LYNSEY Calderwood’s latest story is written from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl. There’s nothing unusual in a writer adopting a child’s perspective - some of our most successful have done so, from Dickens to Mark Haddon - but Lynsey can’t remember being 12 years old.
A brain injury when she was 14 wiped out her memories. Though it changed her life, and forced her to re-learn basic skills, from reading to using a toothbrush, it has not prevented her from fulfilling her childhood ambition and becoming a writer.
This month, she will graduate with distinction from Glasgow’s prestigious masters degree in creative writing, former students of which include Louise Welsh, Rachel Seiffert and Anne Donovan. Her work appears in Stramash, a newly-published anthology compiled by current course members. She has already published an autobiography, and has completed her first novel.
A lively, pretty 26-year-old with a ready laugh, Lynsey’s face shows nothing of the struggle of the last 12 years. Then she explains, chuckling, that she fell asleep on the underground on the way to meet me and ended up on a subterranean circuit of Glasgow. Becoming disorientated, dozing off unexpectedly, struggling with short-term memory loss and concentration are just some of the legacies of her accident. But now she laughs it off.
"A lot of things have improved, although there are things that I still have difficulty with. It does get frustrating. If I’ve got to do a reading somewhere, somebody has to drive me, or meet me and walk me there, I can’t just get the bus there. But it’s great when I get to re-read the Harry Potter books - I really can’t remember what happened!"
Lynsey’s accident occurred when she was swinging on a chair while at Girl Guides. The chair toppled and she fell backwards hitting her head on the table behind her, then again on the floor. Her feet caught the edge of the table she had been sitting at, bringing that down on her head too. She passed out and was taken to hospital for an X-ray, but no signs of damage were found.
However, her family could see the catastrophic change in her. Their clever, good-natured teenager was now disturbed, angry and frightened. For Lynsey, the world had become a baffling place. She didn’t recognise the pop posters on her bedroom wall, the clothes in her wardrobe, even the face in the mirror was a stranger. She says she felt like "an alien" beamed to earth to live the life of "the other Lynsey", the person she used to be, but could no longer remember.
Further medical tests showed up nothing. Doctors labelled her a difficult teenager, a hypochondriac, an attention-seeker, even a junkie. At school, she was teased and bullied. She spent several months in an adolescent psychiatric unit. Finally, ten months after the accident, she was diagnosed as having suffered a brain injury.
The diagnosis helped, but the problems didn’t go away. Lynsey struggled with eating disorders throughout her teens, a destructive cycle of bingeing and purging, then obsessively controlling her weight by exercising. Writing of that time, she says: "I couldn’t control the way my brain worked, but I could control what I put in my body." It was only through treatment for her anorexia and help from head injury charities that her life began to turn around.
All this she recounts with energy, honesty and an unflinching sense of humour in her autobiography, Cracked: Recovery After Traumatic Brain Injury, published two years ago by Jessica Kingsley. It’s harrowing but unsentimental, sparing neither herself nor the various professionals who tried to help her.
Actually, she grins, it was worse than that. "They made me take a lot of stuff out, because you’ve got to be able to show the reader there’s light at the end of the tunnel. People will only read so far before they can’t take any more. So I make a joke. Tell them how I got lost walking down my own street looking for a postbox. Which I did."
Lynsey started writing poetry soon after the accident. "Silly wee poems," she says, "angst-ridden teenager poems. Some of them are on the internet and they’re awful, I hope nobody reads them. Why did I not use a pseudonym? And yet writing them was therapeutic, although I didn’t realise it at the time."
Although a guidance teacher told her parents she’d be "lucky if she ends up stacking shelves in Safeway" and a career advisor put her on a social care course, she always wanted to take her writing further. After three months, she traded in social care for a course in creative writing at Cardonald College.
"My tutor said: ‘Why don’t you write about something about your childhood?’ I said ‘I can’t, I don’t remember anything’. I thought he would drop it, but he then said: ‘Why don’t you write about what it’s like not to have a childhood?’. My first thought was: ‘That’s really difficult, that’s really personal, how dare you?’ but when I started I couldn’t stop. Sometimes it’s the thing you find most difficult, the demons, that make the best writing. I wrote a couple of stories, re-wrote them, joined them in the middle, kept writing. One day I went in with it and he said: ‘That’s a book’."
Later, she took a course in stand-up comedy, and took to the stage at various pubs on the comedy circuit. "I was writing funny monologues, making up funny characters. I did OK, but the more I did it, the more I wanted to write, and I didn’t have the time to write and make up jokes."
When she applied, nervously, for the MPhil in creative writing, she was accepted on the strength of her writing, although she didn’t have a degree. She benefited from one-to-one teaching from writers such as Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard, but she says she also learned a lot from the other students. She was "very surprised" to learn that she had been awarded a distinction.
"I’m the sort of person who doesn’t write for three months, and then wakes up at 8am and writes till 2am the next day. I can write three words one day and 3,000 the next day. In my first year on the course (she did it part-time over two years) I wrote 230,000 words, in the second year I wrote about 30,000. But any bits I did do were much better."
The course gave her confidence to experiment, to play with styles and language, even making up words. Blozo, the story which is published in Stramash, is what she cheerfully describes as "romantic science-fiction in a made-up language". With encouragement from Lochhead and Janice Galloway, she finished her first novel which is now being considered by a publisher, and she teaches a class in creative writing for young people with mental health problems.
Currently, she is working on a series of stories - "I think it might be an episodic novel" - narrated by a 12-year-old girl. "I can’t remember being 12, but maybe it’s an advantage. I’ve still got my sister, who has a brilliant memory, I know kids that age I can talk to. Maybe someone writing about things from the past wouldn’t get that immediacy. Also, I think it’s a gap I’m beginning to fill. I don’t have memories myself, maybe the made-up ones will pacify me in a way."
She doesn’t deny that working as a writer is a challenge. One legacy of the brain injury is that she needs to work in silence, without distractions. "If I have to answer the phone, I have to go back and read everything I’ve done that morning, then I have to take a break because I’m tired, then go back and read it all again!" She also struggles to describe places in her writing because she can’t remember them: "I once spent a year in a pub because I wanted to write about it!" She hopes one day to be able to write about anorexia in fictional form. On one course, she was required to research the life of a famous person, and chose Scottish singer Lena Zavaroni, who suffered from the illness. "When I wrote about Lena I started to lose weight again; I got quite down that somebody with that amount of talent could do that. Now I think I could write about it."
She says she had hoped to stay on at university and take a PhD, but was unable to secure funding. "Now I think if I had done, it would have been a mistake. I’ve got to stand on my own two feet. I don’t need somebody looking over my shoulder reading my work. I need to just go and write, use my own judgment." As the future has brightened, so has her writing. "When I first started writing, everything was black and terrible. I find it hard to write dark stuff now, everything turns into a joke. I’ve been told by publishers that my stuff isn’t depressing enough!"
Stramash costs 3.99 and is available from some bookshops and from the Edwin Morgan Centre for Creative Writing, Glasgow University.