I have written before about how writing need not live in ideal conditions. If you wait for the planets to align, a better desk, a writing shed, more time, more supportive people about you or any number of things, you may never start. You are, in effect, deferring your creativity to fate. To random acts. To heartbreak being mended.
Sometimes heartbreak is not mended.
I have a broken heart. I have no sense of whether it will ever be mended and I have gradually come to this realisation.
I know that sounds bleak.
Some problems do not have a solution, some things are not recoverable. There are not always resources or will to help you and illness or pain may not be fixable. And no, things do not always happen for a reason and no, you are not only given what you can cope with. These are trite, empty affirmations; arid lies. Of course they are.
This is where I am right now.
But take my hand. Sometimes, I sit at my desk, or the kitchen table, I can feel a deep pain in the region of my heart. This is not all, though. Yes, I sit there and feel it could be torn in two – ‘break heart, I prithee break’ – but it does not. It refuses. Because this is not all.
Here is what happens. I use words and small questions. I start asking myself those questions. How does it feel? What is happening elsewhere? Who can I hear? Somehow, just those simple acts, of focus and using language to mould my experiences of the world, in the smallest possible way, right then, enable me to cope. Some say I am thriving. It is the greatest paradox and also what I want to reiterate about writing- and starting it or continuing.
You may think you are too put upon, ill, sad, to ask those small questions and consider language and its aspirations; what it might do for you. This is not so. Sometimes, there is no happiness; you do not have that. In my case, there is the work. I teach teenagers, I mentor young adults and, increasingly, I am a creative writing teacher too. There are my books. Everything you can read of mine has been forced onto the page, in small questions, and small but resolute conversations with language. I have written sitting on the bonnet of my car in hospital car parks, lying on the floor at night on duty; I have reimagined what writing is, by coming fully to understand that it is not only the words onto the page, but thinking and reading. Also, as I said, that creative work, if you can trust just enough, will still emerge in the most disconsolate moods, times: in the life which has come unstuck because of grief. Your intellect wants to play; to dance: respond to it.
So I know this piece is sad and yet it is also not. At the heart of sadness is miracle. It does not fix anything but it is still there, like an impulse to life. Perhaps not hope, but beauty.
I’ve always been quiet; I am merely accidentally loud. I love activity, but become extremely stressed and tired out by noise when it is clamouring for my attention and when it is a noise competing with other noises.
I have always been melancholy; I look the opposite!
I’ve been thinking about all this again – and the noise and the melancholy – because I need to reflect on changes I feel I must make. These are really changes in my thought and, because writing and reading are at the core of what I do, some of those changes may impact on that, or rather my perception of it. You see, after the past intense years of my eldest son being terribly ill and the total failure of multiple agencies to help him and us, while I was already managing chronic illness, I am a bit tired.
I wrote before about how I don’t have the strength to pitch articles now. I may do the occasional one with someone I already know, with whom I have worked perhaps, but that’s it. Also, I will continue doing as much of the recommended push for The Alchemy, which I am crowdfunding for – https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=thealchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActiv …but what does not work and what I cannot do, I shall not berate myself for. Everything else: I will meet deadlines for forthcoming books, greet good news for future work with love and enthusiasm, but other than that, I need to start relying on others a bit more (not to mention avoiding those who have been unsupportive or unkind; I cannot make everyone like me, can I?) Because the asking, pitching, getting involved in a lot of things is, I’ve discovered, too much for me. Everything I have learned about the book business has been through twitter, but I can’t constantly hawk my work in the way I have been. I thought that was what sold books; it isn’t: it’s a good team of people behind you with strategic planning and you, being your bookish self, as part of that.
I was reflecting, as I looked at Instagram briefly this morning, that, even if I were to be invited to do exciting book events all over the country or abroad – I am not proud to admit that I get awful pangs of jealousy and might have beens as I see many doing such things – how could I? The kids need me, because when one is long-term ill and there’s no professional support – we are talking years here – it has an impact on everyone. And I am managing pain and mental health stuff, as usual; waves of fatigue. I’ve been pushing myself too hard, haven’t I.
So yes, time to rely on others a bit more. There are plenty of lovely book folk about and some of the bad experiences I have had are put to bed while we focus on what comes next.
I think the key here: take your time and find good folk and work with them. Don’t try to do too much and don’t expect too much of yourself if your life is already complex.
Books – the reading and the writing are a joy: don’t lose that in the clamour.
Sometimes a quiet life is where it’s at.
x This is me, looking at you – in case you need quiet, too.
For this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and by kind permission with the publisher of my forthcoming memoir, I offer you part of the opening section of that book. Please note the trigger warning and that this book is still in an editorial stage, to be published Spring 2023. Text is copyright. Here is the publisher’s link to the book:
A collection of interconnected essays on the natural world and its detailed and passionate observance over decades in the context of trauma and mental illness.
Trigger warning. Please be aware that this book is about personal experience and includes accounts of or references to mental ill health, OCD, self-harming, suicide, depression, anxiety, dissociation, and derealisation. Also, to violence and cruelty within a family. Importantly, some of these experiences were lived through by a child so please read mindfully.
TO go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am notsolitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities , how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty and light the universe with their admonishing smile. (Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Nature, Chapter One.)
A note on the text.
All epigraphs are from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay ‘Nature’, as is the title of the book (shown in the first longer epigraph), I have included botanical names for all plants and trees because they are so beautiful and I thought readers might enjoy seeing them, too. As a kid, I loved to learn them and would roll the names around in my mouth. Like sweeties. Only – arguably – Latin is better for you in the mouth than butterscotch.
So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes
There are twelve essays in These Envoys of Beauty, and each looks at some element – or elements – in the natural world and what it has meant to me. When I say that, I mean in terms of how I look at it, how I feel, how that has changed but, for the scope of this book, what any of it has to do with trauma and its management. Let me explain.
I grew up very rurally, raised by a Welsh family on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, but I have habitually spent a great deal of time in West Wales, particularly Pembrokeshire, because that is where most of my family is from. I now live in West Wiltshire. Open land, woods, riverbanks were and are my world. I am also sure that they are how I survived – not better, but intact.
