Not long ago the friend I was staying with had a domestic disaster. A beautiful chenille throw that – despite the label saying ‘hand wash only’ – she had put in the washing machine was busy shedding more red fluff than you would have thought it could possibly contain. It looked as though the washing had had a haemorrhage, and of course it blocked the machine. Trying to unblock it involved draining water, with matted red clumps like clotted blood, from the filter hole into baking dishes – the only things shallow enough to fit underneath. Because they were shallow, the dishes kept overflowing on to the floor. It also meant fishing out more great lumps of red from the machine’s innards, as if we were giving it a much-needed D and C. At the end it still wouldn’t start again, but meanwhile the fluff had settled on our clothes, the floor, the furniture, the garden steps and even the cat. A layer of red down may look vaguely interesting on a pair of black trousers, but it doesn’t do much for a one-eyed tabby.
When we had vacuumed away what we could and hung up the poor depleted throw – now dropping fluff over the drying rack – my friend asked, “Are you going to write about it?” She was still cursing herself but had just about got to the stage of laughing as well. I wasn’t sure whether she wished I would or hoped I wouldn’t. Although it was funny and would make a good piece, I hadn’t immediately thought of writing about it. I usually don’t write about little incidents like that in the moment, and it made me wonder why not. Over the years I’ve kept journals where I’ve written down thoughts and feelings, I’ve jotted observations and ideas in notebooks, and for quite long periods I’ve done Julia Cameron-type morning pages, but I’ve rarely kept a diary as such. I feel slightly ashamed to admit it, as though it means I’m not really a proper writer. These days a lot of people use Facebook or Twitter to log their daily doings for the world as well as themselves, but I don’t do very much of that either – fun though it is sometimes.
I think I’ve always regarded ‘writing’, of the kind that leads to finished pieces of work, as something different from any of the above. Not that it doesn’t use the same material, but there’s usually a lot more digestion and processing involved. A few years ago I met someone again that I had been in love with twenty-five years before. The experience was so powerful I tried to write a poem about it. I say tried because the poem never worked. I’ve still got my drafts and might be able to make something of it now, if I felt like going back to it, but at the time I was much too close to what had happened. I was able to write about it in my journal, but not in a way that would be presentable to anyone else. To make it into a public piece of writing, time needed to elapse and emotion to be recollected in something more like tranquillity.
A year or so later I was temporarily bowled over once more – this time by an opera singer I saw at Covent Garden – and recapitulated a kind of teenage infatuation that I’d never thought I would go through again. Interestingly, it wasn’t so hard to make that experience into a finished piece of writing – in this case a short story – perhaps because it was less acutely emotive. The character in my story is like me in some ways but not me, and I could simultaneously feel the feelings and stand outside them. I had to prune away a lot of the details that belonged to my experience but weren’t needed in the story – but then I would probably have had to do that with any piece of fiction. I needed to write about the experience in order to process it for myself, but I also needed to have processed it to some extent to be able to write about it.
Something similar seems to apply if I’m using material that’s less directly personal. Not long ago a friend told me about an incident that had happened to her and gave me permission to use it in a short story. The deadline for a competition was coming up and I thought this would be the ideal subject – about the right length, and nicely self-contained. I wrote it quickly, trying to imagine myself into it and building on what my friend had told me, but I somehow knew as I was writing that I hadn’t absorbed it enough, that it was coming from too superficial a place. It didn’t get anywhere in the competition. In The Waves, Bernard, the writer character, says of a particular image that he notes down and puts aside: “Let it breed; let it fructify.” It seems to me that if I want to write about anything in a meaningful way, it has to have gone underground – for a while at least – and secretly begun to transform itself, so that even if the experience I’m writing about is my own, more or less, it has made that mysterious transition from belonging to me to being material that isn’t just mine. I don’t know how that happens, but given time it does.
Which brings me back to my friend’s question. Of course I can write about the things that happen from day to day and enjoy doing it, and of course they can become material for ‘writing’ as well as writing. But it is the transformation that matters and not just the material. Having admired the sensuousness and immediacy of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novels, I was disappointed that her autobiography seemed oddly flat by comparison. The act of creating fiction, even autobiographical fiction, frees us to write about what is real, but it’s almost as though we have to peel away some of the husk of fact in order to find it.
I know I’m not saying anything here that people haven’t said hundreds of times before, but – as with so much in life – I couldn’t get there until I could get there. The wonderful thing about having a blog is that it enables you to think out loud and doesn’t have to be a finished piece of ‘writing’.