How to work in the arts: Vicky Morris, founder of Hive Young Writers, freelance poet & jack of creative trades

How can you use your passion for poetry to run projects with young people? In our latest arts careers profile, Vicky Morris speaks about her work as the founder of South Yorkshire’s brilliant Hive Young Writers, her many other projects, and how coming from a background that is sometimes ‘othered’ has given her the benefit of seeing things in a different way.

Group of young people smiling, pulling a thumbs up etc
Hive Young Writers

What’s your current job title? I’m founder of Hive South Yorkshire – a project for young and emerging writers (14-30). And I work as a freelancer poet, mentor, facilitator, project deliver and various other things – a jack of many creative trades basically!

How long have you been working in the arts? Since I graduated from university 22 years ago. Freelancing full-time from 2001.

Could you tell us a bit about your current role and what you do on a day-to-day basis? As I do many jobs within my roles at Hive, and as a freelancer, it’s difficult to sum up one particular day. I might be mentoring a young poet for a bit, then running a workshop. I might be planning an outreach project with partners or editing an anthology. It’s not all exciting though. People who work freelance often juggle a lot, and I still have admin, funding bids, and many other hidden things to do.

Could you tell us about how you got where you are now? I set Hive up because I had passion and a lot of experience developing young creatives, and a clear vision of what it could be. I’m from a working-class background and there was nobody in my immediate family that had been to uni, or worked in the arts. I left home at 15, having not done very well academically at school. But I loved to be creative and that is quite literally what saved me and gave me purpose. Despite loving them, I initially shied-away from working with words because I didn’t think writing was something people like me did.

I managed to get myself to uni without parental support, and did a Fine Art degree. I started off in the visual arts, teaching and running creative projects in areas like photography and animation. I remember my first gig was a digital workshop showing teens my degree work. I recall really enjoying it and thinking – I like enthusing people, how can I keep doing this? I spent my first freelance years cutting my teeth as a multimedia arts facilitator, delivering projects in galleries and community settings. The skills I gained then have been integral to what I’m able to do now. I also kept other, non-art, part-time jobs going to supplement my income for a while. At one point I had 5 cleaning jobs. These allowed me to stay on, and build, the freelance path I was on with some flexibility.

I moved towards writing in 2005, supporting a young people’s magazine and work experience. At first, I was helping teenagers learn publishing design skills, and then I started helping them with the journalism and editing side. I realised, through my work there, that not only did I want to get back into a love of writing and communicating with words, but that I was actually good at facilitating others in that area. I also found out I’m dyslexic around that time, and that I have strengths as well as impairments, such as strong verbal reasoning skills. Knowing what I was working with meant I could look for ways around my difficulties and play to what I was good at.

I just kept at it then, building my skills, learning often from doing. I ended up freelance project managing the magazine, and training and guiding the young journalists for several years. I’ve done night classes, and teacher training courses, but most of my experience is from working on the ground, from caring about people, and about doing a good job. It was my commitment to enabling young creatives, of understanding the value in creative mentors through their lack in my own life as a youngster, that brought me to finally see my potential as a writer and as poet as well.

Over the years, I’ve been honoured to support many young writers at different stages of their journeys, and even some Foyle Young Poet winners! I’m proud of the work I’ve pioneered in my area, how far I’ve come, my resilience, and the creative impact I hope I’ve had on many young people developing into adults.

Photo of poet Warda Yassin, young writer Georgie Woodhead and Vicky Morris
New Poets Prize winner Warda Yassin, Foyle Young Poet Georgie Woodhead and Vicky Morris

Could you share a key experience and tips that helped you get into the arts, which a young person might like to know?

Creativity was a liberation for me. It helped me survive a dysfunctional homelife as a kid, and then it gave me dreams, small but big enough to take me forward. I’m very much in agreement with comedian and songwriter Tim Minchin who said: You don’t have to have a dream. Be micro-ambitious and see what happens as you pursue short-term goals. I would say being what I call a ‘creative opportunist’, with an autodidactic drive to learn the things I’m interested in, and to do the best job I can at whatever I’m doing, has enabled me to not only survive, but grow and innovate.

