PIECES OF MIND at Farmleigh House

This time last year, as writer-in-residence at Farmleigh (thanks to the Office of Public Works) I worked on a project called Pieces of Mind.

The idea came from Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In the course of one weekend in October 1974, Perec set himself up in a series of local cafés and recorded what he saw. His writing tries to keep up with the passage of time and everything he sees over three days in one city square.

I wondered if I could do something similar, preserve a verbal snapshot of a Farmleigh moment. During my time there I often sat in the Boathouse Café and watched people, wondering what was going on inside their heads and in their lives. We’re all consumed by our own reality, but multiple realities co-exist. Where do they diverge and where do they overlap? If I see someone drink a latte or feed the ducks – what am I missing?

So I asked people to talk to me about whatever was on their minds on two specified days in May, 2016. I assembled a narrative mosaic from what 35 people told me, as a kind of textual time capsule to be stored as a document in the Iveagh library.

Here are some of the things people spoke about:

  • politics and the formation of the new Government – (10 weeks on from last year’s General Election)
  • Water charges
  • anxiety about the future, concerns about children, particularly adult children
  • There was a lot about writing, reading and the arts
  • There was talk of bereavement and talk of joy and quite a lot about the centenary commemorations.
  • Of all the memorable conversations I had, the one that still haunts me is the woman who told me that she and her husband, both in their seventies, are the sole carers for a physically disabled son in his thirties: ‘What will become of him when we die?’ she asked. ‘Despite making extensive enquiries and efforts to have his future welfare catered for we have absolutely no idea. No one can give us an answer. No one knows.’

One woman spoke about feeling that we are being manipulated, not just in what we think but in being directed towards what we think about.

This unsettling comment is very much in my mind when I read the papers or listen to the news today. The ‘news’ seems strangely static.  Read a story online; the next day you’ll read it in print, hear the same quotes on the radio and on TV:  same story, little fresh information, few dissenting voices.

I wondered, if I was to work on Pieces of Mind now, what would people talk about? So I asked them. Politically, the focus is narrower, but with strong echoes of last year’s issues reinforcing a sense of the involution of news: the fragmentation of old certainties, Brexit and the border, Trump. No-one mentioned the Fine Gael leadership contest (which, in fairness was only announced that day) but there’s anger about the Catholics-first policy in our schools and the ownership of the proposed new Maternity Hospital.

People are still focused on mortality, bereavement, the luck of being alive and the pain of serious illness. There are the same concerns about spiralling housing costs & the future of adult children. They’re thinking about weddings, about music, dance, poetry. One person sent me a sequence of poems;  another sent a description of hares in a field.

I’m thinking how lucky I am in the work I do and the people I do it with.


Printed versions of Pieces of Mind will be available for people to read in the Boathouse Café (Farmleigh) during the month of June. The book is not for sale.

This piece was broadcast as a radio essay on ARENA (RTÉ Radio One) on 19th May, 2017

(Photos by Simon Robinson, used with permission)


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Found in Translation (Workshops)

Two weeks ago, I co-facilitated a residential writing weekend with Catherine Dunne at the fabulous Brewery Lane Theatre in Carrick on Suir, organised by the tireless Margaret O’Brien who also runs The Story House, based on the Arvon model of residential writing courses, with Nollaig Brennan (see our interview, below November 22nd).

The group that came together for the three days of the Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend was open to the adventure, receptive to ideas and willing to take risks. These are essential elements of any good workshop – what you get is in direct proportion to what you bring. What you bring is up to you.


For anyone who wonders what a writing workshop is: there’s no great mystery. A workshop is a space where writers come together to focus on their craft. They are usually – as the name suggests – practical, grounded and effective. I’ve taken part in more than I can count, either as a participant or as a facilitator and yes, I’m still learning. Aren’t we all?

Every workshop is different. Their effectiveness depends largely on the dynamic that develops among the group – facilitators as well as students.  During our time together we reflect, discuss and argue about the more mysterious aspects of what we do but, as the name suggests, our focus is practical. We learn primarily through reading and through developing and practising a vocabulary that articulates basic principles, so that we can go back to our desks refreshed and motivated and put those principles into practice. One of the joys of a good workshop, hard to quantify, is the exhilaration of discovering that such a language exists, that we can speak it, that there are other people who are willing and eager to speak it with us. It’s like discovering that we have a tribe; it’s a kind of homecoming.

