Friday, 27 July 2018

Fishy business

Photograph by Ben Russell  

So it’s 10pm when Marcus and I go into Ma Murphy’s Bar and Grocery Store in Bantry, as invited. Our eyes ache from tiredness (we got up at 4am this morning) and it’s noisy with Sunday-night locals, so we know it’s got the craic, despite its Facebook credentials. We congregate in the less-remarkable back room and shout, strain to hear each other, strain to remember whether we’ve read that person’s piece: ‘Oh, you’re THE Helen,’ and we reverentially pass round a single copy of the Fish Anthology 2018, surreptitiously checking for our own names. After half an hour I admit defeat and we slope away, only to find later that we weren’t the only ones to leave early.

On Monday at 6pm, cheered by a day spent exploring gorgeous Bantry Bay and the faded gentility of Bantry House, we congregate in The Windward Room of the hotel and receive copies of the Anthology. It is beautiful, and I flick back and forth through mine, reading the bios. What follows is excellent. All the attending writers in the Anthology – poetry, flash fiction, memoir and short fiction - are to read one page, and one page only of their piece. As winner, I go last. Some pieces are familiar – I remember them from when I read the proofs. They are varied and superb, and, ninety minutes later when it’s finally my turn, I have become very nervous. Everyone is so talented. My writing is no better than theirs. I was lucky the judge plumped for mine. They’ve largely funded their own trips, and mine is largely paid for (well, it will be, if and when I get my cheque!).

Some authors have just launched straight into their writing; some have explained and justified it; more frequently they have handed out bountiful thanks. They’re getting fidgety and they want to get to the bar by the time it’s my turn. I walk to the front aware I am shaking, and that my voice will wobble. I need to control myself. I pull an ex-teacher joke out of my foggy brain: ‘As a retired teacher, I can’t tell you how excited I am to be reading to a room of grown-ups who aren’t going to need the loo in the middle,’ and it gets a laugh and some friendly heckles. I laugh too. It’ll be OK. Now I can relax – I think this is the precise moment when the photo is taken, and I am smiling, thank goodness – and I read my page from Clippings, from the start, no explanations, no thanks (I did that when I found out I won), just straight into it. The applause at the end is far warmer.

After, that we mill around for a group photo and chat, and this time, I can match faces to stories. We chat longer in the bar. They are a fantastic group. I meet the radio-play writer who was shortlisted for flash fiction, the short-story writer who came second in the memoir, the guy who’d never written before, the accomplished writer who had two pieces in the top ten (and has been previously published by Fish). Some comment intelligently about my piece; some vow to go off and read it. This is a prize for ‘emerging writers’ but we’re none of us spring chickens! We connect on social media, such is the way of the world.

The next day, Marcus and I head North up the Wild Atlantic Way to the beautiful Dingle peninsula – County Kerry proper, and holiday proper – before two nights in fascinating Cork city. I read the Anthology at every opportunity and now it means so much more. I exchange messages with other writers and receive and send unsolicited messages of praise. I have had a fantastic time, and truly have had the luck of the Irish. Thank you, Tilly Emmerson and Fish Publishing!

Copies of the Fish Anthology 2018 will soon be available at the Wivenhoe Bookshop, and direct from  The anthology is the 'culmination of a year's work, trawling through thousands of submissions to the Fish Short Story, Short Memoir, Flash Fiction and Poetry Prizes. The judges were Billy O'Callaghan, Marti Leimback, Sherrie Flick and Ellen Bass respectively.'

Friday, 6 July 2018

My Story - Memoir and writing from life

My Story 

A 6 week course with

Taking Word After Word’s course, ‘My Story – Memoir and writing from life’ has been my first sortie into this genre, apart from a little travel writing, and it has been both interesting and revealing. I realised early on that I hadn’t read many memoirs or biographies and therefore had a lot to learn. I signed up to the course with the idea of getting started on a new project I was planning, to write about the life of my maternal grandmother Lucy (1898-1982). Fiona, our tutor, had other ideas and I soon found I was writing about myself.
     Initially it felt self-indulgent to repeatedly use the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ but it became easier with practice. It was liberating to be encouraged to do personal, free-writing exercises, where the words just flowed on to a page. Here we were encouraged not to edit or re-read, but to allow the stream of thoughts and memories, arising from suitable prompts, to develop without interruption. These could be private words, not necessarily to be shared, though with an option to do so if we wished. As the small group of students got to know each other we felt braver and more able to share our personal stories and it became therapeutic, even cathartic, to read out our stories in this safe environment. It could almost have been a counselling session (life-writing often being used in the counselling process) and as we wrote about our lives, our insightful tutor supported us with skilful professionalism.

         So what did I learn from the course? What did I gain?

 Th      The course was an opportunity to stay connected with people and the wider world, and I realise that is one of the reasons I write. Although the process of writing can be isolating, writers can through their work connect with others, in writing groups and communities (alongside the many online forums that also exist).
    I learned to value the concept of bearing witness, when writers ask readers to support or endorse an experience, so both writer and reader might reach a new level of understanding.

     I learned that truth can have many aspects; the truth (for sure), the truth as we see it (feasible), and the truth we tell others (fiction).
    I acknowledged the benefit of using all the senses; to try to ‘show and not tell’; to be true to myself and find my voice; and (as always) to be careful with point of view.

     I hope I will keep by me the list of opening ingredients for a story, be it fiction or memoir:
-a character
-a question
-a clear voice
-a vivid setting
-and an action.

     I will hang on to the good advice Fiona gave us at the end of ‘My Story’ about editing – to get the words down, then rest, leave them and come back refreshed, with some distance and new objectivity.

     I was reminded to try to write something every day if possible and to regularly exercise my writing muscles.

          I feel better prepared to get on with writing about my grandmother’s life, but might approach it slightly differently now. I hope I will be more respectful of whose story I am telling and considerate about how I might mix fact and fiction. It could be an interesting piece of social history, but I will write it primarily for my family to appreciate. They will be my audience and the first to bear witness but who knows where it might go from there.

Philippa Hawley