Bara Rida (word count approx 3050)

*So I thought I’d post a few short stories here, just for a change. Here’s the first, a dark fantasy version of The Little Mermaid.*

Wild. The coast of the North country. Untamed. Inhospitable. Never silent, never still. Wind screams a constant shriek, echoing in dark sea caves, the cries of the damned drowned. Foam-topped waves taller than ships crash against towering basalt cliffs, bringing ruin to long-ships, bringing death to the men who crew them. No beaches here on this cliff-tall coast. No landings but those hewn from hard rock by the seafaring people who inhabit this unforgiving place. People as wild and unwelcoming as the terrain itself. Untamed and ferocious as Great Mother Sea.

Ragnar stands on the prow of his long-necked wave’s steed. Watches the wind-whipped waters, an insolent smile stretching his lips. Ragnar, Mother Sea’s son, favoured in her watery eyes. Hair the colour of sun-ripened wheat whips and flails about his face. Salt-sodden strands sting his half-closed eyes. He tastes the birth water of his turbulent mother on his tongue, savours it, and shouts to his hard-labouring crew to hold the damn sail in place, my brothers, urging them on to row, row for their lives, his voice competing against that of the howling wind. Row the serpent. Bring it down the icy stream. Fly us home. 

He cannot afford to lose the plunder they’ve fought for, risked their lives for, spilled blood for, died and murdered for. Bolts of silk, treasure chests brimful with coins from all lands. Ropes of milky pearls, droplets from the oyster’s breast. Single black milk-beads, more valuable than gold. Jewels. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds the colour of Kara’s eyes, sapphires the colour of his own. Fragrant treasures reaped from foreign far-flung Aesir. Much as he loves her, Ragnar will never willingly surrender them to his demanding mother. He yells a curse against her that he would rather die than be so dishonoured, and feels himself swell with the excitement of his challenge, with the possibility that today, his mother’s favour may finally desert him.

Mother Sea knows his arrogance. Hears his defiance. Up until now, she has spared her most favoured son her terrors, the son so beautiful he will not allow a beard to hide his features. But now, furious with his mutiny, she sends another of her sons against him. Squall becomes Storm, screaming out warnings, pouring rain and hail down upon the sea-dragon and its proud riders. On its young master. Waves lash against the slender wooden hull, saturate the snake-emblazoned sail. Timbers groan. Men cry out with fear. Heave their oars in desperation. Pull, you bastards. Pull. But the waves toss the ship like a wildcat tosses a rat. Ship pitches and falls. Pitches and falls. The water-peaks rise higher, the troughs dip lower. Ragnar feels his stomach rise. And fall. Rise. And fall. Clings tighter to the guard rope, tries to keep his balance. Shivers in the teeth of icy North Wind and, refusing the unmanning of terror, laughs, defiant in the face of death and…

Losing control. Oars snap. Timbers gape. The sea-dragon falls apart. Again, Ragnar shouts an order, but his words are lost in the screams of his mother’s fury. Now he feels fear invade him. Now he must join the poor bastards he’s condemned. Must die amongst them, his warrior-brothers. But he will die an honourable death, a sword-reddener’s death in his mother’s arms. Not standing here, frozen in emasculated terror. He abandons the guard rope, lurches as the ship plunges. Cries out as a wave, fiercer and greedier than any other, engulfs him. Knocks him off his feet. Sends him down into the watery depths of his mother’s furious lust for her once-favoured son.

Dead. He knows he’s dead. Images of his homeland run through his mind. The village at the end of the deep sea fjord. The ring of high mountains that protects it from invaders. Mountains that always have snow on their peaks, even in high summer. The meadows where the short-horned cattle and white-fleeced sheep graze on sweetgrass. The sound of gulls wheeling overhead, screeching at the catch of fresh fish. He sees the sky above him, clear and blue. Feels the deep heat of the brief summer sunshine. Sees people. His father, an older, flawed version of himself, the massive scar that seams his face creasing livid with laughter. Sigurd always laughs at his own jokes, no matter how bad they are. And he sees his flesh-mother, care-lined, her body bent from working too hard carrying for her wayward husband and eight strapping sons. Yet her eyes – sky-forged as Ragnar’s own – twinkle with wry good humour and love. 

And Kara. Flame haired emerald-eyed Kara. Skin the texture of the white samite he stole from a Southern trader two days past. Nipples that taste of milk and thighs that taste of sweat and woman musk. When he left her she was big, distended with his child. Long wished-for boy-child. Must be a son for Ragnar, who will be the father of many sons, and this the first, with the strong legs of a warrior kicking inside Kara’s belly. Bunched fists punching against her womb, waiting to hold an axe or an iron short sword, eager to conquer the world his father has created for him. Never to see that boy-child. Because Ragnar is dead. Drowned in the birth-fluid of his vast mother’s sac.

