Women have always done it, unrecognised, hidden. And even once allowed, we deny it, because being allowed in itself takes something away. Who offers the permit, and do I want it anyway? I may continue in secret. No-one will know, either way.

it’s warm and dark red and the woosh-thump-woosh-thump’s always there, and I’m on my own/never alone safe warm nourished part of you and that’s all I want and ever need

jerked screaming, fighting every push and brutal squeeze, too bright, too hard, can’t go back, let me back let me back, let me in … skin touch soft warm fill me keep me safe together

I have a room where I go and close the door so no-one can reach me. It seems like I’ve had it forever, but there must have been a first time that I discovered it. Everything has a beginning …

rewind until I can hear her screaming at me, until she’s grasping my wrist, and I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what still don’t know, and her breath smells and I look up into her eyes and know that I’ll never be right so I need to vanish. I stand still, her bone-witch fingers surrounding my wrist, and as she shouts down at me I can’t move. Tell me it will be okay, but there’s no-one else but me and her and brick by brightly coloured brick I build until I vanish. I’m gone where she can’t touch me anymore and that’s when I find my room.

Ten years on, my room has materialised. I learned to read and a door opened into somewhere I never knew existed. I can retreat until I don’t hear the screaming anymore. And when I’m all wrong, don’t fit it, don’t get the joke, can’t play with us, my room’s still there, where I can’t be touched. John Peel’s on the radio, though, and I believe that somewhere there’s a way out.

In time, I discover that I was right, and I pretend the room’s gone. I watch as the sky fades, blue, green gold, to darkness, setting sun, silhouetted trees and chimneys. I’m in the attic, real room of my own. Mismatch thrift shop furniture and peeling wallpaper spell freedom. Rent paid, I can enter and leave when I want. I lie on the worn grey carpet and reward myself for each page I write, each sunset I paint.

At night we drink and smoke and dance and the music’s louder than my heartbeat, until the sky lightens from navy to turquoise again. Milk fresh on the doorstep, we stumble back indoors. And later when I’m heaving the night into the toilet, my t-shirt clings against my skin, and I go to my room, but I’m not telling anyone. I creep in, furtive, would never tell, never share, can’t admit that the room’s still there.

I’m spent, another night, red wine in jugs you can’t tell how much you drink and we were laughing so hard my throat’s sore and my ears still hear the music and now it’s all stopped, and I’m chilled, skin clammy, but inside my head is quiet and I’m not dangling on the edge of madness, won’t see a counsellor, see her, won’t see her again.

Another ten. I’d get up if I could but the gap in my symphysis pubis is too large, and the baby stretches my belly, I’m seventeen stone at my biggest, and my mind has slowed like my steps. The sun shines in, cats rolling on the golden carpet. My world has titrated down to one room, can’t diminish any further, but it’s not the room I was thinking of.

I’m never alone, and it’s eating me and I want to be one, own, me, gone, and the drugs take the edge off and gradually I claw back a tiny place that’s my room. I can sit still, feed the baby, watch birds in the garden and think. There’s something new, though, and it glows green as I realise I’m not allowed to be alone.

Maybe the end should have been when I delivered the baby, but I’ve found that’s not an end. And now, behind a barrier of books, I am rebuilding my room, stealing back moments to write. My desk is tall, broad, blue-stained, grain of the wood still visible, family photos backdrop my thoughts. Does time need to be scarce so I write every word?

Mum, mum, I need a drink, did you get more eggs, can you wipe my bottom, can you drop the car at the garage, what’s for tea, I’m going to be late, can you help me with my homework, you never told me it was parents’ evening, where’s my socks, I need a lift, is there more cake, he’s got all the socks, that’s mine, I want it, it’s not fair, I want, it’s not fair, I want, I want, I want …


Works in progress – or how do you know when a poem is finished? #prose4t #whatimwriting #amwriting

Last year I did an exercise for my experimental writing class that turned into a poem. I posted each stage of the work on the blog, and there were probably seven iterations just at that time. Since then I’ve revised it, read it to my writing group, submitted it to a competition, revised it, read it out loud, and done a very different version inspired by a call out that wanted poems of 14 lines or less. I think I thought I’d finished it last year, but I obviously hadn’t.

I wrote a novel a few years back, finished it and everything. I printed out a few copies, got people to read it, made amendments, sent it to agents and even had a request for the whole thing. But that all took time, and during that time something was niggling at me. The story wasn’t finished. What I’d thought was the whole story wasn’t at all – the interesting stuff kicked off where I’d wrapped it all up. How do I know that? I gave myself permission to just keep writing, and writing, and writing. The characters I created developed a life of their own. What I thought was a nice, neat finished novel is now a messy splurge. What was fluffy chick lit with a happy ever after ending is now darker. The story is now more compelling, but the whole thing is unfinished, a sprawling mass of words, with some repetition where I’ve tried more than one approach to the same storyline. (And I feel a sense of relief that the agent said no!)

The longer I write the more I have these messy, unfinished projects, the greater the number of poems that could become something else. And they take up a tiny part of my brain all the time. I’m working on a different novel now, but at some point I want to revisit the first one and wrangle with it once more until the story starts and ends in a place that compels others to read it all through. I’m just not sure how to find time to do that, or whether I have to let it go and say it was a learning experience – which it was – and it’s a novel that’s not going to be published, and just move on.