And I now recognise many of these traits are typical of my people – I found out I am autistic just two years ago (and I’m in my 40s)! I mention this to raise awareness. There will be many young creatives out there who are neuro-different and perhaps don’t even know they are. And there are many of us in the arts, certainly many women of my generation, that have gone through life masking their difficulties, so not even we recognise our differences. Often we have strengths in particular areas, such sa strong perceptive and problem solving skills, and big picture and detail-orientated thinking. Knowing your strengths and interests is key to your progress, whoever you are.

I honestly believe my differences have been, although at times frustrating – my operating system comes with many hidden challenges and impairments – one of the reasons I’ve achieved what I have against the odds in many ways. When I was younger, I massively suffered from imposter syndrome because of my background, being female, and having (what I now understand to be) a brain wired somewhat leftfield. My journey hasn’t been easy but I want young people who are different, or maybe feel othered, or who don’t fit the usual profile, not to give up, even if the going gets tough.

Group of young people smiling, waving and pulling funny faces

So my top tips are:

  1. Find your interests, and play to your strengths (know what you’re working with, and if you suspect you might be neuro-different, look into it).
  2. Don’t be embarrassed about what you like, or your quirks – they will help define your path.
  3. Pursue micro-goals that move you forward realistically, rather than big ones that can set you up to fail.
  4. Test-drive what works for you and refine it – volunteer, build skills, cut your teeth on real, tangible things rather than just dreaming about them.
  5. Immerse yourself in the arts you love, and choose to study them (and I’m not talking about a course necessarily) – join groups, volunteer, and find inspiration from all sources.
  6. Gravitate towards people, projects, and things that enable you (but don’t exploit you).
  7. Be an opportunist – don’t assume chances will come around again. Go at something like you mean it every time.
  8. Be prepared to work hard. Expect rejection, setbacks, a bumpy ride (these are all usual experiences in the arts and can make the hard-won wins even sweeter)!
  9. Entitlement will hold you back. Be appreciative of open doors and time given to support you, but don’t expect it. As Patti Smith says, ‘build a good name.’
  10. Commit to the long-term. Work towards a vision if that drives you. Your path might be different from the norm – embrace it! It will give you a uniqueness that will fuse with what you do.
  11. If you have any privileges, or ease in an area, take opportunities to recognise and help others who don’t have the same. Even small acknowledgments can have a profound effect.
  12. If you can’t find the thing you want out there, set it up yourself – that’s why there are so many successful neurodiverse entrepreneurs, because they see the gaps in the market and focus on fulfilling a need.

Is there anything you wish your younger self had known, that you know now about working in the arts? Nobody owns the arts. They really are for everyone! Define your own story and live it. All of the above is going to pay off!

Keep your eyes peeled for more Young Poets Network features about careers in the arts – and let us know in the comments what you’d like to see next. Find our first careers feature with Arts Council England Literature Relationship Manager James Trevelyan and Ledbury Poetry Festival Manager Phillippa Slinger here, our second with Annette Brook from the Royal Society of Literature and Ali Lewis at Poetry London here, our third with Verve Festival and Press’s Stuart Bartholomew, and Spread the Word’s Bobby Nayyar here, and our fourth with harana poetry‘s co-editors Kostya Tsolakis and Romalyn Ante here.

Black and white photo of Vicky Morris smilingVicky Morris is a poet, mentor and creative educator based in Sheffield. She’s been published in places like The Rialto, Poetry Wales, Butcher’s Dog and Under the Radar, and is currently an Arvon Jerwood Mentee.  Vicky is the founder of Hive South Yorkshire and in 2019 won a The Sarah Nulty Award for Creativity for her impact in the region. In 2020 she won the Aurora Prize for Poetry. www.vickymorris.co.uk 

For more about Hive: www.hivesouthyorkshire.com

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