This summer, Catherine and I will work together again – in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura on Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin and Italish.eu – when we co-facilitate a week of creative writing workshops in English: “Found in Translation”. The idea of this course is to give participants the time and space to explore the possibilities of writing in English, when English is not their first language.  This may sound head-wreckingly difficult but in fact, as both Catherine and I have written in different contexts, all writing is, in effect, an act of translation.  For some of us, working in a foreign language might even prove key to accessing material or a style that we haven’t worked with before.

The course was suggested by Massimiliano Roveri and Federica Sgaggio, who are the administrators.  We don’t know what new ideas might come out of this collaboration, but we’re excited by its possibilities and open to whatever it offers.  The course will run from July 31st – August 4th. With a limited number of  participants, it aims to give writers an opportunity to work with language in a creative way and to develop technical skills at the same time. There will be a mix of workshops and writing time, with one evening event where participants will meet an Irish audience and talk about aspects of Italian culture.


Read this post in Italian here

Booking and information (in Italian) here or at info@italish.eu

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Rugby as Theatre (Arena essay)

The lovely people at Arena (RTÉ Radio One) asked me back. Here’s the first radio essay I’ve written in a long time:


My artsy friends are puzzled by my love of rugby but to me, rugby is pure theatre. Spectacle. Drama – even before kick-off. The crowds, with colours, flags and drums take their places in stands reminiscent of Roman amphitheatres, all dressed-up, expecting a show.

The task here is deceptively simple: to carry an oddly-shaped ball over a line, or to send it flying between the posts, to accumulate scores and prevent another team from doing the same.

But that’s sport, you complain. Not the same as theatre at all.

Really? Like drama, rugby is all about conflict. It’s a test of character. Each player has a role, rehearsed many times. Matches may enact the same structure, but the story plays out differently every time – players improvise. That’s the magic of it. Each game has its own cast of characters, their (literal) goals, specific stakes, a ticking clock. We get effort, setbacks, gains and losses. There are structured phases of play, rules, a kind of choreography. There’s no shortage of incident. We get innovation and flair, moments of unscripted excitement and chance. One awkward bounce of that wilful ball can bring triumph – or disaster.

Off-pitch dramas heighten onstage tensions. This arena has its stars, temperaments, rivalries; not just among the players, but coaches and referees too. There are histories between the teams: old scores to settle, losses to avenge, pride to be restored. Ambition crowds the bench – understudies strain for their chance to perform, to outshine the big names. Young talent snaps at the heels of experience.

In the 6 Nations tournament, memories of past campaigns raise the tension. Nothing less than national pride is at stake. Witness the recent match between England and Italy – the Italians, underdogs of the tournament, deconstructed the script entirely and in the general confusion, carried the first half against all our expectations. Look at our own opening game against Scotland – at the outset, our players’ timing was off. Crucial lines were forgotten, lost. Nothing flowed. After the interval, our players brought us to the very edge of victory – and lost.

Both matches revealed the dangers of Hubris.

Think about what it takes to turn up, time after time, when you’re bottom of the pool but must play every move with absolute conviction – Like playing to poor houses after an excoriating review?

The crowd is a Chorus. They have a moral force, catharsis their reward. There aren’t many outlets for such uninhibited expression of approval or disapproval, joy or outrage, to cheer or to condemn. When a player falls badly, 50 thousand people go very quiet, very fast. Aristotle’s pity and fear are here in spades.

There are life lessons, too: Leave mistakes behind. Move on. It’s not over ‘til it’s over – but be warned, the clock is ticking. And while that clock is winding down these players don’t roll over. They play their hearts out. They keep trying. The never-say-die of it – that’s what I love.

You can listen to the show here.


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The Story House: Residential Workshops in Ireland

Six weeks ago I took a leave of unspecified duration from this blog – but weeks before that I began an interview with Margaret O’Brien and Nollaig Brennan of The Story House, now completed – So here it is.

