Three authors scooped distinguished prizes at the Scottish Mental Health Film and Arts Festival’s 2015 Writing Awards. With over 120 entries to the competition this year, the judges worked together to whittle them down to a final twelve, and the shortlisted writers showcased their pieces during the ceremony. Commendations were handed out to Douglas Nicholson and Clare Blackburne, while the top prize was presented to writer Harry Stigner for her moving short story ‘Selkie’.
The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival’s second annual Writing Awards ceremony took place on Thursday evening at St George’s Tron Church in Glasgow. Held in conjunction with Bipolar Scotland, the event was hosted by Times journalist Kenny Farquharson, who was joined by fellow judges Bipolar Scotland chair and author Gordon Johnston, Glasgow University lecturer Dr Elizabeth Reeder and celebrated screenwriter Donna Franceschild.
In total, twelve entries were shortlisted and three prizes dished out on the night. One top prize was up for grabs and two submissions were singled out as highly commended. The evening kicked off with an enlightening couple of songs from local musician Shambles Miller.
The first commendation was to Douglas Nicholson, a director for Health in Mind in Edinburgh. Picking up the prize on his behalf was his colleague Doreen Graham. His poem ‘Lutine Bell’ told the tale of the HMS Lutine that sadly sank. It focused on the symbolism of the ship’s bell salvaged from the wreck, ringing once if lost or twice if found again. It portrayed deeper meanings, looking to understand how individuals with mental health problems can also find themselves lost and without hope but ultimately that doesn’t mean that in time they won’t find their way back.
Delighted to be receiving the award on behalf of Douglas, Doreen said: ‘I’m sure Douglas will be doing cartwheels knowing he has won an award for the poem. It was a privilege to read it for him and the whole event has been so special. He’s written this poem with immense insight into how mental health can actually affect someone’s life and the highs and lows that brings, but I know he’ll be so thrilled his words have meant so much to so many people.’
Also commended on the night was Clare Blackburne, a well-travelled writer who spent the last nine years in Asia. ‘A Letter to V.’ was another highlight of the night, written and performed by Clare. The poem bore themes of madness and greatness intertwined, referring to the powerful legacy of Vincent Van Gogh, affectionately known as V. Clare’s passion proved cathartic in this instance as she took home the other award. It engaged, enthralled and explored the deeper Latin definition of what passion really is, the love but also the suffering.
The outright winner from the Writing Awards this year was London based author Harry Stigner. The 28-year-old studied the craft of writing but only recently felt she had the confidence to enter into competitions and put herself out there. Her short story ‘Selkie’ encompasses aspects of her own experiences with mental ill-health, as well drawing on tradition and folklore.
In Glasgow for the night, before heading off to Madagascar for a six month beekeeping project, Harry spoke to me about what winning meant to her. She said: ‘It feels like a bit of a contract now, I need to take my writing seriously and no longer be embarrassed by sharing it with people, and that’s one thing the course I was on taught me.’
Reflecting on what inspired the story behind ‘Selkie’ Harry continued: ‘It’s hard to pinpoint but I feel like that there is a bit of me in all of the characters. I did go swimming in the border of Norfolk and Suffolk and there was a seal in the water, and at the time I was struggling with depression.
‘I later then heard the folklore about what a Selkie is, a “seal woman”, who becomes a woman for a time and then goes back to the seal, but I don’t know who I identify with most in the story. It’s either the daughter or the mother but there are parts of me in both of them. I can’t explain it but it felt like an analogy for how I was feeling at the time.
‘Every other person I’m close to in my life has experienced mental ill health and they are creative people and I think this festival is so empowering and so many beautiful things have come from it.’
The shortlist as a whole had a wide ranging spectrum of talent from heartfelt letters to moving poetry. Poems performed on the night included a recital of ‘close’ by Eileen Taylor. It was rich with meaning and intense in its delivery, exploring metaphorical doors that open up for us and then close again, striking vivid imagery throughout.
Across the pond in New York, Michelle Chen wrote the equally moving poem ‘November’, read on the night by Donna Franceschild. Aged only 16, the young writer was inspired by events at home in New York and using powerful imagery depicts two weeks spent in a Manhattan hospital, reiterating the notion: ‘I’m not crazy, just a little unwell.’
Another four poems added weight to the strength of entries this year. ‘Passion’ was the title for two, the first an enlightening exploration of what a panic attack can feel like, really brought to life by the performance of the young and talented Reyah Martin. It was delightfully dazzling and every breath was shared with the audience.
David Subacchi from Wrexham was unable to make the trip, but his passionate piece was shared by judge Gordon Johnston.
The Glasgow audience were not left disappointed as Brian Reid from Beith delivered his poem ‘kiss’ in local Ayrshire vernacular.
It wasn’t just an event to showcase poetry though with a couple of heartfelt letters also striking a chord. Young blogger and fashion design student Aymie Black stood up and read out ‘Letter to my Sixteen Year Old Self’, touching on the themes of relationships and how depression was triggered by an early breakdown. It was emotional and left many to perhaps reflect on what they would write back to a younger version of themselves.
‘Dear Mum’ by Lubna Kerr explored the difficulty of discussing emotions in Pakistani culture, loss and bridging that gap when your comfort blanket goes. A tear-jerking piece, it left a distinct impression about what can happen when you lose your drive and direction.
Playwright Jen McGregor shared an excerpt from her short story ‘Old Woman with Masks’, dedicated to parents Bill and Jackie. It is built around the idea that life is an intricately carved mask where we can hide our real persona and be who we want to be. Narrated by an older woman, it brought up harsh realities about loneliness, the end of life but ultimately making every moment count.
English teacher Alyson Lawson from Glasgow was unable to attend due to work commitments but her story ‘Vicious Little Stars’ was a vivid portrayal of the cruelty of children.
All entries were well received and the winners worthy of their titles. The awards continue to grow and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland hopes the event will keep making an impact in the future: ‘This is the fourth year we’ve run the competition and it’s definitely been the best standard of all of them.
‘All the winners were all very different and what we loved about ‘Selkie’ was the ambiguous ending. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the three or four endings and what was the one that was meant and I think that’s a real strength from an author to be able write something that makes sense but leave things still open for interpretation.’
Written by Holly McCormack