Death Watch

This is a piece I originally wrote in 2002 for a university assessment. It’s since been edited, and I thought I’d share for Halloween, the Day of the Dead.

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Death Watch

Laura sits by Daniel as he lies in his bed sleeping. She has been with him since just before his illness began. She will stay until its end.

Daniel’s friends and relatives love Laura. What a wonderful girlfriend, they say. How she loves him. How selflessly she cares for him, always there when he needs her. Always ready with a kind word and comforting gesture. She’s almost a saint, they opine. Daniel couldn’t wish for a better nurse, and they couldn’t imagine him in gentler hands.

A smile flits over her mouth as she watches Daniel’s dying face. Their overblown opinions of her make Laura laugh aloud, and the laughter rings out, harsh and discordant in the stillness of the death chamber. They know nothing about her; of her predilection for death, her love of it. Death is what she was born for. Born to watch it. Born to give it. Born to receive it. Daniel’s is just one of countless dying faces she has watched and there will be many more, although Laura suspects it might be the last in this particular incarnation.

She loves him, of course. Of that, Daniel’s loved ones are not mistaken. How could she not love him? His waxen skin and shrunken body are high art to her. A masterpiece created by his sickness. His dying voice is birdsong. Melodic and soothing. His rancid sweat is perfume, fragrant, heady, a fine wine in as his death reaches its maturation, delicious and intoxicating. Sometimes, she dips her fingertips into the clavicular hollows of his neck where it gathers in dank pools, and puts them to her lips. She closes her eyes and feels his dying explode on her tongue like a dark supernova.

At these times, she almost unravels the tangled mystery-web of death. Daniel, in all his glorious expiration, has become a vessel holding profound and unfathomable secrets. If she can only get him to tell her what it feels like, Laura will know everything. But if he cannot tell – often, speech fails him – then she wants at least to be with him at the final moment. She wants to hold him, prays that when his spirit leaves the wreck of his body, it will whisper to her, and in that second she will see past her own eternity into what lies beyond.

Daniel moans. The analgesics are wearing off and Laura prepares to administer more medication. Inside the locked bedside cabinet drawer, there is a syringe, and glass vials containing morphine. Laura has persuaded his doctor to allow her to care for Daniel at home where he can die in peace, and since she has become his sole carer, she has learned how to give the drug safely. Laura has learned many things about the art of dying over the years, but this is a newly acquired skill for her; she is very careful to follow the instructions with precision, carefully administering the correct dose of the drug. In other, less enlightened times, Daniel’s dying would have been hard, so Laura is grateful for this benevolent medicine. In her experience, a hard death can send a man mad. Perhaps as Daniel is drugged into his morphine-fuelled sanity, he will give up his secrets more easily. Sometimes, she finds herself tempted to give him a little too much, send him into oblivion more quickly, but she always manages to restrain herself. When it comes, she wants it to be natural. Well, as natural as such a passing can be, anyway.

Laura pulls open the drawer, reaches in, and feels for the syringe, then hesitates and withdraws her hand. Instead, she grasps Daniel’s cold, clammy hands, and closes her eyes. Visions come to her at once, so vivid she gasps. She sees the cancer eating at him, a vulture feasting on almost-carrion. Its head dips into his still-breathing carcass, emerging bloody, screeching a cry of triumph as it turns to look at her; its clawed feet grip her insides. For a few seconds, she feels what Daniel must feel.

Laura cries aloud in an ecstasy of agony. These moments of torture, she thinks, are the only times in all her existences that she really comes alive. Only these moments hold true experience. But she knows that the vulture’s claws cannot hold her too fast, or for too long, because she and it are part of the same cycle, and neither can control the other. So she opens her eyes, and with reluctance, breaks the physical connection.

Taking the syringe in her hand, she snaps open a vial of morphine and draws the clear liquid up through the needle. A globule of sweet unconsciousness suspends itself on the needle’s end for an anticipatory second before she squirts it up into the waiting air. She applies a tourniquet to Daniel’s arm, watches a venous river swell to floodtide, then pushes the needle in and depresses the plunger.

As he expels a pained breath, she clamps her mouth to his and drinks in the exhalation. He is closer now; over the endless years, she has come to recognise the taste. Dark like rotting blackberries, full of fading life. Her heart beats rapidly in expectation, just as his begins to fail.

When he is asleep, she pulls back the covers and looks at his body. Alabaster pale, it is one of the most beautiful she has ever seen. She runs her fingers down the toppled mountain chain of his chest, across which veins and arteries trace blue-purple rivers of stagnant blood that flow toward the concave delta of his belly. How cold the skin is, how unresponsive, except in those tumultuous moments of pain. Now though, Daniel does not stir; the morphine has rendered him comatose, as if he’s dead already. Excited, almost beyond control, Laura wants to ravage him, tear him open, but she restrains herself. Later. When it’s over, she can feed. Regretfully, she recovers him, and waits.

The wait is not a long one. Darkness falls. The effects of the morphine weaken and fail; Daniel’s pain rises, a black moon. He opens his eyes, looks at her and cries out, a chilling wail that Laura absorbs through her skin. In the sound, Laura hears him call her true name, and in his eyes, Laura sees her true image coming toward her from the pits of his widely dilated pupils, a black woman-shaped void that adopts a false mantle of humanity. She comes closer to herself, until eventually, she is tattooed forever on his corneas. They all have that, at the end. It is her Mark.

“Soon,” she whispers, “you’ll be free of this.” But he only shakes his head, moans again, louder. “What does it feel like?” Her mouth is against his, tasting his saliva, desperate for sensation. “Does it hurt? Oh, does it hurt?”

Of course it hurts. Hurt is too feeble a word for what he feels, and needing to feel it for herself, Laura straddles his body, holds him tight as he suddenly begins to writhe beneath her. As she pins him down, she reflects that even those who know they’re dying, no matter how agonising it is, hold onto life with a tenacious grip. Very soon though, his strength begins to fail, and his breathing becomes shallow as he dies. Placing her lips firmly to his for the last time, Laura sucks the remaining life out of him, inhales his last seconds. Quiet now, his head lolls in her hands; beneath her body, his expiry is complete. Daniel is finished and she felt nothing at the end but his fight for life. As ever, there were no last images of salvation, redemption, or even damnation. Just nothingness.

Howling in frustration, she dismounts him, and looks into the wide-open eyes; they hold an expression of horror that Laura refuses to accept. Death is a beautiful thing; she is never ugly. Sighing, feeling betrayed, just as she has felt betrayed in other times, other existences, she covers his body, and closes his eyes.

Lesley McKenna. 2005.

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Writing the Wrong – The Liberating Effect of the Masters by Research Degree

The Masters by Research degree is a relatively new introduction to Higher Education. Developed in the 1990’s in response to the 1993 White Paper Realising Our Potential, the Masters by Research came about ‘as a result of pressure to provide research students with a broader based training in research before embarking on a PhD or industrial research career’ [1] i.e., an interim qualification with the aim of preparing postgraduates for a higher research degree.

Originally aimed at scientists or researchers in the business sector, the Masters by Research has become a popular degree option, and has expanded into the Humanities, and, in 2003, in the case of the University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire) into the field of Creative Writing. In Creative Writing, the process of research, both toward the Masters by Research and the PhD, is more widely known as ‘practice led research’, and, according to NAWE (National Association for Writers in Education) benchmarks (2008) this relates to creative writing thus:

‘Practice-led research in Creative Writing uses creative practice to explore, articulate and investigate. The range of explorations and articulations is as broad as the range of possible subjects, emotions and ideals prevalent in the world.’ [2]

This statement is built upon further, using the premise that: ‘the creative writer will undertake this research through the act of creating; that they will invest knowledge and understanding into this practice, and that they will develop their knowledge and understanding through their practice. The results of this practice-led research will demonstrate this knowledge and understanding.’ [3]

In other words, the act of writing itself becomes the research process. It accepts that there cannot be one single thesis question – as with a traditional science or humanities Masters or PhD – that begins with a pre-formulated question or hypothesis that the thesis sets out to answer/discuss. In Creative Writing – and in other forms of applied art – where research is practice led, the emphasis has to be on the act of creation and the processes that involves. It is to be expected that a large part of the process will almost certainly involve some deviation from plans that might have been laid down in the initial proposal, and that this deviation is in fact necessary and desirable, since being rigid and inflexible in writing a creative piece may well lead to a static and narrow-focused piece of work. When crafting a lengthy piece of creative writing, the writer should be prepared to accept that the process will be one of change and constant questioning, rather than a relatively smooth investigation taken down one specifically laid out path. The final product may well be not an answer to a question (unless it’s the question posed by speculative fiction: ‘What if?’), but rather an artefact that has gone through a long process of change in order to reach completion.

Of course, the creative element is only one part – and I would argue the major part – of the Masters by Research process. There is also the thesis to contend with. This shows the writer’s critical/critiquing understanding of the chosen topic/theme of their writing, and can be varied in its approach. For example, in the experience of the University of Bedfordshire Creative Writing team, theses have dealt with myth and its application into the writer’s creative piece; a thesis that talks about fan fiction and how the writer has fitted their work to apply to an already established franchise; and one that details the conventions of traditional fantasy, and shows how the writer has deviated from this in their own work. I shall later talk about my own work with regard to this. But, the point is, all the theoretical work produced is in some way a response to the created artefact. Without the artefact, the piece of creative writing, the thesis itself could not exist. It is in effect a by-product of the process, not the sum total of it.

Students who take on the Masters by Research in Creative Writing all have varying reasons for doing so, but in my experience as a lecturer in Creative Writing, and consequently a supervisor of post-graduate students who decide to continue their studies in this way, the main reason for taking it seems to be the sense of independence it affords them. They are no longer constrained by formal lectures, they can choose the topic of their choice (subject, of course, to staff availability and expertise), and they can approach it in their own way as writers. This, in essence, is the liberating effect of taking the Masters by Research, as mentioned in the title of this chapter.

