I recently attended an event called How to Make a Living as a Poet. Three poets made up the panel, and all three mentioned the variety of scholarships, grants and residencies that led them to (and continue to support) where they are today. Sat in the audience, with this blog in mind, I reflected how my scholarship with the British Council led to the publication of my first poetry collection, and the (shy) ability to call myself a professional writer.
I am a nature writer (blush), of fiction and poetry. I have lived in a caravan, van, gypsy wagon, shed and boat, to get closer to the nature that inspires me and to afford the time to write. In Summer 2018, I won a British Council ‘Writers by Nature’ scholarship for emerging nature writers.
The scholarship was designed to inspire, build community, offer support and result in output. I was funded to attend the Munich Nature Writing Seminar, curated and chaired by writer Robert Macfarlane, where I met the five other scholars. In the following months, two nature writers worked closely with us to develop new pieces. We were later sent to Bremen to run community creative writing workshops and give a reading in Berlin.
The seminar, held in Munich’s LiteraturHaus, was an intimate affair. Over the days, the themes of eco-grief, loss of species and awe of nature drew participants close. We shared fears, dreams, drive and passion. To meet and mingle with writers such as Helen Macdonald and Horatio Clare, who I had studied on my creative writing Masters, was an honour, and the encouragement and solidarity from all was deeply valuable. In one seminar, Macfarlane said about writing: "Sometimes you scatter your seeds, rats eat them and nothing flourishes" – it felt too familiar.
We visited a haven in the mountains, Stiftung Nantesbuch, designed with art and nature in mind to offer "a society that lives in agreement with its natural and cultural foundations". There, among the wildflower meadows and alpine forests, my debut poetry collection, Grieving with the Animals, began to flourish. It interweaves feelings of personal loss with my love of nature and distress at the irrevocable ecological losses the world is seeing.
Making a living as a writer seems a mythical concept, helped by publication. The feat of getting published is mountainous, and often relies on the ability to present oneself as a writer and be known in the writing world. Making oneself known as an author (before achieving any of this) often leads to imposter syndrome. The British Council scholarship helped me overcome all three of these impossibilities.
In one year, I built a community of nature writers. I got back into teaching Creative Writing and the flow of giving readings. I published my first collection of poetry. And, perhaps most importantly, I began to call myself a writer. Because that is what I am. Artists like me rely hugely upon the support of organisations like The British Council.