My Year in Books

I got the idea for this post from one of the books I read this year, Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much. She goes back through the books she read throughout her life, I’m merely proposing to explore the books I read in 2017, and only some of them.

I want to concentrate on the books I feel the most positive about. Last year I read fifty-four books (full list below). Two I didn’t finish. Some were indie published, some traditionally published. What I have discovered is that there is good, bad and mediocre published by both camps. What do I mean by bad writing? (1) Use of cliché. There’s lots of them out there, sometimes they are difficult to avoid, but as with (2), careful copyediting can weed them out. (2) Lazy use of vocabulary. As writers we all have words or phrases we over-use. And sometimes a word suddenly begins to appear suddenly in every sentence suddenly. By being aware of this, we can work on it when we edit. But having a good copy editor also helps a lot. (3) Plots which don’t add up. Readers are required to suspend their belief to a certain extent in order to enjoy fiction, after-all they are being asked to enter a 3-D world created by flat symbols on a page. However, I don’t want my belief to have to take a vacation. (4) One dimensional characters. Give me complex and tortured any day. (5) I know this is controversial, but over-use of direct speech doesn’t work for me. Good use of reported speech can lift a piece and be used to change pace.

I write crime so a read a lot of crime. I think it is important for a writer to read what they are writing. One thing I really appreciate in novels, including crime ones, is a good use of landscape: rich descriptions and metaphorical layers. Dobyns drew on the landscape to good effect. Two things I do not like in crime novels are when perpetrators confess what they’ve done for no reason. Nor do I want it to be the ‘crazy one what dunnit’. However, (spoiler alert) Dobyns managed to have a seriously unhinged perpetrator who I could believe in. As did Kate Ellis in High Mortality of Doves, though having a similar resolution in Plague Maiden took the shine off. In spite not strictly being a crime novel, Sheers had an excellent twist – where two characters knew something about the other stopping them from telling the truth – for a mystery narrative. In November, I went to Hull Noir, the crime festival which was part of the City of Culture programme. I had a great day and saw some very interesting panels, Rachel Rhys was on one of these and I am very glad I shelled out for her Dangerous Crossings.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a second hand bookshop. I’ve enjoyed Kingsolver since I read Pigs in Heaven and Bean Trees in the 1990s. The Lacuna was a satisfyingly wide sweeping story with true life characters and events mixed in with the made-up. Re-discovering Helen Dunmore was also a real pleasure, though A Spell of Winter was a truly twisted tale. Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty was a surprise finding, kept me guessing with entertaining and rounded characters.

I like to be taken to other worlds in my reading, so thank you to Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain and Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man. One of my characters in my crime novels has Nigerian heritage and in 2016 I read Nigeria by Richard Bourne. This year I turned to fiction: Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms (thanks to Anne Goodwin for alerting me to them: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/). I was particularly taken by Crimson Blossoms, set in the Islamic region of Nigeria, the main character is a widow who starts an affair with a younger man, a leader of a gang of street criminals. The woman, Hajiya, is not desperately likeable and something of a hypocrite when it comes down to it, but boy did she come off the page and feel like a real person.

Of the fiction I’ve not already spoken about, the following should have an honourable mention for keeping me hooked with interesting characters and plot lines: Messud; Billingham; Doughty.

I am very fond of a bit of creative non-fiction & biography. Hence Samantha Ellis, Stempel, Downing, Kelly, Solnit, Kassabova and Whitaker are on the list and were captivating in their own way. But it was Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships which gripped me. Clare spent time as a writer in residence on container ships and his book charts the madness of capitalism which sees cargo loads of useless items going across oceans. Plus he explores the desperate inequalities between the officers and the crew on the ships, the former being mainly European, the latter from Asian countries. I didn’t immediately take to Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk, however, I was struck by her honesty, particularly in her phrase: ‘The narcissism of the bereaved is great.’

Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx was the only poetry collection I read this year. On the other hand, I heard more at a regular local Open Mic and poetry salon and I had a feast of verse at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I am beginning to wonder whether I prefer to listen to poetry than to read it, or I’d prefer to do both at the same time.

