’ve always had Tuscany on my bucket list, and this wonderful week in glorious sunshine and surroundings, with beautiful people and fabulous food at The Watermill certainly hit the spot.  I am working on my memoir, and it is taking me to some very far flung places in my life, with deeply buried memories, but more of that later.

Writing on the Vine Terrace at The Watermill, Tuscany
Writing on the Vine Terrace at The Watermill, Tuscany

Julia Cameron recommends you write three sides, it must be three, straight from sleep. You are to write whatever comes into your head, keep the pen moving, without pausing to correct grammar or spelling. It is also recommended that you use exercise books, and not do anything with the writing, even binning it. This is where Julia and I differ in our practice.

Morning Pages, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
Morning Pages, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

I do write stream of consciousness thoughts, allowing whatever is in my head to go on the page, but I do reserve the right to use some of my scribbling as writing prompts to be developed further in my daily writing practice. I allow myself a trip to the loo, but then get back into bed, bring a pillow on my lap to raise the height and begin to write, anything, allowing my thoughts to flow. I write down dreams I have just had and reminisce about memories. I always stop at the bottom of the third page, and sometimes scribble as a footer ‘to be continued…’.  That idea then goes in a list at the back of the journal to remind me to expand on the memory or idea later.

Journal Writing
Journal Writing

As a writer, I am often gifted journals and notebooks, and over the years have amassed quite a collection. This Christmas was no exception, with a beautiful journal and pen from my sister-in-law. I love a new journal and have a passion for leather clad Leuchtturms. (Apologies if Lederhosen wearing, thigh slapping men have now entered your head.) I’ve just uncovered a stash of journals going back to when I was 17 in the attic, they make for both interesting and painful reading. I do love to keep a journal and am surprised at some of the detail I’ve forgotten. As a writer, we are told that detail brings our stories alive and makes them readable, and the best detail comes from your own life experience.

We’ve just had a full moon, the Wolf Moon, and this one was no exception, keeping me awake with thoughts racing. I headed to the spare room and at 4am started writing. It was powerful, and a whole barrow load of emotions came pouring out. I drew the line at going into the garden to howl at the moon, though was tempted.

Wolf Moon Writing
Wolf Moon Writing

Morning pages are my meditation. Do you keep a journal or write morning pages? Feel free to leave a comment or engage with the chat on social media. Follow Sue Reed Writes on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Read about my Tuscan retreat at The Watermill in:

Finding my Plot

Finding My Plot
Finding My Plot

A Ripping Yarn

A Ripping Yarn
A Ripping Yarn

The Salami Boys of Fivizzano

Fivizzano market Tuscany
Fivizzano market Tuscany

What does self-care mean to you? Is it just a new-fangled buzz word for the twenty-first century, or a vital part of our lives? Did our grandmothers practise self-care, and if not, should they have done? Thanks to my sober journey and with inspiration from Janey Lee Grace and The Sober Club community, I am learning about self-care and the art of putting oneself first.

When I was teaching full-time and bringing up a family of three children, the nearest I got to self-care was pouring a large gin and tonic whilst cooking tea when I’d got in from work. This, however, was the antithesis of self-care and did me more harm than good. One gin and tonic, and we’re not talking pub measures here, would invariably lead to another, then the evening wasted as I fell asleep soon after the kids were in bed. I would treat myself to a lie in on a Sunday, with the Saturday Guardian and breakfast in bed, but Sunday afternoon would see me back on the dining room table doing the planning that is the dread of every teacher. I was lucky that being a special needs teacher meant I didn’t have marking to do on top! All thoughts of self-care had gone out of the window as I rushed around like a blue-arsed fly seeing to the needs of everyone else, but not thinking of little old me and what my needs were.

Freshly made juice - beetroot, lemon, melon & pomegranate
Freshly made juice – beetroot, lemon, melon & pomegranate

Fast forward to now, and I try to factor some form of self-care into my life every day. It might be a daily walk, weather permitting, along the lane, or allowing myself to read a book – it’s amazing how, even though I’d doing an MA in Creative Writing and have been told to read, read and read some more, that reading in daylight hours still feels indulgent. Self-care might be a massage booked, or a long soak in a bubble bath. It might be a tasty glass of juice (today’s was a blend of beetroot, lemon, melon and pomegranate juice) or breakfast in bed. It might just be spending ten minutes with the bedroom or bathroom door locked, practising some mindful meditation. For me, self-care means prioritising my uni work, writing every day and making the housework wait. I have a short story I’m working on at the moment, as well as two reflective essays which need to be submitted by 16th January. Today I’m writing this blog ahead of taking the decorations down and cooking dinner. After all, all three lads in our house, husband included are off for the day on their bikes, so why shouldn’t I do what I want to do?

