Welcome back to The Story Behind The Story series. Today’s post is by Yvonne Spence.
Some writing comes out almost fully formed in a few minutes or hours. Blog posts or short stories sometimes happen like that for me. I start writing with a vague intention but no fully formed idea, and that is enough for the writing to grow.
That wasn’t the case with my first novel, Drawings in Sand. From when I had the idea to when I finished, the first draft took around twelve years.
In those years, I got married, moved house six times (with three of those times being major moves of hundreds of miles,) had a miscarriage and two daughters, one of whom was born three months prematurely and almost died shortly after her due date. In those twelve years, I got an MA in Creative Writing, gaining distinction – which was possibly the first time since I was sixteen that I’d lived up to potential. In those years, I also learned to meditate, to do self-inquiry and to welcome and release emotions.
All of those things have an effect upon a person – both the external events and the processes I learned. The novel I started was not the novel I completed. This applied to the words – I cut whole chapters and an entire structural device I’d planned to use throughout the book. It also applied to the essence of the novel. When I began writing, it was in part an angry reaction to two strains of literature prevalent in Scotland at the time. On one side was a long tradition of glorifying drunkeness – in men at least. This goes back as far as Robert Burns’s Tam o’ Shanter, through Hugh McDiarmid to more modern writers. I felt irritated at the way women in many stories seemed to stoically cope with no ill effects. Their men’s drinking was just what happened on a Saturday night. The women shrugged their shoulders as if the men were small children who’d been up to a few pranks, and carried on with life.
Shame, guilt, erratic moods, neglected and terrified children didn’t figure in these glorified tales. Though some writers, such as Agnes Owens or James Kelman, handled alcoholism with sensitivity, the overall impression created by many writers was that heaving drinking, so prevalent in Scotland’s culture, was harmless. As a child, this wasn’t what I’d witnessed in the community around me where several neighbours died of alcoholism. It wasn’t how I’d felt in the drinking days of my early twenties. It also wasn’t surprising, since the Scottish literature reflected the denial that ran rife in Scotland then, and to a large extent still does.
The second strain was of literature I reacted to was “dirty realism” prevalent in Scottish writing at the time. I was tired of reading novels that left me feeling nauseous. The overall intention of much of this writing was to shock, with little interest in redemption for characters or exploring the wider picture of life. In many dirty realism novels and stories, there was hardness and lack of compassion, as if their characters were emotionless. That’s not entirely true – one emotion was present in large doses – in most of the genre, anger didn’t so much pulse beneath the writing as explode onto the page. Authors claimed to represent an unseen part of the Scottish population – and while that may have been true, that part of the population was almost entirely male. The few female writers of dirty realism adopted the same unemotional hardness as their male counterparts, resulting in stories that felt equally bleak.
Even before the rise of dirty realism, Scottish literature was mostly about failure and deprivation. As Gavin Wallace says in The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies: “The Scottish novel continues to build upon an already spectacular tradition of despair.”
In spite of my reaction (or maybe because of it, since we generally dislike what we deny in ourselves) in some ways, my novel could be seen to fit into the dirty realism tradition – Drawings in Sand is about Stella, a single mother who risks losing both her job and her daughter because of her drinking, but whose only escape from self-hatred is to drink. In its opening chapter, Stella wakes up with a hangover to discover she’s vomited in her sleep. That’s a grim situation. However, Drawings in Sand is not about despair, but the opposite. It is about taking a step back from a life of shame and panic to look inward, understand the present and gain freedom from the past. It is about breaking cycles of despair that have passed down through families for generations, about realising that what we think we know isn’t necessarily what is true. When people tell me privately or write in reviews that it helped them come to terms with some aspect of their lives, I consider that success.
In many ways, my life both formed and followed the narrative of Drawings in Sand. I don’t mean I lived the character’s circumstances, but that as I wrote about Stella’s emotional collapse and renewal, insights would appear upon the page that I later realised applied to me too. Conversely, as I let go of old resentments, Stella became a kinder and more open person. I couldn’t have written her that way if I hadn’t healed my own woundedness along the way. I found it fascinating that the character I found hardest to write was Macklin – Stella’s live-in lover, a very damaged person. I found him hard to write until I created a past for him, which brought him to life.
So empathy helped, but there was another aspect too. The mass appeal of violent movies or books puzzled me for years, but when our culture discourages expression of so-called negative emotions, it’s little wonder that these find their way into art. I’ve heard mild-mannered actors talk about how much they enjoyed playing villains. Of course they would – they get to express the dark side of themselves that is often hidden and repressed. And people like to read or watch these characters, because they get to connect with these buried aspects – they feel more whole.
Oddly enough, even though I didn’t understand this about our wider culture until recently, it was fairly early in the writing of Drawings in Sand that I realised writers cannot really create characters without drawing on some aspect of our own selves. Macklin with his simmering violence was the dark side I didn’t want to own. I didn’t want redemption for him, I wanted to hate him, just as I hated my own repressed rage. Instead, I learned to have compassion for him and realised that compassion is not the same as letting someone off the hook for poor behaviour. In learning this, I also began to learn to have more compassion for myself.
The human race is frail, terrified of the emotions that mark us out as different to other animals. Yet, until we face those emotions, in ourselves and in others, we are condemned to repeat the same mistakes as our forebears, over and over. My hope is that in some small way Drawings in Sand, and the wider work I do in 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion and elsewhere, contributes to helping the human race to face and heal our emotional frailty.
Bio: Yvonne Spence is author of Drawings in Sand, a novel about a mother in recovery, and of the short story collection: Looking For America. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and magazines and one was a prize-winner in a She Magazine contest. Her non-fiction has been featured or is forthcoming on Good Men Project, Sprint Shack, Brain, Child, and in the anthologies Mom For the Holidays, and So Glad They Told Me, due out later this year. Yvonne blogs at yvonnespence.com, and in 2015 she instigated the initiative 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, which unites bloggers worldwide to spread compassion around the globe. Yvonne lives in the UK with her husband and teenage daughters.