Monday, 22 November 2010

Living narrative: N M Browne


Do you live in narrative? Are you someone who always has a little voice in her head interpreting, describing, novelising your daily life?
If you have such a voice are you a) mad? b) possessed? or c) a novelist.
I now think the most usual answer is c) but as a child I did worry that it was a) or b). No one ever talked about it and, fearing that this endless descriptive flow was at worst mad and at best pretentiously self indulgent, I never raised the subject. I identified with Joe Marsh and Ann of Green Gables, and even most disturbingly with the ghastly girls of the Chalet School and as they apparently thought in well structured sentences so did I.
Later, when I was older, I became concerned that this measured ( third person) narrator’s voice mediated my experience, distanced me from living in the moment and prevented me from responding instinctively to people and situations. I am not sure that was true, but nonetheless ‘I resolved to give it up’ ( I am pretty sure of that because back then I definitely was the kind of girl who ‘resolved’. )
Fast forward thirty years and in a series of tentative, cautious conversations with other novelists I discover that this literary voice endlessly forming sentences as an hour by hour commentary on life is not so unusual. Lots of perfectly sane people do it. Who knew?
While I can’t say I regret its loss overmuch, I do think it was incredibly useful. I grew up writing and even in the years when my pen never touched the paper, I thought in prose. I was probably more fluent, more literary as a young woman than as an old working writer. When as a student I needed the words they were always there, tumbling out of me, faster than I could write: clause and sub clause unrolling like a carpet under my feet, taking my argument wherever I wanted it to go.
Of course it isn’t like that now. Words elude me all the time and I don’t know if that’s a symptom of incipient mental decay or if it's because I no longer live in narrative: I just live. What about you?

6 comments:

Charlie Butler said...

I've had that too. I think I don't mind, except when it narrates moments that you'd rather be wholly "inside". To be telling someone you love them, or standing beside your father's open coffin, and have some little cerebral secretary writing down exactly what you're feeling and doing, makes one feel terribly shallow.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post Nicky and yes Charlie I remember throwing my sister ashes out over the sea and 'seeing' it inside my head. Afterwards I felt that twinge of guilt. Are we two people? Thin-skinned? ...feel too much... as well as thick-skinned? ...able to remove ourselves and see from outside ourselves? I do believe you still live in narrative Nicky otherwise you wouldn't be writing... or you'd be writing horribly commercial stuff that has no N M Browne stamp on it.

Andrew Strong said...

Fascinating! I've always wondered if any narrative voice is fake: a constant internal monologue can't be healthy. I enjoy life most when lost in a swirl of wordless activity, and certainly not when trying to dissect my every move in mental chatter.

Book Maven said...

I've done this all my life, including the cases Charlie describes. It's something we are stuck with.

I thought everyone did it until I had 3 children and only the oldest did it - she's the writer.

adele said...

Does anyone else have a version of this which involves being in a kind of ongoing movie? I used to feel this a great deal when I was very young and before I became a writer. Now, indeed as everyone says, it's very hard not to see things 'fictionally.' One's supposed to carry a notebook and write down any insights this process reveals, isn't one? I have the notebooks but they are full of lists of things to do, mostly!

Leila said...

This is so funny. I used to do this too. If I'd been steeping in a particular author, say Jane Austen, I'd narrate my life in my head in their style and voice.