Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill You: Fifteen Stories of Survival

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‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ is an anthology of short stories and a couple of philosophical essays centred on a single theme: adversity.

Its contributors are authors, journalists and figures from the British media, and the topics it covers are broad.

I enjoyed reading ‘What Doesn’t Kill You,’ for a number of reasons but not for the ones I was expecting. If you love – as I do – to leaf through the overcoming of hardship – the long-earned joyful walk to all kinds of personal victories – then this may not be the book for you.

This anthology, travels, instead – to borrow a term from Pilgrim’s Progress – to a series of ‘sloughs of despond,’ personal difficulties which its writers have experienced and then invites us to take a look around. This may sound bleak – and many of the tales here are predictably dark – but there is also something deeply connecting in reading of another person’s ‘Struggle’, ‘Self’ and ‘Striving’ (the titles of each section of this anthology) without necessarily learning of their happy ending.

Indeed, despite the occasional musings on personal transformation and some beautiful philosophical insights (the elliptical title is borrowed from Nietzsche), this anthology could not be classed as ‘uplift lit.’ Healing, or even transcendence of past pain is not the focus of this collection.

This said, the writing (and editing by Elitsa Dermendzhiyska) is fabulous. There are breathtaking lines to take away – language which takes us closer to what it feels like when life’s sharpness moves us to the edge.

The exquisite surrealism of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Three Wise Women’ is a huge treat:

‘I sat in train carriages watching for a far-flung white calla lily to manifest from a rip in a seat.’

Okojie’s storytelling is utterly compelling – poetic and precise – and her descriptions of ‘winter’ searing in the way which they evoke the alienation of an anxious mind.

Alex Christophi’s piece, which is both of the mind and rooted in the flesh, takes us through the recreation of memory and its accompanying thoughts. His words on coming back to present stillness are arresting:

‘…when they finally stop running, they can actually feel the world spinning.’

The meditations on ‘disappearance’ which appeared throughout this anthology were also a thrill to read:

In Ed Mitchell’s story of alcohol addiction, ‘Not Wasted’ where he describes how he went from an affluent lifestyle as a television presenter to living on the streets of Hove, he writes:

‘I disappeared for a year: a sea front ghost.’

‘A Disappearing Act’ by Kate Leaver is a moving account of overcoming an eating disorder, clear-sighted on what it meant to withdraw from ‘the act of living my life’. She writes:

‘It was my best effort to vanish.’

And I particularly liked Hazel Gale’s exploration of leaving one’s own body in ‘The Last Fight’. Her disappearance (and later re-appearance) in her own physical reality, is the story of reclaiming her personhood:

‘What I’d been calling the Self was forged solely of what I thought was required of me by the Other.’

Memory’s disappearance is acutely studied in Emily Reynold’s ‘My Unremembered Life’:

‘Trauma simultaneously erases memory and rewrites it,’

while Elitsa Dermendzhiyska’s tale of using economic theory to try to make uncertainty vanish from her daily life, lured by the ‘promise of an underlying order’ contains great beauty in its truth and vulnerability.

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Peppered throughout this collection are nuggets of inspiration, on our personal agency in not just surviving adversity, but the ways in which we might exist in its wake:

‘If I don’t want to go back to prison,’ writes Cathy Rentzenbrink, on tending to herself sensitively in recovery from PTSD, ‘I have to make sure I keep the conditions of my bail.’ and for each of these writers – and for many of us – this keeping out of the ‘prison’ of self-protective suffering might look quite different.

Ben Saunders explores the futility of ‘striving’ in the last section of the anthology, through his piece ‘A Very Long Walk in a Very Cold Place.’ His is a gripping real-life adventure to the North Pole full of grit and grimness, where the true prize cannot be gained externally.

Nature is also at the forefront of A.J. Ashworth’s ‘Eight.’ Facts and images of the sun weave beguilingly through this powerful account of living with panic attacks.

The stories in ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ neither sugarcoat nor glamourize the difficulties encountered by its authors. There is courage in these very personal tales, many as raw as the pain they’ve endured.

Rory Bremner’s essay is a beautiful description of living life with ADHD, both sensible in its advice to those experiencing similar, and celebratory of the wealth of expression he feels the condition has brought him. His refusal to see ADHD as a problem, instead as a part of himself to be loved, is key to the way that he chooses to live.

In his essay ‘No Cure For Life,’ Julian Baggini takes a characteristically rationalist approach to suffering, shunning the notion of the ‘happy ending’ sold to us by self-help evangelists. He observes the uneven way in which life’s slings and arrows appear to be handed out, and seems to underscore some of the thoughts of M. Scott Peck in his seminal book, The Road Less Travelled:

‘Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.’

However in Peck’s book he goes on to say:

‘It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.’

While ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ isn’t generally about transcending the adversity it portrays – it reads more as a panorama of lived experience – the gems contained within make it well-worth a look.

I loved the style of Lily Bailey’s ‘The Lily Show’ and found her stream of consciousness sentences a brilliant vehicle into the hellish reality she employs to keep her safe.

‘Maybe…they’ll smash through the set walls and rescue me..’

This is as real an account of mental illness and its attendant isolation that I have ever read.

But what I loved most about ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ is that it points to other books as safe crossings and scaffolds when life gets tricky. There are some great book recommendations here – from JD Salinger to Clarissa Pinkola Estés – so many of the writers in this anthology finding solace in the printed page.

