Sunday 5 May 2024

 Afterpoems (and more)

A couple of weekends ago as part of a wonderful conference - 18th Annual Keele Counselling & Psychotherapy Conference (Research and Practice): 'What's Love Got to Do With It?' 20th & 21st April, 2024 - I attended a creative writing workshop. As a facilitator of such workshops myself it’s always great to be on the ‘other side’: to get some new ideas, to work with interesting like-minded others, to write….  As part of the workshop we read some poetry and one of the tasks set was to write an afterpoem (or story) in response to one of the pieces we had read. An afterpoem is a poem inspired by, in response to, as a homage to the original work. An afterpoem engages in some way (which may include building themes, contraction, following the style of and more) with the original poem and its author.

One of the poems we read in the workshop was Soup by Casey Bailey, the Birmingham Poet Laureate 2020-2022 (see and hear more here https://caseybailey.co.uk/poetry). Here is it:

SOUP

Today, you ate tomato soup like it was the first meal that you had eaten in days. You had half a cheese sandwich for lunch at one thirty. There is soup on the table and bread in your hair, you look like Mowgli from The Jungle Book, if Mowgli had eaten soup, and you smile as the yoghurt is placed in front of you. You look at yoghurt how I looked at your mother the day I met her, how I looked at your mother at four o’clock this morning as she sighed in her sleep, dreaming of you and your ways. You look at yoghurt how I looked at your mother when I found her in the art room, painting, at college. Her paintbrush darting like sparrows on autumn mornings, leaving crimsons and caramels in their wake. I knew then that she would spend her life both being and making beauty. She feeds you yoghurt. I take the wipes out. There is soup all over the floor. (Casey Bailey (2021) Please Do Not Touch Portishead: Burning Eye Books) 


I loved Soup when I first read it. I love it still. I’ve bought Please Do Not Touch (which includes Soup) to read more by its author. My afterpoem, written mostly in the workshop and then finished in the early hours of the next morning is called Tea

TEA

You loved tea and drank it continuously. Not just any tea though, it had to be Darjeeling with full fat milk. ‘Weak as piss’, some would mock. You’d shrug and put the kettle on to boil once more. One of the gifts you left me with is to be less worried about what critical others think and say; to be more confident in my own choices and to recognise the value in what I have to offer the world. Although a coffee drinker before I met you, and still mostly one today, I’d join you in a cuppa, feeling a small connection with you – whether together or apart – when enjoying the hot, but not so milky, mug-full. I still think of  you every time I reach for a teabag rather than the coffee pot. Together we faced some challenging times and it hurts me that you didn’t always value yourself enough, didn’t value yourself as much as you valued me. I remember your smile, your lovely long body, your beautiful voice, your political conviction and your love of books. I remember how you always made me feel centre stage. I’m thinking now of when following an early date at a night club with a group of friends one told me afterwards that as you watched me on the dance floor you turned to her and said ‘She’s wonderful, isn’t she?’ I’m remembering too the mess you'd create, and leave, in the kitchen whenever you made a drink or prepared a meal. 

Those who know me well will immediately realise that this is written for John (1948-2010).

I week later I am running my own creative writing workshop as part of the second annual Reengaging the Body Symposia Symposia/Workshop: Reengaging the body – boomerang-project.org.uk at beautiful Dartington Hall in Devon. For one of the exercises I first explain the afterpoem concept and suggest that participants might like to write an afterpoem, afterstory, aftersong (etc.). I’d read Tea the night before at our open mike event so everyone already had an example of such work. In my session I provide a section of a novel as one possible prompt for an afterpiece.

Jennie, written by Paul Gallico and published in 1950, tells the story of Peter, an eight year old boy, who when knocked down by a car wakes to find that he is a cat. (Interestingly I am not the first to speak of other than human bodies during our weekend).  Jennie befriends Peter and teaches him how to be, and how to survive in the world as, a cat. In the extract I share in Dartington Jennie is explaining how and why cats wash. Here’s just a little of her lesson:

If you have committed any kind of an error and anyone scolds you – wash,” she was saying. “If you slip and fall off something and somebody laughs at you – wash. If you are getting the worst of an argument and want to break off hostilities until you have composed yourself, start washing. Remember, every cat respects another cat at her toilet. That’s our first rule of social deportment, and you must also observe it. Whatever the situation, whatever difficulty you may be in you can’t go wrong if you wash. If you come into a room full of people you do not know, and who are confusing to you, sit right down in the midst of them and start washing. They’ll end up by quieting down and watching you. Some noise frightens you into a jump, and somebody you know saw you were frightened – begin washing immediately. If somebody calls you and you don’t care to come and still you don’t wish to make it a direct insult – wash. …..

