My first blog entry is being written on a TGV from Avignon to St Pancras, which is bringing me back to London and to work. Except, it’s hard to call something you feel so passionate about ‘work’ but it is and of an intense kind, else I should be full of misgivings about returning to the city. Except, ever since the July 2005 terrorist attacks I’ve realized how much I love London, and how I dread more harm to her. I was in the centre of the city when it happened and heard the serial explosions. In fact I was so close to King’s Cross that I could not get home except by walking and for hours there was too much dread in the air to do that. Now there is a delay in getting my blog online because my web designer, Darius is Iranian and his impromptu website has become a principal organ for communicating samizdat information across terror stricken Iran and this blog is not high on his priorities. It happens that I have young patients who have recently come here from Iran to conduct research who reminded me – before the violence began – that behind many of the foreboding and closed forecourt doors, men and beautiful bare-shouldered women still dance, swirl, drink and abandon themselves to the elegance of their glorious and sensual Esfahan, which means ‘half the world’s ancestry.’
I’ve decided to accompany the travails of writing my new book with an attempt to blog its journey from conception to publication. Travelling towards Lille we are already delayed and will probably miss our Eurostar connection. (I like the name, Eurostar and begin to wonder what the person is like that created it.) French Rail’s efficiency is no longer what it used to be and it is becoming more like South Eastern Network, by the week, which must be a sure sign of France’s self predicted social decline. Her inhabitants now seem to do very little else than moan about their services, and are in crisis at the thought of any changes to their health provision. On the way out our TGV was without any refreshments, due its manager said morosely, ‘To a lack of takers’. Everybody is moaning about EDF, so why have they now become my London electricity supplier, I wonder.
It’s a blazing day and Avignon’s TGV station was hot, 40 C and without air conditioning, or any distractions and our train so delayed that I thought I’d get a panic attack, or perhaps I mean that I thought I’d overheat, and there was nowhere to escape to. Scary, when only yesterday morning we woke up in our hill village to what felt like a Siberian chill. Next time, I find myself muttering, it will have to be the car. I even begin to think of Victoria’s drafts and plurality of grubby alternative distractions with affection
Last time I went to our house in France – the autumn of 2008 – I decided to write a novel whose two central characters have haunted me since childhood. The blank page petrified but by the end of three weeks I had produced forty thousand words and was even beginning to fantasize that my oblique, and elliptical ‘symbolist’ prose might turn out to be a Booker. I’m rarely tempted to read the Booker winners; I’m not too keen on the requisite plot, or page turning pace that usually harnesses a winner, although this year I have the highest hopes that Hilary Mantel – who wrote the forward to my last book – Who is it that can tell me who I am? The journal of a psychotherapist, and who astonished me when she dedicated Beyond Black to me (perhaps because she couldn’t think of anybody who was more temperamentally suited to its blackness) – will be short-listed and win this year’s Booker for her astonishing Wolf Hall. There is nobody that I can think of who writes English prose with more refinement and sensibility than Hilary, or with more subtle wit. I would like to say ‘will’ but it won’t fit in as it does when thinking about Will’s sonnets, which have become a daily alternative food for me. Sedation, if you like from the presence of Time’s sickle hour, and fickle glass. I’m convinced that Shakespeare would have approved of Hilary’s fiendish will and werewolf imagination.
I write long letters to Hilary, although we don’t manage to meet that often; the reason that my letters are long is because I permit myself the luxury of not reading them through, but just writing out my mind, and that’s what I intend, unlike in my book, to do with this blog. I want to write spontaneously. I have to warn whoever reads it that I type like one of Hilary’s fiends. In fact, when I left school that’s all my mother thought I was good for, to become a secretary and I was force-fed to learn to type. I never became a secretary, well I did become a temporary medical secretary but that came to a terminal ending when I was dispatched to Bart’s Hospital’s Department of Morbid Anatomy; I had no idea what that meant until I found I was typing up post mortem reports in the morgue. I had nightmares for months and months about a little boy who was born it seemed, from his post mortem, without anything being in the right place. I’ve never forgotten the jigsaw of his perverse body.
