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.

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