I was having thoughts this morning at 5 am, as you do, about the life of the imagination. I have blogged before about my dislike of the phrase ‘it’s just your imagination’, meaning ‘it’s not real and therefore not worth your consideration.’ But today I’d like us to consider the proposition that imagination is as important in science as it is in art.
I’d better say at the outset that I’m not a scientist. But I am married to someone with qualifications in various sciences and who, moreover, is able to tell their quarks from their gluons (don’t ask me, I just know they’re something to do with particles.) But from reading about scientific discoveries I’ve learned this: that imagination is key to scientific discovery. There must be a ‘what if?’ moment, a moment of imagining or positing that something hitherto unreal might just turn out to be real. You take the idea and then you test it: what if time were non-linear? What if dark matter made up most of the universe? What if two different particles could occupy the same space? CP Snow complained loud and long about the two cultures but I’m not sure we’re any further forward than in 1959 when he gave the lecture. Yet there is more that unites us than we know. In science you take a theory – something imagined, sometimes wildly imagined – and test it until you find out whether it works. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In art it’s the same: you imagine a character or a story or an idea: What if there are other worlds next to our own? (His Dark Materials.) What if there are wizards living amongst us? (Harry Potter.) What if an ordinary Belfast girl was recruited into the IRA without realising it? (Milkman by Anna Burns.) What if I write a novel about time (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu) or even outside time (Ulysses)? What if I write a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence? Will that work? (Spoiler alert; I tried it and it doesn’t.) You imagine it and then you test it to see if it works in reality. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t – but there’s more that unites science and art than divides us, and the more I write the more I am convinced of this.
Speaking of having more that unites than divides, I watched a stunning video last night on Owen Jones’ Youtube channel. I subscribed to this as a Patreon supporter a while back and this week he’s posted two amazing interviews; one with Patrick Magee, the Brighton Bomber, and the other with Jo Berry, daughter of a Tory MP who was killed in the blast. You’d expect the interviews to be confrontational, combative, telling widely differing stories: what you wouldn’t expect is that in 1984, a matter of weeks after Jo lost her father, she arranged to meet Magee in order to try to understand why he had done what he’d done and to attempt some sort of reconciliation. The very last thing you’d expect is that these two would become friends.
The interview with Magee is difficult to watch: he acknowledges the pain he caused but stops short of apology, saying instead that this was a war and there was violence on both sides. But the interview with Jo Berry was stunning. She was more understanding, more forgiving and more restrained than I even want to be (I don’t go for revenge but at least give me self-righteousness when I’m wronged!) This interview will be up tomorrow so I’ll post a link (we Patreon supporters get to see it ahead of time.) There were many issues raised by these two interviews so I’ll come back to those in a day or two (or three, seeing as it’s the weekend tomorrow) but I guess all these projects of reconciliation are about imagining something better. I’ll drink to that.
I had a better night last night (thanks for asking) and another vivid dream. This time I was on holiday somewhere with another woman, someone older than me who I didn’t know very well. We were on our way to the beach (at least I was) when I lost my car keys. She was much more anxious about this than I was and gave me a lift back to our holiday home to get the spare keys. I missed out on going to the beach twice but managed to get on with some very satisfying work in the meantime.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is about lockdown. I didn’t get to go to the coast this year, though we had a couple of dates pencilled in; I’ve hardly used the car at all and I’ve done lots of really good work. In many ways lockdown has been like a holiday for me, though I do recognise it’s been awful for many people.
The novel, having been finished in draft form, is now gently simmering on the back burner while I get on with other stuff. Yesterday I sent off a poetry pamphlet to Mslexia and I’m getting another one together for future use. I expect I’ll get back to short stories but in the meantime I’m doing a lot of what I call ‘diary’ writing.
I don’t keep a diary in the usual sense as a record of events. It will not surprise readers of this blog to know that I can’t keep to one topic but go off in dozens of different directions, and that’s how it is with my diary. Though I do record some events in it (it’s my daily practice to write something at the end of each day) it’s more about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. But it’s also a place for ideas, snatches of poetry, dialogues (especially recording some of the whackier things OH comes out with) plans and anything else I haven’t yet thought of. I never go away without it and I always know where it is should I need to write something down in the middle of the night.
I’ve kept a diary like this since 1984. Sadly I don’t have the original notebooks as I found I was re-reading them too much and threw them out, but I do have stacks going back at least to the 90’s. I’m trying to keep them in some sort of order now and even though I rarely look back at them, they are a record of my life and thought. I can pull one out and read where I was at, say, ten years ago: what was I thinking? What were my preoccupations? Often they reveal anxieties that are now long-gone, things I’ve grown out of. It’s like looking at old photos. Who was I hanging out with in 1995? What were my hopes and fears? What was my daily routine? It’s good to have these diaries because you forget so much.
