Thursday, 11 April 2013

Baring my Sole - Cathy Butler


Trying to unravel one’s own motivations can be like looking down a deep, dark well. You drop a stone, you hear a splashy voice echo back, but by the time it reaches you you’re no longer sure whether it belongs to a Salmon of Knowledge or a warty toad. Most wells contain several of each.

Three weeks ago I took part in a charity event – the first time I’d done such a thing in many years. It was a firewalk, in which I took a stroll over six yards worth of glowing wood embers at around 500oC. As a confirmed physical coward, why did I do something so uncharacteristic?

Partly it was to raise money for a charity – St Peter’s Hospice. I’m an admirer of the hospice movement in any case, but I am also well aware that March (when the firewalk took place) marked the second anniversary of the death there of my friend, the children’s writer Diana Wynne Jones. I visited her several times in the days before she died and was vastly impressed by the dedication of all the staff there – as was she.

That was probably the best reason for firewalking. But it wasn’t the only one. I’d also been feeling that I was overdue to do something that would shunt me out of my comfort zone – and this was as good a way as any. In the event the walk was surprisingly easy, and wholly pain-free – but it was definitely a change from my usual appointment with Eggheads. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

Then there was the other reason – the writer’s reason. I did the firewalk because it was an experience that I could file away, ready to use at some date when I might want it for a book.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, I suppose. But I do feel slightly ashamed, all the same. Most writers will be familiar with the little Secretary who sits on their shoulders, even at moments of great emotion and personal drama, noting their reactions. Sometimes it feels extremely intrusive. “So, this is what it feels like to fall in love,” he says, dipping his quill and licking his lips. Or: “So, this is what it’s like to stand next to your own father’s body. You’ll be able to use that some time, won’t you?” Or: “So, this is what happens in A&E? How fortunate that your son fell off the slide.”

I’m trying to remember the name of the famous American novelist – Mailer? Updike? – who used to manufacture rows with his own family as a means of generating dialogue. I’ve never done anything quite so manipulative, but even when events just happen along there’s something disconcerting about the speed with which that Secretary whips out his notepad and waits, pen poised, ready to jot.

Someday I may write a novel in which a character walks over red-hot embers, and when I do it will have the smack of authenticity because of my firewalk. After all, I really know what it’s like. But for the same reason, I may feel  a bit of a fraud for writing it. You just can't win.

(However, it’s not too late to donate! You can do so at my firewalking page, here.)




13 comments:

Keren David said...

I always remember Lorrie Moore's short story, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” about a family with a sick child - written when her own child was ill. 'Take notes,' says the husband. 'We are going to need the money'. The story’s last line is,
'There are the notes. Now where is the money?'

Catherine Butler said...

Writers are a ruthless bunch. As well of course as being a lovely, warmhearted bunch. (We're so interesting and complex!)

Penny Dolan said...

You point to that little nagging voice so well, Cathy. As well a sthe sense of discomfort the writer gets knowing that they're thinking that.

On the other hand, there's the times when you find yourself thinking it's not like it is in the stories, where there's always that final moment (cue music)when all can be put right or reconciled.

Well done though and hope the feet are well. I notice you don't give us a strong & sensory description to - ahem - borrow. :-)

Keren, what an interesting and poignant fact. Glad LM ended it like that. (How else, perhaps?)

Catherine Butler said...

I notice you don't give us a strong & sensory description to - ahem - borrow. :-)

Funny that, isn't it? ;)

shreyank2012 said...

I agree with the point about writers trying to get to know 'how it feels' when such and such things happens..

I enjoyed reading the post

Joan Lennon said...

I've always pictured that voice as coming from a small, grayish, slightly crooked-back, slightly shame-faced ghoul on my shoulder. Your Secretary sounds so much better dressed!

Stroppy Author said...

You don't need to know what everything feels like because you have imagination. I'd say the broader and more varied your experiences, the better you are able to imagine anything - so you walking on hot coals gives you more than just one little nugget of experience to write about.

I see it as a bit like money - if I put £5 in the bank and later take out £5, it won't be exactly the same £5 but it will be just as useful.

Which is not to say it isn't useful to walk on hot coals anyway... :-)

Penny Dolan said...

I agree with you, Stroppy, but was amused by the lack of that kind of writerly detail, given Cathy's general theme.

"Imagining", to me, is like turning up the volume - appropriately - on some kind of "felt" experience. (Note: not felt in the fabric sense.)

Catherine Butler said...

Indeed, Stroppy - and I'm very happy to say that I have't experienced most of the things that happen in my books (or I wouldn't be here to tell the tale). On the other hand, an oak tree doesn't look much like an acorn - but you still need an acorn to grow one.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Most of the time my Secretary feels like a guilty pleasure - an excuse to watch Millionaire matchmaker for 'research' purposes but a few months ago when I found myself witnessing a dreadful road accident that note taking inner distancing voice helped me to hold myself together and maybe be a bit of use. But then again that was an experience....

Anonymous said...

I seem to take everything I experience and write it down like a novel - in 3rd person. It helps me detach myself from the emotions I don't want to feel. However, now it seems I am detachted from my emotions , and they are less real, more muted and seem to belong to the character. It helps me improve and add so much to my story , yet I often left imagining what it would be like to be me!!! So beware ....
Tammia xxxx

Catherine Butler said...

Lynda - yes, "research" covers a multitude of sins, most of them pleasurable.

Exactly, Tammia! The Muse-as-Vampire...

Susan Price said...

Cathy, I so recognise this! When my car slewed across the fast-lane of the M6, and buried its nose in the central reservation - and I looked up and saw another car heading straight for me - the secretary was there, taking notes.
My strongest objection to dying is that I won't be able to write about it afterwards.
And Penny - I also know exactly what you mean by 'turning up the volume' on experience. Turning it down sometimes, too.