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Taking Up Residence

On being a writer-in-residence, from a biochemistry lab to a cemetery.

BIology culture plate

I like to spend time in cemeteries. Oh, and also biochemistry labs. Does that sound strange? Let me explain. In 2010–11 I was writer-in-residence in a biochemistry lab at the University of Bristol. And this year I am writer-in-residence in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery, the second largest in Europe. ‘Writer-in-residence’ and ‘artist-in-residence’ seem to be popular terms at the moment, with artists ‘in residence’ everywhere from the CERN particle accelerator to London Underground’s Central Line. What does ‘in-residence’ mean, or — what might it mean and how does it happen?

I used to be a journalist and the joy of that job was the access it gave me. You say, ‘Hello, I’d like to write an article about you/your company’, and, most of the time, the door is opened wide. I met fascinating people and learned about worlds hidden to everyone except those who work there. When I moved to writing fiction, it seemed as though my life would involve a lot of alone time, which was fine: I like solitude. But I have a science background, and after my first story collection was published – which contains stories inspired by science articles – and I moved to Bristol, I decided I wanted to spend time with the scientists themselves. I had an undergraduate degree in science but I had no idea what it was like to do science on a daily basis. I didn’t wait for an invitation, or for a position to be advertised. I approached the Dean of the Faculty of Science and said, ‘Can I be your writer-in-residence?’

At the time, I didn’t really know what I meant. I had no fixed idea what it ‘should’ be, and, as with my stories, I felt quite free to make it all up. The Dean was enthusiastic, and I was pointed towards the biochemistry lab by a friend. Professor Paul Martin, the head of the lab, was already interested in art and science, and welcomed me in. I decided I would go in once a week and absorb the atmosphere.

I should mention at this point that no money was involved. The University couldn’t fund my residency – although they later found ways to pay me, for running a science blogging course, for example – but I started anyway. I was planning to write stories inspired by my residency, and to apply for an Arts Council grant. I was fortunate to have paid work that supported me.

For a year, I went into the lab every Wednesday, the day of the weekly lab meeting, where I could hear what everyone had been up to, as well as learning the language of biochemistry and of scientific cooperation, how the team worked. I loved it. Because I’d set this up myself, there was no pressure on me to produce anything. I took copious notes and asked the researchers, at least those who didn’t mind me staring while they worked, a million questions. I heard the phrase ‘public engagement’, which is an important part of science, and figured I was giving these young scientists the opportunity to engage with a layperson and answer all my silly questions. I was also on hand if someone wanted help crafting a sentence in their scientific paper.

The residency was filled with wonders, from heart cells beating in a petri dish to looking inside a zebrafish while it swam. It also threw up unexpected challenges. I met bio-artist, Oron Catts, who uses biological materials, concepts and methods to make art, and he suggested I organise an art-science symposium, inviting him to give a talk alongside other art-science collaborations within the University. I was required to go through the University system for raising funds, as well as doing all the admin involved. It went well, and I was glad to have been nudged out of my comfort zone.

I received an Arts Council grant the second time I applied – for the story collection inspired by the residency rather than the residency itself – and Some of Us Glow More Than Others was published in 2017, six years after I finished the residency. As a wise writer friend said to me in 2010, the inspiration from a residency needs to percolate, don’t pressure yourself to write it all then and there.

That residency exceeded all my expectations. Science, I learned, is not necessarily about finding answers but about asking questions. Science involves immense creativity – how do you design the experiment to test the question you’ve dreamed up? – and a high tolerance for failure. Science takes a long time. It involves working by yourself and in a group. It involves a balance between competition and cooperation. There is much laughter. There are many in-jokes. Often, there is cake.

Since then I have thought about where else I might be ‘in residence’. I assumed it would be with scientists, but in a different field. I contemplated volcanologists. Also chronobiology. Then when I moved cities again eighteen months ago, I discovered the Southern Cemetery. Thinking about death and dying always fascinated me, the one truly unknowable thing. The cemetery is a gorgeous, peaceful place to walk through, and because of its size you rarely take the same path twice. As I wandered I thought, Perhaps I could be writer-in-residence here?

It took me a while to find the right person to approach. I wrote an email to the manager but he didn’t reply. Months later, I was chatting with someone at a literary event, mentioned the cemetery, and it turned out she knew a tour guide, Emma Fox, who gives cemetery tours. Emma pointed me towards another contact and I set up a meeting.

Turns out the cemetery had never had a writer- or artist-in-residence (or at least, as one of them said, not a live one). Turns out they are delighted to have me, and don’t mind what I do or write while I’m there. So on January 1st 2018, I took my initial stroll as the cemetery’s first writer-in-residence. What I wanted, once again, was to step into a world I had no knowledge of and learn its vocabularies, its rituals. I wanted to know what it was like to work in a cemetery on a daily basis. And so I have been getting to know Jim, Ellen, Cliff, Adam, Peter… and many of the others for whom the cemetery is the ‘office’ they go into every day. They’ve been working there for years and years, and laugh more than any other group of people I’ve spent time with.

I chat to gravediggers and funeral directors. I attended four funerals on my first day. (There are funerals almost every day of the year, it’s a busy cemetery.) I sit in the office, listening to them handle queries and locate graves in the online database. I look through Grave Books dating back to the cemetery’s founding in 1879, reading words like ‘spinster’ and wondering. My particular interest is graves which have only women’s names and where the woman is not described in relation to others — as someone’s mother or wife, say. I’m looking for women like me, and I’ve found a number of graves that might fit, but of course I will never know for sure. And it turns out I am writing a book I hadn’t planned to write, which is a kind of fictional memoir-in-collage circling around the notion of being a delightedly single woman without children at this point in the twenty-first century. It turns out that some of the book involves a woman walking through a cemetery talking to the dead, especially those women who fit the criteria above. And the dead talk back to her.

My residency is ongoing, and has thrown up surprises, such as an invitation to write a poem inspired by the work of a Polish poet buried in the cemetery, Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzcwska, and read it by her gravestone as part of a magical cemetery-based event for the Manchester Polish Poetry Festival. Every few weeks I wander through the cemetery, looking for more graves with women’s names, taking photos as the seasons change. My book is nearly finished, I think. I haven’t solved the mystery of death. But I’m learning to ask the questions. Another unexpected turn: I am partnering with a Radio 4 producer to make a radio documentary about my time in the cemetery, scheduled for November 2019.

I talk about my residencies as much as possible, sensing that many writers would like the experience but believe they need to wait, until a post is advertised, for example, or they’re invited. There are existing residencies which invite writers to apply, but I’ve always taken the initiative and benefitted enormously from creating my own framework, playing and experimenting, seeing where it takes me. If you have an idea for a residency, why not ask? Your residency might also involve running writing workshops, say, for those you are in residence with, or to bring other writers into the space. From cemeteries to science labs and beyond, the world truly is your oyster to reside in.

Tania Hershman has written three collections of short stories, most recently Some of Us Glow More Than Others, and a poetry collection, Terms and Conditions. She has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics.

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