I have matured into an Olympian typist, and I feel sorry for my friends because my words tumble onto the page at an alarming rate. When my then fifteen year old grandson, Dan, about whom you may be hearing a great deal more, depending on whether we are talking or not, told me two years ago that he wanted to become a writer, I sent him off with his grandfather – who was in the process of changing from being a theatre photographer who had spent his ‘developing’ life in a toxic darkroom, to digital production – on a week’s typing course in the Tottenham Court Road. Dan wasn’t pleased then, but he is now; in fact he’s the only person that I know who types faster than me and uses ten fingers.
I’ve gone off the point – or become ‘anacoluthon’ – to use an obscure Proustian term, which I adore and which I understand to mean: to write long and discursive sentences whereby the person reading them will be drawn away from their initial intent only to lose their way down all sorts of cul de sacs; some of which might be spurious. It can also be used as a form of sophistry.
The novel I began last autumn now seems a long time ago, although I did manage to write three thousand words every day, sitting at an open window and looking beyond the Southern Rhone vines into the horizon of the distant alps, with a patch-worked kaleidoscope of birdsong and butterfly wings between us. My glance was transported towards our hedge of oleanders and past a lost hoopoe parading its myth on the lawn. I am fascinated by oleanders, or the Rose of Provence: they are her endogenous fauna …Oh, but French Rail has just announced that envelopes will be given to allow its frustrated passengers future discounted travel, which must mean that we have already missed our Lille connection.
Writing my novel also exacerbated my predisposition to insomnia and no doubt there will be more on insomnia sometime later but I must return to the phenomenon of the oleander. They are beautiful but poisonous – even skin contact with their innocent blooms can cause an irritable lesion and not only to humans but to cats, dogs and insects too. In fact everything, except humans, avoid coming into contact with the blooms. Even the bees and butterflies give them a miss and pass straight across to the lavender. How do all these organisms, except for our human intelligences, work that one out?
And then there are the timeless distractions of house martins and swifts but if I allow myself to get carried away on their mysteries I shall never get to either of my destinations. I’ve just remembered that when Dan was less than two we were sitting eating jelly tots under an ancient yew tree in Sussex when he mistakenly ate some of the softly inviting red berries. It was Easter Sunday and within less than an hour we were under the jurisdiction of Charing Cross Hospital’s dangerous poison centre: Dan was commanded to swallow charcoal and being stomach washed. Dan’s father, Jay, was furious. He came from Nigeria and couldn’t understand, or believe, how such an innocuous yet violent berry could exist without a national ‘alert’ and railed that in Nigeria everybody was educated to know when something was poisonous. I did, as it happens, know that yews were poisonous but not that they could so easily be confused for red jelly tots, nor turn toddlers into more post mortems.
On this current trip I have, for the first time in years, slept deeply. There does not seem to be an explanation. Except, sleeping deeply, for an insomniac carries risks: the peril of waking up. Normally, I don’t have to make that Stygian journey because I’m never properly asleep but only in a sleep like trance. To be asleep means that one has to wake up and if you are subject to black dreams and forgotten fears then, very likely, the mood, if not the memory of those dreams accompanies your waking. That’s one reason why I sometimes think that I prefer to suffer from insomnia rather than to experience a deep REM sleep; I don’t have the stress of waking up. My husband was thoughtful to remind me that Proust suffered too. Proust describes waking into strange territory: those shadows and unfamiliar crevices of light that provoke the testing of all one’s wits, and senses. Are they still reliable I ask myself. Last night we were staying in my almost favourite European hotel, L’Hotel Europe in Avignon with its ancient two hundred and sixty year old plane tree conjuring the tutelary spirits of Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Picasso who all once sat beneath its healing shades, and where our bedroom seemed, to my nocturnal waking, to have another life, if not a will, of its own:
‘A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in them in a second the point of the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed up to his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken. If towards morning after a bout of insomnia, sleep overcomes him as he is reading, in a position too different from the one in which he usually sleeps, his raised arm alone is enough to stop the sun and make it retreat, and from the first minute of his waking he will no longer know what time it is he will think he has only just gone to bed…I passed over centuries of civilization in one second, and the image confusedly glimpsed of oil lamps, then of wing shirt collars, gradually recomposed my self’s original features.’