I give participants the choice of responding to a favourite poem or story that in some way engages with body(ies), that I’d asked them to source the previous evening, or to respond to the passage from Jennie. This leads to some truly wonderful pieces.

Once home I decide to write about my (to date) afterpoem experiences. Wanting to publish Soup in full I contact Casey Bailey via his webpage. Replying almost immediately he kindly granted me permission, saying how pleased he was that his work had inspired me. Thank You Casey.

Never be afraid to contact an artist you admire.

 


Tuesday 9 April 2024

 ONE HOUR

I publish fiction, memoir and the occasional rant on ABCtales.com  https://www.abctales.com/user/gletherby Recently in response to one of the weekly Inspiration Points -  'one hour' - I wrote: 



The Gift 

What would you do if gifted an hour?

Watch two episodes of your favourite soap or the first part of that Netflix series that everyone is talking about?  

Talk and laugh and talk some more with your mum on the phone?

Share coffee and a slice of cake (two forks) with the friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages but … ?

Read some more of the novel that’s been keeping you up way past your bedtime for the last three nights?

Relax in a bubble bath, topping up the hot water by twisting the hot tap with the big toe on your right foot?

Cook your favourite meal... go for a swim... plant the shrubs you bought at the garden centre last weekend... sit and chill with the cat on your knee... go to the gym…?

What would you do if gifted an hour?

Why wait.

Give yourself a gift.

***

Sharing my contribution to Facebook I asked friends:  'What would you do?' Mary Garland responded with these lovely words: 

Today I was gifted an hour
by the absence of the usual traffic en route to work.
Taking up Gayle's invitation,
I'll use the hour to write, no, crochet, no, read, no, think.
It's such a precious gift, this hour,
so many ways it could be spent that I'm scared of losing
this one hour in indecision
for the clock ticks as I write this, think, look out the window.
There's a black cat in the buddleia,
three magpies in the adjacent tree as I write, watch and
wonder this precious hour away.
And I realise I'm happy, using this hour this way.



Tuesday 2 April 2024

Gareth's Body 

I wrote this short story following a discussion at a session I attended at the Centre for Death and Society (CDAS, University of Bath) Annual Conference in 2023. We talked, amongst other things, about the hierarchy of (dead) bodies which made me think further about the status of the dead and the impact that this might have on those who are grieving them.                         

                                                Gareth’s Body

The conversation with the registrar’s assistant leaves Emily shivering, despite the warmth of the day. Throughout the call the insensitive jobsworth on the other end of the call had constantly referred to Emily’s witty, untidy, kind, gorgeous, generous (too generous at times in Emily’s opinion), clever, verbose (at times embarrassingly so) Gareth as ‘the deceased’.

‘When did the deceased die?’

‘What is the name of the deceased?’

‘What is your relationship to the deceased?’

The denial of 72 years of life with one brutal, final, word.

Gareth is no longer a husband, a lover, father and grandfather, a brother, a friend, an engineer, a football and musicals fan, a collector of old Beano comics. All this, all of his identity, erased by the word ‘deceased’. Or so it feels to Emily. She smiles briefly, remembering ‘the parrot is definitely deceased line’ from Monty Python’s famous sketch; a favourite of theirs. This thought takes her to other entertainments. The crime and hospital dramas where once people are dead they become ‘the body’. Silent Witness is the worst. (Great title though.) So many previous friends, acquaintances and work mates of the central characters end up as ‘the body’ on the mortuary slab just days after interactions with the occupants of The Thomas Lyell Centre. What dangerous relationships to have. Only in Midsomer is it necessary to choose one’s friends and acquaintances more carefully. She smiles again. It amazes her that this huge, life-will-never-be-the-same-again, event has happened and she is still able to think of, and be amused by, other things, that she still feels thirsty and hungry, that she still manages to wash and dress and get through her daily chores. Even if at the end of each day she can’t fully remember what she’s done, what’s she’s eaten, what she’s thought.

