Elizabeth Gibson

Wandering & Writing : What I’ve Learnt

2022 will mark a decade since I first moved to Manchester from Wigan. I came for
university, stayed for work, and it felt like for years, most of my time was spent studying,
working, commuting, or sleeping. When I did decide to go for a walk in nature, or on a
daytrip, it felt like a big thing, and I put a lot of pressure on myself for it to go well.

In 2020, of course, my way of life ground to a halt. I started working from home, then was on
furlough, and then ultimately, I decided to move towards self-employment. At first, I felt very
isolated, and I had much more time than I knew what to do with, and so I started my outdoor
wanders – very casual walks, without high expectations – in every direction from my home.

I discovered that in no time at all, I could get to places I found fascinating or magical – canals
full of geese and houseboats, green hills where sandstone was once quarried, a meadow of
wildflowers on the city’s edge. I realised that a walk didn’t always need meticulous planning
– I just had to set out, and keep going, and take in everything around me.

This kickstarted a new writing era for me. The world was changing by the day, and that
influenced the content of my poems – I ended up writing a whole spoken-word show, The
Reason for Geese, about the first year of the pandemic. However, the technical aspects of my
writing – my approach, style and routine – have also been crafted by my wanders, and my
new attitude towards my environment and how I move within it. I hope you enjoy learning
about these ideas, and that you find them helpful.

1) Writing in, and writing out

My usual approach used to be that I’d pick a subject – “I’m going to write a poem about body
hair”, or “I’m going to write a poem about endangered turtles” – and then “write out”, letting
my brain travel down different avenues from the central theme, and often going to abstract,
dreamlike places using nature and myth imagery.

I still do “write out” like this for some poems, because it lets me explore my mind and can be
very empowering. However, in the last year, I have also embraced the idea of “writing in”. I
will begin a poem about a wander – an evening by the marina, a picnic in the hills – without
knowing at the start where the poem is going, or what the core theme or message will be. I
will just write a detailed, earnest account.

Usually, something will emerge: for example, I notice a pair of dogs and a pair of bikes, but
there is only one of me, so I reflect on loneliness. Or, I get obsessed with why a river seems
to vanish from the map, and whether something can just suddenly stop.

Reversing my approach like this has been a leap of faith, but it has definitely made my work
feel new and stronger.

2) Letting myself be free

On my wanders, little things will catch my eye and make me smile, and I will share these in a
message to my mother or a group of friends. In these moments, I am showing a raw, earnest
part of myself, a part that in my writing, I usually try to protect. But I am pushing myself to
let some of these moments into my poems, to show my quirks and sense of humour, and I
have got positive feedback, with these images often staying in people’s heads. A Jesus goose
that walks on water (really it was on ice!), a corgi that makes itself into a flat puddle of dog, a
good solid pumpkin of a cat.

I am also letting myself be freer when it comes to writing queerness and desire. In my poem
“Sky belly”, I compare the tiny full moon in the sky’s centre to a belly button set in warm
blue flesh, which felt a bit edgy and vulnerable as I wrote it. The poem is now published, and
when I read it, I no longer feel fragile. Instead, I remember that moment very clearly: an icy
cold night, seeing a woman in the sky, and finding comfort. I’m glad I kept it in the poem.

3) Writing with urgency

As I mentioned earlier, I used to be quite all-or-nothing: a walk would have to be well-
planned, every possible necessity stowed in my backpack. A first draft of a poem would have
to be as complete and profound as possible. Now, I go out, and I see so many things – the
first yellow crocus, the constellation of Leo, a huge squirrel – and I just have to jot them
down so I don’t forget. I am more at ease now with making notes and quick, rough drafts, to
ensure a memory or idea isn’t lost. A longer, fuller poem can come later.

I’ve tried for years to get into a routine of writing every day, but my inner perfectionist would
often sabotage it. Now, I’ll allow myself to do even the smallest amount – make some notes,
do a little bit of typing-up or editing – as long as it is something. This has improved my
relationship with my writing, and made it feel fun and mine again, rather than an obligation.

As part of my PB residency, I have been keeping a February diary, recording signs of spring
and change, a project that has really embodied writing with urgency. I have not put any
pressure my diary to be polished or poetic, I just scribble things down each day, and I look
forward to sharing the final collage of observations, musings, and love for where I live.

4) Stepping out and into myself

Pre-Covid pandemic, I worked in an office, and when the first lockdown started, I was
somewhat mentally stuck in that way of operating. Even on furlough, I would push myself to
work nine to five, whether on my writing, going to Zoom events, or doing online courses. My
dream was to live a more flexible life, being creative and teaching, but it felt impossible
because at that time, I couldn’t see myself being able to work outside of a schedule and team.

There were a couple of times when I had the chance to jump into the unknown. The first time,
I didn’t feel ready. A few months later, after lots of wandering and soul-searching, I felt I
could do this. I applied for – and was overjoyed to receive – funding for my poetry, I started
offering personal tutoring, and I got a range of writing commissions, including several in the
theatre. This was a new area for me, but one I realised I love and thrive in, and that let me
share some of my story in The Reason for Geese.

Wandering has helped me understand that I can occupy space, that I have a right to, and that
the way I perceive the world is unique and has value. I just really love being outdoors, and it
is crucial to me that I make time for this. I organise my day around being able to wander
safely, which means I’m often outdoors in daylight, and working in the evening, and I have
that more flexible life which used to feel so distant.

I don’t want to miss the warmer weather, the baby goslings and cygnets, the blossom – again,
there is a sense of urgency. I’ve been able to shape my current daily life around visiting the
things I love – nature, animals, the city – and writing about them, and I am very grateful.

Sky belly

First published by Coin-Operated Press, in the Depression Walks Zine

I saw a houseboat tonight that had a bike strapped to its side,
and a motorbike sitting on its deck. The two seem like friends,
like the yorkie and rottweiler on another boat, further along.
I also saw a corgi, and it kept making itself flat – a head atop
a puddle of dog – when big dogs went past. It didn’t seem afraid,
just that it had learnt to become flat. I have learnt that staying
with the cygnets is what will protect me from the big dogs,
being jumped on, as owners don’t want them barking at swans.
The dusk is light blue, there is a tiny round white moon right up
in the sky’s middle, a belly-button, trees pulled taut around it,
and I could rest my face in its flesh-warmth, feel the pulse
of another universe. I look for my favourite cat, but no sign.
One of the swans oozes by the painted boats, making a postcard.
I click my camera. I focus on the water: a pole like a thorn,
ripples inky with night, an orange-jelly line from a streetlamp.
Geese cruise in and out. It is dark now, and I am so cold. I never
see it coming. I will go to Aldi to be warm, get something nice,
like my Mam would tell me to. Get something nice for my tea.

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