Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Taking the time to write that short letter - by Rowena House

‘I’m making this a long letter because I don’t have time to write a short one.’

It’s a truth most writers will recognise, I’m sure, and a sentiment that might have first been expressed by Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher and mathematician, in 1657. Or by Mark Twain centuries later. Or by someone else. Whoever it was, this autumn I’m taking the time to write that short letter about the work-in-progress.

It isn’t actually a letter at all; it’s the introduction to a research report aimed at confirming the final step onto a PhD programme, a getting-to-the-heart-of-it rationale for what I think I’m doing and why. And very illuminating it is, too.

Writing this short letter is forcing me to examine each nebulous idea I’ve had about the story over the past eighteen months and to see if it can be turned into something solid: part of a story with an expressible theme and a purpose. I’ve done a bunch of research, given it time to sink into the subconscious, and now I’m sorting through what has resurfaced, and deciding whether it amounts to a hill of beans. 

Being an academic exercise, the result does sound pretentious. ATM, the letter opens with: ‘This project explores the porosity of the historical record, and the legitimacy of plugging the gaps with pluralistic, proto-feminist interpretations of the past.’ Apparently I’m writing ‘an original, plausible, and historically-anchored counter-narrative’.

Cor. Who knew?

Scholarly language aside, the letter does get me closer to the nub of what exactly I think I’m writing about in the subtext, and why it matters to me at least. I will share these conclusions later; for now, I’m still nurturing them and protecting them from too public a view.

One thing that remains hard to articulate is why I feel empathy towards a protagonist whose actions were, to a modern mind, repellent and misogynistic. The non-academic version runs along the lines of: give the guy a break! He got a tough assignment and made a hash of it. Clarifying that intuitive explanation is throwing up some unexpected insights.

First, over the summer, I knew I had to ditch the second viewpoint character, even though she’s a she and this is meant to be a feminist story. I now think the reason for this is because he is the one that changes; she is a catalyst for change. And since story and change are joined at the hip, her storyline was diluting rather than enhancing his transformational encounters with female ‘others’.

Second, after living with this story for a while, it feels more creative and honest to be fully immersed in the muddled mind of a morally dubious protagonist than to retain a third person authorial neutrality. Subjectivity is fiction’s gift; best to leave objectivity to (good) journalists.

This type of pre-writing analysis isn’t something I’ve done before, even on the Bath Spa MA in the early days of The Goose Road, when I worked out the plot and character arcs during the drafting and development edit stages.

The bigger questions were there – where does the story fit within its genre; why is this my story to tell; what original thing is it saying; is that a true and worthwhile thing to say? – but they were mostly discussed in blogs written to coincide with publication.

In his masterclasses on Russian short stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders quotes Milan Kundera advising writers to ‘listen to the wisdom of the story’ which, he says, should be greater than the (conscious) wisdom of the writer. Hopefully, with the luxury of time, one can listen to a story before it’s written. 

Twitter: @HouseRowena


Facebook: Rowena House Author

1 comment:

James Mueller said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.