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Julia Bell
Julia Bell

Julia Bell is a writer and Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck and Course Director of the Creative Writing MA. She is the author of three novels, most recently The Dark Light to be published in May 2015 by Macmillan, the co editor of the Creative Writing Coursebook, as well as three volumes of short stories most recently The Sea In Birmingham. She also takes photographs, writes poetry, short stories, occasional essays and journalism, and is the co-curator of spoken word night @InYerEarLondon. Twitter: @juliabell.

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Life as Work: 'What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness' by Candia McWilliam

When a life goes awry due to some unfortunate or unforeseen circumstance - addiction, abuse, crime, illness – and is then written about, the attendant cultural product is commonly referred to as a ‘misery memoir’. There are plenty of them around, from Sabine Durant to Frank McCourt, all telling their true-life stories of human endurance, suffering and survival. Candia McWilliam calls What to Look for in Winter ‘anti-misery memoir’, although it is a book about a deep hurt: the loss of her mother to suicide as a young girl, and the chaos that this absence wreaks in her shy, bookish personality. She is beautiful and clever which means she goes places. She attends Oxford, wins the Vogue Talent Contest, and puts out a very good first novel in her late twenties. But all of this is thrown into sharp relief by her developing alcoholism, which gets the best of her by her early thirties. Wrecking two marriages and reducing her to drinking anything she can get her hands on – including Easy Iron – she finally sobers up, only to find herself afflicted by a rare neurological condition called blepharospasm, whereby her eyelids refuse to open, leaving her functionally blind. 
          The car-crash quality of these details alone are enough to create prurient publicity, bringing her back from the obscurity in which she has languished since the mid-90s when she last published – a fine novel called Debateable Lands. But these details, so familiar to the ‘misery memoir’, are not really what this book is about. It seems far more like a kind of outpouring – of poetry, observation, passion, biography – once suppressed by addiction, come roaring out of her now she is sentient again, although as she calls herself a ‘maimed animal’. All muddled up in the telling is the narrative of her oncoming blindness, which she describes with extraordinary clarity; how she has to dictate parts of the book, hold her eyelids open to read, how she once set fire to her flat and was unable to see the smoke.
          There may well be too much of it. It’s a bit long perhaps, with too many names, too much family history in places, a meandering structure. But it seems deliberate. The book has something of the abstract structure of life, rather than fiction, of which she says, ‘when I write fiction I can make something external to myself that is whole.’ In memoir, however, and especially in this one, everything is fractured, debatable, partial, and the structure of this book highlights that truth. In one of the most moving passages, which I’ve posted below, she meditates on what motivates her to write, and refers to the craft as a ‘study of life’. In this case, we find a study of her own life drafted with an honesty and a poetry that seem to come from a place that is at once broken and proud. There is a common wisdom among writers that no experience is wasted, that everything makes good copy. In this case experience is transformed into something both glorious and strange.



I write because the work is real. It involves concentration and a study of life, which is all we have. I write because I want to help my parents out of their graves, she wherever she is, and he in the wall of Scottish heroes. I write because I cannot often express things face to face, being at once (or I was; we’ll see about that) performative and shy. I write because I don’t think most of my children are interested at the moment in what may interest them after I am dead, the half of themselves that will have been buried with their mother, but that lives in them. I write because I want to write more well. And better. And better. I write because I read, and they are my patriotism and loyalties, reading and writing. I write because it’s the act of glorification and gratitude to which I am most suited to take up my apprenticeship. I write in order to keep abreast of the swim of words and to hold the world – whose glory is, with its sadness, that it will not be held.

          I write because I wake up, I fall short, I sleep, I wake.

          I write because the world and all I love in it is forcing itself upon my attention and to pay attention is everything.

          I write because words change one another when they lie together. Because words change things. They make people see.

          Words can mend what is broken, or render it more interesting than mended.

           They can make people attend to one another.

          They are what we have that cannot be taken from us and what we have that we can give to other people without feeling stolen from.

          Also plain words are under threat. The languages of severely systematised untruth and imprecision, that exactly means what they don’t say, don’t say what they mean, rejig it how you will, are used to sell everything from systems of government to hair gloss. Readers are mistrusted by those in power and not encouraged to keep their side of the bargain, which is to partake in the work themselves. If you wait for everything to be signaled, in a work of fiction, you lose connection with man and stars because you are listening to the satnav. A good writer has put in the invisible turnings, the neglected hedgerows, the boarded up shops and dead men within the shadows or environs of his story, so that the reader may feel the wind in his mind, smell the wild rose, hear the rats, smell the deep pond, as he passes them. Do not underestimate the silences or breaks in a line.

          I write because I’m not dead yet. And I seem to want not to be.




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