What were your favourite books in 2017? What would you say are the features of bad or good writing?

January
Arnaldur Indridason Arctic Chill
Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna
Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red

February
Nadine Matheson The Sisters
Ann Cleeves Cold Earth
Janet Ellis The Butcher’s Hook

March
Claire Messud The Last Life
Daphne Glazer By the Tide of the Humber
Margaret Drabble The Pure Gold Baby
Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much
Arnaldur Indridason Outrage
Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man
Orhan Pamuk Snow (unfinished)

April
Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil
Owen Sheers I Saw a Man
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk
Colm Tóbín Nora Webster
Val McDermid Out of Bounds

May
PD James Talking about Detective Fiction
Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man
Mark Billingham Die of Shame
Helen Dunmore A Spell of Winter
Louise Doughty Black Water

June
John Lewis Stempel The Running Hare. And Secret Life of Farmland (unfinished)
Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference
Taylor Downing Breakdown, the crisis of shell shock on the Somme 1916
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms

July
Ann Cleeves The Seagull (advance copy)
Kate Summerscale The Wicked Boy
Helena Kelly Jane Austin, the secret radical

August
Stef Penney Under a Pole Star
Helen Dunmore Exposure
Elly Griffiths The Woman in Blue
Kate Ellis A High Mortality of Doves

September
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Kate Ellis The Plague Maiden
Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships
Leila Aboulela The Kindness of Enemies
Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust. A history of walking

October
Samantha Ellis Take Courage. Anne Bronte and the Art of Life
Tara Bergin The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Sophie Hannah Did You See Melody? And A Game for All the Family
Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty

November
Robert Whitaker The Mapmaker’s Wife
Donna Leon By Its Cover
David Young Stasi Child

December
Stephen Dobyns Boy in the Water
Alison Baillie Sewing the Shadows Together
Kapka Kassabova Border, a journey to the edge of Europe
Rachel Rhys Dangerous Crossings
Helen Dunmore The Lie

Welcoming in the Winter Solstice

Only a few days to go before the wheel of the year moves round a notch and the days get imperceptibly longer again. I believe to each season – of the year, of life, of emotion – there is a meaning. Or if there isn’t really a meaning, we might as well find one. For me, winter is a moment of ‘hibernation’, going inwards, finding nourishment and inwardly resourcing. It goes without saying, I ignore most of the capitalist, commercial nonsense which goes on. But lighting a single candle to remind me that the light is coming back – will usually come back, even in the darkest moments – is worth a match.

Spring’s wild wanderings,
Summer’s succulent kisses,
Autumn’s easy caresses,
bring love to warm our Wintery days.

Unloosen
the potentials and ‘also’s
in every season of life.

Writing the therapeutic journey #8: the yoga of writing

The Nab from the veranda at Barmoor

I have just returned from facilitating some writing sessions during a yoga retreat. I have been very fortunate to be a part of three of these retreats run by the Little Yoga Company (http://www.littleyogacompany.co.uk/) and held at the wonderful Barmoor centre on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors (http://www.barmoor.org.uk/).

During my sessions, I invite participants to explore: free writing and whole body writing. I have written a lot about free writing (most recently: https://goo.gl/5exuRx) so I thought I would focus on my ideas around whole body writing.

We often think about writing as a very cerebral activity, but I think if we ignore the part our body has in the process, then we miss out on a lot. The word yoga comes from the Sanscrit word for ‘union’. And what I want to encourage is a union of mind and body in writing, along with a union of self with the universe through the natural world.

I wrote this following the retreat in the Spring: ‘The body has knowledge which the mind has not accepted or is unaware of, bringing that knowledge to the writing hand and onto the paper allows the mind to consider it. This knowledge stored in our body can bring us closer to a more authentic and enriched sense of self.’

The idea that the body stores information is not new, look, for instance, at the work of Babette Rothschild and Kim Etherington. There is some research evidence which suggests emotional response begins in the body and then is given a name by the brain. Whether we are writing for our own well-being or for an audience, tapping into the font of knowing which resides in our body can be useful.

