On February 27th, we braved the snow to see Anne Scriven speak on the women who have inspired her. A narrative non-fiction writer, a poet, and a bookseller in a second-hand bookshop, Anne talked us through these ten ‘Sybils’ and their influence on her, interspersing her comments with extracts from her own work as a life writer.
Anne’s life writing, a mode of narrative non-fiction, is based on what she terms ‘the art of paying attention’; on applying a focused gaze to the details of life. She takes the term ‘Sybils’ from the ancient Greek and Roman prophetesses who spoke wisdom, a virtue Anne thinks we need today more than ever. Reading from her book Cadences: Notes from an Ordinary Life, Anne noted the importance of the everyday, viewing it as the fabric which shapes our lives and is capable of carrying the weight of wider political and social shifts.
As for her inspirational Sybils, Anne’s admiration for them was infectious. She credits Virginia Woolf, perhaps the most famous modernist woman writer, for showing her how the mind works, suggesting that Woolf’s pointillist approach to writing aided her in what Muriel Spark called ‘the transfiguration of the commonplace’. Anne then spoke on Margaret Oliphant, a Scottish writer whose sense of graft and discipline helped her with conscientious research. Here, Anne noted the importance of influence, highlighting the fact that no writer lives in isolation, and that one must learn from others if they want to grow.
However, Anne’s Sybils were not limited to literary figures: some are her close personal friends and mentors. Margaret Elphinstone, her doctoral supervisor, introduced her to the world of Scottish women writers, and helped her to, as she put it, ‘find a way through’ in her writing. Anne also counted her friends Steph and Catherine among her inspirations, crediting them with teaching her to look from different perspectives, and with giving her the motivation to write what she wanted to write.
Many of Anne’s Sybils were related to expanding her literary horizons, from Kathleen Jamie, a poet whose use of Scots was a great influence, to Alice Steinbach, whose travel writing taught Anne to read what interested her at a time when she felt ‘adrift from the narrative of her life’. She credits such writers with helping her to find her own voice. Content, however, is a different matter. For this, a major contributor is Anne’s dog, Sally. Anne explained that her experiences with Sally prompted her to write about her own stress, finding the ‘way through’ so emphasised by Margaret Elphinstone. Reading from her book Learning to Listen: Life and a Very Nervous Dog, Anne notes that it was Sally who made her realise she was a life writer.
As the night drew to a close, Anne reasserted the importance of the everyday and the ordinary, citing Carol Shields as another Sybil for her ability to write about joy and light, an attribute that Anne considers just as important and much more difficult than writing about darkness and sadness. As she read from her book Provenance: Tales from a Bookshop, Anne commented on what she sees as the universality of our intimate thoughts: that we all want to know that we matter. Taking inspiration from the figures in her life, she writes in order to find the significance of the ordinary. Anne closed her excellent talk with words from her final Sybil, Canadian poet Mary Oliver, whose focus on ‘standing still and learning to be astonished’ Anne thinks is the work of a life writer. As she puts it, she is still learning.
Words by Alastair Millar
Photos by Clare Patterson