All entries for Sunday 15 May 2005
May 15, 2005
I often feel that writing that claims to be about the author, the telling of a life story, can be very self-involved, and “fake”, begging the reader for sympathy, making this the last thing the reader feels inclined to do. I find that reading fiction often feels much more real, much more convincing, simply because, the author is not directly asking for my sympathy. As for my own writing, I have yet to find a way in which I can write about myself, without it sounding pretentious or self-involved. I enjoy life writing greatly, although I tend to write about my relatives, and only through them, explore myself. To write a piece that is directly about myself, and my opinions, thoughts, and experiences, seems like an impossible thing to do with success. The only biographies that I find convincing and readable are ones that deal with events such as war, for example, Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Marie ‘Missie’ Vassiltchikov, and Vera Britton. The detached tone that is often adopted in these war diaries, especially those of Primo Levi, begs for the reader’s sympathy and understanding, without being too obvious about it. It is these kinds of autobiographies that I find hold the most truth, and that, if I ever were to write one, is what I would be seeking to do.
You ask where I would draw the line between autobiography and fiction, and this too, is a complicated question, that I believe only the author can answer. If a book is claimed to be autobiography, than the reader will trust what it says, and yet, as I have already said, truth can never be truly attained, even in autobiography. To strip away all the masks, deceptions, and little white lies that everyone tells throughout their lives is impossible, especially if something is being written to be published. “Fiction”, “autobiography” are simply labels, and there aspects of both in the other.
Nevertheless, there are differences, differences that cannot be ignored, between fiction and autobiography. The world, characters and situations of fiction come, originally, from the author’s imagination. Their personal experiences may become a very large part of what they write, but at the start, the root of the writing comes from the author’s mind. Fiction is developed from the dreams, thoughts, imagination of the author, whereas autobiography, always has to have a certain amount of fact in it.
This paradox is something I came across in my own life writing, and at first struggled with. For my two major pieces of life writing, “A perfect marriage”, and “Bert Wyer” (which is included in this portfolio), were both based on the history of some of my older relatives. Therefore, in order to write these, I had to do a significant amount of research into their lives, in order to write an accurate account. However, to write everything, exactly as it happened, as people remembered it, is an impossible task, and so I found myself editing sections, and using only the sections that served my purpose. There were times, also, when the order of events, or the perspective from which I had been told them, did not suit the piece, and so I would twist the facts, once again, to create a more coherent, dramatic piece of writing. Therefore, although my life writing is exactly that, writing about somebody’s life and the effect that has on me, it is also fiction in the sense that it cannot be said to be based on one hundred percent fact. In investigating the bounds between fiction and life writing, I wrote “Princess Margaret”, which is also included in this portfolio. Here, I was writing about a real person, and about a real event in her life, whilst actually knowing very little about it. I would defiantly classify this piece as fiction, or is it fictional life writing? The line between these two is often very blurred, and the only way to make it clearer, in my mind at least, is to accept that no life writing can ever be wholly based on truth.
Truth in writing is like a utopia for me; it is something I can imagine, can see clearly in my mind, but never reach. The idea of what is truthful is something that I have very strong opinions on, and which does, in many ways affect my writing, both fiction and non-fiction. I suppose the easiest way to sum my ideas up would be to say that as a concept, I do not believe truth can actually exist. Or, at least, not the complete truth. Every truth is an interpretation, something that has been slightly twisted, either consciously or sub-consciously by us, or by another person. The only truth is what is what we see, hear, feel, and touch in that moment. A moment that lasts for a fraction of a fraction of a second, and then it is over, and can never be wholly revisited. Perspective in itself is highly complicated and unreliable.
Perspective is never something that is easy, or straightforward, or sure. Perspective is like the candle that sits in the glass box, and sways above your head, in the dark, once the barbeque has burnt out. You can see the flame clearly. Can’t you? But then, you see, there are all these other flames; the reflection from all four sides of glass, the reflection from the metal edging, and the duller glint that it gives the smoke that is swirling around it, and in the cigarette smoke on your fingers.
Everything we see is upside down. It is up to our brain to right the image. A message is sent, jumping along our nerves, soaked in liquid and transferred to another nerve, and then into the plastacine that someone named brain. It is biological. It is scientific fact. Someone told me. And I told you, and you told your daughter, who told her brother-in-law, who told his nephew. And it became truth. But what if everything we see, in reality is actually the other way around?
Perspective is a matter for the individual. “Look inside yourself”, “tell me the truth”, “are you lying?” I don’t know. Am I? If I told you the ‘truth’, would you believe it? I can only tell you what I see. It might be upside down, it might be flat when you think it should be round, but I don’t know. And remember, even the things I say are not true, because they are not whole, and real. They are something I forgot, and then remembered moments, weeks, years later, when suddenly, I realised that that was when I, or you, or we, were, or thought, or happened.
