Story of Change – Episode 5

This Month’s Episode

In conversation with award winning poet, John McCullough

Does the thought of change challenge or excite you? Does it make you fearful or full of energy?

In this month’s episode of Right Time Write Now host Nicola McDonald considers how changes big and small impact our growth and how changing her outlook in Australia, led to clarity and freedom.

Nicola talks about shedding her wardrobe, leaving the contents of her suitcase in an Australian charity shop, and the change that came over her after doing so.

We also hear Nicola speak with award-winning poet and lecturer John McCullough. Sat in a Brighton cafe they talk about the change in her work and confidence as she embraced the journey from student to published author.

We also hear ‘Winter Wonderland’, the story that changed how Nicola saw herself and after which she started to call herself a writer.

Follow this month’s writing prompts to explore how change makes you feel and whether you can identify moments of clarity amid shifting situations.

John McCullough Bio

John McCullough lives in Hove. His third book of poems, Reckless Paper Birds, was published with Penned in the Margins and won the 2020 Hawthornden Prize for Literature as well as being shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. His poem ‘Flower of Sulphur’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. His fourth collection, Panic Response, was published by Penned in the Margins in 2022 and was a Book of the Year in The Telegraph as well as being included in The Times’ list of Notable New Poetry Books of 2022. John’s other awards include the Polari First Book Prize. He teaches creative writing at the University of Brighton and for organizations including the Arvon Foundation.

Over six monthly episodes Right Time Write Now encourages you to explore writing to reveal the joy of being human. Write 1250 words after each episode and complete your own novelette by the time the series ends.

Nicola McDonald is a creative coach and author of “Plain Janey” and “In Search of the Christmas Spirit”.

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This series is produced by Big Tent Media.

RTWN05 Transcript

John McCullough, Nicola McDonald

Nicola McDonald 00:03
Welcome to Right time Write Now, a monthly podcast helping you to write yourself into a better place. My name is Nicola McDonald. I’m a creative coach and writer. And each month I will be coaching you through a writing exercise to reveal the joy of being human. Ready to get curious and creative? Let’s get started.

Nicola McDonald 00:28
Hello, and welcome to Episode Five in my series right time right now, thank you for tuning back in. I do hope you are enjoying this series. To fully appreciate the process of this creative writing series, start at episode one, and work your way through the series. Alternatively, listen to all episodes first, and if you are inspired, begin at Episode One and enjoy the exercises. This month I am exploring the positivity of choosing change. Each chapter you and I have written so far is an expansion on the previous. We are remembering our journey towards joy. In this chapter you have to decide to change. I wonder how that felt and how you reflect upon it? Remember to let go of the idea of perfection. The podcast is not about how to get published, it’s for you or anyone you wish to share it with. Remember, you can research a little but you don’t have to. I like to come away from my stories feeling a little more informed if there is a need. And if it adds to the feel of the story. Enjoy the process. You have a month between each podcast to write, so don’t rush it unless of course words spill out. Let your creativity flow right first, and you’ve got it edit later. If you need time to think about what I say or ask remember the pause button and take all the time you need. Grab your preferred device to make notes. And when I’ve read through the section to take action, let your words flow.

Nicola McDonald 02:06
I haven’t mentioned it for a few episodes, but I try to get about 1250 words in with each chapter feeling like a story in and of itself. But I’m not testing you. This is by you and for you. And if you wish to share it with others like I do, then that is also your choice. I have noticed how my tone changes. The childlike story in the first episode is less prevalent in the subsequent chapters. I like to express how I am feeling fun, earnest, sad, it’s up to you. Just remember to use your voice your story with a positive outcome. As in previous episodes, I’ll give you some pointers to help you on your way at the end.

Nicola McDonald 02:48
As a consequence of saying yes to veering off my path in early 2000s I met John McCullough, my then inspirational and humanly relatable lecturer, and a recognised poet who has gone on to publish books such as Panic Response in 2022, and Reckless Paper Birds 2019. John is a sensitive soul with a big heart and so much talent. He writes truth and real life, the love and the loss of being human in ways that affect readers and that are thought provokingly effective. As a lecturer he was guiding and patient and his feedback was always something I could learn from, rather than feel embarrassed by or less than through judgement. I am looking forward to speaking with John, a winner of the 2020 Hawthornden Prize for Literature for Reckless Paper Birds Penned in the Margins and who was also shortlisted for the 2021 Forward prizes for best single poem Flower of Sulphur, Poetry London, he was a nurturing influence when I decided to choose creative writing, and I can’t wait for you to meet him.

Nicola McDonald 04:02
When I decided, everything changed , Chapter Five.

Nicola McDonald 04:10
It’s March 8th 2023. And I’m sitting at my kitchen table facing my garden. It’s 8am and my thoughts woke me some hours ago. My creativity is talking to me. So here I sit at my computer writing. No pen today. I began this chapter yesterday. My husband is on his way to the London office. The dogs are snoring and I can hear the droning of the fridge. Has it become louder these past days? Nothing is stirring just the occasional click of a pipe expanding. The heating is on. It’s cold.

