Ways of Living is Gemma Seltzer's keen exploration of what it means to be a modern woman inhabiting the urban landscape. Ten stories of ordinary women going to extraordinary lengths to be understood, acting in bold and unpredictable ways as they map their identities onto London's streets.
Praise for Ways of Living
Listening. That's at the heart of my work as a writer. I listen and I look and I am curious. I write about things I hear and observe, and to explore how people communicate and connect with each other. I'm interested, too, in stillness and quiet, in cities and how a place can shape how we live our lives.
I make all kinds of creative projects. I've enjoyed facilitation, performance and writing commissions from organisations including Adidas, Age UK, Southbank Centre, Tate Modern, the Venice Biennale and the Wellcome Collection. I have written short fiction for the Photographers' Gallery (Dark is the Night), a radio documentary for BBC Radio 3 (The Dhammazedi Bell) and a virtual reality film script for the Guardian (Songbird).
London has played a significant role in much of my creative work. In Look up at the Sky, I uncovered the city's most peaceful places. I made a fictional photoblog called 5am London about London in the early hours. For the Live Writing Series, I created events that championed writing as performance using the city's most inspiring venues as a backdrop. I spoke to one hundred Londoners and wrote one hundred stories about the experience. The resulting work, Speak to Strangers, was first published online and then, wonderfully, in print by Penned in the Margins (2011).
Enabling others to express and realise their creative ideas is something I care deeply about. I run Write & Shine, a programme of morning writing workshops in quiet London locations and online. Supported by Age UK and Roehampton University, I create reading and storytelling projects with those in later life, in care homes and day centres.
Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I wake early to watch the sky and to write as the light lifts.
Writing, for me, doesn't always exist on the page. There are so many ways to create and share a story. Being sensitive to the right form, the right container, the right location, for a piece of work is vital. I've written for print, for radio, for performance and for virtual reality films.
Set in the forests of Hawaii, Songbird tells the tale of the now extinct O'o bird, last seen in 1985. I worked with the Guardian Virtual Reality team to write the script for this film. It won a VR Now Award in 2019 and is being shown at film festivals around the world.
My writing has been performed, projected and published in anthologies, including Overheard: Stories to be Read Aloud (Salt Publishing). I've had work recognised in the Bridport Prize, Macaron Prize, Masters Review Fiction Contest, and the Mslexia Novel Award.
I've held residencies in a beach lookout tower, a Grade II listed Georgian mansion, and in a vacant shop. My stories have been abandoned on street corners, crafted into bunting and used in choreography.
For both Performing Small Spaces and the Hand Museum, I collaborated with a dancer and a photographer. We created participatory installations focusing on the body and movement.
I wrote the script for the BBC Radio 3 documentary The Dhammazedi Bell (2015) about the largest bell in the world, thought to be hidden in a river. It's a piece about contemporary Myanmar, the thrill of deep water and how a place and its myths entwine.
As writers, we have so many tools available to us. We have to keep questioning our work. Can a story have no beginning and no end? What kind of poem exists only through the medium of dance? What does it mean to write slow? Writing in different formats offers different ways of engaging others. It requires openness, curiosity and trust that the process of making will take you where you need to go.
With a pink balloon in one of your hands, a pile of chewed cakes and plates in the other, I ask you where you learned to dance. It's a moment from Fame, from Cabaret: your face lights up, it's the question you love to answer. All your life, since a girl, ballet classes, the ribbons, your grandmother, ballrooms, the foxtrot, the New York academy, Paris (once), and now a teacher by the sea. I tell you I think you dance beautifully because I know that, sweaty brow, tired feet, eyes smudged, this is what you will most like to hear.
For one hundred days, I wrote very short stories about unusual and unexpected conversations with London. I heard about their love of yoghurts, how they sewed costumes for musical theatre, where they learned to dance. This was Speak to Strangers. Unfolding day by day online, then gathered together as a book.
