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Ioney Smallhorne: My journey back to writing

The past year has been the first time when I actually considered quitting writing and the arts industry as a whole. It was tough and not because of lockdown. I’ve been freelance for all of my adult working life, so working from home, feeling isolated, living with a sporadic financial landscape has been the norm.

In fact, lockdown created work for me. I was inundated with offers asking me to facilitate online writing workshops. Being a hardened freelancer, I said yes to everything. Who knew when I’d be paid again! It seems whenever a person, young or old, is in need of some creative writing to boost their self-esteem and/or wellbeing, I’m called in for the job. I do enjoy devising/facilitating writing workshops, watching people develop and explore their own minds. I’m good at it, and it (now) pays me reasonably well. I am very grateful for every organisation that returns to me for my services. But I began to feel like the East Midland creative writing mammy.

Reject life

Parallel with Ioney, the creative writing mammy, was Ioney the writer looking for validation, submitting poems and short stories to magazines and competitions, applying for funding anywhere and everywhere. I had devised a spreadsheet listing ‘opportunities’ to apply for, each month ticking them off when applied and each month receiving rejection emails. I was rejected from everything I applied for. 

I’m used to rejection. I am a recovering film maker. I understand rejection makes up 95% of the air an artist breathes, but my self-esteem took a beating. It was made worse by comparing myself to other artists and reading the social media post of artists receiving jobs, funds, and publishing opportunities (most of which I had applied for). So here is an industry that isn’t interested in developing me, my ideas, my work – that only values me when I’m developing other people. I felt drained and useless. 

Above: extract from my journal- me figuring out the unhealthy unmerry-go-round, that I subject myself too…

Breaking point

Hurtling towards my super-late-30s, single, living in shared accommodation. Single is significant, as I haven’t got a support squad. Like the industry, my family does not value my writing; they see it as a little hobby that I need to put down, so I can concentrate on finding ‘real’ work and a partner. I do want children, but living in Nottingham, being an educated, travelled, opinionated black woman, pickings are meagre if not depleted. My art has been my everything and has taken everything. In addition, both of my parents have been seriously ill, so last year the little time I had was spent caring for them. 

I stopped writing, because I felt I wasn’t any good, because I needed some stability (although the creative writing workshops all paid, more often that not I’m left at the mercy of the admin person in the office processing my invoices, which it seemed were also at the bottom of the pile), because I need to develop other areas of my life, because my writing ‘sucess’ became a reflection on every area of my life.

New direction

I applied and got accepted onto a PGCE which came with a £12,000 bursary. I applied and received a part-time English teaching job in FE, which pays me on-time, gives me a pension and holiday pay, and offers a way out of shared housing to my very own nest. In a year, I’ve managed to save enough for a deposit for a house and have even called estate agents to make appointments for viewings. 

Ah mi ah run tings, tings nah run me

Instead of writing, I started running. 1km at a time, interspersed with walking, until I didn’t want to walk and ran 3km, which became 5km, then 7km, which became 10km. I’ve never run before in my life, not even for public transport if late for a meeting. But there was something quite soothing about it, the constant moving forward in any direction. On one occasion, after a run, I felt compelled to document how I felt and recorded a stream of consciousness. I suppose if I was writing, it would have been a free write. This happened again a couple of days later and before long I had a catalogue of new voice notes documenting evrerything from the most trivial details I had observed on my run, to emotional rants that had surfaced like something disgusting and festering and smelly you’d pull out of a blocked drain. 

If I liked it or not, I needed to write. It’s a part of who I am. It’s how I engage with the world, how I understand life, how I navigate the fuckery. I just needed a break, a change of scenery, to ease off the pressure.

Couple weeks later, whilst reading a newspaper, I ‘wrote’ a black out poem, and it reminded me of when I was young and I’d just write for fun, because it felt good. I realised then that the world owes me nothing. I may never finish my poetry anthology, or my short story collection, and if I do, they may never get published. If they do, no one is obliged to read them, but I’ll still be a valid person.

I’ll continue to write because it’s what I do, because I love doing it, because I have questions and have something to say and a curious mind.

Above: extracts from my writing journal reminding myself why I write and how it became a weapon.

