Flash Fiction competitions and why they sometimes suck and why ours doesn’t.

I hate how it often feels as if the writing world is only opened up by having money. If you can afford to pay for an MA, a writing retreat, a workshop, then you not only pay for the knowledge you gain but also the connections you make. The internet is a leveller. I joined a brilliant online writing group and have learned heaps from other writers, for free. However, if I want to submit my work to competitions there is usually a fee. I moan about this to anyone who will listen. Who will win a flash fiction competition that charges £9 to enter? A writer who can afford it. Someone kindly suggested on twitter I could email competitions and ask if they have reduced entry fees for those with a restricted income. It’s a terrific idea to offer such places. The truth is I can pay a £9 entry fee if I really want to, but I choose not to. I want the playing field I am on to be as open as possible.

I’m the Managing Editor of The Forge and we pay writers thanks to the generosity of John and Yosh Haggerty and the writers who submit using our $3 tip jar option. I know it’s unusual to have this private backing and it’s a privilege. I understand the need to charge money to make the prize fund. But… £9 for 300 words?

We are holding our annual flash competition this September and the prize is $500, publication, and, a 2-year subscription to Duotrope (thanks Duotrope). It is free to enter until we hit our Submittable limit of 300. There is also a tip jar option. Our tagline is “Literary excellence is our only criteria.” And it’s true. We are looking for stunning writing and that’s it. We are open to all voices with any background, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual and personal identity. I’m very proud of what we offer and would be grateful if you spread the word. Because it is rare to offer something for nothing I expect we will be inundated so to be sure of free entry get ready to sub asap. I know the writer tendency is to wait for the deadline (September 14th) and then fling something in just before midnight in a last-second scramble but we open on September 1st.

I’m looking forward to reading your work.
(I’m posting this on my personal blog because these are my personal views and I don’t speak for any other member of The Forge.)

Weather by Jenny Offill

This is one of those deceptively slight books – it is packed with meaning. Offill writes bitesize witticisms (perfect for these tweety doom days) as we spend time with Lizzie the college librarian, a woman who feels so familiar to me, only way smarter and funnier than anyone I actually know.

“I remind myself (as I often do) never to become so addicted to drugs or alcohol that I’m not allowed to use them.”

Unsurprisingly for a book called Weather, Lizzie is deeply concerned with climate change but Offill has a light touch. Her pithy paragraphs contain wit, science and fun and carry the weight easily. Her brother is an addict, her husband works in IT, she has a young son, she works in a library where she is a research goddess, and she spends time answering emails about climate change sent to a podcast.

Honestly, this is my book of the year so far. I love how the fragments and thoughts and tips build and build and become a portrait of a woman looking at the end of the world. It feels honest and frightening but also beautifully human and hopeful.

Of course, my favourite line is, “How do you know all this?” “I’m a fucking librarian.”

(I’ve recommended this to a ton of people already and all of them have loved it too. Do it!)

Smash Lits with Jennifer Todhunter

The Levitation is a brilliant one-sentence story by Jennifer Todhunter – do read it. Jennifer also took part in one of my Smash Lits interviews. (I so agree about the peanuts and chocolate thing.)

1) What is your favourite cheese?

Cambazola.

2) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins? Why?

Bacon-wrapped tofu. They’re both winners in my book.

3) What colour is Thursday? 

Sort of a see-through/shimmery colour, like everything in the Night on Earth documentary.

4) You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Alice Munro because she’s a short story master and because Munro’s Books is in my hometown.

5) Do you believe human beings can levitate?

I believe human beings want to believe they can levitate.

6) Buffy or Veronica Mars?

Fiona Gallagher.

7) What’s your favourite thing from childhood that you’ve still got?

Fossils I found in the clay banks outside the pub my parents owned. A snail, in particular.

8) How do you stop procrastinating and get on with writing?

Insomnia and sporadic workshops.

9) Do you have any recurring dreams?

When I was a kid, I dreamed about my house burning down while I watched from the driveway a lot. I remember knowing what was coming and not being able to wake up, which was the worst.

10) What’s your favourite sweet?