When he opens his eyes he knows he’s arrived in the Otherworld. A place of holding where souls await judgement. A cavern in the depths of the earth-mother, far away from the brief summer sun. Far, far away from the too-brief lives of men. No warrior long-house for Ragnar. He sits up; his aching body, clothes ripped away by the storm, protests; his chest heaves, and he coughs up great gouts of sea water. Pukes it up until his guts hurt and his lungs are consumed with fire. Surely death does not feel like this? Surely his heart should not beat so wildly, wild like the drumming the elders use to summon the spirit-gods? Surely his every movement should not feel like a torture? Slowly he understands that he’s not dead at all. But if he’s not dead, then where is he?

After he has finished spilling his guts he tries to rise. Screams out involuntarily as agony sends him crashing back down. His new world whirls around him. Sight blackens. Sweat, hot and cold, pours from his brow, his sodden body, clammy with fear and faintness. He feels himself unmanned, reduced to a whining dog. Biting his lips, he looks at his legs. The left is black with bruising, probably broken. But the right… the right is a bloody mess of bone-rent tissue. Destroyed and useless. Probably forever. Ragnar pukes again and bites back another agonised howl. Blinks back tears. A warrior does not weep, no matter the pain or the torment. It’s only water from his hair that runs hot down his face, only the salt of the sea that he tastes on his lips, in the back of his gulping throat.

With a huge effort of will, he gains control of the pain, proves to himself he is no whining cur. Rises on his elbows and peers around him. Sees that he is stranded in a basalt cave lit with phosphorescence and glinting mica, hears the gentle lapping of water. No storm here, but a wyrd lull that seeps into his bones and almost unmans him again. Scent of amniotic salt rises from the sea pool that half-fills the space. Scent of fresh fish-catch and rotting fish-flesh. Scent of something unfamiliar. Scent that sends him back to puking. Quivering in terror, he curses himself and his weakness.

She watches it. Bara-rida, the wave rider. Elliptical pupils in yellow sclera open and close, open and close, capturing the vision. Paints it on the retinas of her slanted eyes. Gills in her neck open and close, open and close, capturing air. Something stretches her thin silver-scaled lips. Some might call it a smile; some might call it hunger. All would call it terrible. Something like longing beats in her many-chambered heart. Her catch is beautiful. They are all beautiful, the land-walkers, even the old ones, the ugly ones. Beautiful in the way they carry their bodies. In the way they move, with long lower protuberances so different from her fish-scaled tail. Her inhuman mind searches for the word, and her thin mouth stretches again as she finds it. Legs. Marrow-halls she longs for but will never have. 

She cares nothing for the threats made against her. Bara-rida has been following this feeder of war-gulls for many moons, and refuses to give it up. Attracted by the paleness of its flesh-cover, its sunlit scalp-cords, and its strong lean bone-house, she has yearned for many moons. She, who has sought the most favoured of the land-walkers, the sons of earth, now owns it. She, who has prayed endlessly to the sea-gods for this prize, in saving it, has finally been rewarded. True, its legs are damaged, and the scent of its wound-sea drives her hunger relentlessly forward. But she has desired it so long, she must heal it, keep it for her own. Surely, she will not be punished for accepting the gift that the gods themselves have given her? A thought, clear and strong, passes through her mind and lodges there: I will not tell.

Bara-rida watches as it ejects salt-water from its mouth, scents its terror as it understands that it’s injured, and watched by unseen sight-paths. Strange, associating terror with this creature, this sea-warrior. But humans are superstitious, stuffed full of tales of spirits and demons and mythical beasts. Living on the edge of death as they do, it is easy for them to believe in such things. Bara-rida knows the truth that men can only guess at, for is she not part myth herself, she and her race? Hasn’t she been told tales by the elder-kin of how her kind are harpooned and killed by the land-locked ones? Of how they are hunted by the fish-eaters, the chase considered sport, and their murdered flesh a rare delicacy? Yes, she has heard. And seen. But it makes no difference to her. Bara-rida claims this one as her prize, as her trophy, and she will not be denied.

Who’s there? Ragnar’s voice echoes around the glistening basalt walls, comes back to him, high and helpless. Who’s there? There…. there…. Show yourself. Show yourself. Yourself… yourself…. He hears a splash in the centre of the sea-pool, feels the pressure of a gaze upon his prickling skin. Strains to raise himself up higher. The pain of his shattered leg descends the black veil over his eyes once more. For a few seconds he writhes on the cave floor like a landed fish, gasping, sweat pouring from every pore, then, still gasping, raises himself on his elbows and sees it, the source of the splash, the sensation of being watched. 

Water ripples and splashes, ripples and splashes. Something – a fin? several? – breaks the surface of the water, disappears again. Breaks again. Rises. Rises higher, revealing the humped back of… of what? Ragnar watches, horror-struck – whatever it is, it has almost reached the lip of stone – propels himself backward on his arms to the basalt wall of the cave behind him. Shudders and whimpers. Whimpers and shudders. Sees what his Mother Sea has sent to him and wishes he had died. Or maybe this is Hel.

