A Cripple’s Guide to Living

Longlisted for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize 2021. There were 1,468 entries in total.

No child should ever grow up before their time. You are not most children.

Elmwood Ward will become your second home. The scariest part of being at the hospital will be when they pinprick your skin with a cannula. Your black blood will swirl into the syringe. It will be over before you count to twelve. Reaching twelve will take forever.

You will come to understand your body, its language. White is the colour of fresh snow, milk, bone. It is also the colour of pain. It turns your face so and lives behind your eyes.

They will tell you that your reading age is advanced for a cripple. They mean well. They always mean well. This will not stop you from hating them. You will learn how to spell ignorance at such a young age. You will stab the i with your pen. When your teacher asks you to explain what the word means you will say, I see it in the way that people stare at me.

Welcome your sadness. It can feel like a breeze coming in gusts off the sea, hitting hard, passing fast. Other times it will linger, unmoor you, make you stir and tremble. Find your ground again. Breathe. You deserve to be here. You have a right to exist.

There are no vernaculars for your lived experience, or the way that you move around. You do not walk. ‘To wheel’ is sickening. There are no dolls like you in the toy shop. No heroines in books with crescent-shaped spines or scarred legs.

You will write your own stories instead.

You may wonder why you are not normal.

Normal is the greatest lie that has ever been told to you.

Writing from Isolation (June)

Introverts forced to be extroverts; sensitive people forced to be insensitive; sad people forced to be happy… Today, I was very inspired by a fascinating SO:write women writing prompt on the theme of the ‘dystopia’.

Imagine if you lived in a country where a commonplace type of behaviour, such as being emotional, is forbidden and instead, you must behave in the opposite way…

Extract below

The past feels like an echo, it rings through me. No matter how hard I try to store it away, I feel the tug back to who I was once was; the life that I once lived.

 **

In the beginning, they told us that we needed to sate our hunger for social connection by learning not to need it.

Distancing was no longer just about who we came into contact with: we were required to practise emotional distancing too.

We were to refrain from opening ourselves up to others. To remove ourselves from the yearn to be welcoming.

We had to learn to contain; to close ourselves off.

What it meant to be human was redefined.

To feel was considered weak.

**

The early changes didn’t feel that significant. After all, everything around us was already chaotic.

The second wave had spread across the globe and everyone wished that they could go back in time and shake sense into their former selves. But life is not a video game: there is no replay button.

With the new, more aggressive strain that attacked our nerves, bone marrow, lungs and kidneys, everyone was now at high risk.

The second lockdown felt different. More imminent. Everyone fused themselves to their loved ones. We thought, as long as my family is ok, I don’t care about anyone else.

We thought that the pandemic couldn’t get any worse and then it did.

Funerals were banned.  Mass graves were mandated. Strangers in black body bags were stacked on top of each other.

We listened obediently, like children, as they told us that we needed to adjust to a new reality if we wanted to survive as a species. The focus was now on everyone for themselves.

Then they said that there would be a restriction on how many friends we were allowed to have.

Most of us were dismissive and wondered how they were going to enforce a rule like that. The outcry was minimal: we were focused on our survival.

Government officials blamed the need for emotional distancing on the virus. Emotional bonds to one another lead to the breaking of the rules. We were reminded of everyone flocking to the beaches when the restrictions were first lifted: the moment we were offered a morsel of freedom. People were reckless and we just couldn’t be trusted.

The internet restrictions came into place and everyone adapted. In 2021, Facebook became obsolete.

In my household, it was just me and Ma. I was taller than Ma by the time I was 13, but still cowered when she was cross. Her voice was thunder and would ricochet through the house. I once brought her a magnet that read: though she may be little, she is fierce. Ma cackled when she saw it, her smile lined every inch of her face.

My world was small but still felt like a universe. Ma didn’t show any symptoms until later on. I really thought that she would get through it. I’m not sure how someone like her would have adjusted to this new world.

But I’m not supposed to think about the dead.

