National Centre for Writing commissioned three writers working across the UK to reflect on how the experience of 2020 has impacted on their work. The result is a series of emotional and thought-provoking written commissions, podcast conversations and events with Kerri ní Dochartaigh, Abir Mukherjee and Derek Owusu. Below, writer, editor and podcast host Heather Parry contextualises the series and how these pieces inform our understanding of the role of the writer – and the process of writing.
On 21 April 1918, the novelist Virginia Woolf wrote what is now one of her most oft-quoted diary lines, to be found pasted across calming landscape scenes in images across the vast space of the internet: The weather varies between heavy fog and pale sunshine; My thoughts follow the exact same process.
Living though such uncertain years, just over a century later, we find our internal worlds, too, are now inescapably meteorological, tied to our context by a strange and confusing umbilical rope. Those of us writing – or painting, or sculpting, or performing – are now barometers, watched closely so we might better describe the pressure that everyone around us is feeling. Our work is, and perhaps always will be, defined by the era; whether we like it or not it will be work of the pandemic, of this political epoch, of the time before climate change came home to roost. The unique political and social weather of this period means that we can no longer refuse to objectify ourselves as writers; we see ourselves from the outside, writing through the soupy, cloying, near-unbreathable atmosphere of the time.
It’s fitting, then, that the three writers in this series have looked outwards to peer inwards, and vice versa, when considering what it means to be an artist sailing the inexorable storms of now. Poet and novelist Derek Owusu performs a deft sidestep with a fictional first person looking for meaning in their dreams, turning our own search for significance back on us: ‘… once again‘, he writes, ‘creativity and putting things into words has done the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to.’ And yet this protagonist is turned outside in while trying to wriggle away from the gaze of another – not only his girlfriend, who demands entrance to his inner world, but from those who try to pin him to the page; from us, his readers.
Those of us writing […] are now barometers, watched closely so we might better describe the pressure that everyone around us is feeling
Abir Mukherjee, author of the Wyndham & Banerjee series of crime novels set in Raj-era India, takes a different but no less effective tack, bringing into the light the very personal pressures that have shaped his experiences and politics, and which have been the bedrock of his novels; the climate which raises one story over another, confers legitimacy on some lives and not on others. ‘I am writing a fiction,’ he explains, of his body of work, ‘but within it is the kernel of a truth just as valid, possibly more so, than the truths in our history books.‘ With such incisive words, we are swept along with his faith that there is, indeed, a change in the air.
And like many other readers, Kerri ní Dochartaigh finds comfort and hope in the words of another; in the journals of Virginia Woolf, a writer contextualised, too, by the time in which she lived and the way she responded to it. Unmoored from familiarity yet grounded by the creative acts of her own body, ní Dochartaigh looks both inwards and outwards, reaching balance in the curious push-pull of this position: ‘We are wee paper birds,‘ she reminds us, ‘hung above the firmament; as a wild, untameable wind makes a choreography of our porcelain bones.‘
These three pieces, as a series, remind us that, as with other forces of nature, there is no destination for creative work. The role of the artist – and the process of writing, of being a writer – is, like the weather, ever-changing, ever-shifting, ever-renewing. And always, of course, a surprise.
Heather Parry is a Glasgow-based writer, editor, event chair and podcast host. Her short stories have appeared internationally in numerous magazines and books, including The Stinging Fly, F(r)iction and Gutter, and have been performed at festivals across the UK. Her fiction explores self-deception, transformation, the grotesque and the body. Website / Twitter
Weather With You is part of Open Doors: a series of commissions and open submissions programmed by the National Centre for Writing, with support from Arts Council England’s Ambition for Excellence programme.