Tag Archives: Mslexia

Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from  interview on Random House site*].

Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.

In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.

For survivors of torture

At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.

239 The Land Hasani

For people with dementia

In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.

Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.

For prisoners

In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.

How does therapeutic writing work?

It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.

Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.

Publishing therapeutic writing

The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.

Related

Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.

* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.

Over to you

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?

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More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories? Where do you publish your stories?

 

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4 Reasons to Enter Writing Competitions

Why oh why do I do it? It happens over and over again. I notice a short story competition in a writing magazine or through Twitter. It has a desirable prize: money or publication or prestige or, best of all, all three. I check the rules, polish the story, pay the entry fee and upload the file.

Rosette from Cornwall Agricultural show by Matnkat, via WikiCommons

Rosette from Cornwall Agricultural show by Matnkat, via WikiCommons

Polishing the story can take some time. It might require checking former prize winners’ stories, revision to meet the word total, or complete revision because the story has been resting. It always requires a day or two of polishing

I press SEND adding an extra-virtual blessing. I have hope. This may be the one. I have high hopes for a couple of days, and then they descend gradually, and I forget about hoping until I realise that the day of judgement has long passed and I have heard nothing. Yet again I have not won a writing competition. I am very good at not winning short story competitions.

So why do I do it?

Four reasons to enter

  1. The deadline provides some external but strong discipline. The limits provided by the terms of entry are also a useful tool: to keep to 2000 words, and to ensure you have the right font, line spacing, and no mention of your name on the document. As writers of short fiction and flash fiction know, the limits of the form distil the choice of words. Every word must do its work to justify its place in the story.
  2. If I can do all that well enough, follow the rules and pay the entry fee I feel I’ve achieved something.
  3. Recently I entered an international short story competition, and was offered a critique of my piece for a few £££s more. I was feeling flush and agreed. As a result of the feedback received I already know the story wont win the competition. But the critique was excellent and showed me where I needed to do some work to improve it.
  4. I might win. There is a story about the lottery. A scrooge-like Mr Suggs was pestering God to let him win the lottery. Day after day he prayed to God to win the jackpot. Eventually God was exasperated. ‘You want to win the jackpot, Mr Suggs?’ he bellowed. ‘Do me a favour and meet me half way: buy a lottery ticket.’ So if I want to win a writing competition I do have to enter.

What other writers say

In her blog Top of the Tent Safia Moore lists four international competitions for short story writers with prize money. She suggests them for writers who have included competition entry in their new year’s resolutions. Motivation, she suggests, is a key feature of such entries, but the competition can be tough.

Writing in a recent edition of Mslexia Mahsuda Snaith revealed that she had entered about 300 competitions. Like me, she counts submitting among her achievements when she isn’t winning. Unlike me, she has had success, not least as a finalist in the Mslexia Novel Competition in 2013. And that success got her signed up with an agent. Mslexia has a short story competition with a deadline in March 2015.

147 A&WYBClaudia Cruttwell shared her experience of entering competitions for novels on the Writer&Artists website. The value she reports is in taking a fresh look at her MS and seeing it from the perspective of a judge. The requirement for a synopsis also focuses her mind. She hopes to attract an agent. And while she likes feeling pro-active as she enters she warns against the seductiveness of the volume of competitions. Note to self: this is a useful warning.

She’s right. There are so many. There is a long list of competition awards and prizes in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook with its own index. I have the supplement of a writing journal on my desk. ‘Plan your writing year,’ it prompts. 13 pages of competitions are listed and there are also ads for many of them. The editor suggests that competitions are motivational, ‘a great way to keep your writing mind sharp’ and to bring you to the attention of agents and publishers.

Lynsey May suggests discrimination in selecting a competition and some research into what you might get out of it in her post Always read the fine print. She relates a sad experience to support this advice.

Copa El Pais – Paraguay, by Flahm, via WikiCommons

Copa El Pais – Paraguay, by Flahm, via WikiCommons

I’m pausing for a time as far as competitions go, while I do my writing course. In addition I have a non-fiction work in progress with two colleagues, as well as other things to do – suc as reading and writing posts for the blog. So I wont enter any competitions for a couple of months. But I will tell you if I win.

