On Going Part-time: Working less is best, but it comes at a price.

Once upon a time, my generation – I’m one of those much maligned baby boomers born in the 50s – were promised that one day in the future, we would all work a three day week. We would earn just as much money, and have a better lifestyle with lots of holidays and our own houses. We women would – and did, at least those women who worked then – retire at sixty and continue to enjoy a good life. We believed that, we believed in the dream of living a better life than our parents, the Silent Generation, born and growing up in times of poverty and terrible wars, who had seen and experienced things that we, thankfully and hopefully, never will. Who had given their lives and health for those of us who came later. No more, they said, never again, and so we grew up in hope, if not in wealth. We were always poor, and I do mean poor, but – to be clichéd – I remember being happy and well looked after.

Anyway, that’s history, and this isn’t a history lesson. This is – I don’t know – a mix of hope and fear. Hope because since choosing to work part time, I feel more in control of my life. Fear because those dreams of the future have not come to pass and I look toward a time where I may well be poor again. Because like so many generations, we were also lied to. People are working harder than ever, for less security, less pay. Less satisfaction, more stress. I won’t go into how we academics have not had a significant pay rise in years, but our salaries have in effect decreased as the cost of living has risen. Many younger professionals are on short term contracts, living precariously from position to position, unstable lives, not daring to complain in case they are seen as ‘difficult’. But this is not about that either, except to say that it’s an immoral way to treat people who are trying to build a career for themselves.

This is about me having had enough of the constant bombardment of ridiculous bureaucracy, stress and poor mental health, which anyone who has read previous posts will know about. This is about me taking the step to work part time and the liberation I feel having done so. I now work four days a week. That feels hard won, to be honest. Again, anyone who has read my blog will know that I’ve battled hard to get this far. I’ve had to compromise in ways that have damaged my recovery, and that I’m still trying to come to terms with. But, I feel I am coming to terms now. And when I signed my contract to work four instead of five days, I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I could breathe again, and despite the impact on my earnings (my take home pay was less than I’d calculated – a bit of a shock and I’m still taking that in), I wish I’d done it sooner. I can now have a day where I don’t look at emails, where I don’t have to feel guilty for not being in the office. Where I don’t have to worry so much about being inadequate, something I’m always having to work on.

Some people have been sceptical of my doing this. Colleagues who know how conscientious I am have said, ‘Oh, but you’ll be fitting in five days’ work into four,’ and, ‘But I bet you’ll still…’ But I won’t. I’ll be fitting four days’ work into four. And I won’t work on the fifth. Because I won’t get paid for it, and because I’ve learned that looking after myself is a priority, and I no longer believe that the harder you work, the more rewards there’ll be. Because sometimes, there just aren’t. Sometimes you work hard and you burn out and are worse off. I won’t do that to myself any more. I’m older now, feel as though I need to start winding down from that ‘be competitive all the time’ mindset, to start to please myself rather than constantly trying to please others in ways that are detrimental to my wellbeing. It’s taken me sixty-two years to learn that lesson. Apparently I’m a slow learner!

Is my new resolve selfish? Well yes it is, but sometimes we need to be selfish. That does not mean that I will slack off at my job. Of course not. I love the teaching, and I really look forward to seeing my students and helping them to want to learn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s the only reason, other than the hard fact that I have to earn a living, of course. I believe passionately in education. But I have to say now, I don’t believe in a system that damages people. And I know too many people – including myself – who have been damaged by it.

That’s a rant. I didn’t want this to be a rant, but maybe it was inevitable given the reasons why I decided that enough was enough and that I had to cut my working hours. I’m lucky that I can afford to do so. I don’t have a mortgage and can pay my bills. Next year my partner will be moving in and can share the load. I’m really grateful for all the privileges I have; I wholeheartedly acknowledge them. I’ll always have a roof over my head, for example. But as I get older, I worry about how I’ll heat my house, because my pension will, contrary to popular belief about academics’ pensions being huge, be very small because I didn’t start to pay into a pension scheme until I was older. So I have to take my life in my own hands and, somehow, turn it around.