I’m down with any peanut butter/chocolate combo. A friend told me he ate peanut butter + nutella today and that sounded like the best. I might actually try that now.

11) Do you have a fave meme? What? 

I don’t, I’m sorry. I’m a pop culture idiot.

12) Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

His name was Casey. He lived next door which apparently confused our neighbour.

13) What did you do last Saturday night?

It was mellow. There was a bonfire and sweet tunes, so the best kind of mellow. Best kind of night, really.

14) Who is your writer crush?

Currently, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Samantha Irby. I can’t pick one, their work kills me in different ways.

15) What are your windows like?

Dirty and wide-open.

16) What sandwiches would you make for a picnic with Jenny Offill?

I’m more of a soup person, and I feel like Jenny Offill might be too? I’d bring tortilla soup with all the toppings: tortillas, avocado, sriracha, cojita, cilantro, lime. The soup would be spicy enough to make the insides of your eardrums itch and would leave you wanting more. Speaking of wanting more, peanut butter + nutella = heaven on a spoon.

17) What question should I have asked you?

Late nights or early mornings? (Both.)

18) What’s your favourite swear?

I love a good fuck.

19) What word or words make you cringe? 

I have three cringe-worthy words, I recently told my kids what they were, they won’t stop saying them, so you’d better believe I’m not telling the interwebz.

20) Write me a question for the next Smash List interview I do.

Favourite-all-time-forever-never-let-you-down song? (Blind Love by Tom Waits.)

Prison stories.

I’ve been working in a prison library and teaching creative writing there for a few years now. I’m fortunate to do a job I love and find meaningful and I spend a lot of time talking to prisoners about their lives. It’s pretty impossible to take part in a creative writing group without revealing something of yourself (although at least one person has managed) and I see it as a privilege to be part of a process that helps people open up and explore their creativity. I think that’s one of the reasons I stayed away from writing any prison based fiction for so long. I want to be respectful and would hate to be exploitative. I try to encourage the men to write their own stories. (Saying that there are a few guys whose stories I would love to write. I do have a little fantasy of doing a Three Women kinda thing where I could follow up on their lives for 10 years or so – it’d be fascinating – before and after prison. I’m fairly sure the prison wouldn’t agree though.)

When you spend time in a place it inevitably seeps into your writing and I have begun a series of short prison stories. They are fiction and aren’t based on anyone real. I am, however, grateful to some of the guys for their assistance with details about kettle cooking and help with language. I learnt some stuff. Apparently, nobody would ever call another prisoner a dude unless they were a “middle class, middle aged wanker from Cornwall.” Also, if you need to know how to jam a kettle switch to make it a hotplate, I’m your gal.

Thanks to The Mechanics’ Institute Review for publishing my story, Doing Time.

http://mironline.org/doingtime/

Smash Lits with Sam Asher

I published a terrific story by Sam Asher this week. It’s called Fish Food and you can read it at The Forge. I also had the pleasure of interviewing him. Seriously, his answer re: his phobia is still making me smile.

1) What is your favourite fish?

My instinct was to look for some kind of obscure, exotic, masterwork-given-gils of a fish and pretend I’ve always been fond of one of those, but the truth is I’m exceedingly fond of the goldfish. They’re wonderfully unpretentious, and excellent listeners. My parents had one for over a decade, and we gave him a decent burial. He was a good fish.

2) Have you ever had your fortune told?

Nope

3) What is your worst habit?

Putting my boots on the couch.

4) Who is your favourite TV detective?

I’m not at all sure I know any.

5) You are wallpaper—what is your pattern?

He-Man.

6) What is your default pub/bar drink?

I’m an alcoholic in recovery. Typically I’ll just order a soda, but the further I get into sobriety the farther my waistband seems to expand. That in mind, I’ve been trying to stick to water. Yes, a party with me is exceptionally muted and depressing. I did recently discover cream soda with lime juice, which tastes a little like an old holiday cocktail my dad would make us.

7) What colour is Thursday?

Mauve.

8) What picture do you have on your wall? 

