Brave and subversive, like gazing upon the surface of a pond
Essay by Anne Goodwin, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers and author of “Underneath,” her second novel.
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I didn’t realise I was obsessed with staircases until I put the first paragraphs of my two novels side-by-side. While, viewed individually, both are effective introductions to the respective stories, it’s rather embarrassing to find I’ve twice begun a book with my narrator descending the stairs at home. How has that happened, and why?
The opening scene of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, developed late in the writing process, following multiple drafts with at least a dozen different attempts to get it started with a zing. In contrast, my forthcoming second novel, Underneath, was much more straightforward with the opening scene present from the start. Although the phrasing has been amended in the process from raw to ready, the idea behind the words has remained stable since the very first draft. In concept, if not in language, it’s literature in the raw.
It’s always interesting to see where our minds take us in response to a creative writing prompt, such as the weekly Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge. Sometimes, I discover another angle on a theme that continually captivates me; sometimes, I surprise myself by following an unfamiliar path. But what do I know? Like the staircases in my novels, what looks like a route untrodden could be one I’ve taken many times without noticing I’d been there before.
This potential to uncover our unconscious preoccupations can make writing raw literature scary, and sharing it with others a brave act. In my years of secret scribbling, although I loved writing, I could never have called myself a writer because I couldn’t open myself up to the feedback we all need to improve our craft. This fear of revealing myself went deeper than a lack of confidence. I’d say I felt ashamed.
Diana, the narrator of, Sugar and Snails, is also ashamed of who she is, stunting her psychological growth so that, at forty-five, she’s retained the emotional mentality of an adolescent. In the novel, she’s challenged to confront her fears of rejection by sharing her secret with her friends. We too act bravely when we bare the inner workings of our minds through exposing our raw literature to others’ scrutiny. Despite having posted my 99-word stories almost since the beginning of the project, I still feel a little nervous some weeks delivering my contribution to the ranch.
What makes us ashamed of our imperfections? In fiction, it’s a character’s flaws that make her interesting; wouldn’t a writer’s quirks do the same?
Our shame might arise through past experiences of being told, directly and indirectly, that our thoughts, feelings and opinions are wrong. But it makes no sense to evaluate ideas and emotions this way; only our actions can be judged as good or bad. It’s not so difficult, however, to make a child or adult with the right combination of vulnerabilities feel unworthy. It’s called bullying.
In Charli’s engaging posts introducing the weekly flash fiction prompt, she often reminds us (such as here) of the potential for silencing inconvenient voices and the importance of safe spaces in which those voices can be heard. In the current political climate, it’s crucial that we resist the pressure to keep quiet. Writing is part of that resistance, so that in sharing our raw literature we’re not only being brave but, in giving voice to diversity, we’re being subversive.
So what does that say about my staircases? Well, I’m not alone in my fascination with stairs: some will remember that Stairway to Anywhere was the theme of the first flash fiction compilation of 2015. In my novels, stairs symbolise the transition from one state to another, and possibly back again.
In the opening of Sugar and Snails, Diana is stalled between the first and ground floor rooms of her house, between the bedroom, and her shattered hopes of a satisfying sexual relationship, and the cupboard under the stairs where she keeps the knife she will use to convert her emotional pain to physical. The question arises as to whether she can regain the promise of that better life represented by the top of the stairs. But this novel is also about decision-making and choice. Reflecting on a childhood memory of the stone steps outside her first school, with separate flights for boys and girls, stairs signify what is lost when one can follow only one of two options.
For Steve, the narrator of Underneath, stairs denote a more disturbing transition from an ordinary man to a criminal, a jailer who keeps a woman imprisoned in the cellar. For a while, he moves, albeit shakily, between these two worlds, caring for his captive while reporting for work as a hospital theatre orderly and taking the train to visit his mother, who suffers from dementia, in a nursing home. Yet, as implied by the title, his descent takes him to a deeper level than Diana’s, not only physically underground, but into the darkest corners of his own mind.
It might not be much more than an artefact of the dynamics of his family of origin being played out within an ordinary house, but there’s also a significant staircase in Steve’s boyhood memories. With his mother’s bedroom door firmly closed, he tries to distract himself from his loneliness by counting the geometric figures on the stair carpet, which he calls Saturns, reaching 257 and still his mother doesn’t leave her room.
If two novels weren’t sufficient to write out my staircase obsession, stairs also play a part in my current WIP, and hopefully my third novel, Closure / Secrets and Lies, although fortunately not (currently at least) on the first page. Here, if I’ve done my job well enough, they’ll serve as a transition in the reader’s perception of Matty, one of three point-of-view characters. An extremely deluded patient in a long-stay psychiatric hospital, I hope initially readers will find her amusing and endearing. A secluded staircase, where, in need of cash, she “lifts her skirt for the man with the hairy arms”, reveals the vulnerability behind the cheerful persona. Like the narrators of my two published novels, Matty moves back and forth between different states – for her, funny and fragile – until the final crisis.
I don’t know whether stairs signify something deeper in my psyche; perhaps you’ll spot something that is not yet obvious to me. It’s this that makes me think that fiction is both more and less exposing than memoir: more because there are no facts to block what emerges from the unconscious; less because, if it makes me uncomfortable, I can always fall back on the fact that I made it up. Like gazing upon the surface of a pond, our writing reflects our inner selves back at us, revealing our idiosyncratic preoccupations in its repeated motifs and themes. It’s not often, however, that the surface on which we see ourselves is as smooth as a mirror. Like ripples on water, our reflected features can be distorted. That’s when the fun begins.
Like Steve, Anne Goodwin used to like to travel, but now she prefers to stay at home and do her travelling in her head. Like Liesel, she’s worked in mental health services, where her focus, as a clinical psychologist, was on helping people tell their neglected stories to themselves. Now that her short fiction publication count has overtaken her age, her ambition is to write and publish enough novels to match her shoe size. Underneath is her second novel; her first, Sugar and Snails, was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. Anne lives in the East Midlands and is a member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio.
Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
He never intended to be a jailer …
Life’s perfect, until Liesel delivers her ultimatum: if he won’t agree to start a family, she’ll have to leave. He can’t bear to lose her, but how can he face the prospect of fatherhood when he has no idea what being a father means? If he could somehow make her stay, he wouldn’t have to choose … and it would be a shame not to make use of the cellar.
Will this be the solution to his problems, or the catalyst for his own unravelling?
Published internationally 25th May 2017 in e-book and paperback:
- Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06X9VN6CD
- Amazon USA https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X9VN6CD/
- Pre-publication Kindle reduced price offer (£1.99 / $2.48)
Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.