Lily Dunn on addiction, recovery, and the power of creative writing


‘A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology’, edited by Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert and featuring a collection of stories and poetry in recovery, began in a small classroom on Mare Street, in Hackney. Through creative writing, a group of people recovering from addiction shared their stories, leading to a national callout for submissions.

The book celebrates the connection between writing and recovery, and, more than this, gives a platform to new, and emerging voices, alongside more established writers, ensuring that their stories can be heard. ‘A Wild and Precious Life’ is currently being crowdfunded on Unbound. We spoke to Lily to find out more…

Lily, it’s really incredible to hear about how the project began and how it’s become what it is now – so very close to going out into the world. At which point did you realise that these stories should be collated together into an anthology?

That’s a good question! It’s so strange looking back, as the project had its own momentum. I suppose the defining moment, was sitting in the classroom in Mare Street listening to one of our students read something she’d written in class. I had my head down, listening, but my heart was dancing at the power of her words. When she’d finished both my supervisor and I were poleaxed at the quality of her work. This writing group came to really matter to these students, and I realised how much power writing could have in helping to fill the gap that their abstinence had left. It was this that spurred me to apply for ACE funding, and once we had that we could make the project our main focus.

I love the title of the book – Mary Oliver is one of my favourite poets and I think as well as reminding everyone about this beautiful poem, it’s also perhaps an allusion to how writing inspires writing – the book after all, began in a writing group?

Absolutely. Both Zoe and I approached our teaching of the initial group as we would a group of university students – sharing literary texts was very much part of it. This quote also has personal resonance. I went through my own recovery from a divorce during my time teaching and mentoring these writers, and was facing that question in my own life. What do we do with this one wild and precious life? As we only have one. We must be true to ourselves in all our wonderful wildness, while making wise choices.

I can imagine the call out for submissions had a phenomenal reaction. I’ve noticed that more and more writers feel able to write openly and honestly about their own physical and mental health experiences. Would you agree with this and why do you think this is?

I’m interested in the correlation between mental illness and creativity, and also creativity and a propensity towards addiction. We are told to write what we know, and it is often those who have struggled with life who have the content, but not necessarily the means to get their stories down or to be published. Writers have always written about their struggles, just as artists have always used art as a means of self-expression. Now, in this age, we have to listen. This is the era of mental vulnerability, and it makes perfect sense for writers to find a way of sharing their experience with others who might be feeling the same way.

Continuing with the callout – I can imagine it was quite difficult to pick between the different stories submitted. How did you choose which books to feature into the anthology and as an editor, how did you choose which stories to feature in the anthology?

My co-editor on A Wild and Precious Life is the brilliant author Zoe Gilbert. She came in once we had Arts Council funding, to help teach our group at Hackney Recovery Service, but also to help read the submissions. We had so much interest and so much good stuff sent our way, but we felt with such important and potentially dark subject matter, we wanted to choose those stories or poems that approached it from an oblique angle, with distance and reflection. So, we looked out for those pieces of prose and poetry that used technique to tell a story, or entered into it with lightness and humour. We also went for a number of flash fiction pieces, as the life of someone in recovery can be quite fragmentary, and these captured the mood brilliantly.

The word ‘recovery’ is as you spoke about in an article before, a very difficult thing to define. The excerpt by Rob True, available to read online, is both visceral and moving. As editor, what impact did reading the stories have on you?

As an editor and writer, you learn to grow a thick skin. You also learn to see beauty through darkness. There are some stories which are harder hitting than others, and Rob True is a good example of this. But what I love about his work is that it is true to him. It is his voice. He came to writing and reading late after a lifetime of struggle with dyslexia and mental health, and the result is an authentic voice. There is no parody, no pretence, it is purely him on the page, which I think is wonderful.

At nearly 40% of its funding goal, the anthology is slowly but surely making its way into the world. What impact would you like the book to have, and how can we as readers, ensure that this happens?

Initially we need your pledges! Every little pledge helps the book get closer to being a reality. It’s also wonderful to feel we are building a community of readers as well as writers. I think the book, once published, will be a resource to those interested in teaching marginalised groups, as well as something that anyone can dip into. I hope it will be a book that is full of hope. Our writers come from a real place, and speak of real experience. The creation of this book is part of celebrating their struggle and their breakthrough. If we can help them in small ways to get their stories out there and to consider themselves the writers that they are, then we have achieved our goal.

Want to help writers in recovery get their words into print? Support ‘A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology’ here