Vicky Newham


A round-up of 2014

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do one of these but decided that I would like to mark a rollercoaster year and its various challenges and achievements.

January saw me start teaching general interest Psychology classes at the Horsebridge Centre in Whitstable. I had pondered this venture for a while and decided that, as long as I could cover the room hire, it was a teacher’s dream: no marking, no set curriculum, no tests, no admin except my own accounts. It reminded me why I love teaching: seeing people excited about a subject which I adore and leaving the classroom still chatting about it. The course soon acquired a dedicated group of students and has been a real joy. It’s not yielded any tangible income but that’s okay.

February was when the lil brown puppy burst onto the scene. Yes, I schlepped up to a remote village outside Skegness on no sleep (I was too excited) and with a useless Sat Nav, and brought Lexi home. The plan was to wait to get a dog until I had finished my course but Lexi needed re-homing, having had an unsuccessful month with a family at 8 weeks – so the opportunity was too good to miss. The decision was madness as I had to go to Kingston each week for my course (a 6 hour round trip) and had to get her looked after but it was worth it for the joy she brings.

February and March saw me writing a new short story, some drama and some poetry. It was fabulous to get input from a tutor with a different style and background. I learnt what ‘too on the nose’ means, ie. for gawd’s sake make it more subtle, Newham! Doing this module meant that I had to abandon my novel as I couldn’t concentrate on it and learn how to write poetry and drama. I had to immerse myself fully in those worlds and get my pieces written. The poetry was pleasure and pain for me. I adored reading it and writing my own but it required a great deal of patience and meant that I need to let my imagination and mind work in ways which had become unfamiliar to me. I also went on a five day Buddhist retreat at Rivendell which was completely glorious … and gave birth to the idea for my dissertation novel.

Most of April was taken up with: continuing to write my poems, drama and story for one module; holding the academic essay and experimental piece in my mind for another; and trying to plan out the content, timing and organisation of my two dissertation pieces. I also did a couple of location visits to East London as this is where my novel is set. I took hundreds of photos and talked to lots of people there … and was swooped on by a fearsome lady in a burqa with several children in tow who objected to me taking photographs of her. I also did a bit of A-level Psychology tutoring and re-experienced the pleasure of being able to help students who are struggling, and seeing them make huge progress.

At the beginning of May Lexi turned 6 months and on the advice of our vets, I got her spayed. It was horrible seeing her in pain and wearing that stupid collar but we survived the experience with some newly painted but still not cut-in, red and pink feature walls around the house (when I am stressed I have to DO something). Whitstable had its first literary festival at the start of the month and I also went to my second Crimefest in Bristol. The debut author panels filled me with excitement and admiration and joy, and I drove home in my noddy car full of determination to get my own book finished and out into the world. I had my first swim in the sea before the month finished. Yup, no wet suit. My poems, drama and story had to be completed this month. I was happy with my output and reassured to learn that Real Poets write their oeuvres over years. Phew. You mean mine aren’t rubbish then?

June involved a lorra reading and research for my academic essay using feminist theory to critique the BBC drama, The Fall, series one. I waded through textbooks on crime fiction, feminist theory and film theory, lapped up the ideas, wrote reams of notes and hunted down everything I could find on The Fall. I re-watched the series three times, once the whole way through in one sitting (ooof!), again episode by episode and then the whole way through after I’d drafted my essay. What grated though was that I couldn’t get my head round ‘experimental writing’ nor what I wanted to write for this. All of this was offset by the acquisition of a canoe for pleasure and completion on the purchase of a rental flat for business.

In July I attended Harrogate crime writing festival for the first time. This was a schlepp for me from Kent but worth every moment and penny. Different in flavour to Crimefest, highlights were the JK Rowling event, a couple of standout panels and meeting some new crime fiction writers and readers. The panel, In Space, No-One Can Hear You Scream, on cross-genre crime fiction, with Lauren Beukes, Steve Mosby, Sharon Bolton, James Smythe and Lavie Tidhar set my imagination on fire and gave me the idea for the experimental piece for my course. At the end of the month I had the tumbledown and death trap of a shed in my garden knocked down and a summer house put up – which I planned to use for my writing.