Nicola McDonald 04:45
I’ve asked Alexa to hush my story so I can write to you my invisible audience. I’ve taken a snippet of a video of our garden. Snow covers our garden chairs and our plants and trees sit under thick layers of virgin flakes. The paved paths are simply wet, and sleet and snow still falls. I sent it to my sister in Australia. The weather predicts rain this afternoon. Snow in March has stopped surprising me these past few years. I’ve been around long enough to recognise the seasonal shift, the climate change. I’m drawn as always to the trees, our Cedar, Palm, Hollybush and in the back of our trumpet tree Tabuja to use its proper name. It stands bare, dormant, hibernating against the fence at the back of the square Garden. Spring has not sprung in it yet. And I can see the trees lining streets and in neighbor’s gardens, some are evergreen, all magnificently resilient. If I had my way my garden would be a wood or a forest naturally unkempt, nature being nature. A tree sways so that it doesn’t break. It has an elastic capacity to return upright depending on the strength of the wind. Trees talk and share resources right under our feet using a fungal network, the woodwide web. Some plants use this network to support offspring, and some use it to sabotage their rivals.

Nicola McDonald 06:21
I’m thinking of the series The Last of Us as I write those last few words on sabotage. Although the fungi in The Last of Us is a variant of cordiceps, which can zombify its host, it’s known as zombie ant fungus. It will not and does not infect humans. I’ve not played the game, but I hear it’s the best from multiple fans within my home. But I digress, I tend to do this in my storytelling. I need to bring my thoughts back to the subconscious. It has something it wishes to say.

Nicola McDonald 06:54
Trees share water and nutrients through the networks and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease and other trees alter their behaviour when they receive the messages. The scientific term is called mycausal networks. Humans do the same choose love and some choose hate via manmade network globally and locally. It’s conduit, the World Wide Web, synchronous. And the news appears grim for the most part. So I switch it off and feed on what I can humanly digest, and choose to find solutions to problems and incorporate joy in my day. Lest I should feel helpless.

Nicola McDonald 07:37
We humans evolved from living in caves around two and a half million years ago, to approximately 10,000 BCE. We were hunter gatherers, hunting for food and using fire and leather for clothing and bones for tools, or handles. Today, depending on our privilege, we live in huts, flats, or houses where food and clothing, tools and more are available from markets or shops in the Western world. We exchange with money. It’s a simple transaction. But imagine the significance of the journey of man in the short paragraphs I’ve just written. Over millions of years, we have experienced growth and evolution, we’ve expanded our territory. The big picture takes time and humans certainly haven’t finished their quest for more, for bigger and better. Sometimes changes for the good of all. Sometimes somebody forgets to calculate the impact. But the significant part of the story is all species move forward and adapt to their environment, cause and effect. Everything grows and everything changes. We decide on the smallest of changes in our day to day, shall I have cereal or toast? Will I have tea or coffee may be water? I read it can take 66 days to change a habit. Deciding to make bigger changes can mean letting go of something or the idea of something in favour of your growth and your expansion. So how tight is your grip? Are you prepared for a mourning period?

Nicola McDonald 09:18
I told myself a story once. I told myself I didn’t like change. And when I decided it was true. I believed it. And for many years, every three months I would look at my immediate environment within the confinement of my four walls and change my furniture around. I wasn’t stimulated or excited beyond the short measure of time. And I still didn’t acknowledge the message for a while. I love change. The reframe was, I didn’t immediately trust change which means I didn’t immediately trust in my decision. But I do love what comes out on the other side, and the outcome can be knowledge and even wisdom, or a way of living that is different, more authentic. And so in Australia while I walked him a nature and slipped between trees which sheltered and spoilt me aesthetically, before opening up to give me the most amazing view of the ocean or river, I truly felt a part of something much more powerful than just being human. I felt small and significant. And in my journey, I felt spiritual. And this sensory enlightenment was powerful. However, rather than changes something by improving on something, I changed my outlook, and I began to see more clearly. Each of my observations and teachings I kept bound in a journal. Each plant which I observed, specifically the bottlebrush, a favourite of mine, seemed to stir emotion in me greater than anything previously. Because I stopped and took in the red or pink cylindrical clusters, arranged in spikes projecting outward.

Nicola McDonald 11:10
I’m always amazed at the structure of a tree or a flower, all plants surviving and adapting, leaning up and out to make the most of the Sun, distributing water evenly, not greedily when the rain has fallen. And underneath our very feet is a community signalling, paying attention and supporting. In this space in Western Australia and my sister’s garden, her fields and wider area, I noticed the red sand the lizards, the spiders with their erratic webs, which I had to be wary of. I noticed the birds finches I believe they were which jumped onto the veranda which my sister had decked out in furniture she had picked from op shops, a bright red sofa on which I slept on my first day. Its colour popping in the new spring, the candleholders the chest and even the washing hanging out to dry in the cold spring of October, became my daily breath. This spring in Western Australia mostly mirrored our autumn temperatures in the UK. And I wrote about it all, if not in love letters, then bound in each sheet of my journal. I attempted to capture the sounds in words, especially from the frogs and crickets that sang in harmony. That cradled me to sleep. And I had no Alexa to listen to my latest book at bedtime. How quickly I didn’t miss them as I was soothed to sleep by nature’s callings.

Nicola McDonald 12:42
In the morning, Sam and Red would play with the horses, Red more vocal than Sam barked with excitement as the game began. I thought he may burst. I wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t trying to get them to calm down like a parent would a child. The horses were so willing to include them in their game of chase. I wrote about it all in my sister’s home between the sheets of my journal, in bed or snuggled up on a chair with a blanket over my knees, or beside the log burning fire. I can see her home. I can hear her talk. I can see the jar of peanuts, which we pretended were m&ms, her favourite. I can see her making salad putting the pot of coffee upon the gas burning stove. Leaving vitamins on the side for me to take my morning fruit smoothie. I can hear her voice right now.