Participants on a yoga retreat are already primed to being aware of what is going on in their bodies. To enhance this, I often start my writing session with a simple body scan. It’s easier to do this standing up with eyes closed, so the focus goes inwards. Take some breaths, then draw your attention to your feet and make sure you are safely rooted to the ground and balanced, perhaps imagining yourself as a tree, your toes delving into soil. Begin to bring your focus up your body, slowly, while still maintaining a steady breath, letting your mind’s eye explore your body internally, perhaps particularly areas where there is tension or pain. Once you have reached the crown of your head, rest for a moment before descending your attention gently and slowly back down to your rooted feet again. Open your eyes. Focus on the first thing you see (if you can do this outside or in front of a window looking out onto some nature, all the better). Sit down and free write for five minutes.

Tree in Autumn colours at Barmoor

It is also interesting to write noticing what is happening in your body. Again do some free writing, perhaps using the prompt of, for example, a pebble or the view of a tree (something in nature). As you write, have a part of your attention on how your body is. Do you grip the pen? Do you draw tension in at certain times? What’s going on in your shoulders? In your back? Are parts of your body askew or wound round each other as you sit?

You might like to reflect back on the results of this focus while writing. See post: https://goo.gl/sucyDu 

I do not know where this exploration of whole body writing will take you. However, it may open up some memories or give some meaning or understanding to a particular health issue. It may help you to define some needs or desires which are not currently being attended to. If you are writing for an audience, it may make your descriptions of emotions and your characterisation more rounded. It may encourage something else entirely to surface. The main thing is to remain open and curious, noticing and kind. See https://goo.gl/a6Wp7e

This is what I wrote following the retreat in May:
Unloosen
the potentials and ‘also’s
in every season of life.

I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Lesley Glover for the discussions we have had which have helped me formulate these ideas. See her website at: https://lesley-glover.co.uk/

Have you experience of yoga and writing you would like to share?

 

Reading & Writing Poetry #1

I’ve decided to launch a new series on my blog about reading and writing poetry. Each post will feature a poem – mine or maybe (if I can persuade them to) another poet’s – followed by a brief explanation of how it came to be written. I believe strongly that to be any kind of writer you have to read what has been written by others. This is no less true for poetry. It surprises me when I come across people who say they write poetry and then take no interest in what else is out there. As well as the pure enjoyment of revelling in the words, rhythm and music of the poems, there is so much to gain and learn in the reading.

This will, no doubt, be an occasional series, but I hope you enjoy it nevertheless. Feel free to comment.

Aspects of Autumn

Season of mellow mists and after damp,
joint between fecundity and decay,
you’re the rusted hinge, the balanced moment
before summer green becomes winter grey.
Your turned leaves are brazen in their dying,
firelit, their brassy tones trumpet their end,
they only fall to nest the ripening
kernels, torn from their cradles by the wind.
Your clods of decomposing foliage
remind us of our oozing hours,
your fruitfulness recalls our barren endeavours
to do, to strive — vanquish the final toll.
So then, only let your splendour fill us —
allow it to give us pause. Let us be still.

This is a Shakespearean sonnet. It has fourteen lines. It basically has a iambic pentameter rhythm (de-dum, de-dum, five times in a line). It rhymes a/c-b/d, until the last two lines which rhyme. There is what is called a volta around the ninth line, where there is a slight movement of focus. A volta can be dramatic or subtle, here it is like the slow falling of a leaf.

When I came to do my MA at Sussex University, I hadn’t read or written poetry since leaving school some twenty-five years previously. At school I had loved our study of TS Elliot, but I had always felt I didn’t know enough (which I now think was probably, at least partly, Elliot’s intention). So I had mixed feelings about engaging with poetry again. However, I found myself diving in and becoming immersed in it. This also coincided with a period when I was struggling a lot with the depression I live with, and I do think the brevity, pithiness and emotional potency of poetry probably struck a resonant chord within me.