For this is what he sees: female. It is female. Or at least, on its fish-scaled torso, it sprouts swellings that resemble breasts, centred by chitinous nipple-peaks. Its mouth is a shark-toothed, flat-nosed nightmare set in a triangular face, from which lidless eyes the colour of fresh bile watch him intently. What that intent is, Ragnar can only guess at. And none of the guesses bring him comfort. It raises itself up on armoured arms, at the end of which knife-claws erupt from webbed fingers, scrape-scraping on the wet-stone floor as it tries to gain purchase. Briefly, he glimpses a pulsating opening where her cunt would be, were she a woman, and tries not to puke again. As he takes this nightmare in, watching now the slow opening and closing of the gills in its neck, Ragnar can already feel his guts spilling from his body. Wonders if his next breath will be his last.

With effort, she hauls herself out of the salmon’s hall and slithers out onto unfamiliar land, watching as her prize scrabbles away. Why does it try to escape her? Bara-rida is considered a rare beauty among her kin-kind, sought after by many suitors, and has rejected them all. No spawning for her; her mind has been fixed on this sword-blade’s messenger, this tree of gold. Awkward on land, she propels herself toward it on her arms, and approaches, dragging her tail behind her. Reaches out a four-knived hand and clasps it around its wrist.

When he feels its touch, cold and hard-scaled, he thinks he’ll faint. Strong, he realises as he struggles to remove its grasp, this thing has more power than he, weak and enfeebled as he is. With its bile-yellow eyes, it stares at him, bares white fangs, the likes of which he’s only ever seen on the great sickle-sailed sea-fish his people sometimes catch, and snake-like, it susurrates air from its mouth. Its exhalations carry the stink of rotting sea-water, decaying fish and death. Ragnar prays that death will be quick. Closes his eyes. Waits. But the bite doesn’t come.

Warm, its soft body-covering. Warm and soft with skin-fur. Bara-rida, who has never felt the casing of a land-walker before, hisses softly. Brings her mouth down to a pale five-branched arm-appendage, extrudes a long black tongue and runs it upward, tracing a rapidly beating blood-river. Salt. It tastes of salt, familiar and beloved. Bara-rida hears the sound of its breath, panting in the sea-hall, echoing off its walls, and more salt floods her mouth. The water comes hot from its skin, and with it a rapid increase of the beat of its heart. Bara-rida feels something swell inside her, and names it desire.

At the touch of her tongue, Ragnar hitches in a breath and howls. He howls like the wolves howl outside his village at night. Louder. Ululations rip from his throat, and he writhes in his desperation to get away from this monstrous female. His legs twist beneath him, bones grating against each other, and agonised, he howls louder, feels warmth run from the wounds, knows he is bleeding again. But his mind refuses him the blessed unconsciousness he seeks, and now, he wonders if his death will not be the quick release he wished for, but one slow and lingering. A coward’s death. Please, not a coward’s death, he prays, howling louder. Let me fight and send me quickly to the gods’ house, the storm-shrine of glory. Let me be a man one last time.

Why is it making that noise? Is it from pleasure? Pain? Bara-rida of the Silent Ones, has never heard its like, and the desire to spawn, fresh and new and strong, explodes inside her, races through her, a roaring ocean-swell. Gripping her prize tighter in her excitement, she presses a clawed hand hard against the slender column that supports its head, and pushes its body back against the cave’s wall, balancing herself on her tail. Looking into its face, she sees a blaze of blue-stones that burns her, and now she understands, for she has seen that expression before, in the catch-wounded ones of her own kind, of opened lung-cages, of guts spilling out into the birth-fluid of Mother Sea.

On him. She is on him, and he cannot move. Constant pain in his legs evokes a continual stream of screams from his mouth, and his sight is failing from blood loss. Dying now. He knows he is dying and no longer fights it. Thoughts of glory desert him, and his mind conjures more images of his homeland to comfort him. Wrong. He was wrong. The stench of decay becomes the scent of woodfire and wild flowers, and this is no monster reaching for him. Tearing at him. This is Kara, ripe and swollen and beautiful, opening her arms, beckoning him, touching him. Making him hard despite the pain of his shattered legs and his slow-pierced throat. And he’s in her and she’s hot… and she’s cold… and he’s moving in an ice cavern lined with knives… and it’s agony… and when he bursts inside her he feels himself ripped to shreds… and the screams become whimpers. And now silence. And now darkness. And now. Nothing.