(From the inspiring Penguin translation where each volume has a different translator: The Way By Swann’s, Lydia Davis, 2002)
Last autumn I returned to London with a throbbing and entrenched insomnia and 40,000 words of my novel written, to begin with, in the second person voice of a female character who was not me but somebody I have always wanted to morph into. When I showed it to my agent she was less convinced of its commercial appeal, except I showed it to her far, far too soon, in the way that all wannabe novelists want a quick fix of validation to feed their narcissism. I didn’t get one. I knew things weren’t great when her first murmurings of approval were not followed by anything more for weeks and weeks, and when her Word came it was one that I didn’t want to hear, and it did not mirror her initial murmur. Her agency, rather like a haughty professor, has a reputation for gesturing to their expectant clients their waste paper bin. I’ll have to ask her if I’m allowed to name her, as I don’t want to be served for libel on my first attempt to blog.
Another knowledgeable friend who I’ll call C for now had already warned me not to show it to anybody prematurely and that if I was in any doubt to consign it to my bottom drawer and let it mature which is what I then did. Except, the damage was already done, and I haven’t set eyes on the text again. When I’m in London and working full time there isn’t much time left for writing fiction which is a different process to writing non fiction, particularly if you are, like me a psychotherapist and your daily bread is listening to other people’s narratives, or like Wendy, helping them to learn how to construct them, so that lost ‘children’ can go home. Some other time, perhaps, I’ll elaborate on why I find the two genres so different with non-fiction fitting into your life and fiction taking command of it.
Actually, his name is Christopher Potter and if you want to know about him you can refer to his own blog: christopherpotter.co.uk where you can read about his earth-moving book, published in March, called You Are Here: a portable history of the universe. You can also read in his recent article in the Mail on Sunday about the nervous breakdown he had which precipitated his move from being one of London’s most successful publishers, (including Hilary’s) to becoming a cogent narrator of stories about the sensibility as well as the pluralistic scientific theories and poetry of our universe. It’s incestuous because I met Christopher at the launch lunch for Beyond Black in a restaurant called Passionne in Charlotte Street, which has since been credit-crunched and if my new book, not the incubating novel, gets a contract, rather than another dustbin gesture, I am going to dedicate it to him and to Hilary.
By the time this trip came around I had every intention of resurrecting my novel, but when the time came I couldn’t, or wouldn’t open the Word file. Even the thought precipitated panic: I had an advance nausea that I should find its incubation had produced the textual equivalent of a hibernated tortoise transformed into squamous liquid. I couldn’t go there, not yet. Not at all, I soon discovered and that is how the book that I am about to embark on writing happened. And why the novel is still dishabille in my bottom drawer.
I’m not going to say what my new book is about, well not until I have a firm contract to write it, but I am going to blog about the process of writing it, and I am prepared to let on that it’s a book in the genre of serious but popular psychology. And, that since arriving home, I’ve had a preliminary ‘thumbs up’ from my agent. And, that reading Christopher’s account of his nervous breakdown and addiction to brown paper bags precipitated my ideas for another book. I even noticed that French greengrocers still use brown paper bags and I have stocked up on some, just in case.
Now I winge when I think of the state of my first proposal that I sent to Christopher for his informal comments. I thought it was great then, but now its original content seems more like one of those dreams when you wake up and find that you are naked. My thoughts were still inchoate and yet I deceived myself to think they were clever and entire. I was wrapped up in the idea of making a mark. I think a ‘good’ editor must be rather like a ‘good’ therapist they find ways to help you to bring out what was already there.
My next blog will be about the terrors of starting from scratch, the terror of beginnings, of not knowing if anything will happen, except another miscarriage of intelligence, for ‘In each human heart terror survives/The raven it has gorged:’ (Shelley)
I have spent most of my weekend reworking my proposal along my agent’s recommended lines. For me it is the equivalent of a recreational activity, I relax when I am writing, just as long as something is happening to the blank page. Before the agent gave me a three-line whip in a concentrate of feedback – imagine if she had read it through before I had re-seamed its fibers through another experienced eye – she seemed enthusiastic, unlike with my novel. I even found her commitment to use her red editing mark reassuring.
