Every one is different; for each who extols the necessity of ‘writing what you know’, there are ten who insist that you must make stuff up, and for the ten who insist on years of research before setting pen to paper, there’s one who insists that you should just make stuff up. There are the planners, setting out the skeleton of each chapter before writing anything, and then there are those who collect bits of pieces of writing together in files before they can work out what story it is they’re telling. There are gushers and miniaturists, hand writers and iPad-ers. For whatever aspect of character and approach you can find, it is also possible to find the polar opposite.
Maybe I’m just looking for reassurance that my own rather haphazard approach is as valid as any other.
Jim Crace (JC) is a writer whose work I admire, and as I have just read his new novel ‘Harvest‘, when a friend told me that he would be speaking at Foyles bookshop, I booked a place straight away.
He is a speaker to whom is very easy to listen, and was thought provoking in his analysis of his own writing style. He explained that while he might have tried to write according to what others might regard as a better way, he always returned to his own voice, which he described as the writing voice I have been given. This voice is rhythmic, moralistic and serious, but not autobiographical .
JC suggested that his happy life is antithetical to the production of fiction inspired by the ‘use what you know’ principal, as fiction doesn’t like happiness, long contended marriages and well adjusted children. Readers want to experience drama through fiction rather than experience it in life.
An attempt at a novel inspired by autobiography was abandoned, on the advice of his agent, after 30,000 words. A couple of days after taking the decision to stop writing, despondent, he and his wife took a journey from their home in Birmingham to an art exhibition in London. On the train, near Watford Gap, a generally unprepossessing space between two tiny hillocks, run through by a motorway, railway lines, home to a service station the butt of many jokes, and two rivers, one of which flows to the sea on the east coast and the other to the west, he noticed the ridge and furrow patterns in the surrounding fields.
It was that pattern in the landscape which started him thinking about the centuries of agricultural activity in England; that one of the important things about the country is that it has been occupied for so many years that there are layers of human habitation and history everywhere. It is not possible to walk anywhere where no-one has walked before you; and that we are surrounded by the signs of history if we care to notice them; it’s all drenched in narrative.
At the watercolour exhibition the picture which jumped out at him was one of a bird’s eye view of field enclosures. This, together with his ‘Watford Gap Moment’, started him thinking about land clearances and the people affected; and that even if he wrote something ‘historical’ it could still have contemporary relevance as there have always been, and still are, people being turned off land.
He quoted Hilary Mantel’s ‘rule’ that in historical fiction if you are going to include a fact, then you must ensure that it is correct. JC said he didn’t adhere to that tenet. For him, facts create constraints on narrative imagination – the less you know, the more you can imagine.
The questions from the audience after he had read from Harvest, focussed on his stated intent that this would be his last novel. Some people were worried about how he would express his creativity without fiction to write(!). He assured us that he still has plans to write some natural history books, (which, with his love for making things up may not be entirely based on science), and that, after many years of sitting alone in his work room in his garage, he has other creative plans outside….and there’s always the possibility that he will change his mind and find the right ‘autobiographical’ book to write.
So, here’s to a Watford Gap Moment for us all today.