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Australia Council grants for the unseasoned professional

It came as quite a shock to me that there are writers out there who dedicate a set amount of time every single week to writing applications for grants, residencies and funding. And I can see why – who doesn’t want time and space and money to write? – so I was really happy to find out about a workshop about how to apply for an Arts Council grant.

The workshop was held as part of the Perth Festival Writers’ Week, and hosted by Lina Kastoumis from The Australia Council and Kate Noske, the editor of Westerly magazine

In a nutshell: grants are available to Australian residents and citizens (even ones living overseas) and are literally money to write. At the end of your grant period, you are obligated to write an acquittal, talking about what you produced and how your writing went, but it’s not expected that you are instantly published or write a bestseller. It’s more about progressing a piece of writing and having something substantial to show for the time the grant gave you.

If you don’t – if for some reason it all goes wrong – you can apply for an extension or show them what you did do, even if it wasn’t what you’d originally planned.

All of the information is readily available on the website, and there is even an Easy English PDF that makes the process even simpler. But the benefit of attending the talk was that it filtered the information by specifically addressing writing grants.

Here are the main points, which will hopefully demystify the process a little for anyone thinking of applying. If you worked all this out years ago, you won’t need it. If you’re like me and didn’t, I hope it’s helpful.

Where to start: What you need if you are a writer starting is the Art Projects for Individuals page. You will submit under the “Creation of New Work” category.

You are expected to talk a bit about yourself and provide a project summary. This is a brief description of what you are hoping to do. For example – work on the second draft of my YA novel in preparation for submitting to publishers, or research and develop a creative non-fiction idea about the architecture of rural Australia.

Here, the assessors are looking for evidence that you know what you are doing and you can explain it. So talk about your artistic ambition – what’s driving you, why are you doing it, what are you excited about? And dense, academic jargon is discouraged, which was a bit of a revelation to me.

Lina described this as introducing yourself to your peers. Imagine you have rocked up to a writerly event and a more established writer or literary editor politely asks you what you’re working on. You wouldn’t talk about yourself in third person, nor would you waffle on for thirty minutes. You’d just aim to articulate the who, what and how of your project and come across as a reasonably intelligent and normal human being. It’s the same with a grant application, except with the luxury of a backspace button, so even better.

Timeline: Think about how long you’d like to work on your project for. Maybe six months for a second draft? So you’d write June to December – working on a draft.

Budget: Look at how much you need to live on. Let’s say $600 a week. Then assume you also do some freelance writing or have a part-time job in a bookshop or something, and take off $200 a week. So $400 a week, times 26 for half a year to write your first draft is…. $10,400 please.

These figures are rough guidelines, but the message was to be realistic about how much money you’ll ask for. Including other income in kind brings you up to your total amount you need to live on, and the impression I got was that having some part-time work was a good thing.

If you’re asking for money for travel, list what you’ll be doing, how it pertains to your project, who you’ll be speaking to. The key here, I think, is to do some planning and start mapping out your project well in advance of applying for a grant so you can describe in some details what you’re going to do.

Supporting material: This includes your all-important writing sample. Ultimately, this is the deal breaker of your application, so send your best work.

A writing CV including anywhere you have been published (with links, if possible, and check those links are still live), writing retreats, academic achievements, relevant work, shortlistings in writing prizes, publication in an anthology or journal etc. Go to town.

Letters of support: These are letters from your writing peers in support of your application. Kate Noske, Westerly‘s editor, made the point that she was happy to write these letters, but it helps if she knows you. So make yourself known – go to events, talk to her, subscribe and submit to Westerly. It makes it easier for her to write your letter of support if she knows something about your writing practice. Also, give your letter-writers some warning. Ideally a couple of weeks before the deadline. Definitely not two days before!

Lina also stressed that there are grants officers who will happily answer your questions and talk you through the entire process. Their number is (02) 9215 9000. While they can’t look at draft applications, they can answer any questions you may have while you are preparing it.

A final point she made was that they love receiving applications from outside the Sydney/Melbourne bubble. So don’t assume that because you’re not living and working in the heartland of the Australian arts world and none of your friends are famous writers there’s no chance – it’s about your writing, your idea and your commitment.

If anything, they want to support a diverse range of artists, which was why she came all the way to Perth to talk to us. Go for it.

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Writing workshop: using place names in your writing

When writing prose, it’s easy to get stuck on the mechanics of the story – who is speaking? Was the baby asleep in the last scene? Could it really be dusk already? …. and the writing itself can sometimes feel secondary, just a means of getting your characters from A to B.

So turning up at a poetry workshop is a brilliant way to break out of the prose writing rut and come away with some vivid images and a few promising ideas to pick up later.