So that’s us up to date. How are you doing?
I wasn’t going to do Nanowrimo this year but I seem to feel the need for a bigger project at the moment. National Novel Writing Month, when people all over the world commit to writing 50,000 words during the month of November, is a useful way of getting a draft down on paper. My way of doing it is to divide the words up by the number of working days so that I generally aim to write 2000 words a day. This is surprisingly easy given that I’m not looking at all at the quality, just the quantity. It can be very freeing just to let rip without worrying, and on a good day I can just rattle the words off and sit back with the glow of a job that is at least done, if not done well.
The problem comes with the editing. How do you begin to edit such a pile of garbage? It would be like trying to sift through a landfill site – which some day people will have to start doing because we can’t keep on throwing stuff away like this. So I think this time I’m going to think a little bit about the quality as well and try to write 2000 reasonable words rather than just 2000 words that come to me on the spur of the moment.
There is of course any amount of paraphernalia associated with Nano: mugs, t-shirts, pens, books, certificates and of course the inevitable Facebook group. I don’t know if I’ll check in with the group much this year, because it seems to be full of people bemoaning the fact that they are behind, or else sprinters who write 75,000 words in their first week and are aiming for 200,000. Why? What will they do with all that verbiage? Is any of it good? It makes me feel tired just thinking about it. Not to mention the fact that they all seem to be writing SF or fantasy. Still, it’s an achievement to write 50,000 words in a month and I salute all who try.
When most people say they have an idea for a novel, they mean a plot idea. A man goes to communist Bulgaria, meets a spy pretending to be a milkman and gets sucked into the Cold War. Or a girl walks into a wardrobe and ends up in a land of snow and ice – that kind of thing. But the kind of ideas that come to me are philosophical ones, like a spiral stair or an underground bunker. I used to think that if I explored the idea enough it would show me the plot, but now I think I need something more. I need structure; I need highs and lows; I need problems and resolutions.
I might be doing Nano this year, though if I do it’ll be a rewriting exercise rather than writing something new because I’ve decided that Tapestry, the novel I wrote using the Fibonacci series, should not in fact be written using the Fibonacci series. It seemed a great idea at first – more than that, it was an idea which wouldn’t go away, perhaps an idea whose time had come? – so I diligently followed the pattern. Chapter 1 had 1,000 words. So did Chapter One. Chapter Two had 2000 and Chapter 3, 3000. You may see the pattern or you may not. Chapter Four ran to five thousand words and Chapter Five to 8K. Are you getting it yet? Chapter Six was 13,000 words and Chapter Seven, 21K. If you haven’t got it yet the sequence is: every number is the sum of the previous two. You start with one, then one plus zero which is also one; then one plus one, and so on. The problem was that by the time I got to Chapter Ten I was faced with writing 55,000 words.* Clearly it wasn’t sustainable.
I often seem to get seized by these Big Ideas which I then struggle to fit into the novel form. I’ve told you before about my first novel which as well as telling the story of the protagonist stuck in a nuclear bunker, also spanned the whole of life on earth – a period of three hundred million years. I had no real concept of what three hundred million years was like, so I began to cut strips of paper and rule each strip into divisions of a hundred years. I stuck these up around my wall; in no time at all I was back to the birth of Christ and not long after that I’d reached the beginnings of homo sapiens, yet I still hadn’t made my first million. In the end I worked out that if I did nothing else every day but cut and rule and stick strips of paper on my wall it would take me three years to finish.
So it’s pretty clear that Tapestry will have to be reworked. I’ve tried doing a beat sheet for it from Save the Cat Writes a Novel – a list of turning points in the narrative – and it’s clear the thing lacks some pretty serious highs and lows. I’m a real convert now to the Save the Cat series; I was sceptical at first but it seems to hit on something deep and universal about the laws of narrative. So if I do Nano that’ll be what I’m doing: Save the Cat Writes Tapestry.
* 55,000 words is the length of a short novel
I’m becoming obsessed by this theme right now. I wake in the early dawn and try to figure it out: what is the best way to live if you have an all-consuming talent? I am not content with the traditional models of ‘selfish genius’ which dictate that in order to follow your inner voice you have to ignore everything – and more crucially everyone – else. This is what male writers have traditionally done; and recently women are going there too: there’s a whole plethora of articles exhorting women writers to be selfish, to put themselves first, to ignore the children and carve out writing time.