What I show you in this book rests on formative incidents as a child and adolescent: bookish, nerdy, and socially awkward (all of which I still am, only I do not mind now). I spent as much time outside as I possibly could and was always scrambling about somewhere, up trees, in ditches, into rivers and streams and home to look things up and, sometimes, preserve specimens in books or a flower press – or found antique treasures in pillboxes and tins. That is still me today. If you had looked in my primary school books or those in the early years of secondary school, what I wanted to be when I grew up was a botanist. I would spend hours out there and, afterwards, hours in there, looking at my guides and drawing plants and animals – a particularly tame wren on the dog roses; a tree mallow with its flowers open to the sun, looking happy. Lavatera arborea: I loved the rhythm of those words as a child and would linger there now.
I was raised on the crest of a hill, with orchards and old woods behind me and the fields below me and to one side; the river Frome in the valley, near to where it meets the Avon. The Wiltshire sign was below our house but parallel with a lower wall and I was always delighted that where I lived straddled two counties. I must have thought this was unique, back then. Or forbidden: that you had to live in one place or another, not in two. Then, the time in Wales: St Brides Bay, Cardigan Bay, the islands – Ramsey, Skomer and Skokholm – and the water lands; the Daugleddau estuary where my grandmother had once lived, where part of it ended at Cresswell Quay. There were other places that felt like a home, too – Cardiff Bay, the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains and I have always felt more Welsh than English, because I was raised by Welsh people in England. I feel that within me, and I like the way the two things tangle, itself a story for another book.
In many ways I was so lucky, and I am very aware of the privilege of growing up in these places. This is one story: bluebells, wild garlic, wood aconites, red campion, mud, and flood and feeling the lichen and moss and stone stiles.
But there is a second story.
I did not understand the dynamics of my immediate family, that I was blessed in where I lived made me think it was terrible to confess it, and I am not sure who I could tell. There was deep weirdness, death, unspoken illness, and psychiatric problems the nature of which I did not understand in my father’s family and, since the day he died, when I was eighteen, I have not seen them: they cut me off, just like that, my world there and everything that it brought into my imagination at first, had disappeared. I did not understand at first that its best bits could live on in that imagination, lively and fresh, though wrought by that deep weirdness. Then, my parents and sibling. I did not understand and still do not and, because I have explored it elsewhere and it is not the main thrust of the book – though you can see and infer much, reading through – I will not do so. But there were events which still, as I write, make me feel unsettled. My mouth becomes dry, and I feel that I am under threat. I do not expect to get better from this. It is all because of my mother. She was a splendid woman and I loved her, really, against my will. Because although there were streaks of that splendidness with me, what I was given and what I was left with was the sense that I was evil, the bringer of harm, a blot, a brat, a harlot, a slut, a terrible, selfish thing. This, she would always tell me, even when I was very small, was what everyone else thought too. I did not know any different.
She would slap me, pull my hair, kick me when I had fallen and scratch at my ears, but mostly it was the words. The confusion lay, as I say, because I grew up in a beautiful place. I could see that, empirically, but I knew it, hard, because my parents had come from large working class rural families, and had made the ascent, they would say, to the middle classes, or were very much on the way. It makes sense that they should want to remind me of blessings. But, you see, my mother also repeatedly told me I did not deserve it. She was ill a great deal and I remember feeling sick and shivering at the tension in the house. She took the time to tell me that I had made her worse. Then, when I was thirteen, my father became ill. The descent was slow at first, then rapid and dizzying. I did my best to help them both, to care for them, while feeling that I was burden and blot and then came the day that I was told I had hastened his death. I had always worried I was capable of this. Now it had come true.
At night, I would recite Latin names from plant books like mantras and talismans. I had awful ruminating and intrusive thoughts. I would feel a bad thought about someone ushering in – not something I felt, but a collocation of words in my head; a fit of diction, that was all. But by the time I was seven or eight, it was so entrenched that I was a bringer of harm that I decided I had to expel the words so as not to make the bad thing happen. I would have to go and tell that person, always an adult, a dinner lady, a teacher, the school caretaker, the vicar. What they thought I cannot imagine, but I do not remember reassurance ever being given.
By my late teens I had developed severe anxiety, depression. I first tried to take my own life when I was fifteen and again when I was nineteen. On the first of those occasions, my mother would not take me to hospital but instead said I should go to my room. I did not tell anyone this until after the birth of my first child, when I was dreadfully unwell and being looked after by a consultant psychiatrist in outpatients and a kindly GP. This is the first time I have written about it. I don’t know whether she hoped I would die – I had taken a considerable amount of paracetamol – or if it was simply too much for her to think about. I did not understand then, and I still don’t and will never have the opportunity to ask. Both my parents were dead by the time I became an adult.
From the age of twenty one I have been in and out of care – such as is available – and, ever since my teens, I have had difficult periods, of varying length and intensity, where I don’t know where or quite who I am; where my edges are. It is exhausting. It was never talked about by my parents, and they did not try to help me. My mother said mental health problems were an indulgence. She said moods were a myth, especially moods in teenagers, a licence for bad behaviour. PMT, she said, was made up. People who were mentally ill were those who had failed to control themselves. I don’t know why she said these things, but I feel now, looking back, that there was such burning life in her which had been thwarted. Moreover, mental illness – and severe mental illness – was rife on both sides of my family and I wonder if neither of my parents could bear to accept it within our family home. They rejected it because they were frightened and wanted to retain control and function; in doing so, they created something that was dysfunctional. Any one of us can be ill – and any one of us can have things go wrong with our mind.
I remember that it often felt so cold in our house, though a fire was often lit. I remember the day when my mother bought lamps as a development from the days of big light. I felt like we had arrived, and I loved the soft pools of light which fell on the floor and then, wonders, beside my bed. But you see that softness did not last and it was cosmetic. I looked outside.
Oh, there was a lot more than I feel I can tell which went on, but you can infer as we go because the point of this book is not degradation and terror, but joy and survival. Of course, I learned a good deal from some – not all! – of my therapy received sporadically over the decades of adulthood, but all that time, today, this afternoon, it was my connection with the natural world (and my reading) and all things in it which shored me up. On my worst days, I cannot go far, so I am just outside, but I am listening intently. I am a rural girl, but I am observing wherever I go.