The first thing that poet Liz Berry told us when she opened her workshop, held as part of the British Council’s Literature Seminar, was that using place names for inspiration is most definitely not a new trick. Instead, it’s a time-honoured way of diving into fresh creative waters and giving your brain a bit of a jolt because, as it turns out, place names can be seriously weird.

To warm up after the introductions, we read a few poems, including Going Through the Villages by Matthew Francis and the menacing Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield. Both were brilliant examples of how place names can work, almost on their own, to create a distinctive mood in a piece of writing.

We then did some writing exercises: first choosing a place name provided by Liz – Saltcoats, Tralee and more – and using them to generate some fragments of writing.

Then we all read our work – a bit of a naked German sauna vibe – scary yet liberating* – before going on to look at maps, including the London Underground, the Paris Metro and some regional maps.

Mine was a very old map of the Birmingham area, and included gorgeous names such as Cosely Tunnel, Apple Tree, Dozell’s Basin, Beehive, Dolphin and Small Heath. I ended up with a sentimental poem about a child going to sleep, but still, it was something new and something unexpected – and that was enough.

As a writing exercise, drawing on maps and place names is playful, can lead to some intriguing connections and gives you some easy ways to jump into a story or just a productive writing session. All you need to do is take a map, find a place name that resonates with you and go for five or ten minutes. Then another, and another. Mix them up, make a list, whatever works!

Because, as Liz reminded us, Robert Frost always considered poetry ‘serious play’ – while it may be about serious things, at heart it’s a creative and playful activity.

Finally, she told us to read over our work and find just one idea that we liked because, as she said, “writers are always so mean about their work.”

All in all, it was a morning that reminded me just how much I love writing workshops – the focus that comes with knowing you’ll be reading your work aloud, the generosity of everyone in sharing their writing, the contagious intensity of a roomful of people working without distraction, and the feeling of being among your kind, those who would rather do this than anything else on a Saturday morning. Not to mention the presence of Liz herself, who was so genuinely delighted and encouraging that everyone kind of floated out into the rest of their day feeling blessed.

Liz Berry’s own poetry includes her Forward Prize winning The Republic of Motherhood, published in a pamphlet that resembles a passport. If you know of anyone who has just had a baby and loves poetry, this would be a beautiful gift. She also has a collection called Black Country (Chatto, 2014).

The British Council Literature Seminar is held every year and is a wonderful opportunity to hear some new and established British writers, buy their books, attend their workshops and listen to readings. h

* I haven’t actually done a naked German sauna, but I imagine the emotions are similar.

To do list item 245: start blog

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Starting a new blog has been on my to-do list for a while. A social media presence is helpful for writers, and as I am currently revising my novel in the hope of having it accepted for publication I need to start now. And aside from that, I read the blogs of other writers and want to join that conversation. 

However, in October 2018 I moved with my family to Berlin, my husband’s place of birth. So while I start every day with lofty intentions about everything I will achieve it usually falls apart sometime around 9.30am when I finish my second cup of dusty supermarket coffee and get so overwhelmed by everything I have to do that I end up gloomily scrolling Instagram instead.

So many different areas need attention right now. The kids, always. The dire shoe situation. House hunting. The need to feed four people, including two selective vegetarians. Overdue tax returns. Incomprehensible recycling. Tiptoeing past the shift worker on the second floor, whose wife guards his sleep like a lioness. Parental guilt at uprooting my kids from everything they know and love. Getting my head around German bureaucracy and the many official letters I receive in German from places unknown. Dropping my son at Kita and not knowing if it will go smoothly or… not so smoothly. Thinking about doing some exercise. Keeping up with my copywriting work, which funnily enough involves ghostwriting a blog for someone else.

And then there are the curve balls. Mein gott, the curve balls. Last week, my son brought home a five-day virus from Kita thanks to a suite of high-functioning German germs we aren’t immune to. A virus that gives him a hacking cough and results in a chilling moment when I find him lying down in his bed, having voluntarily put himself there.

So I took him to the doctor and she approached him with her stethoscope. But as I started unpeeling him from his four layers of clothing she sighed, turned around, and left the room.

Why did she do that? I wondered, and started looking for a sign. There is always a sign, in some no-nonsense font. What does that sign say? I asked my husband, pointing at one over the baby change table. Children must be undressed before the doctor arrives to save time, he translated. But I think it just refers to the babies.

No, I said. No. We messed up. Again. Eventually she came back and told us it was a virus and to take him out in the cold air because it’s good for him. I carried him straight home in a small yet satisfying act of rebellion.

Sometimes I wake up and resolve to deal with the baffling bureaucracy – for example, health insurance. A phone conversation goes like this:

‘Oh, hello, do you speak English?”

‘No.’