In my own case the spur for my Masters by Research degree began in 2003 with the Erotica module in my third year of the Creative Writing undergraduate degree, a module that forced me to confront/explore issues of and surrounding sexuality. For me, a relatively experienced writer in my 40’s who had never written, or indeed read much, about sex before, let alone the works of transgressive sexuality I encountered during the duration of the module, this was both a frightening and liberating experience. Frightening because I come from a family that never talked about sex, and which saw it as something ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’; and liberating because once I began writing out of my comfort zone, I realized that I could now write almost anything and no longer feel uncomfortable with it. This has been a cornerstone of my teaching and my writing ever since: think out of the box, out of the comfort zone, even it’s just a little bit: it’s surprising what can happen.

I decided that I wanted to take my new skills and attitudes further through undertaking the Masters by Research degree that the then University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire) offered. I was the first person to undertake an a research degree in creative writing in the University, so the project was not only challenging for myself, but also for the team involved. It meant that new, specific guidelines had to be created. As mentioned above, the Masters by Research is entirely research based, run over a year (full time) or two years (part time), usually with a single assigned supervisor and weekly (or fortnightly) supervisory meetings. This meant that I was effectively given the freedom to work as I chose, with a subject I chose, rather than being restrained by the shorter projects that go with a taught Masters. I found this a huge benefit on two counts: firstly, I’d already taken a single honours degree in Creative Writing and didn’t feel the need to repeat information, which would almost inevitably happen if I took a taught Masters; secondly, having already written several novel-length pieces, I felt more than ready to tackle a much longer piece of work. My brief was to produce a ‘substantial piece of creative work’ – nowadays a 20,000 word creative piece is suggested as optimal, although often a work may sometimes longer than this – and an accompanying thesis of around 15000 words (around 10,000 now).

On this basis, I wanted to confront readers by creating a text that was challenging – possibly uncomfortable – to read. Initially, the project was conceived as a vampiric horror story with erotic undertones, since the horror genre has always been my first love, with vampires as my favourite type of horror monster. Its characters, Lex and Jez, were to be vampires within a blood-bonded relationship, which would include the elements of submission and domination as its working dynamic. In the end, I could not devise an original storyline for them, and since the vampire sub-genre – and still is – over-saturated with unoriginal stories, I decided not to pursue it. However, Jez and Lex stayed in my head, almost fully-formed in that I could see their physical appearances, the way they spoke and moved, and I knew their basic personalities, so I decided that I still wanted to use them as main characters. Jez was originally conceived as a manipulative narcissist, and Lex as being dependent on him for emotional sustenance (this aspect at least remained true to the original vampire concept). With regard to these issues, I knew that I had a chance to place these characters within a more realistic set-up in contemporary society, and continued to think about exploring their dynamic through a submission/domination relationship.

But I did not want to explore sado-masochism. Firstly, like vampire fiction, this has recently been over-done to the point of becoming if not mainstream (E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey for example), then certainly monotonous. Secondly, most of the works I had already read involving this particular transgression – even the more ‘literary’ Bataille (Story of the Eye) and Réage (The Story of O), both of which must naturally lose impact and nuance through their translation into English – seemed to be little more than pornography. I did not, I decided, want to write pornography, and at the time, I found it difficult to conceive of writing a piece involving the S&M culture/community without it becoming pornographic, although in retrospect, I’d say I have the scope of vision to do be able to achieve that now. However, as mentioned, I did want to write a piece that would confront the reader with something disturbing, something that would, hopefully, challenge them both intellectually and ethically.

The answer to this turned out to be surprisingly simple. As I had originally wanted Jez and Lex to be monsters in a monstrous situation, this was what I decided they should be, but instead of constructing them as supernatural monsters, I decided that their vampiric personalities would evolve as a result of a dysfunctional, abusive childhood. As it became increasingly clear to me that this was how Jez and Lex should be constructed, I decided to apply a universal sexual/social taboo, that of incest, to their relationship: this would be the transgression they were committing. Lex and Jez became half-brother and sister (same father, different mothers), perhaps diluting the incestuous element a little, but increasing the ambiguity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ through complicated family dynamics. My next decision was: how did I want to approach the relationship? After much thought and consultation with my supervisor, I came to the decision that I wanted to present the taboo of incest through a (tragic) love story. This approach seemed both more challenging to me and to any potential readers than a text that says without equivocation that incest is wrong under any circumstances. Through the text I aimed to raise these questions: Why is incest wrong if it’s consensual, especially in these days when contraception is widely available and there is little risk of genetic abnormality? Why do we ‘fall in love’ with people who are ‘unsuitable’ – in society’s eyes there can be little more unsuitable than a sexual relationship between brother and sister. And why do we go back to these people even when we know they’re probably going to hurt us again (in this case, Lex returns to her brother, Jez the narcissistic manipulator, repeatedly)? Is this really ‘love’ or is it a desire/need for the safety of the familiar – and of course, what can be more familiar than the sibling someone is brought up with from infancy? I wasn’t sure I could, or even wanted, to answer these questions – after all, this was no Psychology paper – but raising and exploring the issues within the text, asking readers to think about them – might challenge perceptions.

Because I was working toward two formally assessed pieces – the creative work and the accompanying academic thesis – and because I was working alone between supervisory sessions, I had to be very clear from the beginning regarding the aims and objectives of both texts. This meant I had to focus on the initial questions I was asking, in order to produce coherent aims and objectives. Eventually, this what I decided I wanted: To create, via a fictional narrative, a morally ambiguous piece of work that explores, preferably without author judgment, various issues surrounding transgressive sexuality/taboo, in particular: consensual incest; child abuse; sexual obsession; and emotional domination/submission. Once these aims were clear in my mind, the writing process could properly begin.

Georges Bataille says in his book Eroticism (1962) that:

‘Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a little death. Consequently, anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder… brutality and murder are steps in the same direction.’ [4]

The acts described within the works of de Sade (100 Days of Sodom); Bataille (Story of the Eye); and Pauline Reage (Story of O) – variously, flogging; becoming a sex-slave through force; having weights pierced through and hung from genitals; eroticism combined with violent death – are presented as ‘forbidden’ fantasies of sexual transgression. Representation of these fantasies, especially in The Story of the Eye, as opposed to 100 Days, which, while explicit, rapidly becomes monotonous, are often graphically and shockingly represented. These texts are not contemporary; 100 Days was written in 1784, although it was first published in 1905; Eye was published in 1928; and O was published in 1954; so what is that we mean by ‘sexual transgression’ in these days where anything goes and why are so many people, including myself for my Masters by Research degree, moved to write within, or read within, this genre? One answer could be that through reading this material, readers who would not play these possibly dangerous fantasies out in their daily lives can safely share them. Jeffrey Weeks, in his book Sexuality suggests that:

‘Transgressive sex is a way of breaking out of the tyranny of the existing order, of smashing the artificial boundaries between people and bodies, between sexualities, imposed by the sexual tradition.’ [5]

i.e., heterosexuality and heteronormality which, as indicated below, continues to be imposed upon us, despite an apparently more open society. Bataille himself suggests in the quote above from his book, Eroticism, that these works of transgression appear to communicate with some deep-seated instinct within the human psyche that links sexuality with pain – either physical, or in the emotional pain/pleasure associated within a sub/dom scenario – and/or death. This duality continues to interest me, both because these issues are constantly raised in horror literature, where the two extremes exist in a complementary juxtaposition to each other, yet still seem to be relatively unexplored in more mainstream work.

The definition of the verb ‘to transgress’ (Oxford Dictionary of English [second edition] 2005) runs thus: ‘1. Go beyond the limits of (what is morally, socially, or legally acceptable).’

What does it mean to go beyond the limits of the sexuality that is deemed to be ‘acceptable’ in our present society? Western society is becoming increasingly sexualized and apparently accepting of sexualities other than heterosexuality. There are, rightly, civil weddings for gay/lesbian couples; Gay Pride festivals take place in almost every country in the western world. There are numerous magazines read by young (often underage) teens giving out advice on such matters as ‘Should I have a Threesome?’ and ‘I Watch Lesbian Porn’ (Bliss magazine online – July 2009). Fashion trends, both designer and high street, have recently inclined toward bondage gear. Literary trends toward erotica have peaked in recent years, with the publication of books such as The Sexual Life of Catherine M (Catherine Millet – 2002), One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed (Melissa Parente – 2004), as well as regular publications by Black Lace Books (‘world-leading erotic fiction by women for women’ – Black Lace website) and the launch of the magazine Scarlet (tagline – ‘the new magazine for women who get it’) in November 2004. Sex is constantly used to sell products to both men and women, although it is women who are more targeted, and, it could be argued, more exploited. In women’s magazines, film, and music videos, skinny, scantily clad girl-women are shown to fawn over men, who despite the so-called advances of feminism, continue to wield the power. This reinforces the tradition of Western patriarchy, and women continue to be portrayed in the media as commodities – and they will only be ‘bought’ (by men) if they are young, thin, fashionable and seen to be sexually available. Although women are encouraged to have aspirations for independence, women are told they still ‘need’ to attract a man in order to complete their view of themselves. A recent edition of Cosmopolitan – that once staunch advocate of feminist values – ran an article on how women could get their man to marry them. Traditional mores – those of vanilla heterosexuality – are still in general expected to be adhered to. Real acts of ‘transgression’ however, like the actual practice of sado-masochism, and consensual incest, and those people who live their sexual lives outside the norm, are still regarded as ‘deviant’. Why should this be so?