**

We trained our voices to be a monotone and learnt not to smile. Hugging was equated to biological warfare. We stripped out unnecessary adjectives from our vocabulary and found silent ways to punish ourselves for feeling. We practised the act of forgetting.

Yet, even now, I still struggle to distance myself from my memories.

From the love that I have for my Ma.

 

Writing from Isolation (May)

 

Eric Prouzet on Unsplash

(Photo credit: Eric Prouzet on Unsplash)

Today, in a SO:write women writing group, a photo prompt of a mug display took me in unexpected directions. It made me think about the meaning of fragility, identity, wholeness…

Extract below

Wishbone Day

Some of the mugs are crooked while others stand straight and chiselled.

Some are sun-drenched orange, others ink blue.

They are all proudly on display, yet teeter on the edge. It would only take a slight knock for all of them to come crashing down to their ruin. So fragile and easy to break. It could happen at any moment, unexpectedly. A simple act of carelessness.

I know exactly what this feels like. I have spent my whole life breaking and putting myself back together.

Yesterday was Wishbone Day.

It was meant to be a day of celebration. Of coming together and raising awareness about this damn disease (you’re not meant to call it a disease anymore, it’s a syndrome, but I still find myself slipping up).

Everyone wears yellow. I forgot to. I always forget. Maybe it isn’t forgetfulness: perhaps I just don’t want to acknowledge it.

Brittle bones. That’s what they call it. I’m so tired of talking about it. I could pronounce Osteogenesis Imperfecta before I could spell my own name. It is ingrained into me. One simple mistake, one foot out of place, one wet floor and that’s it.

Broken bones. Pain. Plaster. Repeat.

Why would I want to celebrate this, when I see fragility all around me?

Even in mugs.

What Is The Vagina?

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An Evening at Vulvas In/Formation

Did you know that the word ‘vagina’ refers to one specific part of a person’s genitalia? Can you guess which part? It may not be quite what you think.

According to Yougov, in 2019, half of Brits do not know the correct answer to the above question. Until recently, I would have included myself in that statistic.

This Sunday I attended ‘Vulvas In/Formation’ – a fascinating feminist discussion at the Railway in Winchester. Vulvas In/Formation consisted of a short film about the damaging effect of labiaplasties (a procedure involving slicing away parts of a woman’s labia for cosmetic reasons), AKA the most popular vaginal procedure around. There was also a brilliant panel discussion by speakers Emma Rees, Elliott Watson and Sarah Creed. It was an enlightening evening that explored the myths, shame, taboos and secrecy surrounding women’s bodies. Colourful vulva art rotated on a projector as we sat as an audience and listened very quietly. Perhaps we were all stunned and subdued by the truths unfolding before us.

And I can’t help but wonder…

At 26-years-old, why is it only now that I am coming to understand my own body? And what does this say about women’s sexual health in 2019?

The definition of the vagina is, ‘the muscular tube leading from the external genitals to the cervix of the uterus in women and most female mammals’– or in other words, the canal opening used for sex and birth.

Did you know this? Or did you assume, as many do, that the word ‘vagina’ is a blanket term for the external and internal parts of our reproductive organ?

Colloquially, the word vagina is often considered synonymous with the vulva – the external part of the female genitalia. The vulva protects our sexual organs, urinary openings and vagina. The vulva is the centre of much of a woman’s, (and those with vulvas who do not identify as women), sexual responses and experiences of pleasure.

But why does any of this matter?

As someone with a literature background, I am naturally drawn towards the origins of words and their wider cultural implications.

If we are referring and reducing our genitalia –without even knowing — to the canal of penetration, what does this mean?

The word ‘vagina’ originated in the late 17th century and is a Latin name, meaning ‘sword-sheath’.  Not the best way to refer to our genitals, is it?

And if you still aren’t convinced – then may I draw your attention to the fact that there is only one word in our dictionary to describe the whole of our genitalia – inside and outside. And it just so happens to be one of the most offensive words in our dictionaries – ‘cunt’. It seems that there are plenty of derogatory words floating around to describe female genitalia, but not a single ‘normal’ word.

