No Writer Is An Island

February 5, 2016 § 21 Comments

Hannah Garrard

Hannah Garrard

A guest post from Hannah Garrard

Sometimes I fantasize about doing a job that keeps me writing in the same room all day. It’s a calm and almost silent space, save for the clack of my fingers on a keyboard. The walls are painted cream, like a fresh new page, and I am sitting at an oak desk, wrapped in a shawl of some autumnal colour made from something silky like angora. My only company is an elegant philodendron with generous dark green leaves that keeps the air cleansed and oxygenated. No one disturbs me; no one makes demands on me. I just write all day in my sequestered writer’s world, stopping for tea when I feel like it.

In the late afternoon I sit at a window seat framed by simple calico fabrics in a high alcove, maybe smoking—even though I don’t like smoking in real-life—having deep thoughts as I gaze across an urban vista. It is an immaculate, uncluttered fantasy in which all the living goes on inside my head, and finds itself, miraculously, on the page.

This is the fantasy I have when my day job as a youth and community worker leaves me weary at the end of a long evening running groups, and my car is littered with sweet wrappers and mud from shoes left behind by the teenagers I’ve had to drive home because the bus didn’t turn up. On days like this I have no energy left for writing, so I retreat into my fantasy writer’ s world, wishing I didn’t earn a living from not writing.

But I am a creative nonfiction writer, and there is no such thing as an immaculate conception when it comes to my own writing—which explores, in its broadest sense, what it means to be human. Without messy, human lives, spilling out around me, making up the frayed narratives and sequential dramas of my own life, I have nothing to hang my creative life on. So I have to go out into the world and live in it, and earn a living in it (mainly to keep a roof over my head and shoes on my feet). To earn my living solely as a writer doesn’t make sense to me; there’s an element missing: other people’s lives. They are the fuel for my writers’ spirit of inquiry, the way a flood needs a river, a dream needs a subconscious, and astronomy needs limitless possibility.

Since I graduated with a Literature degree in English, and then ten years later with an MA in Creative Nonfiction writing, I have always worked in the charity sector with marginalized groups, part time while I studied and then full time when I have bills to pay. I have worked with refugees, people with mental health issues, English as a second language speakers and now young people—who come with all the labels society sticks on them. The teenagers I work with are struggling with their identities as young gay men and women, or with their gender. They are coping with their first experiences of psychosis, or coming to terms with the loss of a parent. They are living in foster care or have just left the system and are now solely dependent on themselves. On an almost daily basis I am confronted with the sharp edges, the soft edges, the dark sides and, more often than not, the ironic and euphoric shades of humanity.

And it is these experiences, these visceral moments, which help fuel my writing life. I do not write directly about the young people I work with—that would be a breach of ethics and confidentiality—but the knowledge I gain through my work with other people comes into my writing space sideways, like daylight seeping through a crack in the wall. It casts light on the things I am trying to understand as a nonfiction writer intrigued by human experiences that are otherwise in darkness because I have not lived them. Put simply, my day job is a salient lesson in empathy.

As a professional I maintain an emotional distance between myself and the work I do, but this does not mean I am detached from it.   My writing is the space in which I am allowed to explore and feel anything I like, and without a life immersed in the world and in other human narratives, I wonder if I would still have the same capacity for feeling? No creative nonfiction writer, I tell myself, is an island.

My day job has taken me into some rich writing spaces: I discovered the female war photographer, Olive Edis, through a museum project I developed with a group of young people one summer, and have subsequently written on her life. Edis’s autochrome portraits of local fisherman provoked rich textual imagery that I otherwise would not have had access to. My latest writing project is around dementia, inspired by the regular visits I have taken young people on to a residential nursing home as part of an intergenerational project. Last year I won my first ever writing prize, for an essay on memory loss and our relationship with place; I am now in the process of finding a writing residency with a dementia care unit, and intrigued to see where this new journey of inquiry will take me and my writing.

One day, I may write about the young people who have come into my life through working in the sector, when there is perhaps more distance between us. For now, I am satisfied with the access to human feeling that the work gives my creative life, even if I do feel that it is sometimes compromised by the physical energy my job demands of me.

I have just finished my first collection of essays, part memoir part biography part literary nonfiction, about the condition of exile. It explores the lives and experiences of the adults and children I worked with when I taught English in a Liberian refugee camp in Ghana back in 2006. It took me a long time to process my own thinking, and to find an easily traversable distance between myself and the narratives of dislocation I was so immersed in when I was living in the camp, the conditions of which were sweaty, crowded, noisy and confounding, and not conducive to writing at all. But I would not have written a single word if I had spent my life in the cream-walled room wrapped up in an angora shawl and only a plant for company.

Living and writing have a symbiotic relationship, and I wonder, in the spirit of this philosophical context, that if creative nonfiction writing requires access to lived experience, be it simply by being in possession of a consciousness, is being alive, for writers the act of writing itself?