I have ideas. Last week I attended a very inspirational talk about how we might change the ways we look at students, about how we teach them and, most important of all, how we relate to them. Everything I’ve ever thought, everything I’ve ever said, and been told I was wrong to say it, was echoed there in those talks, and now I want to try harder to help make changes to a system that values procedure over people, instead of the other way round. It will be really hard – how do you turn around an oil tanker with a tug? – but it will give me something to work towards, and I hope – if I’m allowed to start talking change – it will make my last couple of years before retirement more positive. Alternatively, I can drop my hours even more, and concentrate on my writing.

This is my horoscope for today (I’m a Pisces and use the ‘Co-Star Personalized Astrology’ app):

‘The rebel in you is on fire. Focus on larger truths. When you open yourself up to the world, every book and every person you meet, becomes a component of your                                learning process.’

This rings true to me. I haven’t decided my future yet – maybe it will be a mixture of both of the above – but finally I can see a glimmer of light, a rebellion against what has gone before, an opening up of doors and choices, and I’m slowly heading toward it.

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 4. Writing Myself: A Tentative Exploratory Foray into Therapeutic Writing

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

― Graham Greene, Ways of Escape

 

Graham Greene sums it up, really, and maybe I don’t need to say any more than this. And yet, we all come to writing in different ways for different reasons. I’ve already explored this a little in other posts, how I’ve always been led by my imagination. Our imaginations take us to places known and unknown, allow us to meet people we already know of, and people who are strangers, and we invent people that we might want to know, who we may aspire to be. Alternatively we might meet (and invent) those who terrify us, who challenge us, who make us question our own motives, and sometimes, our otherwise unspoken fascinations.

But it’s more than that for me, and I can only speak for myself. And for myself, I think writing fiction was a way of not facing my reality head-on, but through the lens of fiction – usually through horror and dark fantasy fiction, which probably says quite a lot about my preoccupations. As Emily Dickinson says: ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant – ’ Slant, so I need not look whatever ‘truth’ might mean in the face. Plus, I never thought I had anything interesting to say about me and my life. That, in fact, I was not interesting enough to explore myself in memoir-type writing. And maybe I’m not. I’ve accepted it’s not my place to judge.

When I became ill recently, my imagination grew ill with me. In fact, it seemed to die. There was nothing but grey mist in my mind, darkness in my ‘soul’, although I hesitate to use the word, but write it here as a kind of placeholder. Maybe psyche is a better word. Whatever. There was nothing. There has been nothing before, at other times when I’ve been unwell, but it was nothing like this blankness. This inability to be able to ‘see’ as I had once seen in what appeared to be living, breathing, vibrant images. This was a yawning void that sucked me into its empty heart. For someone who lives in their mind, probably too much, this was like another disability. And no, I don’t use the word lightly. If I couldn’t write, then what was I? What was my worth? To an extent, it’s still like that now. I seem to have little imagination, in the way it used to be. I can no longer imagine the fictions I used to imagine; the images, sounds and characters are no longer vibrant in my mind, and this is really, really hard. I worry that maybe I’ll never get that back, that my ability to create in that way has been lost forever. I worry that my depressed self, which tells its own fictions, will take over forever. It’s a kind of grieving, I guess, for a self that once was. But as the light re-emerged, my need to invent other places and people seems to have been replaced by another kind of need. The need to express myself through myself. To use words as a means to explore me, to help me to understand what ‘me’ really means. To use words as a kind of healing. To explore the ‘madness, the melancholia, the panic and fear’ that Greene describes.

To stop telling the truth ‘slant’.