With these issues in mind, I decided to present the relationships in Clutching Shadow from the incestuous lovers’ perspectives, with no external viewpoint, the aim of this to give a claustrophobic atmosphere to the piece that relates to their constrictive relationship, and to show how incest – according to some psychologists such as Estela V. Weldon (Mother, Madonna, Whore – The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood) – rather than being something unfamiliar and alien, might in fact be seen as a ‘mirroring’, masturbatory act based on the familial bond, and, certainly in Jez’s case, a reflection of his own attractiveness bounced back at him through Lex’s adoration. Added to that, I wanted to show how Lex, the female protagonist, still suffers the effects of sexual abuse inflicted on her by her and Jez’s father during her childhood. Despite the fact that she is in love with her brother, she is partially aware that her feelings for him are not ‘normal’, but abuse is all she knows. Incest, abuse, submission and domination, make up her normality and she cannot – and perhaps more saliently – does not want to change this, certainly in the first two-thirds of novel, where Jez is the sole focus for her obsession.

Although, as previously stated, I didn’t want to write pornography, it was necessary that their relationship was a sexual one, and the relationship between Lex and Jez, is written as highly erotically charged, with growing sexual tension throughout. This was not written from any particular desire to titillate; the intention was to draw the reader into Lex and Jez’s claustrophobic world, and to hopefully induce the notion that they were a ‘real’ couple in a ‘real’ sexual relationship, and perhaps to question – if only for a short time – if what they were doing was really wrong.

During the course of my research, I explored published texts and compared their treatment of incestuous eroticism with my own. I found myself – perhaps naively – surprised by how many texts dealing with this theme. These included work by Angela Carter – ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’, ‘Peter and the Wolf’ – from Burning Your Boats (1996 collection); and her novel The Magic Toyshop (1982). Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (1997), Anna Stothard’s Isabel and Rocco (2003), and Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter (1995) were also important sources. These writers show the incest within their texts as consensual, or at least, as apparently non-abusive. In most of these texts, however, the writers make it clear that they believe incest is wrong, adhere to the traditional ideas of taboo and secrecy, and punish, in various ways, those who break them. The exception to this is Angela Carter, whose portrayals of incest, especially those of the pubescent children in ‘Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest’, retain their innocence and seem to be free of ‘sin’.

Since Jez and Lex are essentially emotional vampires, I also found it impossible to resist looking at the idea of vampirism-as-incest (incest and vampirism commonly go together as literary themes) and found quite a few comparisons, most notably in the novels of Anne Rice, whose Vampire Chronicles series uses incestuous-type relationships as a focal point of her work, although Rice herself claims otherwise, just as she rejects the theme of homoeroticism in her novels, when in fact to many readers, including myself, the theme is so strong, it cannot be ignored or dismissed. In The Vampire Lestat, the second novel in the series, the act of incest is obviously alluded to when vampiric anti-hero Lestat de Lioncourt vampirises his dying mother in a highly erotically charged scene that could be seen as a metaphor for oral sex:

‘I lifted my right wrist to my mouth and slashed the vein and pushed it against her lips. She didn’t move as the blood spilled over her tongue. “Mother, drink,” I said frantically, and pushed it harder, but some change had already commenced. Her lips quivered, and her mouth locked to me and the pain whipped through me suddenly encircling my heart.’ [6]

Blood, I discovered, is used so much as a semen substitute in this kind of literature that it becomes almost clichéd.

Going back to the process of writing for Clutching Shadow: although I had intended to finish the novel before I attempted the thesis, I discovered that the research I was doing on the latter had an ongoing effect on the novel, and widened its scope thematically. In the end, I wrote the novel and the thesis concurrently – an organic process with each piece growing naturally from the other. The effect of research on the creative piece definitely didn’t happen on a conscious level, but the theories I read on child abuse, narcissism, and incest nonetheless filtered through to my writing. This worked less obviously the other way around, but that was probably to be expected, given that I already knew the themes I wanted to explore and did not deviate from them much. However, I believe that the research I was doing at the time of writing the novel benefited it, in that the work ‘felt’ more informed. On the other hand, those parts that I did write without being influenced by research were later vindicated by my research, especially Janet Liebman Jacobs’ Victimized Daughters, the main source used for researching child abuse on female children, along with Bataille’s Erotism for the taboo of incest, and Sam Vance’s website on narcissistic personality disorder. This evidence helped me to feel more secure about approaching the subject matter on a more instinctive level.

Did I successfully achieve my main aim – that of producing a creative piece that did not negatively judge the incestuous relationship between Lex and Jez? In some ways, yes, given that their relationship seems in many ways to be natural, something that was almost inevitable given their circumstances, and this was also borne out by my research. However, I am aware that their relationship as a whole is an unhealthy one, and that the characters of Lex and Jez are not necessarily sympathetic. In that, perhaps I have judged, but my opinion now is that complete non-judgment might be impossible on any writer’s part. Their unsympathetic portrayal seems to evolve more from their personality disorders, which have been shaped by their abusive past, than from their present relationship.

In general, I feel that as the novel went on, the theme of incest probably became less important and central than the themes of sexual obsession, domination and submission, and the cyclical nature of abuse. This was not a bad thing, since as the novel became more thematically diversified, the boundaries of what the novel is ‘about’ blurred. Rather than reading the text in a passive way, a reader would necessarily have to engage in it actively to be able fully to identify with these themes and the character interactions. In this way, it becomes a ‘writerly’ text, as described by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text: ‘Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts… unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions…’ This I believe describes Clutching Shadow, in that the subject matter does disturb the reader’s ‘cultural (and) psychological assumptions’; it presents a set of circumstances that are by ‘normal’ moral standards unpalatable and disturbing to read. From a personal perspective, I feel that I was immensely challenged through the writing of this project, and this challenge has since proved beneficial for my writing as a whole.

In conclusion, working toward an Masters by Research allowed me the licence to explore these controversial subjects within the academic framework of the thesis. Rightly or wrongly, I felt it validated the creative project, and it also helped me to better understand the themes of my own writing. Working by research proved extremely satisfying to me, helping me to work more effectively and thoughtfully as an individual writer, teaching me how to source research more independently, and it helped me to develop my own critical thinking in more depth. These skills have carried themselves over to my present work, both fiction and, more recently, prose poetry. Although I had written several novels before undertaking the project, I was not as confident about methodology and how to apply research. Now, I find myself more systematic, more logical in my approach. Is this a good thing? Personally, I think it can be a double-edged sword, in that although logic and planning is almost always necessary in the creation of a longer work like a novel, too rigid a methodology can inhibit the spontaneity of the writing process. However, in the creation of prose poetry, which I create by using collage and cut-up techniques, spontaneity is often not an issue: thinking about methodology and fairly strict judgment here is essential for such a piece to work well, given the necessity for the creation of rhythm, imagery, and being able to judge the word placement necessary to make these elements work. Not only have the skills carried over into my own work, but into my teaching practice.

I began teaching Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire (then Luton) in September 2004 as a visiting lecturer. The skills I learned during my Masters degree were, I found then, essential, and continue to be. Being able to teach undergraduate students effective skills such as planning, research methods, and time management, all from own experiences, has been invaluable, and as my abilities as a lecturer and writer develop, I can share this expertise on a more confident level.

Lesley McKenna.

[1] From Green, Hammill, F; and Shaw, M’s ‘W(h)ither the MRes; in Quality Assurance in Education Vol 9, Number 4, pp178 – 183 (2001) [2] NAWE – creative writing research benchmarks p11. (2008) [3] NAWE – creative writing research benchmarks p11. (2008) [4] Georges Bataille, Eroticism, p170. London. Penguin Classics. 1962 [5] Weeks, Jeffrey: Sexuality. Routledge. New York. Publication 2003. P107. [6] Anne Rice. The Vampire Lestat. Futura Books. London. 1985. P174.

A Personal Poetics of Horror in my Short Story ‘Skin Trade’

Towards a Personal Poetics of Horror – The Conception of ‘Skin Trade’. ‘Poetics, to take it back to Aristotle, where the category began, is distinguished from theoria or praxis, theory or practice, in the primacy of its activity of making. Poetics is the active questioning, since that time, about how does, how should, how could, art be made.’ (Robert Sheppard. ‘The Necessity of Poetics’. http://www.pores.bbk.ac.uk/1/Robert%20Sheppard,%20’The%20Necessity%20of%20Poetics’.htm Date accessed 1st November 2012.)

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.'(Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil)

Gazing into the abyss? Horror, both as a concept and as a literary/media interest, has been an integral part of my life ever since I can remember. Even as a child, stories of the monstrous, often found in myth, fascinated me; wondering what might hide in the dark (under my bed, in the darkened recesses of my wardrobe) talked to a primal fear; fairy tale and folklore (the evil witch who preys on children who get lost in the forest) invaded my growing imagination. Fear of loss was and is very influential, on an emotional level. Part of my personal poetics of horror.

Now, as a writer, and as an academic who teaches horror and dark fantasy fiction to creative writing students in the context of a university education, I carry those memories, those obsessions. As a horror writer, it’s my job to be concerned with and about the darker aspects of life, and, ultimately, with concepts of pain, metamorphosis, death, and destruction. I now have more sophisticated sources of knowledge, carry them around with me, pass them on to other adults who share my interests, because despite much prejudice against the subject, horror is an ever-growing market, and many students come to us because we teach in the area. They want to gaze into the abyss! At least, they think they do! As implied, my poetics as a horror writer have always been as much about emotional response as critical analysis and reader knowledge.

