Sleep Spindles

I’m incredibly excited to be part of a day of short story events at Huddersfield University this Saturday with Michelle Green, Stuart Evers and David Constantine. The events include discussions on writing from research, image and plot, and masterclasses on DH Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson. I’ll be talking about my stories in Beta-Life and the just-released anthology Spindles: Stories from the Science of Sleep.

The Comma Press Science into Fiction commissions are always an intriguing way to start a story. I’d normally begin from an image, a place, or a word or two. Sometimes I carry this ‘story thing’ around in my head for years before it feels like the time to use it. These commissions start with the science, though, and the story has to meet a deadline. With this book I was working with neuroscientist Manuel Schabus, who is based in the Lab for Sleep, Cognition and Consciousness Research at the University of Salzburg. We talked over Skype and I read paper after paper, trying to understand the language of sleep science and learn about spindles  a term used to describe a pattern of brain wave activity that takes place in Stage 2 sleep. In the end, the key to the story I wrote was in our first conversation. There were two things I took from what Manuel said that I carried round with me while I was working on the story – the power of a name to wake someone up, and the way spindles block outside stimuli to protect our sleep as memories are carried from one part of our brain to another. I often draw on fairy tales in my writing, but I knew I wanted to avoid Sleeping Beauty (with spindles it felt a little too obvious). Instead, a sleeping knight found his way in. The term spindles is fitting given the pattern that appears on EEG recordings, but it intrigued me that the term is so entangled with stories; we spin a yarn, weave a tale, lose the thread... and fairy tales are full of references to spinning, relating to the work often done as the tales were told hundreds of years ago. A.S. Byatt has written about the many threads between story and textiles. Text, she notes, comes from the root texere, to weave. I always think of writing as making stories. Fiction comes from the word fingere, which means to fashion, to mould and sculpt, with physical as well as imaginative materials.

I gathered the materials for this story’s making over a number of weeks, sifting and holding things together before re-tumbling them to see where the story would go. After the writing, returning to the materials is like peering into the glory hole(using the term's old Lancashire meaning) that was in my Grandma’s house; I can see things on different shelves, a clutter of ordinary treasures. There are two photography exhibitions I've been to in there; one by Lee Miller, another by a photographer whose name I can’t remember, but from whose work I took away a woman called Rivelyn who became a character in another of my stories. There's the inexplicable pull of making up fictional art, an old Blackpool rollercoaster, and the Pennine moors I grew up by. Story things accrete. I kept going back to the scientific papers and my notes, but the first images I’d taken from my conversation with Manuel remained at the centre of the story. Sometimes I wonder if this is how other people make stories, if I’m ‘doing it right’, but it’s the only way I can do it. I’ve found I can’t translate science into story, it’s almost a case of learning and then unlearning something. There has to be an undoing to find the way, yet for some reason I never doubt a way will be found.

I sometimes feel lost when I’m not writing, but when I’m carrying a story inside (I was going to write inside my head, but sometimes I feel a story in my chest or between my shoulder blades) I know I will find the way to go. Of course, a story is never finished, and never, ever feels good enough. It gets interrupted to be put into a book. My favourites of my stories are the ones I haven’t written yet.