After deciding on a casket, booking a venue for a post-funeral tea and talking through the ceremony with a celebrant Emily spends a bitter sweet afternoon and evening looking through years of photographs. The children are planning a visual display of some sort at the wake. She’s not quite sure what they’ll do but she’s happy to pick out some of her favourite shots; of Gareth, of Gareth and her, of Gareth and the children and grandchildren. She marvels at how strong and youthful her beloved husband looked until just recently (the later images are on her phone rather than in albums or boxes). It was only in the last few weeks of his six month illness that his muscles had begun to wither and his grip slacken. Tall and long-limbed with a full head of dark hair and a craggy, handsome face Emily had always loved Gareth’s body as well as his mind and his heart. Closing her eyes she is once again in his arms her head tucked underneath his, their legs intertwined. Such an embrace might or might not have led to sex. Either way Emily had always gloried in Gareth’s touch, never not been intoxicated by his scent. Forty-five years of marriage had not dulled their passion, their interest – in and out of the bedroom - in each other. Since his death Emily has slept on her life-partner’s side of the bed clutching one of his old jumpers. But the bed feels different and the smell of him is already fading.

Five weeks later Emily travels the short train distance to the nearest seaside town. She listens to one of Gareth's recordings of Les Miserables during the journey, crying just a little. On her lap is a large bag containing a simple plastic urn. The remains of Gareth’s body are not as heavy as when she collected them from the undertaker. With the family, and the dog, she had scattered half of the ashes in the woodland just ten minutes away from the house they have lived in for the last 32 years. Gareth’s favourite morning walk, they’d taken it together just two days before he died. His strides less confident but still purposeful. His delight in his surroundings undimmed. Today as she looks out to sea Emily’s memory wanders to the many boat trips that started from here. Whilst Gareth fished, she read and bathed in the sun planning the meal they would have with his catch, the wine that might accompany it, and the cuddles and caresses that would likely follow. His body again, she can’t stop thinking of his body. His hand in hers, his sexy smile, his slightly too hairy (for her taste) back. The thoughts are often about the intimacy between them. But also she imagines him throwing one of their grandchildren in the air or frowning over the crossword or hopping round the garage after hitting his thumb with a hammer during a failed DIY attempt. Gareth though is no longer ‘a body’. Gareth no longer has a body. From a man, to ‘the deceased’, to an urn of cremains, Gareth has not bones nor skin, no eyes nor ears. He can no longer walk, wave, shout, kiss. But as she tips the last of the ashes into the sea Emily knows that it matters not as he is, and ever will be, deep within her heart.


  NB: This story will also be published in Letherby, G. (forthcoming)Using fiction, non-fiction and memoir to tell sociological (death) stories’ in Tripathi K and Lamond I (eds) Listening to Death’s Echo: International Critical Autoethnographic Discussions on Death London: Palgrave/Macmillan

 


Sunday 31 March 2024

 



Using Eight Words

Sometimes when I write the words just come and the piece is finished then and there, sometimes I need to mull a little, refine, rewrite, reflect. I started this one whilst in Bath a couple of weeks ago and finish it this morning, the first day of British Summer Time, on a rainy day in Coverack. 


