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Observer/Anthony Burgess 2017 Prize Winner's Blog | Outside In: Mapping the Territory

  • By Susan Sheahan
  • 11th October 2017
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Susan Sheahan is the winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism, and is on a six-month residency at Free Word. As a writer and critic, she contributes to The Observer and The Guardian, exploring visual culture, novels, films and photography. In this special blog for Free Word, she will be examining the way our lives and personalities develop around the homes, towns and cities we live in. "My blog is a work in progress, a kind of journal, a place to develop my writing and interests, to talk to people I wouldn’t normally be able to speak to. My blog is a twisty thing."

My type of writing is subjective and personal, whereas most of my professional life in another sphere, another constellation, and which until very recently occupied most of my time, has been disconnected and impersonal. So much so that after a few weeks away from my usual office routine I catch a glimpse of a big While You Were Out memo on my life that I need to attend to.

It’s as if I’ve managed to subvert the masterplan laid down before I managed to find this new mental territory, which actually doesn’t have any boundaries. It needs mapping. And all this whilst on a modest journey to the Isle of Man. But here on this cantankerous piece of land in the middle of the Irish Sea (the weather was foul, but the crossing was smooth), there are definite borders although I don’t feel any need to overcome them.

Mann, as the island is often known, is largely spurned by the modern holiday crowd, so in September when I visit it’s a sparse canvas and I’m grateful for the space, and the island’s sense of austerity makes it feels like a bit of self-imposed mortification in the hope that some sort of revelation, a voice, will make itself heard as I make my way around the coastline.

Certainly very early on in a writing career an author needs to recognise and attend to their voice and to convey this to a reader. But it makes it easier, fuller, more layered to listen to other voices. To join in a conversation.

It isn’t only my voice I’m interested in.

On the island I’m staying with an old friend, Zeba Clarke, a writer and teacher who organises the Writers Day for the annual Manx Lit Fest. Writers Day is like a car check-up for your unfinished or unwritten novel. We’ve written together and talked about writing for years but we’ve never actually talked about finding your own voice.

Finding your voice is interesting. I often feel as though I’ve lost it – where is it? Is it under the sofa? Lots of people have this gap. Most authors we bring in to the festival say much the same thing: it’s 10 percent writing and 90 per cent editing. But then along comes a writer like Alexander McCall Smith, who was at this year’s festival, who is not a literary writer, but he explores deep themes and his novels are amazing pieces of writing. He found his voice really through writing academic texts since he was a Professor of Law and was used to producing thousands of words a day. I suspect that writing fiction was a release valve, and because he had 25 years of writing legal texts he had a facility for writing and was a competent stylist.

Place is frequently a means of finding your voice and Botswana and Edinburgh are clearly part of McCall’s voice; it’s part of the reason I’m travelling, to give me the chance of bumping into some interesting ideas and people. Another way of conveying the idea of a voice is that it comes down to your own set of interests, themes and your particular way of presenting them. It’s about conveying the landscape you find yourself inhabiting until, at some point, you write what you need to write or talk about. Confining yourself to a relatively small space whether that’s a location or a particular theme, can help though, as long as you pay attention and identify what questions you are engaged in and what you tend to reflect on.

It’s a difficult level to get to but easy enough to bring to a halt and Zeba says that ‘our voice is often stifled by trying to fit into a particular genre to satisfy current commercial demands.’ It’s through Zeba that I found a distinct sense of culture amongst speakers of Manx, particularly musicians and Singers who are using the old language to share their history and converse. It’s creating a tight knit sense of eloquence and place, and because language isn’t an easy export, it sparks a quieter conversation which fits perfectly within the island’s tightly constrained literary and musical landscape.

It’s unlikely that Manx singers will ever have wide commercial appeal, and you probably won’t hear them unless you happen to go to the island or seek them out on You Tube. But there’s a larger point here about using a language that isn’t the one that most of us use every day. It cuts out a large section of the population who can’t or won’t understand it, but perhaps that sense of alienation, and its reflection, privacy, is interesting too.

Outsiders will find other ways to join in that conversation, other ways to map the territory.

Susan Sheahan was crowned winner of the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. This blog is part of her six-month residency at Free Word. 

If you’re a journalist, critic, blogger or writer interested in examining the arts in the contemporary world, you could win a first prize of £3000 and have your work published in The Observer.

Deadline: 30 November 2017. Find out more here

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