Louise Kenward’s anthology Moving Mountains: Writing Nature Through Illness and Disability was published last autumn. Here she talks about how taking the Creative Writing Programme from 2015-17 helped to kickstart her writing dream and offers some advice on writing while living with pain and fatigue.

When do you first remember wanting to be a writer? At primary school I made magazines with my best friend who lived next door because she wanted to be a writer. Living with chronic illness has fed my need to write and has been something I’ve been able to continue when I haven’t been able to keep up with other things, so writing and illness have gone hand in hand for me.

Why did you decide to join the Creative Writing Programme?  And how did you find out about it? I joined a local writing group in St Leonards after I began to write with the purpose of putting a book together, and was encouraged to pursue the Creative Writing Programme by the facilitator, Judith Shaw. I realised I needed something structured and in-depth to pursue the kind of project I was hoping to. I wanted something that was practical and without the academic demands of an MA, so the CWP fulfilled the brief.

What was the most impactful element of the course for you? I found a community of writers who remained a huge source of support for several years after the course, and received a foundation of knowledge and tools in creative writing. Most importantly on the agent’s day, a literary agent gave feedback on an excerpt of my work. While he wasn’t looking for the book I was writing, he suggested his colleague and told me ‘don’t just give this away’. It was a particular choice of words that emboldened me. Agents don’t say nice things for the sake of it, but he was thoughtful and interested. Those words have carried me through many years of rejections.

Did you start writing Moving Mountains on the course? I don’t think it’s a book I could have even imagined writing on the course. To have a background of fiction writing though, rather than focussing on non-fiction and life writing from the outset has given me a wider scope and sense of what writing can do and be. Moving Mountains is a mixture of poetry, prose, essay, and artwork that explores connections with the natural world and the more-than-human through the lens of chronic illness and physical disability. It’s been important to me to include as diverse a range of contributions and contributors as I could, to be able to illustrate the range and diversity of what disability and living with illness looks like.

Moving Mountains came out of a project after I finished the Creative Writing Programme and began to write more about my experience of illness, something I had largely ignored initially. I didn’t know how to write my story and didn’t particularly want to either. It has taken the intervening years to connect with other writers who explore these themes, and a previous CWP tutor Clare Best is one of the authors I attribute the beginning of this work too, for which I am forever grateful. I encountered her and her work ‘Breastless’ at a University of Sussex event she spoke at and it began a chain of thoughts and words that have led to where I am now, writing about illness but also reconnecting with my psychology practice and the medical profession.

What happened after the course finished? I continued with the Advanced Writing Workshops although by then my health was deteriorating, so I missed out on the group experience. Instead, I was able to get feedback on written submissions via email which helped to develop particular pieces of work. The second year CWP group I had been meeting with also continued to meet informally and I was able to re-join them from time to time.

How did you finish Moving Mountains and get it published? In 2021 I was awarded an Arts Council England grant to be able to develop the project and to pay contributors. It came out of an initial anthology I co-produced the year before (Disturbing the Body) and online access that grew during lockdowns that enabled me to develop the networks that the new anthology grew out of. As people started to get on board and submitted their writing to me, the responsibility for getting the book published grew. I spent much of 2022 submitting the proposal to publishers and agents. At the end of the year, I followed up an earlier conversation I had had with one of the founders of the Nan Shepherd Prize, Caro Clarke, who had been supportive at the outset. In the intervening time they had set up their own literary agency, and at the end of the year I had signed to them for representation, and they had found the perfect publisher for Moving Mountains with Footnote Press. So there has been a steep learning curve, but also lessons about things existing in their own time. Moving Mountains has needed a change in publishing as well as time and space for people who live with chronic illness and disabilities to be able to make the work they want (and need) to make.

You’re not only a writer – tell us about your work more widely I’m also an artist and a psychologist. I worked for the NHS for a nearly twenty-year career as a psychologist and psychotherapist. My writing has reunited me with this as I am also writing for psychotherapy books and publications, bringing my lived experience with the hope of improving healthcare and understanding of energy limiting conditions. I’m also currently a post graduate researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University with the Centre for Place Writing, conducting a practice-based PhD in creative writing. It builds on the work of Moving Mountains, exploring themes of landscape and living with chronic illness, with a focus on the coastline of the Romney Marshes. I also see my arts practice running alongside my writing and is the reason that Moving Mountains has such varied pieces.

What’s next for you? I’m preparing the proposal of my book A Trail of Breadcrumbs, the one I started the CWP to write, for submission. This time I have an agent I’m working with. In the intervening years there has been some progress in the industry which gives me more hope that a book without a recovery narrative can find a good home.

What are your top tips for someone starting out in their writing career? To keep writing, in whatever way you can, when you can. To ignore expectations of others and build a support network, taking up any opportunities you can make use of. Valuing what you can do, however modest or ambitious, is important. There is a lot of writing advice that fits a very ableist norm, of needing to rise early or stay up late, maybe before your morning run or yoga routine, getting in a certain duration of writing or word count each day, things that are impossible for people who live with pain and fatigue, for example, but our work is no less meaningful or valuable, or possible to achieve. In time it all adds up, each post-it note, voice note, and email to yourself. It is all possible, it might just look different to what you (or others) expect. In your own time, keep going.

What book would you choose to take to a desert island (given that you will already been given your choice of spiritual text and the complete works of Shakespeare). Anything by Susanna Clarke.