After The Lost Child was published, a friend approached me in a slightly embarrassed way and said: ‘If it’s not a dumb question, how do you begin writing a novel?’
I assured her it was actually a very good dumb question and I probably said something sensible and encouraging about beginning with one sentence and seeing where it might lead.
However if she were to ask me the same question right now while I’m sludging through a difficult chapter of my new novel and everything about it seems stilted and superficial and downright banal, I’d probably trot out the well known saying: ‘It’s easy. I sit down every day and open a vein.’
This is not a whinge. No-one is holding a gun to my head. I love what I do. It’s also exciting and mysterious, a drug, a disease, a magic carpet ride into other worlds. I consider myself very fortunate to be able to do it. I just want to write as well as I can, and better.
One of my favourite authors, Elena Ferrante, says this about writing literary fiction:
“To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves lovely tales, sometimes petty lies. Falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection, they dilute the horrors of our time, they even save us from ourselves. Instead, when one writes one must never lie. In literary fiction you have to be sincere to the point where it’s unbearable.”
Both Ferrante, and another favourite author, Norwegian, Per Petterson, have an amazing—and enviable—ability to absorb the reader not only into the souls of their characters but also into the souls of themselves as writers.
The Australian essayist, Helen Elliott, says of Ferrante:
‘She does not write about emotion, she writes of it, from within. There is no detachment.’
And: ‘…there is not even the thinnest tissue between the words of the author and the emotion they provoke.’
So, writing the sort of fiction I admire and aspire to create requires sincerity. And getting that close to the truth can be unbearable. Why am I not surprised?
Khalid Warsame says much the same in Overland Journal where he quotes a judge’s report on short fiction by Jennifer Mills:
“The winning stories have nerve. They…surprise and delight, and they bring us into the places writers need to go. They take us past the stereotype, past our expectations, and into the blurry vagueness of life, with all its bewildering contradictions.”
So whatever we call it—sincerity—nerve—(a friend likes the word ‘authenticity’)—as writers we know when we’ve got it and when we haven’t.
If I settle for the superficial, or stereotype, or the formulaic, one dimensional writing that I don’t want to read, or write, there’s always a niggle that tells me I’m cheating.
My inner voice is all I have to monitor the truths I’m trying to tell—though I shouldn’t say ‘all’ because that niggle is surely no different to the moral conscience I rely on to lead me through my everyday life. Yet, as Ferrante says, I can lie to myself for survival but not when it is written on the page.
It’s also part of the contradictory nature of writing literary fiction—or this blog post—that I’m not really writing for you, dear reader, I’m doing it for myself. It’s how I seek to understand my world. It’s my journey of discovery.
And equally paradoxically, I never know what I want to say until it is written. Or to put it in an even more paradoxical way—I never know I know what I know until I see it on the page!
Ferrante explained this in an interview with the Paris Review: “The ‘I’ who narrates my stories…is always a woman writing, and this writer always struggles to organise, in a text, what she knows but doesn’t have clear in her mind.”
So it’s only when I’ve completed my own journey of discovery that hopefully—but not always—something emerges that is worth sharing with a reader—an insight, a way of seeing, possibly a tiny piece of my soul that might reverberate with others.
If I’d said all this to my friend when she asked her not-so-dumb question, I wonder what she’d have said. But then I didn’t know I knew it until I saw it written here!