A few months ago, my friend and fellow writer, Ben East, asked me why I write. I’ve been mulling over his question ever since. Given that writing has led me to eschew well-paid, permanent positions in favour of short-term contracts, and to turn down holidays in Lake Garda for weeks of hibernation in my shed, my struggle to answer Ben’s question struck me as strange.
Curiously, my motivation for reading – and for reading fiction, in particular – emerged with much greater clarity. I relish the illusion of reading someone else’s mind: that of the writer, albeit via a circuitous and partially-hidden route; and that of a character, often more directly. What a privilege, for instance, to be privy – as I was recently – to the gradual unfurling of Jess’s consciousness in Stevie Davies’s The Web of Belonging. I followed Jess’s journey from at least partial self-delusion (at the beginning of the novel, she claims that taking in her husband’s elderly relatives had been a natural act of compassion) to greater self-awareness (by the end, she admits that as a childless woman she was motivated – at least in part – by a desire to tie her husband to her). I felt privileged to glimpse her inner-thoughts. How often, in our lives off the page, does someone open up to us like that? And even if they do, to what extent can we trust that their words truly reflect what they are thinking and feeling?
As a teenager, I found it difficult to accept that the mind-reading offered by some kinds of fiction was a luxury that the world off the page did not afford. Why did the first boy I fell for snog every girl he could get his hands on in Lennon’s Bar but did not want to kiss me? It would likely have been painful to read his mind but the not knowing felt more painful still.
It would be somewhat disingenuous to claim that I have now accepted my inability to mind read. I still yearn for this impossible skill. I’d especially love to read my sister’s mind. Louise has profound and multiple learning disabilities, and her access to language is limited. Because of this, I have a heightened sense of Rainer Maria Rilke’s claim that even between the closest of humans great distances exist. At the same time, I am fiercely aware of the common humanity that binds us. So although I still struggle to understand why I write, I’ve always known that I want to write about this.
If I could read your mind, Lou, what would I find? No doubt I’d stumble across your favourite phrases: cheeky pie and custard; College in Lancaster; What’s your name? I like tractors. I’m sure I’d pick up on various sounds: the melody of The Red Rose Cafe; wolf whistles; the hoot of an owl. Somewhere inside your mind, I’d also discover your memory for places: Carlaw Road where our old neighbours moved when we were kids; Stanley School where you were taught by Mrs MacNut; Bam-bam’s house in Spital, where we ate milk-loaf and smash. I’d find the taste of hot buttered toast, a bar of Cadbury’s Caramel, sausages and mash; the smell of Butterfly perfume; the touch of your tummy pressed up against mine. I’d find, I’m sure, that you love me, because I see that in your eyes when you come with Mum and Dad to pick me up at Lime Street Station.
But what do you think of me? What do you make of my choice to live hundreds of miles from you? And what about the precarious way I’ve chosen to make a living? Of the men I’ve anchored my life to and of the directions I’ve sailed in when cast adrift? Do you ever yearn for a home of your own, for a job, for the love of a man? In my strongest moments, I must face the possibility that you do not think about these things. I must face the possibility, even, that you do not possess any capacity for complex thought. But in my strongest moments, I find myself wondering whether this really matters. I know you possess the capacity for complex feeling. You can express that without words. You bristled with excitement, for instance, as you sat at the head of the table, blowing out your thirty candles in front of your party guests – all middle-aged friends of our parents, whom you had chosen to invite. I found it heart-breaking that you had no friends of your own. But you whooped with delight as you led them all around the living room in a human choo-choo train, and you stood tall as you thanked them all for coming. You see, you’ve always had a better knack for happiness than me. But you do feel sad at times too. Remember when you shunned me for weeks after I first left for university, the way you left a photograph of me on my bed?
Surely the divisions between thought and feeling are blurred, as are those between eloquence and voicelessness. Yet none of these reflections quell my desire to read Lou’s mind. Fiction writing offers me the possibility – however flawed, however partial – to read the minds of my characters at least. Of course, on some deep level this is always and inevitably an exploration of my own consciousness. All of this leads me to the beginnings of an answer to Ben’s question: why do you write? Louise not only prompted my desire to write about disability, I think she helped create my urge to write about anything at all.
I’m delighted that one of my short stories has been selected for the first issue of Indent Magazine, edited by Lisa Mansell and Paul Houghton. It’s an honour to see my work alongside that of Anne Caldwell, Clare Crossman and Jonathan Taylor. This excellent first issue combines salty realism with eclectic surrealism from across the globe. Here, you will find new writers published alongside seasoned scribes and a kaleidoscopic diversity in subject and style.
Feature in The Times
In the run up to this year’s Orange Prize ceremony – the last of its kind – The Times have run a feature on female writing friendships by Emily Midorikawa and me.
Orange may have withdrawn its sponsorship for the internationally renowned award for writing by women, but the need to champion women’s writing persists: a recent Vida study showed that work by women is still far less likely to be reviewed than work by men; only three of the past twelve recipients of the Man Booker Prize have been women; and only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature since 1909. As novelist Jill Dawson said when we interviewed her along with her friend and fellow novelist Louise Doughty: ‘Women still have to be twice as good to be considered half as good’.
As long-standing friends and supporters of each other’s work, Emily and I suspected that behind the scenes other women writers also shared similar relationships. But while famous male partnerships tripped off the tongue (Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald getting drunk in Parisian bars; Dickens and Wilkie Collins roaming the music halls of Victorian London; Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping the Lake District’s rugged tracks), female friendships seemed to have received less attention.
But we did unearth some fascinating collaborations between our famous female forbears, and we also discovered how writing friendships have sustained some of the best female writers around today: Anne Enright and Lia Mills, Emily Pedder and Monique Roffy, Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty.