                                                      ***

I’m running a Creative Writing Workshop for Bath Beacon: Sport and Technology in a Digital Age at the University of Bath. I’ve set participants  a writing task: ‘chose eight words from those chosen by others from their piece of free-writing’ (each person had picked out and shared four of the words they wrote during our warm-up exercise). I’ve picked eight too. Thought I’d join in. It was easy to fine a good number that related to some of the main messages from my workshop today. As I’ve already said this morning, writing this way – using memoir, fiction, song lyrics and more – as a way to tell  academic stories challenges the more formal, traditional and still widely expected ways of representation. (Anyone who knows me well knows that I avoid dissemination whenever I can: ‘the scattering of male seed’ indeed). A style that in my view, at least, often does injury to the voices of those involved; respondents and researchers included. How wonderful then that more and more scholars, from across many disciplines, are embracing creativity and thinking differently about how to present data, discussion and debate. Such openness acknowledges and embraces the messiness of the research process, as an embodied, emotional, power-laden experience and not an objective and value-free one. Which is, of course, as true when we communicate to others what it is that we’ve done and what it is that we’ve found, as when we plan the project and collect the data. But ‘what will the reviewers think?’ I anticipate the question even though nobody has asked it.  I tell the story of the one and only time in my career that a journal article reviewer wrote ‘publish it as it is’ after reading my submission; a piece in which I wove some epistemological reflection with short fictional stories and pieces of memoir. I also share my experience of writing memoir and fiction for non-academic audiences and my view that this can make our work more impactful in that such storytelling enables us to more easily share our messages across and between disciplines and besides and beyond the academy. And yet, this way of working is not without risk: ‘nice but not theoretical’, ‘not very academic’, ‘self-indulgent’, ‘over-romanticised’…. I’ve heard it all, been accused of it all, and more. Any yet, and yet, so many more scholars are coming to appreciate the value in, and of, such representations. I’ve written about this before, and I know I will again. For now back to my chosen eight words. I’ve used seven so far – formal, injury, messiness, communicate, reviewers, impactful, risk. So what of the eighth – seagulls – which I just had to include. Oddly enough just this morning on my Facebook page up popped a memory from four years ago:

Visitor to my balcony. Seagulls get such a bad press but I love them and it was us that  drove them inland. I've been thinking all week 'what must the birds be thinking with the  streets so quiet?' (I know, I know). I think they're missing us and not just for the chips they  might pinch.



I shared it again with the words….  One of the seagulls that kept me company through lockdown one. Thinking of this now (and although I very much appreciate the new ways of hybrid working that we’ve been left with since the pandemic forced us to think differently about how to work and socialise) I smile to myself thinking how great it is to be here in person working with such an interesting group of people.


Friday 22 March 2024


Shades of Grey

NB: this piece of memoir contains references to loss, including baby loss. 

I’m sitting in my neighbour’s flat. She lives on the floor below me in our small block of flats. It’s the first time I’ve been inside her home, although we often chat outside in the shared parking area. The décor is not quite to my taste but I like it. There’s been some reconstruction work so the lay-out is a bit different to mine too. The building is over 50 years old so the rooms are somewhat bigger than in some of the newer builds in town. In amongst the sofas, bookcases and coffee tables there’s quite a bit of child paraphernalia including toys and a colourful plastic table and chairs set. I smile and ask after her grandchildren who I sometimes hear when they are staying over. She apologies, as she always does, about the noise they make and I reply, as I always do, with ‘no, don’t apologise, don’t worry, I like to hear them’. I mean it. I do. Another neighbour, newer to the block, who lives above me, and whom I’m already finding more difficult to connect with, asks the inevitable (well so it has been for me) question; ‘do you have any grandchildren Gayle?’.

‘No, no children or grandchildren.’

Oh a nice easy life then.’

My mood dips as my stomach clenches, my world turning pale grey. Not the blackness of despair which I once felt, nor the bright flashing red of angry for, for sure, I’m used to such comments by now. The assumption that I will have followed the expected maternal path and the insensitive – through embarrassment or just a lack of real interest or care – throw away retort when I name my status, or rather the lack of it.

‘Well it wasn’t my choice,’ I reply, ‘but I’m lucky to have many children and young people in my life’.

The conversation moves on. We are gathered to discuss some work that needs doing on the property we share. My mind wanders. I’m thinking of a quote from Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost (published in 2004 by Harper Collins publishers) which I first saw when it was shared on twitter just after her death in late September in 2022:

You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. When the midwife says, ‘It’s a boy’, where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that never worked after the opening lines.

