Helen Mort is a busy woman. She is an award-winning poet and novelist, a runner and a climber. She has also recently become a mum which has transformed her perspective on living adventurously. She told me about being open to the possibilities of change in your life, and the weird way in which an expedition to Greenland can feel less daunting than staying in Sheffield at a gathering of other new parents.
Helen is not only a highly-acclaimed poet but also a lecturer in creative writing. So I was intrigued to hear her take on imposter syndrome and her masochistic enjoyment of attempting creative projects that she has no idea how to complete.
I had slept on a river bank (beneath a tree with a noisy hooting owl) the night before meeting Helen, so I was glad that I had the chance to chug down a speedy espresso at the cafe before Helen arrived. She is an incredibly smart woman and my brain needed all the help it could get!
Helen graduated from Cambridge with a degree in Social and Political Sciences. In 2014, she completed her Doctorate at Sheffield University with a Ph.D thesis in English and Neuroscience. To clear her mind, Helen enjoys running in the Hills of the Peak District.(It's completely free, zero hassle to do (click here), but really helpful for me trying to get a new podcast off the ground. If you're feeling extra kind, please leave a review on the app - that really helps.)
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- "Helen Mort is among the brightest stars in the sparkling new constellation of young British poets" - Carol Ann Duffy
- Helen's website and Instagram.
- "I enjoyed running because it was the first time I'd ever been good at something physical."
- The difference between running and climbing for clarity.
- There are times in your life when you can't just 'take off' but you can pretend you can by manageable adventurers
- The changing approach to adventure (and writing) with parenthood.
- Taking a baby running or up Snowdon - Helen enjoys that side of adventure
- The baby gives her adventures more purpose because Helen is exposing them to adventure and the outdoors.
- Adventure is being open to the possibility of something changing your life in ways you can't predict.
- Life feels less risky when I'm in Greenland rather in Sheffield with a group of mums
- The need for security stops Helen going freelance as a writer.
- Fear of your own inadequacy.
- Wilfully feeds her imposter syndrome by trying new genres.
- Likes doing things she doesn't know whether she can do.
- Writing comes from an urge to communicate and to connect
Below is the transcription of our conversation. It's done by AI so is perhaps a wee bit ropey here and there. If these transcripts prove sufficiently useful then I will make the effort to clean then up and make them better. Do let me know if you think it's worth my time to do that. (Or, better still, do it for me...!). If you'd like to listen as you read along you can do that here:
Helen, thank you for meeting me. I'm sitting on a Saturday morning outside nice cafe, your local cafe, you seem to know everybody walks past with the little one. And who's desperate at the microphone. So we'll give this a go see how we get on. And my first question to you is because I asked this for everyone who's done a PhD? Yeah. Because I love it. What was the title of your PhD? and
I'm embarrassed to say it! So the first part is a quote, I must emphasise. "something else, then something else. neuroscience: neuroscience and connexion making in contemporary poetry."
I Really, absolutely love people's PhD titles. And I won't I won't ask another question about it!
You're a climber and runner?
Yeah, kinda. Definitely. Not so much of a climber.
Okay. And, and one of the things you enjoy it for is the clarity of it. Can you tell me a bit about that? Why you like the running and the climbing.
And well actually is I came to climb in a bit later I ran, I was quite, I think it was quite a quite a stocky little kid, I did a lot of walking with my dad, when I was a kid, I was always quite into something German sports, but I never thought of myself as particularly sporty. And I sort of got into running a secondary school and got picked to do a race decided to train for it. And then on the day that PT should pick someone else. And I was really upset and asked if I could run anyway, and then ended up doing quite well. So it kind of all started from there. And so I always enjoyed. I enjoyed running because it was the first time I've been good at anything sort of physical. And that then became my because of that it then became I became confident doing it. And it wasn't my sort of time to think. And so I did that from when I was 12. I always started climbing when I was like sort of 1718 and in the Peak District and I and I realised that I liked climbing for different reasons, because it was more running for me, just give me clarity, but it's not always a way of switching my thoughts off, I can still worry quite a lot and do things when I'm running. But when I'm climbing, I realised I can't you have to think about the next hold. And then it's much more kind of good for me maybe because maybe because I'm, I'm pretty bad at it. And definitely compared to running and there's no kind of competitive drive. There's no sort of obsessive side to it. There's no yeah, there's no ego, really, it's just I'm never going to be good at it. I just enjoy it. And so, and also because I'm not particularly competent at it, I have to really concentrate. And so it feels for me a bit more of a kind of pure sports in a funny sort of way. It's not tainted with any, like, bad things, I guess. Whereas running is a bit more ambivalent. And I have quite funny relationship with running at different times and sort of Finn. That changes. Yeah, so I think I kind of prefer climbing. If a clarity actually these different kind of way.
