Introduction

It’s a bit mindblowing. And also sensitive to time. If I was asked to do this 2 years ago or 3 years in the future some of these picks might change. But I suppose my requirement as a reader wouldn’t. I want to see the spine of a story. Orwell’s view: transparent prose, like a window pane. I like to move in and out of a text. I don’t like to fight to find something. More and more I’m drawn to a piece that might have a social significance – something about sexuality or gender, something about heritage, something that moves me, that hurts me, or thrills me. For this Personal Anthology, I chose all female contributors – including trans female. I chose queer texts, a metatext and a children’s story. I chose 1 song and 1 play. I chose 2 longer texts – that maybe fall into the category of novella. It’s just a way to process the world of words – long, short, shorter. I’m interested in form and because I’ve written for many mediums so I didn’t want to limit myself. I’ve been teaching in universities for over 10 years and I taught Creative Writing in prisons for 5 years. Often it feels as if story lists and set texts are predominately bio male, white, heterosexual. This is a little re-dress.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ by Annie Proulx

I include this for its confidence and scale. I re-visit this story often – to see the way that Proulx crafts the final detail of the men’s shirts interlaced one against the other, the passage of time, the masculinity. I saw the film before I read the story and find I cry throughout both. The intensity of the desire and the repression. I always loved Heath Ledger and admired his courage in taking this role that he said terrified him. Proulx squeezes the maximum out of this story of impossible love over 20 years. Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are indelible figures set against a raw rural working world – from the first encounter in the tent, to Del Mar’s vomiting, to the sex scene in the hotel: “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey, of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” A story of men and class and desire and love. Devastating at its core with Del Mar’s inability to create a different life for them. Unrelentingly heartbreaking and unrelentingly real. “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

First published in The New Yorker, October, 1997. Collected in Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Harper Perennial, 1999

‘Happy Endings’ by Margaret Atwood

A metatext; at 1,300 words it’s flash fiction. First published two years after The Handmaid’s Tale. John and Mary and their various configurations, then Madge and James. A multiple choice of possibilities. Atwood moves in and out of third and second person. The commentary on the characters: “You can see what kind of woman she is by the fact that it is not even whiskey.” This is a text we show Imperial students a lot – they love it. The games we play in the love game. The deceptions. There is something so banal and knowing in the writing; Atwood playing God. The final page is the most revealing. “So much for endings. Beginnings are always more fun.” We always ask the students to write their own endings. And they do write – with varying degrees of wit and drama. Invariably John and Mary turn out to be gay. Or mass murderers. It’s a great one for debating construction of a narrative – even though the tone has a clinical distancing. I think ‘Happy Endings’ would make a great short film.

First Published in Murder in The Dark, January, 1983, Coach House Press

‘Back of the Class’ by Julia Bell

I wanted to include an essay. This piece by the writer and personal friend Julia Bell covers so much ground so affectingly. I’ve brought it into my students at Imperial College to study. Most of them have interviewed for Oxford and Cambridge and have not got in. If I had a £1 for every student that I teach who’d interviewed for these colleges I’d be a lot richer! Bell’s writing is evocative and represents the time well but also, unfortunately, it feels as if it could have been written today. The themes of class, position, power, old boy network, bullying tactics, the small town Bronglais, the Welsh language, the red-faced boy. And of course, Keats’ Truth and Beauty. I love the input of the research on the freeze response and the acknowledgement of thought control and cognitive, neural pathways. ‘Back of the Class’ is masterly in concept and was re-tweeted over 200 times. The character is instantly recognisable – the blushing seventeen year old in the Dorothy Perkins dress who’s “a bit queer” – waiting for her rite of passage. I’ve re-visited this essay many times (I’m working on a short film adaptation at the moment with the director, Lois Norman) so it has a particular resonance for me. Let’s hope initiatives like Stormzy’s can place black students, POC students and working-class students in the heart of these institutions. There’s a simple refrain in Bell’s writing that leaps off the page and casts a shadow across the landscape: “I want to be taught. I am ready.” Education for all. Everywhere.

First published in the Times Literary Supplement, November, 2018

‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams

Children’s stories often get overlooked. Staying with a theme, I’m going to look at TheVelveteen Rabbit. As much as I love sparsity on the page, children’s writing has depth and complexity that gets bypassed. They can include social commentary, and usually have a perfect 3-part / 5-part structure. William’s rabbit “was fat and bunchy as a rabbit should be”. The other toys ignore him because he’s made of velveteen; the mechanical toys are the most superior and “Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers and should have broader views”. When I taught creative writing in prisons so many people I taught didn’t get access to books. But often we could touch base by looking at fairy tales. At the first male prison I worked in – HMP Littlehey – we looked at these texts together. The men were working on a project called Story Book Dads where they wrote their own stories for their children and then we recorded them in the prison and then sent them back home. Children’s books were essential. They proved a great touchstone. The Velveteen Rabbit is one of those books – descriptive, emotional, powerful, symbolic beyond its 40 pages. The concept touched all of us – a velvet rabbit who becomes real through love.

First published 1922, George H. Doran. Available to read online here

‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore

It’s funny. It’s wry. It makes you think of all the things that you might like to have been told. So, a little bit like To My Trans Sisters it sits here. “You read the whole thing out in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.” It feels specifically American (someone should write a UK version, or every country should write their own version). “Write a story about a confused music student and title it ‘Schubert Was the One with the Glasses Right.’” I think ‘How to Become a Writer’ could get developed (go a little further) and it does leave you a bit hanging at the end. But for its audacity and style I’d put it in the mix, especially when there are so many myths and debates about writing courses, and writing as a career / profession. To quote Moore: ” A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph, a novel is a film.”

First collected in Self-Help, Knopf, 1985. Also in The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, 2009, Faber, and as a standalone publication by Faber Modern Classics, 2015

‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

Much of Woolf’s writing frustrates me. I’m a great lover of Aristotle’s notion of plot. The notion of a turn. Beginning, middle and end. Even though Orlando transports me for the ambition and gender fuckery – and the fact that it was conceived as a love letter – it also feels so elaborate (cut to the chase). ‘A Room of One’s Own’ has power because it talks about position and gender equality in the way that many of Wolf’s texts don’t being bound up in class. It acknowledges the position and changeability of money, but its intent is also clear: “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”. However, the sense of hope still resonates in the essay and the sense of the baton being passed on, for generations to come: “This poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and me and many other women who were not here tonight.” It’s the timeless quality of imparting wisdom and historical context that moves me.

First published September, 1929 in a Canadian quarterly literary based on two lectures Woolf delivered at Newnham and Girton Colleges, then by the Hogarth Press. Now widely available, including as a Penguin Modern Classic and a Vintage Feminism Short Edition