Tag Archives: Hilary Mantel

Why use real people in fiction?

So why do writers use real people as characters in their novels? Doesn’t the choice of real people as characters limit the writer’s creativity? Perhaps the author wishes to correct a settled view of the character, or offer an alternative interpretation to the established version of events as in Burial Rites (see below). Perhaps the discipline of keeping to what is known about a person, limiting to some extent the creation of the character, allows freedoms elsewhere in the writing? It may be that people’s actions and motivations, being the stuff of fiction, are more vivid when they are drawn from life.

I seem to have read a number of fictions based on historical events or people recently. So here are some thoughts on factual fictions (or is it fictional facts? – no it isn’t!), some reviews and mentions of other novels.

Writing about real people

For the writer it may be that it is useful that the storyline is already established. But there are some challenges. Not least, the outcome may constitute a spoiler. Or not. I was pleased, as a reader, that I knew Agnes’s fate in Burial Rites. Knowing that she was to be executed focused my mind on the changing relationships as her fate approached, which I believe was Hannah Kent’s intention.

A danger lies in the writer’s attachment to all that research. Some writers appear to include everything. Some writers wear their research lightly. Hilary Mantel appears to be in complete command of all her material, even when her interpretation counters some established ideas. I think of the righteousness of Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall, for example. She presents a very different view from what I learned in my A Level classes, or to Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Research is a very seductive part of writing. Writing on the booksbywomen blog Anna Mazzola reflects on writing her novel The Unseeing and advises:

Work out what to research, and know when to stop.

She spent a year researching London and criminal justice in the 19th century and the murder at the centre of the plot.

In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book.

Perhaps her most useful advice comes in her recommendation

Recognise that the history is not the story.

The job of the fiction writer is not to be a historian or biographer but to provide ‘a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive’.

So here are some recommendations.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

This unsettling novel is based on the true story of Agnes, executed for her part in two murders in Iceland in 1829.

The novel focuses on the period leading up to her execution when Agnes is billeted on a farm. We read about the responses of the family, neighbours and the priest she has asked to help her prepare. The everyday interaction with Agnes as well as her muted behaviour and then the retelling of her life story help gradually shift attitudes towards her.

In some ways it is a feminist novel. Hannah Kent has interpreted Agnes as a strong and independent woman who does not fit the norms of Icelandic society. In Burial Rites she stands up to male abuse to herself and a younger girl, and this eventually leads to the death of her tormentor. The younger girl is pardoned, being pretty and somewhat simple.

The details of Icelandic life fit well with what I have read, and the harsh realities of the law and the hierarchy of the island (subject to distant Danish rule) are well evoked. The writing is vivid and moving.

Recommended by Morag in a comment on the post Bookword in Iceland.

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, published by Picador (2013) 355pp

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson has made her writing career writing about real people. The Great Lover features Rupert Brooke during his years at Cambridge and in Tahiti. Other historical figures make an appearance, including Lady Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Wolf. The girl whom Rupert thinks he loves attended Bedales School, known for naked swimming and free lessons.

It was a Richard and Judy summer read, which must have brought Jill Dawson and Rupert Brooke to the attention of many readers who had not known them before. The story zips along, through endless pre-war sunny days, endless glimpses from afar and endless self-examination by the main characters.

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published by Sceptre (2009)

Other fictions based on real people by Jill Dawson include Fred and Edie (2000) and The Crime Fighter (2016), which I recently reviewed, here.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda is the wife of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The novella’s narrative captures different moments in her life. We meet her first as a girl, for example, in a convent, where the endemic cruelty of the sisters and the other girls is designed to promote conformity. The sections are filtered through different women: Magda herself in the convent, later it is her mother, her daughter’s diary, her own imagination of what it her life will be like after the war, and a more detached narrator.

We get a sense that abuse rattles down the generations, reinforced through institutions especially the Catholic Church and National Socialists, which is presented as a religion. It’s a vivid, and raw account of what it meant to be a child in pre-war Germany, as it was collapsing in 1945, and it meant to be one of the favoured ones in that distorted society.

Magda is an interesting mix of historical fact and imaginative exploration. I understood something more about how Bavarians and Catholics became such keen advocates of National Socialism, how women were abused by the ideas of fascism, and how women are forced to use their sexuality to make anything of themselves, especially in times of crisis and chaos.

Magda by Meike Ziervogel Salt Publishing (2013) 103pp

Recent reviews on this blog:

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor In this novel the main character is the actor Molly Allgood.

Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien A searing look at how charming and seductive evil can be, hiding in plain sight, even if he is the Beast of Bosnia.