In this book, stay with me as I try to show you the world I explored, what it meant to me then, and now. The essays are not chronological, but dart back and forth between them and within, memories and ideas associating and cohering. I do not mean to mythologise nature, because it is also full of facts and yet it illuminates, calms, and makes things intelligible. Sometimes I feel it as a metaphor, sometimes just as a sense or a reminder or prod – in the hard lines of something or the delicate feather of rime – to think about something with a different attitude. Also, even when it is small about me, I perceive space; that’s how it was for me as a child.
‘We constantly refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are. Nature is the most potent source of metaphors to describe and explain our behaviour and feelings,’ notes Richard Mabey in Nature Cure and that is true, I think. When I was very young, and I would run out, or just stand and stare, I would look to plants and trees to help me explain to myself a bewildering world. There was something else, encapsulated by Wilson A. Bentley, known as ‘The Snowflake Man,’ who studied the snow and published many extraordinary photomicrographs of snowflakes. Bentley saw the snowflakes, as he observed them from Jericho, in Vermont, as a metaphor for all things beautiful on earth, but also ‘The snow crystals…come to us not only to reveal the wondrous beauty of the minute in Nature, but to teach us that all earthly beauty is transient and must soon fade away. But though the beauty of the snow is evanescent, like the beauties of the autumn, as of the evening sky, it fades, but to come again.’
I want to reiterate. Nature has not been my cure. It has been my inspiration, teacher, and companion.
I am not better, but I have never been alone.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems, ed. Robert D. Richardson, Bantam 1990, 2007. ‘Nature’ was written in 1836
 If you like, you can read an account of reading, the imagination and survival in an essay I wrote for Trauma. An Anthology of Writing about Art and Mental Health, Dodo Ink, ed Mills and Cuell, 2021); it also uses some sections from my first book, which was a work of autobiographical fiction.
 Nature Cure, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, 2005, Little Toller, 2021, p. 32
 Quoted in The Snowflake Man, a Biography of Wilson A. Bentley, Duncan Blanchard, Macdonald and Woodward Publishing Company. 1998.
Many people who read this month’s column will be carers. If you are not one now, you may be later and some of us will always be in this role. What does this mean? A carer (I use the NHS definition) is anyone who looks after a family member, partner or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction and cannot cope without their support. 2020 data from Carers’ UK found that there were approximately 13 million unpaid carers in the UK and The NHS Long Term Plan of January 2019 repeated a commitment to improve how the NHS identifies unpaid carers, and to better address their health.
I have been balancing needs for a long time and I was also a carer for my parents in my teens. The intensity of the last three years has, repeatedly, nearly felled me in terms of mental and physical health; before this I spent a decade trying to find appropriate support and diagnosis. Just over five years ago, I began writing, so let me share some ideas: how do you pursue writing and how might the industry acknowledge specific needs which you – which we – have?
First, productivity may have to be rethought. Productivity is not only – even mostly – the words committed to the page. It occurs in moments of reading, recognition and rumination. These may be snatched but treasure them because they are of intense power. Jot things down in a notebook if you can, but otherwise just commit them to memory. If you are too tired to remember specifics, summon up the feeling of those thoughts later. Too subtle? This is how I wrote my last novel. Moreover, I explored the idea of productivity for you here in more detail here.
Consider joining the Society of Authors group specifically for carers https://www.societyofauthors.org/Groups/Carers to meet some like-minded people, blunt your sense of isolation and access additional information. That done, your tribe comes into play. The group of people with whom you surround yourself: mine is called ‘Writing Support Group’: a motley and supportive clutch. If you find your tribe – online is fine – you need not be in similar situations but try to build a cohort of people with whom you can discuss challenges and sometimes cry or be rude and sweary about bad practice or vexation. That done, ask their encouragement that you may be bold in your decisions: being a carer can be rewarding; it can also be heartbreaking, not just because of what you see a loved one going through, but because of having to find resources, multi-task, contact various agencies and, not infrequently, see it all fail. If you are working with someone in our industry who lacks compassion, misrepresents you, drains precious energy from you, consult your tribe and gird your loins as you plan to let this person, or these people go. I realise this is a difficult and fraught thing, but I also understand the strain you might be under, and I see you. See yourself, too. Nourish your self-belief.
Finally, some thoughts for industry practice, based on my own and others’ experience. First, if you are a carer, it is likely that you need both clear planning and flexibility because of routines, medical appointments, unexpected crises, systemic failures and sometimes because you are, yourself, too tired or too sad to get everything done or perform in a public persona. Thus, it is important that planning from the publishing end is clear: publication dates, events and when you might need to hand in a round of edits or be required for a meeting. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Then, connected with this, is dialogue: partly so that you can communicate with your publisher, editor or agent as problems arise and partly so that you know what is going on. Understanding in a work context is vital and underpinned by the idea that some (many) lives are very difficult. Our industry might be more aware, also, that writing may be a conduit – the only available conduit – into meaning and feeling heard and seen for someone who feels marginalized. For that reason, in querying and submission, I propose that, as industry standard, an automatic email acknowledgment of work is in order, then a reply or a very clearly stated timeline on the period of consideration: three months (for example) and it is a no. One month after request of a full, that is a no.
There is genius out there, much founded in intense pain and frustration: I am on a mission to make sure it is nurtured and seen. As writers and as an industry we can work together to ensure that happens.
There is something I have wanted to write about for a while now: here it is. I am going to discuss ghosting, what it is in the context of trying to get your work published – and also in the context of staying published. Nothing here is about blame, but about what we could do to help one another.
Every week, there are a lot of messages in my inbox. I do not know if this is the same for other writers after a book or two, but that’s how it is for me. My fifth and sixth books are out in the next few months and, while some would say I am prolific (I have not been doing this very long), I retain a very modest profile bearing in mind how much I have published. I try to use it, however modest it is, or remains. The industry is a tough old nut, but you see I love the writing and I have made so many pals and that’s why I am still here. Also, I decided, after one book, that in writing, as in the rest of my life, my modus operandi would be to look after other people if they needed me. Partly because, with a complex background, I know the long-term effects of not being looked after and partly because it is clear that writing a book is a dream for many people; for some – those who are disenfranchised and face barriers for whatever reason and sometimes for a multiplicity of reasons – it may be the place where they feel their voice will be heard.