‘Is there anyone there who speaks English?’

‘No.’

‘OK. Auf weidersen.’

The answer is, of course, German classes. This has also been a long-winded process – you must go in person, and fill in a form stating you have never studied German, and once you are accepted in writing you must go back to pay in person, within two days. I am late by a day, but by some small miracle she agrees to hold my place.

But my card doesn’t work, so I go in search of a bank, getting distracted along the way by a bookshop with a small English section where self-help classic The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is on display. I feel like I need this book. I wonder if it’s been re-released, or if it’s just in heavy demand in the English language section of German bookshops. 

But I need to stay focussed on my to-do list. Cash in pocket, I return to the language school, steeling myself for some box unticked, some bureaucratic slammed door. But no.

My money is taken. I receive a printed invoice with a second copy for the school. I sign both. She takes out a highlighter and highlights for me, exactly where and when I am to report for my first class. Both documents are date-stamped; she files one and hands me the other. I’m in. Respect the process and doors open. 

The next day, I am walking in Moabit with my son, inflicting my terrible German on various shopkeepers. On the street is one of the many free little libraries that are scattered all over Berlin. There, among a few old German novels, is an English language copy of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. With its very own magnetised bookmark.

I’ve started reading and it did say something useful, which was: the best path to success is to do what has worked for others. Which is so obvious it’s almost insulting. But here I am, starting a blog.

I’ll write about Berlin, because it’s a fascinating city, beautiful in parts and a living breathing down your neck history lesson, and that might be helpful for anyone visiting. COME AND VISIT!!! Books, because the climate here is very reading-friendly. And hopefully some good news on the writing front.

Vielen Dank for reading

Poets: the top shelf spirits of the writing world

While the output of an ordinary writer like myself is as messy as a Tuesday night shopping basket – a bit of copywriting, the odd short story, a work-in-progress novel – the poets I have met write poems, and nothing else. Poets are the top-shelf spirits of the writing world, pure and intoxicating. While ordinary writers paddle between the flags at the beach, a poet free dives the Titanic. They go there. And yet, the word poet just sounds so genteel and lovely.

One of my favourite poetry memories is taking my friend to see the women poets reading in the Tropical Garden at the Perth Writers Festival. New Zealand poet Hera Lyndsey Bird was on, and as she read – perhaps it was Monica – or maybe Speech Time – I watched his expression change as his understanding of women poets was… expanded. Or maybe pulverised.

But I had forgotten, until I went to the British Council’s Literary Seminar, held in Kreuzberg last week, just how much I love poetry. Upon arrival I saw that the next writer on was a poet called Liz Berry, who had written a Forward Prize winning poem called The Republic of Motherhood, which I read on my phone. After picking myself up off the floor, I went upstairs, bought both her books, then found a seat worshipfully close to the stage.

She’s from the Black Country, a region in Northern England named after its coal seam and the thick smoke from its many iron-working forges that hung over it through the nineteenth century, and her writing seeks to preserve and revive the beautiful and particular dialect of her home.

Her books come with a glossary of words: clem gutted (starved or miserable)  wammels (dogs) and wum (home). She also draws on folklore and magic realism in her work, writing, for example, a poem called The Year We Married Birds. As well as reading some poems she made some salient points about writing, which I jotted down.

On being called a ‘confessional’ poet
This idea of work being confessional is a complicated one. Often it’s been used against women who write about bodies or families as way of sweeping it away, saying there’s nothing artistic or creative there. So I do write about those things but it’s not just confessional writing, I put them through a process of chemical transformation to make something new.

On writing about the Black Country
I try to write about where I am from with tenderness – and by that I mean I look on it with love and warmth, but also with an awareness of what’s painful, sore or difficult. I have a fascination for the region and I’m also really interested in unusual language. My work has been warmly received there, I think because I am from there and also because I have stayed.

On writing and motherhood
When I became a mother I was suddenly plunged into this hidden world made up almost entirely of women – from the midwives at the hospital to the nurses at child health clinics and the mothers at playgroups. It was a really strange experience of being in the same city but suddenly in this secret world of new mothers, and I became fascinated by it, and in love with it, the kindness of other women.

I couldn’t find that world in poetry, and I wondered, why is no one writing about it? People told me to read Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath but the trouble with them is they don’t teach you how to survive it. I describe myself as a feminist and I see writing about women’s bodies and women’s experience as a feminist act.

On becoming a poet
My father read my a lot of poetry as a child – Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti. And then in my twenties I went to see poetry readings and saw poets like Denise Riley, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay and they were generous and kind and clever and I thought, that could be my world.

The following day, she gave an equally inspiring workshop on using place names in writing, and it was so helpful I will do another blog on it as a writing exercise – to be continued….