Strange days indeed #whatimwriting

Writing is often hard. Right now I’m going through a difficult patch. I completed a first draft at the end of last year, and now I’m moving towards a second draft, as I mentioned last week. I have the story outline, and I’m listing scenes and working on what key actions happen in them: do they move the story on and do they really need to be there. I’m also reading for research (on being held hostage, in Africa, AND on the politics of aid and disability, if you have any recommendations.) But it’s strange. I like research, but I’m finding this intangible background searching a struggle. I want to be writing, making visible progress. So I’ve decided I’ll carry on like this through February and March, then in April I will push everything aside and start with my scene guide and a blank page and go for a second draft. In the past I’ve tweaked first drafts, made copious notes, and then stopped, but this will before the first total rewrite. I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens.

Brighton Festival: Jeanette Winterson and more

I picked up the Brighton Festival programme at the station a few months back and was overwhelmed with the range of events on offer. I’m doing a MA in Critical and Creative Writing and Ali Smith had already been in to speak, so I was interested to see what she would include in the month’s events, and I wasn’t disappointed. At all! My only challenge was to choose what to see.
‘Boldness in the Face of a Blank Page’ was the title of Jeanette Winterson’s talk, and it wa great to be able to take up a friend’s spare ticket as I’d missed out on buying my own – tickets sold really quickly. The talk took place the night of the general election, and Winterson had a great rapport with the left leaning audience who’s main concerns were ‘Labour or green?’ She started by explaining how her talk had little to do with the title, which she had come up with when called by the festival co-ordinators! Despite that disclaimer, her talk was full of boldness and took us through her personal slant on writing. She is a sparky well-informed speaker, mixing quotes from her own work with others. A quote that stuck with me ties in with my own research on story:

‘Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle and maybe knot it up a bit more.’

Jeanette Winterson Oranges are Not the Only Fruit P119 Vantage London 2014

 So, the talk was great, the Dome was packed and the audience asked relevant and mostly interesting questions: in a lot of ways it was very typical of the whole Brighton Festival experience. Brighton is a unique city, with a mix of artists and tech-specialists, right on the coast. Walk through the city and you’ll see amazing fashion and style too, street performers, and posters for the hundreds of events that formed part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. As well as the Winterson talk, there were other literary events, lots of theatre and book readings for adults and kids, events ranging from Jaqueline Wilson and Noggin the Nog to Ali Smith’s own talk. And somehow in there, Smith wove themes such as Art and Nature, and Crossing Places, looking at the crossover between art forms, to create a wonderful month of events that drew together the best of Brighton and beyond.

Blindsided: story in pieces

[Interstitial: n. Of an intervening space; esp. a relatively small or narrow space, between things or the parts of a body, of the minute spaces between the ultimate parts of matter. From the Latin, interstitium, space between]

[fragment: transf. and fig. a broken piece; a small detached portion, a part remaining or still preserved when the whole is lost or destroyed. from the Latin, frangĕre to break]


What images have burnt a trace in your mind when all else is forgotten? What stands when all else has fallen? What do we take with us when we flee?

Story burns, story stands. Story defines and identifies.

Anders Nilsen compiled Don’t go where I can’t follow, a story told in postcards, letters, cartoons, scraps torn from his jottings as his fiancée Cheryl was torn from him, from life. A camping trip, photos from when they visited France, then everything changes with the black and white text and sketches in The Hospital. After that, The Lake, the graphic story describes how Anders scatters Cheryl’s ashes where they had planned to marry. The book was first created as a memorial for friends and family. A relationship in ninety pages, this assemblage is as moving as thousands of words. It tells the story.


[fugitive adj. Apt or tending to flee; given to, or in the act of, running away. From the Latin, fugĕre to flee]


Story is elusive. Scattered snapshots, some burnt, blow across the pine needled forest floor. The house no longer stands, the people have been taken away, but a child hid in a gap in the wall, and now he is running too, so the story can go on … start … flickers, traces of memory, Fugitive Pieces, blurred memories tainted and torn by trauma, as in The Drowned City, the first section of Anne Michael’s novel. Chase the story, run it down, pursue it, consume it until it is part of you that only ends with death.


[fiction n. arbitrary invention, that which is fashioned or framed, counterfeiting, the action of ‘feigning’ or inventing imaginary incidents, existences; the species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters. From the Latin fictiōn-em , noun of action, fingĕre to fashion or form]


Experimental stories glide into your mind, unseen, seep, creep, slide. Their presence eludes touch, but they are there, none-the-less. Expect no start, middle, end, no neat ravelling of threads to form a rope evenly over pages, chapters. When you close the book the rope is there, none-the-less.

In Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell a woman meets a man, has sex, conceives, has an abortion; ‘and then down, down, down, further and further I tumbled – Alice, pointy boots, tressed hair, topsy turvey into a tunnel of grief, into its numbing invisible embrace.’ (p238) Abortion reverberates through her life, through the white spaces in her book where something elusive starts to become present, something intangible, something that changes texture when you try to grip it.

‘5.           Years later I roamed, stunned, excited, through the Neues Museum in Berlin: rebuilt, restored; the archive of itself.

Its wounds preserved, lovingly rendered. Its memory on its skin.’


Story emerges, unbidden, unbound.


[borrow: v. To take (a thing) on credit, on the understanding of returning it, or giving an equivalent; a thing recognized as being the property of another, to whom it is returnable.]


