Thursday, 26 May 2011

Truer than Truth - Part Two

As a novelist, I’m often challenged by readers over credibility issues. The bits of the novel they don’t believe are always the bits based most closely on real life. This has become such a problem that I now know, if I base part of my fiction on real events – even if they happened to someone other than me – that part of the story could strain credulity and readers might reject it. (Increasingly I’m trying to steer clear of factual raw material. It just fails to convince when read alongside fiction. This paradox delights me and I’m hoping one day someone will explain it to me.)

When starting out as fiction writers, we have to learn the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, even publishable. This is not the case. This kind of writing is therapeutic. It may be truthful, but it probably isn’t publishable. It might not even be readable.

Arguably, all writing is therapeutic to some extent and most writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our writing skills, especially if we seek publication, because truth is stranger than fiction.

If you find the idea of modifying truth difficult, think about raising money for a charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, but not repel. Unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists only for the author, not the reader. We aren’t writing for an audience, but for ourselves. This might be a good starting point for fiction, but it cannot be the ultimate goal because truth doesn’t necessarily convince readers or editors.

Personally I’ve found the reverse to be true. I wrote a novel, STAR GAZING with a congenitally blind heroine and much of the story was told from her blind “point of view”. Many readers have assumed I must be blind or partially sighted, or at least have someone in my family who is. I’m almost embarrassed to confess this is not the case. I don’t even know anyone who is blind or partially sighted. I made it all up.

When I wrote my first novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, I wanted to use my own experience of mental illness as raw material, but I decided to fictionalise that experience completely. (This was no hardship - it had been bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.) As a consequence I managed to avoid some common first-novel pitfalls by thoroughly “digesting” my experience, to the extent that the story was no longer recognisable as my life and the heroine no longer recognisable as me.

It was only after I’d finished writing EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY that I realised I’d rejected veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. This is, in my opinion, an essential creative process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into readable fiction. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths.

The job of fiction is to transmit feeling, not information. If a reader is to believe (or suspend disbelief), truth must be edited and presented in the best form to do the job.

That is what good fiction is: true lies.

Truer than Truth - Part One

I struggled to come up with the right sub-heading for this blog and settled for the inadequate (but not inaccurate): “Thoughts about science and writing”. My invitation from Dr. Paula Martin suggested a difference in kind between scientific writers and fiction writers.  I rejected “Thoughts about science and fiction” because I wanted other kinds of non-fiction writing to be encompassed in our discussions on this blog and in the workshops.

I also rejected the irritating catch-all term, “creative writing”. What kind of writing isn’t creative in some way? Even advertising copy and journalism are forms of creative writing. (In some cases they’re arguably fiction.) What scientists write is also creative, since so much of it’s based on speculation, hypothesis and giant leaps of the imagination.

So are there any useful distinctions to be made in the context of an author known mostly for writing fiction (and some journalism) contributing a blog about science and writing, as part of Durham University’s “Celebration of Science”? Are we talking about chalk and cheese, or just different kinds of chalk?

Comparing myself with science writers, I noted the following…

I write to entertain. But so do many scientists, eg Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. (Presumably no scientist writes with intent to bore.)

I write to share my ideas about the world. So do Dawkins and Pinker.

I write to educate in the broadest sense of the term, by which I mean, I hope that a reader thinks or feels differently about something by the time they’ve finished reading one of my novels. At the very least, I want them to know or realise something they didn’t know before. What scientist does not write with that aim in mind?

My writing is based on my observations and analysis of my life, other people’s lives, the world around us and the conclusions I have drawn. Ditto Dawkins and Pinker.

I write because I enjoy it. Surely this must also be true of such brilliant communicators as Dawkins and Pinker?

So is there any essential difference between what I write and what Dawkins and Pinker write? Leaving aside qualitative judgements (thank you), the most obvious difference between the writings of Gillard and the writings of Dawkins, Pinker et al, is that I make stuff up. (But then I suppose Creationists accuse Dawkins of doing just that.)