And yet, and yet, though I read a lot and wrote tons, I frequently felt I was running to catch up with people who had studied poetry all their lives. Plus ‘form’ scared me, I couldn’t understand the rules about meter and rhyme, and none of what I wanted to say seemed to fit within what I saw as constrictions. Then I came across two books. 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel and Some Things Matter (a book of sonnets) by James Nash. These two books opened up form for me and I was lucky enough to go to a workshop on sonnet writing led by James at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I came to realise what form has to offer. It can be a frame which captures unruly and difficult emotions. It can create and emphasise a musicality which could be engaging or dissonant depending on the desired effect. It can create contrast between the strictures of the form and what feels unsayable.

Aspects of Autumn came after James’s workshop. It, of course, draws heavily on the John Keats poem. I love the colours of Autumn and walk as part of my creative practice. I recall walking round looking at the trees and the Keats lines rattling about in my head. Perhaps someone had said them on the radio that morning, maybe they were half-remembered from school. So these lines were my starting point. And the first part of the poem came quite easily, just from my observations of the season. Then I hit the volta and the question of what I was really trying to say in the poem. It took me ages (and many discussions with a poet friend of mine) to find out what the ‘kernel’ of the sonnet was; turning it from what could be thought of as a nice bit of description into something with another – hopefully more philosophical – layer.

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin Part Two

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin.
What crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

Back with the final part… If you missed the first part, click here: https://goo.gl/Fu8BYR

In 2012, circumstances allowed me to think about fulfilling a long-held ambition, to publish a novel. I suddenly had the time and some financial security, and I gave myself permission to be ‘the monster’ Tóibín has so accurately described.

I knew my 2004 novel was un-publishable, it had a scanty plot and less structure. But it was a starting point. I then took a very pragmatic decision. In the re-crafting, I would use the crime mystery genre. This genre gave me a structure to work towards, it is one I know well as I have loved reading crime fiction since I was in my teens. Plus crime fiction is a fast-selling genre and framing my novel within it would make it more straight forward to market.

I was off, and worked relatively quickly as I already had the setting, most of the characters and bits of the story. I was able to publish The Art of the Imperfect at the end of 2014. It took me a while to notice Clare was missing and that this has meaning for me and my writing doppelgänger.

In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, I was also coming to an understanding of how the therapeutic impact of creative writing goes far beyond the catharsis of free writing. Pennebaker had identified three aspects which, when present, would increase the efficacy of his expressive writing. These are: if a feeling was named and expressed; if there was an alteration of perspective, especially a movement away from using ‘I’ to using ‘you’ or ‘she’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’; and if a narrative, a coherent story, begins to emerge.

Even in the writing of my 2004 novel, I had begun to use my skills as a creative writer to embark on this process. Hannah’s (my) story of depression was told in the third person; I was giving Hannah’s (my) experience a name; and I made an almost lucid narrative from something which, at the time, had felt like pure madness. Now I wanted to offer the story to a readership, I knew crafting would be even more essential.

I am not the only author to have understood the therapy in sculpting a novel. When Jackie Kay was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in her novel Red Dust Road, Picador, 2011) she replied, ‘By writing. … By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and in the business of doing this in itself gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’ (Kay, 2016.)

Tóibín explains his task in writing his recent novel Nora Webster (Penguin, 2015), of working out the truth of what had happened when his father died. ‘You’re pulling this out of yourself. This is sometimes very difficult material.’ But ‘it’s an anchor, in a way, all this pleasure [I experience] would mean nothing if this pain, if this working out the pain wasn’t there and I wasn’t writing and I wasn’t doing it.’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

I was attempting to work through my own pain and find my own truth by fashioning a novel I thought others might want to read. And I was doing it in the crime genre. Which could seem an odd choice, if it were not for Val McDermid suggesting it is the best for exploring current issues. She has described how she has, ‘Walked the fine line between making things up and staying real.’ And, for her, ‘The very act of imagining has been a powerful way of accessing the truth.’ (McDermid, 2016.)