The book is important, vital: a dream; a voice.
So what do the most upset of the messages say to me? That they don’t know what to do. Yes, rejection is difficult but as I have said repeatedly, it is absolutely part of the writing process. Rejection comes with the territory. Failure (argue with the term, but bear with the way I use it here for me) is central to creative endeavour. Most things you do will fail. I say this quite cheerily and accept it as part of my own adventure too.
There is something worse. Ghosting.
When you never hear back from a query as you start out. NOT from those who say quite clearly that if you have not heard back from us in three months, six months, or whatever, that is a no, but from those who don’t say that. From those who promise they will read things, or give no indication that they will not. This is about agents, but also about those publishers – independents of whatever size – who accept manuscripts without an agent. This is about when a reply is anticipated. So, first of all, I truly think it would be helpful if it were industry standard that everyone gave a fairly accurate figure of reply time…and after that it is a no…on their submissions/query details. There may be good reasons why this cannot happen and I could be wrong, but based on conversations and messages I have had and data shared with me, it seems that between 50 and 90% of queries will not elicit a reply, frequently after chasing.
That’s tough and, because this is not about blame but about looking after everyone, it suggests to me that rethinking might happen somewhere about what is possible and plausible and, frankly, whether everyone is okay. Because you see my dms are not only full of writers but of others in the industry who need an ear, too; the ear of this ridiculous self-styled Mother Bear. Of course I am talking about mental health and how people are feeling and coping.
My personal ghost rate with first and second books is about 50%.
The ghosting still has notches to go up, though. Here’s the next notch. A particularly difficult situation is when you have no reply after a request for a full. This will always be ghastly, it has happened to me twice, and it is awful when it happens to a new writer who is understandably really excited to receive a request for a full. We need to remember that a new writer may be the person I mentioned above – trying to push through barriers and challenges; trying to be heard – and may have been querying their manuscript for years. Again, my thought would be that there is a statement somewhere about response time for fulls. Could this work? Something which says that if you have not heard back from me/us three months after we received your full manuscript, please assume this is a no. As I said, this is not about blame, but about seeing what we might implement. If people are really too busy to read what is sent to them and it is just not possible, can something be implemented there? Something to do with submissions periods and volume. I just don’t know, so please understand that I am throwing this out and posing questions. I am a writer. A writer who talks to writers.
But we are not done. After two rounds involving ghosts, it may be that your book goes out on agency submission and does not get read. This also happens and it is hard on everyone, because people will have worked on this manuscript together and to the best of their ability. I always emphasise that we must look after each other and this final round can be brutal. Do I have experience of this? Of course. So do lots of people. My question is, what can we do about it? I would also like to mention the document linked below – readily obtainable from The Society of Authors – which is about professional conduct. Why? Because I also know of people who have been ghosted by their own publishers; that is, where a first book has been published, the contracted second book has been offered but not read or a period of some years elapses before it is read and this can do terrible things to someone’s self-esteem or motivation. In some cases, I would argue that it is an abuse of power – and that power balance is one element of the industry commitment document here. What do you think? I am sure this is a rare thing, but I have mopped up tears and I will do it again in a heartbeat.
So, I am a writer and while I am throwing these issues out there, I want to suggest some things that we do to look after ourselves and one another.
I feel a bit sad saying this, but sending work into a void is eviscerating. It is not, from what I am able to see, something which happens most of the time but it goes on a lot. So my first point is that writers, at all stages, need to be prepared, at the present time at least, to be ghosted as well as rejected. Truly, it is best if it doesn’t come as a total shock. That’s partly the point of this blog post. There is a problem. As we strive to fix it, best also to be forewarned. Hopefully it won’t happen though! It’s just, if it does, I want you to know you are not alone.
Following on from that last sentence, do not suffer in silence. Talk about it. Cultivate a little tribe, in person or online (or both) if you can; a group of folk who are involved in some way in the industry. Isolation breeds bad feeling and depression when you are nursing a problem. I go back to what I said about dreams and having a voice. If you need guidance or ideas about forming that little tribe, please do message me. I know it can be tricky and that you might feel shy or intimidated. I really do.
If you are ghosted and feeling ghastly, scream and shout, but be working on something else and keep – I know it is hard – sending things out if you feel strong enough. Most of all, though, keep writing. This might be a good time to try some different writing – different genre or form; different markets or routes to explore, too. Importantly, don’t let bad experience put you off the actual writing. You love the writing. It is a joy. Okay, a tangled, messy joy, but nonetheless, isn’t it a beauty? Reading, too. Keep reading: solace, excitement, new worlds, ideas, ways of seeing.
Stay off social media if you need to. Remember that you are only seeing some of the book news, but that’s not much help when you are bruised. It’s helpful, nonetheless, to put a limit on what you look at. Remember that the ghosting is also not personal. Actually, even if it were, you cannot legislate for everyone’s reactions to you because human beings are strange and complex things! Best to understand that there are some people in any industry who behave badly. I’ve met some absolute bangers in staffrooms, too! It’s better to be you, my darling. Generally, though, move past any thoughts of it being you and see the issue as systemic; that can take a little sting out of it.
Finally, yes I have been hurt by ghosting too. It is good to find the positive and take it forward. What’s the positive? That you use your experience of something upsetting as knowledge with which to forewarn or arm someone else and can keep an eye out for those who are struggling. That’s partly what this blog post is about. Love and strength and let’s ALL make this better, Anna x
Then, this week, I handed in a tidy second draft of my memoir to the same publisher (they are rather lovely, by the way and I recommend you read their books and consider querying if that’s your bag). My memoir is called These Envoys of Beauty and it’s out in spring, 2023
This is a slightly unusual book in that it’s memoir expressed across twelve essays connected by theme and context. It is essentially a frank account of extended and complex trauma and the many years of ill health that have followed because of that. However, it is also about joy and imagination because I show you how I managed through a deep and abiding (and nerdy!) attachment to and involvement in the natural world. It’s not about a cure. I think that we are too quick to want to see a triumph or a cure for those who are disabled or chronically unwell, but that is a lazy old trope. No; I am not cured – but I have and have had the best company. You’ll see!
