making Handywoman

I initially decided to write Handywoman after being interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour, which led to a discussion with a literary agent. This agent was really smart, interesting, incredibly professional and represented other writers of what the book trade describes as “intelligent non-fiction” whose work I really admired. I’d had no thought of writing something classed as ‘memoir’ but she thought that I had something to say, and through conversing with her I agreed that I probably did. Without this literary agent’s encouragement, I’m not sure I’d ever have pursued the project that became Handywoman: researching and writing a substantial (85,000 word) book is no small undertaking, especially when the work involved me grappling with, and articulating my thoughts about, some potentially thorny and tricky topics involved in my experience of brain injury and disability.

My initial misdiagnosis, for example.

The fact that a neurologist (initially) didn’t believe I’d had a stroke because of my gender and mental-health history, and that it took 36 hours before my brain injury was correctly investigated, diagnosed and received any sort of treatment, is not something that particularly bothers me from day to day, but it is a messy part of my narrative, and to tell the truth of it I had to think carefully about debates surrounding somatic disorders, gendered bias, and patient care, as well as the story of my own stroke.

There were also some parts of my narrative to which I knew it would be difficult for me to return – such as the overwhelming grief I felt upon coming home from hospital and having to live life as a newly disabled woman among the lost remnants of my able-bodied self. But when I sat down to process these experiences for the purpose of the book, I found that thinking and writing about them was not only useful for me, but inspired me to think and write about lots of other things as well.

Writing about my own experiences of stroke and disability led me to explore several different debates about walking, creativity, good design, public policy, patient care, feminism, craft and making. I read books about the brain, about the body and phenomenology, about occupational and physiotherapy, about accessible design about hair and identity. I thought about my own childhood, about how I’d been brought up in an extraordinarily creative family, and how my parents resourcefulness and invention had continued to inspire me.

(in an early introduction to political protest, I am here dressed as a flower in an outlandish costume made by my mum, Sue Davies, articulating local community grievances)

In short, I soon found that in writing this book I was not simply writing about myself: I was writing about what really interested me, as both a thinker and a maker. And as the project developed, I began to wonder whether I would be true to it and to the Handywoman philosophy I was espousing, if I didn’t just make it myself. I now run a small publishing business after all, and one of the things I enjoy most about my job is making really nice books.

The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the benefit of working with a literary agent in conjunction with a commercial publisher. I expect that Tom and Mel might tell you that my insistence on excellence in the things that I produce sometimes has a definite tendency towards control-freakery, but I do know from my experience of different kinds of manufacturing that the more intermediaries there are in a project the less sure one is likely to be about the quality of the finished product. If I worked with a commercial publisher there would be much less choice about the way the book looked and felt, but if I made it myself I knew I would feel pretty confident about the end result. By working closely with a range of professional readers whose feedback I really trusted, together with reliable copyeditors and designers, surely I would be able to create a book whose quality would match that of the commercial publishers I was considering?

So I made my decision. I moved away from the agent / commercial publishing route, came up with an idea for a new brand and imprint (under which I might create books that were narrative-based rather than instructional in content), and decided to go it alone. I knew several readers whose editorial acumen would be useful, I already had the privilege of working with Scotland’s best copyeditor, and I happened to be married to someone who now designs and makes books for a living. I continued researching and writing and every time I finished a chapter I sent it to the people I knew who were either implicated or interested in what I’d written about. For feedback on the whole book, I chose to work with three brilliant and generous readers (whose professional expertise ranges from women’s writing and cultural history to the literature of medicine and trauma) and their input proved utterly invaluable. Later, because I felt that Swedish native speakers might be interested in a particular part of the book in which I discuss accessible design, I was able to appoint a skilled translator to produce a Swedish version of that chapter. Then, working with our fantastic local printer (who produces a wide range of academic and mass-market books) Tom was able to develop a wonderful book design and format that I’m really happy with.

Then I thought about what I could do to get the word out there about Handywoman. I delivered readings at Edinburgh Yarn Fest and Woollinn, and was given the opportunity to give a TEDx talk, which some of you may have now seen. I also built a new Handywoman-dedicated website to provide clear information about the book and to enrich its content. It simply isn’t possible to combine textual narrative with hundreds and hundreds of images in a paperback format, yet often what I am talking about in Handywoman has a rich visual context with which I really want readers to be able to engage. So I developed a series of chapter-specific image galleries, in which you can explore different parts of the book, gain some sense of the debates I examine and the things I talk about, as well as have fun looking through my album of 1970s family slides.

me, my mum, my sister, Helen

Would a commercial publisher have listened to my request to develop such a website? Would they have allocated funds for my Swedish translation? Would they have supported my desire for editorial input from several readers with advanced academic expertise? I doubt it.

Really, the only downside to all of this is that it is me who has, in the end, provided that support. I’ve essentially spent large portions of the past two years working for Handywoman. I’ve made the decisions, I’ve financially backed the project, I’ve thought about everything that has gone into producing the book, I’ve done the vast majority of the work myself.

But then in the end, that is kind of the point for me. Producing this work is not about the cash or the publicity. It is about making something whose quality I can be sure of and whose content I really believe in. I think Handywoman is a far richer and more interesting project because of my decision to just go ahead and make it myself.

At every stage of making Handywoman, knitters have been involved. It was a knitter – Maylin Scott – who recommended me to Woman’s Hour; a knitter – Áine Ryan – who introduced me to the TEDx team. The book’s readers, and Swedish translator, and editorial team are all knitters (or practitioners of other crafts) and it was a kind colleague in the knitting industry who pointed me in the direction of the company with whom I now hope to explore the possibility of producing a Handywoman audiobook. Knitters are everywhere, in Handywoman’s deep background, and they are at the heart of it too. You’ll find many knitters celebrated within its pages.

So thank you, all you knitters and crafters, all you handywomen and handymen, who have helped me to make this book!

Find out more about the book and explore the Handywoman website here.