As a slight digression, I recently read that five thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians believed in the magical power of words, which were, according to their beliefs, at their most powerful when written on papyrus, a way of concentrating and focusing the magic that would drive out disease and demons. Sometimes words were dissolved in liquid, and given as medicine. The power of the word, in spells, in charms, in fictions and fact, is long understood. Words are power. Words can destroy, and words can heal. The healing aspect is something I’ve become hugely interested in, and it’s known as Writing Therapy:

‘For nearly 30 years I’ve had the same therapist. I’ve called on my therapist at 3am, on my wedding day, on a cold and lonely Christmas, on a Bora Bora beach, and in the dentist’s reception room. I can tell this therapist absolutely anything.’ (Adams. 1990)

The therapist Adams speaks of is her journal, and as she implies, the journal ‘therapist’ listens like no one else can. It will not judge you. It will not interrupt. It will not try to make you feel better with well-meant advice or platitudes. It will not be embarrassed. It is there to help you express in writing what you may not be able to express verbally, when words are too difficult to speak. It is there, in the words of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, who ‘describes writing as the process of explaining yourself to yourself, of pushing into the places of your experience where you have no articulated knowledge of the world’ (Bell, J and Magrs, P. 2001). I’ve ‘pushed into those places’ but usually they have been places of the imagination, of dreams and visions, in works of horror and the darkly fantastic. But I’ve never really explored my own life in a direct way. I’ve never felt that I’ve had anything interesting to say. That I am interesting to anyone else. But now…. Now I feel driven to explore my own emotions through the way of expression that is the most ‘natural’ to me. Through writing. Could this be a ‘poetics’ of my writing and how it’s linked to my mental health? Is there such a thing? Exploring and discussing the facets of my writing that link to my mental health and vice versa? I’m not sure where I would go with this, but I think it could be interesting. I think I’m starting to understand now what my present type of writing is for, what this blog is trying to do.

So begins the exploration.

Adams, K. Journal to the Self. (1990). New York. Warner Books.

Bell, J and Magrs, P. (2001). The Creative Writing Coursebook. London. Macmillan.

Dickinson, E. ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263 (accessed 21/09/2019)

Pinch, G. ‘Ancient Egyptian Magic’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/magic_01.shtml (accessed 21/06/2019)

 

 

 

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 1: ‘The Little Girl Who Was Afraid’.

 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, (2013) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books.

I’ve always loved making up stories. We all love them; as highly complex social creatures we have evolved to be curious about the lives of others, and stories help us feel connected. We read about heroes, and wish we were brave. We read about antagonists and recoil at their evil (or unwillingly admire it). We read about cute little animals dressed up in human clothes, and smile at the anthropomorphism, because we relate everything back to ourselves, remind ourselves of our humanity. We crave stories that engage us, that thrill us, perversely, even tales that terrify us. To experience vicariously the lives of others. And we are all storytellers. We enjoy recounting our experiences, our loves, our hates, our political opinions, to others who will listen and who then tell their own stories as a reward. So we can relate. That is in the nature of being the complex, highly developed social animals that we are.

And then there are the stories we tell ourselves too. We tell them in the silent noise of our memories, in vivid daydreams, and the too-real depths of nightmare sleep. Those stories are often as unreal as any fictions; although the events recalled may be accurate, the perceptions are often misremembered (memory is notoriously unreliable); or they become tangled and twisted and end up becoming our own horror stories, worse than any writer could create. Because in our over-developed, modern brains, these tangled twisted misrememberings are real.

As mentioned before, I’ve grown up as a people-pleasing, body-loathing, anxious person, which has led to several bouts of deep depression. The stories I’ve told myself – I’m rubbish at everything, I’m stupid, I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m unlovable – have developed over many years into patterns. Into fictions I’ve learned to believe.

 

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She was adored by her parents, who used to told her how perfect she was, how much they had longed and longed for her, so much, that when she came along, she was more precious than all the jewels in the world. She was cared for and cossetted, wrapped up in soft cotton, especially by her mother, who believed that the world was a Bad Place for her little girl to go out into.