***

I began this piece during a writing workshop organised by the Centre for Death and Society (#CDASWriting). Our theme was ‘narratives of loss’ and our first writing prompt was ‘what colour does this morning feel like to you?’ Still uneasy following the interaction in my neighbour’s flat I chose ‘pale grey’ as my colour. Yet grey is an ambivalent, not solely negative, colour for me. I love my smart grey trousers and the several same colour comfy, soft to the touch, jumpers I wear through autumn to spring. I chose to have two grey walls and a grey carpet in a living room otherwise full of colour. So although ‘pale grey’ seemed to fit well my, on the verge of sombre, mood (and the weather) I choose it also for its' (for me at least) association with warmth and the comfort of home.

Shortly after the house meeting I posted a brief outline of the unsettling exchange on Facebook and received many supportive and empathetic comments. The most touching being; ‘Easy life, nah, you’ve got all of us’ accompanied by a photograph which includes the friend who posted the comment, her two young children, her brother and his husband, her mum (my oldest friend) and dad and me. The picture was taken at a day out at a local sculpture park earlier this year. The sun is shining. We’re all smiling as the selfie is taken. I remember a good day. There was a picnic and other fun too. I was with people I love, who love me; the group including some of the most significant children and young people in my life. This memory leads me to reflect on others, of other days, other happy times. When writing of loss and of grief my mum, Dorothy, (my dad, my baby and my husband too but especially my mum), is never far from my mind. My wonderful, funny, clever, ferociously protective mother who always put me first and foremost, who loved me unconditionally and who supported me through so many other losses (my dad, my baby, my husband and more).  The day after the #CDASWriting workshop, whilst doing 10 minutes or so on the exercise bike ‘temptingly’! placed in the corner of my living room, the second track from Kirsty McCall (the artist I’d chosen to encourage me on my ride) comes on; ‘Thank You For The Days’. I cried listening to this at my mum’s funeral and as my legs continued to circle round and round I lifted my hand to brush away my most recent tears for my most beloved. The memories on this occasion were mostly happy though; the many wonderful times we had together, the laughter we shared, her smile and her gentle touch. Grief, such a funny, complex thing.

The final exercise of the writing workshop was to write a piece to challenge a dominant narrative, an expectation of behaviour, feeling, thought. I returned again to my own personal maternal identity and experience:

 

People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.

 

But there never was a next time, a right time.

 

It did NOT happen ever again.

it did NOT happen ever again

It did NOT happen ever again.

 

It began with an actual loss. A baby. Just a foetus to some but a baby to me. A baby who died before it had the chance to be born.

And then a loss of possibilities.

No more pregnancies (or at least not that I know of).

No more babies, children, grandchildren.

 

Childless I am not.

There have always been, and are, plenty of children and young people in both my personal life and my work life.

But, the loss, the losses, I feel acutely still, more than three and a half decades on since my baby died.

I’m reminded everyday by a family tableau in a café, a TV drama, a careless comment…  

 

I feel the loss, I carry it huddled in a corner within me.

Waiting, always, waiting to remind me of what might have been.

I talk about my loss(es) when asked and share my experience in the hope that in some small ways I might raise awareness in the less than empathetic and connect with others who have been through similar.

And yet the word never feels quite right.

If I accept that I ‘lost’ my baby, aren’t I admitting to failure? To a lack of care, to not preventing an event that could have been prevented?

A worry underscored by the fact that the time never was right.

 

People say ‘never mind, it’s for the best. It will happen next time, next time, when the time is right'.

 

But there never was a next time, a right time.

 

It did NOT happen ever again.

 

A book I read years ago comes to mind. Not so much the words within the cover but the cover itself. A couple holding a baby between them, BUT NOT, as the space where the baby should have been was blank. Like a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.

 

My life is full, enriched, happy. And yet my own personal jigsaw (like, for various reasons, those of many others) will always be incomplete.

Saturday 16 March 2024

Sunny Side Up

 

Sunny Side Up: I wrote this piece in response to an exercise I set participants during the creative writing session I facilitated as part of the 'Reengaging the Body Symposia/Workshop' organised by the boomerang.project.org.uk

Symposia/Workshop: Reengaging the body – boomerang-project.org.uk in May 2023

 

Conscious of keeping time and ensuring everyone is comfortable in what they are doing I don’t always join in the writing exercises (at least at the time). On this occasion I did.

