"As I read something happened. The story stopped being mine..."
Writer Anne Summerfield started writing nearly 40 years ago, but it was when she finally read her work out loud that she discovered her voice as an author. In this inspiring piece for 100 voices for 100 years, Anne shares her story, and reveals what has kept her going for so long.
Anne Summerfield gave up working as a technical writer in the computer industry to study for an MA in Modern Fiction at Exeter University. She taught Creative Writing at the Open University. Last century she won an Asham Award and a Jerwood/Arvon New Writing bursary and had stories in Virago and Serpent’s Tail anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her poem ‘I go with my grandfather to a Belgian brothel’ was shortlisted for the first Mslexia poetry competition and republished in the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual. She is married with two grown up children and lives in Hampshire.
This is Why
I don’t much like thinking about how long I’ve been writing – and when would I say I started? The so-called ‘book’ I scribbled down at eight? When I wrote technical manuals for a living? Or when I started writing poetry in my spare time? Maybe around then. About thirty five years ago. I’m that old.
After a few years of poetry and computer manuals, I’d started producing little paragraphs of something that I could see wasn’t a poem - though I didn’t know what it would be – at my desk in between sections of ‘press this button’ and ‘use the return key to enter data.’ And then I went on an Arvon course – to Lumb Bank armed with a title and these scraps of something. My tutors were Barbara Maychin, a TV writer – now most famous for being the creator of Waking the Dead - and Kathy Page whose first novel Back in the First Person was a favourite of mine. Both were kind and encouraging, as were the other people in the group and it was a lovely week.
On the last evening, we all had the chance to read our work to the group. The reading was held in a small crowded sitting room with everyone squashed on baggy sofas or perched uncomfortably on rugs on the floor. The reading chair in the corner was an old wooden carver with arms like something from a farm kitchen. We took it in turns to scramble to the chair clutching notebooks and papers and read for about five minutes each. I was one of the last to go. I had a little piece from my story in my hand. There were still only little pieces. I climbed over everyone and was shaking and glad of the chair’s hard embrace. But as I read, something happened, something wonderful. I stopped feeling self-conscious or aware of my trembling hands or awkward about my unlovely accent. Because the story stopped being mine and the words just seemed to come from somewhere else, and I felt like I was listening, listening to the story for the first time. There were only the words, the character telling her story and I disappeared. Only when I stopped reading, breathless, stunned, not quite in the room anymore, did I come back to being me. It was magic. Not mystical exactly, but pretty darn close.
And it was years – literally – before that story from the fragments was finished after many false starts and revisions. In the meantime I gave up technical writing, did an MA, got married, had children. When the story from the fragments, The Velvet Maid, was read on Radio 4 my second child was a three month old baby – he’s 21 now and six foot three! But still that feeling, that chance to conjure with words has kept me going, has made me try different things in writing, and always want to learn more. It seems odd to say I found my voice by disappearing, but that is the why of writing fiction for me –to create an imaginary world that’s strong and real enough so that I - the writer - can disappear.