The third annual SMHAFF Writing Awards took place on Monday 17 October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. Held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland, the ceremony was hosted by poet and performer Jenny Lindsay. This year, Jenny was on the competition’s panel of judges, which also included playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, Andrew Eaton-Lewis, the Arts Lead for the Mental Health Foundation, and Alison Cairns and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland. Together, they selected ten shortlisted pieces and four prize-winners from over 130 entries on the theme of time.
Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland has been involved with judging the competition since it began and remarked that this year had been the most difficult yet. He found lots of the pieces of writing very moving and, in particular, highlighted the beautiful use of language in many of the pieces.
Hearing the shortlisted writers read from their work was definitely the highlight of the evening and an absolute privilege. As Gordon commented: ‘You cannot assume that people are good at reading just because they can write, but the standard of reading was excellent.’
Following the readings, singer-songwriter Neil Pennycook, best known for his band Meursault, performed a short set of songs which went down very well with everyone in attendance. And then it was time to present the awards.
You can read all of the shortlisted entries in the beautiful e-book below, designed by Josie Vallely:
Highly Commended: Dear Doctor, Angela McCrimmon
In Angela McCrimmon’s absence, Alison Cairns read Dear Doctor, a beautiful mixture of prose and poetry that expressed the experience of bipolar disorder with clarity and warmth:
'26/05/2015...Dear Dr, I just want to give up. You don't understand. You look at me blankly while tears are pouring from my eyes. My words are locked up inside and I can't get them out. Oh well...maybe next time.'
As a poet who writes for performance, Jenny Lindsay explained that she especially enjoyed the pieces with a clear voice and felt that Dear Doctor was a great example of this.
Second Runner Up: Happy Meal, Erin Crombie
Erin Crombie has been writing since the age of eighteen and her short story Happy Meal used language in a very fresh way:
‘I looked down at the body attached to my head. The legs, the insect legs, were sprawled and tangled. The pressure of the tile on my knee, my hip, the base of my spine. All bones and bone white tile. If I tried to lie down flat pain would still find its way to all the pressure points. These are the points of my body that meet the world. If only contact with the world didn’t hurt so much.’
Erin described herself as ‘surprised and a bit horrified’ to win a prize, and described the experience of reading from her story on the night as ‘vomit-inducing!’
First Runner Up: Dear Uncle, Celia D Donovan
Celia Donovan was the first to read her work on the night, a very moving letter to her late uncle. A deeply personal piece, Celia dealt with her uncle’s – and her own – experiences of mental ill health:
‘Would you think badly of me to know that even though I saw the devastation your suicide caused that I have tried to commit suicide before? Or would you be the only person in the family who truly understands?’
Although Celia has written since she was a child, she only entered the competition following the encouragement of a friend. She initially wrote four pieces and she considered Dear Uncle a much more rushed – albeit much more personal – fifth piece.
When Celia found out that it had been shortlisted she was completely thrown, having not discussed the letter or its content with her family. Happily, they were very encouraging and supportive of what she had done and she was delighted to have her mum with her at the ceremony.
Winner: Taking Care of Jane, Angela Wright
Alison Cairns of Bipolar Scotland said that the judges had all been in agreement about Angela Wright’s short story Taking Care of Jane – it was a clear and worthy winner. Accepting her award, she told the audience that she’d never won anything before in her life and praised the other shortlisted writers.
Speaking after the ceremony, Angela said that she was absolutely astonished at her win. After hearing everyone else’s work, she said she felt that she had as much chance as anybody but would really not have been sad if she had left empty-handed, given the high standard of all of the writing.
Wright’s story depicts the struggle that a couple – indeed a family – experienced when one member suffered with an extreme spell of mental illness. It is a beautifully evocative story with rich description of place and feelings:
‘The train unsettles her. The noise of the wretched thing; the last flashes of daylight as the tunnel looms. Jane sits alone on the train. She is by a window, as close as possible to a corner of the carriage. She braces herself. Approaching the darkness, she wraps her body up small, notices the drumming of her heart.’
At the close of the ceremony, Jenny Lindsay spoke briefly about the difficulty of writing about mental health and commended all of the shortlisted writers: Celia Donovan, Susan Robinson, Brian Reid, Angela Wright, Kate Chapman, Lauren Jones, Shirley Muir, Angela McCrimmon, Helen MacKinven, and Erin Crombie.
by Rachel Alexander