eleanor Howe

Eleanor Howe: A Writer’s Year

Eleanor Howe won first prize at this year’s Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers, an award that led to a spot on the Wales Arts Review Emerging Writers course at Ty Newydd. Here she tells the story of an amazing year that encouraged her to step out of her comfort zones.

In May 2018, I moved to Cwmystwyth and rented a lonely cottage. It clings to the mountainside, miles of moor above it, a lane below that snakes down into the valley and the small smattering of houses that make up the village. I moved here for a few reasons. Prosaically, to escape a wildly unethical and aggressive landlord and, less so, to act upon a life-long hunch that I would mentally and physically thrive somewhere rural and isolated, entirely away from the hurly-burly of the too-busy world. The hunch was partly correct but it was a tough year, a year of very low-frills living and roaring solitude. But the strange and lonely lows were crested with magnificent highs. In the right light, when the sky was being particularly sorcerous, the view alone—a multi-hued stack of wooded hills that criss-crossed impossibly far into the horizon before disappearing into a hazy golden fuzz—was so staggeringly beautiful as to bring a happy ache to my heart. My new landlord, who was born in the cottage, said this spot was the closest you could get to heaven on earth and, somedays, he was right.

The summer was slow and tranquil. I roamed the moors, watching birds of prey and amassing a collection of feathers and tiny bones regurgitated by hawks. I disappeared into the valley below and wandered through quiet leafy woods. The drought of that very un-British boiling hot summer all but emptied the well that fed the cottage, I couldn’t use the mains for two months and so wallowed twice daily eye-deep in hidden pools, goblin-like. I wrote a Masters thesis on a desk I had set up beneath a copse of larch trees in the garden and read books belly-down on sweet-smelling summer grass. At night fledgling barn owls lined up on the garden fence and practised their hissing while I wrote curled up in front of the open-fire (the interior was cold, even in summer) with my grumpy old cat, Stan.

Eleanor Howe
Eleanor Howe (Photo credit: Sarah Stanton London Photography)

Perhaps unsurprisingly given such a fanciful itinerary, 2018 was also the year that I started writing poetry. This was in no small part due to the poetry module I had taken on a whim as part of an MA course. Nonetheless, my circumstances were ripe for poetic leanings; the lonely house, the quiet splendour of my surroundings, encounters with wildlife, the frequent bad weather that flung itself down the chimney and rattled through the rooms, and the lone soul within whose main social interactions were with a decrepit black cat.

I heard nearly no human sounds—no traffic, chatter, phones—just the occasional thwock of my nearest neighbour a few fields down chopping wood. In the mornings and sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, I watched a fox who frequented the land surrounding the house. She would lope off when I encountered her out on the moors, but not without turning and locking eyes with me for several heart-stopping seconds. So I did what any self-respecting-slightly-batty-with-solitude person would do; I wrote her a poem. I called it, wordsmith that I am, ‘The Fox’. 

A few months later during some idle internet browsing, I came across the Terry Hetherington Young Writer’s Award. Despite being new to writing poetry (and not being Welsh or particularly young, as a helpful friend pointed out) I entered it. The annual award is open to poetry and prose, has a £1000 prize and anyone aged between 18 and 30 who is either Welsh or living in Wales can enter. Parthian publish the corresponding Cheval anthology featuring the best of that year’s entries. The award is the legacy of the late Swansea poet Terry Hetherington, who is well-known for the passion he had for helping younger writers to flourish. His wife Aida Birch, with a team of generous, hard-working and lovely folk, run the award, fund-raising throughout the year and organising the anthology and award ceremony.

I was impressed by the award’s previous winners, people I had seen at events and some whose books I had read. At this time I was only a few months away from being 31, which would make me too old to enter the Terry Hetherington Award. I was not just living on the hill, but I was nearly over it too. So one wild, wintry night in Cwmystwyth, I unearthed ‘The Fox’, and after some chopping, changing, umming and ahhing, finally hit send on the award’s entrance form. Winter passed, I left Cwmystwyth and moved into a narrowboat. After several months passed, and I hadn’t heard anything about the award, I assumed the first poem I’d released into the wild had disappeared without a trace. But, dear reader, we all know what happens when something is given up as a lost cause. Sure enough, one sunny Sunday in March as I was scrambling back into my boat with a clutch of the season’s first wood anemones in my hand, my phone rang. It was a lovely lady from the TH awards. I was delighted and shocked to hear that I had won first prize, and was invited to read at the the award ceremony later in the spring.

