Carla Jenkins was highly commended in the Life Writing Prize 2021 for Carving, a piece of life writing that explores memories of her father. It is both an exploration of the father-daughter bond, and the fragility of remembrance. Prize judge Frances Wilson said: “this is a memoir that explores the instability of memory. The portrayal of the father, both hero and antihero, is superb and the reader is left wanting more.”
In this interview, Carla shares her thoughts on writing, finding solace in reading about people’s mental health struggles, and how her creative writing journey began.
How does it feel to be highly commended in the Life Writing Prize?
It feels delightful! It’s a prize I’ve long admired as I think the quality of writing is superb and so to be included is an honour. It feels gratifying that the judges thought my life and family are interesting enough to get highly commended. When people say they’ve had an interesting life, you usually sit back and wait to be bored… but this validation has encouraged me to keep on with life writing.
Can you tell us a little about your highly commended piece – how you came to write it, what the challenges were in writing it and why you chose to enter it into the Prize?
I took a Nature Writing module as part of my MA and had to write, funnily enough, a nature-themed piece. I love being in nature but can’t name much of it and I’m not good at lengthy descriptions. My Dad had an ‘unusual’ relationship with nature and wild animals so I thought I’d write about that. My tutor was intuitive and got what I was trying to express and his teaching was inspirational. There were no real challenges. I’ve always found such solace in reading about people’s mental health struggles that I wanted to be similarly honest in the hope it may help others.
I read part of Carving to a group of fellow writers and their responses were so generous and enthusiastic that I thought it was worth entering to Spread the Word.
Tell us about your writing; how long have you been writing for, why do you write?
I’ve written since I was a teenager but only started taking it seriously three years ago when I attended an Arvon ‘Starting to Write’ course. Then I started a part-time MA in Creative Writing at Exeter University which has been an absolute pleasure and taught me loads. Why do I write? It helps me makes sense of the world and gives me a creative outlet. I used to paint and draw but was kicked out of GCSE Art for bad behaviour – so I ploughed that creativity into writing instead. I get immense satisfaction from taking ownership of difficult experiences through writing about them.
Are you working on anything at the minute?
I’m editing my first novel, Fifty Minutes, which was longlisted for the Bridport First Novel Award last year and will be sending it out to agents in the next couple of months. I’m also working on my MA dissertation which is the beginning of a YA novel. And I’m extending Carving to book-length.
Who are your writing inspirations?
I love M J Hyland, Mark Haddon, John Steinbeck, Bernardine Evaristo, Roddy Doyle, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Raymond Carver, Anne Enright, J.M Coetzee, Ben Rice, Lionel Shriver, Herman Koch. I could go on.
Do you have any tips for budding life writers out there?
Aim for the top and don’t be shy. Write and talk as though you have a publishing deal in the pipeline and put the hours in. I expect to redraft at least thirty times. Make friends with other aspiring writers and swap work – critiquing their work will teach you a lot and you’ll get good feedback from them too – but make sure it’s feedback you want and not praise. Praise is nice but won’t help your writing improve. You need people to be honest and tell you they found this bit boring, and that this bit didn’t make sense. Use all that to up your game. Read excellent books and think about why they’re good. Scribble and make notes all over the pages – nobody will tell you off (unless they’re from the library.)
Do as many courses as you can. Look out for funded opportunities. Do yoga to counteract all the sitting. When you get rejected, set your alarm a little earlier and write even more.
Carla Jenkins is currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at Exeter university and editing her first novel Fifty Minutes which was longlisted for the Bridport First Novel Award in 2020 and placed as runner-up in a Curtis Brown competition earlier this year. An ex secondary school teacher, she now runs Creative Writing for Wellbeing classes and is passionate about how writing can be used to make something positive from the painful. Carla also enjoys yoga, walking, birdwatching and volunteering for Read Easy, a charity which helps adults learn to read. You can read Carving in the Life Writing Prize 2021 booklet here.