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Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

For the last few weeks I've been in a very reflective mood. For once, it's nothing to do with my kids growing up, or thinking about what we have (or haven't) achieved during Lockdown. Instead, I've been thinking about how far I've come as a writer over the last two years, while I've been studying for the MA and what it means for me that the course is almost over. One of the things I've learned is not to take it personally when stories don't place in competitions - writing and reading are such personal things that just because they don't meet what one person is looking for, doesn't mean that there's anything inherently wrong with them. I figure, if the story was good enough to get a high mark on a Master's level course, then it must be a decent one and some day there will be a competition judge somewhere who agrees. In the past, I would have simply assumed that it just wasn't good enough and consigned it to the bin. So if nothing else, my confidence in my own abilities has improved.

The reason I've been reflecting on all of this is that I've been writing the commentary to go alongside my dissertation (a 15,000 word story) and as part of that, I've had to include my thoughts on how I've progressed over the last two years. As a result, I've been trying to juggle how best to express this, whilst at the same time, explaining the thought processes behind the creation of my story.

One of the things I've realised is quite how much reading is involved in being a writer. As I noted in my commentary, I've always done research for my books, but what I now understand is a) how big a role an understanding of psychology plays in writing realistic characters and b) how much you can learn from reading how other people have tackled the issues you are writing about.

As the deadline for the commentary approached, a mild feeling of panic began to set in. I'd done a first draft of it and it was coming together nicely, but there was a nagging feeling that I hadn't done enough reading for it. I knew I'd read a lot as I've been keeping an annotated bibliography in a very smart looking 'EMA Bibliography' notebook. The front was full of colour coded references (blue for non-fiction books, red for fiction books and green for everything else). The back was full of annotations (black for quotes and red for ideas to be included in the commentary). My desk is full of colour coded post-it notes with things that had occurred to me while writing the commentary that needed to be added to or changed in the story itself (a different colour post it note for each section). Everything was organised, BUT... Had I done enough reading? Was my reading diverse enough? Did it show that I'd considered different approaches to the story and different angles from which to approach the characters? Had I read the right kind of books? Would some of them be considered too out of date? Too independent? Irrelevant even?

Consequently, the last few weeks have been spent in a flurry of reading, feeling frustrated that I couldn't get through the books quickly enough, couldn't access them because the libraries were still closed (stupid COVID-19!) or they were just too expensive to justify buying in a month where everyone in the family seemed to need new clothes and shoes. In the end, I decided that enough was enough. I just needed to do the final edit of the essay itself and type up the Bibliography. Today was that day. Two hours later, I finally finished typing up the list of books, periodicals, newspaper/journal articles and feedback references and was able to turn to the essay itself! In typing it all up, I came to the realisation that in spite of my fears, not only did I have a significant number of references (108 to be precise), but they also reflected a range of course-recommended reading, independent texts I'd found and fiction books. They also covered a period of some 170 years of publication (1857-2020), or - if I include the Shakespeare books that influenced the title of my story - some 420 years!

It would be far too big a list if I included my complete Bibliography here (and probably would be of no interest to anyone except fellow writers) but listed below are the fiction books I read, along with the topics I read them for. Some I enjoyed more than others but they were all useful in their own way.

Barker, P. (1998) Another World, difficult parent/child/spouse relationships

Barnfield, R. and Shakespeare, W. (1599) The Passionate Pilgrim, title

Carter, A. (1991) Wise Children, bad relationships/losing a child

Cavanagh, S. (2018) Th1rt3en, twist in the tale

Chabon, M. (1988) The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, juggling two very different relationships

Christie, A. (1937) Death On The Nile, obsession

Corry, J. (2020) I Made A Mistake, adultery/obsession

Dahl, R. (2013) Expect The Unexpected The Complete Short Stories Volume Two 1954-1988, short stories

Davis, L. (2009) The Collected Short Stories Of Lydia Davis, short stories

Donoghue, E. (2012) Astray, short stories

Doughty, L. (2019) Platform Seven, manipulative relationship

Edvardsson, M. T. (2019) A Nearly Normal Family, same event, different perspectives/misunderstood parent-child relationships

Eliot, G. (1871-2) Middlemarch, unrequited love

Enright, A. (2020) Actress, London, parent-child relationship

Ephron, N. (1983) Heartburn, adultery

Fitzgerald, F.S. (1925) The Great Gatsby, adultery/obsession

Flaubert, G. (1857) Madame Bovary, adultery

Flynn, G. (2014) Gone Girl, dysfunctional relationship/adultery

Haig, M. (2017) How To Stop Time, bereavement

Ishiguro, K. (1989) The Remains of the Day, unrequited love

Kaur, R. (2017) the sun and her flowers, ending & beginning of relationships

Kelly, E. (2018) He Said, She Said, same event, different perspectives

Larkin, M. (2010) Suspicious Minds, adultery

Mantel, H. (2014) The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher stories, short stories

Matthews, C. (1997) Let’s Meet On Platform 8, adultery

Mitchell, D. (2004) Cloud Atlas, polyphony

Nicholls, D. (2019) Sweet Sorrow, love & family relationships

North, W. (2016) The Long Walk Home, living with an alcoholic/adultery

O’Hara, J. (1961) Assembly, short stories/dialogue

Paver, M. (2019) Wakenhyrst, same event, different perspectives

Pratchett, T. (1987) Equal Rites, subtext in dialogue

Pratchett, T. (1993) Men At Arms, subtext in dialogue

Setterfield, D. (2011) The Thirteenth Tale, concealment within relationships

Shakespeare, W. (2016) Shakespeare’s Sonnets The Complete Illustrated Poems, title

Shamsie, K. (2017) Home Fire, manipulative relationships

Swift, G. (1996) Last Orders, polyphony/bereavement

Tolstoy, L. (1873-7) Anna Karenina, adultery

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1 Comment

Jane Langan
Jane Langan
Jul 21, 2020

Hi Ruth,

I agree with everything you say. Like you, I have realised just how far I have come as a writer and feel that this course has been money well spent. My Bibliography was only a mere 38. I have bibliography envy :-)

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