In other book news, I have a novel on agency submission at the moment. It’s magical realism and is called The Zebra and Lord Jones. I am hoping we can pull all this together soon, but things are slow out there. I think we have all been overwhelmed by circumstance – by life. It’s important to recognise. News here as soon as I have it, though.
What are you doing on the 22nd of May? Although I am still confirming a few things, in lovely West Wiltshire I will be teaching a full day writing retreat and it’d be great if you came. I am also going to be doing an online retreat in mid June (TBC) for access and to accommodate writers from around the world. These are about writing fiction – novels, novellas and short story collections. Watch this space.
Thank you again for your support of and interest in The Alchemy I have nearly finished the full text and it is my profound hope that we get it out into the world! I would be enormously grateful if you could pledge towards it. A crowdfunded book – new departure for me – all the details are here and we will add new pledges during the six month funding period.
Have a look and, if you pledge, do please share on socials. You are now very much part of the book!
There is still time to apply for the course I am tutoring on over the next year
On ‘Some Kids’, some structures, and some folded lies
‘What follows are my thoughts on Kate Clanchy’s memoir of teaching, Some Kids and What They Taught Me, published by Picador in 2020 and republished by Swift in January 2022 and the furor which has surrounded it. To me, the matter is so much bigger than one book: it is about structural inequality, a frankly indolent spread of misinformation in broadsheet publications (and others), knee-jerk reactions from all and sundry, including misplaced and fanciful outrage at alleged book burners, and the failure of many people to reflect on privilege and agency, laws protecting minors and the critical social dynamics of who holds the balance of power. I need to establish that my background has been, for years, with young people, partly as a secondary English teacher, and that two of my own children are SEND; one, autistic. Some Kids was very triggering in that respect.
It is not, ultimately, those ‘kids’ or even their parents who hold that balance of power: it is the teacher and memoirist. Readers have worried about their own children because, for example, they are autistic; those parents have seen teachers find the text exemplary, despite its dismissive and pejorative language towards this pupil group. What will be thought of their child? Let us return to this: the author, on a learning journey, ought not to be mining the lives of minors, in a book, without all due diligence, correspondence and protocol, allied with compassion for one’s charges. Because of my own context, I know that schools are required to ensure a duty of care for all children in their setting. This duty of care starts before their lives are potentially turned into anecdote by a visiting adult, regardless of whether the depiction is allegedly a ‘composite’ or retrospective permissions might have been obtained from a selected number of students. Therefore, media coverage of some student poets coming forward to support KC as their teacher and accompanying self-justification via the author and Swift Press, the new publisher, do not support best practice for duty of care. Furthermore, the comments by the author about how you cannot ‘cancel poetry’ in January 2022 fly entirely in the face of what is being said by those who have been upset and worried by the book. They seek to cancel nothing. They ask for reflection and a sensitive, thoughtful reparation. What is more, I have not yet seen any evidence that any educational establishment/s knew about the book in advance, and, without their knowledge and critical participation, it is hard to see how adequate safeguarding protocols could have been ensured in that setting.
Until the summer of 2021 I had only been aware of the writer and teacher KC through her students’ poems on Twitter. As I write now, I feel I ought to have been more aware. Writers and teachers had been saying much, and I had missed it. Disability campaigners had commented. Now, I went back to 2020 threads when, just to give one example, concerns were raised about racism in the text. I could not believe what I was reading in a book that had been widely praised as exemplary in the concern it showed for young people. Beautiful in its multiculturalism, a book to be seen in every staffroom. Really? Here is one quotation from the Picador text: ‘I was having difficulty, as Prince Philip had with Chinese people, in telling them apart.’ Or how about two autistic children: ‘More than an hour a week would irritate me.’ ‘If I set them a task, they will stick at it, not deviating, for hours, and never ask why. This is fun.’ These two quotations were removed for the Swift edition, but an absolute wealth of comments on appearance, skin colour, plump, fat, and furry, remain in the updated text, worst of all a comment on a teenage boy’s erection which, try as I might, I cannot contextualise to make appropriate. Lower ability children are referred to as ‘dead weight’ more than once. Some students are apparently ‘just drearily mediocre.’ And that Blake might have been autistic because he was a ‘perverse and difficult polymath’… ‘with his love of abstruse and autodidact learning…’ is troubling and, I would, argue, ignorant. It is not surprising that there was an open letter to Picador from over 350 teachers and others expressing detailed concerns and we know that writers and teachers did receive messages from young people (which cannot be shared because confidentiality was promised) who recognised themselves in the book and were not happy. This has been glossed over, while the author continues on the cancellation tour and complains about the focus group and the ‘Readers’ in a tone of deep irritation.
After discussion, after a worryingly long silence and apparent failure to engage by the publisher, it was announced in early 2022 that Picador would republish the text in the autumn of 2022 with passages and descriptions expressed ‘more lovingly’ and the onslaught continued. Some students came forward to say that had been pleased with their teaching and felt supported, but respectfully that is not all students – because if you are a class teacher you will teach huge number of people over the decades – and what is more, writing to say that you are happy as an adult is consent after the fact and is not commensurate with safeguarding, awareness of the Equality Act 2010 or Rights of the Child. This is important to remember for future children, for future books. These are their lives, as children, and they are extraordinarily precious. This is something that the press, then as now, absolutely failed to reflect on. This is entirely because of an establishment protecting its own. As a SEND mum, I often felt sick following the story. Yes, the children are explained by KC as composite, but that does not make any of this acceptable and never did. It is wonderful that twenty five students – you would think it was every student ever taught from some of the very recent newspaper pieces – came forward to express support and appreciation, but respectfully two things: it is, I must argue, unlawful to portray children in your care in such ways because it contravenes the The Equality Act 2010(I would also draw attention to safeguarding policy and The Rights of the Child), specifically ‘its ‘protected characteristics’ section; moreover, if you have been a teacher for twenty two years you may, teaching across the school years, have taught thousands of students. Who and where are they? What did they think? Did just one of them look at the book and recognise themselves and I could write this piece solely on the peculiarity of ‘we’ in the narrative – an inclusive pronoun that has done an invidious job of exclusion, in my view; a feint which allows the reader to imagine more generally what teachers think and do. ‘We teachers are tough’ wrote the author in a broadsheet newspaper, January 2022. Again, the invidious pronoun. I have met teachers who made the voice in Clanchy’s book familiar; I mean those I have worked with and those I have encountered because they taught my own boys. Flaw, bias, and bad behaviour exist, to a certain extent, in all classes and staff rooms: I will not have been without it myself – and that is why we must go back and look; to reflect. Thank goodness for those teachers who pointed out the wrongness of KC’s peculiar taxonomies of childhood in the book.