NB: read to the end for news of the first Story House Residency (May 2017)


Lia: What is The Story House and how did it come about?

Margaret and Nollaig: The Story House is unique in that it provides taught residential writing courses here in Ireland, open to anyone who wishes to write. At The Story House we believe that writing matters and that writers need support at all stages but maybe particularly so at the beginning. It has seemed obvious to both of us for a number of years that there was a significant gap in the way writers were supported here in Ireland. There were of course lots of writing workshops around the country but beyond that there was little to bring the novice writer to the next level. Although there are residencies available, the focus is often on solitary writing and not everyone is ready to work without guidance, nor do they have the required body of work behind them in order to gain admittance. There are also wonderful day courses that are offered by the various literature festivals and writers centres, for example, but by definition these are not residential and it is the lack of this immersive, taught experience which we want to address with the introduction of The Story House.

 Lia: Can you explain its links to the Arvon Foundation?

M & N: The Arvon Foundation is the inspiration for the model we use at The Story House. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, Arvon has been running taught residential courses in the UK for almost half a century, and it has been shown that their deceptively simple approach works. We have received some moral support from them, and are delighted to have been approached by past tutors at Arvon about the opportunity to teach with us, but otherwise there is no direct link with Arvon.

It might be helpful if we could jump back a few years here. It was Margaret’s experiences of Arvon courses in Devon and Scotland, and her meeting with its founder John Moat at Totleigh Barton, that started the thought processes that ultimately led to the founding of The Story House. Margaret realised while there that there was no equivalent structure here in Ireland, and the subsequent big questions, ‘Why? Why not?’, refused to go away. Then in 2014, some weeks after we first met, we arranged a meeting in London with Ruth Borthwick, CEO of the Arvon Foundation. She was very generous with her time that day, and supportive of the project, but warned that it might take over our lives!

Lia: Who is behind it? How is it funded?

margaret-and-nollaig-book-tent-festival-of-writing-and-ideasM & N: It’s just the two of us, and please note that we laughed at the mention of funding! TSH has received no funding to date, none. We both work on this in a voluntary capacity, in addition to our day jobs. We think very highly of the writers who teach on our courses, and they are paid an appropriate professional fee, but the two of us do pretty much everything else, from planning and publicising the courses to devising the menus (and the meals at TSH are becoming legendary!). At the moment we rely on local Arts Officers to offer bursaries to writers to help with course fees and so far several counties have offered repeat bursaries. Right now we are more concerned that people can access our courses, that finance should not be a barrier – the whole thrust of TSH is that writing be regarded as an acceptable thing to do and we would hope ultimately that TSH would be in a position to offer at least some partial bursaries.


Lia: Can you tell us how the courses work?

M & N: The overriding atmosphere at The Story House is one of respect and mutual support. Spending the week together, supported by professional writers and by each other, creates an environment of trust and it is in this safe space that people really begin to gain confidence in themselves as writers and become free to take creative risks. Strong friendships often form and this helps each participant to become part of a growing community of writers. We encourage past participants to keep in touch and we’ve held follow up gatherings after each course for what is usually a very convivial debriefing.

For someone considering a course at The Story House an outline of the shape of the week might be useful. Each course runs from Monday afternoon through to Saturday morning. On the first evening we come together for a meal and a relaxed few hours of introductions and chat. There are workshops every morning until lunchtime and the afternoons are for one to one tutorials and free time to write, take a walk, nap or do whatever is needed. From Tuesday through to Friday the evening meals are prepared by a different team of three participants. We suspect that much of the transformative power of the week happens informally, over communal meals, casual conversations and the sharing of writing fears, hopes and experiences. After dinner each evening the schedule is very social. On Tuesdays, the tutors give readings from and talk about their own work. A Guest Writer joins the group for the evening meal on the Wednesday and later reads from their work, followed by a discussion. On Thursday evening everyone reads or shares from some of their own favourite writers. On the Friday night, which seems to come much too soon, we all celebrate each other’s writing and enjoy the sense of achievement. On that evening there is a sense of giddy disbelief at all that has been accomplished. Then on Saturday morning breakfast and farewells bring the week to a close.