What do you do – how do you know when something is done? Do you have projects that you can discard? And do you find it easy to find an end for your work?

What I’ve been writing this week #whatimwriting @writingbubble

I’ve just realised a few things. Half term is a week away, then there are only a few short weeks before the yawning, childcare-free abyss of the summer holidays. I’ve been reading and writing and reading again this year, all feeding into a novel which I want to be part of a PhD. And I actually need to write a synopsis and complete the application before the summer term ends if I want any chance of doing a PhD next year at some point!

And of course, just as always happens when a (even self-imposed) deadline looms, I’ve been blogging prolifically over the last couple of weeks.

I reviewed new psychological thriller Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan which is out in June, and The Girl with Nine Wigs, a quirky and amusing cancer memoir.

I wrote up a first draft of a short story that I started in writing group: Iris if. Very much still in development!

I read Don De Lillo’s new book and wrote an epic blog post about Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters  – the post takes you from Chernobyl to Beirut on a journey with some of my favourite books at the moment, and one that just didn’t do it for me.

I finally got round to writing about Kate Tempest, reading from her new novel @DLWP, and then I read some of my own poems at a Writers Circle event locally – my first live reading. Terrifying, but I didn’t make any mistakes and it’s done now. Until the next time.

And I have been working on the research proposal and book synopsis and have another day booked to do that before the children break up. So maybe I’ll make my deadline and have something finished to submit during June. Maybe!

Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

Don De Lillo is one of my favourite authors. I relish reading books that deal with difficult issues and those that face death head on. Add those two facts together and I should have loved Zero K . In his latest release, Don De Lillo looks at the issues of euthanasia combined with cryogenics, giving the wealthy and ill the chance to decide when to die, along with the promise of living for ever. De Lillo does a good job of creating atmosphere, but the setting he achieves is cold and clinical. There is a lack of heart that detracts from the whole reading experience: perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters, Jeffrey, the protagonist, his father, Ross, and his dying stepmother, Artis.

In De Lillo’s Cosmopolis we were swept into a chaotic futuristic New York. The lead character, Eric, isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is compelling, and I stayed hooked as his day deteriorated. In Zero K, the coldness of the cryogenic theme seeps through both the setting and the characters. Jeffrey travels to a remote part of  Russia to see Artis and Ross before she dies in a strange facility that preserves the body until such time comes that technology can bring people back to life. This unnatural act is mirrored in the strange, pared down surroundings of long corridors, endless doors, and the writing itself echoes this remoteness, this blankness.

A book about facing death, about  the wait before death, about choosing to walk towards death, is always going to be a hard read. I was compelled to keep reading, but with less relish than other of De Lillo’s works. But does that mean this isn’t a good book? I’ve checked out the other reviews on Amazon. The reviews are written by a mix of those who have read De Lillo’s other works and those who are new to him. Universally, the ordinary reader/reviewer does not seem to be grabbed by Zero K. The chilly atmosphere has deterred even those who like me are fans, who approached the book with eager anticipation. De Lillo’s books are generally critically acclaimed, however, and this raises the question in my mind, ‘Do I have to like a book for it to be good? ‘. On a superficial level, the answer is, of course, no. One person may love a book, another dislike it intensely. We all have favourite genres and will say with passion, ‘I hate sci-fi!’ or, ‘I love chick lit.’ Although I don’t enjoy the atmosphere of Zero K, it contains good writing. In fact, if De Lillo wasn’t so good at conveying atmosphere, perhaps we couldn’t feel so chilled by the book.  And writing about difficult people and difficult issues sometimes makes for an amazing read.  I’m also reading Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future at the moment which is harrowing, but in which Svetlana Alexievich really manages to convey the humanity of people affected by the incident.  Another book that I am midway through is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling . Keenan is the best writer that I have come across in the selection of hostage memoirs that I have been studying, In the first half of the book he drags us down into his mind while he is in solitary confinement during the initial period that he is held. Again, this is not an easy read, Keenan feels that he is going mad, and he writes into that madness. But it is compelling. I want to read on to find what happens next, even though I know the outcome from newspaper reports, from reading John McCarthy’s version of their shared experience. Keenan does not attempt to make himself likeable, I think his aim was to communicate his experience with veracity, but there is enough humanity in what he wrote to make me care. 

 This also makes me reflect on my own writing. I asked a friend to read the first section of the book’s second draft, and she reflected that she wasn’t sure if she liked my characters.  There is a fine line here.  My characters don’t need to be totally likeable, the people I’m writing about need to have flaws, need to have the possibility that they will change, but they also need to be compelling enough, likeable enough to make the reader keep on reading. Returning to Zero K, perhaps this is just what De Lillo’s characters lack. Jeffrey, Ross and Artis don’t make me care enough. And considering one of DeLillo’s books that I loved, The Body Artist, in which the lead character Lauren, loses her husband and deals with a strange sort of haunting,  the way de Lillo writes makes me care. When I pick up a book, I want to care, I need to care about the characters.  For me, there is no point reading a book unless I engage emotionally, unless I really care what happens. It is easy to care about the people who lived through Chernobyl, about Brian Keenan, because they are real.  Perhaps, unusually, this time, De Lillo has failed in the writer’s duty to make people care. Without emotional engagement, a novel is no better than a list of words, and that is something I will take away and remember when editing my own writing. 