Yeah, what I'm a meeting you got my bike here, I'm cycling around for a month. And the Bs, couple of lines struck with me. In terms of the notion of why I'm out on my bike ride from the dog. Oh, yeah. You plan the plans to set off pass the meadow down behind the back beyond the blunt profile of silver How? And nobody will call me back.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the idea of just just being able to, to take off. And obviously, there's times in your life when you can't just take off. But you can kind of pretend that you can through manageable adventures, I think caught you like going on a road or sort of? Yeah, I think that that was what actually when I wrote that poem. That was funny. It's interesting that the lines spoke to you about sort of the idea of setting out and stuff because at the time when I wrote that it was actually quite a stark thing I was thinking about, it was about freedom. And it was about being able to run over the fellows. But it was also about the idea is like, something that I think about a lot which is like, at the time when I wrote it, I was thinking if I didn't meet with misadventure on one of my adventures, of kind of wouldn't be like, leaving anyone but I only have my myself to be responsible for and to, which is kind of liberating, but also can feel fat. So like, so how,
how's that approach to?
You said it to me Just now you said? Was it pretend freedom? Yeah, yeah. How's your approach to that changed your new stage of life?
Yeah, it's interested in I think it applies to writing as well. Because the interesting thing about having to say no, he must be writing lots about him and said, Well, no, I don't have any time to ride. So your your time is much more.
Yeah, it's much more constrained, every got the microphone.
But I suppose when you do get out, you value it more, or you have a sense of I haven't had a lot of people told me that when I climbed, I'd find that I'd become more risk averse. I think perhaps because I was so risk of it. made any difference? I've been soloing and stuff like that and haven't felt any more. kind of worried still hanging on tight? Yeah, then I would do before. It's not kind of Oh, I shouldn't climb that because I've got a baby or whatever. But I could imagine how it could make you feel like that. I've actually kind of seen it's a really nice chance to have sounds a bit cliche passwords have new adventures, because I really love having a little accomplice. Okay, the moment blessing doesn't have a choice in the matter. So I can do things. I enjoy doing things with a baby that No, I mean, you wouldn't think this kind of stuff was was particularly brave, or like, some people would think it was a bit brave to do with the baby like taking him up Snowden taking the mountain stuff and carried him and taking him running with me quietly lot. And I enjoy that side of the adventure go and actually I'm gonna, I'm gonna take the baby with me.
So it's easy adding to adventurous life rather than getting in the way of it.
Well, no, he's just changing it is changing the balance, he's definitely making it feel
more like it's got more of a purpose, because it's the sense of introducing him to places into things that you might love later on. I know that
I can delude myself that the exposure to those adventures and those things in will sort of stay with him and the way that it did with me with my dad and my dad is because of my dad, but I love walking and I love climbing and lifting outdoors and I'd be so chuffed if that got passed on. And I was reading this. I think there's something about because my partner's two older children, they're not into the outdoors at all. But he is I always wondered why they were and then I was reading something about how apparently it's it's more of an influence in that if your mom is 40 or into the outdoors, you're more likely to then
whether you're a boy or a girl. Yeah,
yeah, I think
that has more of a it's more of a predictor of what you do is a novel which I don't know why.
It seemed quite interesting. Are you inspired by your dad?
I was Yeah, it was my my mom was very sporty as well. It's just that my dad loved mountains, right. Yeah, it's interesting. And so yeah, I suppose it's the idea that you can instil that love in someone else from early on, even if it's not true. Even he doesn't even know that he's been up snowed and
showing the pictures you don't like to live and that would be quite cool, I think.