After the publication, I travelled to Manchester, Birmingham, and all over Devon following the Olympic Torch with Speak to Strangers to meet new people. I then spent a couple more weeks at Tate Modern inviting members of the public to tell me about their lives. What made you happy today, I asked? Who would you be if you were not you? Being listened to matters. Hearing your voice in the world does, too. So I wrote about our shared experience, capturing the fleeting moment before it drifted away.
"Sadie, who believed in the power of an aerobics class"
"Auntie Edna, who explored the bush"
"Leloba, a great philosopher"
"Vera, wild and beautiful. Women like her changed everything for other women"
"Trudy, the one-hundred year old dancer"
"Oh, my mother: my muse"
Everyone's life is important and the details should be recorded. For Lifelong Reading: New Stories, I collaborated with a children's literature expert, a book artist and two older adults living with dementia. We co-created story boxes, filled with real and fictional moments. At the heart of this project was writing and reading, telling and listening.
The idea built on my time at writer-in-residence for Age UK, as an artist for the Moving Into Care project, and as a 2016 Churchill Fellow for Writers Meet Elders. For this, I travelled around Australia, the USA and the UK to research dynamic creative ageing and creative writing projects.
My projects in this field are often intimate, quiet collaborations, involving one or two other people. We use books, poetry, drawing or stories to read aloud. I allow space for contemplation and silence, often in noisy environments such as day centres or care home dining rooms.
Opening up the creative potential of those in later life and paying attention to their experiences, is immensely satisfying. It's also challenging, playful and transformative for everyone involved. There is a beauty and a power in these projects that always include the small act of compassion that is listening.
–Becca, Write & Shine member
What conditions do we need for good conversation, for creativity, and for thinking clearly? In 2015, I set up Write & Shine, a programme of writing workshops in peaceful London locations and online. We offer time and space for creative ideas to surface in a fast-paced world. On waking, we're incredibly sensitive to the sights and sounds of our environment. In the morning, all the sounds are soft. It's the best time to think, dream and imagine. Writing early captures all kinds of ideas before your inner critic rears its head.
Our programme has featured in A Little Bird, the Financial Times Magazine, Time Out and White Fox, and we've run bespoke sessions for Adidas, Gunnersbury Museum, London Library, Meetup and Paperchase.
Write & Shine follows the seasons. Tuning in to the world around us helps invigorate creativity and uncover new ideas. I design and facilitate the workshops, taking inspiration from the world around us. From the new buds and birdsong, to national events and issues that concerns us as citizens. In each session, I encourage participants to approach the page with hope and optimism. I know how writing shows us fresh ways of imagining the world.
Barge Walk, Hampton Court
Queen Charlotte's Cottage, Kew
Eel Pie Island, Twickenham
London Wetlands Centre, Barnes
Daunt Books, Marylebone
Hampstead Heath Extension
The Saison Poetry Library, Waterloo
St Giles' Cripplegate church, Barbican Centre
Wapping Old Stairs
I love exploring the ways that people and places entwine. Often the lives of characters in my stories are entangled with the tall buildings, parks and pavements. The city's landscape maps itself on their experiences and encounters.
Commissioned by The Photographers' Gallery, My Father Like This was a story written in response to Jordan Baseman's semi-narrative, poetic films about Soho. The narrow alleyways and bars feature, as does a cast of lonely, fascinating characters. I was later invited to the Venice Biennale to read the piece in the sunshine, alongside the work.
I collaborated with a photographer to make a digital literature project called 5am London, capturing the city in the morning. We travelled to a new spot in London once a month, including the Houses of Parliament and Hyde Park. It opened up a different side of London, people on their way to work, or returning home. Like walking around in a dream, it was disorientating, nothing quite as we expected.
Born in London, I returned here to live over ten years ago. I shared my explorations into the quieter side of the city in articles for the Londonist and the Guardian, listing my top 10 peaceful places in London.
My short story collection about London, of course, and also walking, ventriloquism and bold women is published by the wonderful Influx Press.