Mark Twain’s memorable quote ‘Write what you know’ is probably one of the most misunderstood in all literature and according to Nathan Englander, the author of the short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, it isn’t about events, it’s about emotion; “Have you known love? jealousy? longing? loss? Did you want that Atari 2600 so bad you might have killed for it? If so, it doesn’t matter whether your story takes place in Long Island or on Mars – if you’re writing what you know, readers will feel it.”
Our literary landscape is full of proof of the veracity of such a statement: how many vampires did Stephanie Myers interview before writing Twilight? How many witches did J K Rowling interview before creating Harry Potter? None, of course. What is important is imagination and ‘don’t sell your imagination short’ said the American author Richard Ford (author of the Frank Bascombe novels that began with The Sportswriter in 1986). By that he meant, as he explained to his audience at a Southbank interview in October 2012, not to over-rely on what you know because, for him, writing is really about the imagination.
And so it is for the Irish writer, Colm Toibin,
“The imagination is a set of haunted, half-lit rooms. Sometimes we have no idea ourselves why a novel begins, why a style takes root, or a plot grows.” More about this later.
In his essay about Henry James and his final abode, Lamb House, (The Haunting of Lamb House in the collection All a Novelist Needs) Toibin describes his wandering through the master’s house, the ground floor of which is a Henry James museum, and then being invited upstairs to the private apartment of the owner. He was embarking on auguably his masterpiece, The Master, about the five years in the life of James following his disasterous tilt at being a playwright.
“I had what I was searching for – the two objects over the mantelpieces, the view, the height of the upstairs rooms. All I needed now was to get back to work.”
And then in the title essay he explains what he means,
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mystreiously.”
The publishers of the notable Australian writer David Malouf have recently released two volumes of his collected miscellaneous writings, the second of which is entitled The Writing Life and collects in one inspiring volume speeches, articles, and essays on what it means to be a writer.
He explains that sometimes our mind ‘plays a peculiar trick on us’ and we remember an event ‘so real, so alive’ that we can only believe it to be an actual event from our past; but when we think again we realise that this is not so but something we read in a book! ‘But’, he asks, ‘didn’t that also happen … to our ‘reading-self’? We read, go to the theatre, to the movies, to have just this kind of experiece.
Who among you is a murderer? No-one I hope, but you have an infinite number of experiences of murder and, who knows, all you may need is an ingenious trick or twist in a plot to be the writer of one.
Malouf quotes two literary ‘glimpses’ that help to illustrate Malouf’s, and Toibin’s point. One is an anacdote from the diary writings of Henry James where he tells of an English novelist, a ‘woman of genius’ who was much admired for her fictionalised portrayal of ‘the nature and the way of life of the French Protestant youth’; and what opportunities came her way to enable her to write with such assurance and believability? Only one, a glimpse, ‘in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at a table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but the moment was experience.’
The other is from Dickens’ David Copperfield who when visiting the Micawbers in prison the young man is asked to fetch a knife and fork from Captain Hopkins, another prisoner on an upper floor. He encounters in the Captain’s room ‘a very dirty lady’ and ‘two wan girls, his daughters with shock heads of hair.’ The young Copperfield knows ‘God knows how’ that the two wan girls are the Captain’s daughters, but the dirty lady is not his wife. He had only a glimpse of the room but he returned to his host knowing that what he held in his head was just as true as the knife and fork he held in his hand.
Malouf infers that it only takes a glimpse for a writer to expand that glimpse into knowledge and he uses a quote from James to explain what he means; that a writer needs the ability ‘to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on the way to knowledge of every corner of it … If experience consists of impressions, it may well be said that impressions are experience.’
On Saturday afternoon, 23 March, 2013 I experienced a mental ‘flip’ while I was sitting on my daybed reading a book review in The International Herald Tribune, as it was then called. I was only a few column centimeters into the review when suddenly a voice popped into my head: an angry, domineering, female voice chastising a wayward daughter for making bad decisions and giving her mother nothing but grief and disappointment.
It happened somewhere in the first two paragraphs but where exactly eluded me. I searched for it many times. It may have had something to do with ‘growing up evangelical in a secular age’ or ‘a buttoned down morality – a more adventurous approach to religious faith’ or maybe not.
What was important was that I had to write it down. It: the tone, the voice; hit me heavily. It is absolutely true that from the daybed, where I was reading, to collecting my iPad, to sitting down at the table, the ‘flip’ evolved into something else and then into something else again as I began to tap it out, and something else again as I wrote the last word and consolidated a reason. It was like what happens inside a chrysalis: no-one can possibly know. This is the imagination as Toibin’s ‘half-lit room’.
I recorded the above at the time and what I wrote down became not a very good one-act play called Truth which eventually turned into a much better short story called Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
I mention it here as an example of something happening, I still don’t know what, while reading a newspaper, which sparked my imagination which in turn morphed into a situation, two characters, and a comment on American culture. The point of what I wrote down only developed by the time I had finished; it certainly wasn’t there when I began.
In my soon-to-be-posted novel, Veronica Spreads it Around, the sequel to Veronica Comes Undone, there is a fire, a devastating, tragic fire, that my protagonist, Veronica, is trapped in. I have never been in this situation, and hope never to be, and, I confidently surmise, neither have you, but because of my many glimpses and impressions of terrible fires I launched into the writing of it relying on those glimpses and impressions and not on any direct experience. I knew it had to be hot, very, very, hot but I tried not to use those trite words; I had to find other words; I had to make writerly decisions about metaphor and simile. I also needed to ask myself important and pertinant questions: how do I describe the heat and the noise? without it sounding obvious and silly. How does she escape? I am using close writing (subjective free indirect discourse), eveything is seen from Veronica’s point of view, so she has to be conscious, trapped but conscious. Serendipitously there was another story-line that needed a conclusion that I realised at this moment, and not before, could be included in the introduction to this scene that would also provide a ‘red-herring’: the reader would think the scene would develop in one direction so when I dramatically took it in another there would be an ‘Oh my god!, moment. I definitely wanted an ‘Oh my god’ moment – what writer doesn’t? – and my confidence in my solutions to the problems of this scene is great enough for me to think that by telling you all this here you will still, when you read it, have the ‘Oh my god!’ moment. I hope.
Anyway, my decisions were more to do with what words and expressions to use rather than getting the experience right. Remember that the fire is seen from Veronica’s point of view so if she fainted she had to quickly recover in order to experience it and therefore for me to write about it and if she is then conscious she has to be protected in some way so as to be thinking, planning to get herself out of this very dangerous situation while the threat rages around her.
I knew that when I began work on this scene that the fire would happen at some stage but I did not know about the red herring idea or how she was going to survive. In fact the red herring idea provided the means for her survival. I repeat, I did not know this when I sat down at my desk to write the scene.
What happened to me that morning was an example of what I have written above: what Ford, Toibin, Malouf, and James were explaining in their various ways about experience and the incredible role imagination plays in the creation of something that can take the place of experience when direct experience is lacking, or, indeed, not needed, and that, I hope, will lead my readers to go along with the story, ‘believe’ the story, and be interested in Veronica’s many affairs, joyed by her success, moved by her plight and satisfied… if she makes it out alive.