 




Sunny Side Up 

I adore eggs, cooked every and all ways. They are absolutely on my desert island foodstuff list. The ultimate comfort food has got to be a scrambled egg buttie (or maybe ‘sandwich’ if you’re not from Liverpool); white bread, the eggs not too runny, nor too hard and bouncy, so they melt in to the butter making a messy but delicious and happy meal. I recall an afternoon 25 or more years ago when after what I had guessed would be a difficult work meeting my late husband John came into the hall to meet me as I returned home.

‘How did it go?’, he asked before I was even properly inside the house, my key still in the door.

Saying nothing I held up my hands; a loaf in one, six eggs in the other.

‘Ahh, as you expected then’, he said before taking the ingredients from me to carefully prepare some sympathy on a plate.

***

The day starts grey and wet but later the sun comes out and it feels like everyone’s mood, already good, lifts a little more.  In the writing workshop I’m leading as part of a weekend focusing on re-engaging the body I’m encouraging those I’m working with to think about what colour the day feels like to them. I ask participants to concentrate on the memories and emotions the colour evokes, what senses it stimulates and more. It’s an exercise I’ve done before in workshops led by others but this is the first time I’ve included it in an event I’ve facilitated. We start with a spider diagram of thoughts which leads onto a story, poem, piece of memoir, or anything else that people feel like writing. I’ve brought coloured pencils and felt-tip pens for the first part of the exercise and everyone seems to be enjoying using them.  

As we begin, and without much thought, I see, and feel, a warming yellow. Images of the sun and of sunflowers, of a pretty bedspread I bought for my mum for her 60th birthday, even a yellow submarine (there’s that Liverpool connection again) drift in and out of my mind. Next I’m remembering the discussion about eggs I had with a fellow participant, and newish friend, at breakfast. She’s over from the U.S., well into her three and a half week stay, and we are sharing our delight at the quality of the scrambled eggs, which are unusually good for a buffet breakfast; creamy and delicious and so beautifully yellow. My friend tells  me how impressed she has been with the food this trip, the eggs – scrambled, sunny-side-up and poached - being a particular unexpected treat.

In our afternoon workshop as I’m reflecting on the pleasure of the morning’s eggs I remember too how my dad, Ron, used to prepare boiled ones for eating; a practice I follow. Tap, tap, tapping the egg gently with his teaspoon, dad would  painstakingly remove each piece of shell from more than a third of the egg. He’d work from the top down, checking that all the outer covering was gone before digging his spoon into the egg-white, allowing the wonderful bright and beautiful yoke to drip and be mopped up by toasted bread. There are of course two types of people when it comes to boiled eggs. The tappers and diggers like my dad and me and the slice off the toppers of which my mum, Dorothy, was one. Her practice, like mine, following her father’s. My mum’s grew up in a poor household. My grandfather was a builder and when there was no work there was no pay. Sharing a bed with one of her sisters, in winter my mum, and my Auntie Blanche, slept under coats as well as one thin blanket and without the Salvation Army, my mum told me, often they would not have eaten at all. Every Sunday (money, or the Sally Army, permitting) my maternal grandfather would have a boiled egg for his breakfast and once a month (there being four girl children in total) it would be my mum’s turn to receive and eat the top slice.

Despite their egg differences my parents were very happy together. I’ve written before about our small (just the three of us) family life; often lean in terms of income and material goods, but always rich in love. One of my many happy memories is of how at Easter my dad would draw funny faces on all of our boiled eggs before we tapped and dipped or sliced in order to reveal the glorious golden protein within. My oldest friend, who knew both of my parents well, sometimes still boils and decorates me an egg or two on Easter Sunday. Family – by birth and/or by choice – and good food (particularly when it’s yellow); what a combination.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Reflections from an (Academic) Writing Retreat

I wrote this piece in April 2023

That there are truths to be found in stories is inarguable. Similarly, there is always an element of interpretation in research, and every written text is a product or particular social, political, technical, economic and personal events’ (Katherine Frank, 2000: 484).  


