Writing your way to recovery

Maddy Lawson | September 2018 | 9 minutes

We sat down with author Lily Dunn to talk about her latest project as co-editor of A Wild and Precious Life, an anthology of poetry and prose by writers in recovery.

This blog is part of our 'Creativity and recovery' series.

We sat down with author Lily Dunn to talk about her latest project as co-editor of A Wild and Precious Life, an anthology of poetry and prose by writers in recovery. She told us about how this project grew from a creative writing workshop for individuals in recovery from drug and alcohol dependency to a book and community of writers, and about her personal belief in the power of writing for recovery.

Interview with the author

What is A Wild and Precious Life?

A Wild and Precious Life is an anthology of poetry and prose by (or in support of) writers who are in recovery from addiction, mental health issues and ill health. The idea for the title came from a famous quote by poet Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It made me think of the preciousness and brevity of our lives, how the wilderness is often exceptionally beautiful, and how great art can emerge from difficulty and sorrow. Addiction and mental illness are often two sides of the same coin, and both are levellers, in that we have all been affected by them either directly or indirectly, personally or via friends or family. I wanted to present a world through these words that is raw and real, but also inspiring, showing the inner workings of lives that have existed in the shadows, with glimmers of hope and the tentative markings of a map home. We have work by 50 writers, some award-winning, some emerging, some complete unknowns, but all sharing a common belief that writing has been a part of their recovery. It will be the first of its kind in the UK.

How did it come into being?

A couple of years ago, I took on a voluntary role at Hackney Recovery Service, through St Mungo’s, to teach creative writing to a group of people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. My father had died prematurely from alcohol and I was going through my own recovery of sorts, and wanted to give something back to this community. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and my supervisor at St Mungo’s warned me that one of the biggest problems with this groups was retention. At the first session, we had about five people. Word got around, and at the second session more and more streamed in. The group was so successful and the writers so talented that I applied for Arts Council funding to continue teaching. We were successful with the bid and, with the help of my teaching partner, Zoe Gilbert, we put together an anthology of recovery stories, including writing from the group but also from further afield.

Does everyone in recovery have a story to tell?

Recovery is such a difficult thing to define, as it means different things to different people. But what perhaps unites everyone is a sense that they have re-discovered something that they feared they might have lost. We have stories from within drug addiction or psychosis, but told from the perspective of someone who has begun the journey back again. Distance from the experience feels to me to be essential in telling that story in a way that will resonate with as wide an audience as possible.

Do you think there is a link between being creative and being addicted to drugs and alcohol?

There seems to be a lot of very creative drug and alcohol dependent people in the world! A number of frustrated poets propping up a bar in a late-night pub. I believe that writers/artists, and those who like to drink and take drugs have one thing in common – a desire for transcendence. We create stories – we imagine different worlds, ones that are more vivid, more loving, more enjoyable, perhaps, than the often challenging and humdrum of the everyday. This can lead to problematic drug and alcohol use. But, I wonder, also, if we recognise this propensity in ourselves, and catch ourselves early enough in the cycle; if we have the right support and resources open to us we might be able to put this wonderful imagination and ability to transport ourselves to better use.

How does the process of writing help recovery?

Writing helps us reflect on ourselves. It allows us to dump our rubbish on the page and step back and look at it as an object separate from ourselves. This enables us to record our experience as something objective, but it also means we can reinvent ourselves. We can make use of difficult experience either through testimony or morphing it through fiction. It also helps us remember; the process of writing itself conjures lost memories, and in making them concrete, we learn to see them in a new light. Keeping a journal reminds us of where we were and how far we have come (or not); it keeps us awake. It can be a companion too. When I have had difficult times in my life, I’ve found huge relief from writing my worries down. If you can turn that into something that might help someone else then you’re onto a winner.

What’s next for the project?

I’m currently writing a memoir about my father, and the legacy of his various addictions. I’m aiming to have it finished by the autumn. If I’m lucky, I might have a copy of my memoir in one hand, and A Wild and Precious Life in the other. And two years later the creative writing class at Hackney Recovery Service is still going strong.

You can donate to Lily’s crowdfunder for A Wild and Precious Life with the publisher Unbound here to help make it happen. Half of the editor's proceeds go back into supporting the creative writing class at Hackney Recovery Service.