Tamsin Cottis: How I Did It
‘I worked for a long time with people with learning disabilities, especially adults who were being discharged from long-stay institutions. Their vulnerability and unheard voices are things I feel very strongly about. As a therapist I’m also interested in those very passionate love-hate attachments that families evoke. Those two issues were the inspiration for “What goes around”.
‘I was keen to write something involving action, with a real forward momentum. With this kind of subject matter there’s a tendency to stay focused in the past, and on introspection – that’s something I’ve struggled with in my fiction.
‘The story developed from a shorter piece I worked on in a workshop organised by Spread the Word at the Royal Festival Hall. The topic was “afterlife”, but I didn’t want to write about ghosts. I wanted to explore the idea of events in someone’s past still being active in the present. An image came to me of a little boy riding his bike, along with the phrase “what goes around”. I imagined the wheels spinning round, and his feet on the pedals; then I started thinking about other things that ’go around’. That’s when I saw the blanket with the red edging.
‘The feedback at the workshop helped me expand the story; people suggested I added more physical and sensory detail to help the reader picture and identify with Pauline. And I spent a lot of time on her voice. I was worried that it was a story about an ‘issue’, so I tried to give the language an idiosyncratic poetic quality to counteract that.’
Tamsin Cottis on winning the Mslexia short story competition
‘It still feels amazing to have won, and thrilling to know that a writer I admire liked my story. I’ve been writing fiction for about 10 years now. It’s been a wonderful, significant, mind-expanding thing. I’ve completed a Creative Writing MA (at Birkbeck) and have had a couple of stories published. However, as time has gone on I’ve found the experience of rejection and lack of recognition for my work increasingly dispiriting. I have allowed the demands of the day job to displace the time and emotional energy I previously made available for writing. Then I saw the Mslexia competition details and the deadline became – as it has before – a great spur to get a new short story done.
‘As I wrote, “What Goes Around”, I was inspired by the very strong feelings I have about the hidden life experiences of women like Pauline, my protagonist. But I knew that voice, plot, and sensory detail were going to be the things that gave the story narrative traction. As I worked on it, I was pleased to feel the old excitement and absorption come back. I did my best and sent it off. But – and here comes X Factor girl again, ‘Never in a million years did I ever think I would win, Simon.’
‘And it’s safe to say, I’ll be carrying on with my journey.’