On Writing ‘Made You Look’

Valerie Sirr

‘But it’s true, it’s how it happened!’ is a phrase often heard in writing workshops. It can be difficult to accept that the faithfully recorded facts of one’s experience, however harrowing, are not what make good fiction even when the writer has attempted to fictionalise their own reality by handing it over intact to a pretend character. Experiences are necessary for writing. Faithful recording is necessary too – patient accuracy and precision of salient detail enlivens stories, but writers know it’s the heart and the imagination not autobiographical fact that connects with readers.

‘Made You Look’ began with a real person. While I was becoming ill with a debilitating illness, only recently diagnosed, I trained for a time as a clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and later, as the illness progressed, I completed an M.Phil in Creative Writing at TCD, Dublin. It was while on secondment in the adolescent unit of the Maudsley Hospital attached to the Institute, that I was briefly involved in the case of a patient who many years later came back to me while writing ‘Made You Look’ for the M.Phil. Some of the facts of her case: young girl, engaged in repetitive and exhausting self-destructive behaviour including banging her head against hard surfaces, and subsequent picking at self-inflicted wounds preventing them from healing.  She had been given a helmet to wear to prevent further self-damage. I was a trainee psychologist – also young, very inexperienced, and shocked by the helmet and her traumatised behaviour. I had not yet learned the emotional detachment of my supervisors who told me matter-of-factly that she would most likely not be cured.

That necessary detachment came years later and it came with an enforced slowing down and with the practice of writing. Writing involves a distancing from the self. But it’s a sort of engaged detachment. While all writers need to achieve some level of displacement in their work from the events of their lives, at the same time they need to maintain a close and empathic relationship with themselves, ideally without self-pity or self-indulgence. Gemma the protagonist of ‘Made You Look’, has no meaningful relationship with herself, like the unfortunate Maudsley girl, who I hope found someone or something to help her. I wanted to let Gemma’s lack of awareness play itself out, rather than analysing or explaining her using psychological theory or behavioural analysis.

When I first wrote ‘Made You Look’, the young girl was recorded closely just as she was reported years ago in that unit of the Maudsley, wearing her helmet pulled down over her bloodied forehead, rocking and banging her head, and though inevitably some details were changed or misremembered, she was still too real. My younger self was in the story too, full of guilt at not being able to help, and though I was ruthless about my own sense of failing her, I was not ruthless enough to risk letting go of the story. It was too much her; and it was too much me, with made up names.

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Months later when I returned to the first draft a new character emerged. She made me uncomfortable, and she ‘insisted’, as writers often say, on speaking in the first person. This persona was relating events that had never happened to me. She was doing things that I had never done. Her background was nothing like mine. She spoke in a different accent to mine. She was no longer the girl in the Maudsley either, though in the story she encounters someone like her and she had some of her spirit and some of mine at that time too – the frustration, the anger, the ‘how far do I have to go?’ experience I was having after ending up in Casualty, having collapsed, yet again, with no diagnosis. But that’s another story, and luckily one with a happier ending.

As long as I got out of my own way, my imagination was happy to allow Gemma to tell her story. At the time of writing ‘Made You Look’ I was living in a housing estate where a loud group of teenage girls had an oblivious and risky leader who became a big part of Gemma too. There was truth in Gemma’s voice and there was peril and power enough in it to make me stand back and let her go. There was vulnerability in it too. But she had a voice, and while none of the events actually happened, imagination and emotion were now driving her story.

I’m still fond of Gemma and grateful to her for helping me win a short story award. ‘Made You Look’ won the Nora Fahy Literary award, judged by British author John Saul and that gave me the confidence to continue writing. Thanks are due to John Lavin too, creator and editor of the excellent short story magazine, The Lonely Crowd, where Gemma has found a home.

Valerie Sirr at Cork Short Story Fest 2014Valerie Sirr’s collection of short stories received funding from the Arts Council of Ireland under the title‑by-­scheme in 2014. Her short stories, short shorts, and poems are published in Ireland, UK, US, Australia and Asia. Honours include 2007 Hennessy New Irish Writer Award, Arts Council of Ireland literature bursaries, and other national and international literature awards. She holds an M. Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin.

‘Made You Look’ is published in the new, spring issue of The Lonely Crowd, which can be purchased here.

Copyright © Valerie Sirr, 2016. Banner image © J. K. Matthews, 2016. Author photo © Paul McVeigh.