The novelist, PD James
‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’
Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.
I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way. I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project. I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is. I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.
And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.
Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections. I am understanding myself in a new way. I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.
All this is coming out onto the page.
Let me tell you a story:
Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford. Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing. I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.
Now, let me set this in context. I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse. (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!) The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me. It sang to my soul. I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.
In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.
And then the strangest thing happened.
I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube. When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded. A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.
Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise. After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.
The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.
And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.
I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved. I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment. It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane. Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.
And beside him, PD James prickled quietly. She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings. It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her. I don’t blame her. It irritated me too!
I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions. My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life. I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before. Lately I have been doing just that.
I’m not the clinical type. I need to write what I need to read. I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work. At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them. To write them out of my body and mind, and away.
That is why this new work is taking so long to form. And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.
Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind. If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.
This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys. I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.
This is not a crossword. Neither is it a hundred metre dash. It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.
Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.