Obsessive, compulsive, instinctive & strange: why writing a novel is (not) like falling in love
Paper presented at the National Library of Australia conference, Love & Desire: Literature and the Intimate - Sept 2006
Paper presented at the National Library of Australia conference, Love & Desire: Literature and the Intimate - Sept 2006
Some weeks ago, as I drove across the Harbour Bridge one sparkly Sydney morning, I heard a radio interview with an Israeli fighter pilot explaining to a press conference how he went about his sombre daily business in Lebanon. Colonel A, as he was called for security reasons, showed the journalists a photograph of a Hezbollah rocket launcher hidden between two houses, and explained how pilots are instructed by headquarters on where to hit. A pilot has about three minutes to decide, and can refuse to hit the target if he thinks it is wrong.
During the press conference, Colonel A. was asked about the effect on his men of seeing television pictures of the mistaken civilian killings in Qana; of women’s and children’s and old people’s bodies carried out from destroyed buildings. Colonel A said he encouraged his people to talk about it. That it was obviously distressing, and that when he himself saw the images – but here his voice faltered. He said, ‘I personally. When I saw on the television, those photos of children and old people, I felt like it's hurting myself, like it's hurting...I immediately thought about my kids.” His voice was unsteady; his measured tone fell away. There were pauses, unfinished phrases.
A journalist piped up: ‘You've had to stop yourself there from almost crying. Is that what you have to do in real life?’ Colonel A recovered. He denied he was on the verge of tears. He said, ‘We are professional pilots.’ And then he said, ‘I want to tell you something. My mother is a holocaust survivor.’ As he said these things the strength returned to his voice; his sentences regained fluidity, control. ‘I understand my mission,’ he said then. His mission was to protect his people.
The radio report ended, and through my car window I stole a last glance at the glittering surface of the Opera House, and then I reached dry land again. He stayed with me, that pilot. The commanding voice, the cool control. But what lingered most were those few seconds when his voice wavered. There was a moment - during which I drove through the air, as it were, suspended over the blue water of Sydney Harbour - when the experienced bomber pilot was uncertain, when he stumbled. There was a moment when he lost his way.
This is the moment I want to talk to you about today, because I think it is the space we like to venture into, you and I. It’s the space of literature and the intimate – specifically, I think, it’s the space occupied by fiction. I think reading – and writing – a novel is about stepping inside that moment when your voice goes wobbly and you don’t know why, and you don’t want to know why, because it scares you.
Some weeks before I heard that report, the organisers of this conference asked participants to provide their speech titles in advance. From the air, I plucked this one: Obsessive, compulsive, instinctive and strange: Why writing a novel is like falling in love. I was yet to write the thing, and this title sounded filled with possibility, and for once not too earnest, and I knew I was to speak in the company of some witty and erudite writers I have long admired, and so perhaps I was getting a little nervy, a little desperate in an anticipatory way, as you do.
So I sent off my title and then sat down to compose this speech. I began with the first glimpse of a novel, then with the seduction of ideas. I thought how both writing fiction and falling in love are about pitching yourself at something with no known outcome, no safe result. That both are instinctive, exhilarating, risky. That writing is like falling in love because sometimes you are stopped dead by the failure of yr own expectations, but in place of those expectations you occasionally discover something deeper, richer. But soon into my playing around with these ideas, my title began to sound hollow. Not full of possibility, but full of cliché and sillness. It became quickly clear that my chosen title had nothing to do, after all, with what I really wanted to discuss. I wanted to talk about fighter pilots, not falling in love.
As you’ll hear in a moment, having a subject dissolve completely in this way is not new to me, nor to many writers. It happens all the time when one writes fiction. But for now, just let me return to my pilot. I kept thinking of that uncertain moment when he talked about Qana. So I found the interview on the web, and played it again on my computer late one night. And as I listened, there in the dark, I discovered that the story here was not the story I had first heard. I returned to that part, where the journalist noticed the pilot was on the verge of tears, and the pilot denied it. But this time, as I listened, I was astonished to hear that the pilot was not hesitant at all. His voice did not falter. And my first impression, I discovered, had been formed by what the journalist had insisted, not by what I heard with my own ears. And I discovered that now, if I were to be truthful, I must believe the pilot and not the journalist.
My first instinct was to ignore this. For it would ruin my point – the, I think still meaningful, point, that the job of fiction is to enter those soft, indefinable, painful moments that have no name. But the truth, rising up at me from the dark that night, was murkier and messier. It was becoming clear to me that story I heard was not about the pilot, but about the pilot and the journalist. The journalist wanted the pilot to be tearful, wanted him to be disturbed, thinking of his own children as he murdered someone else’s. I, too, wanted this to be true. But, listening again, circling back, I simply could not hear it. Instead, perhaps I was hearing a story of ambition, of a journalist tricking up an arresting grab for the morning bulletin. Or perhaps it was more complicated still. Perhaps it was about the journalist thinking of his own children, safe at home, as he makes a daily living observing the violated dead bodies of other people’s kids.
In short, I heard a story in which there is much deeper digging to be done. And when enough digging is done, when it is clear that any truth is lurking far beneath the surface of what either man is saying, then there perhaps is the space in which you might begin the novel.
