Thursday, 25 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day Four

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Again, my darlings, apologies for length. I really do thank all of you who are so doggedly sticking with it. Apologies too for the sometimes rough and occasionally error-pocked nature of these writings. They were not written to be read, but as lesson plans, prompts for me to start talking to my class. I love giving these classes, but come home utterly drained, and so when I edit for the blog, I only have half a brain with which to do it. But having decided to do this online experiment, I feel very strongly that I want to stick with it, and post every day. So it is a warts and all kind of deal.


I want to talk about memory because I think it plays such a crucial role in writing. I have spoken of how we get stories and characters going – this asking of the endless What ifs? What if that happened, what if she did this, what if he found out that; what if, what if? Writers are always asked where they get their ideas from, as if there is a special idea shop one can order from, or as if some people are simply born with a psychic hotline to The Idea. But everyone has ideas, it’s just a question of having confidence in them. The temptation is to think: that’s not interesting enough, or thrilling enough, or dramatic enough. But all human life holds drama, because of the gap between what we want and what we have – it is the striving to bridge that gap that leads to drama and conflict, and even sometimes events, dear boy, events. And then there is the gap between what we really are and what we feel we should be, the endless fight against the constraints of society or social mores or what your mother told you. Drama does not always have to be a huge production, with bodies strewn all over the stage in the last act. It can be quiet and contained and internal. Just because it is small does not mean it lacks potency.

Memory is often the catalyst for an idea, not in a literal sense – I shall just write this down and it will be a story – but in the sense that it sets off a chain of thought, a series of questions, an entire bundle of unexpected associations. Let a memory carry you in any direction, and you may be amazed at where you end up.

The nature of memory.

Memory is incredibly important in writing because our recollections of things are how we order and shape and categorise the world, how we learn about people and ourselves. It is the writer’s treasure chest, the dressing up box that we may all rummage through.

Whether used in fiction or non-fiction, your memories can get trashed and sullied by those around you, even the most well-meaning. It was not like that, is often what the families of writers say, in amazement, in indignation, in jealous rage. But it was like that for you. The memories are yours, and you may paint them as you wish. They might not be strictly accurate, but they are true in the sense that they express a truth for you. So don’t be afraid of memory, so that you get tangled in it, trapped by trying to recall the exact literal facts in the precise order they happened; an impressionistic sense can be more useful.

Also, I think you can play fast and loose in the way you use your memory bank. You can mine it, like someone digging for emeralds – as the starting point for a story, or the pivotal moment in a character’s life, or the perfect illustration for when you are stretching to express a human truth. You can also throw in the less precious stones – minute shots of even quite mundane memory can bring a piece of writing alive. I have a memory of a girl from my university who used to stride across the quad in a bright red floor length coat. I took the coat and gave it to a character in one of my earlier novels: she was nothing like the real person who wore the coat, but it had stuck in my mind, like a nail snagging on a piece of material, and it brought my character into focus for me. The red coat also became emblematic of something, some kind of boldness, and also, oddly, a sense of doom: there was too much vivid life in what that coat represented for it to burn for very long. Sure enough, the character threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I’m not saying that it was the coat that did it, but I think it suggested it.

You can give something funny or quirky you remember about your sister to a character who has nothing to do with your sister. You can give it to a man. Memories cross time and place and gender. All you have for your writing is everything you know, so throw it all into the mix. You might want to be a little careful here. Every time I start a book, I think: I must put every single thing I know about life and love and the whole damn thing into this one book, and of course that is not possible, and I am haunted by a dark sense of failure: I could not get it all in. Here is the reality check: you can’t use it all, nor should you. You must have something left for the next book.

Concentrate on the heart of the memory – all the details are not important. It could be one word or phrase, or one colour, or the way the weather was that day. Try to pull all the senses out of it: what was it you smelt, felt with your hands, what could you hear? And then, take it further – what emotions were in you on that day, twenty years ago, or last week, or yesterday, and, possibly more interestingly, what emotions does it stir in you now?

Readers, human beings, love connections – think how often you will say, in conversation: Oh, it reminds me of that time...Think of the curious pleasure of being reminded, of being magically transported back to your earlier self. The past and the present suddenly mesh, for a moment there is synchronicity. Long flashbacks are dangerous in books, even in the most masterly hands, but quick snapshots of memory can be vivid, thematic, even create a sense of mystery and suspense. Give your characters memories of their very own: we are the sum of all our pasts.

