Our recent Writer in Residence Alice Ash shares some reflections on her experience
My Open Book residency began part-way through the second lockdown and, although I didn’t realise it from the very beginning, it would provide me with some much-needed threads of contact with the outside world. The residency coincided with the release of my first short story collection, Paradise Block, too, and while my nerves grew, the residency became a kind of calming tincture: precious contact with other writers and a way to focus on writing something fun and freeing.
I’m not used to writing quickly or on a theme, and I found that pushing myself to do this was extremely surprising – I could write a short piece that I liked in a week or even a few days. It took me seven years to write my collection, and I’ve always worked very slowly, worrying about every step. Letting the theme spark ideas and allowing myself to write quite quickly felt different and strangely empowering. Especially when I received the thoughtful feedback from the reading groups, I thought to myself, look, I am a professional writer! It was such a rare gift – sitting in my flat, day after day, knowing that people were thinking about my stories and reading them carefully. That felt very good and a real privilege to see.
A few readers contacted me on Twitter about particularly ambiguous endings, and I loved that too – I was edging closer to the groups and felt like I was part of something. The feedback also helped me see the stories from different perspectives and notice how interpretations can vary so wildly. There was talk of enigmatic characters being ghosts and foxes and aliens and demons, and this all made me see how rich a story can be and how a writer can never have complete control, even in only 1,000 words! In itself, that was quite a relieving feeling – I thought about how handing the story to the reader means that the story no longer belongs to you. Reading and writing can be quite a communal thing in that way, the reader bringing their perspective and experience to the text. That was very interesting, and it was fun to seek out clues that other readers had picked up and that I hadn’t even realised were there. Maybe the little girl in my story “The Garden” was a fox after all?
And then, of course, there was the event at the end! This was one of my first events, and I was very nervous. I wasn’t sure what to expect and felt the old imposter syndrome monsters lurking as I powered up my computer. But then it was so fun! Talking about what I love to do with Claire and Marjorie, the kindest and warmest hosts, and taking questions from the group – I never wanted it to end and had to run up and down the seafront afterwards because I was fizzing with energy. I was so honoured to meet some of the Open Book community and felt really welcomed and respected. The residency has just been such a wonderful experience and so perfectly placed – during a nerve-wracking time for me (first book) and a horrible, anxious time for everyone (lockdown) – being part of this community has really kept me going and lifted my spirits and my confidence all the way.
Thank you, Claire, Marjorie and every Open Book reader – it’s been an absolute blast, and I’ll never forget it!