A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology
By Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert
Addiction, physical and mental illness and its aftermath: a collection of stories and poetry from writers in recovery.
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Featuring an introduction by Will Self
Want to help writers in recovery get their words into print? Join authors Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert, and their contributors to give exciting new, emerging, and established writers a platform.
What’s this book about?
What is recovery? We’ll all experience it at some point in our lives, whether from addiction, physical illness, mental health issues or loss. Many of us heal, and we may discover ways to live with our changed selves, to reclaim a life. We may find a new voice, or unearth a voice that has been submerged.
All lives are precious; some are wild. For some of us, that wildness becomes a memory, a story to be told. For others, it springs from ordinary things: the change of seasons or reuniting with loved ones. Mary Oliver asks: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ This kind of wildness takes courage and self-preservation.
Vitally, recovery can mean community. We recognise our specialness in our similarity. This anthology represents a community of writers – new, unheard voices alongside emerging and established authors. Stories from the dark back alleys, the deep crevices of the mind, and from the wild, ecstatic heights of life before, during and after recovery. These are voices that urgently need to be heard, in all their funny, painful, powerful variety.
This project began in a small classroom on Mare Street, Hackney, with a group of recovering addicts keen to learn creative writing. Their teacher, Lily Dunn, was a writer in her own recovery from grief after her father’s premature death from alcoholism. Three months voluntary teaching became a year of Arts Council-funded sessions. The group grew, wrote, shared, and kept returning to tell their stories. Lily and her teaching partner, Zoe Gilbert, made a national callout, broadening the remit to include tales of recovery from physical and mental illness, as well as addiction: this anthology is the result.
Almost two years later, the creative writing classes at Hackney Recovery Service are still going strong.
Why is this book important?
Many of the students in the Hackney Recovery Service group wrote every day, yet didn’t consider themselves writers. But with the chance to develop their craft, and with the prospect of seeing their work in print, they improved hugely. This anthology started as a literary venture, to mentor writers and help them reach a high standard and feel at ease alongside more established voices.
What they all have in common are extraordinary stories, explored through fiction, poetry and life writing. What also unites them is the recognition that writing is part of their recovery. This book celebrates that. But it also celebrates their right to see their work in print, and our passionate belief that these stories are important.
These are tales from the underground, by mostly underrepresented voices, that deserve recognition in our community.
Recovery can be a humbling experience. Most of us have been touched by addiction or mental or physical illness. What better medium to explore this concept than an anthology, where all stand together.
A Scottish family who laughs its way through destitution and debauchery
A song to an addict, now passed
The power of words to destroy and to heal
Beaten but not yet dead
A girl waking up in her hospital bed ready to face her anorexia
The devil in a Safeway car park
And many more.
The poetry and prose in this anthology have been selected by authors and poets, not only for the importance of their subjects, but for their literary value. With such a huge range of submissions, the editors were able to choose pieces that tackled recovery from an oblique angle. This creates a space between the story told and its teller, through exploration of language, surprising humour, or psychological enquiry.
Why you should support this book
Because many of our contributors have either stood at the brink of death, and made it back again; or witnessed someone they love do the same. To read their work is affirming of the preciousness of life. Writing for them has been a huge part of that recovery, and your support of that is validating.
Alexander Ali, Francesca Baker, Julia Bell, Astra Bloom, Kate Brown, Gary Bryan, Eileen Carnell, Tory Creyton, Ford Dagenham, Claire Dean, Emily Devane, Jamie Guiney, J L Hall, Polly Hall, Lois L Hambleton, Ellen Hardy, Nada Holland, Kerry Hudson, Stephanie Hutton, Anthony James, Angela Jameson, Nicola Jones, Peter Jordon, Adam Kelly Morton, Angie Kenny, Michele Kirsch, Michael Loveday, Scott Manley Hadley, Deborah Martin, Alan McCormick, John Mercer, Andy Moore, Joe Moriss, Robin Mukherjee, Sadie Nott, John O’Donoghue, James O’Leary, John Pearson, Laura Pearson, Helen Rye, TK Saeed, Maggie Sawkins, Lane Shipsey, Victoria Shropshire, Tabatha Stirling, Rob True, Garry Vass, Susannah Vernon-Hunt, Annie Vincent, Katie Watson.
By pledging your support to this project, you’ll help make this anthology come into being, and your support will also earn you exclusive rewards detailed on this page.
You'll also be supporting St Mungo’s and Hackney Recovery Service. Once the initial subscription has been raised, the editors will be donating 50% of their profits to them.
Lily Dunn is an author, mentor and editor. Her first novel was published by Portobello Books and she is currently writing a memoir about the legacy of her father’s various addictions. Her creative nonfiction has been published by Granta, Litro and The Real Story. She is currently studying for a doctorate at Birkbeck, University of London, and is interested in how to integrate the therapeutic power of writing with literature. She teaches creative writing to undergrads and postgrads at Birkbeck and Bath Spa University, and co-runs London Lit Lab, with fellow writer and friend, Zoe Gilbert. They teach private workshops, as well as working for Google, the British Library and RIBA, and run a mentoring and critiquing service.
