Saturday, 31 January 2015

snow, digital humanities, creative writing as therapy, melvyn bragg, remember me, trust: a family story

A snowy walk this morning. Snow completely unexpected - indeed the online weather page still hadn't picked up on it even after it had fallen.

The snow isn't sticking around, though, and as I write it has almost all gone from the street outside my office window.

It's been a week of library and MSt work and of some Digital Humanities discussions and of others on creative writing as therapy. The DH discussions related both to the library and to a creative writing project I'm exploring - more on this in future posts if, as they say, it has legs.

The creative writing as therapy discussions were very thought-provoking. The person I was talking to via email and over coffee was studying for an MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes. I was very intrigued to learn of this course, having used creative writing therapy as a structuring device in Invisible. In the novel both narrators are writing out their experiences in order to come to terms with them - one on the advice of a doctor, the other in diary form.

During our exchanges, we touched on, amongst other things, a talk I had given about writing therapy when I was editing Invisble, Melvyn Bragg's autobiographical novel Remember Me, and my own experiences of life-writing as therapy.

Bragg's novel was the fourth in a series that began with The Soldier's Return and concerned the period when he separated from his first wife and her suicide sometime later. For Bragg, the book wasn't a therapeutic exercise, as he explained in an interview in 2008 with Richard Brooks in the Sunday Times (pub 30th March 2008):

'...Bragg, who also presents Radio 4's In Our Time, said that he had not written the book as a cathartic exercise. "The idea of something like this being therapy is absolute rubbish," he said. "It just makes things worse.

'It's stirred up stuff so that I've thought again and again: why didn't you just leave it alone? You were managing."

'Yet Bragg, who wrote at least seven draft versions before he felt satisfied, does not regret the book's publication: "I don't wish I hadn't written it. But it has sort of muddied up something I was keeping suppressed. I think it has made my life, and the lives of other people, a lot more difficult."...'

I reviewed Bragg's novel for the Times and had also reviewed two of the previous books in the series - one for the FT, the other for the Times. While I'd enjoyed the two earlier novels, I found Remember Me quite a difficult - and dark read. It doesn't have the objectivity on Bragg's early life that the others had. In the previous ones he was able to turn real life into good, highly readable fiction, whereas in Remember Me one got the impression that the struggle to cope with the emotionally-charged and painful material was still raw and jagged (not surprisingly). It is nevertheless an intriguing work and a brave, honest one to have written. (See my review below.)

During our exchanges about writing therapy last week, I was asked whether I had found writing the narratives that make up Trust: A family story to be therapeutic. I said I felt that the one I wrote in 2012, not long after my father's death, hadn't been therapeutic but that the one written last September had been:

'The editing [of the 2012 narrative] was painful because everything...was still so raw - and, yes, reading everything back and rewriting what I had written so that it worked as prose properly was pretty destabilising. Whereas, writing the last narrative was very easy to do - looking at it now, it requires very little editing and seems lucid and focused compared with the piece of three years ago. It was also very cathartic to write.'

Creative writing as therapy is a fascinating and complex area - one, I imagine, we're only just beginning to understand. One other question I was asked was whether my students found their creative writing work therapeutic. I don't know the answer to this because it isn't - generally - something we discuss. But the question of writing therapy in relation to creative writing courses would make an interesting study.

Now, the review (pub 22nd March 2008):

REMEMBER ME by Melvyn Bragg

This is the fourth in a series of novels in which Melvyn Bragg dissects a fictional life that bears an uncanny resemblance to his own and explores its cultural and psychological contexts.

The previous book, Crossing the Lines, ended in 1959 when Joe Richardson left Cumbria to study at Oxford and subsequently split up with his first love. Now it is a year later and Joe meets Natasha, a French art student in her mid twenties, who is haunted by her traumatic childhood. He recognises in her "a fellow loneliness" and they become lovers. Unknown to them, they have begun "an embrace to the death". Joe is looking back at events more than 40 years later and early in the narrative reveals that Natasha will commit suicide.

However, the relationship between their younger selves starts auspiciously enough. After Joe's final exams he and Natasha marry and visit her family in Provence, where her painful memories are anaesthetised by his love. In London he takes up his traineeship with the BBC and she adapts to her role as housewife by being "happy in his happiness", despite her daytime solitude. They both have literary ambitions (which will be fulfilled) and when he gets home they sit at their kitchen table and write. After a spell in Newcastle they move back to London, where they buy a house in Kew Gardens and Joe's career as a television producer takes off.

It is only after Natasha gives birth to their daughter that things begin to change. Just when Joe seems to have everything he has ever wanted, his self esteem plummets and he is frustrated by the sense that he is missing out on new opportunities in a city he finds "tempting, enthralling, poisoning, transforming". Both he and Natasha experience periods of mental instability and struggle with suicidal impulses before undergoing psychoanalysis.

Bragg has himself suffered from depression and as president of the mental health charity Mind has spoken movingly about the suicide of his first wife in 1971. But the interplay of fact and fiction in this novel can sometimes make it seem overly confessional and raises some unsettling questions. To what extent does Bragg identify with the older Joe's condemnation of the "flawed and disturbed man" he used to be or with such feelings as Joe's "deep strike of guilt"?

Whatever the answers, Bragg successfully uses his knowledge of mental illness to explore the subject through his imagination. His descriptions of Natasha's crippling isolation when she fights the "relentless surging tides of darkness" are particularly convincing. Nevertheless, there are some things that are more sketchy, including what Natasha went through as a child. Perhaps this apparent lapse is intended to make a point: such suffering is personal and invisible.

This is a powerful novel that communicates difficult emotional truths. Yet its dark themes are balanced by the vivid portrait it paints of 1960s London and by its evocation of the profound love that outlasts Joe and Natasha's gradual estrangement.

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