The news that Sharon Olds has won the T S Eliot Prize for a work that mines her experiences of betrayal – a husband leaving her after three decades, raises an interesting element of the creative process. What chemistry occurs in the creative brain – not all brains but some – that percolates negative elements and like Rumpelstiltkin then makes straw tragedy into ingots of resonant prose?
Olds’ work intrigues and seeing just one quote from the book:
‘I did not know him,/ I did not work not to lose him, and I lost him’
makes me see how raw and powerful her feelings are still – but how powerfully she has translated her loss. It is controlled – reminding me of method acting, where emotions are used but they are never allowed to take over the professionalism of reading the script.
Of course – it is not logical or fair to say that writers and artists who enjoy fortuitous lives, in the arms of partners who adore them perhaps, are bland and barren. This is just not true. Many writer friends in particular seem to have beautiful and productive personal lives. Their partners or family give them space, the impetus to create. Some understandably wish to make a division between private and public lives – so we may never know what makes them tick. They need their enigma – they feel exposed without it.
So comfort and discomfort can produce good work in equal measure. It is work of the imagination, after all. But when we are thrown a bad hand, like a nasty card sharp chucking things at us from a speeding car – we either throw it away or shuffle it a little.
I have always felt that poets are different animals – pain and suffering does induce some peculiar type of reaction – like a twitch in the synapses that cannot rest. I once wrote – in a review of the wonderful Irish poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s book – that poets are more alive than ordinary folk. I truly believe that – it is their curse and their gift. They see things far below the surface of live as the rest of us hurry along – like veins beneath the smoothest of skins.
I have shared – perhaps cryptically at times – some negative things that have happened in my life. In fact, I have lymphoma – manageable at present – but I have been through experiences that have been horrifying, but have fascinated me at the same time. Losing hair, going through odd machines to see if a lump that appears might kill me, being naked with lead goggles in a room full of strangers – while a nurse inappropriately plays ‘Having the Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing.
And then, when it is finally under control at least – with a strong chemo drug – the man I spent twenty years of my life loving and supporting, decides that future with someone ill was too traumatic. He wanted freedom from the responsibility. Flippantly, I can say fair enough.
I wanted to die, frankly. I could see no future. But then a light ignited in that unnecessary damp bitterness and hate that kept rising in my throat and threatening to poison me. Write. Write. Fury. Reach out to people. Join things. Help people. Write. Write.
I still hurt and I will carry it always. It is a scar that opens to a cold wind all too often. But I am busy:
• Winning the 2013 Don Louth Writer of the Year Award, run by Reading Writers www.readingwriters.wordpress.com
• Writing blogs for a friend’s advertising company
• Writing articles for magazine The Simple Things
• Penning another travel article for The Independent on Sunday
• Planning a travel writing workshop and writer’s day for Reading Writers
• Writing the arts/books pages of Wolfprint, the magazine for www.ukwolf.org - which includes book reviews, poems and articles about fascinating conservation folk – such as an arctic explorer and cult writer Glen Duncan.
• Pitching ideas
• Writing plays for the Prospect Theatre Writers’ Group
• Attending as many literary events as possible, including Windsor’s Book Swap, Short Story Aloud (Oxford)…..anything where writers are…
• Mentoring a friend and encouraging her ambitions – then swelling with pride when she gains more confidence
• Applying to work part-time with the Society for Storytelling
I am far from rich. I am far from happy. But it is a fair enough approximation of happiness to get me through. Writing sometimes feels like flames from the fingers. It soothes, it transports. You can see by its light.
So good luck to Sharon Olds. I shall raise a glass to her. It sounds like a work I would really want to read.
- Julia Bohanna
- Shortlisted Bath Short Story Award 2013 Runner-up Cinnamon Press Competition 2013 WNNER: Don Louth Writer of the Year (run by Reading Writers) WINNER: Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012. SHORTLISTED: Scott Prize (Salt Publishing) 2012 for a short story collection. Writer/ Journalist - assistant editor and writer for the art and books pages of Wolfprint. Most recently published in Independent on Sunday and short story anthologies: Sentinel Champions No 9, 100 Stories for Queensland, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Haiti and From Hell to Eternity. In a recent writing competition, Joanne Harris described my writing as '...compelling (but quite creepy)'
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Prizes and Writing Awards
- Winner Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012
- Shortlisted for Salt Publishing's Scott Prize for short story collections 2012
- Finalist in Brit Writers' Award 2011
- 2nd in Sentinel Literary Competition 2011
- Whitechapel Society Anthology to be published 2010
- Shortlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2009
- Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2009
- Joint winner of the Penguin/Decibel Prize 2008 - Asian Invisible. Published as The Map of Me
- Highly Commended in The National Galleries of Scotland Short Story Competition 2008
- Runner-up in Segora Short Story Prize 2008
- Joint Winner of The Lancet Short Story Competition 2007: The Resurrection Girl.
- Runner-up in Virgin Trains/The Guardian Short Story Competition 2007: A Small Revolution
- Winner of the Woman and Home Short Story Competition 2006: Ghosts of Jamaica.
- Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2005
- Runner-up in the Good Housekeeping Short Story Competition 2003
- Winner of The Sunday Telegraph Tourism for Tomorrow Travel Writing Competition 2002: Wolves of Rumania. Winner
- Winner and also Winner of Most Original Short Story in the Competition in Trowell and District Writers' Competition 2006