Doubt

25 09 2012

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When I started this blog I doubted that anyone would read it. Now I see that I have readers in India, the Philippines, America, Sweden and Switzerland. My doubts have been proved wrong. Even on days I do not post, people are reading.

When I started writing fiction I doubted that I would get published. My first novel came out and people enjoyed it and made a point of telling me that they felt it had been unfairly overlooked by the literary press. When I wrote my second novel I doubted that it was any good. The reviews were entirely positive, but I was still surprised by them. This weekend I met someone at a party who said her reading group had thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Juliet; one or two people had even said that it was the best novel they had ever read. I thought of this again today and I still do not believe it.

While I was working on my most recent novel The Beautiful Truth I doubted that I would finish it. I doubted that anyone would be interested in reading it and I doubted that it was any good. I didn’t doubt the ideas, the characters, the subject matter, the setting or the themes; I doubted only my part in delivery of them.

I couldn’t write without believing that I have something to communicate – what I cannot do is escape doubt.

It strikes me that doubt is integral to working on anything that matters. The Beautiful Truth mattered to me more than any book I’ve written and it was composed under thunder clouds of doubt. When I finished it, and saw that it worked, I felt immense relief. I had emerged from the storm and into the light.

Doubt is the cynical observer in the hoody that stands on the edge of the playing field muttering disapproval. When acknowledged, it will offer free coaching advice on other games it thinks I’d be more suited to. Sometimes it is so contemptuous of my performance that it doesn’t bother to show up. I have to go it alone then and push my ball about in a vast white silent space, which is somehow worse than working under its scornful gaze.

If writing without doubt feels so lonely, does that mean that doubt is a useful companion on the long-haul flight of the novel? Does doubt motivate? Certainly it gives me something to push against. It stops me spooling rubbish. It stops me from becoming complacent. It acts as a brake on my enthusiasms. It urges me to go carefully. That’s when it is controlled. Out of control doubt is crippling, as I know.

I won’t eliminate doubt. It’s been part of my working life for too long, and I can therefore accommodate it.  It is a sometimes entertaining passenger even as I cringe from it. The trick is not to let it anywhere near the flight deck.

For years I’ve loved photography, but I doubted that I could understand how to use a proper camera. My new Nikon stayed in its box for over a month. This morning I went out to see what the harbour looked like through my lens. The water was sparkling and calm. As I focused on my shots I lost all sense of doubt. I simply pressed the shutter. I know that is the key to writing well.

I simply write my sentence.  

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Field View

19 09 2012

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I spend a lot of time staring across fields. The field above captures my attention daily. I’ve always gone to landscape and need to feel it around me.  Sometimes I find myself thinking of a field as I might think of a friend, wondering what kind of mood it is in, wondering how the light falls. When at the end of the day the green folds greet me, I feel uplifted.

Fields refresh and calm. Like many people, a good part of my day is spent sitting at a screen. There always comes a point when I can no longer bear the on-off black blink of the cursor and must take my eyes away and outside for a long cool drink.

Fields have become a part of my working routine, but I don’t take them for granted. When living in London, I longed for green spaces. There was a park opposite my block of flats where I went every day until it became as familiar as my back garden. Craving wilder space, I ventured further to a large park with water. On the way there I usually paid homage to a local authority house with a blue plaque outside announcing it as the former home of the poet Stevie Smith.

When the ache to escape grew intense, I wrote protest poems that reported back to Stevie all the stuff I loathed about the modern world.  I thought the mordant poet would have been amused at the way things had turned out. One letter written at Easter described the way that supermarkets piped in the smell of Hot Cross Buns. Another musing told Stevie about hi-viz cycling  gear and sportswear. I tried to describe colours that didn’t exist when she lived. I didn’t set out to write these letters; they arose as I walked.

I think on the move. Ideas and images may emerge when I’m sitting at my desk, but I always need to pace them out. Walking a green space, park or field, coaxes my impressions and vague scrappy thoughts out into the open. When I’ve had a good tramping about, I’m able to consolidate. At the end of my walk, I have something to say. 