As I begin this piece I’m in the middle of doing one of my favourite things; facilitating an academic writing retreat. We’re in an interesting location at the top end of a small Devon market town known for its alternativeness. The building was once a fish and chip shop. Now it belongs to the adjacent hotel that we ate and slept in last night. It’s an unusual space, the one we’ve working in that is, with an old shop size fryer in the corner and wooden tables with comfy enough oddly matched chairs. There’s an old, enamel sink too and an open wall cupboard containing water jugs, metal cups and a pretty bowl or two.  Everyone is busy writing, the keyboard tappings accompanied by the hum from the two big fridges in the corner. The chaps in the shop next door are clearly up to some renovation that’s causing them not a little bother. The walls are thinnish and now and then we hear a swear word or three. The windows are large and we attract quite a few curious glances from passers-by. Occasionally we are interrupted by someone who has not read the sign on the door informing shoppers that the usual Thursday am bakery sale is being held in the hotel bar this week. We’re on the second morning of our two full days, the 12 other writers and me. There is a mixture of intensive writing time and exercises including free writing, writing to prompts and editing. The focus of everyone’s work is scholarly but the group is multi-disciplinary and the methods and methodologies embrace arts-based approaches as well as more traditional social scientific ones.

As academics you think we’d all have lots of time for writing, but what with ever-growing teaching, admin and pastoral roles and tasks even grabbing an hour or two to work on something creative is often hard going. When working at the weekend my mum always used to ask ‘are you doing your work, or work, work?’ ‘Your/my’ work being working on my PhD or later an article or a book chapter and ‘work, work’ being lecture or seminar preparation. I came to higher education late, as a non-standard entrant at 28, having spent eight years training and working as a nursery nurse and two years drifting in and out of a few administrative jobs. It was a miscarriage at 16 weeks of my, to my knowledge, one and only pregnancy, one and only baby, that ended my nursery nursing career. Spending so much time with other people’s children was too painful for me whilst I waited (in vain) to get pregnant again. But it was during those two distressing years that I discovered, what was to be a lifetime love. To fill an evening, and in an attempt to find something else, other than my reproductive failures, to occupy my mind, I began an evening class in sociology and the rest, well the rest is the rest… Right from the beginning I was interested and, more often than not, captivated by the research and reflections, the concepts and theories. The political focus of the discipline, the concern with trying to make the world a better place, also drew me in. Probably not surprisingly I have spent a considerable amount of my own research and academic writing time over the last 30 plus years focusing on those who do and do not mother (parent) and the associated differences and similarities in these identities. Non/motherhood (parenthood) is a status and an experience that I, and many others, believe to often be misunderstood and misrepresented. I feel most privileged to have been able to spend so much (paid) time researching, reflecting and writing about something so important to so many.  Alongside this (and a host of other substantive interests including working and learning in higher education, travel and transport, loss and bereavement, food and other poverties, solitude, and more) I have always been interested in the process as well as the product of research, that is the relationship between what we do and what we get. So when teaching and supervising I always emphasis the essential relationship between clear and articulate methodological discussion and accountable knowledge (Letherby 2003). For me, and indeed, I argue, for all researchers, part of the process is, or should be, acknowledging the significance of my own/one’s own auto/biographical presence. The / in auto/biography indicating that when we write about the self, echoes of others are always present and when we represent the lives of others our beliefs, values and experiences are at the very least implicitly extant also.

As a nursery nurse one of my main tasks was encouraging children to learn through play, often (very) messy play. In an interesting parallel I have always thought of the research process as wonderfully messy, never tidy and hygienic as many methodological texts in the past insisted. Thus, I always encourage those I teach to ‘play with’ their data in order to get the best out of it. Because of this I find it somewhat ironic that it was two decades into my academic career before I began to think more creatively about how to present – play with - sociological ideas (including research data). Of course it’s essential (not least for credibility and promotion) to impress one’s peers in the academic world. So research reports, articles, monographs and the like are all important within the day job. But, there are different ways to tell sociological stories and just as social scientists have begun to engage more with arts-based methods with reference to the collection of data, so too have we in terms of presentation. I first began writing fiction and memoir following the death of my husband John in 2010, and even more so after my mum, Dorothy, died in 2012. At the beginning the activity was purely therapeutic, part of my early grieving process. A way of working out my thoughts and feelings. I shared some of my writings with friends and was supported and encouraged to write more. Soon I began to include such writings within my academic work, moving back and forth from the personal to the methodological and the theoretical (see Letherby 2015 for an example), and I began to reflect on how my sociologically informed story-telling might extend beyond the academy.