Ninebanks Youth Hostel
Ninebanks Youth Hostel

Today my self-care was to get out of the house and go and see my friends Pauline and Ian who run the Ninebanks Youth Hostel and were having a coffee morning. I find it so easy to stay indoors and not drive out to visit people, and that in itself can cause me to go into a downward spiral. I do need to get out and see friends, as living down a country lane although beautiful, can be isolating. If I hadn’t gone out, I would have missed this beautiful rainbow, and Pauline and Ian’s excellent coffee and homemade biscuits.

Rainbow over Northumberland
Rainbow over Northumberland

Yesterday I made a teapot, at a most enjoyable workshop up at The Sill, with Dianne from Muddy Fingers Pottery. Granted, it cost money, but I’ve been saving all the money I would have spent on booze to give myself treats like this. I’m looking forward to another moment of self-care when my teapot has been glazed and fired, and I can enjoy my first cup of tea from it.

Teapot made with Muddy Fingers Pottery
Teapot made with Muddy Fingers Pottery

What is good for one person, might not be good for another, but I feel it is vital to put ourselves first. I think women in particular can be conditioned to put everyone else before themselves, but this year, I am going to be consciously thinking of how I can take care of myself on a daily basis, however big or small these acts of self-care may be.

Thank you for reading my blog this week. I’d like to say I’m going to write every week, and that is my intention at the momnet, but I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions, so they may be more sporadic.

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Here is last week’s blog in case you missed it: Happy New Year 2020

View from the bedroom window on New Year's Day in rural Northumberland
View from the bedroom window on New Year’s Day 2020

It’s eleven o’clock on New Year’s Day, on a frosty but sunny morning here in Northumberland, and I’m up in the garret, happy to be writing. I’ve let my daily writing slip over the last few weeks and although shopping, cooking and wrapping presents for the family at Christmas are pretty good excuses, I need to get back to work. I’m putting a few intentions in place on New Year’s Day, (please note these are mere intentions, not the dreaded resolutions) and getting back to daily writing is one of them.

Procrastination is a terrible thing, and even this morning, despite being anxious to get up here and write, I tidied the bedroom, sorted out the washing, went down and loaded the dishwasher then thought about making a second cup of coffee. I stopped myself, heading the words of Ron Carlson who writes in his book, ‘Ron Carlson Writes a Story’ that we must stay in the room and keep writing – the coffee can wait until we are done. So, with that in mind, I’m going to treat myself on this New Year’s Day to a morning’s writing, and my second cup of coffee, and the tidying of the garret can wait til I’ve written this blog post.

I do hope you had a good Christmas. We had a relaxed and happy family time over Christmas, with Daisy our granddaughter, being centre of attention, enjoying all her new toys and books. There is nothing finer than sitting a little one on your knee and reading stories together. With her mummy working as a bookseller for Waterstones, and her Nanny a writer, this little one is getting a very bookish beginning in life. She’s particularly loving the books by Kim Lewis, with their tales of rural life on a sheep farm.

Daisy Reading with Nanny
Daisy Reading with Nanny

Did you have a good New Year’s Eve? We have a family tradition to go out to lunch together then leave the youngsters to go off and do their own thing. We were not a full pack yesterday though as my daughter had to work and although both lads came along, my eldest son was recovering from a bout of food poisoning, brought on by some dodgy oysters in a local restaurant, so was not feeling a full shilling. The poor lad managed a few bites of tapas then went home to continue his recovery alone. Not the best of New Years for him.

We went home and lit the sauna, and being a clear starry night, with a beautiful crescent moon and Venus shining bright, it was the perfect night for steaming in the garden. Not your average New Year’s celebrations, but then again, we are not your average couple.

