I’m sitting at the bar of a coffeeshop in Amsterdam, scribbling away. A man, standing next to me, gestures at my notebook and says: what do you write?
I’m actually writing about my notebook, I tell him. Some people who know I keep a notebook have asked me to write something for their website.
This is Igor, a man who left Croatia to avoid conscription, I discover.
What; you just left?
Yes, of course, he says, throwing up his arms.
And your mother?
She was safe.
So, he added. You’re writing about your notebook in your notebook. He laughs.
In actual fact, I wasn’t. Even though I was halfway through a sentence when he asked me, I couldn’t answer: a sense of exposure, the impossibility of knowing exactly what it is we write when we write, the mind-blank feeling of being caught off guard – all were at work.
I said later: I don’t only write about my notebook in my notebook.
He was still laughing.
In truth, when I know I have to write something specific – like a piece about keeping a notebook – I tend not to write about it. My principle is rather to walk around the issue – not because I am avoiding it. I’m not a ‘putter offer’. This used to make me feel very weird at university because I used to go to the library every day, and I was always on my own.
Talking to David Constantine last night, he put his finger on the writing process when he said: play hard to get with an idea, make sure it’s really something, before taking it up.
I keep a notebook to write about nothing, leaving the something for when I really sit down to write. But even that is misleading, suggesting there’s a place where writing really occurs. I’m not sure it’s like that. I just happen to have something I’m working on. Every month I make sure it’s increased by five thousand words. Because I’m not a putter offer, when I come to sit down to achieve this, I don’t need to stress: by typing out everything I have written in my notebook I usually have plenty to work with.
It was a long time until I began to use notebooks as a rehearsal space, and a long time after that before I realised what I was doing. When I decided to write, I took an online course, which was good for my morale, but not much else. I thought I knew it all. Then I went to Mexico with a laptop to be ‘a writer’. When I came back to the UK, I did so because it was time to get off the beach and take things seriously. I’d had a few things published by then, so it was a big shock when I received my first piece of educated feedback on my work.
Point of view? Here my education began. It would have been a much swifter education if I had been able to admit my shortcomings.
I have climbed my own personal ‘perspective’ mountain now (we each of us have a hurdle). It happened through the collective hours of writing, debating, testing, reading; dreaming perspective, thinking about it, crying about it, breaking up over it.
Here in March 2012 I write: ‘When you look at a photo of yourself, you see what you associate those physical attributes to; perhaps zooming in to specific flaws. Think about what other people see. And this is different for people you’ve just met to those you know. There are also the occasions where your view of yourself is so powerful that you can persuade other people to see you that way. Hmmm, isn’t that like writing? So, in order to convince your reader of your story you have to be very certain about the point of view in which you are telling it.’
There are pages in my notebook where I tell the same story, but from different points of view. Reading through these passages I can see a shift taking place: at the start I am wrapped up in the story and the plight is my own confusion with the material. But slowly, as I keep writing, version after version, the perspective swings from look at me, to look with me; or even, look over there.
‘I have thought about describing what happened on the way back from Bucerias dozens of times. No, no, I can’t start there, I think as I remember climbing on the bus that morning, ready to set off to this nearby town in the hope of finding a supermarket. I need to tell people about the sunglasses, about the fact that they were prescription sunglasses, so that as it begins to get dark they will understand my dilemma: the fact that there comes a point when I have to choose: a blurry world, or a blacked-out world.’
As I was finding this story, I realise in this early draft that the quandary was the way I was going to tell it. The order of events is important – but does that predicament warrant being part of the story? Is my difficulty in telling it part of the narrative? What is the perspective? Are we seeing the story through the narrator’s eyes, their pain at remembering, their struggle? Or are we simply seeing the story, where at the beginning a woman gets on a bus with no sense of doom?
Writing isn’t simply about having an idea. Like David Constantine told me, it’s important to play with the picture for a while to really determine its intentions. Perhaps it’s a passing fad. By holding off a little you learn about your ideas, how they come, how they grow.
Then, once you have finally written your draft, after pages of notebook investigation, you have to show it to a professional. It isn’t enough to have friends read it. They will tell you they liked it, or enjoyed it, or loved it, and that will be that. You need a Jeremy Sheldon to say: hang on, what are you trying to do here; whose story is this?
And you can only progress from here if you listen. This takes time. It takes all the time that you say you are listening, but really aren’t, which is a long time – probably the longest. Then there is the moment when you ask: okay, let’s just imagine this professional is talking some sense, what then?
Then there is the time of understanding that you need to improve, and being able to do what you need in order to achieve that.
It all takes time. Notebooks of time.
Cynan Jones who has probably written the fastest book of anyone I have met in the flesh, still takes years to write a book. He may write for a solid period, 10 days, 3 months, but he has been writing in his mind all along. He talks about how when he comes to write the book it is then like a memory: something he can work through in a way that our mind is very adept at doing. We spend our whole lives remembering. This is a habit we are good at. Writing is the same. How much do you do the act? If remembering is the brain, going through a series of necessary motions to enable you to see the past, rather than the present, then writing is the same. You sit. You take the lid off a pen, or switch a computer on. You begin. We don’t think remembering, we just remember. Why do we think writing? Because we have conditioned ourselves to. Why not unthink writing?
Literally write the first thing that comes into you head.
Here, my notebooks – May 2013.
‘Can we look and simply see?’ I ask.
‘Can we explore ourselves with absolute honesty?’
‘This is different from exploring ourselves with total joy, say.’
Okay, Igor says – read me something from your notebook.
He is sitting on the stool next to me, his chin resting on his fist.
I’ve been trying something out, I tell him.
What’s that? he asks.
See if you can spot it, I say.
‘Teresa slept for almost three hours by the lake. It was afternoon and there was a film of pollen on the water. She took off her shoes and went down to the bank where the rocks came out of the earth. Their sharpness would be a preparation for the ice cold of the water. The sun would fall soon, and I would continue to watch her, wanting to come out of the trees, but utterly incapable.’
Oh ho, Igor says. There is someone there.
There is, I say, knowing that I had been just like Ygor when I started writing about Theresa, unaware she was being watched, letting the idea lead me, not thinking about writing just writing, because it was only my notebook, because it didn’t matter.
‘The Conundrum that the notebook solves’ can be read on the Arvon website here.
‘That tightrope moment in writing when stories either plummet or remain’ can be read here.
‘The Dance of Avoidance’ to be read by those who are making too many excuses not to write!