But my tendency to fabricate surely constitutes a huge difference between my work and that of scientists? Well, yes, but I would reject any claim that scientists are more concerned than I am about the essential truth of what they write, since emotional veracity and all kinds of authenticity are of prime importance to me when I create my fiction. In fact, if I wanted to tell the truest truth about something that really mattered to me and had actually happened – eg losing a baby or losing my mind – I would choose to write about it through the medium of fiction, not journalism or memoir. I’m at a loss to explain why this should be so, but in support of my preference I would cite an old Jewish saying: “What’s truer than truth? The story.”

But if, as the scientist believes, the test of all knowledge is experiment, the truths of the storyteller cannot be validated. Except perhaps in the heart.

Is this where scientists and fabricators (novelists/poets/dramatists) part company?… The job of the scientific writer is to transmit knowledge. The job of the storyteller is to transmit feeling.

Monday, 23 May 2011

EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY - Genesis of a novel

Many holidays spent in the Outer Hebrides and on Skye fed into my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, about a textile artist who goes to live on the remote Hebridean island of North Uist. Alliteratively speaking, the novel is about memory, mountains and madness. I wrote it just for myself, without any thought of trying to find a publisher and the book became a repository for many of the things that interested me. 

People often ask me about the title. I came across the phrase "emotional geology" in a Buddhist book on depression. My heroine, Rose suffers from bipolar affective disorder and managing depression is a big issue for her.

EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY is a book in which nothing much happens. All sorts of tumultuous events occurred in the past, but what the characters are actually dealing with in the present is fall-out. So I had the idea of using geology as a metaphor.

Rock is a concrete record of the past, of what happened to the Earth – a build-up of pressure, seismic upheaval, erosion. When you look at rock you're looking at layers of time. I think our minds and our memories are like that - a record of what we’ve been through and the toll it has taken, so the “excavation” of the past (which is what happens in the novel) becomes emotional geology. 

Here is an excerpt from the book. Rose describes her working day... 

"Sunday. God's day.

It seems impossible that the Hebrides could ever get any quieter, then Sunday comes around and even the wind abates. (Not the rain however which is a law unto itself.) The few people who are about are on their way to church, or visiting relatives. Even here there is a certain amount of traffic during the week - cars, a few lorries, the odd flock of sheep - then on Sunday everything stops. All you can hear is the wind and the sea and - if you're close enough - sheep urinating. It's peaceful but eerie. Time staggers to a standstill.

God would not approve, but I have been working hard today, buried under one of my periodic landslides of ideas. 

I am playing around with some ideas from Calum's book of poems, Emotional Geology. Geology is not a subject I have given any thought to before. The book he lent me is illustrated with beautiful aerial photographs of Scotland and brightly coloured diagrams. I realised the patterns formed by landslides and folds in rock would lend themselves to a quilted wall-hanging. I've made a few sketches and lots of notes. I can make something in three layers, then slice it into sections and re-assemble them – bingo, instant earthquake. Maybe some of the filling could protrude? (Or extrude as the geologists say.) And then of course the fabrics could be distressed for erosion. My mind is buzzing with ideas – cross-sections, layers, pleats, folds, distortions…
NINE ELEVEN, a quilt made by Linda
I am alive again. I can work, my senses are functioning, I'm noticing things. It’s as if I have woken up after a long sleep. A nightmare. 

I am me again. 

Calum’s little book has explained geological vocabulary to me, so I now understand the significance of the titles of his poems. Boiling rock, while still underground, is called magma. (His poem of the same name describes the suppression of grief-stricken rage.) Lava which cools slowly becomes a black rock called basalt. (Calum's Basalt is a poem of numb resignation and defeat.) 

I know so little about the earth on which I walk - know little and understand less. The mountains of Harris (visible from the north end of this island) are gently rounded hills, barely in the Munro category of three thousand feet, but apparently they were once as tall as the Himalayas. They are unimaginably old, some of the oldest rocks in the world, but they have been eroded by the elements until they are now gently curved, mere stumps of a once gigantic mountain range. 

