Reclaiming ‘Hysteria’: Interview with Alex Reece Abbott on the Hysteria Writing Competition

In this interview, Alex Reece Abbott tells us about the Hysteria International Writing Competition, an initiative intended to raise awareness of women’s health issues. She tells us about all the support the competition offers for prospective entrants and makes some suggestions about how we can all get involved in promoting this interesting project.

Laurie: Could you tell us a little bit about the Hysteria International Writing Competition? How did it come about and what is the purpose of it?

Alex: Sure – the Hysteria International Writing Competition really began life as a one-off idea to reach a new audience for the Hysterectomy Association, founded by Linda Parkinson-Hardman.

The Hysterectomy Association is self-supporting, providing impartial information about hysterectomy, women’s health, the menopause and hormone replacement therapy.

So, it was hoped, that along the way the Hysteria International Writing Competition for women writers would raise much needed funds, at the same time as connecting with women who might not know about, but who could need the Association’s services, now and in the future. It started with short stories and poetry in 2012; and in 2013 the thought was: that was fun, why don’t we do it again? So they did!

The competition is totally run by volunteers, from managing to judging. I’m the third writer in residence and my role is to raise awareness and support the writers who want to enter through my blogs.

I started out as an entrant (and finalist), then became a judge, before becoming this year’s writer-in-residence. It’s a very friendly competition, and really well run. Everyone involved gives their time to help out – that’s the kind of vital support which makes it happen.

Laurie: As a researcher of Victorian lit, ‘hysteria’ looms large for me as a fascinating term and a problematic one. What sort of submissions are you looking for?

Alex: You are so right – it’s a very loaded word! Women and wandering wombs is an ancient concept, and then there’s the Victorians and madness in the attic and all that. A fascinating, but also sobering, history.

There’s still so much to research and learn about women’s health generally, and specifically, our reproductive systems. I thought it was great that Kirsty Wark did a documentary on menopause – she described menopause as a taboo subject. Hysteria is part of making information more available and enabling women to support one another.

Siri Hustvedt (The Shaking Woman, 2010) said that ‘the problem is one of vocabulary and the magic of naming. If you give it another word, it appears to be another thing.’ Regarding war and shell-shock (which we might call PTSD these days), she observes that military physicians were ‘loath to label their men with an illness that had always been associated with women. How could fighting men be hysterics?’

I like to think that women all around the world are enjoying exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement at the prospect of writing a great piece for a friendly competition and a wonderful cause! And, no, your story or poem doesn’t have to be about women’s health, rather ‘something of interest to women’.

We’re in the sixth year now, and writers can submit flash fiction (up to 250 words) short stories (up to 2,000 words) and poetry (up to 20 lines) through the Hysteria website.

As I said, there’s no theme – and the only restriction is no horror or erotica. Check out the rules and guidelines too though 😃.

The competition is now in its sixth year, still all run by volunteers, from managing to judging.

As well as cash prizes, the winners and finalists are published in the annual Hysteria anthology with an ISBN number, and some overall feedback on the submissions from the judges. The women who enter range very widely, right from new writers, to emerging and more experienced and published, all getting into the spirit of the competition. Quite a few of the past entrants have gone on to win other prizes and be published in other places too.

Laurie: Can you tell us about a few of your most memorable submissions, winners or not?

Alex: Yikes, Laurie – are you trying to get me into trouble?! May I answer more generally? Firstly, all stories are memorable, because someone out there sat down and took the time to take that brave step of writing – and then send in their work. For me, that’s always a milestone.

Any judgement is highly subjective, even though the judges for Hysteria use a judging framework. That covers various aspects including:- imagery; grammar, punctuation and spelling; originality; drama; a clear theme or message; the language and clichés; the old “show rather than tell” maxim; the distinctiveness of voice; the structure – a clear beginning, middle and end; and how satisfied the judge was on reading the piece. Interviews with all the judges are posted on the site so you can do your research before you submit.

Personally, I love humour, and finding something resonant – something that moves me, makes me think, or that feels original; something that makes me look at something in a fresh way. It’s a challenge – from twenty lines to two thousand words – it’s not very long to grab your reader and make something happen!

Laurie: I always ask my interviewees about how they’re using the online world to make their projects happen. Is there anything you’re doing online that works particularly well to foster interest and participation in the competition?

Alex: The writer in residency is completely online and that helps to broaden interest and attract entrants.

I wanted to do something different this year, so for each competition category, I reached out to writers around the world, whose work I know and admire, and I asked them to each send me their three top tips – I wanted to do a kind of mini-masterclass for each genre. Most of these women have won awards for their work and have experience judging competitions too. The collaborators have been great at getting the word out and re-tweeting.

I was just thinking the other day, how quickly it came together. It would have been a massive challenge to do this if we weren’t all online ‘D.

The response has been amazing, with loads of goodwill. Thanks to these fantastic collaborators, I have more than fifty pointers from seventeen amazing women writers, and story generators for flash fiction, short stories and poems – these form the framework for my blogs this year.

The short story blog is about to go live, and I’m really excited, because the response to the flash blog has been so positive. Writers are finding it valuable, so that’s a good sign!

In addition to the Hysterectomy Association site, which has lots of information and interactive features and a shop, this year, Linda (the founder) developed a new site, specifically for Hysteria which has streamlined the competition entry – everything can be done online, including payment. She uses Facebook and tweets until the competition closes at the end of August – and of course, the Hysteria anthology goes on sale online too.

Laurie: How can those who are interested in the competition, but might not want to submit an entry get involved? Can we help you out with promotion? Will there be a showcase of winners somewhere?

Alex: Good questions! There are lots of ways to be involved and whatever you choose, we are grateful for any and all of them.

Sign up at Hysteria and follow us on Twitter @UKHysteria so you have the latest information – and re-tweet, that helps us get the message out, not just about the competition, but about the association. Tell women you know who write – or who would like to write!

Thinking ahead, you might like volunteer to be a judge for one of the categories in 2018 – it’s very well organised and there’s a framework to work from, so that’s an option for some women too. Just contact Linda.

Yes, there’s a showcase. First, the winners are notified in October 2017, then announced on the Hysteria website and the Hysteria mailing list. Next, the winning authors give an interview online, and the winning stories are also published at the Hysterectomy Association and Hysteria UK.

And of course, you can buy Hysteria Six when the anthology comes out in December this year 😃.

Thanks Laurie – and hope you’ll submit!



Image Credit

Jean-Martin Charcot demonstrating hysteria in a patient at the Salpetriere. Lithograph after P.A.A. Brouillet, 1887. Wellcome Library, London. Reproduced under a CC license.