"Stephen, From the Inside Out"
How were you inspired to write Stephen, From the Inside Out?
The moment of inspiration came 12 years after I got to know Stephen. It was the summer of 2012 and I was visiting Stephen. Earlier in the year, some terrible things had happened amongst my family and friends and this had shaken me up. Then, during the visit, Stephen said “My life has been a complete and total waste of time” and it wrenched my heart. At that moment, I decided I would write a book about his life to show him that this was not true.
Why did you decide that this person’s story need to be written?
There were several reasons. Firstly, it’s a powerful story. Secondly, there are many ‘views’ about mental illness and autism but I wanted readers to gain an insight into the felt experience of being Stephen, an individual with a diagnosis, negotiating life. I also wanted the reader to experience my journey in getting to know Stephen. I didn’t want this book to be a diatribe but a rich experience that leaves us asking questions. For me Stephen represents the many who are either profoundly mis-understood or invisible in this society and this story reveals a human being with soul, with intelligence, with humour, with life –who became my teacher.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Curious, creative, untidy, warm, dance-y (my son’s suggestion)/ life-loving (my partner’s suggestion!)
Take us through a typical day of writing…
My best time of writing is the morning. I spend at least half an hour with displacement activities, which I think are a sort of ‘settling’ in process. I work from a laptop on a desk in my small office at the top of our house. As I practice & teach mindfulness, I do a 3 minute breath meditation before I open the laptop as a way of grounding myself. I read the previous chapter or whatever chunk of writing I’ve done the day before and edit it before moving on to the next chapter. If I’m at the beginning of a chapter, I check in with my book structure and plan. I will then collect information about that particular time from diaries, notes and transcriptions from meetings and phone calls that I had with Stephen. If I’ve got a chapter title then I’ll look for an interesting quote or picture to start it off. At some point I will get lost in this, thinking about what happened and what could have been different. Then I’ll come back, consider the angle from which I want to write and then start writing. Once a large section of the chapter has been written then I reflect on it and consider more particularly its shape and where its going.
During the process I will suddenly have an idea and rifle through files, notes, letters or cards, generally swearing a lot because its never in the order that I want. By the end of the morning there’s usually paper, open books, photos and various diaries covering most surfaces.
At some point in the morning I’ll pause for a cup of tea. Also, as I’m writing about a particular event, either the memories are acutely painful and I have to stop or I laugh out loud and want to go and find someone (usually my partner) to tell the story to.
Sometimes I lose the forward momentum of writing and find myself looking at my emails, the news or my phone. At that point I need to make a choice whether to push on through or realise that I’ve had enough.
Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
Probably not! Apart from ‘required’ school writing, the first voluntary piece of writing that I remember was for our school magazine when I was about 16, describing a meeting with our English teacher, who’d set up a small group of us to discuss literature. I spent most of the article describing the way he smoked his pipe and how he would pause between erudite comments to attend to it. He didn’t like the piece and asked me to apologise, so I then wrote another piece which began “to apologise or not to apologise that is the question… whether tis nobler in the mind…. Or take up my pen against a sea of troubles, and by apologising, end them.” (with apologies to William Shakespeare).
What is your favourite quote?
With regard to writing and story, I’ll go with Ben Okri:
‘Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.’
Do you outline before you write or dive right in?
It depends on the length and type of the piece that I’m writing. If I’m writing a sketch, poem or a short story I’m more likely to dive in. Then once I’ve written something, I’ll go back and edit.
If I’m writing either a full-length book or any type of screen play then I will create an outline first. It will change over time but without a basic plan I have no idea where I’m going!
What books or authors inspire you?
My 2 most recent favourites are: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders and “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern. With Lincoln in the Bardo, I loved the way George Saunders mixed chapters that were surreal fiction with chapters that were factual; edited articles and comments from a particular period in Abraham Lincoln’s life. It ran rather like a playscript which I also liked and it was deeply moving. ‘The Starless Sea’ was like a ‘big bang’ of creativity – ideas and stories jumping, dancing, swimming and floating out of her book in all directions!
In terms of authors, there are too many! I love all of David Mitchell’s work, especially ‘Cloud Atlas’ and I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman. Playwrights I love are: Tom Stoppard and Carol Churchill. The way they play with words and ideas is glorious. My favourite poets are Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson.
With regard to inspiration for my book: “Stephen from the inside out” there are 2 key books:
Alexander Master’s book “Stuart, a Life Backwards” and Kate Clanchy’s “Antigona and Me.” Both were quirky biographies. Antigona is alive, complex and compelling and Stuart comes out of the page and punches you on the face! I loved the way the authors were not ‘objective’ but part of the story, opening up landscapes of people’s lives with a compassion and honesty that I wanted to follow.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love walking alone or with Tim, the love of my life. It can be in woods or hills or by water. I love the sea and swimming in it. I always love time with my children and various friends & family and am always up for an interesting conversation about life or politics. Meditation is important to me and also political action. In the past it was trade justice and now I support Extinction rebellion and most recently dressed up as a bee with a kazoo to make bee noises outside a farmers conference.
Do you prefer audiobooks or print?
My first love is the printed book. I love the feel of the pages and flicking back to somewhere or forward to the end (one of my bad habits). However, I do enjoy audio because I can listen to it while washing up or on train/bus journeys. Recently I found myself laughing out loud on a long train journey while listening to ‘Good Omens’ by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I avoided the eyes of other passengers….
Susie is an award-winning writer who has been writing and creating drama in community settings for the last 20 years. She’s written and produced plays, drama sketches, street theatre, short films, short stories and a memoir. Two of her plays were theatrical biographies (on William Tyndale & C S Lewis) but “Stephen, From the Inside Out” is her first biography intended to be read not performed and unravels the life of a man whose story has never been told.
You can read more about Susie’s work on her website.