A timescale I cannot possibly comprehend, a meaning, a purpose perhaps, that is beyond my understanding. It's somehow reassuring that there is something bigger out there, bigger even than the mountains.
I'm not sure what it is. Not God. 

Time, maybe?"

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Science and Fiction

I'm indebted to Jules Verne.

My interest in science certainly owes nothing to my extensive but lopsided education. In 1970 I emerged from a girls’ grammar school, well qualified for university, but with only one science O level to my name. (Biology, Grade C.) I’d been allowed to drop all other science subjects, plus Geography. I knew the Latin word for that thing slaves used to scrape the grime off their sweaty masters, but my understanding of physics was nil and my knowledge of chemistry was confined to what happened when you baked a cake. As for biology, I could spell vegetative propagation, but had no clear idea what it was. (Hence the Grade C.)

When I was a teenager, you had to choose between arts and sciences. To be fair, this was not a difficult choice for me, owing to my utter incompetence in all science subjects, an incompetence I now suspect was related to my low boredom threshold – something doubtless shared by the formidable female teachers whose job it was to teach me the basics. Once progressive, clever women, their souls had been destroyed by years spent teaching adolescent girls more interested in discussing periods than the Periodic Table.

We would have liked to discuss sex in biology lessons (and given the fate of one of my peers who had to leave school for reasons undisclosed, we probably should have) but in those pre-COSMOPOLITAN days, sex education was delivered by our spinster biology teacher in a single lesson devoted to reproduction in rabbits. The purpose of this lesson was a mystery to me. It was the permissive 1960s, but I’m sure I speak for all of my friends when I say we’d never considered having sex with a rabbit.

Elgol, Isle of Skye
However an interest in science must have lain dormant, because it surfaced many years later on holidays with my young children in the Yorkshire Dales and Scotland, particularly Skye and the Outer Hebrides, where I discovered the fascination of rocks and the beauty of landforms, then felt moved to learn something about them. 

As a result, I made a huge and life-changing discovery. Science wasn't boring. In fact, it was really rather exciting.

Until I was invited to become Durham University’s Celebrate Science author in residence, I’d assumed my interest in geology had come out of the blue, that I’d picked up a piece of Lewisian gneiss and it had been love at first sight. But pondering anew my adolescent aversion to science, I recalled an earlier age and an enquiring young mind, thrilled by the stories of Jules Verne and the films that were made from them: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island and – my particular favourite – Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Pre-puberty, I’d loved science. (And speaking as an ex-primary teacher, I don’t remember teaching a child who didn’t love science.)

So what went wrong?

Well, for a start I was compelled to choose: arts or sciences? There was no middle ground at my secondary school. When my friend Marion decided she wanted to be an architect and found she’d need both arts and science A levels to train, the school had to re-write the timetable so she could do them.

With hindsight I can see that another thing that went wrong for me was that after primary school, science learning became abstract, highly mathematical and divorced from people. (Some of us left school knowing exactly how a rabbit got pregnant, but not how a human got pregnant.) 

The science teaching I endured was divorced from story-telling. The current enthusiasm for so-called "popular science" surely owes much to the communication skills of scientists such as David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Brian Cox, Richard Feynman, Oliver Sacks, Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Stannard et al. These scientists re-connected with story-telling and therefore people.

Richard Feynman explaining
Dipping in just now to The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, I came across Richard Feynman’s perfectly clear explanation of the conservation of energy, in which he uses the analogy of trying to dry yourself with a wet towel. He uses many words to describe this dispiriting experience (in just the concrete way I advocate when teaching a creative writing workshop). I don’t think I'll ever forget that explanation. From now on, if ever someone mentions “conservation of energy”, I shall think of Feynman on the beach, caught in a sudden downpour, trying to dry himself with a wet towel.

I'll remember the story and, thanks to that story, I will remember the science.