Bara-rida feels warmth flood inside her for the first time in her life, feels pleasure flood inside her, and her spawn-sacs burst open, releasing eggs to meet the deposit it has left. She tastes its corpse-sea in her mouth, and chews the gobbets of meat she tore away in her frenzy. Swallows, savours the taste. In her grip, it hangs useless, and she knows that now it has become fish-food. Another strange emotion pervades her mind, her soulless form. It makes the chambers of her heart heavy, painful, and she cannot name it, for she has no words. But it lasts only a moment. Then she adjusts her prey in her arms, crawls to the edge of the sea-pool and splashes into the water. As she descends into the depths with her catch, a gift to her kin-kind, a wound-wave of red trails above them, before it dissipates into nothingness. She wonders what its seed will grow inside her, and knows that that will be the best gift of all.

Meanderings

 

I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t have anything to say that can possibly be any different from what other, more articulate, people have already said better than I can say it. I don’t have anything inspirational to say about this awful situation. I can find no inspiration. My mind is blank except for this constant and overwhelming dread. And now I sound like some B character who’s about to die an unremarkable death some B movie. Forgettable. Undefined. Completely unimportant in the grand scheme of this pandemic horror show that’s playing out in front of our unbelieving eyes.

And yet today, when I’m really struggling, when I can’t stop weeping, I feel the need to write this down. To expel it, vomit it onto the page in the hope of bursting the abscess festering in the pit of my stomach. I’m a writer, aren’t I? Someone who’s supposed to live through words. Not this fraud who’s forgotten what words are, who lives, right now, in a maelstrom of useless emotion. So I’m writing. It may not be my best writing, but I’m writing for now, because now is all there is. Cliche without the accent. Words without meaning. Meaning without… meaning. Besides, when I was having counselling, my counsellor advised that writing it all down would concretise my thoughts. Give them shape. And ironically, before this, I’d wanted to work towards helping others through writing, become a writing therapist. So let’s try it on me, shall we? I’ll try to be my own therapist and see if it helps. A little.

My mind has gone blank, so I’ll write through it. I’ll write a list of what I miss. It’ll be a list, in no particular order, and it’ll be a list of things, no doubt, that other people will miss too, depending on their own circumstances. 

I miss…

Seeing my children.

Hugging my children.

(Those two things are in fact top of the list because – to be brutal – I’m afraid that… I can’t put that into words. Read the dots as you will.)

Socialising with my wonderful colleagues, who are also my friends. 

Eating tapas in a tapas bar.

London (yes it’ll still be there when this is over, but I miss it now.).

Work – or at least going into work, having the face to face interaction with students instead of this facsimile of a sham of online teaching that feels so sterile, so… unsatisfying (but yes, I know there’s no choice, and it keeps me busy!).

Shopping for trivial things that are, in all honesty, meaningless. I realise, at least, the difference (now) of want, not need. I guess that’s a Good Thing. Check my privilege, right? 

Going to bed at night without the dread of closing my eyes because of the things I imagine in the darkness of my brain.

Going birdwatching, especially to RSPB Rainham Marshes, with its wonderful vistas. Soon chicks will be hatching. I wish I could see that.

Decent chocolate. 

Going shopping in a big supermarket.

My imagination – or at least the part of it that dreams up fiction and wants to write it. I do not miss the part of my imagination that tells me that there will be no end to this. Ever. Because that’s still there, louder and more vivid than ever before.

Enough of that for now. I feel the abscess tensing. Not quite yet at a head. Not yet ready to burst. 

So let’s make a gratitude list. Because despite it all, and under all the pain, there is gratitude. I know all too well how privileged I am to even be able to write this at all. That knowledge doesn’t always help. But it’s there. So the list, again in no particular order.

The love I feel for my children, and the love they feel for me. I’m lucky to have that.

Talking to my children on the phone, on FaceTime, via WhatsApp, on Instagram. Knowing that although they’re not with me physically, we are together virtually, and bound by something stronger than touch.

My partner, who abandoned his own home without a second though to move in here with me when the lockdown went… down. 

My friends, who are all, in their own way, coping with this in their own ways. Unity in hardship, in difficulty, in pain and, importantly, again, in hope and love.

That I have enough food. That I can afford to buy food.

That I still have my job, that I’m still being paid to do it.

Books. Without books I couldn’t stay even slightly sane.

Food TV. Thank god for shows like Masterchef, Great British Menu, reruns of Rick Stein and the Hairy Bikers.

Beauty YouTube. My safe space.

My own home, with no mortgage.

(So far) my physical health. People I know are ill from this vile disease. May they recover soon.

Sunshine and fresh air and being allowed, for a short time, to be out in it. At a safe social distance of course.

Those are the things I can think of for now. Of course there are more. I will discover them, I hope, these lights in the darkness. 

I don’t know if this has helped me (or anyone else), but it has indeed put the sucking whirlpool thought in black and white. Given them form, rather the formless chaos they were before. In fact, writing this felt like an act of self-preservation, the page a place of safety. So I guess more words are needed.

Love and hope to all. 