Lia: Can anyone take the courses? Is there a screening or selection process?

M & N: Yes, anyone can take the courses. The Story House has no screening or selection process, it’s enough that you wish to write. However, some local authorities do run competitions for bursaries which does impose a certain level of screening. But there is no screening by The Story House, it would go against our core beliefs, and it’s top of our wish list to have funding to provide at least partial bursaries for participants.

Lia: Why do courses have to be residential?

M & N: When a course is residential it allows participants a perhaps rare opportunity to fully immerse themselves in their writing. They become part of a writing community for the week and, crucially, their creativity is supported by the way the week is structured. The late John Moat, one of the founders of Arvon, believed in the value of the apprenticeship model and that living with professional writers for a week and being guided by them would deepen the novice writer’s understanding of what it means to be a writer.


Lia: Do the courses move around the country?

M & N: As we’ve mentioned above The Story House has no financial backing, so therefore no permanent home as yet. For now we lease a suitable property for the week, which becomes the home for everyone for the duration of the course. We do see the potential for The Story House to become at some point in the future the National Residential Writing Centre for Ireland. However at the moment we are more interested in demonstrating the benefits of the model and making it as accessible as possible.

Lia: Margaret, what caused you to write an Open Letter to President Higgins?

M: My Open Letter to President Higgins was written out of a sense of frustration and not a little anger on my part. I had been putting forward the need for such a centre for some years without any meaningful response. I could see the benefits of creative writing from my own past experience of teaching adult literacy educators in Waterford Institute of Technology, my involvement with Pat Schneider’s organisation, Amherst Writers and Artists, and my own workshops, Writing Changes Lives. It seemed totally obvious to me that something like the model of Arvon, a residential centre with an emphasis on the process of writing, was needed here. Over the years I had continued to be in correspondence with John Moat, since our first meeting at Arvon’s Totleigh Barton centre, and he had always been supportive of my ‘campaign’ to start something in Ireland that followed the Arvon model. When Michael D. Higgins was elected President, John commented in an email to me that if I didn’t succeed now that we had a poet-President it might never happen. I used the occasion of President Higgins’ state visit to the UK to write the Open Letter, outlining what I saw as the need for this and also the benefits that would flow from it, and suggested that he include a visit to an Arvon centre as part of his visit. But unfortunately that wasn’t on his schedule.

Lia: Did you get a response?

M: Yes, I got a reply from Áras an Uachtaráin but it turned out not to be the most important response! I had shared the letter through social media and it was brought to Nollaig’s attention by Susie (Maguire) a mutual friend and author. Nollaig got in touch with me, we met up for lunch in Waterford the following day and that was the real beginning of The Story House. So you could say that I wrote to President Higgins but it was Nollaig Brennan’s response that brought The Story House into being. Since then we’ve been thrilled that Sabina Coyne Higgins accepted our invitation to join Jack Harte as Patron of The Story House. We feel that it’s a great endorsement of our work to have two such strong arts activists as patrons.

Lia: Nollaig, I’m very curious about your response to that Open Letter. Would you like to explain a little about that?

N: “It’s about writing, but it’s always about more than writing…” this was the line in Margaret’s letter which grabbed me. There was something about that line which resonated with me on such a personal level – being able to write is very important to my overall wellbeing. I felt that Margaret was someone I needed to meet and within moments of doing so, I understood that here was someone who had the same conviction as me of the importance of making the arts, especially the process of writing, more widely available and who shared my discomfort at the somewhat elitist nature of literature in Ireland. Would you believe that we later had a meeting with a very senior arts administrator who ACTUALLY ROLLED HER EYES at the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to be creative? This sort of nonsense really needs to stop. This attitude does not a better society make.

I also felt that I had certain skills which might be useful in progressing a project such as TSH. Margaret and I bring very different things to the table and it’s a really good partnership.

Lia: What future do you see for The Story House?

M & N: We are busy right now promoting our next course, ‘Writing for Young People’, with the fabulous team of Sheena Wilkinson, E.R. Murray and midweek guest Patricia Forde. This will take place at Lisnavagh House, Co. Carlow from Monday, 20th to Saturday, 25th February 2017. [Now wouldn’t that be a super Christmas gift in someone’s stocking?]

