Saturday, 10 July 2021

Writing Through - the power of reading and writing

Damian Barr
 This post has been inspired by the Radio 4 #GuideBooks with Damian Barr particularly the programme on bodies. It made me think about the books that have helped me but more importantly in this instance how much writing has saved me.

My entire life can be described in one sentence... "well, that didn't go as planned." This has been an echo throughout my life. Just when I think everything is falling into place, I can almost guarantee that something will come along and turn my world upside down. It hasn't just happened once. The one theme throughout is that in one shape or form I will write my way through it. It is one of my coping mechanisms as is reading. The writing allows me to explore the emotions involved and soothe a fractured mind.

The back page of my 
first book!

 From a small child, I have found solace in writing and reading. This photo is of the book of powems [sic] I wrote for my number 2 sister (yes, we are sometimes known by our numbers because there a few of us) when I was five maybe six and she was leaving home to go and study to be a nurse. I was going to miss her terribly and I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t forget me. The answer in my mind even then…write her a book then you will always be with her.

Whenever things got difficult throughout my teenage years. I would lose myself in books or I'd write the predictable heartfelt and fraught poems and, in my case and perhaps randomly, articles. I believe I even considered entering the Vogue young writers' competition. I can't remember whether I actually did, but I know I certainly thought about it and was convinced I would win. Having said that, I was convinced I would win the pony in the WH Smith competition every year (you'd never get away with that now!). I never did! I do also remember a time when in the second year (year 8) my English teacher read out a piece of my descriptive writing to the class. Having finished it, she looked across to me and said, 'You know Vanessa, you really can write. That was beautiful. Maybe you will be a writer one day.' There was a lot of smirking in the class as I was bullied mercilessly at the school, but for that moment I glowed. I can't for the life of me remember the name of that teacher as I have blocked a lot of memories of that school for obvious reasons. I can see her face though. I doubt she is still alive, but I wish I could tell her that I did make it eventually. Writing was a big part of my teenage years as was reading

One of my early notebooks
In my twenties, I found myself as a single parent with three very small children. At the time my way to deal with it was to read voraciously everything and anything but an awful of Joanna Trollope in the evenings when I was on my own. For childcare reasons I couldn’t go out and get a job so I set up my own business. A lot of what I did was based on writing. I wrote press releases, property features for the local paper, newsletter for the local charity, software training manuals. You name it I wrote. I quietly wrote in the evenings dabbling with fiction and poetry that no one ever saw which helped me deal with my emotions. It was the continuation of a habit. If I’m stressed or struggling I write. Never really taking the fiction seriously at that time.

Giving myself a feed
Just when things were beginning to go ok and were falling into place, I had some surgery to stop the serious reflux I suffered from. Unfortunately, my body reacted badly to it. I came around unable to swallow food and only able to take sips of fluids. There were all sorts of other implications that I am not going to include here because you really don't need to know them, but it all turned my life upside down. I was too ill to work. I became disabled. My children were my carers. I would cook for them absolutely starving and crying with hunger. It was a nightmare as it took a year for them to decide to put a PEG tube into my stomach through which I could take special feeds. It was such a difficult time because eating forms such a central part of our lives, our social life, everything really. Think of how many food-based programmes there are on television. Not being able to eat and work, I lost my sense of identity. I had no idea who I was. Yet again in my life, I had to reinvent myself. Work out who this newly disabled person was and how they fitted into this world. Once more I turned to writing. I wrote my way through it. . I have notebooks full of my witterings in. They will never be shared. All too personal and raw.

The PEG however allowed me to start a new life. To become a new person. I decided to make use of the writing that I’ve always played with. I signed up to the University of Winchester to do a degree in English because at that time the degree had modules in Creative Writing (there was no single honours degree in Creative Writing at that stage). Little did I know I was about to change my life completely. I had a chance to try on lots of different voices that included writing for children. Something I’d never thought about before and the rest, as they say, is history…I took an MA in Writing for Children, a PhD, became a lecturer and my debut novel Flight was published in 2018 by Firefly in the UK and by Feiwell and Friends in the US in 2021. Firefly will be publishing the sequel, Safe, in 2022. Writing my way through has helped me in so many ways.

I still do it, when I ended up on crutches because of joint issues, for example. Or when I cut back my hours in order to focus on my writing and build up my school visits just as the pandemic hit - perfect timing Vanessa! I will always write my way through stress and fear. I know if I don't write it has an impact on my mental health. I have learnt that now. I have an understanding.

Me, my crutches, and my crazy family at the launch of Flight.
I do my best not to let disability define me or stop me

Writing can be therapeutic, as can reading be. I have recently read an article about how reading to children in ICU can increase their production of oxytocin, which has an impact on their pain and can reduce it. It also reduces their stress levels. The writers of the article saw parents as a cost-effective intervention as they could read the stories to their own children. I am also a great believer that a book will find you just at the time you need it. It may be a little cliched, but Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist appeared in my life at a time when I needed it. The same with Matt Haig's Reasons to Stay Alive, which arrived at a moment when both myself and various people close to me were having issues with mental health. Yes, I know, the pragmatic part of my brain says, it is because you notice the write-ups of certain books when you need them. The romantic part does say they find you. Believe whatever you want to believe. The choice is yours. Writing and reading are so powerful. They will always be my salvation.


  1. A thoughtful and caring post, Ness. Just what I would wish and expect from you.

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