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Life Experiences Shape Dramatic Stories

Aside from the sheer reading pleasure they provide, one of the delights of receiving stories for our ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ is learning about the diverse backgrounds and intriguing lifetime experiences of the writers and how those experiences influence their work.

Our WAWA competition on the theme of ‘Beauty’ was no exception.

Originally from west Sussex and a former business journalist and editor in England, Arabella McIntyre-Brown, 64, upped sticks and bravely move to a mountain-top home in rural Transylvania in Romania, at 1,000 meters altitude, in the village of Magura, near Brasov. Here she is an author of children’s books including 'Floss and the Circus' and 'Dahlia's Pet Detectives,' as well as a memoir, 'A Stake In Transylvania.' Her WAWA story ‘The Colour of Bruises,’ a finalist in the flash fiction category was based on her early experiences learning how to draw.

Norman Longworth is another example of someone with a zest for life. An octogenarian at 87, Norman left his teaching position in his native Bolton to become a leading voice in the field of lifelong learning which brought him him across the globe, from China to New Zealand, Israel to South Africa, Canada to Iceland. His WAWA story, ‘Leonard,’ a finalist in the creative nonfiction category, was born out of a situation involving one of his high school students. Norman, a musician, composer and author of several books including 'The Conflent Tales,' 'The Lad From The Back Streets of Bolton' and 'Lifelong Learning In Action,' now enjoys a quality lifestyle with his devoted wife, Maggie, in a charming old farm house beside a vineyard in bucolic Pyrénées-Orientales in southwest France.

Julie Birrell has been a high school English teacher for the last twenty years. Her WAWA story, ‘Monster Hands,’ a finalist in the creative non-fiction category, emerged from her work at an adolescent mental health ward in a hospital. Julie now lives in Toronto “with two teenagers, one partner, and one big dog.” One of Julie’s essays, ‘Bleeding Dogs and Baseball Bats,’ was long-listed for the CBC nonfiction prize hosted by the Canada Council for the Arts. She is currently polishing several short stories and working on a novel as a student at the Humber School for Writers.

Judith Hannan, 69, is a former fundraiser turned writer/teacher, who also conducts workshops for homeless mothers, cancer patients, medical professionals, as well as those caught up in the criminal justice system. Her WAWA story, ‘Playing With Dolls,’ was a finalist in the flash fiction category. Judith’s work has appeared in various publications including The Washington Post. She writes a twice-monthly column for The Martha's Vineyard Times in Massachusetts. Her memoir, ‘Motherhood Exaggerated,’ focuses on what she describes as her ‘transformation’ during her daughter's battle with cancer. She also wrote 'The Write Prescription.' a guide to writing about illness. Judith spends her time between New York, Martha's Vineyard and Ireland.

We hope you enjoy the work of these four fine writers and their comments about the writing challenges that faced them on this particular WAWA assignment as much as we did.

Arabella McIntyre-Brown about her flash fiction story, ‘The Colour of Bruises’

“The idea dates back to the 1990s when I was living in Liverpool and going to weekly life drawing classes. I was a beginner, but a lucky one – my teacher told us on the first day of our ‘drawing for people who can’t draw a straight line’ class that we could all control a pen on paper (cf our signatures), but what we couldn’t do was to SEE properly. Learning how to change perceptions and disrupt what our brains think we need to see in favour of what’s actually there – a big life lesson, especially for a writer. At that time I wrote a little story about the life class which I called ‘Ultra’, since I was smitten with ultramarine pastel, then filed it. Thirty years later, I remembered the sensations and emotions of that story and without re-reading it, wrote ‘The Colour of Bruises.’

WAWA is particularly valuable for me as its 500-word count forces me to burrow into the essence of the story and find the best language in my possession. Concise, clear, powerful – it doesn’t hurt even in the longest short story. Being a finalist, of course, is a lovely reward for bleeding all over one’s keyboard.”