It is evident to me that there is still a lot of misinformation, shame and discomfort surrounding the topic of our bodies. If wish to move on in society and better educate the next generation, it is time that we undress these issues. Literally.

Thankfully, The Vagina Museum will be opening permanently in London from November. The museum seeks to educate us on vagina myths and how to fight them. It is indeed a much-needed step in the right direction towards creating a society where everyone has bodily autonomy and knows what their parts are.

The Writer Who Cannot Write

This is my story: white screens, a blank page.

My best friend these days.

Because no one told me that writing wasn’t easy. They made it sound so simple.

Almost like a movie: That sudden flash of brightness in her eyes and off she goes. Letters spinning out like a spindled web. Just before the trailer cuts in and the violin chords fade away, the world sees every part of her character. Her face suspended, trance-like, hungry.

The perfect cameo. For a moment, she’s finally known. She has bared herself on the page and is rewarded for it.

I figured that if I wanted it enough, I could just sit down and the words would materialise.

They don’t, though.

And each time I try to make them show up with the frantic tap of keys, or scribble into my notebook, I hate everything I see.

Writing anything is better than nothing, they say.

Why don’t I listen to my own advice?

(Oh, look up: I have something.

That’s a start.)

Should You Do A Creative Writing Masters?

Having recently graduated with a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Southampton, I wanted to talk about my journey for anyone who might be considering one in the future.

2018 has indeed been a whirlwind. A few months ago the deadlines seemed never-ending. My plans post-university were all over the place and I had the everyday stresses of a chronic illness to contend with. The latter hasn’t changed all that much – I’m still sick, and my career plans are in… well, limbo, for now.

But now the water has settled and I’m able to look back: I can say quite confidently that I’m incredibly happy about completing this MA! I enrolled with the aim to enrich my writing and I have achieved this goal.

Considering the fact that I started with no novel idea at all, or any real idea of how to begin, I leave university with a good chunk of my piece ‘finished’ (or as finished as any work can ever be…), and an outline for the rest.  I view this as my biggest attainment on the MA and I am very excited about what the future holds.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

As Margaret Atwood once said:

‘You are not a writer if you are not writing.’

(Oh, and my favourite, for those days where I doubt myself):

‘The wastepaper basket is your best friend’

Throughout the year, I have met some brilliant, inspiring academics.  I have gained incredibly valuable knowledge of the publishing industry and how to be a better researcher. I have had the chance to work on a fantastic literary project hosted by the Artful Scribe and thrive on a beautiful campus.

And, of course, I have met like-minded, aspiring writers who I consider to be good friends.

This course was the best decision for me, and I’m glad that I went for it.

Saying this, I don’t believe that a Creative Writing Masters is for everyone.

Workshops can be very gruelling. Writing won’t be a relaxing, past-time hobby anymore (as I so naively thought it would be!). Your schedule will be just as demanding as any subject – the dissertation is 20,000 words long- and you will need a thick skin for criticism. (The truth is, not everyone will like your work, and that’s ok.)

But if you are hungry to write; if there’s a story that’s been in your bones for a long time; if you’ve put writing off for too long and need something to drive you towards your goals… The Masters could be a good avenue for you to consider.

Finishing this Masters has imbued me with a sense of confidence that I most certainly didn’t have before. Also, completing a novel now feels possible.  

Every person is different — but what I needed during my early writing journey was guidance as my work developed.

And I have had a lot of fun along the way!

My favourite module was Writing for Children and Young Adults, taught by Rebecca Smith. It exposed me to an eclectic variety of novels and writing styles and helped me to discover the target audience that I wanted to write for. I also thoroughly enjoyed Southampton University’s Writers in Conversation programme. The engaging series offered an opportunity to hear from fiction writers, poets, non-fiction writers and playwrights, who read sections of their fantastic pieces and answered the questions we were all itching to ask.

I also had a lot of fun at two main social events of the year organised by Southampton’s Postgraduate Society. I thoroughly enjoyed the Boat Party and Summer Ball, which were perfectly timed after exam and assignment season.