For me, space to write means more than a room of my own. I’ve always found walls of any sort confining. I have a fear of being sent to prison or shut in. Pot-holing is my worst nightmare. I cannot think of diving without the beginnings of a panic attack. I need freedom to roam.

One of my characters was born in a field. Up until half way through the first draft of The Beautiful Truth, the main character was Janek, a young Polish man. It was his story I was following, and yet his story would frequently fade in and out. I began to think of a strong female character to lead the novel and talked through some ideas with a friend. I mentioned the woman I had met in Poland. One afternoon I was walking under the chestnut trees (trees are significant in the story) when I felt her. Krystyna had arrived fully formed. In that moment, I knew everything about her.

It was a thrilling encounter.  I knew then I had a novel that would go in an entirely different direction to the one I planned. I went back to my desk and began to recast my first draft – I still had far to go – but from that moment on it felt as if the ideas were dropping into their right place.





Staying out of the way

11 09 2012

When I last wrote about style I promised that I would subject my own prose to scrutiny. I’ve looked at a few chapters from my first novel The Avalanche, written around 18 years ago, and rather than feeling detached and critical (as I hoped) I feel nostalgic. I wanted to be able to pull out a few paragraphs and show you where I went wrong, but instead I ended up reading scenes and remembering what it was like to write them.

The Avalanche is a book about music and sleep and a man’s love for life. It is also about the sea. I was living in London when I wrote the novel, and the yearning for the Devon coastline I now call home comes through strongly. The central character Andrew Schidmaizig, a pianist and composer, is filled with longing for life to return to what it was. In his case, it is hopeless. Life will never again be the same and the novel is a retrospective tour through his collapsing inner world. Andrew’s reflections and memories are punctuated by present day sessions with his psychiatrist Dr. Chase, a meticulous and slightly mysterious character who tapes each interview.

Curiously, The Avalanche is the novel that feels most real to me now. Not because it ‘s my first – I had previously written others that never made it to the final stages – instead I wonder whether this strange, strong pull I feel for it is because it is a novel written on trust. When I wrote it, I didn’t know that it would be published, and because of this it has a truth that I will never recapture.

As a novice fiction writer I made plenty of mistakes, but re-reading scenes I see what I was trying to do. I see how I keep missing the mark, how I keep reaching for what I want to say instead of simply saying it. Reading the prose is like swimming. In parts the novel feels closer to poetry. For a long time I felt at home with poetry. It was safe. It was contained. I didn’t have to sustain a world for poetry. I could write obliquely. I could hint. I could paint in watercolour or pastel. When I began The Avalanche, it was like loading my brush with oil. At first, I loved the daubing, the broad sweeps; how much freer I felt, how much more expansive was the novel! Poetry seemed tame in comparison. I plunged in deep, forgetting that I was still learning how to swim. Nothing mattered. I had a whole ocean to paint in words.

Here I go:

I came here last night and slept on the beach. It was too dark and too dangerous to start making my way up the cliff, so I slept huddled against an old fishing boat, waiting for morning. The light woke me. Gold and coral pink, it stroked me awake, crept softly through my stiff old coat and warmed my bones. The sea was calm and milky pink, breaking along the shore in silky waves of crushed opal. I went down to the edge and skimmed a pebble. It bounced on the water four times. In spite of myself, I laughed. (The Avalanche, Constable 1996)

Now I would edit this paragraph down to two sentences. There is too much of the writer on the beach. The ‘silky waves of crushed opal’ would be the first phrase I’d strike out. I even have two pinks in the passage. There are assonances that need not be there. At the time I never even noticed them; my poetry drenched unconscious couldn’t help itself. The passage is over written, it’s trying too hard, but in spite of its excesses I feel fondly towards it.

In the past week I’ve been asked more than once how you begin to write. Yesterday a young man poked his head around my classroom door and enquired after my new book: how do you do it? What he meant was: tell me how I can do it.

I started to tell him. It’s long and it’s hard and you just have to keep plugging away, but he had stopped listening.

How do you do it?

What I should have told him is this: you get excited, you dive in.





Writing and Philosophy Courses

2 09 2012

Writing and Philosophy Courses.