A Fine Balance: writing, teaching, public engagement

When the world opened again after lockdown, my steadfast companion was the view out my home office window of a fell in Cumbria. Fell ponies often arranged themselves along the ridge of the commons above grazing sheep, backlit by low winter sun. I would gaze at their silhouettes when I needed a break from my computer screen. Former colleagues at brick-and-mortar universities in the US and UK began heading back to campus as COVID restrictions were lifted. I’d taken a job at the OU working from home during the pandemic, and I’d moved five hours north in search of an affordable house with a garden. My ‘new’ office was in a converted bedroom. I couldn’t go to campus or meet colleagues face-to-face for several months after lockdown eased, so I dug in and reconciled myself to living and working in what I came to think of as my ‘fast-moving cloud,’ the western slope of the Howgills.

Fell ponies

Working at the OU has transformed my life as an academic. Moving into a home-based role that is part operational, part distance learning, and part research has provided time for reflection. Most days after lunch, I walk a different lane or track or public footpath in my tiny village where sheep outnumber humans, and I think about things. I live on the edge of the Lake District, countryside that writers Dorothy and William Wordsworth and their friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge would have found familiar. At first, the reality of experiencing the romantic notion of the ‘sublime’ was quite a shock, and it took months to connect with the land in a way other than fear (of high winds, low clouds, and gusting rain) or dread (of same). With time, though, I settled in and got on with work and with writing and connecting with local writers and artists, which has made everything better, especially the low-lying clouds.

Like other writers who have lived in isolated landscapes, I’ve found this time fruitful. A collection of personal essays There is Fire Here was published in September by a small UK publisher, Signal 8 Press. I have long been a fan of the ‘fourth genre,’ and There Is Fire Here has been a satisfying opportunity to bring together fifteen essays spanning the day I dropped out of high school in Texas and left home on the back of a motorbike at sixteen, to my move across the Atlantic to the UK, where I learned how to write poetry.

Some of the joys of being a writer and an academic are the connections between your research, your teaching, your colleagues, and public outreach. My work in creative nonfiction includes my own writing, my teaching, and public engagement—a circle which is finely balanced within my role at the OU.

While I was working on finalising the manuscript for There Is Fire Here, I was asked to serve on the panel that would be revising the third-year Arts & Humanities module, A363 Advanced Creative Writing. I proposed that we expand the teaching on life writing.

Emma Claire Sweeney, the discipline’s Media Lead and a fellow course author, asked if I might like to interview Kit de Waal for the Milton Keynes Literary Festival. De Waal’s debut memoir Without Warning and Only Sometimes had recently been released and the festival needed someone to interview her. It was a dream role. I was sent all her previous books to read, which included several novels and an anthology she edited, Common People. I set those on my bedside table and devoured them.

Kit de Waal

During my conversation with de Waal at Milton Keynes Lit Fest, I confessed in front of the festival audience that I had cried on the train finishing one of de Waal’s novels, My Name Is Leon. In the same way that she had wowed me with her stories, Kit wowed the crowd, made them laugh and cry, held them enthralled for the entire hour. An OU camera team were there to record it all.

Soon, clips from that conversation with Kit de Waal will be part of the next iteration of A363 Advanced Creative Writing, a culmination of research, teaching and public engagement woven through bespoke teaching materials for the OU. I’ve sent Kit a copy of my book, and fingers crossed, she’ll be attending my online book launch on Wednesday 8th November, when I’ll be in conversation with brilliant UK writer, Zoe Lambert.

Tickets are free and it will be a relaxed evening. I’ll be joining from Cumbria, in a comfy spot by the woodstove. Grab your favourite drink, settle in somewhere cozy and join us.

Lania Knight

Lania Knight holds a BSc in Plant Science and Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire, and an MA and PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri. She is the author of four books, including two novels, Three Cubic Feet, shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award in Debut Fiction, and Remnant, a dystopian novel set in the American Midwest, as well as a poetry pamphlet Single-Track B-Road, and a collection of personal essays There Is Fire Here.

About Emma Claire Sweeney

Lecturer in Creative Writing at the open University, Director of the Ruppin Agency Writer's Studio (a nationwide literary mentoring programme), and award-winning author of novel OWL SONG AT DAWN and co-author with Emily Midorikawa of non-fiction book A SECRET SISTERHOOD: THE HIDDEN FRIENDSHIPS OF AUSTEN, BRONTË, ELIOT AND WOLF.
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