Indeed, according to Michael Arnzen: ‘horror resists mastery by the intellect, privileges the emotional/physical response, and remains the primary venue for the literary expression of dread, anxiety, caution, shock, uncertainty, and the uncanny.’ (Arnzen, Michael A. 2008. The unlearning: Horror and transformative theory. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1)

And horror is transformative in these often obscured and obfuscated areas: by studying horror texts, by writing them, we can begin to understand what horrifies/terrifies us. We can begin to put words to what were, perhaps, once nebulous fears. But: how does one articulate the creation of a narrative, and the influences, the techniques, the decisions one makes, when we might not be certain of them ourselves? There’s always a ‘something’ that is difficult to articulate, something that may even be impossible to express, because as Robert Sheppard says:

‘Poetics is mercurial enough for writers to not know that they are producing it, to think that they are constructing something else: a letter, a preface, an apology, a defence, an essay, a memo, a diary entry, even an art work, a manifesto, a job application, a lecture, a description of somebody else’s poetics, a conference paper, a witty aphorism, an anthology, an editorial, a biography of the mind, a questionnaire, being tape interviewed, having a drink, making comments between reading texts to a creative writing group, dreaming, reading a book, summarising Western metaphysics on the back of an envelope, pillow talk . . .’ (Sheppard. )

I’m going to try to articulate the poetics of my recently written short story ‘Skin Trade’ – a narrative that follows Jon, the twenty-something protagonist, into a nightmare world of the peripatetic nightclub ‘Skin Trade’, a place which is never where it seems, where terrible metamorphoses take place in the name of ‘Art’; where the S/self becomes lost, both literally and figuratively, and where death awaits the chosen.

‘Skin Trade’ had been brewing for at least ten years before I wrote it, even if I wasn’t aware of its bubbling beneath the surface. Its origins can be found in the first piece of horror writing I had accepted for publication, ‘The Snowbound Heart’. This text was based on a specific challenge I set myself in response to observing my colleague Keith Jebb’s class in Innovative Writing: to take a piece of fiction (in this case a story text from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood – ‘The Book of Blood’); an excerpt from a philosophical text (Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse); and song lyrics (From David Bowie’s ‘Outside’ Album, specifically the song ‘The Heart’s Filthy Legend’, which formed part of the soundtrack of another influential source, the film Seven.). My intention was to create a cut-up horror text from word strings in these texts, which as said, became ‘The Snowbound Heart’. But the creation of ‘The Snowbound Heart’ itself began a chain reaction that led to other pieces: and surely this is how a body of a writer’s work contributes to a wider poetics?

Seeing links between disparate works that, internally, reflect the concerns of the writer, the societal/cultural aspects of the time they’re living in, along with the other aspects that Sheppard talks about – in my case, later, visual art and music video – all form a writer’s specific poetics. Horror, as mentioned, is a widely maligned genre, but it certainly reflects all those issues. And horror is individual: the writer internalises those horrors in individual ways.

For me, my concerns, my internal horrors, are many. At the time of writing ‘Skin Trade’, there were many things, both intellectually and emotionally, going on in my life. On a creative level, I was having problems writing at all. Having the headspace to write is all-important to me – if I don’t have the headspace, I can’t write, it’s that simple – and I had been suffering from a lack of identity as a writer – an identity crisis, if you like. Who was I as a writer? What did I want to write? Did I actually have anything to say? And how could I find the time, and the inclination, to write when my job as an academic – ironically to help students be creative – didn’t allow me the time to do so? Was it all worth it? An existential crisis, in a way, amongst the many other factors that was contributing to what was happening to me creatively. It is still happening. I was also become concerned with what I was reading about young men in society today, and how they often feel they have no place, no sense of identity as men – a crisis of masculinity, as has been posited by many cultural theorists:

‘What I do know is what it is like to be a man. However, as I reflect on how I learned about masculinity and manhood, I realise that almost all the teaching was implicit and all the learning by way of a kind of osmotic process. I don’t recall anyone, my father, my mother, my teachers, my peers, saying ‘This is what it means to be a man, a son, a brother, a lover, a dad’. Yet I learned very early on that what a man does; his work is as important as, even more important than, who he is; that a man is defined in modern capitalistic society in terms not of being but doing.’ (Extract from On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, by Anthony Clare. 2000. Chatto and Windus. London)

Clare seems quite clear in expressing his identity – but he goes on to talk about how young men in recent times have lost their masculine identities – or rather it’s become uncertain: what does being a man actually mean in these times of economic crisis, and in these post-feminist times? This idea of the crisis of masculinity was in part backed up by the riots of Summer 2011. Much as I hated what they were doing, I had to ask myself: how do these young men identify themselves in a society that disrespects youth, that can’t give them a sense of ‘doing’? Is society to blame, in part, for the behaviour of these young men? Looking at the faces on the news reports, there was so much hatred, and such a sense of chaos within these people that it had to come out somewhere – in the riots? I didn’t know it then, but I was storing this away. This concept of lack of identity, this stripping away of a sense of humanity, was becoming more pressing. What does that lead to? Horror is often about this stripping away of identity, ultimately of death. And this is where the most important part of what I’ve come to acknowledge as poetics clicked in: my father’s illness, his dying. Without that, ‘Skin Trade’, and other pieces I’ve written since, probably wouldn’t have happened. Or at least, not in the way they happened.

An intensely harrowing time. After a four year period of slow deterioration of his mental and physical faculties following the death of my mother, my father was admitted to a mental health facility with early onset Alzheimer’s and suicidal behaviour in January this year. To say this was devastating is an understatement. What happened next – my father breaking his hip and his subsequent decline to a horrible death – has affected everything I have written since, and my writing has probably changed profoundly because of it.

This is my poetics now.

Watching someone die will have a profound effect on anyone. Watching someone you care about having their identity, their humanity, stripped away, layer by layer, day by day for months, will have a greater effect. For a horror writer, for me, more than anything else, this experience showed me the true meaning of what personal horror actually means. And all the textual influences, all the nameless dying people on the news that we see, all the visual art that depicts horror, I must acknowledge, but they pale in comparison to what I call the poetics of emotion. How emotion plays a part in poesis. How for me, that interiority of feeling, is integral to everything I write. Again, it’s this simple: if I can’t feel it, I can’t write it. And I felt/feel this. Intensely.

Even so, the final part of ‘Skin Trade’ hadn’t manifested itself. Until I re-watched David Bowie’s music video of ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’, and Bowie’s concept of art-ritual murder – in itself an ironic comment on the state of modern art and creation in 1995 when the album was originally released. I knew instantly that the imagery I needed was there, and I knew how I wanted to present the final scenes of a story I still didn’t know yet. The premise – what if a young man was to become obsessed by a club (‘Skin Trade’) because he was fated to become part of a process, a cycle of death-life-death-life? – came to me. And I thought again of ‘The Snowbound Heart’, and then a piece I had written in response to my mother’s death, ‘Loss’, with images of decay, dying and the gradual stripping away of humanity I’d presented there. And then I remembered the flayed god, Xipe Totec, the Aztec god of life-death-rebirth a resurgence of the interest I have in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, a major influence for a vampire novel I wrote many years ago. The scene was set, the elements of narrative there. All I had to do was write it. And it came easily – too easily, almost more easily than any other piece I’ve worked on, apart from another piece I wrote directly before this, ‘Haunted’, which deals with the same themes: loss of male identity, metamorphosis, loss of self to an unstoppable force.

It’s difficult to illustrate the plot of a 7000 word plus story without making the whole text available, but here are some of the end scenes of ‘Skin Trade’ that demonstrate the stripping away, the metamorphosis, the rebirth.

‘And Jon was received into the Artist’s arms, and the Artist kissed him, an open-mouthed kiss. A rotting tongue was pushed into his mouth, and as Jon gagged, the Artist moved away, and Jon was lifted onto a waiting trolley and strapped down, moaning and sobbing. “An angel on our altar,” the Artist announced to the crowd, and they sighed in rapture. “Our yearly salvation. My salvation. Yours.” The crowd moaned as one, and began the chant again, and Jon screamed. The Artist held out a hand, and Beauty pressed something, long, slender and glinting, into it. When the Artist turned, Jon saw it was a knife. A sharp skinning knife. Silver, ready to sliver his skin. “Whole,” the Artist said, stripping off his clothes, revealing his decaying body. “A new design for me to wear.” Jon heard himself praying. Even when his mouth was forced open, and the knife went in, severing his tongue, tearing away the roots, he prayed, although his words were soon drowned in blood, and then they weren’t words at all, but an incoherent gurgling. He prayed for death, but it didn’t come. And then the skinning started, and with it, the real pain. And still he lived. The last thing Jon saw, before they took his eyes, was the Artist wearing his features. Reborn. Whole. And beautiful. Jon reflected, as the darkness descended, that he had never known he was beautiful. And then there was darkness. And then there was nothing. And then there was only death and sweet release and oblivion. And a new work of art raised its bloodied arms in triumph and howled.’ (McKenna. 2012)

Why I am a feminist.

First off, I want to say that this is not a rant. This is my personal account of why I am a feminist, and why I am proud to be considered so. I do not believe that feminism = misandry, which is the common opinion of so many anti-feminist people whose views I’ve been reading. Those people have got it wrong. I am not a card-carrying member of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men – Valerie Solanas) or any kind of radical feminism that says all men are rapists. To me that is an insulting and degrading view of men. I like men. But maybe the bra-burning, man-hating feminist image is what people who say they ‘hate’ feminism and blame it for all their woes believe that feminism actually is. Those people should educate themselves to what, in my opinion, feminism (and there are many, many feminisms) broadly stands for.

For me, feminism means freedom of choice, freedom from oppression, discrimination and hatred for all genders and gender issues, and especially (although we in the West have some way to go to reach full equality, if indeed it’s possible at all) for women/gay people/transexual people in countries like Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Egypt, etc etc, who have the (human) right to be free from forced marriage, FGM, poor or no midwifery and child services, ritualised rape, and death. They should be entitled, as human beings, to all those things that we in the West take for granted, such as education, being able to go out alone without a man shadowing you, to be able to drive, to not be legally murdered (executed) for being gay or transexual. All gender issues that feminists have helped to tackle, by fighting patriarchy in all its guises.

