Ray Robinson, Electricity: Lancaster Creative Writing PhD published by Picador
Electricity was published on 17th March 2006. Click here for the Guardian review of Electricity.
The Creative Writing Ph.D. at Lancaster University has offered me a fantastic opportunity to explore the craft and context of my writing in depth over a period of three years. I was already a practicing writer, and had also successfully completed an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster in 1999, but I felt that I needed a new challenge and that I was ready to produce a body of work which would, hopefully, make an original contribution to learning and knowledge in creative writing.
My Ph.D. takes two forms: the novel, Electricity; and Making Electricity, an exegesis of the creative process. Electricity is a novel about presence and absence and a life lived in the gaps between the two.
It is off-season in a Northern seaside resort: thirty-year-old Lily works in an amusement arcade on the sea front. She believes herself to be leading a happy life, coping as well as she can with her epilepsy – until one day she gets a visit from the police; they inform her that her mother – who Lily’s not seen for years – is critically ill in hospital and wants to see her. From this moment on, Lily is drawn back into a world she thought she’d long since left behind. At the same time, however, it’s also somewhere disturbingly familiar: newly reunited with one of her brothers, and hoping to track down the other, Lily is no longer alone. Forced to renegotiate the boundaries of her life, she realises she has a lot to learn – about relationships, about the past, and about herself – and some difficult decisions ahead of her.
Lily’s epilepsy means she is used to seeing the world in terms of angles – ‘you look at every surface, you weigh up every corner, and you imagine your head slamming into it.’ In Electricity, epilepsy becomes more than just a disorder; it becomes a character in its own right. Epilepsy has an archetypal presence that structures Lily’s consciousness, creating its own habitus, producing configurations between images and language, manifest in the style, pace and symbolism of her telling.
Epilepsy has shaped and directed the novel’s entire form – indeed the entire book can be viewed as a seizure - the black pages of unconsciousness; the anti-epileptic pills that act as temporal signifiers; the correlative structure of scenes and chapters that mimic the unruly pulse of the epileptic brain - these devices are not only metaphorical and emblematic, they are a way of seeing.
Electricity opens up to the reader the uncertain world of epilepsy in a way that is meaningful, factual, and positive; by doing this, it avoids the obvious pitfalls of novels about disability and demands that we admire and respect Lily for her strength, optimism, and her refusal to be labelled an epileptic.
Making Electricity is a dialogue between lived experience and imaginative response, and closely examines how this experience and response has been structured into the novel’s form. On the one hand, my writing draws from experience and is a distillation of this experience – this gives the writing immediacy and intimacy that is authentic; on the other hand, however, there is the issue of writing as a woman – which is totally inauthentic – as is my depiction of epilepsy. So the key point that is threaded throughout my exegesis is the issue of authenticity – what is it, what are its constituent parts, and how is the lie of authenticity achieved?
Both exploring a complex neurological condition and writing from the perspective of a woman with that neurological condition have posed considerable technical challenges that I have been encouraged to embrace over the past three years. I have experimented with different methods to enable me to meet these challenges and struggled with many linguistic forms, some of which have proved more successful than others. I have tried to recreate the consciousness of epilepsy and reflect a seizure textually upon the page, coming to view the page as a typographical space in which verbal textures are performed.
Initially my reading of texts on epilepsy was concerned primarily with the physiological, pathological and sociological aspects of the disorder, but they did little to take me any closer to understanding what it must be like to have epilepsy. Over the first two years of my Ph.D. I therefore interviewed many people with epilepsy about their personal experiences. Having an honest, genuine and heartfelt insight into the subjective and experiential aspects of the disorder has proved an invaluable and emotional experience. This research contributed enormously to the development of the novel, its authenticity, and also my empathy for the protagonist.
Being able to draw on both scientific information and real life testimonials has created a synergy in my research that has translated itself directly into linguistic and literary form. It has also led me to explore ways in which epilepsy can create its own habitus and therefore produce its own system of imagery and language.
My supervisor, the poet Dr Graham Mort, has maintained very close contact with my work throughout the past three years and it has remained a very positive experience. I feel that under his supervision I have become not only a better writer, but also a more thorough and adventurous researcher. My approach to literature is now more mature and I am willing to take more risks and open myself up to new ideas. He has constantly challenged my conceptions of literature and pushed me to explore Lily’s voice, idiolect, and consciousness in ways that were difficult but have proved rewarding. He encouraged me to experiment with various non-literary techniques and to find the energy and poetry in Lily’s prosaic voice.
There have also been a number of people across the boundaries of the faculty with an interest in my particular area of research, and my supervisor has ensured that I am aware of these people and have been suitably exposed to a variety of special and relevant interests. In the early stages of my research, he maintained close contact with me to ensure I had a sound grasp of the issues regarding the creative piece and the accompanying exegesis, and sign-posted relevant training in research methods to me. The frequency of supervisory meetings had to be renegotiated due to my move to London at the end of my first academic year. We maintained close contact by email and telephone and agreed that one two-hour face-to-face session was to be held once a term at Lancaster University. This flexibility and open approach benefited both my academic and creative research enormously.
Half way through my second year of Ph.D. study, Electricity was accepted for publication by Picador (released in trade paperback on March 17th 2006). I feel incredibly lucky to be in this situation after years of struggle and rejection and self-doubt. For me the apotheosis of Graham Mort’s excellent supervision is not only the fact that I am now published, but that his influence over the past three years is continuing to shape my development, and my new creative work.
Click here for the website of Ray Robinson's agent, David Higham Associates.