Lighting the round straw bale build  sauna in the garden
Lighting the round straw bale build sauna in the garden

I celebrated New Year with my favourite mocktail (recipe below) and congratulated myself on being 57 days sober. Giving up the booze has been incredible, and although it is a cliché, it really is the gift that keeps on giving. I have woken up on the perfect morning, feeling fresh, full of energy, clear headed and really looking forward to the year ahead. I would really like to give a shout out here to Janey Lee Grace and The Sober Club. Over on the Sober Club website, there are so many great resources to support you in your sobriety, and well as an awesome Facebook group which is full of supportive people to motivate and encourage, and who have your back when you need it most.

If you are thinking of doing Dry January – go for it! However, I’d recommend you just keep on going into February, March and beyond. The first month is the tricky bit – the rewards get better the longer you do it for. I for one don’t intend going back to pouring booze down my neck. My friend Kath reports that Gordon is very disappointed, but she is doing her best to keep him company!

Happy New Year everyone!

Feel free to leave a comment or share this amongst your friends. I’d love a follow too over on My Facebook page Sue Reed Writes, Twitter @suereed62 or Instagram accounts.

‘Til next time.

Sue's Virgin Mojito recipe
Sue’s Virgin Mojito

Sue’s Virgin Mojito

Juice of two squeezed limes

10ml sugar syrup

Large dash or orange bitters

Soda Water


Squeeze juice of two limes into a cocktail glass, then add a good slug of sugar syrup. Add a dash of orange bitters to taste, then top up with soda water and plop a couple of ice cubes in. Decorate with a sprig of rosemary or some redcurrants or cranberries if you can be arsed!

In October, I wrote about how I was feeling on the Creative Writing MA and likened it to being ‘At the Foot of a Mountain’. It was as if I had arrived in Switzerland; with one module I was relaxing into the process of being a writer, wandering around the green pastures of the foothills, but with the other module, I felt as if I was at the rock face, unsure of where to put my hands and feet, and watching others who were already approaching the summit.

I had a lovely email back from my tutor, Lars Iyer, who told me to relax, and that ‘academic’ learning would soon become easier. He said they took mature students such as me on the course on purpose, as we had so much else to offer than academia. I took heart from this, and as I eased off the self-doubt, I relaxed, found my confidence, and I have indeed begun to find academic study easier.

We have been learning in our Prose Workshop about the Freytag Triangle for plotting a short story and have been asked to write a story where the protagonist comes to the realisation that she has learnt something. We were to write from experience, safe in the knowledge that the best writing has lots of detail and writing from memory can provide this.

I was over the moon to hear that writing our own life stories was not only allowed, but positively encouraged. I have on the past, held back from writing some of the episodes of my life for fear the regurgitation of them would upset family members. A lot of my past is not pretty. However, I’ve written without the fear of publication, and have started with a story that goes back to a very painful period in my life. I was in my early teens when I started drinking, and going on dates with men that were a lot older than me.

It has been cathartic to write the tale. I heard the other day, that trying to stuff our past down is like trying to stuff a beach ball under the waves; an analogy I can relate to very much. Our own stories are very much part of us, and we must learn to have them walk alongside us, without shame.

I’ve been working with a therapist for some time now, and it was she who first suggested I go to uni to do my MA and learn to write. She has also suggested that pain comes before shame and has shown me how I have learnt to literally stuff down my pain by using food and alcohol, unable to speak of my wounds.

Writing my story is releasing something in me, and by acknowledging the pain without shame, I am starting to move forward. I made the decision four weeks ago to give up alcohol. Those who know me well, know what a big drinker I have been, and this had had some pretty dire consequences. I have so many tales that would make your hair curl, and who knows, maybe I will write them all down one day, but then again, I may not. I haven’t decided if I should write my story, or let it be and move on.

The alcohol free life has been a revelation. I had no idea I could feel this good all anxiety has gone out of the window; my relationships are already better; I have more energy and am sleeping better; I am losing weight and my skin looks great!. I am getting support from Janey Lee Grace and The Sober Club, and have been listening to lots of ‘quit lit’ and podcasts. I’m hoping that I will be alcohol free for the rest of my life, although I do realise that at 27 days, I am very much at the beginning of my journey. I have a book title in mind for my own ‘quit lit’ – ‘Sex, Gin and Chocolate Cup Cakes’ – but have not made up my mind if I’m brave enough to write it. Who knows, maybe a year down the line I will be?