My interests in feminism were sparked at uni by an amazing lecturer who helped me see that women (her specialism was women’s studies, not, unfortunately, gender studies, but still…) were ‘allowed’ a voice, and that I was allowed one too, after constantly being told by people who genuinely loved me that I wasn’t, that I shouldn’t be heard, either vocally or in my writing. My writing often reflects women’s issues (although I believe that men most certainly have issues inflicted on them by patriarchy too – another important matter), especially the state of maternity. I used to be a midwife, and am shocked at how maternity services have been reduced in this country, at how the lives of our mothers and babies are gambled with because of our lack of midwives (male or female). I work with a lot of young women (and men) who want to find their voice too and feel they can’t/aren’t allowed to express themselves because they are female, gay, trans, or emotionally and psychologically damaged by the society we have created for them. I just want to see (gender) equality for all, and I don’t really see patriarchy doing that for us.

I have done quite a lot of research into social media representations of feminism in the last few days. I’ve read a lot of posts by anti-feminists who spew bile against the movement because they don’t really seem to get it. I’ve looked at the way statistics have been misused for their purposes in attempts to twist what feminism is. They say that feminism is misandrist, when actually, patriarchy is misandrist, because it’s the system that makes the rules, and the system is still overwhelmingly patriarchal. I’ve been spurred into action by things like the recent Twitter abuse of women, where threats of rape, bombs and crimes against their children were made. No doubt that happens to men too. And it shouldn’t.

Then I looked at sites that promoted feminism and was surprised (shouldn’t have been, I guess) at how many feminist groups had been created by women who live on the margins – Afghani women, Islamic women, women who still feel they have no voice – and I started to look at other social media sites. I was quite impressed by the supportive language in these groups. There was no misandry (although I wouldn’t deny for one moment that some feminist groups do promote this unsavoury gender bashing) and men were on the whole treated with respect, unlike the anti-feminist groups I’ve visited and seen on FB, where people who do not agree with their views are abused and treated with aggressive contempt.

I found the group Everyday Feminism, which seemed to fit me well, and I have joined it: https://www.facebook.com/everydayfeminism

To finish and sum up: I am quite shocked and disturbed at the way feminism in all its modes is seen and bound together into one apparently misandrist terrorist group. I am tired of it. I want to help people, including women who say that being called a feminist is an insult and therefore refuse to call themselves such, to see that gender equality is a vital feminist goal. Because I’m a lecturer and therefore (partly) responsible for people’s education, informing myself more, for my own and for their sakes is another reason for my resurgent interest.

I want to encourage informed discussion on this issue.

Dreams: A Writer’s Treasure Chest.

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I wrote this in response to Jenny Alexander’s blog about dreaming and writing http://jenalexanderbooks.wordpress.com/ 

Dreams: A Writer’s Treasure Chest

 

ONE OF THE THINGS that I’ve been able to use dreams for in my stories is to show things in a symbolic way that I wouldn’t want to come right out and say directly. I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on—the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back. To me that’s what dreams are supposed to do. I think that dreams are a way that people’s mind’s illustrate the nature of their problems. Or maybe even illustrate the answers to their problems in symbolic language. (Stephen King. From ‘The Symbolic Language of Dreams’ – 1993.) http://www.uky.edu/~aubel2/eng104/dreams/pdf/king.pdf

 

Writing from dreams is something that interests me greatly, and as a writer, I have taken images from the dreams I’ve had, and used them, sometimes raw, and sometimes edited, in my fiction.

In his autobiographical account of his writing life, On Writing (2001), Stephen King, probably best know as a writer of horror stories, acknowledges the importance of dreams as inspiration for his own dark tales. He talks about how dreams often fade as soon as you wake, but that others remain with you, ‘extraordinarily vivid’, and that it’s those dreams he uses. Perhaps his most famous example is the creationof the Marsten House in Salem’s Lot (1975) based on a nightmare about a hanged man. If you read the article above (and his book), you can see how King describes his experience, both of the dream and of how he used it.

I tend to dream very vividly, always in glorious technicolour and with full sound. Like a movie. I almost always remember the ‘special’ dreams in quite exact detail (at least it feels that way), and it’s those details that, as writers, we can use in our fiction (even though I’m a published prose poet, I am primarily a fiction writer). I find I can write these dream-related pieces very fast (which recalls King’s experience), almost without having to think about them. I wouldn’t call it surrealistic work, exactly, but I do feel that for me, it’s along the lines of freewriting.

Writing out some of my dreams can also help me sort out stuff in my head. What, exactly, am I afraid of? I believe that dreams do have some of the answers to this, if we allow ourselves to search for them. Below is a piece I wrote from a recurring dream I had for years. It’s tidied up of course, but it’s pretty much how I dreamed it. Anyway, the point is, this dream scared me all the time I was having it – around once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. I wondered why I was having it – it’s pretty scary, on a personal level, and yet I had a great childhood, a good relationship with my parents, and my grandfather and uncle, with whom I lived in a two-up two down terraced house. So where did this dream about repetition and oppression come from?

I decided that as the dream was recurring, and in a way, so worrying for me, that I’d write it out. I did that the very next time I had it, and the below piece is the result. It’s interesting that I haven’t had the dream since: writing it out seems to have cleared the decks, as it were. But: where did the dream come from? Why was it there?

We cannot give single, easy reasons for where our writing originates from; writing doesn’t lend itself to determinism. And nor does the development of our inner selves. It’s too easy to say: I had a hard childhood, therefore that’s why I behave the way I do. And as I said, I had an easy childhood. Was loved and sheltered from bad things. And maybe that’s the crux here: I was an only child, my family was everything: the moral benchmark, the people who taught me how I should live my life, that gave me my opinions, at least until I grew to have my own. That’s a safe place for a child to be – surrounded by unquestioning, unconditional love. Except: love is always conditional, and the love of parents for their only child often means that the child is the centre of their world. Their sun, moon, stars and universe. And that is a huge responsibility for anyone to bear. Too big, I think. My writing, I  think, often comes from that place. The place where I feel stifled, oppressed, and worst of all, being inadequate because no-one can live up to such high standards.

So maybe the piece below is partly about those things. But it’s also about place and how we see it and what it represents to us symbolically.

Memory Revisited

 

You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here. Were you wishing for this place? Does desire make something so? You’ve yearned to be a child again so often; adulthood is a burden you can no longer bear.

You search for clues that this is the place you remember from those happy days decades before. The houses are in the same alignment – terraced, back-to-back, two up, two down. They line the street as they always did. Even the pub on the corner where the drunks used to spill out onto the road at closing time still stands. But now there is an air of decay here – the houses are blank-eyed spectral tenements – and as you sniff the air, you can almost smell the rot on the cold winter wind that whistles round you, inside you, until it bleeds your heart white.

No people live here anymore; your friends and family have disappeared into the abyss of recall, leaving haunting memories of vibrant life. The only inhabitants are curious tumbleweeds, who crowd round your feet, perhaps drawn to the life in you. The whining of the cold wind makes them rustle, bestows upon them a curious language of their own. Do they speak to you, and if they do, what do they say? You cannot grasp it. At any time, you realise as hey crowd closer, they could wind their grassy tendrils around you, and bind you, and you will become a tumbleweed too, drifting, pushed this way and that at random, dizzy with chaos.

You shuffle your feet and the tumbleweeds skitter away. Relieved, you look again at the houses. At your house, where you lived and loved, where you took your first steps, spoke your first words, kissed your first kiss. A happy house, always full of firm, unyielding love. Yet now it seems flimsy; its red bricks have turned grey, like the hair on your head. It wavers in your sight, a flickering projection from a faulty reel of film. You cannot bear to lose it – reminiscence binds you successfully where the tumbleweed failed – and you run toward it, hurry inside.

The door opens into a grey-grained passage. An flickering old movie-set. No wind blows, but the chill here is deeper, like you’ve stepped into an abattoir where your memories hang, frozen corpses on hooks. Bare cracked lino curling up at the skirting boards like bread in old sandwiches covers the floor. Dusty cobwebs hang from the ceiling like shrouds; they caress your face and whisper indistinguishable words, as only cobwebs can. You brush them away, but like the tumbleweed, they cannot resist you or the life you bring here. Damp-infested wallpaper peels from the walls in jagged strips; it sees your fading hope, and flays away more layers. Strips you bare.

Upstairs, the safe place where your mother rocked you and told you that she would protect you forever, beckons. But the stairs have collapsed with your own advancing age, and so you must go forward, down the passageway to your grandfather’s bedroom, hoping for solace. You hear music playing – his favourite tune, although you can’t remember its name – but it’s discordant and jarring, and still the memories scream and writhe on their hooks, begging for release.

Past your grandfather’s bedroom is the scullery, that place where the darkness lives, and where the floor is covered with putrescent treacle that wilfully impedes your movement. You don’t want to go down here, it leads to oblivion, but you hear the memories cry for you again, and you know you must face annihilation rather than abandon them. So you step into the living dark, you allow it to hold you in its arms, you endure its penetration and become filled with emptiness, and you survive the ordeal, to emerge at the kitchen door, where freedom and memory wait for you to liberate them.

You open the kitchen door and step outside.

You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here…

 

 

 

Vampires and Vampirism: The Transcendence of Time and Sexuality (and the Threat to the Christian Worldview).

‘The dynamic relations of human actions in the world mediation of others are characterised in the Fantastic through the themes of discourse and desire, the latter in excessive forms as in its various transformations (perversions) and themes of cruelty, violence, death, corpses and vampires.’ (Nash – Vampyr and the Fantastic p65 – quote taken from Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy. The Literature of Subversion.

Vampires always seem to provoke some kind of reaction in we humans; some, like myself, find the whole idea fascinating, others may find the concept worrying. It’s partly to do with mortality, I think, and all the accompanying fears such as ageing and losing control of your body/mind.

But also the concept of the vampire brings out more personal fears such as people demanding too much from you emotionally and physically; it also challenges/transgresses age-old conceptions of sexuality. I think this last is probably the most interesting aspect of it for me because I write erotica and most eroticism is based on the giving and taking of emotional/physical energy. The vampire story/concept, to me, is a way of subverting traditions.

