On Beginnings

Alright. I’ve been running round like a mad thing recently and not been able to update as much as I’ve wanted. I finally got my Cecilia chapter off to my supervisor, and have immediately dived into preparing a conference paper for the beginning of June. Will update about that sometime in the next couple of days, because I think the art of conference-papering is one that is worthy of some consideration, even if it may only be of direct interest to my more geekily inclined readership.

But for now, I wanted to do something about creative writing. Specifically, the creativity that is involved in creative writing. Because really that’s what my first ever post claimed this blog was largely about, and I hate false advertising. I was thinking, as I concocted a rather creative spaghetti bolognese earlier this evening (ran out of red wine, used vodka instead, it was ace), that I might do something about Beginnings. Because I’m starting my second novel at the moment, and often that’s what’s most interesting to people isn’t it? how you actually get the ideas from the swirly paintpot-water mess in your head down onto the page in reasonably cogent lines of writing. That’s the challenge.

But then, I realized that I should probably save the story of #2 for another day. Because frankly at the moment, Rites (novel #1) is taking up every spare moment I have to lavish on stuff that isn’t the PhD, and I’m having to bat #2 away like an irritating child that’s bothering you with a toy dinosaur while its older sibling has just lopped its own finger off or is about to set fire to the house or something. It HAS to be about Rites at the moment.

It’s just over three weeks til the launch now, and I’ve started to have to do interviews and things like that  (see the Press page if you’re interested. They are funny old things, interviews. They really deserve their own blog post. Maybe one day they’ll get one. ) Now, the thing that has struck me about interviews is that they often seem to ask the same questions. The most common of these questions is, “Where did you get the idea?” or “How did it come about?” or something like that. You don’t want to bore the interviewer, and you know they’ve only got a few lines to fill, or twenty seconds of airtime to populate, so you mumble something about a community and a central incident and a voice, and then that’s it and the next question comes along. And you feel a bit relieved because you don’t have to go any further into the weird unsavoury hotpot of ideas that bubbles away inside your head and you wouldn’t know how to describe it if you did. But you also feel kind of frustrated because you didn’t have space to explain, you didn’t have time to tell the only thing that the reader or listener wants to know, which is how creativity works. And you wish you could.

Well, this is the closest I can get.

There were a lot of moments over a number of years that fed into the beginning of Rites. There were many moments in my childhood on a warm afternoon when I ripped open an ice pop, or heard the call of a wood pigeon, or felt a sense of oppressiveness on a quiet suburban street. There were some moments in church during my adolescence when I felt a frightening sort of alienation at the vast rumbling beast of the congregation, standing up, sitting down, kneeling rising, speaking, all in unison. There was one moment when I was eighteen, when my first love handed me a book by some writer named Julian Barnes called Talking It Over, and I lay in his bed for the rest of the day (the first love’s bed, not Julian Barnes’s) and read it from cover to cover and refused to get up and do whatever it was we had planned earlier because there was something about it.  There were numerous conversations with people who thought very differently to me about God and his/its usefulness. Some facts that I found out when I worked at the Ministry of Justice, about sexual offences legislation and conviction rates, that baffled and upset me. There were several instances of very painful juvenile heartbreak and jealousy – who can hurt like a fourteen year old?

Obviously, I never knew these moments would feed into a book. The best I can describe it is that I sort of ‘favourited’ them in my mind, much as you favourite a tweet, should you happen to be on Twitter. That is, I felt those moments with more than usual significance, and I revisted them mentally, with pleasure or pain, over the years. They had a sense of transferability about them as well as being very intimate – they inhabited that strange and beautiful crook between the personal and the universal, the particular and the recognizable. When I was about 24 and I started writing short stories (most of them terrible) and sending them off to magazines and competitions, it was these moments I came back to and mined for feeling. I tried to sharpen my vocabulary on them.

The stories didn’t do that well. I got a couple published in anthologies – I am very grateful for that early encouragement – but I don’t think they ever did, or will, change anyone’s world. I felt constrained by the form. Short stories, well, they’ve got to be short. I had a lot to say.

So by the time I was 26, I wanted to write a novel.

I was having a conversation with a guy I was seeing at the time. He told me a story, the central event of which was that somebody lost their keys, and the keys had a name and address written on them, and ramifications ensued. There was something about that image that just sent a little bit of a jolt through my mind. I said he should write a story about it. He said he’d rather not. I said that I might do, in that case. He said to be his guest.

I went away and kept thinking about the keys. Again and again. Abandon. Accident. Discovery. The phone call – there would be a phone call, of course, Recrimination. Confusion. Things spiral out of control. She doesn’t understand. And suddenly there was a voice in my own head. A young man’s voice. Not someone I’d ever met; a stranger. Precise and pedantic and ever so slightly mocking.

“When I was fourteen, I did something terrible. At least, that’s what some people tell me.”

Well, I wrote those lines down and around this time last year, just before I turned 27, I went away to a tiny isolated flat belonging to my grandparents in Norfolk – real Alan Partridge country – with just my computer, and I wrote a bit of narrative by this person who I thought for some reason was called Day. It was almost a character study. He was trying to tell the reader something but didn’t know where to start. He was so hampered by his baggage, the baggage of this incident and the baggage of the years that had passed since then that he kept failing, and giving up, but then no, insisting that what he had to say was worth saying. He was speaking about other people, three other people, and I knew that they had been there when the keys thing happened too. And gradually they started to form in my mind, and certain of my favourited moments clung to them and became parts of their personalities. They were all me, but they were also not me, they were strangers. I started to draw some diagrams, to figure out how they knew each other, how they fitted together. I wrote random words and phrases and arrows down in a notebook, and then I typed them all up into wobbly chunks of prose on my laptop, all through the narrator of Day.

Day was hard work. I think he is to read, as well as to write, actually. He exhausted me so much that I assumed he was the only narrator. More than one was unthinkable at the start. But then I got to a point where I suddenly didn’t know where to go with him any more. I was sitting there in that Norfolk flat, and suddenly I thought, very clearly and sharply about that Julian Barnes book I once read. And three narrative voices suddenly clamoured at me from all different directions. One was a woman, and she was drunk. One was a priest, and he was smug as you like. And one was a young woman and she was angry, and crucially she knew that I – the reader, the writer – had been speaking to Day. So she wanted to speak to me – the reader, the writer – too. And that was the start of it all. Day wasn’t the only narrator. There were loads of them. They all wanted to get their story in. They were all talking about the same thing. And they were all passing like ships in the night.

That was the beginning. More on middles and endings another time, perhaps, if this was of any use or interest.

For now, I’m off to bed. Today I have: cycled to campus, prepared and delivered undergraduate marking, made notes for the conference paper, had a meeting about chairing a panel, run to Clifton Ings, written a funding application, and made a wicked vodka spag bol, aka “meaty Bloody Mary” (thank you Stephen May). I am therefore knackered, and bed-bound.

Til next time!

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