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Our cohort also had an amazing opportunity to create and launch our Pickup Anthology at the John Hansard Gallery. The anthology is a taster of stories that we have produced over the year – from novel openings to short pieces – and encapsulates our growth as writers.

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My advice to anyone considering Postgraduate study is to do your research. A Masters is rather specialised and so, you want to make sure that you are making the most of your year.

Make contact with the staff and read up on the modules on offer (they sometimes vary from year to year). Chat with former students and visit the campus.

Ultimately, if you want to do it… Do it!

After all, you never know where a course like Creative Writing will take you…

Coping With Rejection As A Writer

In a world where social media filters out those moments in our lives where things go wrong, it is natural to want to lock ourselves away and not speak about it. To carry on as though all is well when in reality we are hurting and need to be vocal about it.

On Thursday, I was sat in my bedroom avidly refreshing my inbox and checking Twitter. I had applied to Penguin’s ‘Writenow’ programme, a fantastic opportunity targetted at giving writers from marginalised backgrounds a platform. As someone driven to improve how disabilities are represented in literature, I was incredibly excited over the dream of getting feedback from a real-in-the-flesh publisher about my YA novel Bitch on Wheels

I GOT ON TO #WRITENOW

I WAS ACCEPTED!!

CAN’T BELIEVE I GOT THROUGH

A flurry of Tweets filled my newsfeed from fellow nervous writers who had also been fused to their mailbox in desperate anticipation for a response from Penguin. I was so pleased for them and with each new Tweet of success, I hoped and hoped and hoped that I would be writing my own loud, capslocked message to the world, announcing my step into the alien world of publishing.

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be. And as much as I still want to believe in my work, I don’t want to lie and say that this hurdle hasn’t knocked me. 1,700 people applied for 150 places, so I understandably won’t be able to get the feedback that I desperately want about why I wasn’t accepted.

I can’t look at my work at the moment, my inner critic is scanning over every phrase I have used, trying to ascertain what wasn’t working.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. What novel isn’t incredibly close to its author’s heart? What author doesn’t put a piece of themselves and their life and their imagination onto the page? Who doesn’t spend hours rewriting and deleting and rewriting? Checking each adjective, and use of ellipsis, and paragraph? It can be a draining process that we put ourselves through in the hope that one day, we’ll see our books on a shelf somewhere.

I’m not the only person going through this. But that doesn’t make rejection hurt any less. Someone picked up the opening of my piece and decided it wasn’t for them.

But that’s ok.

It doesn’t feel ok right now, but something inside of me says that it is.

Because the fact is, I didn’t start writing Bitch on Wheels for someone else. I started writing it for me. That’s all you can do when you write. Be invested in it, no matter what others say.

The first time I workshopped my piece at uni, the general consensus from the group was that my character was too angry, too unapologetic, too unlikeable. It wasn’t until my lecturer told me that she liked my character’s attitude and the fact that she wasn’t a cliche character in a wheelchair – an all too common cypher of pity for expressing how hard life can be – that I was fuelled to get Ezzie’s story out there. I realised that I had something to say and I was going to say it.

J.K. Rowling said that as long as you are writing, you are achieving somethingThe story that you have lurking around in your head isn’t going anywhere unless you are putting it down on the page. I keep telling myself this, over and over again, to drown out the voice that wants me to give up.

It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. (Rowling)

Ultimately, rejection is not going to stop me. I simply can’t let it hold me back. Especially in the writing world, for it is a brutal, competitive place.

And it shouldn’t stop you either.

Problematic Representations in Netflix’s ‘13 Reasons Why’

Thoughts from a former Samaritan Volunteer

Content Warning: Suicide

Last summer, I sat in a black silence with tears streaming down my face, a faint white glow omitting from my laptop. On my screen the show ’13 Reasons Why’ filled my Netflix browser. I had just binged watched the entire series in one sitting, staying up until the early hours of the morning until it was all over. Around the time of the show’s release, the internet was ablaze. Hot debates condemned and praised the show in equal measures.

I bashed my screen shut. I felt emotionally exhausted and incredibly frustrated that this type of programme existed in 2017.