I find the process of most beginnings frightening and with writing it always feels as though one is turning one’s viscera into canvas. As a therapist one of the most familiar tunes that I listen to, is how scared people are, and it makes no difference how successful they are, in fact it often makes it worse, of being unmasked, or of being found out to be the ‘scam’ they secretly fear/feel themselves to be. Writing a proposal, to begin with, evoked identical feelings in me. My first two attempts were all about trying to convince myself, and anybody else who was unfortunate enough to read it, which was only my unofficial editor, that I knew my subject and that I was full of interesting things to say. With any book one writes, its not until one has written it that one begins to know the subject and by then it’s too late. At the same time that’s what’s most stimulating about writing non-fiction you are pupil and master at the same time, but you’ve got to be able to convince any prospective publisher that you are master at the moment when you probably know least of all about anything except the intuitions that reside inside your head and which foolishly you don’t always trust.
I thought that I could throw out my proposal with far more grace and ease than the terror involved in returning to my novel. I thought that I could do it single-handed. Well, it has taken me at least sixty eight hours solid writing, and that does not account for the research time, nor the nocturnal involuntary thought processes that have gone into writing and rewriting my proposal. Its seven thousand words have cost me more energy than writing an equivalent length lecture, which I shall anyway never be doing again as I have learnt that a spontaneous delivery of almost anything will always leave a longer lasting imprint on an audience.
When you are writing fiction it’s possible to let your thoughts get lost in space; to roam other horizons as there is the thought that wherever your involuntary thoughts settle their object might later become incorporated into the fiction. (l now love – or rather value – because it can often inflict pain, anything that I experience inside me as involuntary, but that’s a topic for another blog.) Last autumn my writing focus kept being distracted, in involuntary ways, by the swifts who were preparing for their migration and my ignorance of their Eluysian mysteries. I love the idea of migration; it makes me think of adolescent love when one still longed to migrate into the biology of another body. Nowadays, it might be the transmigration of souls that I think more about.
Mindless, among unborn thought, my concentration moved across the vines until I saw an arced infantry of swifts soaring in more measure than I can recall when they eclipsed my daylight. Not one battalion, not two, but possibly seven, and each one as impossible to estimate as a hedgerow of hawthorn. Another infantry of monochrome bird preceded the cavalry. Thousands of thoughts were also assembling and soaring beyond their horizon; somersaulting into one collective of white flashed black word energy. And then they were gone towards a Prussian blue Mediterranean. And I had written another five hundred words.
Back to the proposal, which was, to begin with, only a scam of lists and ideas that I had assembled off the Internet; I was still too afraid to rely on my own intuitions, which I could only tolerate if they were buttressed with external affirmations. I almost wore out Wikipedia with a bulimic search for a patchwork authority. But I was ignorant and arrogant and by the time I came to its conclusion I was so impressed with my ‘Emperor’s Clothes’ and worn out of content that I thought I might just throw in an Gerald Manley Hopkins entire sonnet to conclude with the sensations of what it feels like to have a nervous breakdown. Now, I will limit myself to his most sensory lines of an eclipsing and falling sickness of terror.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap/
May who ne’er hung there.
My editorial confidant irritably wrote back from his summer-seashore unimpressed, to say that he didn’t think that ‘just a sonnet’ as my conclusion would do at all.
Now, after hours more work I’ve followed my agent’s phallic pen and I have sent my revised version back to her. Most exciting was that her responses provoked new thoughts in me. Any further ideas now will be consigned to my exciting Notes file. I, like the weekend, am spent. One thing’s become clear to me – that only when I can inhabit the structure that I have written as something legitimately conceived of inside me – am I ready to write. Imagine, if I hadn’t had somebody to confide my stammering steps towards my authority to; somebody I trusted enough to allow them to break through my narcissism and to tell me that I could do better, much better, but that ‘the better’ was worth working towards, and not on any account to serve it up to the agent this time until I was certain that I couldn’t go any further on my own. And now I cannot.