A useful exercise, particularly if you are feeling blocked and uninspired, is to get yourself into the dreaming state, where you are sitting very still and allowing your mind to go slack, and then see if you can find a memory, any one, from any time of your life. Write it down, quickly, as a broad impression, and then see where it leads you. Keep on writing, for five minutes, ten, as long as you want. Question the memory, play around with it, poke it with a stick; see what it stirs in you, or makes you think about the world, the story you are writing, the character you have just invented. I guarantee that you will end up somewhere you did not expect. Remember, as with all these exercises, that you do not have to show this to anyone. No one will ever know. It is yours, and it remains between you and the page. This gives you the absolute liberty to say whatever the hell you want, even if it comes out as gibberish, and that is quite a rare liberty in life.

Also, I love to use other people’s memories. Reading diaries and memoirs from a time not your own can kick start the imagination, and give both the fascinating contrast between eras and also the comforting feeling that human beings do not change so very much. We all want to live good lives, to love and be loved well, to think that perhaps our time here had some small significance. Those are the universals. But the social mores and cultural imperatives and ways of dress (and address) change radically, and that is another gold mine of inspiration. I like to think about how far we’ve come and yet how short a distance human progress travels.

The Memoir.

I think the memoir is ultimately more satisfying than the straightforward autobiography. The autobiography is linear, madly inclusive – as a reader, quite often I am impatient, wanting to skip to the good parts. My own quirk is that I find it dull and tiring to read about people’s childhoods. I want them in the thick of the action, with their complicated adult minds already working, freighted with the weight of their own experience and history. This is why I like memoirs like Norman Lewis on his year in Naples in 1944. May Sarton, the American novelist, wrote a lovely memoir about one year of her life, when she was quite old, in a big house in New England, I think, it might have been Connecticut. She watched the seasons, thought about her own life, her own writing, the people she had loved, and yet it was so true and honest and beautifully written that it did not come out as solipsistic at all. It was about all thinking, feeling people, actual and three dimensional on the page. Nothing much happened: the daffodils bloomed, the summer winds blew, the snows came, but Sarton was so present in every moment that it was entirely gripping. When I put it down I felt bereft. I wanted to write to her and thank her for it, but she was dead, so I could not, and I was cross about that.

So you can anchor your memoir in a pivotal year, but you don’t have be confined to that year. It is a useful frame, not a cage. That is your focus, that is the locus of your memories, but you will find that you can bring in other times in your life, people who were not there that year, experiences that came before. In the manner of word association, you will find that you will go off in unexpected directions and thrilling tangents. But to choose a finite amount of time gives the book a good solid pivot for you to turn about.

I think it is a lovely form, and I think it is also a gift to the reader, if I can say that without expiring from pretention. The danger in the rush of modern life is forgetting: the new generations forget about the war, or rationing, or the days when divorcees were not allowed into the royal enclosure at Ascot. They forget, or never knew, that women once never went out without a pair of gloves. These are small telling details that make up the weft of the last century. By writing down your memories of an earlier time you are handing on perspective to the ones who are younger than you. I used to dread it when my grandmother started a sentence: In my day. Now I wish I had listened more closely. I want, passionately, to understand what her day was really like. She was born in 1910, and one of her earliest memories is watching Dublin burn during the battle for the Post Office. She was taken to a high window, about three miles outside the city, where she lived, and she watched the fires light up the sky. It’s a six year old girl’s view on a famous historical event. We all know the history of that time, but that small human detail of a little girl in her nightdress, not really knowing what it was she was watching, being taken to see it as if it were a night at the theatre, gives it a resonance, a different point of view, that we do not get from the history books.

Today's Five Minute Exercise.

Write a memory. You can do it any way you wish – as a small narrative, as a list of impressions, as a physical snapshot. You can take one detail of it and describe how it makes you feel now or how it made you feel then. Follow it anywhere it leads you.

Beginnings and Endings:

I think that for a lot of the time you can please yourself, with your writing, and you should please yourself, because, as we have seen, this is the most likely way that you will please others. But beginnings and endings are the two places where you really do have to think about giving the punters what they want. It is the one place that I think you should directly consider your readers and the effect you are having on them. Most of the time, you should actively not think this, because if you are striving for effect you will lose your true voice and your authenticity and your story will wither on the page. I think about readers in a general sense, when I put together my philosophy of writing. I think: I am having the temerity to ask people I do not know, with short lives, to give me hours of their time. Time is beyond price. The bargain I strike with them is: if you give me your time, I will damn well give you the very best piece of writing I can achieve. This is why I do eight or nine or ten drafts of a book (well, that, and the slightly obsessive compulsive side of my nature, which will never quite be denied). This is why I write every day, and why I lashed myself to progress from the awful, derivative, affected sentences of my first novel to the reasonably presentable prose that I can achieve today.