So what does the phrase living adventurously mean to this stage your life now?
Sir, I mean, having a baby has been living adventurously for me because it was a bit of a risk. And he wouldn't mind me talking about that. I mean, myself and my partner hadn't been together very long at all, and we decided to have a baby, he's 18 years old. So, just decided to
involves being open to
changing your life. But that is what living adventurously means, to me, I suppose.
talks about this in relation to the baby quite a lot as well. So for instance, those are the things that feel risky to me, like being open to your life changing things and not necessarily things that the things that I do with a baby that might be adventurous, like going up a mountain don't always feel that adventurous to me that feels within my comfort zone, where it's like actually
having one in the first place. That's an adventure that's coming from risk or sort of
everybody, everybody's different in terms of what they consider to be, like, a daunting thing or
means it's about your creativity as well. I think it just means being, to me being open to things that you didn't know that you do, or to live playing out in ways that you didn't know, and just trying to respond to it. And
keep being open.
Yeah, I think it's interesting, isn't it, how it changes over time. So I originally was trying to do fairly traditional adventurous expeditions. And I realised that after 20 years of going camping and cycling a long way and stuff, I was pretty good at that. Yeah. So to try and get complete, change your perspective on adventure. And
I am I spent a month busking through Spain, not being able to play the violin. And so in order to really exactly like normally Yeah, just to scare myself and shock myself. And that felt like a very adventurous
that's interesting. That's, that's, I totally agree with you that that's, that's a better way of putting it. It's things that scare you. And like, so I got this book that I'm trying to write about dogs is because I had a phobia of dogs. And up until the age of 25. I tried lots of things to cure it, and I only managed to cure it by getting a dog. And so yeah, I think doing stuff like that is always the kind of Yeah, it's like the way round is this. It's Christmas to you. I agree with what you're saying about expeditions as well, like, like, I've always said that, for me. Life feels less difficult, and sort of less risky when I'm like in Greenland on a climbing trip. And then it does when I'm in Sheffield. Dealing with a group of moms are some, like people's comfort can be in those extreme environments. I think it's much simpler when you know what the things that are going to be demanded of you on the quiet survival focus that actually makes life feel quite manageable. When when you haven't got that instant threats. And things can feel more daunting in a funny sort of way. Maybe that's just the way our brains are they kind of look for danger when there isn't any kind of like it's easier to to outsource all your worry if it's about polar bears, then it's a real threat and the outside become rather than it being about, you know, how you're going to manage the day or a social situation and all that kind of those kind of adventures, I suppose. Yeah. I think
an interesting thing I think about living adventurous is that I think everyone wants to do it. Yeah, everyone wants to be a bit older and a bit more. A bit more. Today, like everyone all of us do. But so often we don't Yeah, because of the barriers obstacles and generally in life I think they're either a lack of time or lack of money, in your case very little kid getting in chaos.
But what what are the
barriers that you've faced that stop you trying to live adventurously? Because then I think that often, internal more than just, we hide behind we say without time or money, but that's really
a front for the internal barrier that stops us doing stuff.
Yeah, yeah, we saw his stuff isn't like
security, like wanting that always stops me from going freelance or writing, for instance, like thinking, Oh, no, I need a pension and I need it, which is actually a fear of not being able to manage things yourself. Because obviously, you could sort that out yourself. But also in think, yes, fear of your own inadequacy. And when I went to Greenland, I am sure yeah, like, No, I don't mind admitting this, I nearly I paid lots of money to go on this trip, we booked the flight. And I nearly cancelled it about a week before I was to go in.
And I would be a liability and the climbing was going to be too demanding for my skills.
My, you know, my mood was reliable. I thought I was going to what if I got really down or really
the people who taught me violence into really helpful and just said, and it was the best experience? One of the best experiences of my life really, certainly the best trip over gone, it would have been. But it's fear of yourself. I think it's fear that you maybe it's imposter syndrome, is that somehow you're going to be found out is not being up to the adventure or the challenge or happens to be ODGG
still feel them? imposter syndrome as a writer?