I am furious at a teacher’s reckonings passed off as knowledge because this percolates into misunderstandings and gets passed on as fact and scholarship. She has authority, but a lie, or a half-truth – a folded lie – has been formed. It is hard to understand the publishing, legal parsing, editing, prize-winning when these are minors described in this way. I am embarrassed for and furious at the people who came forward – doubtless without all having read the book – to moan about canceling. witch-hunts and censorship. Clearly, the discussions around the book have again exposed the stiff old arguments of not being able to say ANYTHING nowadays, which is, as ever, radically ill-informed, predicated on privilege – your freedom, that is – and plain cruel and self-indulgent
Going forward? I think there must be clear and difficult discussion about things. I certainly feel differently about publishing now, about some journalists, and about a lot of teachers – those I still see defending the book and saying, with unintentional rich irony, that children will be denied a voice. I also do not accept the notion that someone meant to do well and be kind and therefore their behaviour and tropes – how can she be cancelled for not being born woke? asked (shamefully) a journalist in one of the biggest newspapers – should be exonerated. A writer – or teacher – needs to work harder than that and understand both that it is the outcome which is of significance and, also, that within an apparent kindness may be arrogance, ethnocentricity or, an area of particular concern for me, ableism. Within serving and trying to raise people up, there may be pity and, for example, the press of an unacknowledged and invidious bias. We need, also, to have truly clear guidelines – in consultation with those who are specialists in educational law and the rights of the child – so that damage of this kind is not done again. And I worry. The book was immediately republished. Yes, the most often quoted words and phrases have been removed in new editorial, but the book does not seem demonstrably different and I have read them both; moreover, it feels like little of the hurt caused has been acknowledged. Why else would the new afterword refer to changes made ‘after a twitter storm’? The author says that ‘despite a prolonged and distressing campaign urging them to do so, no young person portrayed in the book has come forward to say they were hurt by it.’ Consent after the fact is not commensurate with what is appropriate as a teacher and within both best practice and law. Twenty-five students may have come forward – and they have my utmost respect – to say they experienced no ‘safeguarding or consent issues’, but this still does not obviate need for concern because it is not for the then child or the now adult to decide, but is, instead, only incumbent on the teacher in charge. the school and their safeguarding officer or team. Beyond that, I am afraid I know that damage is insidious.
I repeat: my context is education and SEND mum here. Centre the students, not yourself.
In conclusion: what has happened is about so much more than the book. It is about structural inequality, privilege, misinformation and both lazy journalism and lazy reading. It is about racism, ableism and classism – about body shaming, and being happy to place others in harm’s way – others who would rather not have to challenge at all but get on with their lives and their work. They raise their heads above the parapet because of moral compass and social conscience, not as something predicated on a ferocious ego; in this case because they were concerned about children and young people – the point we must keep returning. These were minors, in schools. With freedom comes responsibility: that you need to be accountable and open to challenge. Your views may be outmoded, or never acceptable in the first place because they were based on presumption and their result was cruelty. In publishing, education and in British society, I know we can do so much better. It might be painful to have to reflect on your attitude, but it is much less painful than being unheard, marginalised and in danger. And as for myself? It is taking me a long time to get over this book: I believe it is the worst book I have ever read twice.
It’s currently crowdfunding with Unbound and I really want it to exist. The team there has really grasped my vision and reasons for wanting to get this book into the world and, thinking of the messages I have received, I can see that quite a lot of other people do too and that is the best. This, from the publishing director of Unbound, John Mitchinson, was marvellous (and I do draw on a lot I have learned in my teaching background as well as in writing and other areas):
It is a book about writing YOUR book; a work of fiction, but in fact there’s plenty in there which you could apply to a non-fiction book or, for that matter, any extended creative project. It’s about gentle productivity; that is, small steps towards a big thing. Not only that, getting you to re-evaluate what you already have in terms of experience, thought, time and resources. What you consider work, even. The book contains a lot of things which I thought were probably true, but the past few years have confirmed that for me. In six years I have written a lot. In that time, I’ve been working, looking after three offspring, two are SEND who were radically let down by their schools and one by multiple agencies to the point where he became seriously ill and I was his carer and this went on through the pandemic: we had never had any support but this period pretty much felled me. My physical health had deteriorated, I had already been managing mental health problems – anxiety, OCD, depressive periods, dissociative episodes – for decades (and reasonably connected with complex extended trauma), now I was dealing with Long Covid and a seriously ill son. I had also had some very unpleasant experiences in publishing from which I’ve had to recover and have taken all the steps I can to try and ensure they do not happen to anyone else.
So gentle productivity in a book for all writers, but I have a particular eye on those who are carers, chronically ill and who are disabled. On writers who are tired, jaded, had their confidence knocked by others or who come from a background the impact of which they have not fully released – by which I mean, if they were demeaned, made to feel stupid or repeatedly mocked. Those are all different things of course, though intersectional, and I want to say I know I am hugely privileged compared with many.
But I wrote. I worked. I worked on cards sitting in a supermarket car park; I thought and plotted and planned and asked small questions when I had to be up at night being watchful. I wrote in short bursts and learned that pondering and ruminating are just as much the work as my sitting there tapping away. I day dreamed, asked small questions about people, situations, things I had seen out and about or read about or experienced. And I kept doing it. When the work began to build up, I developed little techniques for managing and editing it. I cried as I waited in hospital car parks, but then I tried to have clear thoughts about people and situations I wanted to write about, or was already writing about and needed to refine or develop. Small questions; small steps: taking what pockets of time and energy there were and using what I had. When I was admitted to hospital myself all I could think was that I was watching, watching. I had a TIA and was admitted to the acute stroke ward: I had to rest but I was looking, and listening and thinking about colours, textures, feelings, noises in the frightening ward, all the while, and it was distracting and consoling. I was telling myself and making stories.
The point is to be observant. And not to whip yourself mercilessly towards getting projects done. I did not have time or energy and I used what I had and learned to see and value what was there.