Nicola McDonald 13:38
It’s strange how just writing about this trip I took brings home the neigh of horses, the galloping of hooves, the Cluck cluck, cluck of chickens, red sparks, so distinctive high pitched. I’m so glad I changed my narrative by saying yes to joy, and working with my sister on her feel good business venture. The world is truly a place of beauty and a playing field of discovery. We need to take more care of it and each other. In nature, there are sensory smells around each corner and then in the towns and city, there is the beautiful aroma of coffee. Two cups a day in my forever cup, my travel mug, to delicious oral sensations. Each coffee shop had its own speciality, brownies or muffins. Mouth watering. I tried them all with little thought to my waistline. I ate well, exercised plenty and lost weight I had struggled to lose in my every day. When I left my clothes in the charity shop, I exchanged them for a smaller size. When we have balance and make conscious healthy decisions, the rest comes over time, perhaps after a certain age more slowly than in years gone by. But be kind to yourself. Be grateful to your body. It’s holding you upright and changing with tide and times, synchronise your mind. Feed it right love it. I am in a better place with self care than I was before the plane took off. I have practised it and I have sought it out.

Nicola McDonald 15:13
Another gift I was given on this trip to be with my sister to work on a project, to meet Australia, was the gift of time for me. And in this time that was mine I wrote. I filled each page with the happiness I had felt. And I feel now from recalling my 20 days in Western Australia during October to November 2022. Springtime. I unfolded just like the birds of the flowers in the gardens, yellow and orange roses, and the wild blooms that nodded their heads to springtime on my walks. I choose to embrace that change. I chose to embrace that change. And when I decided everything changed.

Nicola McDonald 15:55
I am no longer the woman who left my world has expanded. New possibilities are tangible. And I trust I will get me where I wish to travel. And they will be wholesome changes for me and my family. And if you don’t want to break, sway, don’t hold on too tight to yesterday. Choose your path. You never know what beauty you may experience on your travels. You may find your tribe or your callings. It may take time for all to reveal itself. But you have to decide to change if you want a new story.

Nicola McDonald 16:31
As I finish my story of Fox runs along the fence in our back garden, it jumps into our next door neighbor’s garden. It looks healthy, no stirring from the dogs. They haven’t seen it. It’s now on another neighbor’s shed just over our back fence. tiptoeing over the snow as if its paws were being burned. It’s busying itself behind my trumpet tree and can you believe it? It’s defecating. Nice. It’s tickled me. Of course foxes never went to the school of etiquette or rules. My thoughts on that is when humans spread out, where did the wildlife go? On a neighbor’s shed it seems in a garden in suburbia. Joy and smiles are there when you look up and out. And all is quite peaceful here now.

Nicola McDonald 17:36
I can recall moments where I decided to make a change. But the most impressionable one was while I was studying for my degree in information, technology and languages. While mulling over the next module to select my heart cat choosing creative writing, and my head didn’t appear to be averse. I had been penning since childhood writing was my way of channelling my voice, creating sense. I had ideas of writing songs to combine two passions at a much younger age. The desire in me to just see to just try to perhaps come out feeling I had given me a chance was great. And before I knew it, I had signed up. I was aware that I might complete the course with a lesser grade than I required for my own predetermined expectations. But the other fact was, I always knew I would learn something. So I spent my loan on creative writing and chose to have faith. And at the beginning of this change was John McCullough. I was petrified of failure, the what ifs. And there he was my decider kind with his time and feedback, constructive and empowering, as I navigated a change in direction with no other expectation, then to try and see if perhaps, I would be okay. At the time of signing up. I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome and perfectionism. So that was quite the dichotomy. For the duration I wrapped myself in a cloak of words, I expanded my diction, searched and researched and spilled my guts apologetically, to begin with. Within the assignments, the requirements set by John and the university, I wrote poetry and short stories, and in them all, I found a piece of me bleeding or jubilating. I walked across the pages with spider scroll before each letter that made up a word was displayed on digital paper through my fingertips, and submitted for judgement. I didn’t create a masterpiece during that period. But I remember one story which came from nowhere Winter Wonderland in the final hours before it was due to be submitted. It was as though I wasn’t writing at all. More like somebody or something was channelling. I had given into something so deep within. I cried as I wrote it. I cried as I read it. I cried every single time. It had my rhythm and heartbeat. And when I handed it to my husband, he cried. And John’s feedback and that within the forum was more uplifting than I had ever experienced. I called myself a writer from that day, John became part of my story. He had pushed me out of my comfort zone, asked for more. He erased the image of a piece of paper on my primary school desk, a poem I’d worked so hard on, laying there as flat as the feedback from the teacher. I cried that time when I was alone. But I did that little girl proud by changing my own narrative. It’s not for others to tell you how good you are. But it was a wonderful feeling to hear John’s enthusiasm on my behalf. He has a place in my heart. And the what if, Well, here I am catching up with John for a chat on his home turf, where I get opportunity to showcase him and his work and hear the creative journey he has been on since he inspired me in 2009.

Nicola McDonald 21:07
So when did you start writing?