Atop the mirror that hangs over my wife’s dresser is a painting of a tiny penguin carrying a turkey baster. His motives, surely, are nefarious.

9) What is your favourite fairytale?

Trickle down economics.

10) What words make you cringe?

The verb ‘get’ (or any of its variations) is a garbage verb for garbage people.

11) What is the last thing you googled?

Toy stores in Soho.

12) What’s your favourite swear?

Fuck. Absolutely. No other word contains such a wealth of meaning based on such tiny variations in intonation. I could write ‘fuck’ five times and each time it could signify something altogether different, or even opposite to, the ‘fuck’ previous.

13) What was your first gig?

It was the Reading Festival in 2005. The first band on the line-up was Goldie Lookin’ Chain, so their classic hymn to acceptance ,‘Your Mother’s Got a Penis’ will be a tune I never forget.

14) Do you have any writing rituals?

Trying not to suck.

15) Do you have any phobias?

Turtles. I don’t trust any creature that can hide its face inside of its torso. And they walk so deliberately, at such a slow pace. Where to, I ask? Where are you going, turtle? Why are you taking so long to get there? Is your time somehow infinite? Are you immortal? Are you just lazy? What are you hiding inside that shell? Is it money? Is it gifts? Is it my childhood? Reveal yourself, cruel amphibian.

16) What was your favourite book as a child?

I was actually taught to read with an illustrated children’s bible, and despite my avowed, and occasionally dispiritingly militant atheism, I still think kindly of it. In terms of narrative, I stole a copy of Little Wolf’s Diary of Amazing Deeds from school when I was 6 or so, and read it a dozen times. I kept the same copy until last year, when a combination of mental illness and residual, twenty-five-year-old-guilt at my first foray into theft led me to donate it to a local LGBTQ charity store.

17) What instrument did you play at school?

Air drums.

18) Write me a question for the next Smash Lit interview I do.

Assuming ghosts don’t currently exist, if I gave you the power to do so, would you will them into reality?

19) Who is your writer crush?

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

20) Bacon VS Tofu—who wins and why? 

I’m a vegetarian, but tofu is brewed in a vat of spavined farts, so I suppose bacon, as a concept, but tofu as a meal. Pigs also, did you know, are smarter than Republicans? Eat a Republican instead.

Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson

This collection of essays by Sinéad Gleeson is superb. I’ll admit shallowness; it was the oh-so-beautiful cover that enticed me in, but I stayed for the words. Gleeson writes crystal clear prose on what it is to be a woman, a mother, to endure pain, illness, disability. She writes about loss and fear, grief and life, art, the church. Her words moved me, nourished me, chimed. Her essays about being a patient and losing self in a hospital are particularly striking, perhaps more now than ever as we face Coronavirus.

“And a fear, familiar as night, creeps in. That the implicit trust we put in the medical world has been misplaced.”

“The hospital is a place of necessary quarantine where control must be abdicated. Inside, there are risks. Of not waking up post-anaesthetic, infections, encounters with MRSA, the hail of germs from sneezing, tissue-less visitors. The overly solicitous chats from the stranger in the next bed.

The air. Can we talk about the air? The coagulation of smells. Other people, cleaning products, distant hot-plated food with no singular tang. The metallic, surgical dregs of something disappearing. Vomit. Inhale. Hand sanitiser. Breathe. Disinfectant. Exhale.”

A masterclass.

A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins

I’ve just read A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins. A successful journalist and documentary filmmaker, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a tax fraud he became involved in when looking for ways to finance a project. As someone used to documenting events he kept a detailed diary about his time in Wandsworth. It’s an interesting look at what life “inside” is like. While the tabloid headlines continue to scream about “lags” living it up at the tax payer’s expense in “holiday camp” prisons, Atkins calmly pulls back the curtain and exposes the reality of how this country treats its prisoners.