Now, this needs a little deconstruction in the context of households where women have traditionally put themselves last. We were conditioned to ignore our own needs, or at best put them on the back burner. When everyone else’s needs have been satisfied, then it’s your turn. Trouble is, that turn never arrives; you catch your breath for a moment before realising, like poor old Barbara in The Royle Family, that having cooked, served and eaten Christmas dinner you are now faced with a kitchen full of washing-up. I have to admit when I watched this episode I had an overwhelming urge to kick Jim out of his chair and into some good quality rubber gloves (sorry a bit of Withnail got in there by mistake) (oh no, another bit!)
Deep breath. So, in that context yes, it is entirely in order that Barbara should boot Jim into the kitchen to do his bit while she goes upstairs to write something sensational. However it’s not only in the carving out of time that the selfish genius rears its head. Write what you know is the advice – and it’s good advice – the trouble is that you also end up writing who you know. Literary history is littered with friends of the writer who have recognised themselves in print and decided that since the passages can’t be deleted, they’ll delete the friendship instead. This is not to mention the wives, ex-wives, lovers and partners of authors who can find themselves writ large in two hundred sizzling pages. Not unnaturally, these people feel betrayed.
And of course the third thing that writers always do is steal.
So here’s the thing: how does one become a great writer without being a total sh*t?
That’s not a rhetorical question. I actually want to know.
PS: what do you think of the title? It came to me in the night and I thought it was pure ge…
One blustery day Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet set out for a trip around the forest to wish all their friends a Very Happy Thursday. And here I am to wish you the same, only sans Piglet as sadly he is self-isolating.
How are you getting on with the lockdown? For me it’s pretty much business as usual; I get up, do my yoga, make a drink and head for my desk. I work till about 12.30, go for a walk before lunch, read a while, then get back to my desk till around five or six. Evenings are spent reading or watching TV (tonight it will be a live streaming of the National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors‘ with James Corden.) And yet I miss things – things like not being able to go to the cafe, not going to meetings (or Meeting), not seeing friends, not going to the cinema, not going to the pub or the folk club or Friday Room discussion group, not having a meal out. I may not have had a welter of social events but when you have none at all you notice the difference.
On the other hand, it has meant less time spent organising for meetings and Meeting and discussion groups and seeing friends. So what have I been doing with my time? As I said, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel; I promised (or threatened) a review and I will get to that in due course; I’ve also been reading a Paula Hawkins novel (she of ‘Girl on a Train’ fame) which is deeply, horribly yet fascinatingly dystopian and of course I am still ploughing on with Ducks, Newburyport (only 350 pages to go…) And on Britbox we’ve been watching Rev, which has to be one of the best sitcoms ever. I also chat to my friends online and get frequent phone calls from friends (and Friends). I attended my first online Meeting yesterday via Zoom, which worked quite well, all sitting in silence in our own houses… Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve started learning ancient Greek! I can now recite the alphabet from memory and write a few actual words (shut up about your bloody evening classes Gerald!)
So that’s me. What have you been up to? Let me know – I’d love to hear.
So, as another week grinds towards its end, how is my work going? Good question. I have so many balls in the air I can barely keep track of them: aside from poems there are a slew of short stories, a radio play and of course the novel which I am in the process of editing. God, editing is hard! I’ve got first drafts sorted because I’ve got to the stage where I can I just let it rip; I don’t think about what I’m writing, just trust the process and tell the critical, analytical mind to take a flying leap. But when it comes to editing, my woes begin in earnest. My mind jumps all over the place, thinking where is this going? What sort of thing is it really? Where am I going to publish it? What is it actually about? I am tossed and buffeted by ten different winds until I hardly know which way is up, and unsurprisingly I can’t do it for very long; a couple of hours is about the limit. After that I’m exhausted.
I guess these are the questions all writers ask themselves. What kind of writer am I? Who are my readers? Where do I want to be published? to which my answers would be: no idea, anyone, and anywhere. Not helpful. Some days I’d give my eye teeth to be a writer firmly established in a genre, someone who knows her audience and what they want. Someone with a publisher and an agent. But I ain’t and I don’t.
So what is to be done? One thought I had yesterday, struggling through the choppy waters of a short story, was to be aware of these questions as they arise and record them with a view to analysing them later. This is difficult because they rush by at the speed of light, yelling something indiscernible as they go. They’re like players on a hockey field and I never got on with hockey because apart from being out in the cold and the mud trying to hit a tiny ball with a narrow strip of wood, people are rushing by you all the time shouting things like whazafalabeat! and gizzacobaball! and by the time I’d said, ‘Sorry, what was that again?’ they’d be down the other end.)
This is the story of my life. I didn’t fit anywhere so I became a writer. Then I discovered that I didn’t fit anywhere as a writer. So what’s next?