John McCullough 21:10
I started writing in the mid 90s. Yeah, I’d fall in love with the work of Sofia Plath and Ted Hughes,

Nicola McDonald 21:16

John McCullough 21:17
And loved their imagery. And so I decided to Yeah, write some image based poems to try to get onto this creative writing degree that I wanted to get onto. Yeah. And so that was there Britain individual pieces before that, but I wrote continuously from what in one to six. So it did an MA first English literature. It was called that, I think it was called Sexual dissidence and cultural change. It was a Literature degree that had some modules there, which was specifically about an LGBT experience. I’ve mostly focused on renaissance, I’d always been interested in Shakespeare in particular, then I did a PhD, which was in that area, it’s about friendship in the Renaissance period. And, yeah, that kept me busy until about 2005. But as we were talking about, I wasn’t particularly enjoying the PhD. So my, and my kind of creative writing really blossomed when I was partly using it, I suppose as procrastination. This PhD was a real slog. At the same time, my writing was really kicking off and being accepted by magazines when I sent out. I find my own early writing toe curling now, I mean, obviously, I needed to write it.

Nicola McDonald 22:32
That was of then, wasn’t it? That’s fine. Yeah, no, I don’t I don’t actually look at anything of mine. And think it’s toe curling. I know, it’s not brilliant.

John McCullough 22:43

Nicola McDonald 22:44
But I always find that this is part of the journey I was on. And, you know, even even sometimes looking at the grammar and the spelling, and I’m thinking but that’s That was then. And look how far I’ve come. So if I didn’t have that, have that ambition, how far?

John McCullough 22:57
That is a more mature way of looking at it. Yeah, you’re right. We do need to be kind to ourselves, compassionate to ourselves.

Nicola McDonald 23:04
How did this story begin for you? So how did your writing journey began? I guess that means?

John McCullough 23:09
I suppose it began as a way of expressing myself. And I grew up somewhere, like a lot of teenagers where I didn’t feel able to be myself. So I grew up somewhere in Watford. This is just north of London. It’s a fairly anonymous satellite of London. And yeah, I didn’t feel able to be myself there, I suppose partly, partly through being queer, but also just through being bookish. I feel like I went to a comprehensive that was, yeah, that was not great. And yeah, I didn’t feel like I connected with a lot of people where I grew up, where I suppose writing and reading gave me access to like meeting all these minds that were more similar to my own and people that loved language and books.

Nicola McDonald 24:00
Do you think it was harder for boys or men in general to lean towards literature? Because it’s almost, if we think about society’s norm, society kind of looks at men as the science and that kind of thing, and the women are kind of forgotten in that realm. But did you do feel like there was a, like a prejudice almost, if you if you lean towards literature?

John McCullough 24:25
Both Literature and Creative Writing as academic subjects, the vast majority of my students are usually female. So it’s not unusual for me to have an entirely female class.

Nicola McDonald 24:36
I actually don’t remember any men being in the class. But then I suppose I wasn’t looking that hard really, other than you electro but that hasn’t changed at all has it?

John McCullough 24:47
I’d say if anything it’s become more that way. That yeah, classes are mostly yeah, very often 100% women and so yeah, I think definitely society pushes certain expectations of gender interests onto us. I’d always been quite the my fictional child. And I’d always leant towards books and poetry, I suppose, I didn’t know that I had that much of a choice in it. In some ways it was just connecting with who I was, give me an outlet. school, when I did A level, writers like Plath, Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson, 19th century American poet, all those three writers, very poetic, very image focused, very creative. And they just opened up possibilities for me for expressing emotion through imaginative means, through metaphor and through phrases that were really lively and electric and fresh.

Nicola McDonald 25:48
So they spoke to you.

John McCullough 25:50
Yeah, they made me excited. I think I really enjoy words as beasts, as creatures that have their own weight and texture, their own flavour. I love the way that they have this enormous capacity to shape how we feel and think. And that changing one word in a sentence can have such a dramatic impact on how it’s received in terms of nuance and subtext.

Nicola McDonald 26:22
Yeah, and where they whether you think that’s the the magic is being able to laugh or cry in the same moment, it probably laughed till you cry, they say, you know, that kind of thing. So, yeah, I love words, I love learning new words. I don’t always retain them. But I think what we were saying earlier is mumpsimus. I’d never, I’d never heard that word. So looking at your poem. And thinking actually, I’m just actually drawn immediately to the word and then the context of the poem about the dictionary.

John McCullough 26:52
It’s all about the emotional appeal of words being inspired by a word’s sound rather than is literal meaning. And so the poem engages with all these silly images in some ways and meanings that I ascribe to words before I know what they mean when I just encounter a word, I think, Oh, that’s a great word. And I don’t actually know what it means yet. I suppose that’s the side of words that most appeals to me is the non logical side of them, just the way that they affect the body and can receive, you know, we can, what they do to us in terms of our imagination, and our feelings, that side of language is what really excites me. And I love it when I encounter a new word that I’m unfamiliar with.

Nicola McDonald 27:36
Weave it in.

John McCullough 27:37
Yeah, yeah.