And, so, to ask ‘can fiction be more truthful than non-fiction’, is, to me, a redundant point. How do we know what the ‘truth’ is?
Often, in fiction, it is easier to tell what we believe to be the truth, or even if we don’t believe it, it is what we accept as the truth. If we have a bad experience, or do, or say something that we are ashamed of, our brain automatically twists the truth, and contorts it, so that we are left with a memory of something that never happened. If we didn’t do that, we’d go insane. And yet, when we create our own characters, and put them into situations that, we claim, come directly from our imaginations, perhaps this is the closest to the truth. Here, in our own fiction, we can tell what really happen, or what was said, or thought, without having to admit that this is what happened to us, or someone we know. We put on the mask, and hide behind it, because it is only by doing this that it becomes truthful. Truth is like silence; it is deafening, numbing, maddening, but it is certainly never complete.
Ever since the Ty Newydd course in sixth form, I have considered myself a poet, and I have to say, my opinion hasn’t changed over the course of this year. I don’t think I really had a true appreciation for the art behind, and inside, poetry before I began to write it, and I had no concept of the ideas that could spark a poem to be written. I think the best way to describe how I write a poem, would be to say it’s like a sparkler. Once it is lit, it remains bright and fiery for a few minutes, lighting the sky up to such an extent that you cannot see anything but it. And then, suddenly, it will reach the end, and burn out, leaving the stem useless. I can never predict when I will inspired to write a poem; I know what my themes are, and when I have a deadline to reach, I will manage to find that inspiration in time, but very rarely will I have any idea what it will be, until it finally hits me. A perfect example of this is my poem “The Clown”, which is one of the poems I am submitting in this portfolio. At the very start of this term, I went with my family to see Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at Stratford, performed by The Royal Shakespeare Company. A great number of my poems that I have written over the year, have been about a theatre production I have been to see, so I was aware that I might be struck by inspiration either during, or just after the play. However, it was not until two weeks later, very early one morning, that suddenly I knew what I would write; it would be a villanelle about the character, Feste, and I had my first line within a matter of seconds. I know from experience, that if I write the poem as soon as I have receive this spark, the poem will flow easily, and need little redrafting, whereas if I wait, I’ll loose the momentum, the words, and will probably never find them again.
It never ceases to amaze me, how I can hold a biro to a piece of paper, and somehow words will flow onto the page that I never would have thought could produce the kind of poetry that I come out with. I am not ashamed to admit that my poetry is my pride and joy, and something that I know I am good at. I am also fully aware that I have a long way to go before I can truly achieve in the literary world. However, my ability to write poetry has given me the kind of confidence I have never felt before, and has encouraged me to enter several competitions, and share my work with a large audience, including those at open-mic nights. With each poem I write, my confidence grows, as I find myself able to admire the words and styles that I am able to use and manipulate to my own purpose. Poetry is my own form of magic that is exclusive to me, and can only ever be understood by me.
The other way in which my attitude towards poetry has changed over the year, is towards the use of form. Prior to coming to Warwick, I had always written in free verse, vaguely aware that there were various forms of poetry out there, but with no idea about how they worked. I spent the first five weeks of the course, hating form with a vengeance, spending hours struggling over iambic pentameter and rhyming sequences that didn’t seem to make any sense. I couldn’t wait until I was free to write in free verse again, instead of within these ridiculous rules and conventions, with odd Italian-sounding names. It was like I was wearing a corset; to begin with, I couldn’t breathe, or move, and I felt suffocated. And then, as I got used to the shape, I turned and looked in the mirror, and realised how good I looked in it, and instead of the corset being made to shape me, I was made for the corset. I began to relish the use of form, once I was free to write however I wanted, and as my courage grew and grew, until I felt I was good enough to play around with the form, and adapt it and manipulate it to suit my purposes. I discovered the magic that came from sitting down to write a poem, and yet, because of the form dictating the words I used, the meaning ended up as something completely different to what I had intended. I have learnt to find form beautiful, and through experimentation during the year, have found the ones that best suit me, and played with them, until they are my own.
I read once that “a poet is born, not made [but] the reverse of this is also true. The gifts of the poet are innate, but the imagination and inspiration that belong to the poet are only half the story. The poet’s art must be learned.” (Hudson, vii). It is only over this last year that I have come to realise how true this is; no one could ever write the way I do, because it is individual to me, it comes from the very core of what makes me me, just as I could never write like anyone else. And yet, this does not mean that creative writing cannot be taught. In some ways, it means that it is even more important that creative writing is taught. Poets, writers, critics, need to learn how to harness their imagination, to make it work to their best advantage, for only then, can they truly produce a piece of wonderful writing.
