From candyfloss to flesh-eating monsters
But can you teach Creative Writing?

Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory

If you're a writer, then you're never really happy just to experience something in its moment: there's always a restlessness, a frustration-in-waiting, until you can get it out of your self and onto paper. And you know the phenomenon I was talking about in Opening the Doors, where you've been reading or listening to something and it seems to skin you - or tenderise you, as Alan Bennet's Queen has it? For a while you're extra-alive to the world round you: all six senses, words, images, things strangers say, ideas for stories, and bits of your own memory, and it's wonderful, in a strange sort of way. I'm not one for illegal substances, but when I read The Doors of Perception I recognised something of that intensity of experience.

But when those two, simple, writer-readerly experiences come together, it can be almost overwhelming. The other day I went for my routine walk. I'd just been reading - of all things - Juliet Gardiner's Wartime, which tells so many stories, so well, that it's as good for my writerly self as several novels. And the weather was beautiful in a bright, frosty-misty way. The combination was almost overwhelming: from the frost-fringed leaves and muted gold and red of the trees, to the ordinary words of strangers hanging in the air waiting to become poetry or song, my ears and eyes and mind was filled with things clamouring to be written. I could have stopped to know one thing fully, but the thought of missing anything - the sense that these hyper-alive things were slipping through my mind's fingers and getting away forever - was unbearable. I found myself walking faster and faster, although looking back I'm not sure if I wanted to capture more of them, or escape it all from despair that I'd never be able to catch even a tithe of it.

After all, if we were content to live in the moment and not scoop it up, take it in, re-envision and re-create it, we wouldn't need to write, would we? And given all the excellent reasons for not shutting oneself up for hours at a time, for years of one's life, that must be quite some need. I only got my balance back courtesy of a bar of chocolate and the realisation that I was going to have to forgive myself for failing to catch so much.

But I also see this need in us - a need which can become quite desperate - operating inside the writing of a story or a novel. I'm not the only writer who usually gets things wrong by trying to put more in than even our beloved baggy monster of a form can hold: more ideas, more characters, more research, more dilemmas and more resolutions. And maybe that's also at the bottom of our desire to cross genres: a need not to be "just" one thing, when there's another which we also love and want to grab at and catch and pack into our pages. But, as I was discussing in Over-done, over-written and over here, the chances are that by packing too many things in none of them will get the chance to flower into their full glory. In order to make something which is really whole and coherent, you have to forgive yourself for what you can't put in there.

I think this is also, perhaps, one of the reasons that most writers - at least, most good writers - never feel fully satisfied with something they've written, even if they know - as most good writers do - when, essentially, it's good and it's finished. Round the story that is on the page hover all the ghosts of what it might have been: the after-image of all the roads you didn't go down. If you're ever to be able to be at least well-satisfied, if not fully-satisified, with your work, you have to forgive yourself for not having kept those other possibilities alive.

I also think you have to forgive yourself for not being the writer you'll never be. That's not just about none of us being Tolstoy or Austen or Coetzee or Mantel, because most of us have got to grips with that one, nor about how once you've learnt to be bad, you're so much more aware of what you can't do, than what you can. Rather, it's to do with what I found when I was judging the Frome competition: one test of really good writing is that you can't help but read it immersively, and when you do try to tease apart the strands of story and technique to analyse what's working, the piece has a way of curling itself tightly back together again into a single rope.

When you read immersively, you're giving yourself up to any magic that the writer's capable of working on you. Indeed, I've pretty much given up reading anything which doesn't cast that spell over me : if I don't stop hearing the engine beneath me within the first few pages, I give up. But my own writing can never quite have that magic for me: I can't do for myself this marvellous writing/dreaming/skinning/coming-alive thing for readers (including myself) that this writer can. The magic can only come from somewhere else.

So, almost by definition, any book that's good enough for me to bother reading makes me feel a writerly failure: I can't do what it does. The only way I cope with this is to know that that writer is them and this writer is me. Yes, I can't marvel at stuff I've done myself - it can't come from outside and be magical to me - but the opposite is also true: I can't know what things (if anything) I do for readers which are marvellous, for them. I have to forgive myself for only being me.

But finally - and seasonally - don't forget that, in Latin, satis doesn't mean perfect, or complete, it means enough. When, at the end of The Journey of the Magi, (as well as the text, that link has a clip of Eliot himself reading it) the narrator says, "it was (you may say) satisfactory" he means satisfaction in the original, and theological sense: to atone or make restitution. What the Magi found was enough to do that - and that enough (in Eliot's theology) was everything.


Sheepwash, Devon, Christmas 2010

 I can't quite sort this thought out - maybe someone else can in the comments - but I'm sure that these two things are connected. Somehow, in forgiving ourselves for what we can't be and never will be, we can come into a better relationship with enough. Not to say something's good enough when we know there's more we could do to it, or to be smug about our general wonderfulness, or to stop trying to learn. But just to know, really properly, if only some of the time, that, as a writer, you'll do. And to know that I'm saying a big  



(or your Festival of Light of choice)

to everyone reading this, with lots of good wishes for everything good and writerly, now, and in the new year to come.


PS - hope you like the new look for the New Year. The content is pretty much the same, except that there's a new link up at the top, to some of the books which I'm reading at the moment, and a new section in the RH sidebar, "Emma elsewhere" with links to other places where I've been hanging around nattering on about stuff.