Nicola McDonald 27:39
When I write, so apart from this, actually, this is this is all about a journey I took. It’s sort of giving people this is my journey. Now you go away and tell me how you found joy, how you found courage, that kind of thing. But what I tend to do is no matter what, even if it’s fiction, and so you’re writing this fictitious story, is actually do some research around it. And I like to find different words, to say the same thing. You know, that kind of thing where you, you’d be writing something and you say, Well, why am I repeating this word? Why can’t I find another word that says the same thing or better? You know, that kind of thing? So yeah, I’d I love words. I love the power of words. We’re talking also about you being so authentic in your poems. And you mentioned allowing yourself to be vulnerable. So how did you make that transition from your early work to write This is me. This is who John is?

John McCullough 28:37
I think it took a degree of confidence in that, when I very first started writing, it was more vulnerable when he was waiting for me. It was catharsis, it was just splurging, things fell on the page about my feelings. And then over time, I became because I’d learn techniques that I’d learned to kind of become more detached and in distance and always kind of guard myself kind of protect myself. And at that time, certainly in England anyway, all the best known poets were straight white men who were quite detached and clever and more cerebral. I suppose that probably influenced me, that way to use language in that way. But I think I realised over time that what my own favourite poems, for me, poetry is all about generating an emotional response in someone, making them feel something in their body that’s deep. That’s all you know, that isn’t rational that is just kind of making the neurons in their brain fire up through recognition. For me, that comes through an expression of interiority, an expression of vulnerability, an expression of what is authentically human, which is often an experience of not having full control, an experience of being clumsy or incompetent or not knowing something or feeling competing things at the time through not knowing. Ultimately, that’s where emotion resides. Because these, this is what stirs us deeply is when we don’t have full control. So being vulnerable, I think, as a poet is really, in writing is a really useful tool for, you know, if you want to generate that in another reader, you know, that emotional response.

Nicola McDonald 30:17
It’s like saying to somebody, look, you’re you’re not alone. You are not alone with this, because here, I’ve got the words for you. And it’s a bit like a song, isn’t it? When you there’s lyrics and a song that you really like? It’s expressing something that you had a need for, or you feel or whatever, whatever the emotion is, but actually, what you’re doing as a poet does she don’t, you might not have the words, but I have the words and maybe lets us connect through this medium. We were just saying that you do actually read books as well. You’re not out completely about poetry?

John McCullough 30:51
No, I mean, I’m certainly I love reading nonfiction often feeds into my poetry in terms of reading historical accounts, reading about science, reading books of facts, and things, often get images into my notebook that I can then play around with. But outside of that, I am quite omnivorous as a reader, I suppose I read novels and short fiction. For my holiday that I still read things like thrillers things that aren’t literary, where it’s more kind of

Nicola McDonald 31:23
I quite liked doing that that was how I calm down, you know, it’s not too taxing. So what are the rewards from writing poetry? How do you know I suppose that you’ve written a good piece?

John McCullough 31:36
Oh, for me, it’s, if someone says that, it gave them the goosebumps. If it made them feel deeply, if they use language around being stirred. That’s what I’m after. That’s the effect that I hope to achieve, rather than someone thinking, Oh, that’s a very clever thing, kind of admiring it from a distance, I want that kind of intimacy, that intimate reaction. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve. So I’m really pleased when someone says that.

Nicola McDonald 32:02
I can I can imagine. So we met in 2009. And we were just discussing that you actually published your first book in 2011. So that’s quite a long journey, isn’t it? So how did you decide what to put in the book? Assuming that you write all the time? I might be wrong with it, but I will assume you’re right all the time. But at some point, you go, actually, that’s good enough. Do you decide because it’s really stirred something up in you? Or do you ask for feedback from other people?

John McCullough 32:34
All the time, I couldn’t function without feedback. So I’m always getting constructive criticism on my work from writer friends. I’ve got a little local group that I’ve been going to for about 15 years now we spoke poems, yeah. And get, you know, other people’s honest thoughts on them. And, yeah, I’ve sought other people individually, I suppose in terms of the books, my first book was actually more miscellaneous than my later ones. I don’t think it’s as kind of focused and cohesive as some of the later books.

Nicola McDonald 33:03
Does that mean, you just had to find when your strength was at the end?

John McCullough 33:07
Yeah, I think probably just because it was my first book, I had been waiting for a long time, like gathered work over a longer period. Whereas most of my later books, all the poems inside there were written during a very short space of time, like maybe like, you know, one and a half years to two or three years max. They all come from that same period. And they’ve all been written with a book in mind. Whereas when I did my first book. I didn’t really know what I was doing yet. Yeah, I’ve never really had central mental figure and never had an agent. And I’ve always just kind of Yeah, I suppose been outside the hub of things, which is often in publishing London. I’ve never lived in London. And so yeah, I haven’t approached writing with that in mind. But I think there’s a sense that with people’s first books that they need to work things out in the process. And I think that my subsequent books have been structured from the start with them being a cohesive book in mind. So there’s a you know, a much tighter, overarching theme, there’s a much tighter through line. My second book was all about grief and absence. My third book was all about the vulnerability of the queer body. And the last one was all about anxiety. And the books are much more Yeah, focused in that sense.

Nicola McDonald 34:26
What advice do you give to somebody who’s starting?

John McCullough 34:30
I suppose my first piece of advice would be to have fun, to experiment, to play.

Nicola McDonald 34:38
It’s not take it too serious here.

John McCullough 34:39
Yeah, to give yourself permission to write whatever comes to you and don’t beat yourself up for it not being everything you want straight away. I think that certainly for me, learning and growing as a writer was a slow process. And you have to make mistakes in order to learn there’s no getting around that you have to write lots of sentences, which are the best sentences ever written in English, in order to be able to reach you know, the sentences that are, you know, more polished. You have to begin somewhere, you can’t just begin tumbling out perfect sentences onto the page.

