Saturday, 2 July 2011

My First Visit to Durham

Dr Paula Martin of Durham University & LG
After exchanging many emails, I finally got to meet Dr Paula Martin, Durham University's Science Outreach Co-ordinator. Paula had come across my work via the estimable and we'd corresponded briefly about my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY . When we met in the Undercroft Cafe at the Cathedral (avoid this if you are on a diet) the first thing I wanted to discuss was, "Why me?". 

Now I'd finally fetched up in Durham and was meeting real scientists, I felt spectacularly under-qualified for the job of Celebrate Science Author in Residence. But Paula was reassuring and when we were joined by Kate Hudson of Beacon NE, both seemed keen on the kind of cross-fertilisation I hope will result from applying the various creative writing techniques I've used with writing students and which I use myself. In fact the more we compared how writers think and work with how scientists think and work, the more it seemed we had in common. (In a future blog we're going to look at "What makes a good scientist/writer?")

While I wrestled with the concepts of  Fundamental Physics (thank you, Dr Pete Edwards, for the explanation, which I very nearly understood), Kate and Paula grappled with the sci-fi concept of "The Writer has Two Brains". Well, ideally s/he should. The creative brain generates words and ideas randomly, without judging, then the editorial brain sorts them, weeds out the duds and attempts to impose order on chaos. 

These are two quite different processes. Attempting to do both simultaneously doesn't just slow you down, it encourages the Inner Critic to sit on your shoulder, hooting with laughter. This is one of the reasons why I always tell students we aren't going to share work during a session. (The look of relief on their faces is always a joy to behold.)

Talk of experiment and hypothesis led to our title for the first writing workshop, What if...? I explained to Paula and Kate that I usually do my research after writing my fiction. In other words, I try to imagine something (what it's like to be blind, blown up, or carried away in an avalanche) before I research in any detail. (I used to feel rather ashamed about just "making stuff up" until I read that Sebastian Faulks did this for his WWI novel, BIRDSONG. Faulks found that what he imagined was largely how it was

I've also had this experience - so often in fact that I'm inclined to think the version I make up might read more authentically than the version I'd write if I were steeped in research. (But I do research afterwards, to ensure I'm not embarrassing myself.)

Of course it's much quicker working like this and saves spending days in the British Library (tricky for me, living as I do on the Isle of Arran) but as a working method, it lacks credibility and defies explanation. However, any author will tell you it's always the bits you lifted from life that fail to convince, so I abide by the old journalist's motto: "Never let truth get in the way of a good story." (And it will, if you let it.) So as a novelist, one hypothesises like mad, but only readers can "prove" your hypothesis by saying, "Yes, that's true. That's just what it's like!"

Durham Cathedral
But I digress. Back to the coffee and cakes literary-scientific debate in the Undercroft... 

Kate, Paula and I agreed I should give the workshop participants new writing tools, let them play with them for a while, then send them away to perform their own writing "experiments". I like the idea of literary experiments. Setting out to write anything in particular is arguably counter-creative. (E M Forster is supposed to have said, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?") I sometimes talk to students about Michelangelo who used to go to the quarry to look for a suitable piece of marble for his next work. He believed the statue was inside the block and he needed to chip away until it was revealed, so he would examine the marble, looking for an inspiring block that said "Buy me".
LG and the Stanhope Fossil Tree

So I'd like my Durham writing students to just think, imagine, create, then (using their other brain) look at what they've got and decide what form it might take. This strikes me as more of a scientific model too - experimenting with no pre-determined idea of outcome. It also happens to be the way I've always written fiction.
The idea of experimental fragments seems to me a reassuring one for novice poets and authors of fiction. This was how I began writing EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, how the poems emerged and became embedded in the novel. I was struggling to express certain things in prose until I realised they needed to be said in poetry because that's what my prose was straining towards.But could a novel contain poems and still work as a narrative? Readers said yes.

I set off for Arran with my mind buzzing and my voice ragged. It had been a stimulating and tiring day. The meandering drive home through the upland hay meadows of the North Pennines AONB was calming, tea at the Durham Dales Centre was reviving. 

Of course I had to pose (looking positively youthful in comparison) beside the 250 million year old Fossil Tree, a sandstone relic of a carboniferous forest from a time when birds and mammals had yet to evolve and the first dinosaur would not appear for another 100 million years. The fossillised trunk is elephantine, its age literally unimaginable. And that was quite something for a writer (one who thinks she can imagine what it's like to be blind, blown up, or carried away in an avalanche) to come across in a village churchyard: something that could be seen, even touched, but so old, its age could not be imagined.

Maybe that's why geology appeals to me. It really takes me outside my comfort zone.


  1. I found this a fascinating linking of science and literature - and pleased to see a residency that is crossing boundaries. It inspires me to try and go out of my comfort zone in the same way that you are Linda - it certainly makes life more interesting.

    It was also lovely to see so many things I am interested in coming together - Durham (my daughter went there and I loved to visit); bookcrossing and Linda - whose books I found through Bookcrossing. Maybe reading this will raise an interest for me in science!

    I think the fact that

  2. Oh, what happened to the rest of the comment, katweeble? Has Blogger lost it?...

    I too find it very gratifying that has opened yet another literary door for me. :-)