Zero K is released today and costs between £7 and £12 at time of writing, depending on format.

What I’m writing #whatimwriting @writingbubble #prose4t

So, most of April has passed and I haven’t updated the blog. I guess this is just a reflection of the limited hours in the day. I’ve been to a work conference, which took all of one weekend and more, and I’ve taken the kids away for a fabulous weekend which I am midway through writing about for Family Friendly Working. And, oh yes, I’ve written 23000 words of the second draft of Blindsided as part of Campnanowrimo.

And what have I learnt?

1.. I’m shattered. The conference came right after three weeks of school holidays which wasn’t great. Next year it comes at the end of term which means at least I’ll feel prepared, and I’ll have some down time after.

2. The Amazing Family Science Weekend is, as it says, Amazing. And exhausting. We will go back, though.

3. It’s a bugger of a challenge to start writing again with all that going on.

Nonetheless …

I’m happy with what I’ve written.

I still need to go back and question my second main character’s motivations and actions – are they plausible, how much of what they do is reaction to the dominant lead character, when do they start to push back, to think of their own interests?

I need to work on the supporting cast – some are two dimensional stereotypes, others are less than that, just names with a few actions. They need to be more.

The symbolism and foreshadowing in the book is developing, but I need to do more.

I have more reading to do. A lot more reading. I had a good talk about PhDs with a great tutor from last year. He was very supportive about the book idea and felt I was on track … but I do need to fill in an application form before finishing the book if I want the book to be part of the PhD

Oh … and the ending.

At the end of the first draft I wrapped everything up but I wasn’t happy with it, so on the train yesterday I dumped down 15 other ways it could end. That still needs more subconscious consideration, I think. And I don’t need to do anything about the ending for a while.

But …

I’m happy with the 23,000 words … which will be 25,000 words in the next couple of days. I think I will pause there and work on the characters and depth. I might, just might then have a ‘first three chapters’ worth doing something with. I might possibly have something to take to the Festival of Writing. If I go … At times I’m optimistic about how much better it is, at other times I think the whole thing is clichéd and pointless, and there are more than enough books in this world.

But nonetheless, I am going to continue to write. Slowly.

Essay: Writing trauma

‘First person narrators can’t die so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.’ [1]

Experience is not neat, well organised. Life is full of knots, but there is a line through.

War is a terrible experience, so why is so much written about it? Diaries, news reports, fiction: we write war, read it, it fills the shelves in newsagents, libraries and bookshops.

Survivors of war emerge changed. Life is shifted by war: previous experience looks different through the lens of survival, a lens sharpened by the deaths of others. This drives the need to tell the new story, and through that find the re-formed self. Those who have been through life changing experiences are often compelled to tell, talk, blog, write, to reclaim their story. Those whose lives are swept away by trauma, write in order to take control … only I can write my story.

Writing in the midst of trauma may not reach the whole experience. Paul Fussell quotes Robert Kee, a RAF flyer in the second world war, writing about his diary: ‘From all the quite detailed evidence of these diary entries I cannot add up a very coherent picture of how it really was to be on a bomber squadron in those days … No wonder it is those artists who re-create life rather than try to recapture it who, in one way, prove the good historians in the end.’ [2] Writing after trauma takes time. Walter Benjamin notes in The Storyteller, ‘ten years later … poured out in the flood of war books’[3] and this is reflected by Siegfried Sassoon who wrote his memoir around ten years after the war.[4] Time shifts experience into something else.

In writing trauma there are a number of participants: the person who has had the traumatic experience, and the author. Sometimes they are the same person. Every author requires a reader to function as witness. This paper is grounded in triangles where borders between experience and fiction shift. This is exemplified in Siegfried Sassoon’s experience in WW1, his poetry and memoirs, and Pat Barker’s fictionalised version of his experience. It also rests on my creative writing, my writing about other people’s experiences, and my critical and autoethnographic analysis. Overarching both these set-ups is the two-fold question: why write trauma, why write trauma that belongs to someone else? In this section of the paper I examine trauma and the need to write, of those who have experienced it, those who write it, and those who witness it on their behalf.

In Regeneration, in the conversation from which this dissertation takes its title, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon discuss pig keeping, poetry and ergotherapy, the theory on which Dr Brock is basing his treatment of Owen. Owen says, ‘He thinks we – the patients – are like Anteaus in the sense that we’ve been ungrounded by the war. And the way back to health is to re-establish the link between oneself and the earth, but understanding ‘earth’ to mean society as well as nature.’[5] The whole conversation is grounded in earth: the men joke about keeping pigs after the War (and insist that pigs are clean animals – not dirt, not death). They discuss how Hercules lifted Antaeus off the ground and talk about Owen’s poem, The Inspection:

Some days ‘confined to camp’ he got,

For being ‘dirty on parade’.

He told me, afterwards, the damnèd spot

Was blood, his own.

‘Well, blood is dirt,’ I said.

‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,

Far off to where his wound had bled

And almost merged for ever into clay. [6]

In giving Owen departing instructions to work on his poetry, Sassoon says, ‘You’ve got to sweat your guts out’,[7] an earthy description of writing, made all the stronger as both men have seen men’s guts exposed. In a world of strangeness and uncertainty, where life teeters on an edge and the abyss of death is visible, writing can be grounding. In a world where, ‘Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures,’[8] writing was a legitimate outlet. At a time when talking about feelings was riven with conflict for men, writing provided a foundation, a place to process life changing trauma.

Trauma is hard to face but it cannot be ignored. Adorno raised questions about the possibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz. He then wrote, eleven years later, time shifting his perspective, ‘The abundance of real suffering tolerates no forgetting; Pascal’s theological saying, On ne doit plus dormir, must be secularized. Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it.’[9] Humans are compelled to write trauma, read it, view it again. Trauma prohibits art, but demands it, and Walter Davis suggests in his paper, Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11 , we may be compelled to live it again.[10] One must sleep no more, no longer. A decade passes, it is time to wake up from the repeating dream, and seize it, take control, create art and poetry, create a new self. Adorno continues: ‘it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.’ Art and writing are different from factual portrayals of traumatic experiences. Images of war burn in the mind, remain as scar tissue. Owen’s poetry does more than any list of facts to convey what happened. Writing, poetry, photography reach across time and space and allow us to create memorials to the past, new stories for the future. Those who have experienced trauma can feel that they have created something that stands apart from them, that can be exhibited, and as a result there are witnesses to their pain.

Artistic recreation and repetition of trauma, of tragedy, has occurred over thousands of years. War writing is not always but often tragic. AD Nuttall suggests in his book Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? that there have been different answers to his titular question at different times.[11] In ancient Greek theatre, audiences enjoyed catharsis, ‘The purification of the emotions by vicarious experience’.[12] No one really dies: horrible events are controlled and resolved. Even a death in a tragedy comes with a sense that it is the correct resolution. But it is more complex than simply rejoicing in death under control. There is a battle between our innate aggression – one primitive instinct – and our need for civilisation, for Eros – love. Reading, writing tragedy, where the end is a death of some sort that is simultaneously wrong and right, allows us to feel this conflict. Tragedies are consoling because they are in the past, complete – but unsettling because they resonate with now. They must have a message that transcends time. The strongest message to be written is death, we cannot escape it however fast we write, read, run. Tragedy is Walter Benjamin’s death in the misapprehension that he would be deported back to France from Spain as he tried to escape the Nazis. Tragedy is rooted in reality, in one death, the death of millions in war, in works like Wilfrid Owen’s Futility which highlights the pointlessness of life:

‘O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?’[13]

The dreams of shell-shock victims forced Freud to reframe his concept of dreams as wish-fulfilment: a compulsive repeating return to traumatic experiences did not match up with his pleasure principle. Ellmann writes that in comparing the compulsion to repeat to his grandson’s game of ‘Fort – Da’, Freud found that it ‘resembles tragic drama, which inflicts upon the audience the painful experience of loss, while wresting pleasure out of the aesthetic mastery of that experience.’ Freud concluded that, ‘The compulsion to repeat overrides the pleasure principle’.[14] This compulsion to repeat links to writing trauma and the death drive. Freud himself writes, ‘the goal of all life is death’.[15] I feel this in my writing, can see it in the writing of others: there is a desire for the outcome of publication, the need for an end, for death. This paper repeats a theme that drives through my writing, compels me to write trauma. Freud wrote, ‘the aim of the second [drive] is, by contrast, to dissolve connections, and thus to destroy things … we also call it the death-drive’.[16] Here is a conflict: writing creates rather than destroys, the desire to destroy connections seems in direct opposition to the desire to create. However, in writing, creating one thing destroys something else. Writing a fictionalised memoir of a traumatic experience destroys feelings of lack of control. Perhaps for the author who has not experienced the trauma but is writing someone else’s trauma, as Barker is, writing trauma is still about making sense, about taking control. There is still compulsion to repeat. An event like WW1 compels people to make sense of it over and over again. Considering the death drive further, Bennett and Royle explain: ‘everyone at some level (consciously or unconsciously) is driven by desire to die, to self-destruct, to return to a state of inanimacy. By a sort of uncanny reversal or displacement of perspective, then, life would not be about living, progressing and developing, about pleasure, vitality and staying healthy.’[17] This contributes to the need to write trauma: life is about the desire to die, to find an end, to read, to write an end. Nuttall suggests that Freud’s death drive is: ‘Contrary to popular belief… not primarily a wish for one’s own death but a desire to inflict death on others.’[18] This makes sense in the context of writing and reading fiction about traumatic experiences where one safely inflicts death on others. Nuttall expands on catharsis, and develops it into the idea of exercising emotion – different from passive purging – imagining, watching, dreaming, writing tragedy is in fact preparing ourselves for possible futures. He writes, ‘For the process to work, two things need to be the case: first, the situation must be hypothetical rather than categorical (as football is hypothetical warfare, not actual) and, second, that it should nevertheless involve a probable relation to real danger.’[19] The better the writer, the more real literary danger feels. This is about seizing the death instinct and the human fear of death, embracing the conflict on a safer page or stage, and preparing ourselves for what must come.