Nothing I read was news to me because I work in a prison library in an open prison (which Atkins describes as being “like the Ritz in comparison”) and often prisoners tell me their stories; what they did, which prison they have been in and the things they’ve seen. Atkins worked the system as best he could, acknowledging that as a white, middle class, well-educated man he had many advantages most prisoners don’t. He quickly got himself on the “best” wing. He volunteered as a Listener – a prisoner trained by the Samaritans to provide assistance to other prisoners in crisis. He met with many desperate people, most of whom have mental health issues which make them incapable of the kind of conformity the prison regime demands. They are punished rather than treated. Men are locked up 23 hours a day. The ideal of rehabilitation via education, health and work followed by appropriate resettlement is unavailable. Teachers stand in empty classrooms because there aren’t enough officers to unlock the men. Healthcare appointments are missed for the same reason. 

I smiled at the publishing blurb which asks “Where can a tin of tuna buy you clean clothes?” One evening at work a prisoner asked me to photocopy something for him and to my surprise offered me a tin of tuna as an incentive. It was only when I mentioned it to one of the men who worked with me in the library I discovered it’s prison currency. It’s that familiarity with the narrative that made this book perhaps slightly less engaging to me as so much of it was like conversations I regularly have, however, I think anyone curious about what it’s like to be in prison will find this book fascinating. It’s important stuff too. Atkins balances darkness and desperation with much-needed humour through anecdotes and encounters with prisoners and officers. There’s camaraderie too; that essential and often unlikely bond between people in similar situations. And also, the heartbreak of being away from his young son. Every time someone is imprisoned there are other people who suffer; family and friends – the impact on children is huge. 

Prison reform is a tough subject because the public is resistant to spending money on those who commit crime. Why make life easier for people who have done the wrong thing? It comes way down on the wish list when you consider how all of our services are so stretched and underfunded. Who would choose funding prisons over education, healthcare, adult services etc? It’s no election winner. Atkins suggests most reasonable people agree everyone should be treated with at least minimum standards of decency and care, but for the throw away the key brigade he employs unarguable statistics: “Britain has the worst reoffending rate in Europe with 48% of ex-prisoners being reconvicted within one year of release. The cost of reoffending alone is estimated at £15 billion, more than three times the entire prison budget.” Atkins ends the book with his suggestions for improvement which are pretty compelling. For more information please look at the Prison Reform Trust which does sterling work in this field.

I do want to end by saying I have come across many people who work in prisons who are absolutely motivated to support and rehabilitate people so they leave prison in a better position than they went in. Breaking the cycle of offending is what we all want, surely? 

A review of Three Women and Educated

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction recently and both Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and Educated by Tara Westover are interesting. (Very different books that I’m only squishing together because I’ve been meaning to pop reviews of them up for ages.)

Three Women is a book I guzzled down. This is a non-fiction exploration of three women’s very different sex lives. Taddeo followed each of them (and others, I believe, although only these three made the final book) for 8 years and crafted their stories into a gloriously readable narrative. Lina is in a sexless marriage and still in love with her high school sweetheart. She begins an affair with him (although affair seems to suggest more than the few quick encounters they have) and the way she romanticises the relationship is heartbreaking. Maggie had sex with her school teacher and thought they were in love. Sloane is married to a man who likes to watch her have sex with other men. Taddeo has a novelistic approach, for instance, describing Lina revealing the affair to some women friends,

“The women are pitched forward, like soup tureens in an earthquake. Their chins are on the heels of their hands, and they are eating mixed nuts nervously.
Oh my, says Cathy. That sounds like quite a man, and a real love affair.
How did it end? someone asks, because women are often better at handling the endings than the beginnings. Lina understands that some women, like her mother and her sisters, truly care for another woman only when that woman is in pain, especially in a kind of pain that they have already felt, and then overcome.”


While the writing is the book’s strength it’s also curiously distancing; it sounds like truth but I’m not sure it is. I felt very much that what I was reading were stories and as such when the end came it was somewhat unsatisfying in its true-to-life inconclusiveness. There are no neat endings here. These are three women who have all had disturbing sex lives in different ways. And I wonder, where is the woman who has a joyous sex life? The woman who has sex with a woman? The woman who is not white? Taddeo never meant for these three women to speak for all women and perhaps the main thing they have in common is they have not been heard before and Taddeo gives them a voice to speak for themselves, albeit filtered through her. It’s certainly a compelling read.