I hope that one day you read the The Alchemy and we all get to talk about it and that it helps you.
Here, if you feel you would like to pledge towards it – as I said, it is a crowdfunded book – I would love that!
We’re thrilled to be working with Anna Vaught. She exemplifies the patience and generosity of the best teachers. Having suffered and triumphed herself, she is able to offer calm and clear advice about how to translate ideas into publishable work. The Alchemy offers a warm and reassuring arm round the shoulder—it will inspire and motivate writers at all stages in their career but especially for those who are struggling with confidence.
And I said,
The Alchemy is about writing a book—a work of fiction of whatever kind—when you thought you could not. This is a book for everyone, but with a particular eye on those who are tired and lacking in confidence, who are disabled, chronically ill or perhaps carers for a loved one who would struggle without them. Essentially, this has been me for some time now and that is how I know about productivity and challenging what it is. Not from deadlines, spreadsheets and flow charts (although those things are excellent), but from learning to work with what I had, when I could and, also, in learning that writing your book happens all the time.
Now, in a new departure for me, this is a crowdfunded book, so I’d really love you to pledge in order to help us get it into the world. New pledges will be added in the coming months – and extra treats, too. All the information is on the page that follows and you can also see an excerpt from the book. It’s so important to me and I really want others to have it. A distillation of twenty years of teaching and mentoring and of an intense six years of writing! Here: https://unbound.com/books/the-alchemy/?utm_campaign=the-alchemy&utm_medium=AuthorSocial&utm_source=AuthorActivity
A writing pal as you start your book, or when you’re stuck
A wealth of ideas
I hope you will love it and when you write, if you are sad, unwell, struggling, chronically ill, a carer – these are world I know well – you will never be alone. Because the big idiot in the picture below will be with you.
A few years ago I wrote my dead mother a letter. It was poetical, but promised murder; ironically, she was already dead and hated poetry for its teasing impulse of hope. That hope had died within in in her prime.
I have had what we might call a colourful time. I have battled, but not always beaten, a number of mental health problems and, for as long as I can remember, I have been prone to unrelenting dark moods; anxiety has, not infrequently, kept me secluded and apart. I have been a chronic self-harmer, tried to control the vagaries of a messy world with routine and ritual, twice tried to take my own life. On the first occasion, my mother found me, but refused to take me to hospital. That was a seminal moment. I was fourteen. I thought, ’Maybe she doesn’t understand.’ But later I thought, ’Maybe she just wanted me to die?’ It was hard to feel safe or loved after that, but then I am not sure that I knew what these things meant—so I describe that feeling only with the benefit of hindsight and because, as a mother myself, I feel so sad for my child-self. Actually, no: not as a mother. I would feel that anyway, as a human being who does not want another to hurt.
In the end, I started to get the help I needed. I was already helped profoundly by my reading and the way in which I was immersed in the natural world, and in those comforting rituals of home I felt I could establish. I had CAT (Cognitive Analytic Therapy) on the NHS. It changed how I saw myself, my life and my past in profound terms. And it had homework. I am a swot, so I liked that. Ah, not easy homework. Letters to the therapist and, more pertinently to this piece, letters to my dead mother and assorted other folk whose influence weighed heavily and unpleasantly on me as I swam in a sort of viscous, black water. Those who could have helped but did not. But I began to get out. CAT helped me to begin to see the world in a brighter, fresher way; to begin to live unladen by enervating memory: to get away from careering but very dead relatives. Writing to my mother was a part of that. I could have written a book on her. Actually, I just did, and really she is in everything I write, but back to the moment. I had some things to say and also I had to make a stand and confine her to my past. I would say I am ninety percent there. But still, black moods, flashbacks and dissociation: where am I and who am I and where, please tell me, are my edges?
My mother has been dead for thirty years. I might say she’s caused more trouble post mortem than when she was alive and kicking. I can hear her now, as I write this. It’s a sort of hoarse chuckling. She wouldn’t have to use actual words, for just a look would do. For someone with multiple health problems, she kicked a lot. And to me, tiny was Goliath. (Although we know what happened to him.) To the outside world she was brilliant. She was brilliant, actually. A tiny pretty Welsh woman, full of resources and craft; a tub thumper, campaigner. A respected pillar of the community to whom I may owe my campaigning tendencies. She was too clever for the life in which she found herself and thus was chronically frustrated. Responsibilities and poor health meant she couldn’t get out. I think she swam as best she could through a vast sea of might have beens—such as how her life might have been, on fire with passion and tremendous achievement, had she not been compromised by a weak heart and the attendant illness that visited. And I was another might have been; had I not existed—had she not kept me, the baby who further compromised her physical and emotional reserves, and whom her friends told her to abort – things might have been different. She could have been steadier and able to spread her wings. So when she told me how I had weakened her, I believed her. It is hard not to, still. When she died, I thought I was complicit and was unwell for a long time afterwards.
Yet, my mother made constant references to how she was strong and I was weak. It should have been the other way round; ironically, it was not because, apparently, I was the child of no good quality or just desire. I think the deathly low moods to which I became accustomed and against which I periodically lost the will to fight visited me at an early age because I became convinced, mixed up with earliest memoires, that I was a scabrous wound, pick, pick picked away. A shouldn’t have been which brought on the ghastly might have beens. I tried to tell her how I felt when I was a little older when she declaimed, as she often did, that I was trial and burden to all around me. Then, she pulled my hair and my ear and said, like a whirlwind of curses, ’You feel? Everything is all about you. You little bitch! You will dance on my grave after you’ve put me in it.’ We were folding sheets to put in the airing cupboard when she said that. It’s like it was yesterday, the screeches over the laundry-day diligence. A life replete with incongruity. And there was no-one to tell, for she was (now; my mother came from a large rural Welsh working class family) a middle-class pillar of the community; of good name and standing. So it had to be me, didn’t it? Here again was one of the worst things she would say to me. I find it hard to write this even now: here it comes again, at a rollicking pace:
’Little bitch. You will dance on my grave after you have put me in it. And we ALL know what you’re like!’ It must have been true. She couldn’t empathise with me because I was a nasty little eldritch child. Credence of this followed soon, each time. The doorbell rang. It was the vicar: ’Oh Mrs Llewellyn, you were so kind to send flowers to my wife when she so poorly and you were so kind to read the closing prayer at Mrs Mobbs’s funeral.’
