Not all writing is autobiographical. Not all poetry is confessional. Yet the self, elusive as it is, who writes an article, a poem, a book is always positioned somewhere in the text.
The writing writes us
Recently I did a launch with a fellow-author, Carole Strachan, at which we interviewed one another about the novels we were launching. Among the questions we discussed were issues of how the particular writing connected with our own lives and also how writing these particular books had changed us.
There is a reciprocal effect. When we write, we connect with a wider story of people or place or planet, or all of these, and we bring that back into the story we are constructing of who we are and what our life might mean.
This is the End of the Story has been with me for a very long time — over 40 years, in fact. Although it is full of ‘impossible’ things, it’s nonetheless based on a real relationship, lived with the kind of intensity that probably only occurs for most people in adolescence; those friendships full of jealousy and anguish that revolve around a formative myth making.
It’s highly fictionalised, but it was such a profound experience that I’ve always wanted to explore it in fiction. I’d got to a stage where I had enough distance to deal with the relationship as story at the same point as my son was doing a lot of reading around Don Quixote and that made the whole narrative click into place. I realised that a central question that would help me frame the narrative is the question of how one person ends up supporting the internal fantasy life of another, exactly what Sancho does for Quixote.
In addition to carrying around this coming of age story from 1970s Teesside, I’ve also remained haunted by a children’s book I read aged 11, Casilda of the Rising Moon by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. It’s a highly imaginative, romanticised account of a real person, an 11th century Muslim princess from Toledo who became a Christian healer, solitary and saint. It’s a story that collides religions and cultures and it’s a story that became entwined with my personal story through this extraordinary friendship.
So these narratives, plus the backdrop of late 70s politics in a rapidly crumbling industrialised area, gave me the material. I wrote it thinking (at first) that it would be a one-off stand-alone book but towards the end of the writing I began to have dreams of another character. A lot of material comes in dreams and I once dreamt the structure of my PhD, but this character was particularly insistent. Selene Virág was a young woman imprisoned after the Hungarian Uprising at the of 1950s and all I knew was that she had something to do with Catherine, my protagonist from This is the End of the Story. I was reading the poetry of Attila József at the time, a brilliant Hungarian poet who took his own life in the early 30s and from the outset I also knew that Selene had some strong but strange link to him too. So A Remedy for All Things was born and I realised that it wouldn’t be the end of the story either; that another part would bring all the threads together.
And so emerged For Hope is Always Born, partly written and researched in Spain in places that are part of Casilda’s story: Toledo, Burgos and Zaragoza. It’s the book I was launching alongside Carole’s A Song of Thyme and Willow when we discussed how what we write both comes from and flows back into the lives we live.
The writing changes us
Writing this trilogy changed me. To write it I had to do some deep self-reflection on strands of my life that I wanted to donate to the fiction and rewrite. But I also had to go way beyond memory into a world that was a fascinating mixture of historical and cultural research and wild imagination. I had to spend significant amounts of time out of my comfort zone in new cultures and to do that I had to re-organise how I worked and how I treated and perceived time. And I had to be willing to move beyond the assumed boundary of ‘self’ to lose that self in creative flow.
Stories are powerful. We don’t simply tell stories, we inhabit them. Since language began, we’ve been storytelling animals. Every time and culture has dominant stories that shape us, whether they are stories from religion, ideology or the market-place. Sometimes these stories have such a grip that it’s hard to see beyond them, yet alternative stories can change the world.
In stories, we dig deep into archetypes and in so doing we bridge the personal and the universal. We recognise ourselves as connected with the world we inhabit, an intrinsic part rather than something ‘other’. Story, in other words, increases empathy and builds shared experience. It’s not only about narrativising the self, however dimly, but also about how we witness to common experience and connections.
The best stories don’t persuade, rather they expand our ability to think and feel. And this in turn is transformative. Stories are not instruction manuals or propaganda. They change our hearts and thinking so much more subtly and deeply.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
Walter Benjamin saw the decline of storytelling as inextricably linked with the rise in information
The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time.
We live in an age that wants immediacy. Phone apps and social media give us quick dopamine shots. Ready-made information fills the void left by contemplative wisdom. Yet we remain hungry. To quote T S Eliot:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Stories take us back to the wisdom.
The writing asserts we are bodies in time
This is the third of a series of musings on writing the elusive self that began with thinking about how we are bodies in time. Even writers who, like me, tend to get lost in our heads and become cerebral, will experience the bodily pull of narrative.
We are part of the universe. We cannot make distinctions between mind and body as though disembodied mind could make sense. Rather, we need to assert with philosopher Husserl that the lived body is the crucible of experience. Subsequently, Merleau-Ponty built on his thinking:
The world is not what I think but what I live.
In other words, we access the world through the senses. Distinctions between body and mind or body and world are arbitrary:
This touching that I imagine I am doing in fact is a mutual process which is being done to me at the same time.
When we start to experience the world through our senses, not only cerebrally, the stories we tell, the stories we become, change.
In fact, one can go on and ask oneself whether the relationship of the storyteller to his material, human life, is not in itself a craftsman’s relationship, whether it is not his very task to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés believes that story can reconnect us with our souls and with nature. As she set out in her iconic book, Women Who Run with the Wolves:
I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories… water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Setting Out, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself. And while you’re there, please take a look at an exciting new project and resource for writers from Down Deep Books. There are lots of extra gifts for everyone who gets involved.