When I think about my motivation to write (and to research) I’m reminded of my favourite ‘Mummy, Mummy’ joke:

     ‘Mummy, mummy, there’s a man at the door with a bill.’

     ‘Don’t be silly darling, it’s a duck with a hat on.’

Basically, things are not always what they seem, and it is important to highlight this, whenever, however and wherever we can. Working creatively with sociological ideas and research findings, including auto/biographical ones, both within and outside of the academy, is, for me at least, in part an attempt to make an impact; however small. In 2017 I posted a short piece of fiction on ABCtales.com called ‘Poppy’  Poppy | ABCtales It’s a story about poverty and homelessness and a critique of traditional views of patriotism, told from the perspective of a child. To date 14,204 people have read it on the ABCtales site; my most read piece here. I’ve also included the story in an academic publication (Letherby 2022) and in a number of presentations and lectures. The positive comments I continue to receive about ‘Poppy’ reassures me of the significance of this kind of writing.

Back to where I started; the writing retreat. I am very fortunate to have now been asked a number of times to run (on my own or with others) both creative writing for academics and activists events’ and academic writing retreats (which always include a creative exercise or two, three…). I’ve also attended a number of retreats as a participant and enjoyed them all. How wonderful to work with other people on something oneself finds so enriching and emotionally fulfilling. At all the events that I’ve facilitated at least a few people have spoken about their anxiety, about their ‘lack of creativity’, but invariably by the end of the session they are pleased, if sometimes still a little shy, about what they have written. Tham Khai Meng (2016) feels relevant here:

‘Everyone is born creative, but… it is educated out of us at school… Sure, there are classes called writing and art, but what’s really being taught is conformity.

Young children fizz with ideas. But the moment they go to school, they begin to lose the freedom to explore, take risks and experiment. 

             We spend our childhoods being taught the artificial skill of passing exams…

We spend our days in meetings and talk about “thinking outside the box”. But rarely do we step outside it.’

My dad, Ron, was a writer of stories, both fiction and memoir. A blue-collar worker (industrial diamond polisher, hotel porter, toilet-roll factory worker, bank-messenger, fish-fryer) all his life, he wrote, and had published several short stories in the 1960s and early 1970s. Re-reading them now I can pick out the connections to our own family life and see the blurring of fact and fiction in his writings. As a younger adult I enjoyed my dad’s stories and admired this way of working. Until relatively recently though I believed it was not something that I could do. Now I know different, for we can all do it, if we wish to. We are all, can all be, creative if given the time and the space and support and encouragement. What we produce may not meet the approval, satisfy the taste of all, but whether we write (paint, sculpt, sing, act…) for ourselves or for others, it is all, I believe, of great value and significance, emotionally, socially, politically.

During my nursery nurse training I remember one session where we were being given instruction on how to encourage creativity in children.

 ‘When talking to a child about a painting or a drawing’, the tutor said, ‘don’t ask “what is it?”, rather say “tell me about it”.’

I’ve never forgotten this advice and with respect to my own, and others, attempts at telling stories in different ways ‘tell me about it’, feels an ideal starter to opening up discussion and encouraging more creative possibilities.

 

References

Frank K. (2000) ‘”The Management of Hunger”: Using Fiction in Writing Anthropology’ Qualitative Inquiry 6(4)

Letherby, G. (2003) Feminist Research in Theory and Practice Buckingham: Open University

Letherby, G. (2015) ‘Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story’ MortalityPromoting the interdisciplinary study of death and dying 20:2

Letherby, G. (2022) ‘Thirty Years and Counting: An-other auto/biographical story; Auto/Biography Review Thirty Years and Counting | Auto/Biography Review (autobiographyreview.com)(link is external)

Meng, T. K. ‘Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school’  Everyone is born creative, but it is educated out of us at school | (link is external)Tham(link is external) Khai(link is external) Meng | The Guardian