 

Have you got any good experiences of entering a writing competition? What’s your secret? What’s your motivation?

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The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen

Do you keep a cache of chocolates after Christmas, so that you can savour again the pleasures of treating yourself? The novels of Elizabeth Bowen are like that. She is a novelist I am glad to have come across late in my reading career. I picked up a copy of The Last September recently in an Oxfam secondhand shop and in February it came to the top of my reading pile.

The Last September was published in 1929, when Elizabeth Bowen was 30. She went on writing until 1969, and died in 1973. Her best known book is probably The Heat of the Day (1949) set in wartime London.

Last September

Ireland in 1920 is the location of The Last September. This is the period when the Black and Tans, a motley collection of British armed forces, were sent to Ireland to deal with the insurgents fighting for Irish freedom. A bloody period in Irish history was just beginning. She is often described as a novelist of the inner life and likened to Jane Austen for it. A strong theme of this novel is the intrusion of the outer world into the domestic, the personal, the inner worlds of the characters in the house – Danielstown.

About six o’clock the sound of a motor, collected out of the whole country and narrowed under the trees of the avenue, brought the household on to the steps. Up among the beeches, a thin iron gate twanged; the car slid out from a net of shadow, down the slope to the house. Behind the flashing windscreen Mr and Mrs Montmorency produced – arms waving and a wild escape to the wind of her mauve motor-veil – an agitation of greeting. They were long-promised visitors. They exclaimed, Sir Richard and Lady Naylor exclaimed and signalled: no one spoke yet. It was a moment of happiness, of perfection. (p7)

Ah, the perfection of that phrase ‘an agitation of greeting’! This is the opening paragraph, a sound of a car from beyond the boundary of the demesne, bringing long-promised visitors and a moment of ‘happiness and perfection’. And thus we are warned that it will not last, this happiness and perfection. Indeed the title of the novel has already indicated it.

Silence or circumlocution are her themes. Silence about certain topics. Notice, in the opening paragraph that short phrase: ‘no one spoke yet.’ Sir Richard leaves the room if anything significant is mentioned. Lady Naylor will not speak directly. Here, for example, she is attempting to warn off the very nice young English subaltern who is courting her niece, and whose English good manners drive her to more directness for once.

‘Oh, Mr Lesworth!’ she cried, disconcerted. She resumed firmly but with inspiration, something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess: ‘The less talk, the less indirect discussion round and about things, the better, I always think.’ (p181)

Less talk and less indirect discussion fill the remaining pages of the novel, until its concluding paragraph:

Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, not saying anything, did not look at each other, for in the light from the sky they saw too distinctly. (p206)

There are many characters in this short novel, and Bowen has no difficulty in getting the reader to see them as individuals, often in a few deft words. A good example is the description of Lady Naylor’s tone with Gerald, quoted above: ‘something between a hospital nurse and a prophetess’.

The house is almost a character, in itself. In it live Lady Naylor and her husband Sir Richard, their respective nephew and niece, Laurence and Lois (late teens, early 20s), and their guests Mr and Mrs Montmorency, whose arrival opens the book. There are other people in their social circle, and Elizabeth Bowen’s descriptions and use of them in the plot have again reminded people of Jane Austen: the voluminous Mrs Fogarty, the unmarriageable Miss Hartigans, sharp and stylish Marda Norton. One of the sub-plots concerns Mr Montmorency’s pathetic yearning after what he cannot or does not have including the inevitable Marda. He can never be sure whether the decision not to emigrate to Canada was right or wrong, and whether to build a bungalow, or not.

Lois is the focus of the narrative, her relationships with Gerald Lesworth, her cousin Laurence, the exotic Marda, her friends in the locality and in London. In the course of the novel she develops a taste for the world beyond Danielstown, and encounters the outer world, which she cannot share with the people in the house. She moves further and further away, as young people must.

