A donation from Joanna Munro kickstarted the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. Talking with Spread the Word’s Laura Kenwright, Joanna shares her love of life writing and why she wanted to support emerging life writers through establishing the Prize.
Tell us about your relationship with life writing – when did it start, why do you love it and what impact has it had on your life?
Having worked full-time in financial services since 1984, in 2012 I had to take six months off work for a serious health issue. It gave me some thinking time and I discovered that, as well as working and spending time with my family, I wanted to write. In particular, I wanted to write about my mother – a kind, bright, eccentric woman who had a life-long struggle with her mental health. Once back at work, I started writing, grabbing an hour in the mornings before my day kicked off. I’d expected the words would just flow out effortlessly until there were enough of them to make a book, but of course this kind of writing wasn’t remotely like writing reports for work.
I had to learn how to write creatively – I took some online courses and then applied to do the Goldsmiths Masters in Creative and Life Writing part-time. Over the two years I learned a lot about writing but the course is also about reading and I found other people’s life writing fascinating – whether it was a published writer from my reading list or one of my classmates writing about caring alone for their partner in the last twenty-four hours of their life, or growing up as a ballroom dancer in a mining town.
I’ve now finished the first draft of my book about my mother and I’ve started a second Masters, this one as a reader rather than a writer and as part of my dissertation I’m planning to look at the impact of life writing on the reader.
What are you favourite life writing texts and why?
One thing I love about life writing is the range of experience and the range of styles that are represented.
Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay was a text on my Goldsmiths course and I was drawn not only by the story – a very unromanticised narrative of the reality of finding one’s adoptive parents – but by the freshness of the writing and the way Jackie Kay moves between time-frames.
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski was one I found for myself and I was gripped by the blending of what seemed like two entirely different stories – the present day travelogue with the detective tale of what happened to her mother.
Amy Liptrott was one of the Gladstone Library’s 2016 writers in residence and that’s how I came to The Outrun. I was deep in stories of mental illness at the time as part of writing my own book and, apart from the depiction of the natural world and a geography entirely unfamiliar to me, I loved the way the father’s mental illness is just a matter of fact and not dwelt on with any self-pity.
Blake Morrison was one of my tutors at Goldsmiths and as well as his books about his father and his mother, I read As If, his account of the Bulger trial. It’s a book that’s stayed with me and part of that is the way Blake makes it uncomfortable for the reader by having us walk in his shoes, refusing to let us distance ourselves from the events.
I could go on – Lanchester’s A Family Romance, Marion Coutts’ The Iceberg. As you see, I love life writing in all of its forms …
Why are you establishing the life writing prize?
I really appreciate the range and variety of life writing that’s available for me to read and I want to support that continued diversity by encouraging writers at the stage where they’re still unpublished by giving them a platform and a concrete goal. There are quite a range of prizes for poetry and short stories, but relatively few specific to life writing, so this seemed to be a gap we could help fill. It’s been brilliant to have Spread the Word take this on and be as enthusiastic as me about making it happen and full of ideas about how we could do this better. Then the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre have got involved, and the partners that Spread the Word has brought in – Arvon and the Royal Society of Literature so there’s now a broad base of support from the writing community which is brilliant.
What do you hope the prize will achieve?
I hope that there’ll be life writers who’ll be encouraged to put themselves forward and harness the support they need to help them make progress with their writing. I also hope it will showcase the newer life writing that isn’t yet at the published full-length work stage so the reading public can get a feeling for the breadth of the field and perhaps sample something they might not otherwise have tried. And this can also inspire others to realise how diverse the world of life-writing is – it should be inclusive, it should be an opportunity for everyone with a story, who can write and who wants to write to get involved.
About Joanna Munro
Joanna was born and educated in the UK and has lived in Brazil, California and Hong Kong. She now lives in North London with her husband and children. After working full-time in Financial Services for almost thirty years, in 2014 Joanna started studying part-time for a Masters in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and is now studying Modern Literature there. In addition to her support for writing in the UK, which includes the Writers in Residence program at the Gladstone Library, Joanna focuses on a number of initiatives in Africa working with organisations including the Microloan Foundation and the Kings Sierra Leone Partnership. Joanna is also a member of the Steering Group for the Diversity Project, an initiative to improve the diversity and inclusion of the investment profession.