In the re-writing, the crafting, the working through, Hannah lost her twin. I didn’t deliberately expel her, she just wasn’t there anymore. Hannah remains a fragmented character, but the spectral disallowed side of her no longer has to be embodied by a twin which exists beyond Hannah’s every-day consciousness. Hannah has become more integrated.

* * *

‘Integration’ could be seen to be a therapeutic, a healing, intention (Erskine et al., 1999; DeYoung, 2003; Finlay, 2016). This can describe many processes, but the one I am leaning towards here, is the bringing together and acceptance of the many sides of who we are. This could include exploring: past experiences which we would choose to ignore or forget; emotions or thoughts which have been long designated as undesirable; how we interact with others and how we fit within societal mores; the extent to which we can find meaning within our lives. The intention of this effort would be to ‘facilitate a sense of wholeness in a person’s being and functioning, at intrapsychic, mind-body, relational, societal and transpersonal levels. We strive to enable our clients to gain insight into their experience and to have a sense of feeling “at home” with self, at peace with others. There are of course limits to the extent to which any of us can be deemed “whole”, but integration remains the driving spirit of our project – particularly with longer-term work.’ (Finlay, 2016, p120.)

My copyeditor noted that in my novel I cycled between using herself and her self/selves. It made perfect sense to me. Our view of the ‘self’ has depended on what era we live in and what part of the world. In Western philosophy, in the seventeenth century, René Descartes gave a ‘self’ centrality. He stressed the autonomy of a first person which was essentially – philosophically and psychologically – a single entity. This notion that there is an authentic core self runs through some therapeutic traditions, for example the classic person-centred approach of American psychologist Carl Rogers. However, there are other concepts of self which allow, for instance, for different selves to be available depending on social context, or for the self to be in a constant process of creation and becoming (Finlay, 2016, p7). I favour this latter view and this is palpable in my writing.

I came to realise, the disappearance of Clare was not only due to me choosing (unconsciously) to craft Hannah as a more integrated character. It was also a sign that I was moving towards a personal integration, what I experience as my many selves were fitting more comfortably together. Furthermore, the writer in me, the double which had previously been shy, and vague, was increasingly formed, increasingly integral to me. This was a process powered by the work of writing and crafting. By doing, I am becoming. And by reflecting back, noticing what is changing in my writing, I am learning more about myself.

* * *

It was not enough for me to write a novel, I also wanted to seek a readership. I decided to publish. It seems to me that there is a merry dance between writer and reader, which, in the best of circumstances, is nourishing for both. As a reader, I know the pleasure and, sometimes, the very profound effect, of having found a story or a poem which touches me and pushes me to think or grasp at a new perspective. As a writer, the connection with the reader could be seen as the final act in a very long and laborious play. Tóibín says that the completion of his novel Nora Webster, which took ten years, allowed him to, at last, find some kind of closure on the death of his father. ‘One Saturday in September 2013 I finished the book. I knew that while I had perhaps opened up this world for readers, I had closed it for myself. I would, I imagined, not come back to it again.’ (Tóibín, 2016b.)

The reader plays a role of witness. Having our story, our experiences, our selves witnessed can in itself be transformative (Finlay, 2016, p37). Psychologist, John Bowlby stated that, in order for us to grow into well-adjusted adults, we need to have a secure base set down in childhood. This is achieved through a loving care-giver effectively communicating to the child that their emotions are acknowledged and understood and it is safe to feel what they are feeling (Bowlby, 1988.). Any deficit in the secure base can be replenished (though often with difficulty) by later empathic relationships. Publishing is a poor substitute for a loving early care-giver’s acceptance. It is not the business of publishers, literary agents and readers to shore-up a crumbling secure base. However, I recognise it is, at least partly, what I am seeking from publication. And I do not believe I am the only writer to do so.

