Thursday, 13 May 2010

What I did on my Holidays

I am in Snowdonia, staring at sheep. I believe sheep to be unfairly represented in the media. Their public image is of slow-moving creatures with the figure, appetite and intelligence of a Hoover bag. But the animals I see stare keenly back at me, assessing my relevance before choosing to bound, agile, away over the slippery slates. They look quite capable of herding sheep-dogs. Each bleat has a different tone – some sound like a human mimicking a sheep, others are bleak as foghorns.The lambs look at me, look at their mothers, look at me, look back at their mothers. Some bolt. Others freeze.

I am thinking about sheep and how long humans have farmed them for. What is natural about a sheep? What is natural about our countryside? Very little, even here, after generations of breeding and clearing and husbanding. We call a natural landscape like this one unspoiled, untouched. As if to touch something were to spoil it. That's why naïve writers resist editing. But it happened this way. But that’s exactly what they said. Of course, the first thing any writer has to learn is that real life is much better if it's fiction.

It strikes me that writers are just like farmers but without the benefits of lots of fresh air and exercise in their daily employment. After all, what is natural about the readable book, the elegant sentence? They look so easy, but they're the result of long hours of hard work. We are herders of words, sowers of sentences.Farmers kill weeds, we kill our darlings. Farmers breed for meat or fleece, we weave plot and theme and character together into a unique whole. We dam the story and let tension pool, we foreshadow in the beginning the traits we wish our ending to show. We choose and train and grow words. Farmers set a process in motion – growing a sheep or a cabbage to maturity – then guide and train it. The process writers set in motion is the story: what happened, and then what happened, and then what?

I am no longer in Snowdonia. I am in the Dee valley, staring at the ruins of an abbey. Turner, a plaque informs me, painted this. I look at the picture and think how natural it looks, how much like real life. But, the plaque goes on to tell me, the artist conflated two view-points, so that he could show the ruins of Dinas Bran above the abbey’s shoulder. The view he presents does not exist, it is a layered ghost, a prototype Photo-Shop, an impossible made up of two possibles. What looks so natural is actually nothing of the sort. I can't help feeling slightly cheated, and then I realise I'm like the person who reads a book and says to the author I never knew you thought that, or You based that character on me, didn't you? Why wouldn't Turner also know that real life looks much better if it's fake?

I am no longer in the Dee valley. I am at home in Birmingham, it is just gone 10 p.m. and I am wondering what on earth the point I'm trying to make is, and how to conclude this blog post. It's too late to try and salvage it, so I shall end where I began, with sheep. Noble creatures!


Joan Lennon said...

I'm sending this post off to my mentee now. She will appreciate - as I do! - what you say about writing, farmers, and sharp-eyed sheep.
P.S. That is a gorgeous photo - is it yours?

Leila said...

Yes - glad you like it!

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Loved your comment about the so -called untouched or unspoiled landscape.
p.s Have you ever heard a sheep cough? It can be quite an unnerving experience to hear if you are out walking at night.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I loved the way you ended this post... a bit nebulous and isn't that why we write... to leave things a little hazy in the atmosphere... to make what you want of the words. I'm sorry this might sound rude going alomg with the mysteriousness of the above but what is your name? Apart from Leila it wasn't in the title nor in the ending. I'm just curious because I also love sheep.

Elen Caldecott said...

I got married in the ruins of the abbey you visited! I come from that valley, you see.
I have nothing sensible to add to your post, you just made me think of home - thank you!

catdownunder said...

I can assure you that sheep are not nearly as stupid as they appear to be. Try asking a sheep dog about their behaviours. (We cats of course just sit and observe the antics of both. Nobody can herd us!)

Leila said...

Oh sorry, I didn't mean to be anon. :) I'm Leila Rasheed.
Elen - what a wonderful place to get married!
And no, I've never heard a sheep cough - a pleasure still to come, I guess :)