Ghirlandaio's maidservants
Lots of them: why being drunk on words is an honourable state

Feeding the hunger

When someone asks me what I do, and I say I'm a writer, they're usually mildly interested. When we've established that I'm not a journalist but write novels, they're slightly taken aback and slightly impressed, and though of course that's slightly gratifying, I still find it more than slightly odd. The thing is, while I recognise that not everyone wants to or can sit down and write novels for as long as it takes to learn how to do it, telling stories is obviously as fundamental a part of human nature as bringing up children, or hunting and gathering, or searching for meaning beyond the visible. And while the novel is only one manifestation of that narrative nature, my writing (anyone's writing) is simply a rather strenuous effort at something that every storied creature needs done for them, and most do in some way.

According to Marriott, psychotherapists believe that 'narrative competence' is a hallmark of mental health: "If one can tell the 'story' of one's own life in a way that makes sense of one's fears and anxieties, this will in itself make life's difficulties seem less opaque and frightening." The novel is a form born out of the need to "make sense" of the reader's individual world, by spinning new narratives out of individual lives, because the Renaissance and its offspring, peace, print, Protestantism, and the scientific revolution, had altered the relationship God to individual humans.

Yes, 120,000 words of plausible invention takes a bit of inventing. And writers have to live and breathe craft and technique, whether we're applying it to an extraordinary opus far out along the cutting edge of literary experimentation, or the ferociously competitive commercial women's fiction market. That can make our conversations sound pretty arcane to others - as my cinematographer friend Sam Garwood puts it, "there are some things that focus-pullers want to talk about, that only other focus-pullers want to hear" - although a surprising number of readers like to eavesdrop on us. But while as writer or reader you may want a novel to help you peer into the abyss of death or the beyond-visible, or you may want a novel which makes you laugh and comforts you that you will find a long-term love, both novels are working, by definition, in the way people work. That's what novels do.

For example, it's not a coincidence that it's instability which must start a novel, as I was thinking about in Wake up and re-write - a potential husband arrives at Netherfield Hall, the Bond baddy steals plutonium from a government vault. That works on precisely the same part of the writer/reader's nature as the "making sense" part. Narrative competence isn't just about coming to terms with the past, just as psychotherapy isn't about contemplating your navel better, it's about working with your future better. Without getting into the bogs of evolutionary psychology, if you can make sense of the past, you'll be less surprised when the future jumps up and bites you, whether what jumps up is a sabre-toothed tiger or an appalling bout of procrastination, and you'll be better able to cope, and even learn and grow, when it does. So the desire - no, the urgent need - to resolve instability, which writers work with, isn't to resolve the past (which is also why readers usually need far less backstory than writers want to put in). It's that the writer first, and then the reader, wants to know, and tries to find out, and longs to be satisfied by, the ultimate resolution of the instability. That's what keeps the reader turning the pages: a hunger for sense-making, and the promise that by the end of the book we'll be fed.

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