August involved me completing my piece of experimental writing and the literary theory-based essay. My initial idea for the essay had been to examine how the ideas of mindfulness have developed intertextually from the Buddha’s writings 2500 years ago into a 21st century ‘cultural product’ but I decided that this was more of a PhD project. I wrote my creepy experimental piece and recorded it into a stereo file. I adored writing both pieces and they were well received which was very gratifying. I also headed back over to Tower Hamlets to do more location research for my novel. I walked from Stratford to Whitechapel and back in a day and visited my first (teaching) school in Stepney. When I got home I printed out my photographs and stuck them on the walls in my study.

September was the month of possession-by-dissertation as the submission deadline approached. I honestly lived, breathed, ate, read, wrote the thing almost 24/7. But – I loved working with Juliet as my supervisor, and learnt loads about myself, my writing and re-affirmed my ability to respond to feedback and apply myself. I laughed a lot (often hysterically), cried a lot, mainlined gin and coffee, screamed often and played quite a bit of Led Zeppelin at top volume. Sorry neighbours (you’re getting me back though, aren’t you?). Oh and I got the thing in early (because I was worried about the car not starting and me missing the deadline). I have never eaten so much pizza and toast, and by the end I literally could not see the floor of my study for discarded drafts, text books and crime novels. Lexi was hilarious. She chewed up the rubbish drafts and learnt to climb on my desk when she had had enough of being ignored. Smart dog.

October offered me the opportunity to get back to what’s important to me via a 9 day meditation retreat in the wilds of North Wales. When I could have gone to sit on a sun lounger for a week (tempting but beyond my budget) I chose instead to go and sit on a meditation cushion (chair actually) and sleep in a dormitory with no bathroom and which involved a trip down perilous steps to a portaloo when the call arose. A portaloo? That nearly sent me scuttling home. Oh and the humungus spider over my bed. We had six days in silence. I came home feeling I had been cleansed inside and out and several stone lighter, mentally. And the trick was to drink nothing after 6pm. Not even any gin.

November was NaNoWriMo month. This year was my first attempt. I hopped back and forth between confidence and panic several times a day in the run-up, created largely by the inability to decide what I wanted to write. Initially I wanted to use NaNo to complete the first draft of my MA novel, but I badly needed a break from it. So I plumped for something new and completely different: a science fiction crime novel about an experimental facility for children with genetic predispositions to certain disorders, details of which are here, if you’re interested: This novel builds on the experimental piece which I wrote for my course. I bashed out my NaNo words each day, sometimes agonisingly, sometimes easily, and got the 50k out in 24 days. I learnt a lot from doing it and loved the community aspect. Towards the end of the month I got my MA results and was truly delighted to have gained a distinction. Those who know how hard the last twelve months have been for me, and how I so nearly gave up on my MA on a number of occasions, will understand how much this distinction means: to me, it is proof (not that I needed any) that hard work, determination and persistence can pay off. And that you can learn to improve your writing.

December is always an extremely difficult month for me especially if Christmas fenzy gets me in its grip. This year I decided to say, quite simply, that I don’t celebrate Christmas. With most people I didn’t enter into explanations, and it was amusing to see the reactions of some. It was the best Christmas I have had since 2011. My ability to keep the frenzy at bay was, I am sure, assisted by a weekend meditation retreat at gorgeous Rivendell the week before Christmas.

I am thoroughly looking forward to 2015. Thankfully, I am in a very different place personally to where I was this time last year, about which I have said very little here. Writing-wise, my main goal is to finish the novel I started for my MA and get it out into the world to see if it has a life as a book. I am not going to rush this process as I want to do it to the best of my ability and I want to do the story, the ideas and myself justice. I draft quickly but re-write slowly and dozens of times. But there is enough of the novel ready for me to enter some competitions now. I also want to get some of my short stories out into the world, and to re-write my NaNo novel (which I love).

I shall continue to teach my Psychology class, and will run another mindfulness class. I am also going to run a meditation class locally. And I have various other creative-come-commercial ideas on the simmer. I have no regrets about leaving teaching, I want to live nowhere other than Whitstable, and I am determined to get that strong-willed furry friend of mine coming back when she is off the lead and called, so that she is safe.