The Colour of Bruises

Would Anna’s courage rise tonight? Tuesday. Life class. Paul’s poker night.

For three years she’d gone to class to draw, learn, get out of the house, have something of her own. Admired the models, their stillness, composure, confidence to reveal themselves. The older models – with lines and scars and curves hinting at stories – better to draw than the flawless young.

Three years of drawing, then her therapist challenged her. “Model for the class instead.”

Nightmare... exposed to those laser looks. Forty-nine, scarred, dumpy, greying; attached but unmarried; childless after miscarriage; no job since college. A nothing.

Paul had schooled her to stay invisible. In class, covered up, she was unremarkable. To sit up there, under penetrating gazes, felt perilous. She’d be seen by artists who looked beyond the skin, looked for hidden truths spoken in the body’s language.

But, cringing, she volunteered to model, fully clothed; tutor Judy agreed, gave guidance, found her a hat, and mad shoes. The final drawings were a shock – twenty different versions of Anna. Her, but not her.

Twice, she had modelled modestly.

The third time, Judy persuaded her to model nude, draped with fabric. She agreed, terrified. No-one blinked. A body was a body, naive or time-worn, always fascinating.

So, tonight. Would she go for broke? Wholly visible?

Francis was there, as ever. Fifties, quiet, courteous. Paint-stained panama. Rough hands, someone said he was a plumber.

She couldn’t do it. Hid under drapery, the hat, and one shoe. A dagger as a prop.

Later, looking at the drawings, she reached Francis. He worked in soft pastels, used ultramarine where others used charcoal.

“Why not? A stick’s cheap these days. Renaissance painters had to mortgage their souls for an ounce. Heavenly colour.” His eyes lit up when he smiled, the luminous blue of a Hollywood Jesus.

Paul’s eyes were jade, opaque, set under black brows. He’d come home early, found Anna missing. Interrogated her later.

“Drawing?” he scoffed at the idea of art, of Anna being artistic. “You?”

It escalated, worse than ever before. She didn’t go to hospital, nothing broken. Not her spirit. This time it sparked rebellion.

She planned, researched, made lists. Her therapist cheered.

By Tuesday her body was a palette of anger. Her back was the worst, where she’d fallen.

That evening she carried the aches, a suitcase, and courage. Nothing else.

She refused all disguise, revealed the rage. To hell with Paul. Friendly faces looked horrified. Anna gazed at the wall, met no-one’s eyes. Sat, and imagined Paul coming home to darkness.

Finally she saw that some had been considerate, ignoring the obvious. She came to Francis. He had drawn her all ultramarine, except for the marks of Paul’s fury, ochre, viridian, carmine. Anna wept, not knowing if she was ashamed or grateful.

“Ruskin wrote about ultramarine’s beauty,” said Francis, “as natural, simple and instantaneous. That’s you, tonight. Truth, at last.”

He carried her suitcase, opened the passenger door for her. “Where to?”

Anna blushed. “Surprise me.”

Norman Longworth about his creative non-fiction story, ‘Leonard’

“It was an experience in my life that has stayed in my memory for many years, something I believe teachers can do to make a difference and help vulnerable children. I revised my story probably six or seven times, mainly to reduce it from one thousand words to five hundred. Being a finalist makes me feel delighted and fulfilled. It’s nice to know I have written something that is of interest.”


by Norman Longworth

As a teacher of geography it was my wont to take children into the hills and mountains during the school holidays. It was to acquaint young people with the splendour of the mountains, to encourage them to acquire the skills of outdoor activities and to expand their knowledge of geography. Sometimes we camped, sometimes we stayed in youth hostels. The next trip was to be to the Isle of Skye, a beautiful island with many mountains to challenge the boys.

Much to my surprise, Leonard, a C stream child who had never expressed any desire to join anything, approached me and said that he would like to go. Of course I consented. Not surprisingly, his Mum could not afford the trip, so I paid for him myself. We drove to Scotland, Leonard, myself and 10 other boys, and tented near Broadford on the lovely Isle of Skye.

