In September I got a bit sidetracked from getting on with my novel after a visit to the York writing festival. I bought the ticket as a financial incentive to Get It Done by the time the day came (a one-day ticket cost a heck of a lot of money), and managed to produce a polished first few chapters of my current draft to send to three agents who would give me face-to-face feedback. So far so good.
On the day it was a different matter. I’ve never felt so afraid. So much so that I assumed the churning in my stomach meant I was ill or the result of a curry I’d had the night before. (Agents - I don’t doubt you appreciate how hard it is for writers to send you their work, but you have no idea).
It was stressful. The feedback from the three agents, on reflection, shared a few key themes and was constructive. But at the time every single thing they said felt like a punch. And, inevitably, my brain did its usual trick: it threw out any memory of a compliment, or the agent who really got what I was trying to do, and fixated on the one bad thing that was said.
Which was bad. And not in a good way either. The novel I’m writing is inspired by personal experience, and one agent told me he’d be interested if I wrote it as non-fiction. A memoir. He even gave me his card. Good, right? Except for the past near four years I’ve been working on it as fiction, trying desperately to move it sufficiently away from my own weird but ultimately mundane experience and create a story other people would like to read.
Suddenly it seemed like a waste of time. “I don’t know why you’re pursuing it as fiction,” the agent continued. "Another writer could just make it up and write it better”.
So for a few weeks I tried it out as a memoir. Okay, so for a week or two I didn’t write *anything*, I was so shell-shocked. Instead I read a few memoirs like Emma Kennedy’s The Tent, the Bucket and Me and Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk (winner of the recent Samuel Johnson Prize), but when I did eventually pluck up enough courage to start writing again, I put together a proposal for a non-fiction book and a list of chapters.
It seemed obvious. So obvious I experienced a day of intense euphoria: picking up where I left off in my novel seemed like I would have a mountain to climb, whereas a memoir - well, I thought, I could knock that out in a week. Besides, way back in 2010 my novel started out as a non-fiction idea, and now, four years later, I could see maybe that’s what it should have stayed all along. And memoir - well, the agent was right - it’s quite the thing nowadays.
What’s more, it has more in common with fiction than biography. Telling a true story, but a story nonetheless. I wouldn’t have to throw out everything I’d written. I can stretch the truth a bit, make a few connections that weren’t so clear at the time. On top of that, it is really really easy to write about yourself.
Too easy. A few days later my euphoria had subsided. I couldn’t shake how self-absorbed it seemed (though the two I mentioned above are sufficiently funny and moving respectively to transcend mere self-obsession).
Not to mention once I’d planned out the chapters of my non-fiction version of my book, I couldn’t escape the fact that my writing took its usual course: scattered and jumping from section to section. This tendency bothers me; it has done since I wrote essays at university, in fact. Shouldn’t I be able to write in a straight line by now? Simply tell a story, one thing after another? Isn’t that what it’s all about?
Add to that I kept thinking about Anna, my fictional main character. Strangely, thinking carefully about myself and my own experience had clarified a few things for me about her, her motivation, in particular, though in real life that had led to not very much at all (well, not enough - not what I wanted to write about, anyway).
I realised what started me writing fiction was a desire not to describe my experience, but what it felt like, what it feels like to this day. My experience was simply a spark - it did not have a story arc of my own, and however much I tried, I couldn’t crowbar in either the amount of misery or pain or the number of jokes that the form requires. It was too ridiculous and too important for that.
Other books on the subject I’m writing about have been memoir, largely funny, and largely written by men. In one case, it was a mix (its subtitle is “a fictional memoir” - the protagonist has the author’s name, so I assume it’s the action that is invented, or exaggerated at least). A female novelist tackled her own experience but (IMO anyway) the story was lacking. And then there’s the novel on the subject by a writer I respect hugely - but when I read it I was disappointed. It was very clever, and insightful, but it lacked passion and intensity - thereby letting on that it had little sympathy for the people who do this sort of thing, and the big gulping reason they do it.
The agent told me a fiction writer could write my story better with no first-hand experience, and I had believed him.
Needless to say, I went back to the fiction version of my book. Deep in the dark recesses of my brain in the folder marked “Positive feedback - disregard”, I remembered another agent was interested, and not only that, wanted to see the full manuscript. But my foray into memoir hadn’t been a waste of time. Thinking about myself rejuvenated my approach: not only did it clarify my main character, but it split her into two (but more about that in my next post…)
Progress: draft 3 (2nd rewrite)
Word count: 41,513