It has indeed been my own experience that there is a deep hopefulness in the occupation of reading – in seeing the story of another played out and repurposed purely for our benefit – which can be like a hand-hold through life’s sometime rough terrain.

‘Reading was, as ever, an ally in taking my mind away from itself,’

writes Cathy Rentzenbrink.

And it is this which makes ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, a valuable book shelf addition; each of these 15 pieces – while simultaneously distracting us – draws us closer to our own humanity, especially in this time of societal introspection.

It is always hard to believe that the courageous step is so close to us,’ writes David Whyte at the start of the anthology, and in celebrating the beauty and plurality of each of these writers’ challenging life experiences, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’ empowers us to find our own possible steps when life feels like a struggle.

What Doesn’t Kill You is published by Unbound, available to purchase here (among other outlets) from 11th June 2020.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement.

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Your comments as always are welcome…

Developing Voice: How a singing teacher coached me into writing

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Yesterday I clicked on a Twitter post without reading the intro. I saw ‘Writing’ and ‘Advice’ and thought: This one’s for me. I must have been two paragraphs in when I realised I’d read this writer’s work before.

I glanced at his name and yes, I was reading the Internet’s Chuck Wendig. Instantly recognisable, his style mixes zany metaphors with random phrases. Like some kind of surrealist stand-up, it all feels crazy and at the same time serious and to the point.  If you want to get a sense of Wendig’s work, you can read his writing advice here.

One of the reasons I think his prose is popular is that he has mastered Voice. And Voice is one of those elusive things like Grace or the joy of two drops of rain in Muscat that almost defies description.

One Cambridge winter, before I’d started to sit down regularly to write, I saw an advert for a small adult choir based in one of the colleges. I was excited, a little apprehensive and went to the audition to sing my piece.

My hands fluttered as I battled through my chosen tune, trying to project my voice, only having sung for fun, I felt unsure of what I was doing.

You sang quite nicely,’ said the choir director,  ‘But I could hardly hear you. Work with me and you’ll be fit for the choir in no time.’

For the following few weeks she gave me terrifying private lessons. She taught me like the opera singer that she was, correcting my posture, the shape of my mouth, my pronunciation, stopping the piano and starting again, giving me homeworks of repeated trills which I feared might alienate my housemates forever.

But by the end of the month something had shifted. I didn’t join the choir although I had learnt a few skills, and I didn’t continue with the teacher. What changed is that I no longer felt afraid to sing in front of others.

When I consider written Voice, I think, of this. The willingness to show who you are.

It comes through in the words we choose, how we order sentences, the topics we want to explore, our humour, the rhythm of our prose and like singing, we can only control the sound we make up to a point. Half of it is in the ear of the reader.

Even if I disagree with him and Stephen King about adverbs (another blog post entirely), I think people like to read Chuck Wendig because he is being who he is without apology and that comes through in his Voice.  Becoming acquainted with, practising, and enjoying, one’s own writing Voice fulfills an important function for the reader.

When I lived in Greece, I shared an apartment with a couple. One evening they invited a friend over. I sat with them but my limited Greek made conversation difficult. The friend had a beautiful speaking voice. The kind of voice you can sit and listen to and never get tired, like the rush of bird’s wings when they take off all at once. I kept thinking, I’ll go back to my part of the apartment soon but I kept stalling and it was 1am by the time I retired to my room.

A well-modulated voice is pleasing to the ear. It’s much easier to capture what a person is trying to say when the tone is regular, the diction coherent.

Most writers I speak to have something burning to convey in their work. When I first started writing my novel in 2015, I too had an idea for a story but my message was weak. It’s only as I figured out the themes behind the action -what mattered to me most -that I felt able to start working on a suitable Voice for my novel.

Voice grows as we use it, shedding the fear again and again that how we come across is somehow not okay. Too this, or not enough that.

And it’s vital in allowing us to convey the thing we want to say.

When I think of my favourite novels, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Disgrace by J.M Coetzee, they are filled with great stories and memorable characters but without a carrying Voice in each of these, I would not have got past page one.

Advice-givers often tell writers to ‘fake it till you make it’; ‘if you haven’t found your own voice, just copy another writer’. Reading widely is undoubtedly a good idea but if we look outside ourselves for who we are, we’re liable to focus so hard on another’s melody we end up writing out of tune.

That evening in Greece, the thing I enjoyed about the way my friend spoke is that it was unique. I had never heard another person sound like this. Speaking from our authentic selves is powerful because it gives everyone else permission to do the same. The writer who is centred in Voice is trusting us with who they are. Without copying or hiding or feigning.

Voice takes practice, reading aloud if that’s your thing, confidence that the energy coming from  inside is more real than what others think about it. This is the paradox, for the closer we get to expressing our truth, the more it resonates with others. And the beautiful thing about writing is that no one needs to hear it till you’re ready.

If we imagine a conversation with someone we know, how do we know when they’re being truthful, genuine, real? What are the ways in which they speak which make us want to listen?  Or ‘read on’? My guess is that the answer to all of these is when our friends or writers or any folk are being most themselves.

If we listen hard enough we will hear this unmistakably in their Voice.

Dear readers, I’m going to be giving this blog a rest for a few weeks while I do an editing job on draft two of my novel. In the meantime, feel free to get in touch via Twitter here , and you can follow this blog by going here and clicking on ‘Follow Muscat Tales.’  That way you’ll be notified when the blog’s up and running again 🙂