When I began writing The Submerged Cathedral, I knew I wanted to write a love story. A good love story. I had no particular reason for this except I thought it would be difficult, and therefore challenge me to work in a different way than I had with my first novel, which was dark and strange and probably meant that I, by association, was also rather dark and strange. I had in mind the framework of my parents’ meeting and falling in love, and there were elements of that story I found moving, and profound.
My parents’ tale had a classic love story structure. Both very young, they met on a ship from England to Australia in the 1950s, when my father was on his way to join a trappist monastery. My mother, a florist, had left her comfortable life for a new world far from anything, and anyone, she knew. On the ship they fell madly in love, and knew my father must abandon his plans so they could be together. But shortly after reaching shore in Australia, he decided to join the monastery after all, and they were parted. One day, a long time later, after heartbreak and the difficult forging of new and separate lives, my mother walked into that monastery, sat with my father in a small bare parlour dedicated to Our Lady. Minutes into their conversation he asked her to marry him.
It was irresistible to me, this family legend of love and loss and redemption. But almost as soon as I began to write, something happened. I found couldn’t write this irresistible love story. It resisted me, it was too firmly played out, I knew it too thoroughly. The story that developed in The Submerged Cathedral, then - and in my first novel and in the one I am just finishing - was far more complicated than that which first seized my imagination and made me think I could begin. My expectations, my desires, were constantly thwarted as the work led me elsewhere. The Submerged Cathedral is not the classic love story I had wanted. It certainly bears almost no resemblance to my parents’ story. Instead, it became something else. A love story, yes - but also a tale of two sisters, and a garden created in a twenty-year act of atonement, and of a failing monk trying desperately, against his nature, to believe in God.
The novel I’m working on now, called The Children, is about a family of grownup siblings returning to their home town because their father has had an accident. One of the sisters is a war reporter. This novel, too, has turned out to be more complicated and contradictory than I’d imagined at the start. I thought it was to be about the witnessing of violence in other countries, and it is – but it is also about Australian country towns, and Indian mynah birds, and kites, and the much closer question of witnessing the pain of someone you love, and what it means to choose to turn away.
In all my work, the things the novels end up being really about are things I didn’t know would emerge when I began. So often the process works through a sort of obsessive instinct, a compulsion that makes you want to stay with a character, an image, a place, while logic is staring you in the face like a road sign, blaring Wrong Way, Go Back. I have discovered my stories through all the failures that happen as I work. By travelling down those wrong roads and sometimes turning back, or halfway back, or taking another turn in the middle. Or sometimes, by taking two seemingly diverging roads at once.
This is not a unique experience; many writers talk about it. Richard Ford, a writer I admire immensely, has said, “Sometimes that’s how invention takes place in a story – you put together with something you thought you knew, something that you were surprised to want to put beside it.” Ford said, of this joining of unexpected things, that the writer’s job is first to determine if the link is plausible, and if it is, the job is then to work this surprising thing into the story so that it fits.
The word he uses for this is ‘incuse’ – to hammer or stamp an impression into, as in a coin. In my favourite part of this discussion, Ford says that if the incusing has worked, if the writer has done her job, then “the way in which you make a sort of a ligature there is what is interesting about the story, and new logics result.” [my italics]
When you are writing fiction you must go with the new logic, the truth, you find. But you must listen carefully to make sure this truth is yours, not the one others might expect you to find. Other people will tell you things that sound right, that you know must be right because you yourself are so often wrong. But you look again, and listen again, and you find your own path. Patchy as it is, faint as it is, you keep following it - even when it takes you far from what you know, from what you have relied upon to keep you safe.
In a much-loved book called The Writing Life, Annie Dillard quotes the sculptor Anne Truitt: “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own most intimate sensitivity.”
Working along the nerve. It’s a confronting idea. But why does it matter? Why should we force ourselves to work along the nerve? I don’t know that I have an answer to this. But I feel instinctively that it is essential - that it is crucial for someone to listen carefully to that interchange between the fighter pilot and the journalist, not just for the easily graspable answers, but for the deeper interpretations, to seek out the more difficult, less palatable truths.
Flaubert once wrote, ‘Read in order to live’. This means a great deal to me, for I have realised, over time, that one of the most important reasons I write is to work out how best to live my life. And through writing fiction, through reading fiction, I have learned that to remain on the glittering surface of a story, to snatch only at that first convenient sentiment, would mean contenting myself with a only sliver of life, with the very outer layer of a truth. And I think you and I both suspect that to satisfy oneself with the surface in art might mean condemning ourselves to live only on the surface of our lives.
We must work along that deep and frightening gap between the pilot, clinging to his certainty, and the journalist, clinging to his judgement, because we are both the pilot and the journalist. Filled with pride and with fear, we cling to the sides of that gap. But perhaps it is literature that will nudge us into reaching across it. Perhaps literature can compel us to stretch far enough even to swap places with the other, just for a moment.
And now, in the circular way these things so often seem to happen, it occurs to me that there is a word, actually, for this reach, this imaginative leap across the spaces that divide us. It’s ‘love’.
© Charlotte Wood 2006