We talk about that first ‘bite’ we get as a writer, the first punch of an idea. Something catches our eye – a painting, or a conversation between two people across the room. We watch. Suddenly we start to imagine what they are saying. We picture what one of them might do next – or what the other has previously done; perhaps something they are now withholding. A story begins to form. But then suddenly Reason asks: how do you know this is the right story?
In her book, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter that Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1788 in reply to a friend who had complained of meagre literary production: the ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason on your imagination…It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason make too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in…
If we’re unconstrained, we might be able to sit and examine the painting, or watch these two people, chatting across the room. We remain calm. We observe, allowing ideas to take shape. We might imagine to ourselves: a funeral – two people, talking after a funeral.
Two women – sisters; no, sisters-in-law. One touches the hand of the other, so it is the younger of the two, the blond one, who is the widow. Both wear black. Both have been crying. The widow nods and gives a funeral smile before getting up and excusing herself to the kitchen where the sister-in-law follows and they continue to talk.
But now you might find yourself in the kitchen and think: how did I get here; what am I doing?
Suddenly, you’ve gone from familiar surroundings – the room where the reception was going on: the dim chatter, the smell of the food on the table in the bay window that is beginning to heat in the sun, coming through the glass; the sandwiches are forming a crust, even though the crusts have been removed.
But now in the kitchen, with these two women, you’re not sure.
Why did the widow get up? Why didn’t she simply sit there with the hand of her sister-in-law, providing comfort? The hand certainly was providing comfort. You’re certain of that.
Is it that the widow doesn’t want people to make a fuss; that it’s all too much? That she’s not yet ready to let herself go and is busying herself?
The trouble is that at the first sign of the inner judge, the imagination will become knocked about. From its initial meander, careless, aimless, aim-free – it is now aware that someone is watching. It is now aware that there are right and wrong paths to take. It doesn’t want to fail.
How, once this inner judge has stepped in, can you carry on with the freedom of imagination? Freud was to liken his process of free association – or ‘allowing’ – to that of the poet, during the act of creation. The patient – or poet – must suspend his critical faculties and say anything that comes to mind, regardless of its irrelevance, triviality, or unpleasantness.
When Reason creeps in, inhibiting the story, firstly acknowledge that you are now no longer in the sitting room, wandering the post-funeral reception. See that you are now in your head, wandering your self – your own memories, your own failings, your own doubts, perhaps your own funeral.
In the introduction to his Collected Essays, Hanif Kureishi says: More or less the whole of my formal education was concerned with enforced inhibition and constraint. I had to unfetter my imagination myself and learn to let it run. It sounds awkward to say that you might train your imagination, but you might learn, at least, to hear what it has to say, and respond.
Hanif, since a period when he found that he couldn’t move forward in his work, has used Freud’s method of free association each morning, which he himself discovered – oddly enough – in a writing manual by Ludwig Börne called: the art of becoming an original writer in three days.
Return to the story of the funeral – allow. Put yourself in the kitchen. See what comes. A kitchen that you know? You still have something of before to start you off because you can still hear the voices of the guests. Perhaps there were two boys, playing. Listen to their game – their innocent, high notes, rising above the muffled base of mourners who are taking their job seriously.
You can still smell the buffet lunch. But perhaps there is a new smell in the kitchen so that you can transition from one to the other, using the path of your senses. There are new sounds in the kitchen, allowing you to cross the threshold into a new room. How has the light changed?
Keep exploring these impressions and, at every stage, observe to see when you inhabit the character – the widow – and when you are simply standing back as the narrator. Are you illustrating the setting from an authorial distance, or have you stepped further in to describe from within the character?
It’s best not to jump around too many characters. Don’t suddenly panic and jump into the sister-in-law’s head, thinking: I don’t know the widow anymore – I never did – perhaps I’m not her, perhaps I’m this person instead. Of course, investigate, play around – don’t become too rigid. There’s no point starting a story in one character’s head and forcing your way through – ploughing through frozen earth without allowing yourself breathing space.
Investigate, explore, and know that the inner judge will butt in – even into the more sure ideas. It’s arrival it’s not a sign of fault. The inner judge simply interferes when the other senses, the feeling senses, become faint. When the tangible connection to your imagination becomes fragile, then there is space for doubt to enter – see it as the flailing of the mind when the floor disappears.
But don’t think you have to be absolutely on top of your story, crowding it, so that there’s no room for misgiving to enter. By doing this you’ll lose your perception in another way – by writing in panic. Even whilst floating, a connection can be found. Breathe. If you cannot feel the story, you can at least feel that you, the artist, are alive. Sit with that artist – on the sofa, chair, wherever it is you’re trying to write. Sit with that artist and breathe, and rather than carry yourself away in thoughts, admonitions and doubt, notice sensations – how your chest rises, how it falls, how it clenches, how it releases, how it stutters, how is wheezes.
There are so many things to notice that one never need enter back into the line of thinking – the doubt, the ruin. But if you enter that line of thinking, you haven’t failed either, you are simply walking the artist’s path. It’s like being a pinball in a machine: darting about, setting off alarms, lights, buzzers; sometimes winning a prize, sometimes falling down a hole – nothing won at all.
I spent a very long time, exploring this funeral – and in fact it was a scene that never made it into the final draft of the story, but it was necessary for the process as a whole. The story came about because of a painting I saw in a museum. I was in Ireland for the launch of an anthology a short story of mine had been published in, and was full of inspiration to write another.
To me, this new story was Irish, the sisters were Irish. It was the husband who was dead.
‘The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.’
The painting I saw in Ireland shows a husband and wife, sitting at a table. They have become disconnected somehow.
The painting is called The Consultation, which already gave an idea of a lack of ease and intimacy. But the way the objects are placed suggests it isn’t simply an emotional difference these two people have. It is something greater.
A chair, in the doorway beyond, is empty – conveying absence. Looking at the woman, I felt she was in grief – frozen at breakfast, in her duties. The man is waiting for her, watching. Somehow, although they are separated – by life, by death – although their eyes are no longer level, there is something that has levelled. In this moment, they finally feel love for each other. He, at long last, sees her emotion – the tears – and his heart bursts.
Her sudden realisation is that this breakfast routine, which she’d found so formal, is impossible without him. Even though they never said much to each other, he had always been there, a quiet presence, buttering his toast. She never thought he would leave.
‘It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him. She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs…’
For those of you interested in reading the full short story – The Courting – which was published by Virago, click here for an online version. The piece is less than 4,000 words long – but I wrote many more as I searched for the thread of the tale. Seen in isolation an idea may seem trivial – but do not reject too soon because it may be made more worthy by another idea that comes after. Freud talked of free association as the ore from which the analyst extracts its content of precious metal. Where imagination has freedom, Reason relaxes its watch, allowing ideas to rush in, knowing that the time for arrangement comes later.