Bea’s Witch: An alchemical experiment in creative writing and educational practice
PhD student, Daniel Brown has written this blog post to share his experience of writing Bea's Witch in an educational context.
In a darkened room, fierce-eyed, the alchemist sweats over a labyrinth of tubes and crucibles, the flame beneath the copper pan casting lurid shadows onto the low timbered ceiling. A dark substance in the basin bubbles, moving and melting, transforming.
In her feminist revision of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, Susan Rowland (2002) points to Jung’s study of alchemy as being of interest to postmodernists. Those early proto scientists believed in the “continuation between what was material, what was psychological and what was sacred” (p131) in a way that resonates with contemporary challenges to an objective world existing independently of the subjective reality of the observer.
This picture of experiments taking place at the interconnection of inner and outer realities is useful for understanding the type of knowledge generated through creative writing, the physical marks on the page a bridge between the psychological reality of the writer and reader. Into the writer’s crucible go personal experiences, writerly skills, theoretical frameworks, dreams, real-life conversations, ethical and political considerations, ideas, inspirations and many more ingredients. There is energy, fire, sweat and labour, as the substance is melted down and the dross boiled away. The experiment flows between plotting and the act of writing, between editing, feedback and re-writing. Something transforms, solidifies, becomes rock. A text is fixed. A book. Perhaps even gold. The hope is that the gold can be shared, that it will, in turn, change other things, begin new experiments.
My own creative writing experiment began as part of a Masters in Creative Writing and Drama in Education at Leeds Beckett University and has continued through my subsequent PhD, prompting reflection on issues such as the construction of the child in literature and the agency of young readers, as well as providing invaluable support, feedback and editorial insight. The initial impetus for the endeavour was to explore my experience of being an adoptive father, with the hope that I might produce a story that would raise awareness and increase empathy for those with a connection to the care and adoption system. Other ingredients were added to the crucible, particularly my experience as an author and theatre maker, and also the landscape of my hometown, Knaresborough, with its connection to the history and mythology of the prophetess Mother Shipton, who was born in a cave on the banks of the River Nidd, and was herself fostered as a child. The result is a young adult novel called Bea’s Witch: A ghostly coming-of-age story (released 30th July, Lodestone Books).
The back cover reads:
The future can be rewritten.
On the eve of her twelfth birthday, Beatrice Crosse runs away from her adoptive home only to encounter the ghost of England's most famous prophetess. The witch offers her treasure, but can she be trusted? Bea must wrestle her past to discover the witch's secret and find her way home.
An important aspect of my PhD has been to share my experience of writing Bea’s Witch in an educational context, encouraging young writers to undertake their own alchemical writing experiments in a way that challenges the curriculum emphasis on a discourse of skills and compliance above creativity (Lambirth, 2016). Working with First Story, an organisation that places writers in secondary schools, I undertook two residencies, running writing workshops based around the themes and structure of Bea’s Witch, laying bare the writing process, sharing my experience, modelling a writerly identity, writing alongside the students, encouraging them to see themselves as writers with ownership of and investment in their own work. This culminated in the publication of two anthologies of the young writers’ work, Lost and Found: Where Am I? and You Are Not Alone. Both anthologies tell a parallel story to Bea’s Witch, the pieces speaking of family, belonging, loss, bullying, dreams and hope. The students’ writing reflects a deep emotional engagement with these themes, and an exploration of some of the issues that looked-after and adopted children might face.
Extracts from You Are Not Alone:
By Archie Spiller
I need to move on, but I can’t. I can’t forget. I can’t get rid.
I’m sat here looking back, not forwards… When I look back, I see what I should have done, not what I did. I punish myself. I say it’s my fault for what happened, blaming myself for what others did to me.
My parents beat me.
Others bullied me.
Everyone wanted me to be the “perfect girl”, but I’m very far from perfect.
By Martha Davies
I cupped my hands, running them through the stream. I didn’t know what I wanted to wish for...
I wish people would love me for who I am,
But the birds sang.
I wish my mum was alive again,
But the bees buzzed in and out of their hive.
I wish I didn’t have to fake a smile,
But the ants walked in single file…
Why was it so hard to make one wish?
There were so many things I wanted. Which should I choose?
At the end of Bea’s Witch there is a section that is reminiscent of the image of the alchemist. Jung believed the process of mixing ingredients to create something meaningful, of connecting inner and outer worlds, could produce gold for the soul – the integrated Self. My hope is that this experiment in writing, reading and education might be, for some, a step towards such a rich goal.
An extract from Bea’s Witch:
I watch as she begins to work, her fingers moving deftly through the thicket, seeking out the ingredients she needs. She pulls a little copper bowl from her cloak and drops the cuttings into it. Every so often, she stops to tell me about the flowers, her voice raised above the wind.
'That's Geranium, there, good for toothache. And there, that's Mugwort, an excellent tonic. Our bodies are wonderful things, you know. It's all here, everything we need for healing.' She touches her heart as she says it. I'm not sure if she means the garden, or whether she means everything we need is inside us.
As I watch, I'm aware how broken I feel, how fractured. My life is scattered across different times and places. I don't feel like I can hold it all together. I hug myself, shivering…
She pours the potion into a little bottle and holds it out for me. 'Drink this when the time comes. It'll give you strength.'
Bea’s Witch: A ghostly coming-of-age story is available to pre-order online or in bookshops.
Rowland, S. (2002) Jung: A feminist revision. Polity Press
Lambirth, A. (2016) Exploring children's discourses of writing. English in Education, 50:3, 215-232
Ingram-Brown, D, Ed. (2020) You are not alone: The diary of the girl in the shadows. An anthology by the First Story Group at The Holy Family Catholic School. First Story
Ingram-Brown, D. (2021) Bea’s Witch: A ghostly coming-of-age story. Lodestone Books