Negotiated Truths

Chapter 1 Blog

Chapter 1. “The Negotiated Truth”

In 2006, I read an essay by the novelist JG Ballard in the Guardian newspaper (

In it, Ballard describes the process of writing Empire of the Sun, a work of fiction that draws heavily on his harrowing childhood experiences as a prisoner in the Lunghua Japanese war camp. He begins the essay by reflecting on the “huge staying power” of memories, noting that “like dreams, they thrive in the dark” and survive “for decades in the deep waters of our minds like shipwrecks on the sea bed.” If those memories are painful, he observes, bringing them into the light “can be risky”. Indeed, in Ballard’s case, that risk was so great that he avoided writing about his childhood for forty years:  “[t]wenty years to forget, and then 20 years to remember”. He was, he confesses, entirely unable to bear witness to that time in his life until “it occurred to me to drop my parents from the story” just as “they had moved out of my life in Lunghua even though we were sharing the same room” .


By removing his parents from the story, in other words, Ballard was free to recount what he felt to be the truth of his “real existence,” his sense of surviving the war on his own. “Once I separated Jim from his parents,” he reveals, “the novel unrolled itself at my feet like a bullet-ridden carpet” .


So, despite the significant change he made in representing the circumstances of his past (ie by portraying young Jim as in essence an orphan in the camp) Ballard believed that  “enough of it was based on fact to convince me that what had seemed a dream-like pageant was a negotiated truth”.  The art of Ballard’s novel, in other words, its narrative negotiation with the “risky,” “dark” and “shipwrecked” memories of its author’s traumatic past, and it is precisely this strategy of negotiation with the truth, rather than its documentation, that I find in all the posttraumatic autobiographical projects I examine in The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths.

From legal and rights testimony to traditional and graphic memoirs, from prison poetry to autobiographical fiction, from virtual to material monuments to traumatic histories, I see Ballard’s “negotiated truth” as the key rhetorical figure of the posttraumatic autobiographical. Indeed, as I shall explain in a future blog, it is an approach to recounting traumatic past experiences that I have used myself.

A poem for the weekend

Further avoidance of writing fiction has helped me to write this poem (working on a theme in the novel so I feel entirely justified….)

Note Pinned to the Saddle of a Wandering Mare

Partner, I admit

I left you to the graft

wrangling, branding, counting heads:

I forgot to shut the gate.

Things on the ranch haven’t changed.

So empty the echo

deafened you. So dark you gave up

on matches. So quiet at night

I roped you to my ear.

I liked your prairie

eyes, the way we rode like friends

along the trail: my singing, your red kerchief,

the lariat round your neck. I’m sorry

for the handcuffs and the lock

across your door.

I was so hungry

I ate you alive.

Writer’s Diaries Part III: Woolf’s Split-Voiced Self


‘A Sketch of the Past,’ the longest of a series of autobiographical sketches unpublished in Woolf’s lifetime, makes use of all of the central images of her fiction—windows, mirrors, waves and the sun. Her diaries, by contrast, rarely engage with those tropes. Instead, they serve to highlight how central was the business and the craft of writing to her sense of self, both as the descendant of a distinguished literary family, and as a writer of experimental fiction. On the pages of her diary, Woolf mediates between these two positions: what the critic Emily Dalgarno calls Woolf’s ‘resemblance to her lineage,’ and her need to forge a voice of her own.  Many of the earliest entries, written before her career successes, present Woolf’s reflections on other writers, both contemporary and canonical, listing books she should read, and offering mini-essays in the style of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, on those she has read.Later entries detail the publishing life: her deadlines, the work of the Hogarth Press, who is publishing what and the sizes of their print runs, her envy of friends and enemies when their books succeed and, often, her gloating when they do not.  Further pages are devoted to the reviews and the sales of her own books.

After the lukewarm reception given to Woolf’s second novel Night and Day in 1919 another preoccupation surfaces on these pages: structure. In the years that produced Woolf’s greatest modernist experiments (1920−1931) she used her diary to interrogate her groundbreaking techniques in light of her desires and ambitions.  In April 1919, Woolf noted what she wanted from these diary entries, stating ‘I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of  life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously, and scrupulously, in fiction’ (Diary 1: 231–2) Woolf’s breakthrough as a writer was soon to come, and was predicated on just this discovery:  finding a voice for the ‘loose, drifting material of life’ within her fiction.  This entry thus suggests the transformative power of her journal reflections and the divide the diary helped her to negotiate: on one side one loose and drifting life, on the other conscious and scrupulous fiction.


The Silence of Eve






I have been thinking in verse this week (as a way in to thinking about prose) about women and writing and here’s what came out.




Naming the animals

I have thought of silence for some time now,

imagined the space between us

disappear inch by inch,

or expand in exponents settling

at the average human distance:

abyss.  I like the sudden drop

when I turn off the street, shut my door

the squeal light bulbs make when even the cat

is sleeping.  But today I heard the sound of falling.

The quiet that followed the bite of the apple,

the slip out the gate

that gap before Adam first shouted her name.