I have noticed within me the tension between wanting to be seen and wanting to hide. Pride competes with shame at each publication date. I want the recognition and yet I fear it. ‘Exposure now means exposure of one’s inherent defectiveness as a human being. To be seen is to be seen as irreparably and unspeakably bad.’ (Kaufman, 1992, p75.)

After the novel launch, I feel sapped, worn-down, de-motivated. As Alan Garner describes it: ‘I had to be totally incapacitated in order to build the energy, to fill the reservoir, that would be needed. The analogy with an enforced hibernation fitted. If I could live with this self-loathing, and see it as a signal to let the waters rise, it could remain a necessary, though unpleasant, part of a positive and creative process. As long as that thought stayed, I could endure. (Garner, 1997, p. 212.)

Like Garner, I walk a lot, out in the rugged landscape of North Yorkshire, feeling the arctic blast into my face. Unlike Garner, I am still writing, though I am back to free writing, ploughing up what’s lurking underneath the now of the mind. And the cycle begins again.

* * *

The assembly, which had formed the perfect tableau of a country house party set in the 1920s, is becoming restless. They had gathered together for a resolution. The detectives have failed to give them one. There is a disconsolate voice calling for chilled champagne. Another suggesting the phonograph be cranked up to play some dance music. Yet another proposes a game of cribbage. The gale can be heard howling outside. Its lament grows stronger, the door of the room crashes open, and a woman enters, apparently delivered on the tip of the storm’s tongue.

It is Harriet Vane (NB*). She is wearing a cloche hat the colour of a good port wine. Her dark eyes under its rim reflect the embers of the fire. She has on a tweed coat threaded with scarlet and gold, her legs are clad in peacock-blue stockings, her feet shod in sturdy brown brogues. Her shoes show evidence of the walk she has taken along the muddy drive. ‘I tried to phone,’ she says crossly. Though, of course, the telephone lines were the first victim of the inclement weather, rendering the isolated estate more cut-off.

Wimsey rushes forward saying Harriet must change into dry clothes, have something to eat, to be given a warming drink. She waves him away, accepting only a glass of whisky which she takes down in one gulp. She moderates her tone (it doesn’t do to alienate your audience at the moment of denouement): ‘I can solve the mystery of the disappearing twin.’

‘Can you Miss?’ mocks the wag supposedly from high society in London, whose accent is as appropriated as his dinner suit.

‘How can you, when these renown detectives can’t?’ asks the dowager. The jewellery flashing on her clawed fingers and sagging neck is glass and paste, bought secretly to replace the family heirlooms long gone to the auction.

‘I can,’ says Harriet firmly. ‘Because I am a writer.’

* creation of Dorothy L Sayers.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.

Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.

DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.

Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.

Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.

Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.

Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.

Kaufman, G. (1992.) Shame. The Power of Caring. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books Inc.

Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.

Mazza, N. (2003). Poetry Therapy. Theory & Practice. Routledge, New York & London.

McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.

Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.

Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.

Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.

Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.

Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky

Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.

 

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin

In my last post in this series, I suggested ways in which to become more reflexive about ourselves and how we interact with the world through interrogating our creative writing with reflexive questions. Doing this led me to write this essay, which I am posting in two parts…

Part 1

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Twin: what crafting a crime novel told me about myself.

The light sparks off the diamonds, is reflected by the cut crystal, creating ephemeral rainbows across the damask cloth. The fire crackles. The air is scented by expensive perfumes and aftershave. Some of the assembled company stands or sits to attention, while others lounge, on the plush furnishings. These have been pulled into a circle around the crimson rug bought many years ago in an Egyptian bazaar. The company is an assortment of young and old, of men and women, all dressed for dinner: jackets of crushed velvet, silk dresses, furs. They are all waiting for an answer, ‘What has happened to the twin?’ The detectives – Lord Peter Wimsey, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot[1] (take your pick) – are unable to say. The twin has simply disappeared.

I have been writing prose stories and novels over the last thirty years. In the last three years I have published three novels. I was able to do this because of the preceding ‘apprenticeship’. The first two in particular were re-modelings of a novel I wrote in 2004, which I chose to re-craft within the crime mystery genre. One of the main point-of-view characters was named Hannah. In 2004 she was controlled by a twin who turns out to be an aspect of herself. Only after I had completed the re-write did I realise the twin had completely disappeared.