The following day we set out to climb Beinn na Caillach, a 3500 ft mountain nearby. The boys strode upward, eager to show their prowess and fitness. But I noticed that Leonard was not among them. I retraced my steps and there he was, sitting on a rock. I looked at him quizzically. ‘I’m not bloody going up there,’ he said. ‘This is why we are here, to climb mountains,’ I said. ‘I can’t leave you. It’s against the law for a start and your mum wouldn’t be pleased to know that I abandoned you on a Scottish island.’

He seemed to be adamant that he wasn’t b’well going up there. So I said to him, ‘Look, why don’t you come with me to the first bend and then see how you feel. It isn’t far.’ Reluctantly he trudged up to the first bend where he sat down again. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘the next stretch is a short one. We can get up to that easily.’ Grumbling and swearing he consented to do that. ‘Well, we’ve got so far, and we are nearly half-way,’ I said lying through my teeth.

The long and short of it was that he eventually reached the top. There I noticed him sitting on the summit, looking, as if he was in a trance, over the enchanting beauty of the high mountains of the mainland, the lakes below, the Cuillin ridge and then to the far Hebrides in the west, with a new sense of achievement. He smiled, for the first time I had ever seen. His face was beatific. ‘Bloody ‘ell’ Sir,’ he said, ‘I’m glad you got me up ‘ere.’

This was so obviously his epiphany moment, spellbound by the beauty of his earth for the first time, and it affected him deeply. He had cast off the feeling that he had to be negative to draw attention to himself. From then on, he gladly climbed the other mountains that we all tackled. Nor did he give another ounce of trouble in school when we returned. That’s what beauty does.

Julie Birrell on her creative non-fiction story ‘Monster Hands’

“In writing it, I was thinking about my work as a teacher in the adolescent mental health ward at a hospital in Toronto. The hospital seems an unlikely place for beauty to emerge, yet it seems to grow up in big and little ways all the time, despite many obstacles. I believe that paying attention to life's small beauties can help us through very difficult times. In fact, sometimes, those moments are all we have. In my piece, I tried to capture one of those moments.

My writing process is that I do a longhand 'free write' first to tap into the uncensored part of my brain. Then I transcribe that piece onto my computer and edit as I go. I started with a really boring working title (Jim). For me, ‘Monster Hands’ reinforces the idea that we can find gorgeous moments amidst the myriad monstrosities of life.

Hearing I was a finalist for the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ was a lovely little boost. It was great to hear that my piece resonated. This kind of feedback helps as I continue to create new work.

Monster Hands

We had a thing, Jim and I. It happened when we were alone in the classroom one day and he was having trouble. We’d been in the class, inside the hospital, surrounded by the beeps and buzzes of the building, for a few weeks. We were working on metaphors. Jim was staring at a plant, trying to compare it to something.

“A plant is…” He sighed and folded his arms on the table, burying his head in them. His hood flopped over, completing his cocoon.

I held up my hands and made them into little puppets.

“Okay, look. These two guys are your brain.” Jim lifted his head from the nest of his arms on the table and raised an eyebrow. “Bear with me.” I smiled and lifted both of my eyebrows twice, quickly. “This one,” I held up my left hand, “Is your creative brain.” I moved the fingers and thumb of my left hand to allow it to speak.

“Hey! I’m your creative brain. I got all the ideas. I’m always coming up with stuff! Some of it’s garbage, but mostly it’s a beautiful, murky mess of stuff that can become something, if we let it out.” Jim smirked at me. I hadn’t gotten this weird yet with him, but I think it was working. I put my left hand down.

“Now this,” I held up my right hand. “Is your editing brain. It’s useful, but only some of the time.” Jim looked at that hand suspiciously. “And right now, it’s way too strong.” I took out my left hand again. The right hand turned slowly toward the left. Jim tracked its movements.