Take a look at our feature to learn more: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/article3422882.ece
The Orange Prize: how female writers are doing it for themselves
A Writer Prepares at Circle of Misse, July 23-29, 2012 – Book
How to Write a Novel
I am delighted to be returning to the beautiful Circle of Misse this summer to teach and write in the company of other writers and foodies.
My week-long Writer Prepares Course is designed for those of you who have always wanted to write a novel but have found it difficult to get stuck in. The writing holiday is a lovely combination of classes, excursions, individual tutorials and relaxation. My sessions are planned to provide you with the tools, support and motivation to get you started and keep you going through a series of discussions and hands-on exercises. You will leave with a solid start to your novel and a clear strategy for success.
Here are some testimonials from my previous Writer Prepares participants:
I arrived with the kernel of an idea; I left with the draft of a novel and, more importantly, the knowledge that my ideas have merit and are worth polishing. I am hugely grateful to Wayne & Aaron for creating this magical and nurturing environment, to Emma for her constructive and supportive feedback & teaching and to my fellow students for their input.
– Cleo Thompson
I did not feel like I was on holiday, but in the best way. Aaron and Wayne’s hospitality made me feel I was staying with friends. I am grateful for Emma’s engaging, emotionally sensitive and inspiring tuition. I leave Circle of Misse with a tinge of sadness but overflowing with creative energy to write my novel.
– Neil Ghosh
I’d love to have had an excuse to stay here – fantastic food and hospitality, creative stimulus, excellent tuition and a relaxing environment. Thank you so much, I’ll definitely be back. Let’s hope this is the beginning of an amazingly vibrant artistic community.
– Bridget Walker
Really good news: we’ve sold out of issue 6. As there’s still over two months until the launch of issue 7, we’ve decided to go for a short reprint run. Thank you for all your support. Please spread the word that Prole is still available and a fantastic read.
Results of the Circle of Misse 2012 Spring Contest: hot off the press!
What a wonderful treat to read so many fantastic entries to the Circle of Misse 2012 Spring Contest, and how lovely to discuss them with my friend, colleague and fellow judge, Emily Midorikawa.
The contest response was overwhelming, the quality extremely high, and the diversity of style, subject matter and imagination refreshing and inspiring.
Both Emily and I felt that the engaging voice, combined with subtle and complex characterisation of Stuart Ever’s novel, YNWA, made it a stand-out entry in a tight competition.
Among the runners-up, we discovered an extremely high level of narrative control, imagination and playfulness, authenticity in dialogue, and masterful use of tension, emotional engagement and telling details to sustain our interest and make us eager to read more.
YNWA – Novel
Prize: Stuart wins a free place on “A writer Progresses” in April or May.
Steal This Book – Novel
Front Room Champ’s Bacon Threatened by the Full English – Memoir
Afterwards – Novel
The Reunion of Lost Parts – Novel
The Marriage of Wai Lyn Mae – Short Story
The Big Dark – Novel
When the Light Changes – Novel
Congratulations to the winner and to all the runners-up!
The deadline is fast approaching (January 22nd) but it is well worth whipping entries into shape because the prize is a fabulous week-long mentoring course at Circle of Misse.
My own retreats at Misse as a Visiting Writer have been some of the most productive, creative and peaceful times in my career, so I feel sure that the winner of this competition will benefit no end.
Here are the details:
Win a Week of Mentoring in France to Further Develop Your Fiction or Non-fiction Book
Submit a 2,000-5,000 word excerpt of your novel, memoir, short story collection or nonfiction book-in-progress for a chance to win a free place on one of Circle of Misse’s Spring 2012 ‘A Writer Progresses’ week-long mentored courses where you will be able to work directly with a writer and teacher to further develop your book and take it to the next level. Runners-up receive an invitation to attend one of the two courses at a deeply discounted rate to further develop their books. All entries receive 10% off any writing course offered by Circle of Misse in 2012.
Entry fee: FREE!
Competition closes: 22 January 2012
Issue 6 of Prole, which contains my story ‘The Taj Mahal of the North’, is now available to purchase from their online shop and it’s also stocked in News From Nowhereon Bold Street. I’m delighted to see that there have been some lovely comments about my story on their blog:
Posted by Tim Tomlinson Fri, January 27, 2012 03:31:49
A haunting piece–language and setting cast a spell that lingers long after the story hit its concluding high notes. I look forward to more from Ms Sweeney.
Posted by Wendy Sat, January 14, 2012 20:48:45
Sad and yet heart-warming – my favourite combination! Very evocative writing, with a superb sense of place. Eerie, brilliant and surprising.
Posted by Emily Sat, January 14, 2012 17:48:18
Constantly surprising. This is a haunting, elegantly crafted story that brings to life the atmosphere of an ailing seaside town. The characters are likely to linger in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.
Posted by Liz Silver Thu, January 12, 2012 08:35:37
An exquisite recollection of loss, pain, and regret in this intoxicating story. Perfectly paced and eerily told with nuance that can only be written by a writer with great skill, patience, and compassion. Bravo.
Posted by Ed Wed, January 11, 2012 21:23:19
I thought this was excellent. I loved the slow drip-feed of sinister elements, and the narrator’s voice was completely convincing. It was subtle and ambiguous and perfectly pitched.
Posted by Sue Pace Wed, December 28, 2011 16:56:02
I was so impressed with this tightly written horror-love-mystery story that I couldn’t put it down. And speaking, author-to-author, the control is amazing. Not a missed step or a word too many.
Posted by Samantha Ellis Tue, December 27, 2011 18:39:11
I love this story…so delicate and also so uncanny…it really creeps up on you as well as being incredibly heartwarming. Beautiful.