So, at the end of May, I trundled down to Swansea on the bus to attend the award evening. It was held in the beautiful and cavernous Glyn Vivian Art Gallery and I was greeted here warmly by Aida and the TH team and supplied with wine as I nervously waited to read. It was a sizeable crowd and I am no public-speaker, but the reading went without a hitch, allowing me sit back for the rest of the night and enjoy the other entrants’ work, of which the quality was invariably high.

The Terry Hetherington Award is a great starting point for new writers. As well as the £1000 prize money (which came in handy to a fiscally challenged freelancer) and having work printed in a handsome anthology, the recognition and opportunity for meeting the wider community of young writers in Wales is invaluable. It is a useful springboard to launch yourself into the world of publication, and some past winners have gone on to publish poetry collections and novels. I am still very green when it comes to writing poetry, but receiving the award so early in my attempts was heartening and has already presented me with some fantastic opportunities. 

The first opportunity that came my way courtesy of the TH award was an invitation and bursary to attend an Emerging Writers course at Tŷ Newydd. This is the second year the writing centre has run this course, which is geared towards young writers who are just starting out, or ‘emerging’ as the slightly odd phrasing goes. The course is structured as part-retreat, part-workshops with tuition this year provided by novelist Alys Conran and poet Paul Henry and writing development advice from guest speaker, writer and Wales Arts Review editor Gary Raymond.

I’d heard of Tŷ Newydd and window-shopped their courses a few times but had never seriously considered signing up for one. To be honest, group-writing is not really my cup of tea and I have an almost phobic dislike for reading raw or even finished work to any people in possession of functioning ears. I’ve never thrived in the workshop environment. Something about a prompt, a short writing window and the proposition of having to immediately share unedited ramblings causes my imagination to grind to a halt. I’m a walker-writer. I mull things over slowly on hikes and strolls, and then bash my thoughts into shape in the evenings, in solitude and quiet (and sometimes with port), safe in the knowledge that if I’m writing twaddle, no one else need see or hear it. As I suspected I might, in the workshops I failed to produce anything of note.

Yet, behind the scenes, the magic of the place must have been doing its work. In the few hours a day that weren’t spent workshopping, walking miles to buy red wine, drinking red wine, stuffing my face with the marvellous meals made by Tŷ Newydd’s resident chef or swimming in the local river, I was writing poems. What’s more, they were falling quite effortlessly out of my head and onto the page, and I didn’t hate them – both of these things a rarity in my world. I believe this unusually prolific flurry was due to a peculiar alchemy that Tŷ Newydd possesses that makes it a perfect writing environment.

First, there’s the location. The house, once owned by former Welsh Prime Minister David Lloyd George and located in the sleepy, picturesque village of Llanystumdwy, is a wonderful space; peaceful, old, odd, labyrinthine and brimful of books. A beautiful wooded section of the Afon Dwyfor river runs past the house, perfect for brain re-calibrating strolls and energising cold dunks.

Next, there’s the tutors. On writing courses and at university, I have sometimes encountered what I think of as bread-and-butter lecturers. Writers who work as teachers to earn their living, but in a lacklustre, perfunctory fashion and who would clearly rather be elsewhere, working on their own projects. There was nothing bread-and-butter about Alys and Paul, both of whom were warm, welcoming, took everyone’s work seriously, were generous with their time and so obviously passionate about passing on their expertise to other writers. On the penultimate day we had one-to-one meetings with them, during which I received not only encouragement but also fresh perspectives and ideas about my work which have helped shape some of the things I have written since. My fellow course members also contributed in no small part to the stimulating atmosphere of the place. We bonded over river-swimming, sea-swimming, surviving a flash lightening storm on the beach, walks, wine, and of course, books and writing. 

As a part-time hermit who dislikes public speaking, both the Terry Hetherington award and the Tŷ Newydd course were for me fish-out-of-water experiences that I would usually avoid. To me, writing poetry is a private thing, and performing my work certainly isn’t something that comes naturally. Left to my own devices, I would probably just beaver away in solitude, sure that in a few months this or that poem might maybe possibly probably be ready for sending out to magazines and journals, and go on repeating that same thought until I died, with drawers full of unread poems about animals I’d met.

And I think that’s why it can be helpful for even the most private of young writers to leave their caves occasionally and take small, progressive steps, like attending courses, entering awards or just sharing work, even if you feel like you’re not ready. Engaging with a wider writing community gives you a nudge out the proverbial door and can help you gain a new perspective and perhaps enthusiasm about what you’re doing. Or you’ll just meet lots of very talented people who are much younger than you and who will terrify you into working harder. On the incisive and thorough advice of the tutors, I have a loosely sketched plan now for the future of my writing, which has given me purpose and I have approached my work after these experiences with a renewed vigour. One small step so often breeds another, and to the solitary, under-confident writer, I think that is worth bearing in mind.