Nicola McDonald 35:16
And each book starts with the word doesn’t it?

John McCullough 35:18

Nicola McDonald 35:18
if you don’t put one down, and you’re not going to achieve anything. I suppose there’s the other end of the scale then so well, let’s assume that somebody’s perfected, or in their eyes perfected. So how do they become public? What journey did you go on for that?

John McCullough 35:35
With poetry, I think it helps to send out smaller pieces to magazines first of all. So that you build up a profile. So I started in the mid 90s. And then my first book didn’t come into 2011. I’ve done three little booklets of poems and little pamphlets of poems. And I’d had lots of pieces published in magazines, and I sent things into competitions and won, you know, a competition and been placed in a few others, and those things just kind of helped to build up awareness and a potential readership, for your work in the wider poetry world. So that’s a process that I undertook over many years before the first book came in.

Nicola McDonald 36:15
Yeah, so hard slog basically. I mean, I’ve, I’ve sent stuff into magazines as well, and nothing has happened with them. But that’s kind of, if you, I think, going in with a mindset of not being attached to the outcome. And just because you’re getting nothing, it doesn’t mean, there’s not somebody out there for you, but just keep going, I suppose.

John McCullough 36:33
And I would say that I’ve had more rejection slips than any student I’ve ever encountered over the years. Yeah, you have to have a brass neck, you have to often knock on a door to, you know, to see if it will open for you. And so my place publications weren’t till 2003. And in that gap, between 2002 1003 I was sending out to magazines, and I didn’t get anything accepted during that. What I received was that those rejections were useful, they were helpful in terms of sometimes I sent pieces that weren’t my best work or that weren’t quite ready. And I mean it’s a very blunt way of learning is more broadly more brutal than an educational context, in terms of you don’t usually get feedback as to why a magazine has not taken a submission. But yeah, I think that those rejections were helpful in terms of spurring me to get better, to improve to writw something that maybe would be undone.

Nicola McDonald 37:30
So one of the questions I have here is, Who is John?

John McCullough 37:34
Well, I don’t know. How long have you got? I’m not sure. I think there are multiple Johns and certainly, over time, and we all change so much when I look back at my self 10/20 years ago, I was such a different person, as well as being a different writer although those two things are connected. So I suppose there were some things which have stayed the same. But I think poets inevitably, I thin, we just had this concept of negative capability, in that poets often had a degree of being able to reside in mysteries, doubts of uncertainty. And I think that I’m probably quite floaty and kind of cloudy in that sense, I often don’t know what I’m doing and that and that can be a creative place to be.

Nicola McDonald 38:26
So if you feel like you’re there, so how does what transpires on the paper then become intrinsically you, because it’s, it’s very authentic?

John McCullough 38:34
It’s really common for me to have images are phrases that live inside my notebook for a number of months or years before they find the right home in a poem. I often have these nice little pieces that just are floating around that gathered up eventually. Here in Brighton people put books on their walls outside their house when we’re finished reading them. And so the image of a book lying outside someone’s house and it getting wet when it rains, is something that if you live in Brighton, you see fairly often and a while before I’d had, I think I had a thesaurus and it lost the front cover and back cover over many years it’s very old, battered up thing. And it looked to me like a block of ice. And so that image went into my notebook. And one day I just, yeah, used my love of obscure words and that image and the idea of books being put outside people’s houses and getting rained on, they all kind of hit it together.

Nicola McDonald 39:39
And that phrase found its place. Yeah, you remind me of the story of a walk with our imaginary son.

John McCullough 39:46
This poem is dedicated to Roddy Lumsden who was a poet as well as my editor at first of all, I did a pamphlet with a publisher called Torn Lighthouse. And then I worked with him again when he was poetry editor at Salt for my first collection The Frost Fairs. The poem’s dedicated to him, and it imagines, neither of us have children. He’s passed away now. But yeah, at the time, I imagined that we had somehow produced a son together that this son shared our love of obscure trivia and facts. And the poem begins with some facts that were included in a collection of obscure information that he gathered. I think it’s called the book, the book of shoe, I think it was called. And yeah, it spirals from there really.

Nicola McDonald 40:38

John McCullough 40:39
And it’s, I suppose, a reflection on our lives and how lives are shaped with certain expectations and that they have certainly structures within them. And yeah, it was written. It was the first draft was sent to him when he was first hospitalised. He had a difficult last few years of his life. And so yeah, that’s that’s the origin.

Nicola McDonald 41:05
Yeah. And that’s how I come it comes across this. One minute I felt Oh, this is really nice. And then I felt grief. I might get you to read one of them. Which one would you prefer?

John McCullough 41:16
Happy to read Mumpsimus

Nicola McDonald 41:17
Yeah? I don’t read that one very often actually.

John McCullough 41:21
Mumpsimus. And this poem begins with an epigraph from another poet called Rebecca Perry, who said “postman’s knock has nothing to do with dead men at the door”.

John McCullough 41:33
The poem ‘Mumpsimus’, recited in this episode can be found in the publication, Reckless Paper Birds, published by Penned in the Margins, and written by award winning poet, John McCullough.

