The Hoops You Must Jump Through: an insider's view of writing competitions, part 2
All that jazz

Opening the doors

One of the odder corners of my beloved Radio 3 is the slot for really avant garde contemporary music, Hear and Now. But I love a contrast - I'm a hot chocolate sauce on cold ice cream kind of a gal - so I was lying in the bath last night, reading Georgette Heyer and listening to a programme from Cut and Splice, a festival of electronic music. The piece was as much sound art as music, really, an extraordinary plaiting and weaving of white noise and sound, the fading-in-and-out of the old Medium and Short Wave radio and so on, at once apparently random and beautifully structured. It was entirely electronic but somehow seemed acoustic, breathing memories of all sorts of natural things like whale song and rainstorms. And for a while after it had finished, every sound I heard, from the sploosh of bathwater to the flump of the duvet and the click of the light switch seemed extraordinarily clear, present and, above all, itself: the splooshiest sploosh, the flumpiest flump, the clickiest click ever. It reminded me a little of Aldous Huxley's description of his mescaline trip in The Doors of Perception.

We think of fiction as telling a story which never actually happened but might have; as making narrative sense of a random world; as making us laugh or cry or think. The empathy which novels demand seems to me a fundamental human pleasure as well as necessity: we call those who don't feel it psychopaths. And of course there are the non-fiction pleasures of documentary and understanding that you get from fiction, whether it's some history you never knew, or an experience of a life or a personality which is remote from your own. 

In Alan Bennett's delightful The Uncommon Reader, the Queen becomes a bookworm, and discovers that "books tenderise you." And have you ever come out of a concert or an art exhibition, or read some poetry, or closed the novel and found that you're... well, the only word I've come up with is "skinned". Everything is more so: you hear rhythms in ordinary speech and songs in the train squawking past your shoulder; lights arrange themselves into dances and the gleams of the wet pavement suddenly show you the moon; and your very body, as you walk, seems to say out loud who you are and what you're feeling. Everything's the same as when you went in, except that it's completely different. I'd say it's like being in love, except that love gives you tunnel vision, whereas that skinned state is a wide-angle lens with a depth of field from your eyelids to infinity.

One of the nicest things to hear, as a writer, is that your work will live with someone for a long time. And I've suggested before that you should think about what familiar pleasures you're offering your reader. But have you ever thought that the value of your work to someone might not be what they take away with them at the end, but that they leave it behind, but then live more intensely among everything else? It's an odd thought, because of course it ignores everything you put in and hoped readers would take out. And I doubt very much if there's anything you can do to make it happen for readers, except write the very best, most emotionally truthful, most exquisitely observed book you can. But maybe we should all remember sometimes that art doesn't just give you stuff, whether it's a belly laugh or a glimpse of death, it also takes something away: your armour, your carapace, the closed doors of your eyes, your ears, your very skin.