Giving up alcohol had given me the confidence to finally cash in the voucher Tim had given me for my last birthday for a flying lesson. My anxiety levels were far too high to even consider it before. It was amazing, and as I soared over the beautiful Northumberland countryside, I felt freer than I have done for years. I am flying high!

Flying over Alnwick, Northumberland

I won’t be sharing the short story about my teenage self with you at this point in time. However, watch out for a Christmas Short Story I’ve written that I’ll share with you all next week.

Thank you for reading my blog.

Four weeks into my MA in Creative Writing at Newcastle University and I feel like I’m at the foot of a mountain. We have two modules this semester: Process and Prose and they couldn’t be more different from each other in both teaching style and expectations.

At the foot of Mount Toubkal, Morocco 1987
At the foot of Mount Toubkal, Morocco 1987.

In ‘Process’ with Jacob Polley, we are being led gently through the foothills, learning the process of becoming a writer and gathering what we need to develop our practice. I can breathe the air and admire the view; the wind is blowing gently, and I am able to be kind to myself. My daily writing in my journal, with themes such as ‘I remember’, ‘I am looking at’ and ‘I am thinking of’, allow streams of consciousness to flow and these allow to memories and experiences to bubble up to the surface like mountain springs.

Lanehead, Weardale. Looking towards Wellhope
Lanehead, Weardale. Looking towards Wellhope.

Recently, I visited Lanehead where I lived in Weardale sixteen years ago. My daughter used to walk up a footpath known a ‘Clarty Lonnen’ to the Stone Chair, high up on Puddingthorne Fell. We returned there to take her daughter, our granddaughter Daisy, for her first visit. On my return, I opened my journal and began…’I remember’. Happy memories came flooding back, of when Tim and I bought two derelict lead miner’s cottages and an acre of land for a song, renovated them, raised our family on a shoestring, and worked as information assistants at Killhope Leadming Centre, having given up our teaching and accountancy careers to work part time and raise our young family. It has inspired me to write more of my experiences living in Weardale and possibly use some of my knowledge of the life and times of the lead miners in my writing.

Hannah, Tim and Daisy. The Stone Chair. Lanehead, Weardale 2019.

Our other module, ‘Prose Writing’ with Lars Iyer is in stark contrast. Here I have left the gentle, grassy slopes of the foothills and have arrived at a rock face. Others seem much further up, with their young academic minds fresh from undergrad courses, or having written for years. I need my wits about me, as at times I have no idea where I should be placing my hands or feet and find the climb quite daunting. The work is challenging, and questions posed need serious consideration.  My mind is menopausal and rusty, but with regular writing practice, reading and hard work, mine will hopefully soon be oiled and fit for the climb.

Climbing Mount Toubkal, Morocco 1987
Climbing Mount Toubkal. Morocco. 1987

As a good friend said to me just last week, I am on a journey. It’s going to be hard, but I will get there!

Top of the pass, heading into Oukaimeden. Morocco 1987

Mountain photos taken on our honeymoon, when we climbed Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa………but that’s another story.

Student Granny arrives on Campus
Student Granny arrives on Campus

The nickname, Student Granny was suggested by my friend Foz, who currently lives in New Zealand. Student Granny for me conjures up a character from that north-east publication Viz Comic. Anyone remember the ‘Fat Slags’? At the ripe old age of 57, I am returning to University and have got a place at Newcastle to study for my MA in Creative Writing. I want to write books!

My pencils sharpened and new bag packed, and the day I had been waiting for had finally arrived. Despite feeling rough following a terrible night’s sleep, I eagerly boarded the train at Bardon Mill. Menopausal insomnia wouldn’t be one of the reasons for bleary eyes amongst the younger students during Fresher’s Week, I guessed. I wondered if I would be the oldest, and worried about things like forgetting names, not being about to cope with the technology, needing the loo in the middle of lectures, and above all, being fat.

Stupid really, how being fat should be a worry. How on earth does size make you a better or worse writer? I am of the generation that was brought up with fat shaming, and I guess it runs deep.

Newcastle was busy and as I walked up the hill from Central Station, and I spotted groups of Fresher’s being shown around the town. They all looked so young! Flyers were being handed out for night-time events; banging techno nights, karaoke events, foam parties and the such, but despite the fact I am officially a ‘Fresher’ no one handed me one. Maybe it was the grey hair that did it?