Nicola McDonald 43:38
Thank you. So what’s next for you then John? That was beautiful, by the way.

John McCullough 43:45
Oh, thank you. At the moment. I’m working on book number five. I’ve got a manuscript for that, that I’m honing.

Nicola McDonald 43:51
So another that obviously poetry? Do you want to tell me anything about the content?

John McCullough 43:57
I’ve just yeah, I’ve been working on a number of poems about crowds and group identity. And yeah, the difference between solitude and being together with other people. Yeah. And the book is all around that sort of thing.

Nicola McDonald 44:13
Yeah. So when do you think you might have it finished?

John McCullough 44:16
It’s hard to say really? I mean, I’ve got a first draft ready. And so yeah, it’s always difficult to know how long it’ll be before it’s actually out there in the world. Probably a few year’s time. I’m trying to track down a publisher at the moment. My last publisher stopped doing poetry.

Nicola McDonald 44:34
And that’s a shame. But yeah, looking forward to that. So you’re quite fluid then in terms of it’ll be done when it’s ready.

John McCullough 44:42
Yeah, I think with poetry because it’s an accumulation of smaller pieces. It’s less like a novel where there’s one big project being unfolded, one great big story. With a poetry collection who can continue adding and taking away and reshaping it, to perhaps a larger degree.

Nicola McDonald 45:04
If anybody was trying to get hold of your poetry right now, where would they go?

John McCullough 45:08
All the usual places. You can purchase the books from my publishers website Penned in the margins But they’re also available through all the usual vendors online and bookshops like Waterstones and Foyles stock my work. So yeah, you can buy them from most places that sell books. I teach at the University of Brighton as well as for the Arven Foundation and the creative writing programmes and organisation where I run creative writing courses as well as doing one off things for festivals. I’m always on things like Facebook and Twitter.

Nicola McDonald 45:43
Thank you for this John. I genuinely am so happy that I met you in 2009 It’s changed my life.

John McCullough 45:52
That’s lovely to hear. Thank you.

Nicola McDonald 45:53
Thanks a lot.

Nicola McDonald 46:03
Take action.

Nicola McDonald 46:06
“Joy in looking and comprehending is nature’s most beautiful gift” Albert Einstein.

Nicola McDonald 46:15
I still find joy. I’m living joy. I’m expressing my voice, sharing my stories. Let your mind take your body on a journey of discovery. And let your intuition your instincts and your intelligence guide you towards and beyond change. On the other side of comfort is change. Remember to press the pause button, make notes, take time to think and think about these questions.

Nicola McDonald 46:45
Who or what did you change?

Nicola McDonald 46:54
When did you decide?

Nicola McDonald 47:01
How can you relate this experience to a previous experience?

Nicola McDonald 47:12
Did you have a moment of clarity either after choosing change or while telling your story?

Nicola McDonald 47:24
What do you mourn?

Nicola McDonald 47:31
Where was loss?

Nicola McDonald 47:38
Who was affected?

Nicola McDonald 47:46
Who inspired you?

Nicola McDonald 47:53
How has your life changed?

Nicola McDonald 48:00
Where were the risks?

Nicola McDonald 48:06
Before you begin, remember to press the pause button, make notes, take time to think. This is your penultimate episode in the series, Right Time Write Now. The last one will be in one month’s time. You’re almost there.

Nicola McDonald 48:26
I would like to take a moment to remind you here that if you do need help finding joy, feeling good, or moving forward, making changes bigger everyday ones, find your support network your tribe whether friends or family to talk it through. If that doesn’t feel enough, contact your GP or seek the care through therapy or coaching. “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” Karl Jung.

Nicola McDonald 48:59
Before you begin your chapter on change, let’s get you into a more relaxed space with this cleansing Kriya practice inspired by my friend, yoga instructor and baby massage instructor Kishori Amatya.

Nicola McDonald 49:13
Begin by standing in the kitchen, the living room, bedroom or even better still outside.

Nicola McDonald 49:21
Close your eyes and feel the connection of your feet on the ground beneath you.

Nicola McDonald 49:28
Start to shake out your hands and your arms.

Nicola McDonald 49:33
Allow this shaking to travel throughout your body until your entire body is shaking.

Nicola McDonald 49:40
Do this while taking slow and full breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Nicola McDonald 49:50
Feel the ground beneath your feet again, thus re grounding yourself

Nicola McDonald 49:59
Take another deep breath in through the nose and a big sigh out. You are ready to start the new day, the month the year renewed and invigorated.

Nicola McDonald 50:11
Okay, so you may feel a bit daft shaken around to begin with, but take a moment to notice how you feel. After you’ve completed this short cleansing Kriya practice. It works even better if you stick your tongue out while it’s exhaling deeply throughout this Kriya practice and it has the benefit of making you feel more silly.

Nicola McDonald 50:36
And finally, I will leave you with this, Winter Wonderland.

Nicola McDonald 50:43
“Sleighbells ring, are you listening?” She clasped her ice cold nail bitten fingers around her mug of cocoa. Her first hot drink of the day. A drop escaped from her numb lips onto her brown coat joining other stains as fixed as the dyed fibre.

Nicola McDonald 51:01
“In the lanes, snow is glistening”. There are more holes in this than Swiss cheese she thought and made a mental note to be at the front of the queue next year. And she coughed that same cough she’d had for oh such a long time and knew she probably wouldn’t.