‘You might be taken away if you leave the safety of our home,’ the mother would say. ‘There are Bad People out there who would do anything to hurt a precious creature such as yourself.’ And she would look out of the window at the Big Bad World, and the Bad People who lived in it, with terror in her eyes, and the little girl would look too, and she began to feel afraid.

 

Who really knows where our anxieties stem from? Through a lot of counselling – this time, and others – I’ve come to learn the origins of my own. I was a cossetted only child, I was, without sounding ungrateful, loved too much. So much that I always felt I had to prove how much I loved back. Of course that didn’t go through my young mind – not exactly like that – but pleasing my parents, respecting my parents and those older than me, members of my family who would protect me, was all I knew. If I did anything to rock that particular boat, then I would suffer, and everyone I loved would be hurt. And so the storyline began: I can’t be on my own. If I’m on my own, Bad Things will happen. And the people I love will suffer.

And then my mother went out to work. Or tried to.

 

The little girl doesn’t understand what’s happening. Her mother is dressing herself up; she looks different somehow, although the little girl can’t really say why. It’s quite early in the morning too, and yet they’re getting ready to go out. When the little girl asks why, the mother says, ‘Mummy has a new job. So you’re going to meet a new lady who’ll look after you.’

            The little girl doesn’t like the sound of that. She knows that having ‘a job’ means leaving the house to go somewhere to ‘work’. She knows this because her father goes out to work and brings home money to live on, and to buy her new dollies. But although she feels scared, she doesn’t believe her mother with leave her, and so she allows her mother to get her dressed, and follows her like a lamb to the slaughter (although this is a term she has never heard, but I’m saying it here now, because that’s what she was).

 

I was about three years old, pre-school anyway, and this was the very first time my mother had ever left me with anyone else. Including, at that stage, my father, because our activities at weekend were always family events. So being faced with Something New was scary. But even as we walked away from our house, round the corner into another street, I didn’t believe anything would really change. That’s the thing about children – even in the worst scenarios, they trust.

 

The little girl looks toward the house they’ve arrived at. It’s a house much like the one she lives in, a terraced house, but it looks looming and forbidding, somehow tumbledown and threatening, like one of the scary castles she’s learned about in fairy tales. She clings to her mother’s hand more tightly, and looks up at her. Her mother looks down at her and smiles. She drags her feet as they walk to the front door. It’s black, like the sealed entrance to a cave, and the little girl doesn’t want to go in, in case there are monsters. She feels tears threatening; her throat closes up. She clings tighter still to her mother, who has knocked on the door. A witch opens it. She is dressed in a wrap-over housecoat that looks tatty and stained. Her hair is hidden under a scarf tied like a turban, but the strands that escape it are grey and flimsy. She wears no makeup on her coarse features, and she is smoking a cigarette, which she holds between two yellow-stained fingers. When she smiles, it’s like the opening of a grave. The little girl’s mother doesn’t seem worried though. Instead she smiles and tells the little girl the witch’s name, and that she’s going to stay with her while Mummy goes to work. The little girl doesn’t take it in, doesn’t understand. All she understands, with rush of utter terror, is that her mother is going to leave her with The Witch. With a Bad Person.

            She opens her mouth and begins to scream.

 

In the end, my mother did leave me with the woman, who of course, wasn’t a witch at all, but a reliable adult who never intended me any harm at all. But I screamed all morning, and all the next day too. I screamed and cried so much that my poor mother had to leave her job and stay at home with me again. She didn’t get her next job until I was at school, and then it was part-time; she was always home when I was. Now I understand the sacrifice she made then. Now I understand the need she had to be something other than a mother – it was never good enough for her. But of course that little girl I was then didn’t understand. And so a terrible fear of abandonment was added to the list of narratives I was beginning to tell myself.

