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Re-readivists and other WhoDunnits

The diaries you don't keep

Since no one can help me track back to the original source of the quotation, "Fiction is the memories we don't have", I'm going to claim it for my own, because it crops up so often that I'm getting bored with the virtual footnote I feel obliged to add. The original thought started with philosopher and novelist Richard Kearney's book On Stories. He talks about how narrative evolved as an integral part of evolving human consciousness: once you have an understanding of your self and then other selves, as individuals in time, you start trying to understand your relationship to time: what was before - and might come after - Now.

And once you realise that there are individuals who are as much selves to them selves as you are, but who had a Now which you never knew, then you start needing to get a grip on that, too, and myth emerges. Eventually it separates into history - the known bits and pieces of experience which are left for us by what really happened - and fiction: those bits and pieces spun of experience into a new shape, to explore our selves and our world by thinking about what might have happened. In reading fiction we're using the mental (neural?) pathways that evolved before the distinction between fact and fiction was made. Fiction spins the material of individual and collective memory into a new shape, but still a narrative shape. As John Gardener puts it, it's in the authentic evocation of experiences we do remember, that the writer of fiction persuades the reader to 'agree to forget' that the story s/he spins from them never actually happened. Fiction exploits pathways created for actual memory, and the narrative nature of our consciousness, to form something which feels like individual and collective memory, which has the coherence of cause and effect which narrative bestows on a collection of bits and pieces.

Recently I asked a group of writer friends, published and unpublished, whether they first came to writing as a medium for self-expression, or as a means of telling stories. The distinction is artificial, of course, because even the telling of a fairy tale will be different, depending on the self who's telling it, and story-telling is how we form our experience, whether it's as a book-length memoir, or a rueful anecdote told over a drink. Answers varied: many are or were journal-keepers, for example, and a very common pattern seemed to be writing stories in childhood, direct self-expression as diaries or life-writing in prose or poetry in adolescence, and finally finding some kind of integration between the two, in either fiction or non-fiction. But what the discussion made me realise is that I'm perhaps in the minority in that I've never set out to express my individual self directly in writing. I can't and don't keep a journal, even when it's part of a writing course and I'm supposed to, and even when, rarely, my occasional attempts at poetry aren't stories of others they're more like my photographs: a record of the sensations of a moment, but not what I think about it. Of course I accept the fact that, for better or worse, no one else would have written the books I've written, just as I could never, tackling the same material as someone else, come up with the book they did. My work expresses my self in that sense: none of us can do otherwise. But it's not why I write.

But when our conversation at York turned to the writer's bottom drawer of unpublished manuscripts, someone asked if we were ever tempted to dust them off and get them published. And Fiona Shaw and I agreed that we couldn't: we'd moved on from those books both technically and personally: those books were products of our selves then, not now. I found myself thinking: my fiction is the diaries I don't keep.

What this also means, of course, is that I have to accept that a novel will be affected by not only conscious decisions about ideas, characters, technique and storytelling, but also about the context - mental and physical - in which I'm writing it. If it had been written the previous year, or the following year, in a different country or with a different partner in the next room, it would be different. It's quite hard to accept: much writing-teaching talks as if there's a perfect, platonic version of anything you write, which you must grope or machete your way towards. And now I'm saying that there isn't: that there's no ultimate form for that story. If trusting your memory is about allowing the value of forgetting, and you're writing, for us, the memories that we don't, then you have to accept that in a way your fiction, for you and you alone perhaps, is the diaries you don't keep.

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