 

Styling Style – Musings and experiments

The discussion in the classroom today is about literary style, and trying to find definitions. No one in the room seems to know, and we discover that it’s much harder to define than simply that literary style is about the way a writer presents their thoughts. It is more than the way we use word choice, more than description, or the way we create character. More, even, than syntax. Style varies according to the writer, and according to the subject matter. Style is everything combined together. So is it the writer’s ‘voice’ that we think about, when we think about style? That thing that defines someone’s writing, so we can tell – sometimes at a glance – who wrote what. The question also arose: should a writer be versatile and able to adapt style/voice? I thought I’d try, and below are some experiments that came out of the seminar. It’s my own work, but influenced but students and my co-teaching partner. So thanks to them too.

Do I have style? Do I have a voice? Am I drowned out by all the other voices out there? Am I lost in the language I have learned, too far away from the language I have yet to learn, isolated from the innumerable languages I will never learn? Am I asking too many questions? I always ask too many questions. I question everything and everything is a question. And the question is complex, complicated and almost incomprehensible. When I discuss style, I discover so many things from so many people. Every one an individual. Every one the same. Different definitions from different people. Different styles. Different people. Hyper-reality of stylistic decisions. We are having a discussion now, about this very thing. We still cannot define it. Style is the question and there are too many answers. We may forever question: Do I have style? What is my voice? And who want to listen?

i am asking too many questions. style. say something. say it again (sam. or whoever. you all clamour. voices. voices. voices). innumerable languages crowding me out. excluding. we say style we do not mean. lost in a language too far from the language we have learned. everything and everything is a question. does a style mean? and if my style is avoiding rhetorical questions, how to version something that has seven is a problem. to have a style that is not a voice that someone wants to hear.

The title might have been ‘Alice Through the Glass’. But it feels as though something is missing. Oh, we can see her, this little girl, this little brat of a girl, because she’s here. She’s here right before you, or at least it feels like that. But she’s just words, a mirror facsimile created by the power of language, a reflection of the world of words you wish to create. Your language? Your language is a myth. Oh, it’s style, says Alice, you’ve used description with a flourish, you’ve created clear images, your pace is just so, and your plot is perfect cause and effect. But it’s all a lie, because she is a lie, and she’s not there. She is a spectre, a ghost that emerges from the absence that you fill with inadequate words that create the image of the little girl, this brat of a little girl. Language forces us to see her, but we cannot approach her, for she is never truly revealed.

The book fell upon the glowing grave dirt, beneath which thick white worms squirmed and writhed and ate their way through the stories written there. One of the worms became a queen and tore through the words to rule over the cemetery, issuing edicts with a wormtongue. Another worm grew to be a crown and wound its way around the queen’s head and blinded her; pierced her eardrums, and deafened her; ate her wormtongue and silenced her. Yet another became a sword that slithered into her hand and she wielded it blind and deaf and mute. She bent and felt for the book that had created her, felt for the wordworms and they crawled all over her, writing their stories, for they each had a story, they each had a style and that style had a name, and they all clamoured for her attention in the queen’s deaf ears and blind eyes and . She became the queen of writ(h)ing insanity, and she ruled the world, and the wordworms ruled with her.

This is a description of an exposition. The writer is writing the words. Her job is to write the words. She has always written the words. She is a wordsmith. She types the words one letter by one letter. An O. An N. An E. A B. A Y. Another O. Another N. Another E. Her fingers move rapidly across the keyboard, which is slightly grubby and needs cleaning. She hasn’t cleaned her keyboard in weeks, and the keyboard holds imprints of her fingertips, is covered in her DNA. Her fingers are half covered by grey fingerless gloves that need washing. She wears the gloves because her office is cold, breeze blowing through cracked seals and flaking pain, which once was white, and is now dull brown with rust. Her desk is covered with books of fantasy and horror and language and writing and myth, and papers and pens and pencils and highlighting pens and scissors and wet wipes, and there are several packs of board markers sitting on a pile of books, red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. Red, green, black, blue. On her right hand side is a telephone and a pair of headphones. A set of red and pink box files containing all her lecture notes sit by the telephone on the right hand side. A reusable water bottle, half-full, sits by her left hand. She wonders why she’s typing, for her mind is as disorganised as her desk, running in loops and down rat-runs that are unlit and full of dead ends. This is the end of a description of an expostion.

The characters, who shall not be named, except by X and Y, wind their way across the blank white landscape. Their steps are slow. And. Faltering. They look across at the wide expanse of space unpunctuated by any description of the terrain they are trying to traverse and they feel daunted at the miles and miles of empty page they are expected to cross because there are no marks for them to follow no evidence of page markers just a meandering nothing. And then. And they, they find themselves at the edge of a great ravine and X loses their footing and they….

fall

down

the

page

onto another. Above them they hear Y screaming. Screaming loudly on the edge of the precipice. There are sounds of a scuffle, more screaming. X cranes their head up but they cannot see anything. All they can hear is screaming. Then a blur of shadow, and Y lands beside X with a thud. A crunch telling X that Y… that Y is hurt. Hurt so badly. This character will soon cease to exist. Already Y is fading into whiteness, blending with the blank page. X is suddenly alone. X feels as though Y never existed. X has always been alone. X turns to face the white page.

