So. Lately I've committed myself to the promise to zero in on a goal to produce a novel, knowing that the process is going to be long and cumbersome and fun. Posting creative experiments twice a month here has been an effective way, so far, of holding myself accountable.
Along that journey I’ve started to accumulate some notes that I’d thought I’d start sharing as and when there’s time for it, in case anyone wanting to embark on something similar might find them useful. Here are some questions I’ve been pondering:
How easy is the transition from journalism into fiction writing?
I asked this question in a writing workshop I recently attended. The author, Nikesh Shukla, basically said there were transferable skills, but that the approach would be different. A journalist knows how to ask the right questions, and can easily write the who, what, where, when, why. But they are used to the ‘churn’. Report, edit, publish, repeat. A story produced is the closest estimation of the truth the journalist can get to with a deadline based on the sources they have. Then it is completed and forgotten about. Writing fiction sounds a lot more like how I’d imagine a painter approaches his/her/their work. “Oh, ok, well maybe I start with some splodges of red over here, or maybe, actually scrap that, let’s try the blue over here. That doesn’t feel right" etc. Journalists creating fiction need to abandon a myopic perfectionism that prevents them from being prepared to fully pull apart what they produce in favour of indulging in a far more experimental and meandering approach.
Why write a novel?
Climate change, late capitalism, an unending pandemic, widespread inequality, white supremacy, the rise and rise of authoritarian regimes, every story having already been written, every creative idea having reached exhaustion. Why even do anything anymore? And why commit to something as indulgent as a silly little book? Why now, why me?
I had been meaning to write more for myself for a long time, but always found excuses. For a very long time, my identity was so tied up to this need to be perceived as a good writer, that I got too fragile about it. So I couldn’t accept criticism and that meant I couldn’t improve. I also had a silly idea that actively working on my writing - the way an athlete trains their body - would prove that I wasn’t a good writer. If it didn’t come out easily then it wouldn’t be good, and it wouldn’t be me. Again, this was pretty myopic of me.
There are lots of good reasons to write a book, and just because it might not have as obvious a use as say a new report, it can still hopefully end up being meaningful in some way to someone. And even in the face of utter annihilation, it’s probably better to commit to doing something worth thinking deeply about than nothing at all.
Where’s the line between truth and fiction?
I asked Nikesh how comfortable he felt dreaming up characters and events out of pure air, and whether any of it was or could be crafted out of something real. He said that every story has to have an “emotional truth” to it. I think Hemingway had a similar idea. He described writing as like ripping open a wound and letting it bleed. Bit maudlin I know, Maybe on a more cheerful day (did he have cheerful days?) he might have said that it was like drawing back curtains to let sunlight splash in.
So, this is what I’m playing with, painting with little strokes of emotional memories from here and there, trying to leave away the stories themselves and create new ones from scratch. The more I do so the more I can get to know my characters as they help me along lines of inquiry of my own. That was another pointer Nikesh gave: embark on your story asking yourself a central question. Mine is: Why was my grandmother so much easier to love than the rest of us? Let’s see if I figure out the answer.
ha ha I just reread that first line and I'm appalled by how badly written it is.