Other fictions that I am tempted by …

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (Shostakovich) (2016)

Or have read in the past.

Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951). The Emperor writes a letter to his successor towards the end of his life.

Summer in February by Jonathan Smith (1995); a circle of painters in Cornwall, three of whom create a doomed love triangle. Laura Knight, Harold Knight, Alfred Munnings among them.

Tom and Will by Matthew Plampin (2015). A novel based on a possible episode in the lives of two young painters JMW Turner and Tom Girtin.

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More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.

209 To_the_Lighthouse

The Story of To the Lighthouse

The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.

Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.

The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.

Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.

Writing To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.

…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)

Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)

By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.

I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)

She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.

And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes

Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)

The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Reflections from the slow read

The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.

Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.

Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.

And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)

The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)

227 To Light cover

To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)

It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later

I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)

Other stuff

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,

I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)

My copy is falling to bits.

I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.

Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?

For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Related posts

Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks

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More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories? Where do you publish your stories?

 

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A visit from my inner critic

‘Oh I know what you mean! He’s exactly like mine!’ When I introduced my inner critic on this blog back in March there was a warming response; some readers said my inner critic was just like theirs, others recognised the character I had described as ‘a bit of an animal’ and others gave advice about how to deal with him (it is a him). And at the end of this blogpost I’ll share the best advice I have garnered.

peperami

I haven’t blogged about writing for a while, largely because I haven’t been doing much. And that’s because I have been unsettled by moving house (and life) to Devon. But I have been reading about writing. Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott featured in a list of the ten best books about writing. Bird by Bird is Number One on the, which impressed me because I had already read many of the featured books.

58 Bird by birdI have enjoyed Bird by Bird very much. Anne Lamott is worldly, generous, grounded and she gives practical advice with humour, supported by experience. She has two pieces of advice that are especially relevant to the inner critic. The first is that you only ever need to write ‘short assignments’. She explains:

All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains are still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out of the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car – just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (p18)

This is such useful advice when you are stuck and facing the revision of the first draft of a novel, as I am – just tackle one short assignment after another.

Her second valuable nugget is – remember, all first drafts are shitty. I felt so grateful to her when I read this paragraph about setting out to write that shitty first draft and being deflected by the dreaded inner critic.

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door on the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (p26)

Do you know what she means or even recognise these voices? I too hear such a cacophony and so my first step is identifying them. Here are the ones I hear most frequently:

My school teacher, Mrs Hunt, who wants me to slow down and practise, not write stories that never end. ‘Be reasonable Caroline, published authors have to refine what they write. And be merciful to your readers.’ Actually, Mrs Hunt, these days I love revising and editing and my short stories are all less than 5000 words.

‘This is very derivative,’ says the poet, Laurence Lerner, who damned my poetry 50 years ago. ‘Chopped up prose’ he observed then. He was right. I was devastated. He’s still going strong. I don’t write poetry these days. And my other writing has improved over the decades.

My novelist friend – a proper published novelist – (you know who you are) who says, very politely, very gently, and with affection, ‘hmmmm, one or two nice phrases, but …’ I should make it clear that I’ve never actually shown him any of my writing, so I have no idea what he would say. I am sure it would be very helpful, because he is that kind of person. [Inner critic: so perhaps you should ask him!]

And the voice I recognise as my own, my little Peperami, which says, ‘are you still trying to be a writer? Whatever has given you the idea you should persist since this is all so bad, boring and banal? Nobody’s asking you to write, you know!’ I just have to quiet that one until he gets tired of leaping around and saying the same thing.

58 Chekhov

Here are the strategies for dealing with these voices. I drown them out with my own mantra – I am learning to improve my writing. I write one short assignment after another. Chekhov said (according to Jurgen Wolf in Your Creative Writing Masterclass):

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures. (p214)

I don’t think it is possible to give up worrying, to stop being concerned about success and failure. It’s not like giving up parsnips or the Sunday papers or red socks. But the Russian master’s observation that you just need to turn up at your writing desk echoes what so many writers say. It fits with Anne Lamott’s idea of the short assignment, and Hilary Mantel’s advice (also in the Masterclass. These quotations are included in the chapter about confidence, and that should tell us something.) This is what Hilary Mantel said:

If you are unpublished, you can still say to yourself, “I am a writer.” You should define yourself as such. (p217)

58 Mantel quoteSo next time my inner critic hangs around too long I’ll say, ‘Go away, or at least be quiet, unless you have something useful to suggest. I have a short writing assignment to do! And by the way, I’m working on improving my writing!’

