Every so often I give you a little update on what I’m doing writing-wise. The start of a new year seems like a good time to reassess, plus I find myself torn between very different projects at the moment, so explaining them to you all might prove to be a clarifying exercise.
Well, cast your minds back to last autumn and some of you will recall that I had embarked on a biographical project writing about writers’ lives. I’d picked Colette for my first essay as I know a lot about her, but I had found the writing itself to be quite hard going. I whined about it several times on this blog. Finally I finished the essay (or ‘the wretched beast’ as it had become familiarly termed in my mind) and sent it off to be read by someone I don’t really know at all, but whom I’d encountered on a writers’ site. Well, he absolutely loathed it and told me so in a way that made it hard to distinguish between his dislike for the piece and his personal dislike of me for having written it. Now I didn’t get educated at Cambridge only to flinch at that sort of thing. Here the criticism is not only devastating as a matter of course, it’s impersonal and often undeniably correct. But I was annoyed as a teacher because the quality of a rewrite depends to some extent on the quality of criticism received. You really don’t need someone else’s violent emotion in between you and that valuable help (and I should add here that the fact I was an academic was what really got my reader’s goat; he was incandescent with rage about what academic writing had done to literature). So with a sigh, I put it all to one side for a while until I could get a better perspective myself. One thing was certain; I hadn’t enjoyed writing it as much as other pieces.
Once I’d cleared my mind, I found that a new project was beginning to form. I was feeling this urge to get out and about again and it occurred to me that I’d really like interviews to be part of what I did next. I began to think about interviewing people who’d been through long term therapy. And then, I began to think about how much more interesting it would be to interview people who’d divorced. I find it fascinating how the same events can look so radically different to two people who have shared them intimately. I realised that I’d want to interview both partners to a divorce, precisely to see where the points of contention lay, and that it might be as well to try to find couples who’d been through counselling, not least because they would have a head start on putting words to their experiences. Then I’d want to interview couples therapists, and maybe if possible friends and family members who’d been involved too. Well, I became quite excited about this project, and told my friend at the bookstore, who became quite interested in filming some of the interviews. I think relationships are fascinating, and to understand more about what goes wrong in them would have a real use value.
So I’ve been mulling this idea over for a while now, wondering how to organise it practically, where to find the interview candidates, that sort of thing. Then, just before Christmas, I went to see my doctor for a run of the mill check-up and inadvertently messed with his head. He is quite interested in the fact I write and was asking all about what I was up to. So, gamely, I launched into a description of this interview project, ending up by asking whether I could put a poster up in the surgery. Well, my doctor groaned at that point and nearly put his head on the desk.
‘I thought you were going to ask me if I’d be one of the interviewees,’ he confessed.
So bear in mind it was pantomime season because my next words were,
‘But you’re not divorced.’
‘Yes I am,’ said my doctor.
Now for two pins, I would have said ‘Oh no you’re not’, but then I did pause and consider that he probably was in full possession of the facts about this. Even though he wears a wedding ring and has pictures of his cute kids about the place. But then he began telling me all sorts of interesting things about what had happened. To the point that I began to make noises about how good it would be if I could interview him. But no, the doctor insisted that his ex would never be involved in such a thing. And then he signed me off for an unprecedented full year without further review and waved me goodbye, quite happily, but urging me to ‘Stay well! Stay well!’ Which did make me think about how hard it was going to be to get both parties to a divorce, or indeed anyone who’d been divorced, to talk about it.
After that, the more I thought about it, the more problems presented themselves. I spoke to a dear friend of mine who’s another university lecturer and she was telling me about a dissertation candidate who’d been interviewing elderly people for their memories of newsreels in the cinema during the war. Apparently even though the student was given a special room in the nursing home to conduct interviews, which sounds formal enough, several of the elderly gentlemen made passes at her. Which made me wonder about the wisdom of interviewing divorced men on my own, possibly in their homes. Well, let’s be clear, it made me realise that was something completely out of the question. I am and always have been cat nip to the nutters, loners and quirkily challenged of the world. Let’s not analyse it too much, but the mentally unsound really like me. But if people are doing me a favour, will they be willing to make the trip into my college (much safer venue) for the interview?
Anyway, a couple of evenings ago, I happened to be noodling about on my computer when I opened up a couple of documents. One was a long semi-academic piece I’d written on Gabriel Josipovici. And that was good. I guess 15 years of practising something day in day out will do that for you. I wish I could just stick with the kind of writing I know how to do, but it’s simply not interesting and challenging to me at the moment. Ach, I am such a thorn in my own side. And then the other piece was that old beast of an essay on Colette. With the benefit of distance I could see that the beginning was all kinds of wrong, but that it wasn’t too dreadful at all once I’d got into my stride. The next day I rewrote the beginning, and it looked better. So that got me thinking about picking up the biography again, and trying one more essay to see if the whole process had improved any. But what about my interviews? Did that mean I wasn’t going to proceed with that idea any more? I know in an ideal world, I’d be the kind of person who could do both, but I find that creative life is much better when I focus on one thing at a time. I have to get into a groove, and then the process gets much easier.
So what it boils down to is a choice between the biography project, which is good because it’s easy to write and research in my own time and own way, but not so good because I feel like I’m just repackaging information, not really adding anything unique or different. Or the interview project, which would be good because I’d be writing from real life, something I get a kick out of doing, and the topic is fascinating, but not so good because it would be hard to arrange as well as demanding and tiring. You see my dilemma? All I really want is a little project that suits me and that would give me some fun. Perhaps I should take up gardening instead?