Returning to Ellmann’s concept that we write to gain pleasure from aesthetic mastery, what does that mean now? Writing gives us a controlled, albeit temporary, solution to pain, to death, to the desire for death and the need to control it, practice it. Given the popularity of crime stories, war stories, detective stories where the end is neat and the pain we experience imaginary, I suggest that, in line with Freud’s death drive, some part of us is addicted to pain, to death, but beyond that, addicted to the idea that we can control it, that there is a neat resolution where death feels right. It is present in humour when someone else’s pain is entertaining, neutered as the clown stands up and grins after a fall. We rate a good book as one that seduces us to think it is real, we relish life experiences in safety: a commuter reads a thriller on the train, transported to a world rife with adrenaline charges, yet arrives home safely. The book-buyer’s life is safe: books supply something that we crave. Readers and writers are as much experience junkies as those who climb, abseil, skydive. Addiction, repetition: we seek that thrill again and again.

Peter Brooks expands on the idea of story and repetition in Freud’s Masterplot:

‘Narrative always makes the implicit claim to be in a state of repetition, as a going over again of a ground already covered: a sjuzet repeating the fabula, as the detective retraces the tracks of the criminal. This claim to an act of repetition – ‘I sing of’, ‘I tell of’ – appears to be initiatory of narrative. It is equally initiatory of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: it is the first problem and clue that Freud confronts. Evidence of a ‘beyond’ that does not fit neatly into the functioning of the pleasure principle comes first in the dreams of patients suffering from war neuroses … : dreams that return to the moment of trauma, to relive its pain in apparent contradiction of the wish fulfilment theory of dreams.[20]

That returns us to trauma. In writing trauma we seize control of the dreams that will not go away, we become our own heroes, we create our own plot, meaning and end. There is pleasure in rereading a book, trusting the author for resolution. Even if the end is death we feel a sense of rightness in that end. Echoing Nuttall’s concept of the shift from passive catharsis to active exercise of emotions, Brooks writes, ‘the essential experience involved is the movement from a passive to an active role … claiming mastery in a situation to which he has been compelled to submit’ … ‘by this choice he asserts an active mastery of what he must in fact endure’.[21] In Barker’s book, Owen starts a sentence and Sassoon finishes it: ‘”It’s mad not to write about the war when it’s-” “Such an ‘experience’”.[22] They laugh, expressing the insanity, conflict and compulsion in writing about trauma. They write, must write, must take control of the dire situation that they find themselves in at the front, they continue to write until Owen at least is stopped by death. Brooks continues his explanation, ‘We have moved from a postulate of repetition as the assertion of mastery … to a conception whereby repetition works as a process of binding toward the creation of an energetic constant state situation which will permit the emergence of mastery and the possibility of postponement.’[23] Mastery repeats, across Ellmann and Brooks’s writing and within Brooks’ piece. Mastery is about authority, power, dominion, skill. Authorship is rooted in authority, takes skill, gives power and dominion over one’s characters. A number of papers link shell-shock, and indeed Regeneration to the issue of gender.[24] In brief and inadequate summary, shell-shock is allied to female hysteria, forced on men by the relative immobility of trench warfare. Mastery is linked to manhood: ‘The term master was originally applied almost exclusively to men …, is still normally used of a masculine referent’.[25] The battle to overcome a ‘female malady’ is won with mastery of a situation by writing. Mastery seems inextricably linked to that which is taken away by disempowerment, the futility Owen feels in his poem of that name, the irony that Owen and Sassoon use when discussing why one should write about the war. In both the Sherston and the Regeneration trilogies, being a soldier involves following orders without asking for a rationale, taking orders that seem nonsensical, and waiting without any knowledge of exactly what for. Following, taking orders, waiting: all passive actions. Writing is in this situation a way to exercise the emotions, as per Nuttall, to develop mastery, as per Brooks.

For the writer of today, for myself, perhaps for Barker, writing gives mastery over the unfathomable. We seek to deal with the fear of death, to anticipate disaster, to practice it, to fend it off by gripping it tight. We write trauma, because events like WW1 do not go away. It is not the achievement of mastery that is the goal, but to travel through life with hope of mastery. Death is less terrifying if one feels that one can come closer to it, examine it and walk away alive.

Returning to the question of the person who tells, who writes, their own trauma, Adorno writes,

‘Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems. But it is not wrong to raise the less cultural question whether after Auschwitz you can go on living–especially whether one who escaped by accident, one who by rights should have been killed, may go on living.’[26]

Adorno reconsiders his statement that has echoed throughout writing since he made it. He addresses the question of how you can live after Auschwitz, how you can live when you could have died, should have died. For me, living and writing go hand in hand. He focusses in, further examining those who have escaped by accident and that links to the work I have done with Joe, to the writing of other trauma survivors. Whatever the event, whether individual or with global impact, survivors have to address the question, ‘Why am I still alive?’. This returns us to the function of writing a story: to create meaning and resolution. When death touches you, it changes you, and this needs to be documented: where was I, where am I now? Life’s value shifts: trauma can raise the value of life, but at other times can make it feel pointless. Men returning home after war lose the ability to live without adrenaline rushes.[27] When you have come through trauma there is guilt: why them, not me? Writing assuages this with the ‘duty to tell’ – something that rings through Siegfried Sassoon’s statement.[28] Writing is grounding, as Sassoon and Owen discuss in Barker’s Regeneration: it creates the certainty that the person plagued by dreams requires if he is to go on living. ‘Going on living’ is the opposite of death: it is hard and cannot be taken for granted post-trauma. Going on living when others have died brings with it not just guilt but the duty to bear witness. This is present throughout Don McCullin’s autobiographical narrative, Shaped by War as much as it is in Sassoon’s statement.[29] Ulrich Baer extends the duty of witness to those who see photographs of trauma. This is another motivation to write; to share the burden of being witness in the hope that if more people understand what has happened, is happening, it will not recur. Dori Laub extends this idea further as she explains how the process of narrating a traumatic event is part of the development of the trauma, where the ‘“knowing” of the event is given birth to’.[30] Narrating a life-changing event becomes a critical continuation and part of the event itself: the listener becomes a co-owner as he ‘comes to partially experience trauma in himself’. I write to process trauma, to share the burden.