Moving to Whitstable in 2013 was about simplifying my life and doing the things I love. I have done some of that. 2014 has been a very challenging year in many regards but I am proud of the things I have achieved as they have not fallen into my lap easily. I do hope that doesn’t sound smug. I have made a lot of new friends this year, and feel more settled in my life than I have for years – if ever. Thank you all for being a part of that.


That’s my view and I’m sticking to it

Whenever I hear iPhone enthusiasts arguing with Android lovers about which is best, I am always reminded of how attached we can all get to our opinions and how much time and energy we often invest in confirming to ourselves that we are right, and in attempting to convince others that they are wrong. When a person experiences two conflicting beliefs simultaneously or when there is a conflict between what a person believes and evidence which is presented to him, social psychology refers to this as ‘cognitive dissonance’. It is an uncomfortable emotional state but can also be a constructive one which results in genuine and long-lasting mental change as the brain attempts to reduce the anxiety experienced via the dissonance by resolving the conflict somehow.

So why have I been thinking about this you may wonder when I have a manuscript to polish and an MA to complete? That’s the thing. It’s the MA. In specific it’s the literary theory that we have to study this semester and the role it plays in a creative writing degree. Of course I knew that it was one of the modules when I enrolled for the course last September and started my first year. I told myself that I’d worry about it later (never works for me). That I’d have changed my mind about it by the time I started the module (yeah yeah). I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not very good at delaying worrying. If something bothers me I worry about it. Either consciously or unconsciously. My beef about literary theory is not that it’s inherently of no value or dull. I actually find a lot of it fascinating. It’s that a) it belongs – in my opinion – on a literature degree not a creative writing one and that b) it uses an academic part of my brain which conflicts with the creative part. When I’ve discussed my concerns I’ve enjoyed discovering that lots of people felt the same.  ‘Exactly,’ I would say to each of them, ‘Glad you agree’. And each time it stoked my resentment and I dreaded starting the module a bit more.

As an aside, it also amuses me that I’ve avoided many of the theories a number of times before on previous courses and now they’ve come up again. I feel like the world is telling me that I need to learn my “–isms”. Psychology has ‘debates’ such as determinism and reductionism, and these include many of the philosophical theories in literary theory. The literature modules on my French and German degree nodded continually at Marx, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre and Lacan. When I did some Sociology and General Studies at school (as a teacher) I learnt about structuralism and post-modernism.

As I now have a 2.5 hour journey to get to Kingston each week, and back, it is important to me to get as much out of my MA as I can. One thing I learnt on my MA Effective Learning was that attitudes to learning profoundly affect learning. This may sound obvious, but actually it isn’t necessarily nor are the ways in which it plays out. So I gave myself a good talking to about my attitude. That didn’t really work. As a fan of preparation, both mental and physical and as an empiricist, I’ve been giving my anti-literary theory prejudices a good airing over the summer holidays and instead of looking for self-confirming evidence I’ve been actively seeking evidence that I am wrong: that learning about literary theory will help me to be a better writer. I think what has helped was that I sat down on Sunday night and read half one of the set text books. I’d told myself I’d read a couple of chapters but I couldn’t put it down.

In the first session yesterday, an introductory one, I listened to what the module leader said, and I was aware that a subtle shift had taken place: whereas before I hadn’t wanted to be convinced, now I did. Prior to the lecture I’d had a chat with him and had aired my concerns. ‘Won’t it make me more self-conscious when I write?’ I asked, feeling rather stupid. ‘Perhaps,’ he replied, ‘but perhaps that’s a good thing.’ ‘Won’t it suppress creativity?’ I continued. ‘Not necessarily,’ he answered, with a knowing smile. Normally these sorts of answers don’t work for me and knowing smiles wind me up. But for some reason, yesterday, they satisfied me. They gave me patience and faith. That I was wrong and that that was okay. And that good things might come of my being wrong in the way that cognitive dissonance suggests, in other words: learning.