The pieces for this story are borrowed, appropriated, adapted. I learn through others. I take what I am given, and that which I am not given. I consume, devour other people’s stories to narrate my own.

Life’s events force story: we are compelled to tell our stories, of trauma, of change. Life is rich in complexity, messy, uncertain, relationships are tangled, and however much you want closure, a creative writer’s perfect plot, the script writer’s story arc, neat endings are unlikely. As Anne Carson writes, ‘The fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat … you can of course keep shaking the box.’(P6-7). That is life, that is writing about life.


[shake: v. to move quickly to and fro. To vibrate irregularly, tremble. To shiver, vibrate, flutter.intr. A poetical word for: To go, pass, move, journey; to flee, depart, in physical and non-physical senses.]

[unsettle: v. to force out of a settled condition; to deprive of fixity or quiet, not peaceful, not firmly established.]



  1. Marsh, Henry, Do No Harm, Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (Phoenix, London, 2014)
  2. Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes University of California Press 1994
  3. Nilsen, Anders,, Don’t go where I can’t follow (Drawn and Quarterly Quebec 2012)
  4. Michael, Anne, Fugitive Pieces (Bloomsbury, London, 1998)
  5. Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red, (Jonathon Cape, London 1998)
  6. Angel, Katherine, Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, London2012)
  7. Inspiration for word definitions derives from and accessed 3, 25, 28 March 2015 and Downcast Eyes (referenced above)

Blindsided: Introduction

‘My first sight on entering the consultation room was a Babel-like tower of multi-coloured folders containing the patient’s notes … a tower of sheets of paper, bursting out of dog-eared files, in which the recent relevant results have rarely been filed, and if they have been filed, have been filed in such a way that it is usually very difficult to find them.’

(Marsh 2014 p264)

Aspects of people’s stories can be found between the pages of a medical record, yet medical records are about the patient, not the person, for the practitioner. In much of what we have read this term the overall story is an accumulation, something found in the words on the page but also in between the words, between the pages, within different styles and formats, which makes me think of the way that a medical record works.

I want to unsettle conventional expectations of a medical record and use it as inspiration and as a place to contain poetry, prose and critical work, the scaffolding for the story of a person. Because of my background as an optometrist, I have written about sight loss, and explore issues of changing identity in relation to shifts related to sight loss. Sight loss unsettles the human experience in the same way that experimental writing can. It forces you to look in a different way, use different parts of your vision, your brain, your mind. Did you know that people with cortical visual impairment may not be able to ‘see’ an object, yet can still react to its presence?

Our senses are dominated by the visual, and as Martin Jay explains in Downcast Eyes (1994 p3), so is our language. Development of sight comes late to the foetus, and much only happens post birth. Since the industrial revolution our culture has shifted from oral to visual. In the imagination, our brains prioritise images over sounds and smells. The visual function takes a disproportionately large part of our brain, and it dominates this paper. Visual metaphors recur throughout. French creeps into this paper, as does Old English, as does Latin, language of medicine, in attempt to seize back jargon, to own language, on behalf of the patient, the person, my self.

With more space and time I would have included letters – a medical record is packed with referral letters between practitioners, post it notes, perhaps the person’s own notes, letters and thoughts. There is a further critical paper on sight loss in literature that I could not include due to constraints of space. This story spills out beyond these sheets.




  1. Marsh, Henry, Do No Harm, Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (Phoenix, London, 2014)
  2. Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes University of California Press 1994
  3. Nilsen, Anders,, Don’t go where I can’t follow (Drawn and Quarterly Quebec 2012)
  4. Michael, Anne, Fugitive Pieces (Bloomsbury, London, 1998)
  5. Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red, (Jonathon Cape, London 1998)
  6. Angel, Katherine, Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, London2012)
  7. Inspiration for word definitions derives from and accessed 3, 25, 28 March 2015 and Downcast Eyes (referenced above)

Review: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her SisterWhat would it be like to live with someone like Virginia Woolf? Precociously talented, prone to tip over the edge into insanity, the Stephen family and Vanessa Stephen in particular were driven by Virginia.
In Vanessa and Her Sister Priya Parmar takes us into the heart of the family after their father’s death. The book is placed in the mind of Vanessa, and we watch as she initially denies her attraction to Clive Bell, then eventually marries him despite Virginia’s opposition.

The book is written in letters and diary entries, mainly from and by Vanessa, but interspersed with postcards between Lytton Strachey and Leonard Woolf, plus the occasional telegram and letter from the States from Roger Fry to his wife and his mother. Without knowing what happens, these postcards, telegrams and letters seem slightly random: perhaps we are all expected to know the tangled love affairs of the Bloomsbury group in advance.

I’ve written a lot about Woolf in the last 18 months, and have mainly read literary criticism of her work, her diaries, and historical comments on her life. It was interesting to get this fictionalised version which very much brought to life events such as what happened to Thoby, the family trips to Europe and Cornwall, and life in Bloomsbury and Sussex. I think Parmar captured the atmosphere very well, with barely an error.

I’m fascinated by the thin line between fact and fiction, and want to learn more about writing other people’s lives. This sort of fictionalised account has to be firmly rooted in fact or it will lay itself open to criticism, but some of the joy of writing fiction must be the ability to imagine and conjure thoughts and motives. Worth a read if you are a fan of the Bloomsbury Group, and you too can feed your imagination.

Room – First Draft

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 to write 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 are ringing 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 in his drawer, that’s mine, I want it, it’s not fair, I want, it’s not fair, I want, I want, I want …