Time brings events into focus again: with the 100th anniversary of WW1, a nation remembers, reads the war again. The attacks on September 11 2001 are the most recent ‘game changer’ in the way that WW1 was and continues to be. 9/11 compels us to revisit trauma as each anniversary drags us back. Corporate memorialising brings demands for stories: look in libraries, on TV schedules, on the internet: we are re-witnessing.

In a strange echo of the numbness and mutism that Prior experienced in Regeneration, one of Prior’s men, Hallet, is shot in the face with ‘a hole where his left cheek had been’.[31] He is returned to England but does not live long. In his dying hours, impaired by the damage to his face and jaw, he repeats the word shotvarfet, which Rivers eventually translates as ‘It’s not worth it’ The question of whether it is worth it, whether war justifies so much death and pain, is whole point of the Regeneration trilogy from Sassoon’s statement to the end where Prior and Owen go over the top. The question of whether it is worth it is that same question that we seek the answer to as we write trauma. As those who have experienced trauma seek to imbue it with meaning – I’m scarred, I’m new, I’m better – we seek the same message. We need to know that they neared death and passed it by. We hope to see that others have mastered death, and we might too.

At the end of the Regeneration trilogy, Billy Prior sees Wilfrid Owen die, ‘his body lifted off the ground by bullets, describing a slow arc in the air as it fell.’[32] Prior witnesses Owen’s death in his own last moments, traces of Anteaus. We read a story to the end, to the death. We continue to the last page to seek purpose, pause to take in the dying moments of the story, then seek a new book. The search for narrative meaning continues.

[1] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p118.

[2] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University press 1975) p311.

[3] Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’ p362.

[4] Sassoon, The Complete Works of George Sherston

[5] Barker, Regeneration, p123.

[6] Wilfred Owen, The Inspection [Accessed July 2015]

[7] Barker, Regeneration p125.

[8] Barker, Regeneration p44.

[9] Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, New Left Review I/87-88, (1974) [Accessed July 2015]

[10] Walter A Davis, ‘Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche After 9-11’ Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society, 8(1) (2003) p130

[11] A D Nuttall, Why Does Tragedy Give Pleasure? (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)

[12] OED [Accessed online June 2015]

[13] Wilfred Owen, Futility, [Accessed July 2015]

[14] Maud Ellmann, Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism, (London: Routledge, 1994) p7.

[15] Sigmund Freud, Adam Philips, Ed. The Penguin Freud Reader, (London: Penguin, 2006) p166.

[16] Freud, p93.

[17] Bennett and Royle, p39.

[18] Nuttall, p74.

[19] Nuttall, p76.

[20] Peter Brooks ‘Freud’s Masterplot’ from Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) p97.

[21] Brooks, p98.

[22] Barker, Regeneration p123-4.

[23] Brooks, p101.

[24] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press 1987) p171. Lena Steveker, ‘Reading Trauma in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy’ in Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Eds, Ethics and Trauma in Contemporary British Fiction, (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi 2011) pp21-36.

[25] OED [Accessed online July 2015]

[26] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, English translation by E. B. Ashton (London: Routledge 1990) p362-363.

[27] Paul Allen, The Warrior’s Code of Honour, [Accessed June 2015]

[28] See Appendix 1

[29] see Appendix 2

[30] Dori Laub Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge 1992) p57.

[31] Pat Barker, The Ghost Road (London: Penguin 1996) p196.

[32] Barker, The Ghost Road p273.

What I’m reading, watching, writing #whatimwriting

I’m still in research phase for the current book, and over the last couple of weeks I have read Home Truths by Sara Maitland, watched Bamako and Timbuktu , both set in Mali, by director Abderrahmane Sissako and stumbled across Saviours, season 13 episode 8 of NCIS where a doctor is kidnapped, in South Sudan.

It is unnerving how once you have written a draft, life starts throwing coincidences at you. I saw a link to Home Truths, I think in something in the Mslexia diary for 2016 which is all about writing the body. The book was mentioned as the main character loses a hand in an accident on a mountain in Zimbabwe.  The short description ticked several of my ‘might be interesting’ boxes and I picked up a second hand copy. I didn’t realise how many areas of the book would resonate with my novel in draft.  There is a missing person; a return from Africa, changed, mutilated; a return to a family home where things are the same and nothing is the same at all; a return where pain and confrontation leads to healing and moving on. There are differences too, my book doesn’t focus on religion in the way Maitland does, but some similar questions are raised about identity, ability and disability.