The Last September has something of the attraction of a short story, the glimpse of a small world, and over a short timescale, but everything distilled, sharp, moving us towards the denouement.

Elizabeth Bowen is justifiably celebrated for the quality of her prose, and especially for her powers of description. Inanimate objects almost take on intention, emotion, reaction and become, as the house does, part of the action. Rosalind Brown, in her Mslexia blog in January, Influence me, Elizabeth Bowen, quotes Elizabeth Bowen’s description of the dining room and then consciously models her own prose on it. There’s no higher praise for a novelist.

Since I finished this novel I’ve found her first one, The Hotel, in a second hand shop, so I have another treat waiting for me.

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5 ways other people decide my reading

Do you have a tall pile of books-waiting-to-be-read? I certainly do – that’s mine in the picture. And how did they get into the pile? Mine are mostly the result of other people’s actions. I have identified five ways they pick my reading.

Reading pile DSC00137

1. Recommendations:

  • Newspapers (especially The Guardian Saturday Review) eg Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar which was highly recommended by Nicholas Lezard in his weekly choice. I read all those end-of-year choices. You know, the ones where writers, or readers, or columnists write half an inch about two or three books they have enjoyed in the last year. Then the paper sits around for months until I transfer the items I’ve marked as interesting into my notebook, or polish my walking boots on it.
  • Literary publications (such as London Review of Books, Slightly Foxed, Mslexia). I tend to read the very erudite reviews in LRB, instead of the book. But occasionally I follow up a review by actually reading it: eg Robert Macfarlane The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
  • Blogs were invented for people like me. It was a review on Book Snob blog that led me to Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost. I read a review of Miss Ranken Comes Home by Barbara Euphon Todd on Cosy Books and now I want to read that too. Both these books are published by Persephone, by the way, in their tasteful and elegant grey jackets, endpapers that reproduce a relevant fabric design and – delicious treat – tucked inside is a matching bookmark. I love a book that is beautifully produced.
  • Radio programmes such as Woman’s Hour, book and arts programmes. Radio was invented for reading aloud: poems, children’s stories, serial chapters, short stories and god bless public service broadcasting.
  • My friends always talk about what they have been reading. Out comes my pen and notebook and I make a note, or I borrow from their shelves, or pitch in with my recommendations.
  • Literary prize long- and short-lists. Some of the literary prizes are like The X Factor for the literati but I think these work well when they bring unknown but brilliant writers to our attention, like Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2012. I would never have met Futh without the MBP. And for non-fiction you can’t beat picking from the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
  • Literary events such as festivals and readings. At Ways with Words in Devon I heard Anita Desai talking about the importance of place in fiction and read The Artist of Disappearance. Nadine Gordimer at the South Bank Centre told the audience she was most pleased with The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter. I’m reading the latter at the moment.
  • Writing classes can produce great recommendations through the examples provided by the tutor, and discussions with participants.

2. Book Club. One of the joys of a book club or reading group is the requirement to read designated books. Some people avoid them for that reason, but I love serendipitous discoveries, like The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. We wont dwell on Absolom, Absolom!

3. My local library. It doesn’t exactly select my books, but it adds to the randomness of my reading because reservations arrive in any order and I have often forgotten the impulse that made me request it. I like the idea that others have and will read the same copy.

4. Gifts. My sister sends me books from time to time, which I love. She introduced me to Barbara Kingsolver a decade or so ago. I like to set an example by giving books to friends and relatives.

5. Subscription. For Christmas this year I bought a subscription to Peirene press for which I get three books a year and access to other goodies. They are translations of books that are best sellers and award winners in their countries of origin. What a good model for a small independent publisher. And, as a bonus, they are beautifully presented, great design, nice paper. I loved my first volume: The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch – what a treat.

If this makes me seem like a reader at the mercy of other people, well perhaps I am. I don’t suppose I am alone. And although I don’t have a reading plan, I manage to satisfy my intention to read more foreign fiction and more classics and to read as a writer. I’m more than happy to receive your recommendations.

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