* * *

I live with depression and, for me, writing has become part of my life-approach to maintain my sense of well-being. I discovered its importance to me in this regard during a particularly low point about sixteen years ago. Up until then, writing had been a pleasure, as well as a career choice. However, it wasn’t until the turning of the century that I realised it could be a means to greater self-understanding and reflection which could aid me in my healing.

When I had the wherewithal to investigate, I, of course, discovered a wealth of information about writing as a type of therapy. And why not? We have art, music, drama therapies. Despite having no formal status in the UK, writing therapy has plenty of practitioners and advocates (see http://www.lapidus.org.uk).

American psychologist, James W Pennebaker began to consider aspects of what he calls ‘expressive’ writing in the 1980s. However, it is possible to argue the tradition of words being a source of healing goes much further back through the use of prayer, spells and charms (Mazza, 2003). Pennebaker carried out controlled experiments on his students, inviting some to write over a period of five days about emotions and events which had an impact on them, while others wrote about subject which did not evoke a strong reaction in them. Those in the former group reported feeling better and also had less frequent appointments with the medical centre (Pennebaker & Beale, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997). Since this first research, Pennebaker and others have sought to replicate the results and also pin down the components of the writing which gives it its potency (Smyth & Pennebaker, 2008).

One aspect is the cathartic effect of releasing thoughts and emotions through ‘free writing’. The aim of free writing as defined by Goldberg (1986, p8/9) is to: ‘burn through to first thoughts … to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel’, to ‘explore the rugged edge of thought.’ The word ‘free’ here has two aspects. It means putting to one side, for the present, learned rules about writing and setting down whatever comes to mind without judging, censoring or editing. In addition, the writing is freed from an external reader. Only the author will see what has been produced and will decide what to do with it.

This was a response to free writing garnered from the participant of my 2011 phenomenological case study: ‘And I think I’ve probably described the free writing as being like ploughing a field and literally to me it’s like that. A field’s got a load of plants on or a load of top soil on, and you don’t quite know what’s underneath, you can guess, but there’s so much going on underneath the now of the mind, that it’s very difficult to find out what you really think about things underneath. And the creative writing, the free writing, tends to dip down underneath the surface and pull things up and it’s almost like ploughing things up and exposing them and it’s almost, like aha, I knew it was there, I don’t know quite why I didn’t think of it before.’ (Evans, 2011, p180.)

However, this is only the beginning of what could be a very extensive tale.

* * *

The writing of my 2004 novel was very free-flowing and was undoubtedly releasing for me. The experience of depression of the point-of-view character, Hannah, is very similar to mine. And Hannah has a controlling ‘twin’.

When she breathes Hannah knows she takes oxygen away from her twin. She is equally as certain that Clare will punish her for this. The hand, which looks so remarkably like Hannah’s own, drags the razor blade across her arm. She watches the blood bubble up in its wake. The pain only begins when she gets back under the duvet. (Evans, 2004, unpublished.)

Twins have a long heritage in literature and story-telling. I remember as quite a young person being riveted by a 1946 film being reprised on TV. It was The Dark Mirror (directed by Robert Siodmak). It stars Olivia de Havilland who plays both twins, Terry and Ruth Collins. They turn out to be identical in looks but exact opposites in character and moral code. Almost two hundred years before, Robert Louis Stevenson was exploring a similar idea in his 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Twins turn up in legend and folk tales: Jacob and Esau; Romulus and Remus; Snow-White and Rose-Red; some versions of Sleeping Beauty where the wicked and good fairies are twins or sisters. Shakespeare (himself a father to twins, one of whom died as a child) fashioned a plethora of plays where twins have a central role.

In one way or another, these story-tellers from the ancient to the modern, were, at least in part, exploring what Carl Jung later gave a name to. He called it the ‘shadow side’. He postulated that, psychologically speaking, there is a shadow side in all of us which, if it remains unacknowledged, can wreak havoc for ourselves and others.