Nicola McDonald 51:19
“A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight” Looking out of the cafe window she waited for, well, exactly what she wasn’t sure, but looking up she decided she wanted a virginal white blanket to fall. Covering pavements and roads, cardboard boxes and sleeping bags and half inched shopping trolleys.

Nicola McDonald 51:42
“Walking in a winter wonderland”. Even though the cafe was bursting with weary mums and dads and can I haves, her large red upholstered chair served as a vacuum, so there she sat, her back to the faceless crowd. Glancing at the Kandinski print hanging on the green painted wall and from her panoptic eyes she watched the play outside.

Nicola McDonald 52:03
“Gone away is the blue bird”. She coughed that same deep cough which challenged every organ inside her body to stay attached, and she closed her eyes waiting for the rattling to stop.

Nicola McDonald 52:16
“Here to stay is a new bird. He sings a love song, as we go along” Gazing past the moving headlights to the other side of the street, she watched two young children, a boy and a girl under the street lamp playing. “A sailor went to sea sea sea” the palm slaps giving it away. Faster and faster and faster again, millions of tiny spiders tickled inside her as she became absorbed. She barely noticed the other passers by, extras in the play that ball her no charge. Both children were laughing as she swore she could hear it.

Nicola McDonald 52:56
“But you can do the job when you’re in town”. Behind her she heard, what is that smell mummy? but she paid it no heed. And as she looked down it occurred to her that she had once owned a white fur collar coat and ear muffs just like the little girl. While dearest, dearest Max had a blue one just like that little boy.

Nicola McDonald 53:18
“To face on afraid, the plans that we made”. She took another sip of her now lukewarm mug of cocoa. The cream had all gone and when she looked back, so had the children.

Nicola McDonald 53:32
“In the meadow” She coughed and staring into the void which the children once occupied, her right hand gripped her aching chest. To counter the sudden drop in temperature she folded her arms and sank further into the chair.

Nicola McDonald 53:47
‘Excuse me hen, is this seat taken?’ A softly spoken Scottish female voice interrupted. She didn’t look round just simply said ‘no’. And her gaze moved to the tall Christmas tree in the square with its beautiful blue flashing lights. And she coughed. The familiar metallic rose from her lungs through her larynx and she scrambled around for the serviette under her cocoa mug. ‘A little to the left deary’, the strangely familiar voice said. Wiping her mouth she glimpsed the red blotchy pattern on the tissue which instantly seeped through to the palm of her hand. She made a small attempt to wipe it off on a dry section, but this simply served to spread the mass. She placed a sudden serviette in a motheaten pocket wiping the overspill on the lining, as she pulled out her hand. She thought about heading to the shelter, but she was in no rush. And so she continued to stare out. ‘Thank you’, she said to the voice. ‘Oh no matter dear, you really should take more care of yourself on this wintry broabrict, moonlit nict’, the mocking voice replied. The voice was right. The moon was as bright as the Northern Star. Her mother had used that phrase often before.

Nicola McDonald 55:02
Outside, a young boy pressed his runny nose up against the window and stuck out his tongue. His face looks squashed. His father noticing this tore at his green hood and all that was left was the imprint of his tongue and nose, and the stream of mucus already froze. She fixated on this for a moment before coughing. She tasted the metal and felt for her chest and winced as the rattling of her organs took away a breath, and just for a moment, for a short moment, she would rest her head on the side of her chair.

Nicola McDonald 55:31
“Later on, we’ll conspire” She felt somebody caressing her matted greying hair and for a moment she would surrender. The noise around her faded and she tried to raise her head, but it was far too heavy, so she would stay in the comfort for just a moment, longer. Her wheezing accompanied the rhythm of a pulse, which was amplified in her left ear that was pressed on the arm of a chair. And she coughed. She sampled the metallic but this time her hand wouldn’t obey and the organs rattled, and her chest shook and her red bodily fluid dropped onto the arm from a partially opened mouth, soaking her cheek. She couldn’t reach her tissue, which she had placed in her motheaten coat pocket. So water filter eyes.

Nicola McDonald 56:19
‘Tracy dear, Tracy, it’s ok dearie, I’m here’, the Scottish voice whispered. ‘Mum?’ she replied. Tracy heard sirens in the distance on the pavement the crowd had gathered and she lay in a goldfish bowl. Looking up at the frowns, a gaping mounds and the children tugging at grownup coats. Floating past the window where at least a million six sided white hexagonal crystals. She would have her wish after all.

Nicola McDonald 56:50
She would have her wish.

Nicola McDonald 56:53
“We’ll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman” ‘Mom, can you see that? Can you see?’ And the tears roll down Tracy’s face. She closed her eyes into one large breath and Tracy turned to her mother. ‘Come on, dearie. It’s time. Max is waiting.’ And with her mother Tracy left crunching into the beautiful wide wide expanse of snow.

Nicola McDonald 57:33
Thank you for listening to this episode of Right time, Write Now.

Nicola McDonald 57:39
I would like to say thank you to a wonderful audio specialist and entrepreneur Suze from Big Tent Media who has helped make this podcast possible. And a thank you also goes to Emily from Emily Crosby Media who is assisting with the transcripts.

Nicola McDonald 57:54
If you have enjoyed listening then do tell a friend and consider leaving a rating or review wherever you listen to podcasts. Material in this podcast is the copyright of Nicola McDonald 2022 and must not be distributed without permission.

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