Vampires, according to Jackson, are a source of external terror – the terrors of transformation, intrusion and fusion – the external threat (Not-I) enters the subject (I), transforms it and gives it the power of transformation over other subjects. This is in common with the werewolf and certainly, in Eastern European cultures, the vampire and the werewolf are inextricably linked through this ability. Some cultures do not really distinguish between the two, and the legend of the vampire is said by some to have arisen from that of the werewolf. I believe the word vrokolak covers both creatures.

As mentioned, vampires can be seen to represent transgressive sexuality and, commonly, as a metaphor for rape. Penetration by the vampire’s teeth = violation of the virgin, and by the violent creation of more vampires, the penetration/defloration continues in an endless cycle. Desire, which by its implication, represents a lack, is never satisfied in the vampire and, like the undead who harbour this desire for life(blood), it never dies. Instead it is perpetrated ad infinitum.

In older texts (Dracula; Carmilla) female vampires are presented as sexually confident creatures (sexual predators in fact: shock shock, horror horror!). These become a threat to the patriarchal system. Conversely, in an attempt to counteract this, symbols of patriarchy and male domination are common. The wielding of the Crucifix represents the Church (and therefore the patriarchal establishment).The stake (phallus) through the female vampire’s heart, and the profuse bleeding caused by this mimics the forcible loss of virginity. The subsequent death of the female shows the defeat (murder) of femininity and female sexuality. The patriarchal status quo is restored. All hail the mighty Phallus! If the vampire is male, however, it remains a threat to the Western values of the Church and authority since it lives outside established values.

The sucking of blood can arguably be representational of a monstrous parody of the infant at its mother’s breast. It is an infantile act (Freud et al.) Vampirism sustains life, even as it is drawn from the victim (mother). It becomes symbolic of the Oedipus/Electra complexes – the murder of the parent so that the child may have its independent existence. This obviously has incestuous overtones in the vampire myth since often parent/child vampires use each other as the ‘suck’ object, which gives rise to even more transgressions, especially in same sex relationships where the act becomes homoerotic/homosexual (and no – I’m not saying that homosexuality is transgressive – I’m saying that even in today’s apparently progressive culture, there’s still a long way to go before we have true acceptance of anything that goes against the heterosexual ‘norm’!). So, for example, despite Anne Rice’s protests that there are no homoerotic overtones in her Vampire Chronicles series (certainly Interview With the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat) these points can be clearly demonstrated. Lestat turns Louis, and the two live together in a kind of co-dependent, abusive relationship, with Lestat urging a reluctant Louis into increasingly ‘evil’ acts, culminating with Lestat’s turning of five year old Claudia into a vampire, transforming the pair into an extremely dysfunctional family unit, just so he can keep Louis with him. Lestat becomes father to both Louis and Claudia, and they both become ‘father’ to Claudia.

In many traditional vampire texts, blood is linked to semen and is always spilled in the act of vampirism. It gives life – ‘The blood is the life’ – Renfield in Dracula – and this point is perhaps especially relevant when the vampire is male and the victim is female.

The vampire is unstable – it is neither dead nor alive, but exists in a vacuum between these two states – a vacuum in time. If the vampire is a shape-shifter, it becomes even more unstable, and again this pertains to the condition of lycanthropy. Consequent to this instability, time is suspended and transcended. The vampire becomes linked to immortality and stunted growth, where time is no issue. Therefore all times/era become become blurred into one long existence. As vampires are ageless and timeless, they can represent the apathy of any given age.

Finally, the vampire is a subversion and a threat to the Christian ideal and ideologies The drinking of blood is a subversion of the communion (‘This is my body, this is my blood’). Only Christ or those touched by him (e.g. Lazarus), according to Christian teaching, are supposed to arise from the grave – the rising of the vampire becomes a desecration of that teaching. Only God is supposed to grant immortality, and then only in a spiritual sense. The vampire gains/gives immortality on the earthly, physical plane and becomes an agent of Satan.

Reading: The Lady in the House of Love – Angela Carter; Burning Your Boats.

Synopsis and interpretation

This short story is, for me, a revisioning of the fairy story ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, and is one of my favourite Carter pieces. The princess of the original tale becomes the Countess Nosferatu (Transylvanian for vampire?). Instead of the fairy tale’s hundred years sleep, time in Carter’s piece is represented by the ageless Countess herself; time is suspended in her undying, beautiful body. Effectively, she sleeps in time, and the thorns in the fairy tale are replaced by her vampirism, which hold her locked in an increasingly fragile state of youth and beauty, and in the unending horror of her condition. The prince of the tale is replaced by a young soldier on leave from war. He does not hack through said ring of thorns, but is instead invited into the Countess’s castle, somehow  becoming the Countess’s unwitting liberator, but her liberation is death, not the Sleeping Beauty’s traditional awakening.

The Countess represents the cycle of time, existing in a vacuum, a timeless state of never-death. But time is meaningless to her, because she cannot use it to change herself. Her castle becomes a temporal prison that traps her. Her curse is continual and ancestral; it is passed on down the ages and can be passed onto/into future ages.

Where the Countess is, death is. She – like most vampires – is death in life – ‘Now you are at the place of annihilation; now you are at the place of annihilation.’ (p 195). Death and sex are irrevocably entwined; the penetration of the vampire fangs (phallus) and the shedding of (virginal) blood are acts of sexual violence/predation. Likewise, ‘But now she is a woman, she must have men’ has been said to represent a coming of age, the blooming of female sexuality. With every bite the Countess inflicts, she penetrates (acting perhaps as female representative of the Phallus – an inversion of male/female sex roles) but in her feminine state, she is unable to pass beyond the oral phase of development. Immortality stunts the Countess’s development, and she represents the Curse of Eve without going into adulthood. Loss of blood in the female state can be menstrual, virginal or fatal, so all the stages are represented. Eve’s curse is inflicted on the male as well as the female: with the introduction of the soldier character, the Countess imagines her feeding from him as part of an unholy wedding night. His blood (Carter seems to represent him as chaste) would represent virginal (hymenal) blood and her fangs represent the penis (see above for male/female role transformation). ‘The bridegroom bleeds on my inverted marriage bed.’ (p 206)

The Countess is undead – a travesty of a living state and a rebellion against true death. But: she is able to grant both states of existence. She murders to stay alive but can give immortality. It appears to be a forced/false existence, and is the result of an unnatural heredity. With the coming of the young male, we see the heralding of the appearance of the Light. He is the light of Reason, representative of the sun that the Countess may never see, and of the light of the Church (religion) that has damned her. He is life, she is death. He is civilisation/she is animal (the old male as reason/female as chaos binary!). He is Church, she is Old Religion. He is health, she is disease, etc, etc, etc. This young male represents everything that she cannot be. Ultimately, he becomes  the catalyst for change in her stasis. Following the Countess’s (apparently voluntary) death, time begins to move on again, although the red rose he takes with him from the castle is a reminder that some things do remain unaltered. And then, oh joy,  a return to the patriarchal ‘norm’. With the vampire dying, the ‘woman subservient to man’ status quo is restored, and all becomes orderly (according to Western religious traditions anyway) once more. Is Carter saying here that things can never change? Maybe, at the time of writing this story (published in The Bloody Chamber. 1979), it seemed that way?

As I said, I love this story. Taking it apart like this and applying the critical theory, has, I feel, opened up lots of possibilities for expanding the reasoning behind my own writing. It’s good to understand the theory behind the fiction; some people think that knowing and applying theory somehow ruins the enjoyment of a story. I used to be of this opinion; now I think it’s essential for somehow who’s serious about writing, and certainly for creative writing students, to at least know a little of theory behind the genre they’re writing in. It might not improve the writing as such, but it opens up knowledge and possibilities that might not have been there before, and this can only be a good thing.

 

Cutting it Up – The Collage Poem: Working Intertextually with Source Texts

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Primarily, I am fiction writer, by my writing nature mostly inclined toward the novel. Over the past couple of years, however, I have been more and more drawn toward collaging and cut-ups, and in many ways, find it a more interesting process and sometimes more rewarding than creating fiction. Indeed, the majority of my publications are in this genre, presented as prose poetry.

Before I continue with the process I employed for my latest publication, ‘Amaranthus caudatus. Love Lies Bleeding’ (Kater Murr Press. 2010) I’m going to start with a quote from the writer, William S Burroughs, who says:

The best writing seems to be done almost by accident but writers until the cut-up method was made explicit… had no way to produce the accident of spontaneity. You can not will spontaneity. But you can introduce the unpredictable spontaneous factor with a pair of scissors. (William S. Burroughs. ‘The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin’)

As Burroughs implies in the quote from ‘The Cut-up Method of Brion Gysin’, all writing is intertextual; as writers, we cannot deny the influence of the texts we have been exposed to. Techniques of cut-up/collage, whether Gysin’s cutting a text into quarters and rearranging them, David Bowie’s cutting up sentences, putting them into a bag, choosing them randomly, and pasting them together, or – my preferred method – cutting and pasting from websites, all involve deliberate acts of intertextuality, a very different process from that which I employ when writing fiction.

The resultant works – in my case usually created from texts that are completely unrelated – allow juxtapositions that engender textual relationships and resonance, will often display an apparently seamless join, and create unexpected combinations. These combinations may initially seem to conflict with each other, but such conflicts almost inevitably prove interesting and beneficial to the text. The combinations also enable textual fluidity, and allow the accrual of various strata of meaning. Similarly, connections can occur that almost certainly would not have been possible with the method of ‘making it up as you go along.’

However, since in my case such a text emerges from a methodology of deliberate choice and careful positioning of text fragments, can it be associated with a ‘spontaneous’ act of creation? Burroughs says – ‘you can not will spontaneity.’ I would ask – are any of the works writers produce really due to spontaneous acts of creation, or is it a matter of having more or less explicit control? While I cannot deny the idea of the inexplicable creative spark, the choosing and/or discarding of materials that goes into the production of a cut-up work allows what Burroughs calls the ‘unpredictable spontaneous factor’, but in a context that allows me to retain overall control.