We have also recently announced the first Story House Residency, a very generous gift to TSH by a past participant. This will offer one week in May 2017, at a lovely cottage in the west of Ireland, to a writer who has attended a course at TSH – giving them a wonderful opportunity to focus on a writing project. This will be an annual award and details of how to apply for this can be read on our website here.

With regard to the more long-term future, the effect of The Story House on its past participants has convinced us of what we already knew – that this model is filling a gap in the writing landscape of the country. Now that we have a proven track record in delivering quality courses, we hope to be able to run our courses more frequently and be in a stronger position to attract some outside funding. We want The Story House to continue to break down the barriers of literary elitism and to bring the benefits of the process of writing to a wider and more diverse population. We know how important it is that the appropriate supports are put in place and we want there to be less and less socio-economic or socio-cultural restrictions preventing people benefitting from the transformative power of writing. We are taking the long view with this.




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Away …

Starting work on a new novel is a lot like going away for a very, very long time on a one-way ticket. I’ve no idea when/if I’ll be back. But feel free to look through the archive if you’re interested …

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THE GLASS SHORE: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (Launches)

glass-shore-coverThe Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland has been thoroughly launched – first in Belfast, then in Dublin (take a bow, New Island).

The Belfast launch was held in a packed and buzzing Ulster Museum on Monday 3rd October. Dan Bolger gave the speediest introduction ever and left the stage open to, in turn, Sinéad Gleeson, Lucy Caldwell, Patricia Craig (who wrote the Introduction) and then contributors Anne Devlin, Jan Carson and Bernie McGill. Music from the brilliant Hannah McPhillimy wrapped up the proceedings and after that there was chat and swapping of contact details and lines of people waiting to have their book signed by as many authors as were present.

Sinéad Gleeson said that The Glass Shore is one wave in a sea of brilliant voices – and this theme recurred throughout both launches. In Belfast, Lucy Caldwell took issue with Gore Vidal’s infamous line, that ‘every time a friend succeeds I die a little.’ Our friends’ success lifts us all, she said.

The Dublin launch, held in Hodges Figgis last night (5th October) was equally buzzy. This time Martina Devlin spoke, movingly, about the border as a concept. The Glass Shore, she said, dismantles the idea of the North as a place apart. Its Otherness has either been put upon it from outside or taken on as a defence mechanism. Sinéad Gleeson, she said, has done an exceptional service in restoring the three missing sisters – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal – to the North.

Anne Enright took up where her rousing launch speech for the earlier volume The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers left off. She reminded us that Mo Mowlam brought a group of women into a room and put them sitting between republicans and unionists ‘just to freak them out’. She talked about exclusion, and how it is the principal method and mechanism of bullies, and how bullying creates a desire to say ‘Let me in’. The question is: ‘To what?’ The most interesting thing that can be said, she pointed out, is the thing that hasn’t been said already. A single feminist can be derided, she said, but 600 feminists is another matter.

Evelyn Conlon then read from her story, an exploration of the concept of borders in general and ours in particular.

Sinéad Gleeson has done an extraordinary, necessary and generous thing in producing these anthologies. It’s maybe equally important that, in talking about them, she always refers to her predecessors in the compilation of anthologies of women writers, for example Evelyn Conlon (Splitting the Night in Two) and Ruth Carr (The Female Line). She never claims to be The First, but always places her work in the context of an ongoing fight to assert the existence and strength of writing by women.

Full marks to New Island and to Sinéad Gleeson who has proved herself to be a strong champion of Irish women writers.

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Sara Baume & Claire-Louise Bennett at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios

The excellent Susan Tomaselli (ST), editor of Gorse, introduced the two writers as part of what she describes as TBG&S’s ‘unique and exploratory’ programme supporting different kinds of writing. TBG&S’s own blurb for the event says that their New Writing Commission aims to expand ideas around writing about art.   Sara Baume (SB) was their first writer-in-residence (2015). Claire-Louise Bennett (CLB) is the second, current, writer-in-residence.

