Helen Ellwood on Life and Writing

Helen Ellwood talks to me about her writing and life process...

When I began writing 'Message in a Bottle', I wasn't thinking about publication,

I simply wanted to escape the pain of a spine-damaging car crash. By thinking about my time living as a South Seas castaway, and recording my memories on a Dictaphone, I was able to distract myself from my disability.

As the years rolled by, and my health improved to the point where I could sit up and use voice-activated software, I began to believe in my story. In reality, who goes to an uninhabited desert island to get away from their troubles? I did, and it was a story worth telling, yet for some reason I couldn't finish the wretched thing.

Originally, I'd gone to the island to have an adventure and thereby heal my grief. My mother had died only the year before, and I couldn't cope. I ran away to ‘paradise’, tried to face my demons and returned alive, but did that really make a story? Self-doubt kicked in.

In 2011, I gained a few writerly tools and a dose of self-confidence from Bridget’s writing course at Swanwick Summer School, and a year later gained the interest of literary agent Meg Davies. At this point, I was still focusing on the travel adventure; putting my inner journey second.

I failed to hold Meg’s attention, but my next re-write, in which I focused more strongly on the inner journey, got long-listed for the Mslexia Memoir Competition 2014. So far so good, but Bridget felt I hadn't yet reached the heart of my story. Something indefinable was missing.

I’d gone to the island to find freedom from grief, yet once there, I’d remained emotionally restrained. Why hadn’t I been able to yell and roar – to heal? Why hadn’t I been able to challenge my companion when I needed to? Why had I let the press walk all over me?

As I read through my manuscript with an open mind, I realised my book was actually about authenticity.

I was brought up to be a well-behaved child. Unfortunately, I became too well-behaved; I grew into an adult afraid of authentic self-expression. I was a wild child in conformist clothing. This inability to speak my truth dogged my adventure on all levels. I had found the heart of my story. My journey was complete.
By writing my thoughts and feelings in italics, and showing my actual speech and behaviour in normal text, my latest rewrite explores the mismatch between the two; giving rise to insight and personal change, with a refreshing touch of humour, all set in an exotic and claustrophobic environment.

I am very grateful to Bridget for helping me give birth to my Desert Island memoir.

When you get to the heart of your story, the journey is complete.