I am not entirely sure why this module issue bothers me as much as it does. I am not a stubborn person and I have a good ability to shove myself through unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. If I’m honest it might simply be that the MA is costing me a lot of money and I would have liked something more writing-focussed (but not another writing workshop). I am still worried that the academic and the creative don’t sit well together, that self-consciousness in writing will hinder my creative flow and will invoke self-censorship. But I am prepared to suspend my beliefs, to give the module the benefit of the doubt, as well as people who know waaaaaaaaay more about literature and writing than me, and to see how things pan out over the next twelve weeks.

What we cover on the module is: the author; inter-textuality; the real; history & place; sex & gender; race & empire; politics & ideology. Plus we learn about story theory (which I love). We start formally next week with the ‘author’ material and guess who’s volunteered to do the opening summary of Foucault’s ‘What is an author?’ Foucault Shmooko. I must be mad…. Oh, well. In for a penny … (or rather several thousand!)

I would love to hear from people who’ve studied literary theory. To know how you found it and, for those of you who are writers, what relationship it had with your writing.

As views go, this one's not bad!

As views go, this one’s not bad!

Vicky Newham © 2013


Making big decisions

Have you noticed how every so often life throws decisions at us? Recently I’ve had a number of these to make, some professional, others more personal. Some have been small, others huge … with all sorts of implications. Ability to cope with decision-making, so psychological research tells us, can depend on a number of factors. One of these relates to whether or not we knew the decision was looming or whether it comes out of left field. Other factors concern the nature of the decision(s), how many of them there are, and what else is going on at the time.

Sometimes I know instinctively what the best thing, or the right thing, is to do, and feel confident about it. Is this a gut feeling or a mental thing? I’m never really sure and it doesn’t really matter. On other occasions I have to dig a bit deeper and be patient with myself. At times like that I find a range of things can be helpful. I find nature very beneficial. Sitting by the sea, mulling things over, it never fails to help. Often, though, I just go for a walk along the beach – or on the downs – and decide not to think consciously about ‘The Dilemma’ at all. It’s surprising how often a solution or decision presents itself either at the time or later.

One of my favourite places to chill is on the beach in Whitstable

One of my favourite places to ‘chill’ is on the beach in Whitstable

I am also a great believer in talking things through with people I trust. I am lucky to have a number of good friends, with whom I can be completely honest, and who will be honest with me. They know that launching in with “Right, what you’ve got to do is …” before I’ve explained everything, doesn’t work with me. Sometimes I do actively want advice, but sometimes I find it beneficial to think aloud, discuss the options and to then toddle off and make up my own mind. I do, however, know that if they thought I was making an enormous mistake, they would say so. And often have.

When I taught A-level Psychology, one of the sections of the course that students enjoyed was the one on life events. When we read the research and discussed the findings, they were always surprised that ‘good’ things that happen in life can be as stressful as ‘bad’ ones. One of the reasons is that, regardless of whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it heralds change. And the thing about decisions is that they tend to involve change too. Change. It’s a biggie, isn’t it?

Over the last few years I’ve got into mindfulness and meditation. It’s taken me decades to be able to do it. Getting out of your mind and into your body, wow! It’s like taking off your head for a while and having a lie down. Then you can put it back on. Unfortunately, I don’t have any miracle solutions for how to make big decisions. I have made enormous changes in my life in the last two years. When I left teaching, I decided to enrol for my MA and start writing full-time. I also decided to sell my house and move to the coast. When our mother died last summer, my brother and I had to empty to the house and help sell it. Thank goodness you only have to do that once in your life. It has been a long period of having to make some very difficult decisions, sometimes one after the other, but often with many converging. Recently I’ve had more pleasant ones to make: where to live; which house to put an offer on. These have been, as the research shows, stressful and draining. Other decisions linger, such as how to support myself whilst I’m writing my books and trying to get that illusive publishing contract.

This tree, on Farthing Downs in Coulsdon, is an old friend of mine

This large tree, on Farthing Downs in Coulsdon, is an old friend of mine

Next week I will move into my new permanent house. I will be able to move all of my belongings from Coulsdon and have them in one place. The house there still hasn’t been sold, but it’s going through, s l o w l y. I hope that this intense period of upheaval and decision-making is coming to an end. Meanwhile, I shall continue to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and trying to live in the present moment. And having faith that life has a timing of its own.

Vicky Newham © 2013