 Walking past Eldon Square, I ducked into ’Hotter’ to get a couple of pairs of wide fit, comfortable shoes that would help with the walk both to the station at Bardon Mill, and from Newcastle station up to Uni, looking forward to the benefits that this will bring, in getting ‘fit for purpose’. I asked the assistant in Hotter to put my shoes in a tote bag I’d brought with me. Far better to arrive on campus with a canvas bag sporting the cover of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, than a carrier bag advertising the fact I needed to buy shoes from the fat feet shop.

Still, I was here, and all worries left me as I walked up the steps into the University compound. Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ was being played from a stretch tent, and I grinned.  I was going to university to learn how to become a writer. This has been on my bucket list for most of my life. Stopping a couple of young guys who were passing a rugby ball between them, I asked them to take my photo. Student Granny had arrived on campus!

Over the next couple of days, induction talks and activities were planned, and it was great to get to know some of my fellow students. I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the oldest (or the fattest) Everyone was so friendly, and our minds were put at rest by a panel of PhD researchers who were MA ‘buddies’, answering any questions we might have.  I stuck my hand up and explained that the last time I had written an essay was back in 1984, and had done it using a typewriter and Tippex. Was there any help in formatting, referencing and ‘how’ to write an essay in 2019? I was reassured that there would be tutorials on just this, plus the ‘Academic Skills Kit’ on the website, and a very useful department based in the library who would help with the nuts and bolts of written work.

At the meet and greet the wasabi peas and wine flowed, and despite initial nerves, I struck up several conversations. In this small world, I found the nephew of a very old friend, and a friend of a friend who had gone to school with another friend. I was interested to see a lot of international students and thought them very brave to be coming to a strange country all by themselves, starting life in a city that is totally new. I chatted to Maggy, who was here all the way from Florida, to do a PhD in Victorian female travel writers. How interesting! I hoped she’d brought some warm clothes.

I had been looking forward to discovering the library, and set off on the second day, in torrential rain to find it. Set behind The Hancock Museum, this four-storey building did not disappoint. The staff there were incredibly friendly, helpful and very patient with Student Granny who was struggling to log onto the system and navigate both around the technology and the geography of the building. It was like a city! We had a reading list for one of our modules, ‘Process’ and being a bit of a ‘girly swot’ (topical joke) I thought I’d get in there quick and bagsie some of the titles. Someone had obviously got thought the same and got in there first. I found a few and am happily reading them at home this week and making notes. It is the first time I have studied a text-book in over thirty years, and it feels great! I’m sure my note taking is far too diligent and I am reminded of the mature students that were on my teacher training course back in 1981, who seemed to take the course far more seriously than us youngsters who were far more committed to propping up the college bar.

Next week teaching starts in earnest. We’ve chosen out modules, and being a part time MA student, I am doing a compulsory module on the ‘Process of Writing’, taught by the fantastic poet, Jacob Polley, and the Craft of Prose, taught by Dr Lars Iyer in the first semester. After Christmas I have signed up for a Masterclass in ‘Writing for Children and Young Adults’ which will be taught by Ann Coburn. I met Ann when I did a Saturday workshop run by the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts, called ‘Write like David Almond’ – anyone read Skellig? I loved Ann’s teaching style and found her enthusiastic and approachable. It was Ann who suggested I apply to Newcastle. I am very much looking forward to this module, as I’ve always fancied having a go at children’s literature.

My whistle was well and truly whetted by Jacob Polley at the introductory talk. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to study at the ripe old age of 57, and to be attending such a prestigious university. Not only is the teaching and support of a high standard; Newcastle English Department is ranked number ten in the Times Good University Guide for English, Creative Writing and Linguistics. The buildings are simply wonderful, steeped in history with wonderful architectural design. I wonder in whose footsteps I walk as I tread the corridors.  Although I’m yet to find a painting of a woman amongst the many academics, dignitaries and benefactors portrayed in oils on canvas in gilt frames.  

I’ve walked through the quad many a time over the last decades using it as a thoroughfare from the car park to the shops, but now I am a student here. I keep having to pinch myself, and maybe I’ll stop making silly noises as I walk along the corridors of the Armstrong and Percy buildings once term starts and the initial euphoria dies down. I’ll write more later in the semester and let you all know how Student Granny is getting on.

Newcastle University
Newcastle University

Thanks for reading!