Yes. Yeah. All the time. Yes, opponent? Yeah, definitely. Yeah, he's worried that haven't got any more problems left or that. And, and I suppose I make it worse for myself by constantly trying new genres. So I wrote a novel haven't never written.
kind of done. I've tried to write a non fiction book. So I'm always like, feeding my imposter syndrome by trying to be an imposter in a new show. But that's, that's part of living adventurous, I think, as well as social. You know, not just settling for what you know, you can already do. I think that's important. I know, I can sort of write poems. And I didn't know I could write a novel. So that was an adventure. I didn't know I could write a nonfiction book. I think it is about Yes. seeing if you can do those things and maybe getting comfortable with the idea that you might not
and you willing to take the take the hit if you're not.
Yeah, I think so. I like to hope fail. Maybe I'm yeah.
I'm less money to do that. And I think obviously worry about that a lot. But and I don't think I'd do those things. If If I was too afraid of the
consequences if you see what I mean. Yeah. Do you read your bad reviews?
I, I don't I don't find it easier to read good reviews and bad reviews. To be honest, I get very uncomfortable with so all of us are skin review. And just read them but I read them very quickly with my heart and my mouth. And I Don't linger on the good bits either. Because that makes me uncomfortable makes you cringe. Yeah, it just makes me feel a bit
the greatest writers and Shakespeare. Yeah, that
would. Luckily, no one will ever say that. But definitely made me realise the way sometimes you know, it's hard if somebody pays you a compliment, some kind and you kind of go or Yeah, and you want to, like dismiss it as quickly as possible.
I'm trying to teach myself to accept compliments. Yeah, you give compliments to be kind. Yeah. And constantly brushing them off. It's a very precious thing to do. I'm trying to teach myself so No, thank you, and accept them with grace.
Because sometimes it makes the person doing the compliments and feel bad feeling just go.
Just trying to be nice. They thank you that the the complete works of anonymous. Yes. And I find the interesting thing, the balance between ego
Listerine ego and personal satisfaction. One thing that I've always tried to ask myself before I choose to do a trip, particularly back in the olden days.
Would I do this if nobody ever found out?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. I find that
a question. I was asked myself and what's what's the So would you write homes if no one ever read them? It's a good question. And presumably, when you started don't read them? Yeah, yeah.
And I do write poems still that no one will ever see him. But I don't know. Because it is sort of just come from an urge to communicate or to make it because what I get from reading, not just polish. And
I kind of get a sense of recognition in the other person's way. So go wow, someone else's felt like
that makes me look at something differently. And
and so I suppose I want to give that to the people. And I hope that I don't even want them to so we think it's a good poem. And but just to go, Oh, I know that or that, that speaks to me or that kind of so I suppose
you think that someone's you assume that you're writing to an audience not to read but maybe maybe, because you also do that just to make you right into your past or future self and trying to communicate with yourself? Oh, dear, I think you're giving your problems
has been very meaningful, but I think it's probably time.
Thank you very much.
is definitely trying to buy lots of things that will do good as it sort of bite. Lots of things may go quiet.
Those are such interesting question,
or you didn't even get on my question. These are my questions. For these questions,
yes, yes. They put you back in the sling. All right.
We're gonna we're gonna have a round two now. I'll keep my microphone
in my ear. So you just answered Really? No, they're not. They're not really quick answers.
The questions I'm trying to figure out through the moment, is this a good
idea? I like the idea of having the one car Sorry, I'll speak into the mode
of free speech.
contained, gagged, there we go is a few more minutes. So you will take it Yeah, from the top. Skip it if you didn't fancy it.
Oh, gosh, that's good. And what purchase of 100 pounds or less has most positively impacted your life recently?
This is a good answer.
I feel bad answering this actually. But I will Anyway, it was a perfect prep milk milk formula. And because I've just stopped breastfeeding after six or seven months, and the why I was reluctant to say things like this, but I really enjoy breastfeeding and I'm very glad that we did it and
please give me a lot more freedom to go off and to have some writing time or to be able to
money will spend
on a scale of one to 10 How weird are you
and I eat your name? Oh
yeah, I think so. Yeah. Yeah.
Other people think you
probably the more they get to know me the more weird they might think I am. I'm sure I can pass off as being kind of reasonably normal when I'm when I initially meet people.
Probably with time
maybe we all just think we're weird though.
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