Zoe Gilbert's first novel, Folk (Bloomsbury), was published in 2018. She is currently writing her second novel, about the history of a South London wood, whilst also completing her Creative Writing PhD on folk tales in new British fiction. You can find her short stories in anthologies from Comma Press and in journals internationally – she was winner of the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She hosts salons for The Word Factory, runs a writers’ critique group, and is an occasional tutor for the Arvon Foundation. As co-founder of London Lit Lab with Lily Dunn, she teaches courses for writers both privately and for other organisations, and regularly mentors budding authors.
End of an Episode
by Rob True
Drill, rawl plug, five hundred millimetres, drill, rawl plug. Darren holding the other end of the trunking, supporting the weight, as Theron puts a screw and washer in place. Trying to ignore the vision repeatedly flashing in his mind. Hanged brother. Sweet, death face distorted, purple. Lolled to one side on stretched neck, slowly swinging from rope. The horror breaking through bricks and metal and screws.
In goes another, drill gun rattle, hanged brother, level up. Down the ladder, hanged brother, move along and up the steps again, hanged brother, concentrating on the screw, rattle of gun through sight of Paul hanging. Darren drilling a wall across the corridor, sound shattering echo through Paul swinging, peacefully.
Theron climbs down to get more trunking and as he bends over he sees boots in front of him. He straightens to see Paul there like an apparition, solid, but ghost-like vision. Paul is telling him something, but there are no words, just a strange, alien noise as Theron tries to comprehend, slowly aware of Darren talking to the client nearby.
This is not real, this is not real, he repeats like a mantra in his mind, as he raps knuckles on his forehead, trying to dislodge the reality before him.
That evening, he lies in a bath, trying to wash away the pain. He’s meeting a friend at the Ten Bells and has to catch a train. Theron dresses himself while in a trance. He looks at his hands like they don’t belong to him and he’s surprised to see them, as they change from transparent, luminous, to rotting colour of old flesh wound.
On the train, Theron is struck by a ridiculous excitement that everything’s amusing and absurd. Everyone like hideous puppets. He watches out the window. Dream journey, back through ancestral past, as the track takes him through ancient towns of dead relatives. He sees the backs of houses in place of the slums where there’d once lived. There are gaps too, where more recent blocks of flats that he once knew, have been demolished. He remembers dramas of life and death, delusion and disaster, beatings and delirium, and Theron feels like he’s in an alien world, different from what he had known and understood.
As the train passes through a tunnel, the window becomes a dark mirror. Theron looks into his own empty eyes and sees the abyss, infinite and terrifying. He notices a young couple laughing together behind him. They are laughing at him. Anger wells up, fierce as fire in his blood. He turns to look at them, but they won’t look back. He stares madly at the man, trying to catch his eye, provoking conflict.
Are you fucking sure? I’ll smash your face through the back of your head, cunt.
He sends this violence telepathically on laser beams through his eyes. The man looks away laughing and, as Theron goes to get out of his seat to attack the fella, he’s stopped dead by a terrible scene. The whole carriage is looking at him. Every couple, every group are all talking about him, laughing at him. He is at one end and can see the whole length of the car. All those faces, mocking, judging, sneering. Dream vision of smirking masks. Theron is both livid and afraid. Violence in a nightmare show. It seems like he is in a film.
An old couple right opposite him are laughing too. Frail and decrepit as they are, he wonders how they would dare to deride him so obviously.
The train stops and the lad who first laughed gets up and makes his way off the carriage.
-Sorry, excuse me, thank you.
Polite as you like. It don’t make sense. His behaviour doesn’t match Theron’s understanding of an enemy belittling him. He looks back at the rest of the carriage. Everyone minding their business, chatting and laughing, but not at him. Confused, he can’t escape his anger.
The train pulls into its final stop, where Theron gets off. A wave of hurrying humans, ugly and vivid in electric light glare of rude, abrasive station atmosphere swarm at the train he’s leaving. Echoes of movement and voices. As they come at him, Theron wants to lash out and smash their heads.
Just one of you get in my path and I’ll beat you to the fucking floor.
But none of them do. They part before him, like magnets repelled. One look at his face is enough.
In the pub, as the first pint goes down, Theron levels out and begins to relax. The rest of the night is spent pouring lager all over his adrenaline, to put out the flames rushing up.
Saturday, at home, Theron sat in dream room, staring at nothing. The colours are strange with the odd air, moving in slow currents and eddies around him. His wife and son, unreal somehow, seem distant and out of reach. It’s like he is seeing it all from another dimension. He wonders if he is even really there, as he looks at Jake playing and Jane clearing up. With their sounds slightly muted, distorted scene, beyond communication, it’s as though he’s watching through a thick glass wall. He thinks if he knocks on that wall, they might not notice.