This did not happen by accident. I was not born to a literary family, or with any cosmic literary gift. I started to write because I loved to read, and because I found I adored creating imagined worlds, and because I thought it would be a piece of piss to write a bestseller and rescue my mother from penury (I was fifteen at the time). My first book was so bad that Private Eye called me a ‘moronic toff’. ‘Try, fail,’ said Samuel Beckett. Try again, Fail Better.’. This speaks to my cussed streak. So I got all the books about how to write, and I watched every television programme about writers, and I listened to every radio interview a writer I admired ever gave, and I went back again and again to Gatsby and thought: How in hell does drunken old F Scott do that? I wrote every day, practising my scales, my arpeggios; I paid attention; I took notes. Little by little, creaking step by creaking step, I got better. It was not just for my own satisfaction. I think if you are asking someone to pay ten of their hard-earned pounds for something you have written, you owe them your very best.

Away from this general sense of the debt of honour you owe your readership, I think the rule is not to think of an audience when you write. It can be horribly constricting and counter-productive. Beginnings and endings are different; then you should hold the reader in the very front of your mind. This is because of the hard fact that the first line is what people read when they are browsing around in the bookshop wondering whether to give up their recession-hit cash for your scribblings. If you do not grab them by the scruff of the neck, shake them about a bit, and give them a big fat literary kiss on the mouth, they will bugger off and buy something by Alain de Botton instead. If you start thinking of your readers in the middle of the book, the danger is that you start breaking into metaphorical tap dances, like an eight year old after too much sugar. But the first line is the one place when you want to be acutely aware of the effect you are having. A socking, whacking doozy of a first line is worth staying up at night to achieve.

In the same way, with your ending, you want to send the readers away satisfied. They are quite likely to carry that last line with them. With any luck, you will leave them with a warm, enchanted feeling of promises fulfilled and everyone getting their just deserts; you may leave them with a shock or a dose of melancholy or a sense of thoughts provoked. There is of course the pure artistic satisfaction of achieving a fine ending, pulling all the threads together, sounding a pleasing echo of the thing you started with, all those pages ago. (I owe this sense of coming back to your beginning in your end to my brilliant, stern teacher Mr Woodhouse, who taught me how to write history essays when I was sixteen, and I wish I knew where he was now so I could thank him for it.) But on a ruthless, mercantile note, if you send the readers away with a party bag, they are more likely to buy your next book.

To illustrate the point, here are a few of my favourite first and last lines. We discussed them at some length in class today, but here I am only going to say: notice how much power can be generated by very simple words. All of these lines use the most basic language: the strong, direct, clear words that a child could understand. There are no fancy pants or backflips; no look at me, Ma, no hands. I keep telling my pupils: don’t be afraid of plain language. Clarity and brevity are your friends. Being literary does not mean that you must show off about how many long, abstruse words you know.

First lines:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

In a village of La Mancha the name of which have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.
- Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra), Don Quixote

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno

James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.
- Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier.
(I did tell my pupils: this kind of first line is a high-risk strategy. If you are going to make such a bold statement, you’d better have the goods to back it up. Otherwise the dashed expectations will take all day to scrape off the floor.)

Mrs Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Last lines:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say I was sorry.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

We shall never be again as we were.
Henry James, Wings of the Dove.

Everything he hated was here.
Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theatre.

1 comment:

  1. I am reading all these posts in one go as I am finding them so fascinating. And helpful.
    I'm finding it hard just to write my blog, being most definitely a visual person.
    I can relate to the advice about making writing a habit, making the pathways to the brain that make it second nature. When I was a child myself and brother and sisters were handed paper and pencils and told to draw something on a regular basis as a way of keeping us occupied and out of trouble. Drawing is second nature, it's what I do to understand things and particularly how to make something, written instructions send my brain in a spin!
    I particularly like the bit about memories and eras. I have loved reading the diaries from the mass observation exercise in the war, and especially love visiting my 95 year old neighbour and asking about her life. She thinks I'm doing her a favour when it really is the other way around!
    Memories, I think, are what help make good design, when materials, composition and execution not only function well but suggest memories, places and stories. Anyway........

    ....... one more day left to read!


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