Fiction is concerned with itchiness. Or, to put it differently, storytelling is concerned with some kind of friction. But let’s extend it further: I would argue that the urge to write something substantial at all, in a way that requires imaginative effort, to shift ideas from fleeting feelings or impressions towards more fully realised and substantial creative works, requires a certain dis-ease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction: anger, confusion, disbelief, disapproval, or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this.
Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”
I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name:Continue reading →
So, yes, Winter Fugue is underway. How has it taken its first few steps into being? I don’t mean “being” as a concept; I mean “being” as a synonym for pixels and ink. Beyond the emergence of the work of fiction as a flickering response to the raw and burning imperative to write, how does it — how has it — come to assume a definite form on the page?
For me, the first words of a fiction never issue from an idea or an image, or a narrative dilemma, but always — strange to say — from a feeling in the body, a mood that circulates through blood and breath, an incarnate sensation in no way tethered to events in the outside world. They come on top of the murmur that drives the act of writing and they take shape in response to, or in mimicry of, an inner disturbance that feels physically like the growth of some alien thing, some subcutaneous burr, lodged in the fibres of muscle and flesh. Marilynne Robinson gives voice to an experience of much the same sensation in her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things: Continue reading →
Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a book voucher to the value of £100. I used it to nab a dozen new paperbacks that ended up making me nauseous. To be fair, I had anticipated the feeling. It’s a familiar one in the process of writing a novel. I can barely write a word without first looking around at the superabundance of novels already in existence and asking myself if the world is really in need of a new one like Winter Fugue. More than that, I can barely write a word without first looking over the handful of novels that I consider flawless, the novels that I’d say have changed my life, and wondering why a new novel should be written when whatever faint power it possesses will almost certainly fall short of theirs.
It’s a truism of writing workshops that it’s impossible to become a writer if you’re not first and foremost a reader. I don’t disagree with that, but I also recognise the double-bind it involves. For me, being the reader I am, it’s impossible to write the novel I’m writing without bearing in mind the force of the competition it faces. I’m constantly aware of the inadequacies it harbours, relative to the best of its kind, and I’m aware, too, of the obscurity that likely awaits it if it makes its way into print. To write it at all, in fact, is to labour away in conscious defiance of this dual awareness, with a wilful dismissal of everything that the reader in me is trying to warn the writer about. Continue reading →
These words are a distraction. I don’t necessarily mean for you — although there probably is something else that deserves your attention right now, isn’t there? — but certainly for me they arrive here at the expense of something less occasional, something more worthy of my time.
For a little bit over eighteen months, working in fits and starts, I’ve been piecing together a new novel. Right now it’s called Winter Fugue. At the start of the summer, it existed as a loose-limbed, shaggy beast of about 80,000 words. It was recognisably one thing, fully formed in the sense that all its core components held together, but its surface textures were coarse and its proportions were all askew. I’ve been going over it again since August, trawling through it line by line to tighten it up and smooth it out, and now, with the first 25,000 words in better shape, I feel like I’ve passed at least a minor waymark. Time to pause and look back over the route that has led me here. Time to rest and take stock, and survey the terrain ahead before setting off again. Continue reading →