‘Amaranthus caudatus’ is the first in a projected series of poems alluding to what I term the ‘horror of maternity’ – that is, the exploration of attitudes toward (female) fertility and motherhood, an attempt to debunk the fondly-held belief that all women wish to be mothers, can be mothers, and are what society terms ‘good’ mothers. This poem is a sequence of six sections, each of which required different approaches, both from a structural viewpoint – how the poems appear on the page – and from the point of view of what sources were needed to create the text. The amaranthus plant is associated in myth with immortality, and immortality has, in many literatures, a correlation with isolation. I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose these with the contrasting themes of infertility and death, and see what associations could be made. The amaranthus plant became the amaranth, the Love-Lies-Bleeding. I will discuss the creation of two sections: the first, ‘The Garden’, and the second, ‘Her Father’s Death Room’.

Using titles of books, films and songs has become an obsession for me when creating cut-ups. Titles – for obvious reasons – can perfectly capture the flavour of a text, and if used well, create an effective shorthand for the rapid creation of mood/atmosphere. In fact, the original title of the poem was ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter’, after the novel by Elisabeth Hyde, but for various reasons – including the realisation that the title was too obviously recognised, and the decision that it didn’t match well with the overall plant motif – I discarded it.

Because the piece deals with sombre themes, I needed to establish layers of oppressive tone and mood from the first stanza, producing a text that was shrouded in textual darkness. I also wanted to use cultural references throughout the piece, and these two factors affected many of my decisions. For title choices, I looked at popular, recently published books, and eventually settled on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Whatever my personal opinion of the novels, the titles, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn, proved to be an efficient shorthand with which to establish atmosphere. I then took and manipulated other titles – Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera, and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves – which complemented and built on the overall effect.

in the breaking dawn of a sunless day the amaranth, bud of the poison tree, drifts through the forgotten garden, seeking the tenderness of flesh. she has found love in the age of plague and love looks like twilight in the eclipse of a full moon. gravid with nothingness. she wonders: can love lighten the shadow of the no-man’s land between life and death. (From ‘The Garden’: first section ‘Amaranthus caudatus. Love Lies Bleeding’ (McKenna, L. Kater Murr Press. 2010)

The rest of the section deals with the amaranth’s infertility. The website Living with Our Fertility at sisterzeus.com proved an invaluable source; it not only gave the names of emmenagogic and abortifacient plants, it provided me with knowledge of how the plants worked on the female reproductive system. Fragmenting some of these descriptions into strings of around three to five words enabled me to capture the essence of the plants’ properties. I also accessed websites that had information about the appearance of individual plants, scavenging snippets of text as I went. The fragments, I hope, mesh together in that apparently seamless way I spoke of earlier.

As well as using book titles and fragments of text from fertility websites, I looked to song lyrics and short stories. ‘The image-child-negative of her mother’ comes from Simon and Garkfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’, and ‘scraped out children swim in her father’s bucket’ comes from F. Paul Wilson’s short story ‘Buckets’, where the ghosts of aborted foetuses come back to haunt an abortionist. There is also an obvious reference to the Sleeping Beauty in the last line, an allusion to Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, echoed in Angela Carter’s ‘Lady of the House of Love’, published in The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is later extensively scavenged from in the section of the poem ‘Blood Wedding’ – named after Lorca’s play.

While ‘The Garden’ was used to establish emotionality and the sense of immortal isolation, the section, ‘Her Father’s Death Room’, although building on the first, uses a much more clinical approach. Creating a picture of the room was necessary, and shaping its structure on the page went a long way toward this, but rather than use word strings, I created lists to represent the objects stored in the room, as seen through the eyes of the amaranth and, hopefully, anyone who reads the poem. These lists echoed some of the information given in ‘The Garden’ but omitted any sense of emotional resonance, and in some ways, I feel that the effect created is stronger because of this.

As well as repeating information taken from sisterzeus.com, I looked at sites that dealt with foetal abnormality – most specifically Anencephaly-info, and Diploma in Fetal Medicine: Diagnosis of Fetal Abnormality. These sites had graphic descriptions of the abnormalities mentioned, snippets of which I incorporated into my lists. I also wanted to deal with surgical abortion, and the site The Grantham Collection had extensive details of the instruments used to facilitate this. Descriptions from websites on Victorian mortuaries gave me the word strings with which to build a picture of the death-room itself.

jars containing:

embryos, foetuses, aged from conception to death; anencephalic head fused into neck, exposed meninges; hydrocephalic monster-child, brain exposed, thought hidden; conjoined twins bound by flesh and formaldehyde; octopus child; body opened with exomphalos.

emmenagogic herbs: feverfew; ginger; juniper; mugwort; queen anne’s lace seeds; parsley; sage; rosemary; thyme; yarrow.

abortifacient herbs: black cohosh; blue cohosh; common rue; ergot; nutmeg; papaya; slippery elm; vervain; vitamin c; wild carrot.

narcotic alkaloids: opium poppy/synthetic derivative; codeine; heroin; laudanum; morphine; oripavine; papaverine; thebain.
(From ‘Her father’s Death Room: second section ‘Amaranthus caudatus. Love Lies Bleeding’ (McKenna, L. Kater Murr Press. 2010)

This process continued through the production of the rest of the poem, and these modern references are juxtaposed against a recipe for a 17th century love philtre, taken almost word for word from a site called Cockerel Testicles and Vervain: Love Magic. Myles’ Textbook for Midwives (15th Edition) provided details of foetal development and the stages of pregnancy in ‘Phantom Pregnancy’.

The poem is a tissue of allusions to many unrelated cultural resources, but I believe it works as a unified whole, while creating poetic resonance and emotion. It also surprises me however; with its themes of abortion, the piece could read as an anti-abortion text, yet I am strongly pro-choice. Finally, I acknowledge that while I worked to a strict methodology, there are definitely echoes of Burroughs’ ‘unpredictable spontaneous factor’, created not with a pair of scissors, but with the cut-and-paste function of modern technology.

Lesley McKenna

09/11/2011

Who is the ‘I’ that Wr(i)tes?

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‘The house of fiction does not readily admit the self… Your relationship with it, as its creator, is tenuous, complex, subtle, utterly demanding. You are in it; you are absolutely stripped bare in front of it, exposed; yet somehow you are supposed to make sure that, at the end of the day when the lights are dimmed, the fire’s blazing and everyone’s sitting comfortable, it isn’t you they see.’ (Sue Roe. ‘Shelving the Self’. 1994. p51) *

Sue Roe here is talking about her experiences of novel-writing, how a writer immerses her self (as opposed to herself – maybe the self here should be Self?) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must not be visible in the finished fictional narrative. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who let people read/publish their work, in whatever way, will probably recognize this sense of exposure. This feeling of ‘What if they think this is me I’m putting out there?’ and ‘What if they judge me by what I write?’ Again, this is very common in student writers, who are often self-conscious about what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ write about. It’s my job as a lecturer to try to reassure them that there aren’t ‘can’s and ‘can’t’s, there are only possibilities and their job is to convert those possibilities into the best writing they are capable of. But I sympathize with them, have been in that position myself, of course, as a student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments, that if they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it will get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree I was later to get, I had a conversation with a friend who was in level 2. He knew that I was getting good grades, and he asked: ‘Do you write assessments knowing what the lecturers like to read? Do you write to please them? Is that what I should do?’ I actually found the question quite insulting, although he didn’t mean it that way. But in some ways, it was like he was questioning my writing integrity. My answer was the same then as it is now, and I stand unflinchingly by it: ‘I would never write to please anyone but myself, if it compromised my writing.’ And I say this to students: it doesn’t matter what I like. It doesn’t matter if I don’t like (insert pet hate here) – it’s what you like that matters. Write what you’re interested in. If you don’t – then it’ll show, and why would I be interested in an uninterested piece of work?

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects. I teach writing horror fiction, and for one of my sessions, I teach extreme horror (Splatterpunk), in which I invite students to be as explicit, uninhibited and gross as possible. And even then – even with that permission – some students still worry. Same with Creative non-fiction, where the Self is often literally dealt with, bringing up bad memories and issues from the past. Same with Writing and Sexuality, which by its very nature calls for explorations into our own concepts and ideas that surround sexuality. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not here to be a moral barometer. The only judgments I make is on their writing, the quality of their writing, and are they saying what they want to say in the best way to say it. But what they say is up to them. Get used to exposure – it’s what good writing is about. I would say, that once they accept this permission, students often find that their writing becomes liberating, rather than constraining. Watching this happen is, I feel, one of the best things about what I do

Still – who is this Self that writes? And are we always the subject of our own work, even though it’s disguised as fiction, or poetry, or drama? My personal opinion is that (unless we’re writing cynically to a specific market) we always write about what goes on inside us. We (should) write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to some extent. Again, as a sometime writer of dark fantasy and horror, I write about what scares me, and what I think is relevant to my (inner and outer) world. As a poet, my poetry often seems to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it does deal with themes of horror too – death, dying, futility – but in very different ways.

If we look at the work of some other writers, we can see recurring themes running through their work. Stephen King, for example, in his book about writing On Writing (2000), talks a lot about how his childhood, and living in a small town, influenced his writing, and when we look at his work, we can see it. Childhood – its horrors as well as its innocence – is constantly explored. The settings are almost invariably the small town, or enclosed spaces, exploring the claustrophobia that such places evoke. And his characters are often writers who are troubled. Possibly the best example of all of this (for me, at least) is The Shining (1977), in which we get the motifs of The Child, The Writer, and The Place, all in one truly frightening book. Likewise with his vampire novel Salem’s Lot (1976), which mostly deals with The Writer and The Small Town. It (1986) deals with The Child(ren) and the Small Town.