Too Many Mothers





I don’t often get to the theatre, which is ridiculous as I live in London’s West End where every show is on my doorstep – but lack of time and money seem to collude to keep me away from the dramatic arts.  But last night I saw a great show – a new play called Reunion by playwright John Caine with really extraordinary performances by Peter Guinness and Roberta Taylor.

Here with a little blurb on each of them:
Peter Guinness is a hugely respected stage and screen actor. His recent theatre credits include; The Pianist (Manchester International Festival, Royal Exchange Theatre and Hong Kong Festival) and Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre). He has recently been seen on television in: Hidden, Zen, New Tricks, Ashes to Ashes, Silent Witness, Kipling: A Remembrance Tale, The Bill and Bleak House whilst his film work includes roles in Secret Passage, Greenfingers, Conclave, Sleepy Hollow, Christopher Columbus: the Discovery and Aliens 3.

Roberta Taylor has a rich and varied career in theatre and television and is probably best known for her work on Eastenders as Irene Hills and her portrayal of Gina Gold in The Bill. Her stage roles have included seasons at The RSC and Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as parts at The Royal Exchange and in the West End.

I have been friends with Pete and Rob for several years now, and my few outings to the theatre usually involve seeing them individually in various notable productions, but I have never seen them work together and they were mesmerising playing a husband and wife facing the ethical and judicial dilemma of assisted suicide after the husband has been diagnosed with and incurable degenerative disease. 

But I first got to know Roberta through her writing.  When I first met her about five or six years ago, I had been a fan of her acting for a decade, following her from Eastenders on, but when we sat next to each other at a mutual friend’s party, we talked about writing autobiography, and her then recently published memoir Too Many Mothers (2005).

This wonderful book is miles away from the celebrity tell-all that you might expect from the rather un-literary cover image.  In fact, I won’t be giving anything away to say that it ends well before the young Roberta has any inkling of her future career, and not much hope of any kind of success at all. Too Many Mothers tells a true story set in south London in the 1950s, at once more intriguing and more shocking that any soap opera, of a family at war with itself and the outside world. From petty crime to pet monkeys, tender romance to emotional blackmail, illegitimacy, adoption and even murder.  For Roberta, travelling from her real South London childhood to the ersatz one she inhabited as Irene Raymond in Eastenders must have been a strange journey.  Unlike narcissistic and mainly ghost-written celebrity memoirs that tend to portray their subjects as “chosen” or “Special” or triumphing over adversity, and unlike much contemporary misery memoir, that feeds on the willingness of readers to side with victimised authors in their uncorroborated portraits of the past, Too Many Mothers,  written entirely by Roberta, and with style, offers enormous amounts of wry humour and a great deal of love for the family she writes about, admiration for their strengths and deeply felt compassion for their weaknesses. A gem of a book, and no assisted suicide in it at all.

Welcome to

Now all philosophers agree
That WOMEN should not LEARNED be
For fear that as they wiser grow
More than their husbands they should know.
Anonymous c. 1739

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.
Virginia Woolf, 1928 is an information sharing and discussion site devoted to the daily life of writing women, as well as to the history, practice, concerns, aesthetics, theoretical perspectives and life stories of such women from all cultures and time periods. I am a creative writer and an academic, and my own research expertise and personal interest is in American and British women writers in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. I have developed and now teach a course in this subject at Kingston University in London (see my short bio), and this site will become both a resource for my students and also a place for them to share their own work.

In addition to research-based academic writing, I also write creative non-fiction, poetry, and autobiographical fiction. And I am a woman. Over the last decade, I developed the department of Creative Writing and Kingston University and therefore have unique access to any number of well-known women writers. Likewise, in over a decade of teaching and researching English and American literature, I have come to know and learn from dozens of highly respected academic women. Over this period, many of these women writers, both creative and academic, have become friends and mentors, and I will to draw upon and share their knowledge and experience via this blog. Taking Virginia Woolf’s warning above as a guide, I hope to eradicate the anonymity and invisibility of women’s wisdom and women’s voices, by both sharing and listening to the words of my sisters.

The aim of the blog is two-fold and reflects these two different “hats” I wear when I am writing and thinking about writing:

The first is my “Creative Writer”hat: aims to offer daily inspiration to those women who, like me, consider themselves to be writers – whether they are published professionals, secret scribblers or something in between.
Such inspiration will come in the form of wise words my students and I have collected over time from contemporary and historical writing women, including free access to podcasts of bespoke interviews I will undertake with many well-known women writers. I will also share a bit of my own daily writing practice and the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish short stories, non-fiction, poetry and literary fiction for commercial and general trade publishing.

The second is my “Academic Writer” hat: aims to offer links to current, cutting edge research in the field of women’s studies, literature and history by, about and for women. Such information will come in the form of links to key influential and contemporary studies in these areas, and in podcasts and interviews with academic women writers. I will also share a bit of my own academic writing practice and offer insights into the ups and downs of writing and trying to publish academic writing with University Presses and peer-reviewed journals.
I look forward to hearing from you!