So my forthcoming book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, is available for pre-order. This thing has just got real, in other words, and I'm in a familiar state, at once wanting to tiptoe away with my fingers in my ears before anyone notices, and wanting my words (which means my self) to go out there and be heard come what may.
What's more, various festivals and other writerly places have asked me to join them and talk about the book, though most I can't specify yet (sounds much more cloak-and-dagger than it is). One that I can trail is the Words Away Salon. In March, instead of co-chairing another writer, I'll be, as it were, the guest, sitting between Kellie and guest chair Caroline Green. We've called it The Art of Failure: resilience and the writer, so if you're within reach of Vauxhall on 25th March do come, and share wine and tea and cake; I'll have books to sell and sign too. Meanwhile, if you took a fancy to pre-order the book at your local independent bookshop, or online, I couldn't possibly stop you...
And to give you a taste of it, here is an extract from Chapter 5, "Julia", about the only other novelist I've yet found in my family tree: Frances Julia Wedgwood. She was born in 1833, and published two novels in her twenties, the first anonymously, the second under a pseudonym. I'd love to think that with her third she would have dropped her mask, but then her father criticised it, and she decided she had no capacity for imaginative creation. She never wrote fiction again, but set about working on history and philosophy, becoming a "woman intellectual" rated second only to George Eliot in her ability to handle serious subjects and difficult "masculine" themes. And then, in her thirties, she met and fell in love with... But that would be telling.
Yet, as with Tom Wedgwood, in writing about Julia I’m feeling again the longing to fulfill all the promising parts of her story. Was I wrong, those years ago? Should I put an end to this parallel project, and return to fiction? I know I shouldn’t – and yet, again, the longing, just now as I type, is extraordinarily strong.
Where does it come from, the longing of the creative artist, not just the writer, to re-express and re-create what we discover or experience? We tell ourselves and others that it’s because we need to earn a living, or want something to do in the evenings, or want to ignore the washing up. But at times that drive to write, and to send our writing out to find readers, is desperate, and its thwarting unbearable; and no emotion so visceral is only about mere living-earning, or skiving-off.
It isn’t just writers, of course. Tourists have always sketched and taken snapshots to keep a little of what they have seen for after they’ve gone home; wedding photographers are booked partly for fear that, without such processing of the experience – the framing, the recording, the making recoverable – the experience in some way doesn’t or didn’t exist. If creators of art, too, simply want to make sure that these things are recoverable, then we could save a whole lot of trouble and keep what we create safely on the shelf or under the bed. But we don’t.
The thing is, when a singer or an actor doesn’t have an audience she calls it practising or rehearsing, not performing, and many singers stop singing if they can no longer get chances to perform. Writers, too, want an audience, and that’s where Julia’s pull-push over putting her name on her novels is a clue. The great psychologist D.W.Winnicott said that artists are people driven by the tension between wanting to communicate and wanting to hide, and he said elsewhere that, for a child, hiding is a joy but not being found is a disaster.
If I suggest that creative art, too, fulfils an infant need, it’s not to imply that artists are childish, only that a human being’s oldest drives – which is to say our youngest drives – are also our strongest ones, and cause the most trouble when they can’t be fulfilled. Besides, Winnicott observed that children’s play is their work, and working at art is like working at play: the doing of something for its own sake, the seriousness, the imaginative recreation, the deliberate evoking and replaying of emotions and actions, and – perhaps most overtly in fiction – the acceptance of the doubleness of ‘real’ and ‘not real’.
So hiding is a joy but not being found is a disaster, and yet many actors are personally very shy. Many writers of fiction, too, respond like performers as their imaginations run and words rise up and get put on the page, but nonetheless shrink from the glare of light on their own, un-masked face and body. Fiction is the armour, the helmet and visor, which make it possible to put ourselves in emotionally dangerous places, and those places include both the imagined action of our stories, and the imagined stage – the reader’s mind – which our stories must stand on. Projecting not our actual selves, but a creation of that self, outwards to an audience resolves the tension between communicating and hiding, and when the audience responds we feel both hidden and found.