I’ve always loved making up stories…

Why Write? Exploring the (lack of) Desire

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 is something that writers debate constantly, and working in Higher Education as a senior lecturer in creative writing, it’s the subject of necessary discussions I have (had) with student writers on a regular basis. When they 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 fair enough answer. Students, often just out of school, don’t always understand their own motivations for their choice.  They know it’s there, that desire to communicate, but they don’t know what they want to do with it. Sometimes, almost inevitably, 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, that they just have to ‘create’. Wrong. Of course. Writing – along with other creative arts – 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 reflective and proficient. But I digress…

Most students though (especially mature students, of whom we seem to attract quite a few – I myself was one), 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. Or at least it used to be. For me, writing used to be everything. And I do pretty much mean that. Except for being a mum to two wonderful, now grown up people, my purpose in life, I always felt, was to write. To create. To create other worlds, live other lives in and through their creation because – maybe an issue, but hey –  ever since I was a little girl dreaming dreams of gods and monsters, my own reality was never enough. But now…. Ironically, working in HE as a full time lecturer, with all the increasing stresses it brings, as well as having a chronic depressive illness that those stresses impact on, has kind of killed the desire. Part of the motivation for writing these blog posts is to try to rekindle it, to try to find what – in the maelstrom of thoughts that whirl in my mind – is left of that compulsion. I’m hopeful it’s still there, but I will need to dig deep….

I digress.

When I started studying creative writing at university our lecturer at the time told us that no-one cared if we wrote, that our work didn’t really matter to anyone else.  My initial – defensive – thought was: she’s full of it. I care. But, although it was a tactless, almost throwaway remark, and for someone like me, quite destructive, I think in hindsight that it was a valuable thing for her to say, for various reasons.

In all honesty, it’s a fact. Apart from yourself, no one really cares that much. Friends and family can be very supportive – I was always told by my parents that it was a ‘nice little hobby’ – 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. Writing creatively is still often seen as a luxury, a privilege that many people can’t afford to indulge in an increasingly money and ‘success’ driven world. While it’s kind of true, I find that sad; writers I know find that sad. Without art, we’d live in an entirely utility driven world. Is that what we want?

Publishers and agents don’t care either. This is maybe a throwaway remark – but why should they? 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 have something they want of course. Is this cynical? On reflection, I still think, not really. I think it’s fair enough, in the end. 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. None of us are, beyond the basic human needs, which are, of course, becoming increasingly complex. This is a hard lesson, I think, in these days where everyone is encouraged by the media machine to believe they’re entitled to everything, because we’re sold the dream of ‘you have the right to be… whatever you want to be.’ And that’s another debate.

Sometimes writers thwart themselves from achieving what is regarded as success (see more on that later). Let me expand upon that just a little, because it’s maybe a harsh statement, but it relates to the above point. This does not mean that they don’t want to write – most writers I know are passionate about what they do. What I mean by that is that sometimes finding the motivation, to fan the desire by doing the hard work that goes with it is really difficult. Sometimes it’s almost impossible. I really admire (and am pretty envious of, to be honest!) writers who have a full time, demanding job, and who can still dedicate themselves to their craft. Those who still have the headspace and energy to pour themselves into the stories and worlds and people they want to create. Who have the energy to put it through numerous edits, research the market, and  then send that work out to publishers, to face the seemingly endless rejections, so that maybe one day, there’s an acceptance. Those acceptances mean a lot, when they come. But often they’re a long time coming, and some of us just become… tired… and so we don’t do it. Or can’t bring ourselves to do it, and give up. At least, that’s what I’ve found. I’m trying not to be bitter about it; bitterness achieves nothing, and I think I’m learning to accept that too during the time I’ve had to reflect, to understand myself more. But as I write these words, I feel the desire returning, and understand that I have options. We all do. With regard to the above kind of rant about ‘having the right’, which I’m aware is becoming circular, so I’ll stop…. While none of us have the ‘right’ to be a best-selling writer, we all, surely, have the ‘right’ to be creative. To at least try? Because on a personal basis, I’ve found that allowing my creativity to wither, has been a kind of death.