-Why are you staring at me like that? Jane says, annoyed by his intense atmosphere. Theron knows now that Jane and Jake don’t like him. They don’t want him around anymore. He feels his isolation and loneliness among the two people he loves most, and is lost. His eyes float off into desolate depth of dream blue walls and Jake looks at him with curious fear. He knows his dad behaves oddly sometimes and isn’t like the other dads, but moments like these make him uneasy.
Theron laughs at nothing. It’s a crazed laughter and he has no idea where it is from, or what it’s for. Maybe it’s just laughter at life, absurd and meaningless. What a joke. Nonsense. His laughter trails off and tears spring up in his faraway eyes, nowhere gaze in oblivion face, then roll down his cheeks. Jane sees his despair and comes over to put her arms around him. She holds Theron tight and he cries quietly into her dress.
- 21st September 2019 A Wild and Precious NEWS!
We are very excited that our ACE award has propelled us 84% towards our target. We are now so close to reaching our target, but still need to push for pledges in order to get there by the end of November, when we need to deliver the manuscript to Unbound. Please spread the word to anyone you know who'd enjoy A Wild and Precious Life and wants to support this important book.…8th September 2019 Arts Council England supports our Recovery Anthology
We will finally hold a copy of our anthology in our hands... I submitted an Arts Council application for A Wild and Precious Life Mentoring Programme, and heard last week that we were successful with our bid... This will enable us to mentor four of our writers, host three events (in London, Birmingham and Bristol) with readings and a panel discussion on the power of writing in…27th June 2019 Another ACE moment
Some of you might be aware that one of our authors, Michele Kirsch, has had a lot of publicity for her recent memoir on how cleaning helped her recovery from alcoholism. She has also suggested an event to help publicise A Wild and Precious Life in a Shoreditch cafe, Paper and Cup. I will let you know once we have a date.
I have just completed an Arts Council application…4th June 2019 BBC Radio 4 The Listening Project
Hello to all our lovely supporters,
Please tune in to the 'Listening Project' on BBC Radio 4 this Friday night - if you're a late owl: 23.55 - or the omnibus on Sunday (2pm), to listen to me and Susanah Vernon Hunt in discussion about how important our relationship became after I taught her as one of my original students at St Mungo's, Hackney Recovery Service. This was the creative writing class…10th May 2019 Recovery, poetry, podcast
We're still here and still crowdfunding - though we've hit the 50% mark, which is certainly news. It means we can start to approach patrons to ask for slightly bigger wads of cash and we are hopeful it will speed up our progress.
Today MIR Online published a podcast, which involves an interview with me, Lily, talking about the inspiration behind the project, my views on addiction…8th March 2019 Will Self and More crowdfunding!
From the very start of this project, we came up with suggestions of who might write an introduction for us, preferably someone who had a bit of kudos, but who'd also tripped into the dark side, and understood what it was to stand at the brink and make it back again. We had a few ideas, tried a few people, but to no avail. All the time, I had Will Self at the back of my mind, and…4th December 2018 A Wild and Precious Evening
Last Monday Zoe and I hosted our first event for A Wild and Precious Life, our ACE-funded anthology of recovery stories, which sprung from our teaching creative writing to a group of people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction at Hackney Recovery Service (affiliated with St Mungo’s). The event took place at http://www.housmans.com/, a radical bookshop on Caledonian Road, London. In among…6th November 2018 A conversation and a reading event
Tomorrow one of our original members of the creative writing class at St Mungo's will be in conversation with me for the Listening Project, BBC Radio 4. We will be going to broadcasting house to be recorded. This is very exciting. We'll be discussing what meeting each other has meant to us both, and how writing has changed our lives. The whole conversation will be archived at the…2nd October 2018 Almost a third the way there
We've had a flurry of interest in our project recently... a number of pledges, which brings us to 30% funded. This is very exciting, as I can send off our Arts Council bid once we hit 40%. We've also had some good press. An interview with me about the power of writing in recovery, on a site concerned with alcohol awareness, https://www.alcoholconcern.org.uk/Blog/writing-your-way…6th September 2018 A Wild and Precious Life is 1/4 of way there
Dear Wild and Precious supporters!
Thank you so much for your belief in this project and for your support. Without you, there would be no book, so we are hugely grateful.
We are now, as of today, 1/4 of the way there; 25% funded... Which, in approx two months, is pretty good going.
We have written our Arts Council application to ask for their support to reach our target and will send it…13th July 2018 A taste of A Wild and Precious Life
To those of you who have supported our recovery project: a HUGE thank you. We have had such a great response so far and the pledges are coming in daily. We have raised 15% of our funds in the first couple of weeks, which is good going. And is only possible because of all your support.
We have a way to go yet, so please spread the word if you haven't already. It's amazing how…26th June 2018 Already 6% funded!
A huge thank you so all of you who have pledged already for our recovery anthology. We have had such an amazing and generous response, and we are already 6% funded. It is so wonderful that you acted quickly with your pledges, as now we have a firm foundation for others to follow, and it really helps in getting an excitement drummed up around the project. I'm going to post updates on how things are…
These people are helping to fund A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology.
Rosie Eleanor Canning