I started finding out more about Sara Maitland (see my post on authorial intent … I’m still open minded about whether knowing the author’s biographical details enhances or diminishes your experience of reading their work, whether it confounds and distracts from the book as a work.  Nonetheless as a writer I’m curious to see what else a writer has created, where the inspiration might have come from.). Anyway, looking up Sara Maitland lead me to Lancaster University where she is a contributor to the Creative Writing MA. That lead me to the PhD, and put me back into the ‘shall I, shan’t I?’ mindset, where my fingers hover over the keyboard and I consider investing days in filling in a PhD application form, investing years in one single project. Having completed the MA I have more idea of what it might take, and so I hesitate, but I’m working on this book regardless and part of me thinks I may as well take that one extra step.

One of the motivations to suck up my qualms and just apply for a PhD is the fact that I’m going to do a fair chunk of research anyway. Right now I’m aware I haven’t studied post colonial theory, so I’m starting work on that. I’m aware that by writing a white man and woman into Africa, there is a danger that I’m unsure I can avoid. Unavoidable or not, I need to know more about what I’m doing, to write consciously. What I can tap into, what most people can find somewhere in their lives, is the feeling of being other, of being the different one. It’s interesting to watch Sissako‘s work and see the difference in pace and story telling, particularly when compared to Beasts of No Nation, set in West Africa, based on an African author’s book, but fundamentally an American production, or the popular NCIS series where everything is fast paced and wrapped up in less than an hour. I’m not sure how to do this, but it would be good to learn how to write that difference in pace and perspective and that is something I want to consider when I go to Tom Connolly’s Film and Fiction event on how the movies can help you tell your story.

So, that’s where I’m up to. I took time out to read a good supernatural detective story over the weekend, which I’ll write about soon, but now I’m back to Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction (I love this series for kickstarting you into a topic) and more hostage memoirs with Amanda Lindhout’s  A House in the Sky.




The Madwoman Upstairs and Authorial Intent

The Madwoman Upstairs succeeds in throwing fresh light on the lives and writings of the Bronte sisters, and raises questions about authorial intent and the biographical fallacy.

Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendent of the Bronte family is a twenty year old undergrad, an American starting her first term at the fictional Old College, Oxford. It is interesting to me, as a Brit who has lived in Oxford, to see how she views the strange collegiate traditions she encounters, some of which are true to life, others overdrawn to aid the fiction that Lowell creates to fuel the environment that pushes Samantha to some edge of sanity.

The book will ring true for students of English Literature, and perhaps any student who has wrangled with a tutor or professor who starts from the position that they are irrefutably right and anything that you know already is worthless.  All Samantha’s studies of literature seem to count for nothing with her tutor, James Orville.  The book follows Samantha through her first two terms as she unravels her previous experience and deals with the death of her father, while wrestling with the issue of authorial intent: when reading a book, do you need to know about the author and their intentions to understand the story, or should a novel stand alone ? If you search for Catherine Lowell online, there is a scant one liner: “Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently lives in New York City.” Lowell is giving us no clues to her intent, leaving us to understand that she follows the New Criticism belief that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding. We have to do the work ourselves as readers. In the book, we learn how Samantha’s father, a man who sprinkles aliases into his every day life, obsessively reads the works of the Bronte sisters, looking for enlightenment in their words, the message within the story. In contrast, his old enemy Sir John Barker has thrown over an academic career and become curator of the Bronte Museum at the Old Parsonage in Haworth. His obsession is in tracking down the ‘Vast Bronte Estate’, every quill or handkerchief used by the family, every dress or painting or manuscript. These two characters stand for the different sides of the debate: does the quill or the first draft of Withering Heights tell us more than the book itself?

Samantha becomes swept up in a posthumous treasure hunt, spurred on by obscure and lateral clues from her late father. The man who taught her than she should look only at the books, draws her on to find a mystery treasure, some part of the Bronte estate that Sir John Barker has made his life’s work to find. Of course, she voyages to Haworth, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that her ‘ancestral home’, which she imagined many times as a child, does not hold the secret she is looking for.

This is a clever book, but perhaps Samantha’s madness doesn’t go far enough nor with enough conviction. I did keep reading right to the end, keen to find out exactly what Samantha had been left in her father’s will. Do we find out which side is correct about authorial intent: I lean to the approach of deconstruction, that authorial intent is unknowable and possibly irrelevant. What we learn from a text depends on an interaction between our life experience and the words on the page. We may psychoanalyse exactly what the author intended, but we can never know the answer. When I write myself I write with one idea in mind, then see others that emerge as the text sits on the page, some of which may only be apparent to me as author months or years after writing.   I have completed The Madwoman Upstairs with the sense that it is time to go back and reread the works of the Bronte sisters, which is a worthwhile gift and perhaps one that this author did intend.