George Orwell has said many interesting and perspective things in his writing, which have great social and political resonance, and impact. However, in reading through his essays, the sentence I most related to was the opening paragraph to his essay, Why I write, in which he says, “from a very early age I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but did so with a consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books” (Orwell, 1). Erase “seventeen and twenty four” and insert “twelve and sixteen”, and that, in brief, is the history of my attitude towards writing. When I was very young, I wrote several stories, few of which were ever finished. These included a continuation of both The Little Princess, and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, which I still have, and treasure. My one finished piece that I wrote when I was about ten, was a tale from the Arabian Nights, that I called “The Life of Hemsetherus”, in which I came up with some of the most bizarre names and plot twists! And yet, I’d like to think that one day, maybe I could come back to this, and re-write it, in what I would hope, would be a more sophisticated way. However, high school began, and I spent the next six years or so determined that I would not follow a career path based on English Literature. I ranged from wanting to be archaeologist, to being a vet, to being a historian, to being a lawyer. I refused to write, knowing, perhaps, that if I did so, I’d fall into the abyss and never get out again. But, I think a part of me always knew I was fighting the inevitable. Not only was English in my blood, but also it was always far and away my best class, both in the sense that I always got high marks, and it was the one class that I always enjoyed, without fail.
I can’t remember when I made the decision, but suddenly, sat infront of me was my UCAS form, filled out with four applications to do English, and two to do English and Creative Writing. Where they had come from, I had no idea, but I like to think of it as my inner self, knowing instinctively what I wanted to spend the foreseeable future studying. As for the creative writing components, I don’t think I ever held up much realistic hope to get in. For a start, since I was younger, I had done very little writing. I attended a weeklong course at Ty Newydd, Wales, at the end of lower sixth, but that had been it. The course opened my eyes to writing, especially poetry, and convinced me that perhaps I did have a talent. But it was a talent that I did not believe would ever actually get me anywhere, nothing that was out of the ordinary. And yet, here I was, applying to the one of the most prestigious courses in the country.
It wasn’t until after I received my offer that I began to realise the importance of what I had decided to do. As I struggled to make what, then, seemed like the impossible decision of deciding between English and Creative Writing, and just a straight English degree, I slowly became aware of the significance of the fact that I had received this offer, from this university. As I read more about the course, and I as I re-read my own work, I knew, with absolute certainly, that I was meant to come here. If ever there was such a thing as fate, it was at this point that she intervened in my life, and brought me to the Warwick Writing Programme.
The first seminar was on our third day here, at ten in the morning. I walked down from Westwood, the sun was shining and it was a lovely autumn day. I was the first to arrive in the seminar room, and went round opening windows, which were closed the minute the next person entered. I don’t remember who it was, or what I thought of them. Once again, time skipped, and suddenly, I was sat in a room of strange people, and a man called Michael Hulse was talking to us. I think Fresher’s week is probably a blur for most people, and most of it certainly is for me. But I vividly remember the following week’s seminar. I remember Joe reading out his sonnet, and I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, as I heard how’d he’d tied the words together to create something that was beautiful, and rhythmic, and everything that I didn’t feel my sonnet was. I spent the rest of the seminar praying that Michael wouldn’t ask me to read mine out, and he didn’t. But that seminar gave me purpose, determination, and I knew that never again would I almost beg to not have to read out my writing. The next week, and the week after that, I worked tirelessly on my poems, life writing, fiction and non-fiction, until I produced something that I knew was beyond my best. With each week I grew with confidence, and my writing got better. But one of the most valuable lessons that I learnt after that first seminar was that each of us has own style of writing, our own trademark features, and none are better than the other, they are just different.
I think to begin with, as is natural, I was slightly intimidated by my fellow students on the course, but that didn’t stop me wanting to get to know them. Within a few weeks we’d become fast friends, and I was in the centre of one of the strongest friendship groups ever, which was made up of people who were all very like me, had the same interests and passions. Now, I cannot imagine my life, let alone my writing, without them. Everything I write is somehow influenced by them; whether it is because we have had a conversation about a particular form, or style, or whether the subject matter is somehow related them, or because they have read a draft and helped me amend it. We work very well together, helping each other with critism and advise. If I was asked what was one of the best aspects of this course, I would answer, that because it is so small, the people on it (and I am including the tutors in this) form a close community that quickly learn to play off each other, and use the network of writers to their literary advantage.