And, alone again, begins to walk.

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

The Cathartic Benefits of Horror Writing: ‘Loss’ – On the Beautiful Horror of Dying

“There’s nothing we fear more than our own Reflection. We scream at the monsters within us, hidden deep within our hearts. We run and hide from the terrors all around us- the different mirrors that we see.”

― Solange nicole

I’ve touched on some of my writing history already – how I enter the darkness, explore the darkness, write the darkness. I’ve said a little about why I do that, how I’ve always been fascinated by the imaginary horrors, the myths and legends and folklore that tell us about so much about how peoples view(ed) their lives and tried to make sense of the (un)natural phenomena around them. As we have advanced our knowledge of the world, we have created new horrors, have new concerns. Rather than vampires, werewolves and ghosts, these are now what many horror writers wish to explore – or at least vampires, werewolves and ghosts as they might appear in a modern world, as modern metaphors.

For me it’s more than that. As Solange nicole (writer of dark romance and noir chic) says above, we fear our own Reflection. We run from the monsters inside us, because we do not wish to face the side of us that roars, that rants, that would rend and tear if we did not keep those base urges quiet. If we did not have a common ‘morality’ to check them. We are afraid of what we might see in the mirror when we stare back at ourselves – metaphorically and literally at times, literally, for me being unwanted wrinkles, unwanted fat. So if I don’t like looking in the mirror, why do I do it? Why do I write about the horrors that live in my mind? And perhaps more importantly, why do I disguise them in the form of fictional horrors, when the real stuff is bad enough?

Well, part of it is, of course, that fascination with the fictional dark. I’ve been reading horror stories for as long as I can remember, alongside the myths and legends I so love. Then I started reading Stephen King and I found a new direction. I think part of it was how King captures the ordinary person so well in his writing. His characters are real. When he exposes us to the horrors they’re going through, we really believe it. King, I believe, is an underrated writer, and I didn’t just want to read him, I wanted to write like him – a typical enough reaction, initially, when you’re a beginning writer and admire a writer’s style. In the end of course, we start to write like ourselves – anything else is derivative. But something that King says is that ‘We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones’ – and I believe this to be the case. The fictional dark is more easily expressed than the real darkness. This bleeds into the poetics of my horror writing.Bruno Bettelheim says that:

“[A reader] may wonder why he is so deeply moved; and in responding to what he    observes as his emotional reaction, ruminating about the mythical events and what   these mean to him, a person may come to clarify his thoughts and feelings. With this, certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved; previously unconscious material can then enter one’s awareness and become accessible for conscious working through.” (Bettelheim. 1977)

So why am I so ‘deeply moved’ by horror, and how does what I write ‘clarify’ my ‘thoughts and feelings’? How are ‘certain inner tensions’ relieved by reading – and in my case – writing out the horrors buried inside me? It definitely comes down to catharsis. Reading horror writing and watching horror films has been shown to be a cathartic act. It releases tension within you – you are terrified for a while – the terror comes out in raised heartbeat, restlessness as you read the words or watch the screen, wondering if the protagonists are going to fall prey to the monsters, and then, at the end, when they survive, you release a huge sigh of relief, maybe laugh at your own fear—because it’s not real, is it? – and then you can discuss the merits or otherwise of what you’ve read or watched. Catharsis. The releasing of tension. Or, as the American Psychological Association puts it:

“the discharge of effects connected to traumatic events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them.”

Is it a different experience, then, for writers? For me, I’d have to say yes. A resounding yes. While watching or reading a good (‘good’ being a value judgement) horror text may be a cathartic experience, in that there is that release of tension, it’s not the same as exploring those tensions through writing. As King says above, the horrors we make up help us to cope with – and I would add ‘explore’ – the real ones. A common saying – and I can’t remember where it comes from now – is that all fiction is autobiography, and all autobiography is fiction. I’m not sure I’ve even remembered it exactly, but I’d have to say that I believe in the inner ‘truth’ of the statement, and when I look back at my own work, I recognise it. Obviously my characters are not ‘me’ but I recognise the themes, the concerns, within the stories. Things that bother me. Things that keep me up at night worrying. It’s not as though I do it deliberately either – obviously my short stories and prose poems are not directly about ‘me’ or my experiences – but these things keep on creeping in. I think it’s inevitable.

