Well, I’m back and glad to report that the family party was a big success. The sun actually came out, not a drop of rain fell (amazing for England at Easter time) and the guests had a wonderful time. Even I, confirmed non-party girl, enjoyed it. Now I’m back home and exhausted, although I stood up to the rigors of three days of socializing better than I have done on any occasion I can recall in the past four or five years. I don’t want to tempt fate too much, so I’m not going to wave goodbye to CFS just yet, but I’m encouraged.
Still too tired to write a proper book review, however, so instead you might like to hear a little more about my writing course. So far, I couldn’t be more pleased with the way it is going. I’ve written a couple of assignments, each one a 500-word exercise in reportage. The small word count and the number of possible storylines on each occasion has really highlighted the way I organize and structure stories, and it’s become very clear that old academic habits die hard. I’ve done okay on each homework, but my tutor has instantly put her finger on the way I include excess information without necessarily drawing it into the arc of the narrative. As an academic, I’ve been taught that I need to justify everything I say. I couldn’t possibly write a story or an analysis on the simple basis that it’s the way I see it – I’d have people howling for proof, for back-up, for additional information with every sentence I wrote. My writing up until now has been about marshalling big quantities of information and then creating a very small story from it – and I’ve focused on trying to find the best information out there. What I need to learn to do is take a small amount of information and create an interesting story out of it. And intriguingly enough, that prospect makes me feel uneasy. On what basis do I find the authority to mould that information into the storyline that pleases me? I instinctively hang back from taking such a bold narrative step, or else, when I’ve had to, I overcompensate and grip the material with such force that it’s a bit limp afterwards.
My tutor’s really got the measure of me. She wrote in her last report: ‘What I’m trying to show, is the difference between facts and story (narrative) and the power of the writer – a power you are still anxious about exercising. Litlove, you are the writer. You are in control. You are not dependent on the facts for meaning or direction: they are dependent on you.’ This is very astute, as I’ve always conceived of my role as a writer as a kind of conduit for information. I don’t feel in the least bit entitled to stamp my meaning on events, or at least not as a truth, only as a viable hypothesis. I always felt that, as a critic, the important thing was to let the books speak for themselves. And that’s perfectly reasonable in the field of literary criticism, just less helpful in the field of commercial non-fiction writing. And of course we all know theoretically that facts are forgettable unless they are woven into a story, and meaningless unless tied to a plot, but the consequences of this for writing are quite significant. In short it means you have to understand, with complete clarity, why you are writing every sentence, every word, you commit to the page. Confidence in your mastery of the material is paramount. You may never state your purpose outright to the reader, but you have to know it in your own mind. Or else the reader is confused, bored, and quickly lost.
I’m finding it a relief to have the problems pinpointed for me, after weeks of staring at my writing, knowing something is not quite right and yet not being able to put my finger on the issue. It’s like having a doctor tell you that a course of physio is the answer to an ache that on your worst days you thought might be terminal. But what I was most grateful to the tutor for was her insistence that this changeover in conventions, from academic to narrative, would take me the full ten weeks of the course to accomplish. Don’t do anything more than think about it at present, she advised me, and again I think that’s so very sound. Learning is a slow process, if it’s to effect a proper, dependable change. I’m the worst at wanting to jump through a hoop the moment it’s placed before me. But only the gradual, slightly painful accumulation of understanding results in a long term and reliable change of perspective.
My next assignment is to take the recent news story about the Somali pirates and their hostage and write it from three different perspectives – pirates, military and hostage. Gulp! Oh and no more than 250 words for each perspective. Now, do I pick the exact same events and relay them in different terms, or do I focus on slightly different events for each protagonist? I don’t know and I’m only going to let my mind drift over it for the next few days. Here’s hoping that I end up in the rescue boat headed for the shore rather than shot down in flames.