ST started proceedings by remarking on how both writers chose to convey solitude in their novels.

SB said that her entire novel (Spill Simmer Falter Wither) is written as a monologue addressed to a dog. Partly, she said, because she’s bad at dialogue; she decided to use her weakness – and, when you talk to yourself, you’re unself-conscious; when you talk to someone else, you’re self-conscious; but if you talk to an animal or a thing that can’t respond, that becomes something else again.

CLB talked about an editor’s negative response to the manuscript of her book (Pond) – he wanted a book that had more things happening in it plus characters that those events could happen to. In other words, she said, he wanted plot and characters and a story. But her book is about being alone and not knowing what to do. It might not be about very much (she said), but sometimes life is like that. It’s still lived. It’s still life. ( I can’t help wondering how that editor feels now that her book has been such a runaway success).

ST’s next question was about how both novels represent houses, what houses come to mean in each. CLB referred to Bachillard’s The Poetics of Space.  She made the interesting point that if you live alone, you come to ask what all these different rooms are for, they are based on a model of domesticity. Animals build nests that are discarded when the young have moved on. She talked about rented houses and the sense of other people moving through the space.

SB also has a thing about rented rooms, that sense of other people there before you. You always worry, she says, about who has the keys. As a child, she used to worry about who might have died there. In SSFW the house is very much a character; it takes on a sinister aspect. She referred to Gregor Shcneider’s Totes Haus u r.

ST invited them to talk about objects in both novels: One of the jobs of literature being to defamiliarise the familiar and open up the possibility of new meanings. She referred to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which happens to be a particular interest of mine at the minute, as contributors to the Farmleigh/Pieces of Mind project will know) and asked if that’s what the writers were trying to achieve?

CLB said, No. She likes to introduce poetic language to enhance the reading experience but her aim is not to make the world strange but to make the self strange in the world. She talked about how we vanish inside our heads and things around us recede but e.g. when we travel, nothing is automatic. When you’re on your own things acquire significance, it gives the world an opportunity to reassert itself.

SB said the dog (in SSFW) was a way to get the reader and the character in the novel to look at objects differently; while writing, she herself looked at things  as if she didn’t know them. When everyone is gone, she suggested, we sometimes transfer our affections to a worthy object. The character in her novel has only objects at first but when the dog arrives, they recede; he sees them differently.

CLB said you want people to orient you and when they’re not there, things come to the fore. Moving furniture, she said – in the kind of segue you learn to adapt to when listening to her speak – is a lovely thing to do.

Both writers read. SB read from SSFW and from one of her TBG&S essays. One that freaked her out at first, she said (#4 “Stoneymollan Trail”). She worked so hard to get that one, it ended up being her favourite. She said her essays for TBG&S were stories of her experience of the exhibitions. Because they were read on Arena, she had to describe them for people who didn’t see them. CLB read from two TBG&S pieces – the second is a response to the current exhibition My Brilliant Friend (featuring work by Michelle Brown, Avril Corroon, Ella de Búrca, Lisamarie Johnson, Laugh a Defiance. (CLB’s essay is entitled “How We Spend Our Days”). Tantalisingly, she read on – past the end of the printed version, which refers sagely to Annie Dillard’s maxim: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’

ST asked if the commissions had changed their writing or their approach to writing.

SB said that she started as a visual artist. She did a very influential internship at the Douglas Hyde Gallery and started to write reviews for Circa magazine and elsewhere but the art world is small and it became problematic to try to make and show art and write about it at the same time so she began to write fiction.

CLB spoke about being at a disadvantage because visual art is not her area of expertise – but writing is her way of coping with not knowing what’s going on (I think this is what she said – it made absolute sense to me, at any rate, so I’ll leave this stand – I’m open to correction by anyone else who was there.) Her essays/stories as current TBG&S writer-in-residence work with her experience of having neither the language, the skills or a background in visual art. She’s sure she’s representative of many people who come into a gallery, wondering What’s this? What’s happening here? She pays attention, and attempts to abolish her state of ignorance without knowing what’s going on around her – like life, she supposes.

CLB’s Essay #2 is available to read here

Sara Baume can be heard reading her essay here

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