Category Archives: the writing process

Invented stories as truth

“There’s this strong belief, almost a dogma, that novels are finished and reality’s outstripped fiction and therefore the only true literary form is the literary memoir, because you can only describe what happened to yourself . . But really, we’re constantly imagining and reimagining who we are. Most of what we choose to recall is selection and invention. I liked the idea of taking some facts from my life and creating a complete invention around them and in that way questioning what a memoir is.

“I wanted to reinforce the necessity and power of invented stories, because what’s happened isn’t that reality’s outstripped fiction. It’s that fiction has outstripped reality. From the claims of climate-change denialists to the £350 million per week that the Brexiteers were going to get back from the EU, to Donald Trump’s claims of the size of his inauguration crowds, none of these things were reality. They were fictions designed to bolster power and deny people the fundamental truth of the world. The fiction you get in novels speaks to that truth. Lies are a pernicious form of fiction, while novels are a liberating form of fiction that we need more than ever. In a way, my book is an argument for the necessity of novels.”

Richard Flanagan on his new novel,

Malcolm Knox The Age 27 Sept 2017 After the Booker: why Richard Flanagan isn’t playing safe

(from here) 

 

 

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The power of a single word

Think how much any individual mind, any brain, is enlarged by what we can know through books and through literature — places, people, ideas that we would never otherwise experience, things much larger than anyone could contain in his or her own person. People crave this. You go way back into antiquity and everybody is memorizing Homer, everybody is memorizing “The Epic of Gilgamesh” — works of literature that build the cultural mind and make it capacious. Most of us are not the creators of those things, but we possess ourselves of them — or they possess us of them. And each successive work of literature expands the possibilities of our language, deepening our expressive capacity. In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people. That is the great potential of any art.

Viewed this way, our language — and especially literature, that special, potent case — has incredible power. I was very struck by something that I came across in my reading of Jonathan Edwards. I recall him quoting a writer who talks about how whatever we say lives on after us, that we continue to exist so long as any word we say exists in a living mind. And that there should be two judgments: one when we die, and one when the full impact of our lives has played itself out. That is, when every word that we’ve said, for good or ill, basically ceases to be active.

We’re not in the habit of thinking of ourselves as people of influence in this way. We don’t think that if we say something cruel and destructive now, it can go down generations in terms of its consequences. But it strikes me that this is true — and the thought makes me experience a certain fear and trembling about our political life at the moment. When we speak, we should ask ourselves: How will this ultimately play out? What will be the moral consequence of the fact that so many people have resorted to such crude, cruel language? We know it won’t be neutral. We know it won’t evaporate. It’ll be in people’s minds for generations.

Coming across this idea as eloquently expressed as it was by this writer really made me stop, and think, and recognize the obvious truth of what he says — as if I’d known it before, but never felt it so sharply as when he articulated it well. I have an experience of recognition, not just in response to others’ ideas, but on the order of a single word. It happens, in my own writing, in those moments when you know there’s a perfect word, even though you have not written it yet. You cast about for it, and over time, some obscure word will come to you — your mind knows it’s there. Often, it’s a word with such an extraordinary precision that you wonder how it survived. You think, This must have come down from early modern English or Anglo-Saxon — how did it come to birth? How did it survive? Who was it that needed this word first and coined it? It’s amazing. You wonder how many people have had any use for it over the last 300 years, but there it is.

Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.

Marilynne Robinson on Finding the Right Word, The New York Times 22, 2017  (from here) 

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Putting out shoots of green thought

So he would write a poem of life, of all life, of what he did not know but knew . . . Little bits of coloured thought, that he had suddenly, and would look at for a long time, would go into his poem, and urgent telegrams, and the pieces of torn letters that fall out of metal baskets. He would put the windows that he had looked inside. Sleep, of course, that blue eiderdown that divides life from life. His poem was growing. It would have the smell of bread, and the rather grey wisdom of youth, and his grandmother’s kumquats, and girls with yellow plaits exchanging love-talk behind their hands, and the blood thumping like a drum, and red apples, and a little whisp of white cloud that will swell into a horse and trample the whole sky once it gets the wind inside it.

As his poem mounted in him he could not bear it, or rather what was still his impotence. And after a bit, not knowing what else to do but scribble on the already scribbled trees, he went back to the house in which his grandfather had died, taking with him his greatness, which was still a secret.

So that in the end there were the trees. The boy walked through them with is head drooping as he increased in stature. Putting out shoots of green thought. So that, in the end, there was no end.

Patrick White, The last few paragraphs of his novel The Tree of Man

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Reading

Sometimes when you read, it’s like certain sentences strike home and knock you flat. It’s as if they say everything you have tried to say, or tried to do, or everything you are. As a rule, what you are is one simmering, endless longing.