The Madwoman Upstairs costs around £13.50 for a hardback and £7.50 on Kindle at time of writing and is released on 3 March 2016

Review: The Making of Her

 I’ve been reading Susie Nott-Bower’s first novel, The Making of Her, and I’m impressed.  Too often one looks at the small and independent press as a second choice for publication, but The Making of Her shows that there’s nothing second rate about working with independent publishers. The book examines being a woman in the twenty first century where looks are valued over experience. It asks questions about how we regard ourselves, how we see our flesh and skin as it changes over the years. Nott-Bower uses her experience in the world of television, the medium that puts a magnifying glass to our lives, and writes the story of Clara, a TV producer who has just reached 50 and denies her birthdays. She can’t combat other peoples’ perceptions as she wrangles with her young assistant Alix who is after her job. Clara’s best friend Josephine is married to a successful playwright and has let her own dreams of writing become buried in a verbally abusive relationship where all she is, is typist, copyeditor and cheer leader in chief.

In advance of the Reading and Being Read conference at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, I spoke to Susie Nott-Bowers about her experience of writing and publishing The Making of Her. Susie says, “It started when I went on a University of Falmouth How to Write a Novel course. The course equipped me with the steps I needed to write a novel, and we formed a critique group that met fortnightly for quite some time afterwards. I set myself a deliberately achievable target of 2000 words each week. I made a schedule and within a year I had my first draft.”

The novel follows Clara’s struggle as, within creasing pressure at work, she is forced to put aside her feminist principles and the documentaries she usually worked on for a straightforward makeover show. Susie says, “I’d worked in television for many years, and while I hadn’t worked on a makeover programme it was easy to find out about them. Clara and Jo are two sides of myself, the ambitious, outward person in need of finding femininity, and the introverted writer, the person who was in need of spirit. The novel was a way to allow them to find the hidden part of themselves.” Clara’s battle for her career, to ensure that she is seen as someone who still has value, interweaves with gradual revelations from her past. Jo finds the courage to take steps to change her life: as she separates from her soul-sucking husband she rediscovers herself, at first gradually and then with one drastic step that changes things for both herself and for  Clara.

Susie completed her first draft and says, “It began as a very depressing novel, entitled The Change. I gradually edited it, changed the title, added humour, and then sent it off to a selection of literary agents. I had a few requests, but no-one took it on. An agent had held on to the manuscript for many months and then sent a brutal rejection. I was ready to throw in the towel, but a friend from my course sent me the link to Linen Press.  With a last throw of the dice, I sent it to this unknown press. Within 24 hours Lynn rang to ask for the rest of the book, within a week she had offered me a contract subject to some revisions. We spent quite a few months working on it – Lynn is a fantastic editor. She asked me to write a new opening, she wanted more of Pete Street and I added a couple of smaller sub plots. At the end it was sub edited, I had a hand in choosing the cover, and it was published.”

Looking back at her experience of being published, Susie says, “It was a strange time. I was very much taken up with my parents health at the time. I did a lot of publicity, and Lyn helped too. I must have written to every magazine and newspaper in the country with no response, but a lot of bloggers read it and reviewed it. It was mixed though: wonderful to have the book published, but difficult to get it out there and get it read. It has sold several hundred copies. The small press experience has had many wonderful sides. Friends have had good and bad experiences with bigger publishers. I think all writers hanker after the big contracts. The main driver for me is for as many people as possible to read what you have written.”

Currently Susie is working on her second novel. She says, “I started another novel, then paused due to life events at 30,000 words, and now I’m looking at it again, with ideas of replanning and replotting. I put so much into that first novel and have doubts about doing it again which slow me down when completing the second novel. I wrote the first book in innocence, and now I’m writing in experience. I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, all about the creative process. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert says the outcome of any creative act is a souvenir of the process, ‘something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.’” However you publish your work, it is this reminder that we all hope to create.

Reading and Being Read takes place at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, and is run in association with The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster. Book here.

The Making of Her is available from Amazon and costs £5.99 on Kindle, or from in paperback for £11.99.




This review first appeared on The Contemporary Small Press site.

Reading, watching, and more research #whatimwriting

Sunset I’m still in the ‘research between drafts’ phase of writing, and over the last week I’ve been mainly reading, with a bit of watching! I’m reading Taken on Trust by Terry Waite, an articulate and in-depth account of his six years as a hostage. I have a list of other books about hostages, but this one seems to come up to the top of the pile every time. This account of almost three years as a hostage by Michael Scott Moore has also been useful, and probably closer to what I’m writing about than Waite’s experience, although perhaps the human psychology of captivity doesn’t vary with geography. I’d be interested to know if journalist Moore is writing a book of his own experiences.

MangrovesI watched the film, Beasts of No Nation  based on the book by Uzodinma Iweala , the first Netflix original movie which was released in cinemas last Autumn. I’ve been reading about the film, getting mixed views on how well it covers the child soldier experience, but I watched it for information about the West African region. I think I may get the book to see how much more I can learn as so often much is lost when a book becomes a film. I’m interested in any other recommendations for books and films about West Africa, as it’s a while since I’ve been there … I did get out more photos (see above and left) to browse through, though, for more reminders and inspiration.

So, I’ve written a few hundred words of notes based on what I’ve watched and read, and I’ve listed some more of the scenes in the first draft, assessing them for whether they move the story on and how. I have a list of books about hostages which I’ll look for once I’m a bit further through Terry Waite. Work permitting, Thursday and Friday I’m mainly going to be reading! I’m making up for the lack of writing by writing blog posts  … last weekend I saw a great exhibition which I’ve reviewed. Still itching to start on the second draft, but I know I’m not there yet.