 

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At the Queen’s Gallery …

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At the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace I meet again the companions of O level History – the Tudors and Stuarts and some of their European contemporaries. There’s Erasmus, and Durer’s Rhinoceros, Henry VIII, some of his wives and courtiers, Martin Luther, and some fabulous silverware, chalices mostly. They feel like family friends, and I’m calling in on them to catch up, finding them reassuringly unchanged. (The Northern Renaissance, Durer to Holbein – until 14th April 2013.)

After that thought comes the idea of late evening in the gallery. The Queen in her pink fluffy dressing gown and soft slippers is padding down to her Gallery with a mug of cocoa. Behind her is a footman with an upholstered chair (red velvet, of course), which he places in front of her favourite picture of the moment. A second flunky discretely positions a footstool. A corgi flops down to wait, its chin on its paws, at ease with this routine. Tonight she contemplates Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, a rather mean-faced man dressed in ermine and holding a pool cue (actually the gold baton of Earl Marshal). He has become familiar to readers through Hilary Mantel’s novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Strangely, in the Gallery he is not being played by a well-known English stage actor, but takes his embellishment from his costume and his staffs of office.

The Queen can visit her gallery at any time, have an insider’s view into its quiet night-time secrets, then glide back to her cosy bed. Perhaps librarians can do the same? They can indulge in putting the newspapers back in order, shaking them so that the front page is neatly ready for recycling. They can alphabeticize the encyclopaedias, in reverse for once. They can find that secret volume they slipped behind the ranks, page marked with a slip RETURN THIS BOOK BEFORE THE DATE STAMPED BELOW OR RISK A FINE. PEOPLE OVER 60 AND UNDER 16 PAY NO FINES. Or replace the books in the stacks ready for readers in the morning. Or read in the special quiet of a room full of books.

But what of writers? Did Jane Austen sip her tisane nightcap while considering what gothic horrors she would avoid inflicting upon that silly Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) the footsteps on the stairs, the disturbances in the attic, the scraping at the window and the voice on the wind calling ‘Cathy, Cathy’?

Writers visit their books, their stories, their characters before they sleep. They mull over who will tell this story. Ishiguro says he interviews each character to arrive at his decision. They consider the next scene, its pulse, its tension, its connection with the previous scenes and the next. They search for the image to catch the reader’s attention, to show their characters’ reactions. They change the sex of their protagonist, their marital status, their occupation, date of birth, location. Sitting at the computer or the notebook, the glass of whiskey close by, the darkness looming beyond the pool of their desk lamp, writers exercise their dominion over their subjects.

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Reading in 2012

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So many good books read in 2012. I keep a record, a brief commentary, publication details and date finished. I’ve been reading so much more in the last few years. Most of it I am pleased to have picked up. There are a few books with which I did not persist, I wasn’t interested in what happened to the characters. I wasn’t convinced that I would get anything out of it. I can’t even remember their titles and I don’t record these. I can’t see anything especially satisfying about finishing everything one starts. Too much to enjoy to waste time on some.

Some books have taken quite a time to finish. The chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer varied in length. I enjoyed reading them, one at a time, between short stories and novels.

Then there were the Elizabeths: Taylor, Bowen and Jenkins. We looked at extracts from the first two in a writing class. This sent me back to In a Summer Season, and The Heat of the Day. And Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet and The Tortoise and the Hare show how one writer’s style can vary. Harriet is a fictionalised version of a murder, an account of selfishness and disregard. It was a disturbing read. Beautifully produced Persephone Book publication.

I caught up with Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar. The author is a linguist, and tells a bleak tale of a man cut off from everything because he looses his language. He has no history, no social engagement, no conversation, no communication, no love, no belonging, no identity. Even his name isn’t his name. It’s about words, grammar, images, letters, stories, myths, history blended with insights into the fiendishly difficult Finnish language.

Newly published in 2012: Canada by Richard Ford. Unsettling to read, an insight into boundaries, crossing boundaries of all kinds, written in that flat compelling style of Ford’s. Hilary Mantel brought us the second of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell in Bring up the Bodies. She’s a worthy Man Booker prize winner.

And finally, life changing possibly, Robert Macfarlane, writing about walking in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Such a generous book, there is always space on the path alongside him, and he’s an informed and interesting companion. He introduced me to Edward Thomas, so next year I’ll read Matthew Hollis’s biography.

No room for Persephone’s 30 Short Stories, published to celebrate 100 volumes, or Anne Enright, Edmund de Waal, Malcolm Bradbury, Ali Smith, or the scores of other books I enjoyed.

Now I’m off to curl up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.

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