Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. (Thoreau)
Following a sudden near-death experience a decade ago, I began a slow journey: to live in my skin more vividly and to use my own end-of-life perspective — and a wide and deep reading got from long training in English Literature — to help others give voice to their song, their story.
I began first by working in a self-created role as a life-story scribe for my local hospice. At bedsides and in clients’ homes, I would arrive a stranger and leave charged with what mattered most to people as they prepared to die: letters to family; stories of childhood memories; books read aloud and recorded to leave for their children; notes made on photos and other personal items they would be leaving behind.
My writing life developed out of this work (and my counter-balancing laps of Pells Pool during the same period) into themes which are unashamedly close and local: stewardship, husbandry, neighbourliness, soul-tending. My first published piece — There Are No Unsacred Places — told the story of how I spent a year painting the railings that run beside my long street as a response to an act of vandalism.
In short, I write about place, about routine, about rootedness — things to be treasured in a time when so many thousands are being torn from these — and this is reflected in my physical practice: I am humble, down low. I write largely out of doors, close to the ground. I look up to the world.
By writing in public spaces, I am also determined to use my body and education to provoke thought and conversation around the need for women to take up space. I make myself the explicit subject of the gaze and invite conversations around that: appearance versus reality. My life-writing narratives are therefore open to real-time encounters as well as the elements: my subjects are able to question me, the author, at the point of production and insert themselves into my work.
As 2016/17 writer-in-residence for Pells Pool in Sussex – the UK’s oldest freshwater lido – I am writing a mile of longhand on pool-length scrolls of paper. Called A Wild Patience: Laps of Longhand, it is a participatory piece to which you can gift your words in person or by email.