I used to think I’d rather start from anywhere but here. I saw my life in fragments. Teenage depression and breakdown. Stop. An attempt at an academic career. Stop. Businesswoman criss-crossing the world. Stop. Breakdown and crawling recovery. Crawling on.
I propelled myself forwards, never looking back, and I took on different characters to survive. I avoided maintaining a common thread. My life felt like imitation, like pastiche. It affected my writing too: pastiche was my literary habitat.
In my teens I wrote short stories that were pseudo Dick Francis. They were objectively pretty good. I had a Manley Hopkins phase, and a Hughes, though never a Plath. More recently I’ve tried Martin Amis, William Golding, Pat Barker, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Halldor Laxness, Tom Wolfe and more.
It doesn’t matter who the writers are. What matters is that every time I read someone good I try for a while to own that style. Mostly I don’t have to try too hard. That is not a boast; I have almost no barrier to the flow of other people’s words into my eyes and through to my pen.
It’s a necessary part of learning to write; I’m not the first to do it. But it holds two problems for me.
The first is a common problem of pastiche: what I wrote was bad. It was stylistically true to my models. It was grammatical; it committed none of the sins creative writing gurus warn against. It had action and characters and setting. But it had no voice and it was flat. It was papier mâché. It was paste.
The friends I shared that writing with were embarrassed. I was proud enough to be embarrassed too, to know I could do better than that.
Channelling others was also not good for my brain. Last year I thought I had multiple personalities, in the clinical, the pathological sense. The suspicion wasn’t completely far-fetched. I’ve thrived on being who you want me to be and on detaching myself from the solid world. After thirty-five years of doing that, I often feel there’s nothing inside holding the pieces together. I jolt from one character to the next with no sense of who I am. Several times that has nearly killed me.
Pastiche is being other people. It perpetuates my lack of self.
I need to get balanced, and I want to write well. For the first time in my life, I have accepted – I want – to start from where I am. Right here, what I have is my brain, my body, my experience. The whole of each of those, as closely as I can find it. And how I, not Marquez, can best put those together.
Novel Number Two is called Suspicion. It does not rewrite The Storyteller. In the last years my neural networks have rearranged themselves. My behaviour is different. I spend my time in different ways. None of that is tidy; nothing builds as tidily as I like. But I’m starting from somewhere new.
Suspicion is set in south London. It’s about an alcoholic getting sober, a grieving mother, a teenager who may be a terrorist. It is coming steadily along.
Currently it seems to be comic. After The Storyteller that’s a surprise. It may lose that by the time I finish. (If it does, that will be ok.)
It’s not just comic, but also playful. It meanders around my local streets, it swings from self-indulgent despair to absorption or elation. The police appear with different voices.
None of that is planned. Increasingly, I take my characters out for a walk, and I see what they will do.
I can do that because I’m writing in a different mental mode.
I’ve deprioritised the immediate need for quality. When I edit as I write, I criticise every word. Sitting down to write becomes depressing effort, one more thing I’m getting wrong. Five years ago that was all I could do; masochism was how I had built my life. Now I’m choosing not to impose that on myself. Editing can come later. Playfulness is more important now. To my surprise I’m enjoying every word.
Writing The Storyteller there were memories and truths I needed to get down. With Suspicion I’m doing something different. I’m starting from me and today. That is also my best hope of it being good.
For my journey to writing The Storyteller, click here