Guest slot 7 - Sue Miller, writer, poet, and community champion
We return with our guest slots today, where we are joined by Whitley Bay writer and poet, Sue Miller. Sue and I go back many years as we both attended the same school in the eighties, albeit in slightly different capacities! Sue was one of my English teachers and one of those I have to thank for my passion and love of words. We also both live in Whitley Bay and share a love of the North East. As well as her thought provoking and entertaining novels and short stories, Sue is an award winning poet and an active champion for the local community. She is involved in a number of varied projects in the area but, I'll let Sue explain more.
1. Tell us about yourself
I never know where to start on this question! Something I didn’t see coming is that in May 2021 I began seeing in the dawn at Tynemouth Longsands when I unexpectedly became a born-again sea swimmer. I’ll never forget taking that first plunge. Though I’m not as brave as some, the experience of joy and playfulness when the waves are rough, peace and tranquility when I can float, held up and hugged by the water, has transformed me. I’ve kept physically healthy through the pandemic, but found loss of freedoms, pressure on relationships and anxieties generated and exacerbated by the restrictions a massive challenge.
I’ve also taken up walking, coming relatively late to the benefits of the simple rhythmic act of putting one foot in front of the other, and did the 98 miles of the St Oswald’s Way in June. Both pastimes have helped me regain the confidence and peace that evaporated in lockdown.
Retiring from full time work in 2012 left me with memories of nearly 40 years of working with and on behalf of children and families experiencing challenges arising from poverty, parenting, poor physical and mental health. I’d been a charity worker, teacher in Ashington, psychologist in Northumberland and Durham, children’s services commissioner and manager in North Tyneside and Newcastle and senior lecturer at Northumbria University. I’d held national and international roles, had the chance to speak about and influence government policy and created a solid back catalogue of numerous publications from that work.
Looking back, I’ve been very lucky to be employed in activities that matter deeply to me. In the last 10 years I’ve given time to my family, friends, and community projects locally. I was lucky enough to play a big role in establishing Jam Jar Cinema in Whitley Bay, chaired and led on all the partnership work Big Local did in the town from 2012-2017 which contributed to bringing agencies together and turning around the fortunes of the Bay. I was a founder member of the team that established Green Beans Market at Whitley Bay Station and now help run the quarterly Fiesta in the town centre and grounds of St Paul’s Church. I also volunteer with North Shields Heritology Project, supporting young people to learn about their local heritage and use technology to tell and celebrate those stories. Life is never boring!
I came to the Northeast from London via Leeds where as a student I’d met, married and then gone on to have two wonderful children. They are both proud of their Geordie roots. Wherever they go, Newcastle will always, I suspect, be ‘home’. Though at times it feels like we might be condemning him to a lifetime of disappointment we do all try to encourage our six year old grandson to support NUFC.
I’ve learnt so much from each of these experiences-about others and myself. I know from looking in the mirror that I’ve grown older, and can only hope I’ve also grown a little wiser.
2. Describe your writing in five words
challenging witty insightful unsettling engaging
3. What are you writing at the moment?
Just now I’m back where I started writing articles, reports, presentations to support engagements key to building community. I published a collection called Lessons From Lockdown last year.Lessons From Lockdown: Amazon.co.uk: Miller, Sue: 9798672878690: Books It’s a series of short essays and has been very well received, readers saying they describe feelings they relate to about how lockdown changed lives and relationships. Sometimes it helps to know that you’re not the only one feeling disorientated by events. All the profits to date are going to Diabetes UK-a charity which, for family reasons, is very close to my heart.
4. What’s been your proudest moment as a writer?
I once ghost wrote a piece for Sir Bobby Robson to be the foreword for a book on goalkeeping. It involved a lot of listening to interviews he had given over the years. When he read the piece he said, ‘This sounds just like me.’ As far as my kids are concerned that’s the highlight of my writing career.
5. Who are your heroes in real life and in fiction?
It might sound corny, but for me it’s anyone who isn’t afraid to challenge, stands up to injustice and strives with courage and wisdom for the sort of win: win outcomes that help to make the world a fairer place. They can be someone doing this on a world stage like a politician or religious leader, in their own back yard: a community worker, teacher, doctor, social worker, writer or with their family or classmates: a parent, grandparent, child. It doesn’t matter whether they are well known, fail in their endeavours or have human flaws. I just want them to have given it a try. So, it won’t surprise you to hear that my fictional heroes are people like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Joad and Ma in ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or even an anti-hero driven by disillusionment like Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye I identify with and love them all!
6. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
There’s probably a lot of women who use the writing of stories and songs as an outlet because it’s sometimes hard to have our voices heard or our experiences validated. I bet having Mary Chapin Carpenter and Joni Mitchell writing songs about a day out and dinner with Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontes would be interesting! There’s a huge amount ‘under the surface’ in those women’s lives. It would be fascinating to explore.
7. What’s your favourite part of the creative process - and your least favourite?
I hate the blank page but, unlike a lot of writers, I love editing. I’m very easily distracted and enjoy feeling connected so I’m better very early in the morning before messages and texts start to ping in. Forcing myself to get up and started while the rest of the sensible world is asleep works well for me. I’ve worked hard on strategies to make sure I don’t let my brain click into gear in the middle of the night and instead try to get good quality sleep.
8. When you are not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time?
I’ve been very lucky to have travelled far and wide, experienced different cultures, awe inspiring scenery, mass gatherings, festivals and the challenges of working with others to take a difficult situation by the scruff of the neck and turn it round. But as I’ve got older, I’ve embraced more and more the joys of just ‘being’, having a drink and hanging out with those I love. Sometimes ‘having it all’ is simply having each other.
9. What is the one book you always recommend to people and why?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s my favourite genre: a coming-of-age novel and it’s told through the eyes of a child. A cracking read reflecting the author’s journalistic storytelling skills, it’s a tale of small town southern American racial prejudice and deals with themes and issues very dear to my heart: fairness, courage, family. I studied it for O level, have taught it repeatedly and read it scores of times. I think it’s one of the best examples of how fiction can communicate messages and teach lessons much more effectively than a lecture. It challenges and reminds the reader that to truly understand another person we must take the time to walk in their shoes. It still moves me.
10. What is next for you?
My new year’s resolution was to achieve a better balance in my life. That means learning to say no or at least ‘not now’ and to focus on no more than 3 ‘projects’ at a time. I hate not doing things properly or feeling like I am letting people down. And I’ve finally accepted there’s a strong connection between having too much on the ‘to do’ list and feeling stressed.
So, I’m going to focus this year’s writing on the community projects I’ve mentioned, pull together a collection I’ve been working on about current local heroes called ‘Under the Radar’ (shameless plug: it’ll be available for Christmas and make a great stocking filler) and on spending time with friends and family. I’m hoping to work with North Tyneside Libraries and have a launch of Lessons from Lockdown later this year. And I’ve got an idea for a book called ‘If I’d Known Then What I Know Now’ whichI plan to write for my children to find one day in the, hopefully, very distant future, in a memory box- along with my will!