But the writing persona we employ when we’re writing is just one of the many masks we wear and we wear different personas for different kinds of writing. We are complex organisms,  and the idea of the single self, the unified self, is no longer accepted. We are fractured beings with many facets reflecting those fractures  – writing is one facet of who we are. And yet, it’s everything too.

Of course we are judged by what we write. People do assume that what we write is who we are. They assume that people who write horror or about psychopathic killers must be that way inclined themselves. They assume that people who write comedy are constantly laughing and funny.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his crazy girlfriend. One of my students came up to me after and said: ‘But I thought you were such a nice person…’ I said, and still say, to that kind of comment – ‘My writing reflects my interests, maybe sometimes my issues, but if I was that person, or the characters I’ve produced, I’d have been a long time in prison, or a secure wing, by now.’ I am NOT my characters. But I do facilitate them.

On our course, we encourage self-reflexivity. Every student writes a contextual study along with their creative pieces that explores their aims and intentions for the piece they’ve written, how they’ve created it, and – because we must never forget where our writing comes from – what precursors they have researched. And – importantly – does their work succeed or not? Writing these studies gives insight to their writing Selves – we’ve found them very valuable, and students usually do too. I’m not saying that every writer should do this. Of course not. But I think that good writers are truly aware – as far as it’s possible to be, because there’s always a hidden something you can’t explain to yourself or anyone else – of who they are when they write and what goes on inside them that produces what it produces.

*Roe, S. ‘Shelving the Self’ in S.Roe et al, The Semi-Transparent Envelope (London and New York: Routledge: Marian Boyars, 1994, 47 – 92)

Why Write?

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Why Write?

 

 

  From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books. – George Orwell. 1946. “Why I Write”.

 

The question of why we write – something I touched on in an earlier post –  is something that writers debate constantly, and working in Higher Education as a lecturer in creative writer, it’s the subject of a necessary discussion I have to have on a regular basis. When student writers are asked, as they always are, ‘Why do you want to write?’, the answer is sometimes, ‘I don’t know.’ In many ways that’s a valid answer – students, often just out of school, don’t always understand their own motivations for their choice.  They know it’s there, but they don’t know what they want to do with it. But sometimes, you get the impression that they’ve chosen what they believe might be the ‘easy’ way – that a creative writing course is somewhere they won’t have to think. Wrong. Of course. Writing – along with other creative arts (which is where I believe CW belongs, as opposed to in an English department) – is very much a subject where thinking, assessing, critiquing, and transforming (your writing by editing, yourself through the whole evolutionary process that writing has on you as a person), is vital if you’re to become in any way proficient. But I digress…

 

Most students though (especially mature students, of whom we seem to attract a lot), when asked the question, answer in much the same vein as Orwell, and the answer boils down to: ‘Because I must.’ And, as I said in my previous post, this is much the case for me too.

 

When my lecturer told us that no-one cared if we wrote, my initial thought was: she’s full of it. I care. But I think it was a valuable thing for her to say, for various reasons:

 

It’s a fact. Apart from yourself, no one really cares that much. Friends and family can be very supportive, but often don’t understand the drive that consumes those of us who live in our heads, in our own worlds. In essence, if you stopped, unless they’re as passionate as you, unless they’re driven by the same engine, they’d probably say, well, that’s a shame, and that’d be that.

 

Publishers and agents don’t care either. This is maybe a throwaway remark – but they don’t know you, don’t know if you’re writing, and probably wouldn’t much bother about you if they did. Unless you had something they wanted of course. Is this cynical? Not really. The publishing world is an increasingly hard world. They are feeling the hard pinch of the economic crisis too. They do not owe anyone a living – they publish because they love good writing, never believe otherwise, but they are businesses. They are not charities. A lot of writers feel entitled to publishing, and I understand that too, if they work hard at their craft, but actually, they’re not entitled to anything. Which leads to:

 

Sometimes writers themselves don’t care enough. This does not mean that they don’t want to write – most writers I know are passionate about what they do. What it means is that they don’t want the hard work that goes with it. They want to write, get published and reap the rewards. They don’t want to do drafts, take criticism, learn formatting (sometimes even spelling and grammar!), or learn where their work might fit into the dread aforementioned market. They don’t want to research – ‘Oh it’s fine – no one will know if it’s not right’ (they will, oh, they will!) – and they don’t want to do anything ‘original’  – although of course originality is a difficult term. They just want to produce their work, send it out, and sit back and enjoy the glory. And those are often (not always though) the writers who feel most entitled.

 

So looking at it, my lecturer was probably right, although maybe not as tactful as she could have been. Writers who really want it – i.e. to write, no matter what, because they have to – don’t much care that no-one else cares. Their job is to write, to produce the best work they can. If they do that, if they really, really care about what they do, they’ll write despite the odds. And then perhaps they can begin to overcome other people’s apathy. They can, perhaps, through their words, their ideas, begin to make people care.

 

A final note: Does it matter if you don’t get paid for it? That depends on your idea of success. Because many non-writers only understand successful writers as the bestsellers, the big-hitters. If that’s all a writer cares about, then that’s pretty sad. For me, success isn’t so much about fame and fortune (although of course I’d love to make my living through writing alone), it’s about recognition from my peers, and the knowledge that maybe I touch some people (people I respect) with what I have to say.

 

It’s not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.

 

 

A (longish) Post about my Writing History

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I’ve written since I can remember. My favourite subject at school was English, and my favourite part of that was Composition. In my teens, I was a romantic (still am at heart, I guess!). I believed in love conquering all, and my writing reflected that. Romance novels set in historical times that I was fascinated with, but, at the tender age of 13/14, hadn’t researched. I didn’t understand the need for research then – I just let my emotions guide me. I kind of miss those days, that innocence. Knights rescued maidens (okay, not feminist, so sue me, I knew no better then!), Roman centurions fell in love with beautiful slaves, and everyone lived (except for the villains, of course, who always got their comeuppance!) happily ever after. But – there was always a darkness somewhere. Are some of us born with an inner darkness? Another discussion!

Most of what I wrote between the ages of 18 – 24 were patient reports – I was a nurse/midwife in my former life. But when I left nursing to have my children, the ‘voices’ of my stories and my characters came back again. With time on my hands when the kids were asleep, playing nicely with each other or on their own, and later, when they went to school, I started writing again. I wrote tirelessly, especially when the kids were at school –  six, seven, eight hours a day. I’m not saying that was great for me – I came out of those sessions hardly able to communicate with anyone else, so deep was I within my world – but it was born of real passion, of a real desire to bring my world, my characters, out of myself. A passion that remains, even though I don’t have the time to do that anymore – probably just as well. I had no desire to publish then. I think a lot of new writers just write for themselves, but eventually, we want to communicate.

So it was for me. In those ‘writing for myself’ years, I wrote two fantasy novels (now lost/destroyed);  a vampire trilogy; and a novel about a genetically engineered werewolf; plus some other unfinished projects (we all have those, right?). Then I thought – I want people to see my writing, and I began writing fan fiction.

There’s a lot of debate about fan fiction – is it ‘proper’ writing (whatever that is) because the writer uses other people’s creations? Is the writing inevitably bad? Is the fan fiction writer a thief? My thoughts on this are complex – but at its simplest, unless the fan fiction writer is trying to cash in, then why not do it? It helps hone skills, it helps develop character awareness, and at its best, it can add a lot to the original premise. Anyway – my first exploration into fan fiction was in Joss Whedon’s Buffy-verse. I was obsessed with Buffy – still love it, it was and remains a great show. Only one thing (at the time – end of Season Two) ruined it for me – the relationship between Buffy and Angel. I hated Angel then (have since changed my mind) and wanted to create something new. Cut a long story, and all that, I created my own Buffy-verse, based on Whedon’s, but taking it from before the time when Buffy was meant to kill Angel to prevent the opening of the Hellmouth. I killed off various characters (Giles for one – poor Giles, always had a crush on him, but he had to go because I needed to introduce a new Watcher!), brought the whole thing forward five years, and put Buffy in London. And then created my own mythology of the immortal Slayer. Again, cut a long story short, Angel remained Angelus pretty much throughout the series of six full length novels (Angelus was much more interesting, and sexier!), and immortal Buffy gave birth to a race of Slayers. The series, no longer available, was posted on various sites and was very, very well received. I liked the reception of the novels. It was great to be told ‘you’re great’. And I remain proud of what I achieved.

My next foray was into Harry Potter fanfic – mostly slash porn, I have to admit. By then I’d begun my creative writing (CW) degree at the then University of Luton (now University of Bedfordshire), and writing it was an interesting experience. Helped me break the final boundaries I had about writing and depicting sexuality.

I gained a first class honours degree in 2003 – and it was the best thing I’d ever done. The course destroyed a lot of pre-conceived ideas bout writing – for the better, definitely. So I went on to take a Master by Research, for which I wrote a novel – Clutching Shadow – that explored the concept of brother/sister incest – and why is it wrong. Workshops were interesting for that – I threw out the question to the group, and the answer was almost always: Because it is. Which showed me that some sexual taboos are very difficult, maybe impossible, to overcome. I got a distinction for that novel, and the accompanying thesis; it’s been short listed for a farily prestigious award. Unfortunately though, not yet published.

And then I started lecturing…

It’s been a turning point for me. My writing has changed again. Because of certain  new aspects of the course – the introduction of a unit in Innovative Writing, for example – I now write prose poetry, and have had several pieces published. It’s always interesting, too, to see what students like to write, and to hear their opinions on writing, writers, and reading. An inspiration, often.  Sometimes there’s an ‘I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that’ moment! I’m currently writing a dark fantasy series, The Reborn (working title!!!); a series for young adults, based on the myth of the demon queen, Lilith, and have several other projects I’m considering.

For today, enough.