Featured Writer

Phoebe Cannard-Higgins

On Writing my MA, crippling self-doubt, and finding truths.

“Before we met, I had spent a lifetime devoted to Wittgenstein’s idea that the inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed.” This idea is how I feel able to keep writing, “Words”, Wittgenstein’s dictum implies, “are good enough.”
-Maggie Nelson The Argonauts (2015)

When I started my Masters, I had a rough shape in mind of a novel about my grandfather. I was going to be the next Maggie Nelson, intertextual and raw.

I had some of his old memoirs and I thought I could write a memoir of my own incorporating bits of his. I thought, somehow, I could weave us back together. As it turned out, perhaps I was over sentimentalising what exactly those memoirs were. My tutors danced carefully around my feelings, complimenting me ‘You’re a better writer, than he is.’ ‘Some phrases in these memoirs are a bit cliché.’ Eventually the message sank in. I was a bit lost. The structural issues were beyond my control. ‘What exactly is it you’re trying to write?’ was a common question from my peers. I had nothing.

I started writing short stories again. My tutors were happier. One was openly relieved. She said she could finally see that I was able to write. It was reassuring, and I constantly need to be reassured.

Mind you, these short stories were fiction, as in real fiction. I was sitting down and imagining myself into other people. Sure, I used a location I was familiar with, but even that was half made-up. I was that little girl with the note pad in my backyard again. There is something very freeing about writing real fiction. There are fairies. There are people with broken backs, and car accidents, and true loves, but none of it really matters because none of it actually happened. My anxiety dissipated.

Elif Shafak says, ‘In creative writing courses today, the very first thing we teach students is ‘Write what you know’? Perhaps that’s not what the right way to start at all. Imaginative literature is not necessarily about writing who we are or what we know or what our identity is about. We should teach young people and ourselves to write what we can feel.’

However, when I got my feedback from a short story I handed in as an assignment, it said, that the reader couldn’t really understand my characters. They were somehow absent. They were not three-dimensional enough. They weren’t real enough.

My tutor suggested to me to write down some real experiences in my life that made me feel something. Then to take that real feeling and in case it in whatever fiction I desired. This was probably the most stimulating tutorial and writerly advice I received all year. I am forever in doubt about writing and struggle endlessly to critique my own work. I then filled my bag with bundles of short story collections from Jackie Kay’s Wish I Was Here (2006) to Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2006) but found myself most involved with Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk (2016). Something about the voice of the narrator Sofia held me and I wrote to ‘Hot Milk’ like I was listening to a song.

Zadie smith says, ‘Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it.’ I think this quote beautifully captures what fiction writing has come to mean for me. Writers should not be restricted to only ‘Write what you know,’ – but we should use the virtues of fiction and the imagination, to unpeel the layers and expose truth, wherever it lies. We can ask questions of the world, without solemnly aligning with identity politics. But identifying with a truth and writing it, makes the work so much stronger. Needless to say, my anxiety returned. Writing truths is harder than you think.

Reading Kathy Acker inspired me a lot to write, and I felt liberated from traditional structural models and referencing systems. Acker steals other artists work with blatant and perverse entitlement, and her work gave me courage to take what worked for me and leave what didn’t, to give new life and create new works from others. I love intertextuality: how one work speaks to another, informs another. How one work can be manipulated to give significance to another work. For me, all literature spreads like trees with entangled branches. Ackers refusal to adhere to traditional literary models speaks volumes about her own truth as the avant-garde, punk poet from New York.

In the end, my master’s portfolio was a collection of short stories informed by some of my own truths, however different the veils were in which they were wrapped. Reading my own work, I never know whether it is good or bad and I live in a constant daze of words and hope and crippling self-doubt, but I’ve heard this what writing is all about. As Maggie Nelson said in an interview for the Washington Square Review: ‘Most of the action for me as a writer, and I presume for many others, lies in having the courage to pursue instincts and ideas that on their face might seem sophomoric, easy to get wrong, sentimental, offensive, you name it. I’m not sure if one ever gets used to this feeling, but I’ve at least come to recognize it when it comes around.’