Answers on a postcard, as ever…
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that nine-tenths of what I write is rubbish. I don’t mean on this blog because what you see here are finished posts, hacked from the raw rock-face of thought, messed around a bit, buried in soft peat etc etc, honed and polished, sanded and rubbed and sent out to seek their fortune in the world. More on this later. But much of what I write as a first draft is pure unadulterated junk, mostly because I’ve set myself a word limit and I’m trying to reach it. This however does not make it worthless.
Why not? Well, firstly because it’s something instead of nothing. Where previously nothing existed, I have created something, even if it’s only a flat thing like Kipper’s cake (obscure children’s book reference only family members will understand.) And Something can be worked with and improved upon, even if most of it is ultimately deleted. Secondly, there may be some gems in the rubbish, which is why it’s always a good idea not to delete anything while writing the first draft, no matter how bad it seems. When you’re writing a story (this goes double for poems) you have intentions about it. But the story (or poem) has intentions too, and often these come out when we’re not watching. So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For example, I once wrote a dialogue between Father Christmas and Jack and Jill. They were talking in the snow and Father Christmas took off his jolly red suit to reveal a convict uniform with arrows on. He was supposed to be giving Jack and Jill their presents and only gave them snow and ice so they weren’t very happy. It’s a short scene and when I wrote this I had no idea what it meant. I still have no idea what it means, yet a little voice tells me that it has some significance and so I hold on to it.
This blog is nearly at 500 followers. I realise that’s tiny in blog terms but I’m just pleased it’s still growing – so remember, my 500th follower will get the choice of either writing a guest blog post or receiving an e-book of poetry.
Keep it up.
Having been a victim – and perpetrator – of self-criticism all my life I often recognise it in others. As I’ve mentioned before, when I started writing (as an adult) on a German mountainside, Christmas 1980, I barely managed to get two sentences out before I slagged them off (‘too wordy and Dickensian.’) And that was a good day; on a bad day I’d hardly manage to write anything because the blank page would accuse me with its perfection – writing on it would be like peeing in fresh white snow. Self-belief is crucial for a writer; it is also horribly hard to attain, particularly in the face of constant rejection. But you pick yourself up, you blow a raspberry at the editors too foolish to recognise your genius, and you carry on.
What’s harder to excuse (though I understand the impulse) is folk who are afraid to put themselves out there but slag off those of us who do. I’ve had one or two of these in my life, and when I look at what they’ve produced there’s invariably nothing there – or very little. I’m guessing these people have a lot of warheads aimed at themselves but are armed with deflectors so that the flak gets splattered at those nearest to them – but however that goes, it’s harder to condone criticism from people who haven’t had the courage to put themselves out there.
But in the end the biggest enemy is oneself; and my own method of cheating the demon of self-flagellation is to outrun them. I simply start writing, put my fingers in my ears and say lalalalala and carry on writing so fast that they can’t keep up. Of course, once I start the editing process they’re there again – but that’s a whole ‘nother story.
When Virginia Woolf wrote about women becoming authors, she prescribed an income of 50 guineas a year and a room of one’s own. I’m not sure what the modern-day equivalent is of 50 guineas, but I can tell you that a room of one’s own is a luxury I have rarely enjoyed.
The essential piece of equipment in a room of one’s own is of course a desk of one’s own; and this is something I have managed to acquire even if only in a corner of the bedroom. My first desk was a bureau in the hallway (I’ve blogged about this here) and my second, an ancient school desk with a sloping lid which I somehow acquired – maybe from a jumble sale? – and painted white. The lid sloped so steeply that I had to prop it up with fat books to make it level. On the top it had a niche for pens and a hole for an inkwell (at my first year at grammar school we had to use ink pens and I managed to get far more ink on myself than I ever did on the page; thankfully after this we were allowed biros.*) Then after I left home there were built-in desks in student rooms and finally, after years of desklessness, a magnificent one of my Dad’s which had sat in his study for years and was so old and creaky that it had to be held together with string. I seem to remember he bought it for 20 shillings from Timothy White’s. Then when that broke I was already in Madrid and had a tiny desk in the corner of my room and after that, once I was married with children, a table in the corner of the bedroom and then (joy!) for three years a proper desk in an actual study during which time I wrote a load of short stories. Around this period I also had a big dining table up at the chalet which, although a little creaky, was quite serviceable and looked out from a picture window onto the campsite and the trees beyond. But when we moved here I had to make do with a table in the library and a desk in a Friend’s house before I found a rickety old table on wheels and made some space for it in the bedroom.
I have written on trains, planes and buses. I have written in waiting-rooms and cafes, on beaches and in chalets in the woods. But the thing I long for most is a desk of one’s own – and a room of one’s own to put it in.
*I guess this could spawn another post; A Pen of One’s Own…