A further note on ‘success’. Does it matter if you don’t get paid for your writing? That depends on your idea of success. In Higher Education, institutions ‘grade’ you, via the Research Excellence Framework, on your output. Fair enough. HE institutions are (meant to be) centres of education, excellence for research. Work done in HE directly contributes to world knowledge. But creative writing, at least in some institutions, isn’t regarded as ‘research’. So while it is quite rightly valued if, say, you get a novel or poetry collection published, or script made into a film, it doesn’t count towards the REF. Is this short-sighted? Should a piece of creative work be regarded as research, contributing to knowledge? I guess it depends on what ‘knowledge’ means to you. In the wider world,  many people still only understand ‘successful’ writers as those who write the bestsellers, the big-hitters. The books we find in chain booksellers. It all becomes – as everything else has – consumed by consumerism. I think that’s sad too. I think it can be demoralizing. Do we have to adhere to market forces to achieve? And again, what does ‘achievement’ mean? For me, just writing this post is an achievement, but it’s making me realise, again, that I want more.

One thing is for sure: It’s not easy. And it’s not supposed to be.

 

 

Who is the ‘I’ Who Writes?

‘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 – so I shall treat myself here as my Self.) in the writing process as a piece of work evolves. And yet, as she says, the author must take care not to be visible in the finished fictional narrative, for any number of reasons, both good and not so good. Is this true, and if so, can we really avoid exposing our Selves?

I’ve been thinking about this. A lot. Especially recently, during this latest, long bout of depression, when writing anything at all has been ‘about’ my Self. About my life, and how I feel consumed by it, but am unable to express it in the way I (used to) know how to. Through the written word. Because I think about how exposing the written word is. How we are laid bare, even flayed by our own words. Once they are written, will we not be judged by them? And found wanting? And that’s scary.

Anyone who writes, especially those writers who allow people to read 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?’ As a senior lecturer in creative writing, I’ve found that 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 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, as a previous student of creative writing. Students often think they should be writing for the lecturer, especially for assessments: If they write something a lecturer likes, is interested in, it might get them better grades.

When I was a level 3 student on course for the first class honours degree in creative writing I was later to achieve, 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 as though 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, it will show, and why would I be interested in an piece of work you don’t really care about?’

Of course, writing what interests you brings back the idea of self-exposure, of showing everyone who reads what goes on inside your head. Of being ‘absolutely stripped bare’. Students often worry about writing about controversial subjects; and I guess in these troubled times, they’re wise to be wary, but…. I worry about that. Quite a lot. For example, I teach writing horror fiction (a subject often sneered at by Literary Writers, but which is its own way of writing about the (sometimes) otherwise inexpressible) , and for one of my sessions, I sometimes 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. Again, it’s wise to be wary. It takes a lot of reassurance that I won’t judge them. That I’m not there to be a moral barometer. The only judgements 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. And that we have to get used to exposure if we want to communicate. 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. It’s one of the few reasons that keeps me in the job when everything else in Higher Education is becoming consumed by… consumerism.

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 we almost always write about what goes on inside us. We write about what we care about, and this reflects our Self, to a greater or lesser 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 one-time poet, my poetry often seemed to want to talk about women’s issues – fertility, abortion, maternity, although it has dealt with themes of horror too – death, dying, and, especially, the futility of our existence – 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 (2002), 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. For me, recently, it’s been everything and nothing. Part of why I want to write this blog is to explore that.

Of course, as mentioned above, we are sometimes judged by what we write. People often 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. We know both are far from the truth, and yet the myths linger, as myths do, albeit they evolve.

I remember doing a reading of a very dark piece in which a cheating male character gets stabbed and killed by his psychotic girlfriend. One of the audience, who I thought knew me, came up to me afterwards 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, something that every writer, in my opinion, needs to develop. 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 believe that good (value judgement, but hey!) 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.

This is, in part, what this blog hopes to do.

 

Works cited.

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