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Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Understated and 'gentle' just is my voice"

Some time ago, I lent This Itch of Writing to Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt, so that she could reply to an aspiring writer. Since then Jerusha has been travelling the world from New Zealand to Harmondsworth, in search of new ways to understand our peculiar art and craft. But every now and again another cry of writerly anguish reaches her by pigeon post, and she stuffs her reply into a bottle and tosses it into the sea to reach me. As she did with this one.

Dear Jerusha; I've published four novels with (and had four more novels rejected by) a major, very commercial publisher, in four years, but I seem to have written myself into a brick wall: not a sniff of my books in the shops; a rejection from them for my next book which my agent doubts he can sell elsewhere; one false start abandoned on his advice; another 2/3rds written which he also doubts he can sell. I think this might be where I hang up my metaphorical pen (as Ian Hocking has) and get my life back from the treadmill which is trying to write novels as well as have a job and a family. I did read Nicola Morgan's post on Selling Out, and with great interest. But I suspect that going more pared down and grabby is not where my strengths lie. It's not that I want to remain pure, it's that I'm not sure I could do it. The WIP contains almost none of the stuff which is commercially off-putting about my work and it even has a high concept. But it is still too 'gentle' and understated because that basically is my voice.

I suspect what I need to do is learn to pack a greater emotional punch within that understated style. I do wonder if I will regret it if some time I don't have a bash at writing a different sort of book - more 'literary', if you like, though I shrink from all labels. Maybe I should let go of the thing I fear may have been limiting me, which is the drive to ensure that everyone in my books is engaging - fundamentally nice and good and decent, even the baddies! But then, would a book which didn't ultimately assert the values of community and mutual support, and trying to do right thing in adversity, really be 'me'? Perhaps I have been dashing into new projects, because I am terrible at sitting back and giving myself thinking time - I usually do my thinking by doing and wrestling and engaging, not letting things quietly mull over.

This seems to me one of those difficult situations where brute commercial reality, craft, and creative capacities are all embroiled in a muddle. From elsewhere in your letter I know that you're a high-flyer in a very principled and intellectual career; you started writing for the fun of it; and you write astonishingly fast. There's nothing in either your intellect or your emotional capacities which you couldn't turn in a more literary direction if you wanted to, so what's going on?

As anyone put on the spot with a workshop exercise knows, diving straight into work makes us fall back on our defaults, and your defaults are a good story of endearing people, clearly embodying issues you care about, in a wonderfully natural and engaging fictional voice. But are you sometimes too eager to pounce on the new idea, slap it into shape, shake it down and pin it into place with a firm hand for all to understand, both in terms of the ideas, and in terms of the prose? It's all that eddication and high-level thinking that does it, I'd suggest (and Emma Darwin will probably agree, if she can read this for the sea-water stains). Because the purpose of most intellectual trades, from art criticism to sub-atomic physics, is to judge, measure, analyse and articulate, the culture can be deeply frightened of the inarticulate, the a-rational, the not-knowing: at all costs, they have to articulate it, and quickly before we're overwhelmed. But that place of not-knowing is otherwise known as the creative unconscious, and it needs time to work.

If you're like many exceedingly well-read persons, writing overtly commercial fiction is a way of letting yourself off the hook of your own scarily high intellectual and literary standards. But when it comes to the ideas underpinning your work, can you think of 'literary' not as a book-trade label, nor an accolade for 'proper' writers with English degrees, but as a licence to be more free in what you can do? Less literal perhaps; less inclined to explain everything clearly; more equivocal or uncertain, ambiguous, ambivalent; more willing to let your readers disagree with you; above all, asking the reader, when you need to, to do more work to reach a deep understanding and experience of the novel. That doesn't mean you can't assert the good values very clearly and strongly, and have the good guys come out victorious. And some of the strongest plots come out of two sets of good intentions which are in conflict, although that's a more challenging moral universe for the reader. It's about the ideas and words which you use to make that victory convincing.

But I think that, ultimately, the way to get a greater emotional punch within a story where no one's throwing much in the way of physical punches, is the prose. A poem can wind you more completely in six lines than a decently-written novel can in three chapters, and linger in the mind longer. Poetry doesn't have to be obscure, let alone obscurantist, but what it does is condense everything for the greatest intensity, making the most both of what each word can do, and of the spaces between them. And that's the lesson that prose writers need to learn too. There's another reason for writers who want to grow, to try to think and work like poets. The assumption about writing is that we have things to say, and look for ever-better ways to say them: what poetry does is use the fewest words to say the most possible, and in trying to find those words you have to think about what you're trying to say. But I believe - no, I know - that working on how you say things can actually transform what you want to say. Anyone searching for a rhyme knows that as all the possible words parade before you, they offer you things you didn't know you thought.

Intensity in the prose, like complexity in the ideas and characters, may also make what you're saying less of an easy read, because the spaces will themselves become filled with meaning: the reader will get more of everything per square inch, and perhaps not be able to take all in at once. So be it, if that's the way you want to go; my current favourite example of a poem which is certainly understated, but has great power, is this. It's both utterly clear at a first reading, and yet holds much more in its depths for a reader who choses to plumb them.

You might not succeed, of course: just possibly in the writing sense, and much more possibly in the book-trade sense, because neither are wholly in your control. And it would be frightening, I suspect, to disarm your defaults and refuse to wrestle the thought, feeling and language into clarity and rationality too soon, but rather stay with the not-knowing, the un-articulated and a-rational stuff of writing, for as long as it might take to reach this new, other kind of book. If so, you wouldn't be alone. I'll finish with how a very, very clever man who was also a poet, pinned down - or rather, expressed the pinning down he'd have done if it were possible - this uncomfortable but essential relationship, between the creative unconscious and the burning need to bring what's in there out into the light of consciousness. It's by T S Eliot, and it's from the Four Quartets.

...And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

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