As a former Samaritan volunteer, the show undermines a lot of the training that I was given in terms of how we talk and approach discussions on suicide.

For one, there were basic issues with semantics, with the show marketing the character Hannah Baker as having ‘committed suicide’. Such language is not appropriate as suicidal feelings are not criminal in the way that the word ‘committed’ implies, nor something shameful. How someone discusses suicide matters, we want people to feel comfortable and able to talk about their feelings without judgment.

The very structure of the show itself, too, is incredibly insensitive: centering around 13 ‘revenge-fantasy’ style tapes that detail a multitude of reasons for why Hannah ended her life. Such a structure is also not reflective of the real world. Rather, it glamourises and romanticises suicide.

The response to the series is also very revealing. The show’s tape structure has become a source of pop culture. It has spurred a series of memes, with Hannah Baker’s opening line ‘Welcome to your tape’, being used as a source of humour for everyday, minor problems. 13 Reasons Why, then, has led the internet towards trivialising suicide.

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When someone ends their life, it is definite and final. Hannah Baker never leaves the series, she lurks, she narrates: her voice is there, providing answers and explanations in her tapes to all of the painful questions that her bereaved are desperate to know. This is not reality.

But perhaps the greatest failing of Season 1 is the show’s representation of the guidance counsellor. In the final episode, we see a distressed, despairing, suicidal teenager asking a professional for help. The counsellor is Hannah’s last grasp at hope and she is abjectly let down by the system that was meant to support her. Later on in the episode, Hannah ends her own life. As a show marketed as being educational, this pivotal moment in the series transcends being simply a dramatic, thoughtless narrative arc: it is damaging for vulnerable young people to see because it communicates a ruinous message to those who feel suicidal. It suggests that no help, in any capacity, is available for a young person who wants to end their life: which is truly not the case, someone cares and does want to listen.

The scene also subverts all of the outreach and campaigns that Mental Health organisations around the U.K, and the world, have spent tireless hours working on in order to promote people reaching out for help. Mental Health organisations will always advocate for finding support from people who care, whether this is from a relative, a friend, or a non-judgmental organisation like Samaritans, or Mind, because unlike 13 Reasons Why’s depiction, there is support out there for people who need it.

With the show’s recent release of Season 2, it is important that we are aware of the content depicted and are critical of the way in which it is represented.  I watched Season 1 because I wanted to understand it for myself. I pressed play, and part of me wishes that I hadn’t. But curiousity has that effect, doesn’t it? Don’t think of an elephant. Don’t think of an elephant. And the elephant is there: revolving around in our minds until you have to see what the fuss is about, no matter how upsetting it might be.

If you choose to watch 13 Reasons Why,  please make sure you are in the right emotional place to do so.

And importantly, remember that despite its marketing, this show is not educational; it is characterised by its sensationalism and shock factor.

 

Contact Samaritans on 116 123 (free line) 

Mind provides information and support for mental health

Support lines for other countries can be found here

Word Jars, Fairy Lights & Postcards From The Moon

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When I was younger, I loved nothing more than writing stories. I would scribble my ideas down in pencil and eagerly act them out with my younger sister for hours.

She was the cat, I was the princess, and my mum, who was always inevitably dragged into our games, was the witch.

Assisting at the Hands on Humanities Writing Workshops for Children naturally took me straight back to my childhood.

A room filled with glittering coloured lights, balloons, plenty of paper, and gel pens – all in place for the excited children who bustled into the room.

One of my favourite tasks of the day was helping them write postcards from weird and wonderful places.

For inspiration, we had word jars that would tell them the location that they would be writing their letters from.

And it could be anywhere.

From the stars, from a chocolate factory, or from the inside of a cheese string. The jar was full of bizarre, exciting places.

The second jar would tell them what they were doing. Driving, shouting, giggling.

The rest was up to them and it was lovely to see how hard they were trying. We had some truly brilliant, funny and quirky entries.

Someone wrote their postcard whilst woodworking from the top of Mount Everest – they wanted to make skies that would help them sail down to the bottom!

