The most famous piece of advice to writers is to write what you know. Clearly, this is bad advice in most cases, as it stifles imagination as well as the potential of writers. And the other problem for writers dredging up their own lives and putting personal moments down on paper is what do they do when the well, eventually and rather rapidly, runs dry?
In the most capable of hands, however, drawing on personal experience allows a writer to get to a central, universal truth that audiences can relate to. “Oh,” says the audience, “that’s just like my life. I am not alone.” Which is, of course, one of the most important reasons we tell stories.
Vicky Foster is one very capable writer and Bathwater is a very personal story. Using her own real-life experience of what happens when violence spills over into family life, Bathwater is a gripping, ever-twisting, often moving, somewhat shocking and often agonising piece of work. Rather than a cathartic over-share, however, Foster goes way beyond writing what she knows in order to craft something that is simultaneously hard-hitting and poetic. She has written a work of literary beauty, despite the harsh and uncomfortable subject matter, combining prose, poetry and dialogue.
There’s a sense of urgency to the storytelling here, an urge to take this to the wider public when given the chance, because this is very important territory for a writer, and specifically this writer, to chart. Yet the desire to tell it like it was, and is, doesn’t get in the way of writing something that is also entertaining and blurs the lines of fact and fiction, as the characterVicky, and her son Joseph, both attempt to come to terms with the violent man that was in their lives, and how to move on from the past, their humanity and personalities intact, and build a future.
Translating experiences into fiction and poetry is not a simple business, but Foster has the skills and talent to do it, and do it well. She also writes with one eye on what she’d hope to experience, which is another part of the engine that drives this bold, brave and vital work.
The harsh experiences that are drawn on are the very things that have equipped Foster to be a writer. She does write what she knows, but there is also a sense here that, for reasons of self-preservation, she was living somewhat outside of that previous existence. So she attacks the story with the same level of disbelief as readers may encounter. Surely this couldn’t have happened? But it did. And, therefore, the emotional connection we, as readers, have with this story is as strong as the woman that wrote it.
This is as bold a line in the sand as a writer can make to announce their arrival. Given her enormous talent and ability to weave a piece of work so well, there’ll be plenty more to come from Foster’s experience-fuelled imagination as she strides, confidently, into the literary and poetic world.