I was late to Educated, the memoir of Tara Westover which has long featured on bestseller lists. She was brought up in Idaho by her Mormon fundamentalist family. Her parents said she and her brothers were homeschooled but in truth, they received no education beyond scripture. Tara watched as her mother was persuaded into being an unlicensed midwife’s assistant, and later the midwife herself, using homemade potions and something called “muscle testing” to heal people. Her father, Gene, expected his children to work alongside him in his scrap business where there was no health and safety, it being God’s will if accidents occurred, as they repeatedly did. It’s an extraordinary story of a life lived off-grid. Gene endlessly prepped for the end of the world and his family lived in fear. Tara was bullied, oppressed, assaulted and uneducated. When she glimpsed the outside world it seemed an immoral place, nonetheless, she taught herself to read and yearned for school, eventually going to college. She is astonishingly bright and despite her lack of basic knowledge her intelligence shone through and she went on to achieve incredible academic results. The book is slightly repetitious and I did find myself thinking, oh no, don’t go back to the bloody mountain again at several points, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden world.

The Heartland – finding and losing schizophrenia by Nathan Filer

Nathan Filer’s debut novel The Shock of the Fall was hugely successful so inevitably there is a weight of expectation around The Heartland. This is a nonfiction exploration of schizophrenia, but the similarities are clear as Filer employs the same knowledge, sensitivity and engaging language that was present in his novel to open up a conversation about so-called-schizophrenia and tell the stories of some people whose lives have been impacted by it.

It’s a fascinating book: Filer is our reporter from the frontline of medical practice as he was previously a psychiatric nurse but he is also an eloquent and careful reporter of personal stories. He tells us about a soldier who thought his stay in a psychiatric ward was a secret mission, a journalist who thought she was a criminal and drank a mug of bleach to kill herself, a daughter whose mother went undiagnosed for years, and a mother who spoke about her son, which moved me to tears possibly because hers was the story which felt most relatable to me.

From the very beginning it’s clear this is a subject with no concrete answers. Should people seeking help with mental health issues be called patients or service users? To call them patients suggests they have an illness, however, if you instead believe that the behaviours and feelings are not symptomatic of illness but are instead a natural response to trauma then it is problematic to be labelled as a patient. And if there is no consensus on this, what hope is there of reaching any definitive conclusions in mental health practices?

Mental health issues are spoken about far more widely these days and yet it seems to me that whilst the public are more tolerant, maybe even supportive, of someone who has anxiety or depression than used to be the case, there is a feeling that people with schizophrenia are scary and dangerously unpredictable. This book offers beautifully clear explanations such as “… it might be best understood as a kind of psychological adaptation, a coping strategy gone awry or a form of storytelling carried out within the mind as a response to unbearably painful life events.”

There’s a lot of food for thought. For instance, anosognosia means “…having as a symptom of a disorder the belief that you do not have the disorder.” I mean, crikey! Homosexuality was only removed from the official list of diagnosable mental disorders in 1974! There’s a lot of alarming information here. We like to think that people smarter than us with their knowledge beyond our understanding are capable of healing us. To learn that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is perhaps more woolly than we would want is not great.

I highlighted so many passages in this terrific book because it’s something I will refer back to. I think everyone should read it. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a heavy academic read, instead, it feels pretty essential and Filer’s great skill is giving information to us in an interesting and accessible way. My very favourite note is this:

“It’s not always possible to find the right words but we can still be part of the conversation. We can walk with people for a bit, sit with them, hear them.”

*klaxon* I have a new story up at Pithead Chapel

I have a new story, Looking Back, up at Pithead Chapel. Please do read if you are so inclined. And massive thanks to those of you who have already read and tweeted and shared. Writing often feels like screaming into a void to me, so it was pretty intoxicating to get such a good response to this one. It’s a stonking issue featuring brilliant words from Megan Pillow Davis, Bradford Philen and Tara Isabel Zambrano, so even if you don’t like my piece I guarantee there’s something you will enjoy.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