Take loss, for example. And abandonment. Anyone reading my posts will know that these two things are terrors for me, and they almost always creep up in my writing somehow or another. When my mother died of Congestive Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – she also had Alzheimer’s, which is a particularly cruel form of illness because it strips the person of their personality – I didn’t really process it. I didn’t know how. I had my father to care for, because he was lost without her, and I was an only child. There was no-one else. My own grief – which I still haven’t processed and which has left unhealed wounds – wasn’t important. And yet I found myself writing about it unconsciously. A funeral scene in a novel, almost exactly the same as my mother’s funeral. People gasping for breath. People losing their minds. The last, given my mental health issues, is particularly close to home. But perhaps the closest I’ve come to catharsis on this subject is the prose poem ‘Loss’ below. It originated in a class taught by my partner, a class on experiment and innovation that encourages its students to look at language differently. To take the language we take for granted and twist it and reshape it into something new and unexpected. The poem below takes the language of death and dying and, I hope, turns it into something new, and for me at least, something strangely beautiful.

LOSS

I. The Artist

An inventive underworld, a sardonic farewell toast by a woman dressed in shades of purple. The artist wipes at one of her nipples. Long dark-meat fingers lift her taffeta skirt, leave her cracked open and naked. A self-dramatizing invocation leaves you spellbound, the words reverberating in a throb of dizziness, visceral performers in a full moon winter. Morning vision hallucinates wonder, grasping at a desired object. Fingers of a hand, a paw cut into flesh, some moonlight off the snow turning the white red. Incidents hushed up by highly artistic persons, and the purple woman, all innuendos and imaginations, mockingly dubious of extravagant detail. Nihilistic prose portrayals, flamboyant extravagances and delightful uncertainty.

A madness that intoxicates, real or unreal word-worlds? Studiedly bloodless stares that utterly destroy you. Gathering small blank cards, standing in a mirage, brief rumbling abysmal resonance. Dancing classes: your reflection in a mirror door sees many naked limbs, revels in a stripped cleft, delights in grunts of satisfaction. Cracked body, aching with cold, many shudders and jerks. A fixed unnerving gaze to a seedy downtown. Sitting at a filthy desk scribbling a surge of panic, writing lies under soft black stars. Fear complicates. Your consciousness becomes crystallised and explicit in super-text knowledge, a fragmentary nebulous manifestation, deeply subtle and dreamlike.

A meditation of certain realities, obsession like an intestinal virus hollowing you out in the company of nightmares and recently suffered illuminations with no antibodies or antidotes and you can never live in the same way again. The permanent termination of a work, a detailed and disturbing awareness and overwhelming inspiration. Crippling expiration.

In a clear voice, a precise work of art, but barely a whisper in the babel of exaggerated disgust. Artistic impulse of grotesque experience – non-existent writing and your words fall away in a collapse of language. Extraordinary pain etched on a wall. Please. Help. Me. Self-estrangement, a terrible compromise. Bare-footed, a sing-song taunt, a giggling mischief. Innumerable damaged bodies. Dies away, a final echo of wheezing laughter and word-displays on a metal plaque: you are devoid of meaning. Tiny star-shaped flowers return to their places in a devastating reality. A waterstained sheet of paper. Blurred words, loss of clarity. Loss of meaning. Loss.

 

II. Degeneration

 

You segue into

a grey emptiness of surroundings. Penetration of outer cell walls degenerate. Amazement. Decay fascination, spectral outline of twisting passages. Delirious and dying words, hostile erasures. Advanced physical deterioration. Dispassion & displacement. The low/lying functions of an ordinary body perpetuate a network of bone, sinew, muscle, arterial-venous ventricles, tubes, tubules

opening out into

randomness and formless things, a chaotic semblance of life. The clawing of fingers, vicious creations. Mutable & un-enduring. A roaring physiological abyss echoes with advanced disease, unpleasantly warm to the touch in a vegetable stillness. A changeless quietude. Bloodshot eyes follow you unseeing, a gurgling death rattle penetrates, a sucking of breath in a reptilian-tongued mouth. Borderline gibberish in malformed brains creates language loss in the flesh-factories of the dying. Dates of nativity & death inscribed on birthing grave-bodies

morph into

fever-ridden heat hallucination, the surreal delirium of a permanently damaged brain. Derangement of imagination, hyperpyrexial phantasms in the back of an unused junk closet,  the scene a secluded graveyard seen through a cloudy haze. A gradual shutdown of operations. An echoing wreck. Skin and bone & emptiness.