And the phone rang: ’Oh Mrs Llewellyn, you have done so much to change the face of this struggling school. You are an inspiration to all teachers and, in fact, to all members of the community.’ And a letter came from the letter box: ’From Greenham Common: Oh Mrs Llewellyn, it was so kind of you to send us so many cakes and all those beautiful knitted socks and gloves because we protesters don’t half get cold and hungry and it’s people like you who keep us going.’
So I carved out my name with self loathing on my skin; hit my head with my fists until the ringing in my ears made me feel a little less alone. It had to be me, me, me because it just had to be. How could it be her? Just look at how marvellous she was! And as a response to stress and anxiety, the self harming stayed for over twenty years. If someone didn’t like me, or someone disapproved of me or said the dreaded words, ’Oh we ALL know what you’re like’, I scratched it on my own skin because those were, for me, prompts for a sort of annihilation. I say, a sort, because there was always more laundry to be done afterwards.
And still I tried to talk to her: ’Mummy, I feel so sad!’ Ah, it was all the words of the pitiful, self-indulgent creature. She told me flatly that depression, adolescence or even moods didn’t exist. These were phrases invented by those who peddled what she called ’Psycho-babble.’ She kept out books for me to see—Dealing with Exceptionally difficult Kids. Is your Child a Monster? Strategies to Cope. Are You a Saint who Birthed a Sinner? They were left out like coffee table books. Her anger was palpable, but denied. She was too pure, too good to be angry. I was the little canker. When her friends came round, she stuffed the books in the cupboard and put out ’Country Living’ while she and her harping porcelain doll-faced friends (as I saw them in childhood) drank tea and compared miraculous births and martyrdoms.
I believe that my mother was unable to have a strenuous conversation with my father, who was bright but not in her league and possibly not aware that he wasn’t. I used to hear them arguing: ’Books, opera, you never take me anywhere, I am so bored, bored, bored, I am practically dead.’. Then my father would go and have a burn. The bonfires he always started when indecision, conflict or any sort of hiatus beckoned. He was a good man, but I don’t feel I knew him at all. He was tall and strong and his shoulders like Atlas, but he was weaker than his wife and he would acquiesce when she left a hairball from her daughter on the carpet. He loved her and didn’t want to upset her and also he had to get ready for Evensong because he was a lay preacher and had responsibilities.
Ah now, I am making you sad my bravehearts. I am sorry.
Mother’s Day. I cry. And every day, at some point, I think, I think, I think of her. Why couldn’t it have been simpler? Unburdened? I know, now I am a mother of three, that it is hard and that we mothers can be fragile and friable as we work out what to do. But do I spit scorn and spite at my children as she did to me? I am not sure that I do. What do I think? About her? I think that I want to be sympathetic and that her unhappiness took her to dark places. I think that I don’t want to inhabit those dark places, in her wake. I think I miss her every day and I will never stop. I learned about determination, persistence and campaigning from her. I don’t know whether she believed we had a soul, but she believed in intellect; in using it, deploying it: allowing it to take flight and to animate us. I think she was brilliant. I imbibed so much from her and, yes, I do feel such sympathy for her because her life could have been so different. I think illness turned to spite and I was an unplanned child she had the heart and gall to keep. As she constantly told me. I wonder if she had vicarious hopes for me; that I would do the things she wouldn’t be able to and yet that was wound up with her own bitterness. Perhaps, as adults, we could have resolved this and got along, healed and communing. I will never know. We could have understood the difficult paradox of our relationship and gone forward. Not to have had a friendship with her as an adult upsets me, still. Because despite everything that had happened, we had potential.
Will I ever forgive her? No. But I have tried my best to understand because I think she suffered and was suffering and because she was not only one thing. She did good too. Did she love me? I think…maybe, in her own way. Did she want me? I think she hadn’t, but loved me against her will and grew to hate me too. There’s the paradox again. The last time I ever saw her, she had been refusing to speak to me for days. I didn’t know why. She wouldn’t say. That was the punishment. I saw her on a railway platform. I was still waving when she turned away. I never saw her again and I thought that if I saw her dead body I would die too. Yes—I loved her with passion; she loved with spite and flame. It was complicated. Part of me hated her because each day brought with it a fresh knowledge of what a trial and a burden I had been; of the baby that should have been left in the bucket (hence the phrase ’Baby in the Bucket’ that I used in Killing Hapless Ally, my first book, which was autobiographical fiction) and who had better atone for having been allowed to survive. I internalised that and I can feel tears pricking my eyes and that my fingers are clammy with a little anxiety as I write this. The hoarse chuckling is there, just at my back. As I said, post mortem, she’s still giving me some trouble.
Now, I have three boys of my own to mother; I do my best; I fail; I try again; I ’fail better’—as Samuel Beckett’s phrase has it. Sometimes, I even succeed. Through it all, I’d be lying if I said my experiences of parenting don’t regularly evoke the melancholy of being parented myself. But at least now, I have – though it is still not consistent because the damage was so early, prolonged and complex – the wherewithal to challenge that brooding, for which I have the support of MHRS (Mental Health Recovery Service) to thank. The depression, the OCD which I developed as an attempt to fashion a bewildering world and hold it in my hand with ruminating and intrusive thoughts, ritual, order and lines of books repeated over and over until I thought, ’Safe?’; the stalling anxiety; the self loathing and self-harming and the times I tried to destroy my own life: at the heart of all that, a fiery sense that I should not be and everybody knew. I would have to say that it began with her.
Ah, but there’s more to it than that. As I said, I’ve not forgiven her, but I have written a letter to her as part of the Cognitive Analytic Therapy a hugely skilled team laid on for me. I feel so sorry that she despised hope for the lie it gave her and I really do need to keep her at arms’ length, because she’s influential although long-gone.
And yet and yet.
Love is a many-winged creature and in my letter I also wrote this: ’You were my jagged pointing monster, but I loved you Mummy. I loved you. I couldn’t help it. I still love you. And I want you. And I miss you every day and I will never stop. Happy Mother’s Day and I think of you always. I love you, mum. Anna x’