This was an aspect to Clare, the twin I created for Hannah. At the time, I had just discovered the poet Anne Sexton and her poem, ‘The Other’ (Sexton, 1974, p32) resonated powerfully with me.

It is waiting.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My brother. My spouse.
Mr. Doppelgänger. My enemy. My lover.
When truth comes spilling out like peas
it hangs up the phone.
When the child is soothed and resting on the breast
it is my other who swallows Lysol.

It cries and cries and cries
until I put on a painted mask
and leer at Jesus in His passion.
Then it giggles.
It is a thumbscrew.

Clare is unquestionably a ‘thumbscrew’ on Hannah and on her capacity for enjoying life or relationships.

However, Clare may spring from something else. Atwood suggests twins have a particular significance for writers. ‘All writers are double,’ she says (Atwood, 2003, p32). Within a writer there are twins, the twin who lives and the twin who writes. She calls the latter, ‘the Hyde hand’, ‘the slippery double’ and says, ‘The double may be shadowy, but it is also indispensable.’

The writer’s ‘double’ watches, it observes, even when the writer or someone close to them is in enormous pain. This twin takes the chaotic, the disorganised, the meaningless and gives it shape, a narrative, an understanding. The writing twin steals indiscriminately. Colm Tóibín once told a class he was teaching: ‘You have to be a terrible monster to write. I said, “Someone might have told you something they shouldn’t have told you, and you have to be prepared to use it because it will make a great story. You have to use it even though the person is identifiable. If you can’t do it then writing isn’t for you. You’ve no right to be here. If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will. Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom.”’ (Tóibín, 2016.)

Clare was a particularly malicious double. Yet she was also a critique par excellence, hard-nosed and distant. Attributes which can, at times, be helpful to the writer.

But in the re-formation of my novel I killed off Clare. And quite unconsciously. How did that happen?

Part 2 to follow next week….

[1] Detectives created by DL Sayers and Agatha Christie.

References

Atwood, M. (2003.) Negotiating with the Dead, a writer on writing. Virago.
Bowlby, J. (1988.) A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books.
DeYoung, P.A. (2003.) Relational Psychotherapy: a primer. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Erskine, R.G., Moursund, J.P. & Trautmann, R.L. (1999.) Beyond Empathy: a therapy of contact-in-relationship. London: Taylor & Francis.
Evans, K. (2011). ‘The Chrysalis and the Butterfly: A phenomenological study of one person’s writing journey.’ Journal of Applied Arts & Health 2:2, 173-186.
Finlay, L. (2016.) Relational Integrative Psychotherapy: engaging process and theory in practice. Wiley Blackwell.
Garner, A. (1997.) The Voice That Thunders. Harvill Press.
Goldberg, N. (1986.) Writing Down the Bones. Freeing the Writer Within. Shambhala, Boston and London.
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Kay, J. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 28th October. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Cathy Drysdale.
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McDermid, V. (2016.) Artsnight, BBC 2, 22nd July. Editor: Janet Lee. Producer/Director: Jon Morrice.
Nicholls, S. (2009). ‘Beyond Expressive Writing: evolving models of developmental creative writing.’ Journal of Health Psychology 14(2), 171-180.
Pennebaker, J.W., & Beall, S.K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274-281.
Smyth, J.M., & Pennebaker, J.W. (2008). Exploring the boundary conditions of expressive writing: In search of the right recipe. British Journal of Health Psychology 13, 1-7.
Pennebaker, J.W. (1997) Opening Up. The healing power of expressing emotions. The Guilford Press: New York.
Sexton, A. (1974.) ‘The Other’ in The Book of Folly. Houghton Mifflin.
Tóibín, C. (2016.) Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 8th January. Interviewer: Kirsty Young. Producer: Christine Pawlowsky
Tóibín, C. (2016b.) ‘How I wrote Nora Webster’, The Guardian, 22nd January.