“Blagh! Shut up with the dumb ideas!” The right hand yelled, then attacked the left, swallowing it whole. Jim’s laugh sputtered out of his mouth, all spit and disbelief. He wiped his lips with his sleeve.

“You got me, Miss. You got me.”

Jim left home at sixteen because his mother couldn’t handle that he was gay. She had an idea of what a child should be, and it definitely wasn’t Jim. He was messy: clothes on the floor, never home on time, plates in his room, smoking joints in the backyard messy. That’s why he was here, with me. He was on probation, getting treatment for drug use, depression, anxiety, a whole laundry list of ugly. In my classroom, a way station for students like Jim, we kept trying to recognize beauty again.

But oh, the hospital was stultifying. The efficiency, the maze-like hallways, the guarded way people talked to each other, each carefully carrying around their pain. The whole place was a path from illness to death or recovery, both forks fraught with all the tiny horrors in between. But I still believed in its beauty. It was a shimmering thing, just out of my sight, but sometimes it appeared, blooming and buoyant. Jim looked at the plant again.

“I love plants, miss. A plant… a plant is a prayer to life, y’know?”

Judith Hannan about her flash fiction story, ‘Playing With Dolls’

“The idea came from a photograph. I have always found dolls creepy so the idea of a living doll came naturally. I have always struggled with story endings and this was no exception. I think I had five or six before I landed on the right one. It was also a struggle not to get carried away with too much back story.

Knowing my story was selected from hundreds of submissions is the boost every writer needs.”

Playing With Dolls

by Judith Hannan

Gracie’s eyes droop, her breaths settle into sleep as she is strapped into her car seat. She doesn’t scratch where the crinoline and lace had irritated her skin, care that her peach lipstick is smudged, remember the tears that caused her mascara to run in rivulets down her rouged cheeks. The wig of blonde curls is packed away. The tiny fake snakeskin boots stuffed with tissue paper. The bows, ribbons, and jewellery nested in their traveling case.

Gracie’s head falls to one side, her lips part. Her legs have grown long enough to press against the back of the driver’s seat where her mother Susan sits, snapping her gum, replaying every moment of the pageant with her sister Iris who blows the smoke from her joint out the window.

“God, that was awful. Why do you do this? Lunatic mothers, freaky looking little girls,” Iris says.

“It was that bitch Bridget. Booed at Gracie. Told her there was no way she would win over her precious Charlotte, that baby who still sucks her thumb at age four. What did they expect me to do? Let her get away with it?”

“Do you think it’s because of all those dolls Mom lined up on the shelves in our bedroom?”

“What? I’m talking about Gracie having the crown stolen from her and you’re banging on about those stupid dolls.”

“They used to give you nightmares.”

“No they didn’t.”

But Susan remembers all those plastic, unblinking eyes staring out at her. There was one doll, looked like a reject from the assembly line. Her mouth, stained a yellowy orange as if she had just been sick, was off center. One side turned up in a sneer. Her hair, a tarnished blonde, would never lay smooth. Only the dress was beautiful—tiers of peach chiffon, cinched at the waist and adorned with a large bow.

“That ugly doll, what was her name?” Susan asks.

“Gertrude. Remember when you tried to burn it in the fireplace?”

“Yeah. Mom pulled it out and stood it at the end of my bed every night for weeks after, its dress full of ash, one eye lost, hair melted.”

Gracie lets out a cry. Susan looks at her in the rearview mirror. Still asleep. Her dull brown hair matted from the wig. One eye partially open. Her mouth twisted and her brow furrowed creating two deep lines between her eyes. There’s a hole in her tights and a stain from spilt chocolate milk runs down her shirt.

Susan shudders and says into the mirror, “We’re going to have to fix you up before the next pageant. That peach chiffon dress is old and dirty now. We can get contacts to turn those dull hazel eyes blue. And how about a wig in a rich chestnut brown falling in waves down your back? And you need a new name. Gertrude is so ugly. Annabella is perfect, don’t you think?”

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