 

III. Dying

 

she floats on relentless brain-music. dying. fearful. she whispers inside herself ears deaf & death to thought & consciousness. thought repeats thought repeats thought repeats: my work is not yet done. not yet done. not yet. not…

afraid of bad things. of mystery. of grace shimmer, glister voracious. the map of moments spreads out: seconds minutes hours days months years decades centuries millennia aeons. inevitable, decay thicker than water. desolate angel (wings torn away) fallen to the unhallowed ground of a hospital bed. fallen & broken on the ever-too-fast-spinning wheel of years. this is what she has come to. tumour invasion. the hardening of lung tissue. necrotic tissue. the ever/never-breathing emaciation. feels her body withdrawing. her mind drifting

on oramorph dreams in a place with no windows. hears the howling legion, dark water lashing. winter ghosts haunt their feeding ground, tread softly across far fields toward the bone factory. she follows, frostbitten beyond exile, a weeping apocalyptic beauty. joins the painted man on the dark road rising & he trades in skin, hungry hearts. carries contagions, disease & infections up a twisted ladder

to the hidden cities, a screaming silver body surfing on the riptide of souls. a kiss on a raven’s wing & seven deadly pleasures tempt her. pain. denial. sorrow. grief. fury. acceptance. surrender. reaches the outer gate & hears the groaning shadows & casts a cold eye as the tear collector scratches out the language of dying. elsewhere, thought forms in shades of blood & shadow. & she dreams of

resurrection. clothed in a robe of feathers, objects of worship casting away stones from the shadows of the closet in a house on the interstitial edge of the ghosting tide. an undertow beneath the surface boats the drowned life, a world of light-breaking cold. a time of absence in the shard-splinters of the tesseract & lucid dreaming. what happens when you wake to the sound of dead hands clapping? here she lies. cries her debut swan-song. her last & final lament.

 

Lesley McKenna. 27/03/2013

 

References:

 

Bettelheim, B (1977). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and importance of Fairy Tales. London. Vintage.

Cherry, K. (2019) ‘The Role of Catharsis in Psychotherapy’ at Very well Mind:   https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-catharsis-2794968 (accessed July 11th 2019)

Staring into the Abyss. A Fiction

 

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)

 

THERE was once a girl who gazed into an abyss. She didn’t know it then, because she was still innocent, but that abyss, with all its howling horrors, was the void of her own dark imaginings. The dark void of her own truths, if we can believe in truth, for we are all our own creations and we often twist ourselves.

And allow others to twist us.

Fascinated, the girl put a tentative foot over the side of the abyss and discovered that it had a gentle but slippery slope, and she began to descend. As she came closer to the lower levels, she began to hear the howls of the damned, the abandoned, and overcome with curiosity, she began to listen. Although she couldn’t understand that they were saying, she recognised from the tone of the voices that they were tales of horror and despair, of terror and misery, and although she tried to leave, because the stories were awful, she found herself rooted to the spot. She felt their voices enter her brain, twisting it and turning it into a battlefield where the forces of sanity and madness would fight for ownership for the rest of her life.

Finally understanding the danger, she freed herself, and returned to the surface as fast as she could, but the realisation had come too late.

So, she began to go further into the darkness. She sought out forbidden tales of the monstrous, became obsessed with myths and legends and the creatures that inhabited them. Hunted down evil hags who tempted young children with gingerbread (she didn’t know what gingerbread was but it sounded delicious and she wanted some), wolves in human form, and humans in wolf form, in the bloodsuckers of folk tales (she wished for eternity, although even this short mortal life was sometimes a burden), and the siren-songs of loathing that seduced not only men, but her too, as she listened to the melodies of those that lurked in the dark (under her bed, in the shadow-recesses of her wardrobe), and talked to the primal fears that all people have. Fears of loss, of death, of loss of control and chaos, and the darkness which whispered to her with the voices of the wandering and abandamned. As she grew she became fluent in their languages.

The languages of pain, which are:

Confusion

Denial.

Desolation.

Dread

Emptiness.

Fear.

Fury.

Grief.

Sorrow.

Submission.

 

Annihilation

She grew older still. The horrors continued to haunt her, and she began to write them down, to create tales of the monsters and terrors that the voices told her about, because writing their names gave her power, for by now she had long realised that the dark that consumed her was not a good dark. It was no longer attractive or seductive (those vampires, for example, weren’t really beautiful tortured artist-souls who grieved the loss of their humanity, they were malignant bite-your-neck-out vermin). But she didn’t know that giving them form gave them power too. But it was too late; their languages had become her language, and she had learned to be fluent in their dread tongues, and once you have learned their tongues, it takes powerful magic to unlearn them. So she ventured further into the abyss, until she came to the very lowest levels, and she explored the lands of the abandamned, and was accepted into them as one of their own. She inhabited her own city, and that city was named Despair.

There was no leaving it behind, and she became comfortable there, and Despair began to develop behind its own walls.

Her fame grew throughout the land, and acolytes sought her out. They clamoured from beyond the walls, banged their fists against the gates, wanting her to let them in. And so, unable to keep the lessons to herself, she let them into her city, and began to teach them the words, and they were eager to learn the art of writing. She began to discover that it wasn’t just her who understood those terrible languages; the acolytes had sought her out because they wanted to gaze into the abyss too. So they gazed, and they shared the same horrors, and together, they wrote the stories of the abandamned.

 

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)