Role reversal

I also realised that I need an Ioney. I need to be in a nurturing writing environment, where I’m inspired, and gently challenged, so signed up for writing workshops. I set low stakes – I attended workshops without having an end goal. I told myself I didn’t even need to write, I just needed to attend and listen, and see what happened. Apples and Snakes offered the ‘Red Sky Sessions’, April came with National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWrMo) and writer friend Gemma Weekes invited me to join the weekly freewrite sessions she facilitates with Vanessa Walters on Clubhouse. Before long, I was writing regularly again, and enjoying it.

Below: extracts from my writing journal. I set tiny tasks. During April’s NaPoWrMo, I had daily goals to write a haiku and read a poem

Daily haiku #3

crow caws good morning

glints above bedroom window

smears dawn with shit

Daily haiku #5

Finding silver pubes

instead of a lover

when an ovum awaits

…And Now?

Hell no to teaching full time, but I’m actually enjoying it. Teaching a couple of days a week comes with its own challenges but it means I don’t have to be constantly looking for freelance work. I’ve found having separate, defined areas of my life with clear boundaries refreshing. Strangely, now I have less time to write, I’m more eager and inspired to do it!

My short story 'First Flight' was selected for the Inscribe speculative fiction anthology, Glimpse: Contemporary Black British Speculative Fiction. I cried for a whole day when I read the positive feedback from boss-lady writer and editor Leone Ross. And yes, I know validation needs to come from within, etc etc, but when one of your favourite writers congratulates your work, and your first short story is to be published, crack open a bottle of wine, wear that new dress that makes you look hot, and bask in the love.

I’m valuing my time. I’m being more selective in what I apply for and the workshops I say yes to. I’ve realised saying no to facilitation work means I’m saying ‘yes’ to my writing.

5 tips to help you feel good about writing… again

If anyone is using their writing as a weapon to beat themselves with (and not enjoying it), here’s some advice – that you can completely ignore, coz who asked me anyways!

1. Take a break

Rest and look after yourself. You can’t write if you're dead.

2. Set incy-wincy, bite-size goals

Yes, it’s important to have goals and work towards them, but they need to be realistic. Chop big things down into 10-15mins sections, or 5 minutes if that’s too long. 

3. Do something that feels good

For me it was black out poems/erasure poems, probably because it involved violently scribbling. Also, starting with a full page of words instead of a blank page of words was a good jump start. 

Lists are another ‘feel good’ go-to. I have lists of yellow things, things I do when I want to cry but don’t, questions for my ex-lover, bjects that would be in a scene of a story I’m writing. Lists help me to be specific, they get to the heart of something – quick. They can be edited into poems, thrown in the bin, used to inspire something else – whatevs.

4. Enter writing differently

Who knew running would help me to write! I know running isn’t for everyone, but a new environment and movement was like a multi-vitamin for my writing. Try a gentle walk, have a swim, play some music – tun it up and bruck-out in the front room, whatever tickles your fancy. See if/how it impacts on your writing. 

Bring a note pad and jot down things that excite your senses when out walking or just observe and let your subconscious absorb the environment – whatever feels right.

5. Be a student

Sign up for a workshop. There’s loads of free good quality online stuff happening now. Apples and Snakes have a whole heap of stuff if poetry is your thing. I now try to attend a workshop every three months and am loving it.

About the author

Ioney Smallhorne is a writer, poet, film maker and educator, born and bred in Nottingham. Ioney earned an MA in Creative Writing/Education from Goldsmiths University in 2019. She is also a spoken word educator working across the East Midlands. Ioney has been longlisted for the Jerwood Fellowship 2017 and shortlisted by the Caribbean Small-Axe Prize 2016. In 2020, she was the recipient of a year-long writing commission by Derbyshire Council and Writer in Residence for the Erewash Festival of Light. Her writing has been published in the Inscribe anthology Filigree: Contemporary Black British Poetry (2018) and in Nottingham Black Archive’s anthology When We Speak (2019). Her academic writing was published in the Leeds Beckett journal Story Makers’ Dialogues (2019). Her poem 'Yamaye, Land of Wood and Water' is included in the Crossed-lines Dial-a-Poem App via Google Play or Apple's AppStore. She has performed her poems across the country – a highlight being the London 2012 Paralympics.

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