Hannah Garrard has an M.A. in creative-nonfiction writing from UEA, Norwich, UK. She still works and lives in her university city. By day she is a youth worker, and by night a writer of all things creative nonfiction. Her essays and articles have been published in Newfound, Going Down Swinging, New Internationalist and the Guardian, plus other journals and anthologies. In 2015 she won the Flipside New Writing Prize for an essay about memory loss and our identity in place.

Writing Workshop Is Not Group Therapy

February 24, 2015 § 33 Comments

breakfast_clubA guest post from Jennifer McGuiggan:

It’s easy to read a memoir or essay and feel as though we know the author, even though all we really know is what the writer shared with us on the page. This false sense of familiarity is one thing when we read published work by authors we may never meet. But in a creative nonfiction workshop, this faux intimacy becomes a slippery slope.

We all know that writing workshop can be an emotionally charged environment to begin with. Add in stories of personal trauma, and you’ve got a veritable Slip‘N Slide of intense moments and awkward interactions just waiting for you to lose your footing.

How can you keep your balance and avoid any more uncomfortable moments than necessary?

Make this your mantra:

Writing workshop is not group therapy.

(Say it with me.)

(And if it helps, you can sing it to the beat of MC Lars’ “Hot Topic is Not Punk Rock.”)

Don’t let a writing workshop turn into something it’s not meant to be. Here are some tips on how to stay grounded.

1) No problem solving—unless it relates to writing. Remember that you are in workshop to discuss the craft of writing and the world on the page. You aren’t there to coach a writer on how to heal from a traumatic childhood, a dance with addiction, or a spiritual crisis. You are not in workshop to help anyone slay their personal demons, unless those demons deal with writing better scenes, understanding narrative arc, or improving sentence rhythm.

2) Kindness is good. Empathy is dangerous. Pity is bad. I get it: You are a decent human being. You care about other people. By all means, be kind. After all, you are talking about someone’s real life, so don’t be crass or insensitive about his or her experiences. But don’t go overboard. Empathy might sound like a good trait, but it’s dangerous in a workshop. It can tempt you to identify too much with the narrator and her experiences, which can derail a workshop discussion and send it skidding out of control, devolving into a well-intentioned (but ultimately unhelpful) chorus of “me too.” A few steps beyond empathy is sympathy, and beyond that is the minefield of pity. Don’t go there. The events on the page may be uncomfortable or even horrific, but workshop is not the place for sentiments such as “You poor thing” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

3) Question the right things. When dealing with creative nonfiction, you can question the author’s craft choices, but not her life choices. Feel free to point out muddy writing, confusing inconsistencies, clichés, awkward passages, and boring descriptions. Go ahead and question anything that doesn’t feel believable on the page, but limit your comments about believability to the work itself. People do weird and unbelievable things in real life all the time. Your only concern is how those actions are presented in the story at hand.

4) Depersonalize the discussion. Although the narrator is a facet of the writer herself, the two are not wholly one and the same in creative nonfiction. Treat the narrator like a character. When you’re talking about the “I” of the essay, use terms such as “the narrator” or “the persona,” and use third-person pronouns. Try not to say things like, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where your mother leaves you.” Instead, say, “The pacing is too slow in the scene where the mother leaves the narrator.” This might feel strange and contrived at first, but you’d never conflate a fictional protagonist with the writer of a short story or novel, even if you suspect (or know) that the story is drawn from the writer’s own life. Depersonalizing the language helps to keep the discussion focused on the craft.

5) No comments about bravery, please. If someone chooses to write about a personal event and share it in a workshop, she doesn’t need you to tell her how brave she is—either for surviving the event or for sharing the story. You’re not in workshop to comment on the writer’s courage; you’re there to give feedback on her work. As a creative nonfiction writer, I never feel more squeamish or vulnerable as when someone encounters my work and tells me how “brave” I am. I don’t write to be brave. I write to create art. I’d much rather hear: “I’ve never thought about it that way, and you wrote it magnificently!”

6) What happens in workshop…(say it with me)…stays in workshop. Don’t overstep personal boundaries outside of workshop. Unless you are already friends with someone or she initiates the conversation, don’t assume that you and the writer you just workshopped are now BFFs who can talk about her dark and twisty past. It’s creepy to assume this kind of familiarity.

7) If you’re the workshop facilitator, set the ground rules and stay focused. As the workshop leader, it’s your job to set the tone and direction of the workshop. People will be people, of course, and even the most conscientious participant may veer off into therapy territory. If this happens, gently but firmly course-correct your ship. Be a captain, not a therapist.

The act of writing may be a form of therapy. And a bad workshop might make you feel like you need therapy. But remember: You gotta keep ‘em separated.


Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan writes, edits, and teaches from southwestern Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about losing her religion. She is not currently in therapy. Visit her online in The Word Cellar. She tweets @thewordcellar.

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