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We also had a slightly more challenging writing task –  telling a story, based on a variety of pictures that we had scattered on the table, with a limit of just 6 words.

Inspired by Ernest Hemmingway’s claim that 6 words are all that you need.

For Sale: Baby Shoes, never Worn

He made it sound easy.

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As the day reached the end, it was uplifting to see our post-card board and 6-word story table filled with small pieces of paper, writing that filled the edges of the pages and showed the imagination of the next generation.

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Four Books That Will Take You Out Of Your Comfort Zone

Looking for books that will offer new perspectives on the world? Ones unafraid of taking you out of your comfort zone?

You need a couple of these on your shelf (or sprawled over your coffee table).

These types of novels rattle our brains and allow us to rethink what we know.

I have compiled a mixture of texts that vary in accessibility – some are much easier to read than others.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”

Having most recently been made into a stunning TV adaptation by Hulu (reaching the UK via Channel 4), I would highly recommend The Handmaid’s Tale, whether you’ve watched the series, or not.

Margaret Atwood utilises exquisite, captivating language to tap into a dystopian vision of America – renamed Gilead – where women have no rights and many are reduced to their reproductive functions, taking the role of ‘Handmaids’ who must bear children for barren wives. Told from the perspective of Handmaid Offred, the premise of the novel is fascinating, sobering, and very culturally relevant.

Offred’s character is incredibly relatable: before Gilead, she lived a very ordinary, middle-class life as a white woman in America. Her imposed role as a handmaid is a grievous reminder of the rights that women, like myself, are easy to forget we have, and how important it is to fight for them.

The Handmaid’s Tale was a novel I could not put down. I read it ravenously the first time, and slower in the times to come. It is easy to miss out on the intricate details that Atwood scatters throughout her literary world – I did have to reread a few sections over again – but, you can easily grip onto the plot without losing sight of it

 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.”

Lolita is a lyrical novel that accounts the life of an intellectual, paedophilic professor known as Humbert Humbert, who is both obsessed and in love with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores, who Humbert refers to as ‘Lolita’.

Lolita is not intended to be an easy read: neither in style, nor in content. It was banned in the United Kingdom until 1959, and Nabokov’s reasons for writing it are still debated.

As a character, Humbert is charming, intelligent, interesting and likable. Yet, Nabokov does not refrain from establishing Humbert Humbert as someone who is sexually attracted to minors.

It is, then, very easy to feel conflicted emotions towards him: profound revulsion, mixed in with intrigue.

Yet, perhaps what is most interesting about this text is the fact that Nabokov offers a controversially sympathetic lens to Humbert and his experiences.

Nabokov most certainly opened up some interesting conversations about moral judgement as a reader and the reliability of narrators in novels.

Offering a different perspective on a very taboo subject area, it is a contemporary classic which is filled with satire and uncomfortable ideas in circumstances that seem ordinary, on the surface. I sincerely recommend persevering with it.

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula Le Guin

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“With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city. Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The rigging of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags.”

This text by Ursula Le Guin can be read in one sitting: it is an incredibly short piece of philosophical fiction that addresses huge ideas on morality. It jarred me to the core.

To summarise it would be to spoil it: so grab a hot cuppa, your favourite blanket, and read it. You won’t regret it.

The Country Of The Blind by Herbert George Wells

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“In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King.”

HG Wells presents a challenge to conceptions of disability through writing about a blind society that has adapted the landscape around them to their needs. In doing this, Wells reimagines the way in which society is ordered, and suggests that it is societal barriers that are disabling, rather than the bodies of the people themselves.

The Country Of The Blind – however – is far from perfect. This is especially apparent through the ill-treatment of a sighted person who enters their civilisation. Threatened with corrective eye-gauging and infantilised for struggling to navigate their lands, Wells makes us consider how not understanding people’s differences can impact on them.

Although not one of his most popular books, it is incredibly progressive for the time in which he was writing and is well worth a read. It has the right balance between humour and sorrow, with two interesting, alternative endings.