A Million Little Versions (or nearly)
Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers?"

Yours to remember and mine to forget

I'm reading a fascinating book, The Agony & The Ego: the art and strategy of fiction writing explored, which is a collection of essays by all sorts of writers from Robertson Davies to Marina Warner, by way of the Johns Mortimer and Banville, and Sara Paretsky. It's edited by Clare Boylan, and it's out of print; I got it from the library, but it's so brilliant that I've just bought a copy secondhand, partly so I can read it in the bath with a clear conscience, and take a pencil to it too, but also because I know I'm going to keep going back to it, beyond the limits of even the London Library's patience.

What sent me to find this book was a forum conversation about my statement that I never write worse than when I've got a textbook, or a history book, or a guidebook, in my other hand. A friend quoted this, from Rose Tremain's essay "The First Mystery" (my italics):

...all the research done for a novel - all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been - must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist's mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question...

Graham Green, when asked by a journalist how he would make use of an important experience he'd had in South East Asia, replied: "It's yours to remember and mine to forget." He was talking about the novelist's task of reimagining reality. Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction. Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.

This, of course, is why I feel so frustrated by the obsession in some writers and many readers with strict accuracy to what they regard as the facts. It's not that it doesn't matter - I'll come to that in a moment - it's that it's not what makes a good novel a good novel. And yes, if I'm honest, I really do admire the storytelling skills (and the sales) of such authors, while finding their data-driven fiction imaginatively inert.

We often talk about the difference between using your own built-in knowledge and experience in your writing, and using researched material. "Research" implies what Tremain is talking about -  data that you use - but that's just the start. In Creative Writing, the brilliant and comprehensive course textbook for the Open University course I teach, after the chapter on 'Writing What You Know" comes the chapter on "Writing What You Come To Know", and I just love that name for what we're talking about. I'd forgotten that Tremain quotation yesterday, when I found myself saying in the Comments on my own recent post on the History Girls blog (sorry, that sounds solipsistic, but do have a look - the comments were fascinating). 

...the whole process of writing creatively - in my case, at least - is about internalising everything, wherever it comes from (research, voices, knowledge, my own experience), so that it has equal status inside me. It's only once it is all equal that it can be part of the process of re-imagining which results in the single, coherent entity which will be the novel. Otherwise, it's just a patchwork of stuff.

So don't expect the facts and images and ideas you've gathered to magically turn into fully-imagined places and people and stories, just because you're fitting them into a fictional narrative, and setting them on the page in your own words. As Kearney says in On Stories, it's about the move from non-fiction narrative, which deals in "probability and representation", to fiction's business of "possibility and verisimilitude". It's important to allow for time and process which will "let go of the research", as Tremain describes it elsewhere. Give yourself time (on a walk, in the bath, while scrubbing a floor) to dream these stuffs first, to inhabit the smell and sense of them.  That's what will make these stuffs start to move and breathe: you feeling them, apprehending them in an a-logical, simultaneous way.

And a last thought, which came along as I stopped drafting this last night to catch up on Radio 4's "All In The Mind". According to the Nobel laureate psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, not only do we have two ways of deciding things - quick, instinctive and imaginative, and slow, information-processing and logical - but

We understand things by making them true in our mind - by imagining them to be true - and then if it doesn't work, we conclude that they are not true.

Which, of course, is why if a writer gets something wrong in a novel - whether making Londoners drive on the right, or a respectable Victorian woman swear and use makeup - the reader's mental sleight-of-hand in suspending their knowledge that none of this happened, breaks down. We ascribe that to a failure of logic (wrong facts) but really it's failed our quick, instinctive judgement of truth. The novel fails the test of imaginability, and the reflex belief that it's therefore "not true", destroys the sleight-of-hand.

So, I'd suggest that while the writer's data-handling needs to be rigorous to prevent that happening, the other aspect of the reader's experience - the business of mental sleight-of-hand - also has a necessary parallel in the writer's process. For fiction to pass the test of imaginability the researched material must cease to be data, and become stuff that quick-and-instinctive can access: it must be allowed to be forgotten-and-remembered as our own experience has been. Only from that stuff can the process of re-imagination integrate everything into a single, story which passes the test of imaginability, maintains the sleight of hand, and is therefore believable, and so "true" in the aesthetic sense. When Tremain says that data "is imaginatively inert" without that kind of forgetting and re-imagining, she doesn't just mean that it'll be a boring novel. She means that it won't really be a novel.

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