Gunnhild Øyehaugm Knots (from here) 

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The beauty on the other side of damage

[review of a book of poetry ]

The book is wild in both imagery and language, full of fury and incredulity; reading its descriptions of love and bodies is like trying to see flowers through bullet-riddled glass—the beauty on the other side of damage.

The New Yorker September 11, 2017 Hilton Als: Frank Bidart’s Poetry of Saying the Unsaid A collection of poems about the gay body, in childhood and adulthood.

from here

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Story

In an author’s note at the opening of Joyce Carol Oates’s fourth novel, them, she claims, with an apparent sincerity that many readers took as the truth, that her story was based on the confessions of a former night student of hers named Maureen Wendall. Nevertheless, it’s a surprising moment when, in the middle of her otherwise straightforward narrative, Maureen, the main character of the book, speaks directly to the author. “Dear Miss Oates. The books you taught me are mainly lies I can tell you,” Maureen writes. And it feels like a cry not just against the poverty and violence of her life, but against the story her author is trying to make that life fit into.
Tom Nissley, A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers ..

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The most wondrous novel ever

Hyperbole is an ever-present danger up there on the high-low tightrope. What helps the critic keep his or her balance is the acknowledgment that it  is hyperbole, that there is a rhetoric of aesthetic experience—the experience of reading poems or listening to songs we’re strongly attached to—that is always in excess of the actual content.

Louis Menand Can Poetry Change Your Life? The New Yorker July 31, 2017 (from here) 

 

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A father proud of his son

In  2015, before the referendum in Ireland on whether to make same-sex marriage legal, the author Sebastian Barry wrote a letter to  The Irish Times in support of the referendum. 

Sir, as the more than proud father of one shining person who happens to be a member of the LGBT community, I will be voting yes in the coming referendum. In that sense, it is a personal matter. I have read quite a bit in the papers about our new more tolerant society and that may be so, and, of course, it is a solid point of view from which to vote yes, but I don’t see it as a matter of tolerance so much as apology, apology for all the hatred, violence, suspicion, patronization, ignorance, murder, maiming, hunting, intimidation, terrorizing, shaming, diminishment, discrimination, destruction, then yes intolerance visited upon a section of humanity for God knows how many hundreds of years if not millennia. My child will be just shy of 18 when the votes are cast, and therefore cannot vote himself. By voting yes, I will be engaging in the simple task of honoring the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul.

(from here) 

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Memoir as the quest to understand

“To write a memoir”, [Richard] Ford claims, “and to consider the importance of another human being is to try to credit what might otherwise go unremarked”. In pondering this, however, Ford is brought up against his own “incomplete understanding”. While Between Them was undertaken in order to “remedy my longing by imagining them near”, it is just as much a record of lapses and blanks. Ford adopts a speculative mode, with provisional portraits evoked by missing details:

“And how was it for him? Driving, driving alone? Sitting in those hotel rooms, in lobbies, reading a strange newspaper in the poor lamplight … smoking?”

Oftentimes, Ford develops the scene in the negative:

“I don’t remember the time of year of his heart attack … I don’t remember it being cold or hot.”

As a consequence, what is most moving is less the story told than the nature of the inquiry: the long view taken by a son trying to imagine what his parents felt about their own lives, what these lives were like before him, and what they have become in memory.

 

Stephanie Bishop reviewing ‘Between Them’ by Richard Ford, a memoir of his parents. The Monthly June 2017 (from here) 

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To tell the truth, the writer must lie

The dialogue a writer establishes with the reader is one of artifice and deceit. To tell the truth, the writer must lie in a number of clever and convincing ways; the instrument for doing this is language — the unreliable, manipulated and manipulative, officially sacrosanct in that it purports to say what the dictionary says it says, but in practice subjective and circumstantial. The narrative voice is always a fiction behind which the reader assumes (or is asked to assume) a truth. The author, the leading character, appears to the reader out of nowhere, almost but not quite a creature of flesh and blood, made present by his own words, like the Beckettian voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush, saying, “I am what I am.” This is the absolute, godlike, self-defining, circular identity that every writer grants himself in the first person singular. An identity to which the readers are asked to respond: “ If we, often across miles and centuries, can hear the voice saying ‘I’ on the page, then ‘I” must exist and ‘We’ must be forced to believe in it.”

To say “I” is to place before the reader seemingly irrefutable proof of a speaker whose words can tell the truth or lie, but whose presence vouched for by his voice, must not be doubted. To say “I” is to draw a circle in which writer and reader share a common existence within the margins of the page, where reality and unreality rub off each other, where words and what the words name contaminate each other . . .

Alberto Manguel: A Reader on Reading, p132

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