|Odysseus loses a few sailors to Scylla (the six-headed |
monster) while steering clear of Charybdis (the whirlpool)
There's one question that other writers frequently get asked that isn't (in my experience, at any rate) put to historical novelists - and it's this: "Is your work autobiographical?"
In interviews and at events connected with VIII - my novel told from the viewpoint of Henry VIII - I've been asked about research, about my enthusiasm for Tudor history and about putting words into the mouth of this famous king, but no one has yet asked me if I've written this novel about myself. (Don't get me wrong - I can see why not!)
Still, in a recent interview at the London Book Fair, Patrick Ness commented that every book is emotionally autobiographical - every book is about its writer (it's a great interview, and you can see it here). It's a subtle point - making the distinction between what you might call straightforwardly autobiographical and emotionally autobiographical - and I reckon he's absolutely right. The version of Henry I've created is, necessarily, the product of my imagination, my interests, my own psyche. As part of my research, I read psychological studies to help me unpick Henry's story, and what I took from them must have been what struck a chord with me, consciously or subconsciously - how could it be otherwise?
With my current work in progress - a novel about Henry's elder daughter Mary - a similar process is unfolding. I am doing heaps of research and being as objective as I can, but - like every other writer of fiction or non-fiction who has approached the subject - I am conjuring my Mary, just as VIII was my Henry.
In both Mary's case & Henry's I've been thinking a great deal about idealism and perfectionism. Exploring the idea that Mary was trained to be an ambitious perfectionist is leading me to all sorts of interesting thoughts about her life... but also - precisely because the subject is of interest to me - a whole number of my own bells of recognition are also clanging! This week I've been reading a wonderful book by Canadian analyst Marion Woodman called Addiction to Perfection (Inner City Books, 1982). It is largely about eating disorders, but in the preface, Woodman writes about another kind of addiction to perfection that reared its head in her own writing process:
This book… has been hewn out of the hard rock of an addiction to perfection. Repeatedly, I have done battle with the black crow sitting on my left shoulder croaking, “It isn’t good enough. You haven’t anything new to say. You don’t say it well enough.” Repeatedly, I have had to stop trying to perfect a sentence here, a paragraph there, while the rest of the book remained unwritten. Fortunately there were deadlines to be met, or I would never have struck this book out of the rock in which it was buried. And the crow croaks, “Just as well.” …Thus I have steered my course through the Scylla and Charybdis of rigid scholarly methods and a whirlpool of material and landed my creation, rough-hewn, as delicately as possible without falling into my own addiction.”
Set aside Mary for one moment, as a writer sitting at my desk, this passage made me cheer. Whirlpool of material? Yes - just look at the tottering piles of books around my feet. Rigid scholarly methods? How I fear making some terrible historical blunder! And I know that crow - how does Marion Woodman know that crow? It's my crow!
Is it just me, or is there not a temptation for writers to focus on the end-product too soon, to try to get things too right on the first draft, and to that end to read just one more research book... oh, and that one... oh, and that one too...
...and to WORRY so much about whether the darn thing's going to work and hang together and do what you wanted it to that, should anyone ask you how it's coming along, you're in danger of developing a twitch rather along the lines of Herbert Lom playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus, boss of Inspector Closeau...
...not to mention forgetting, in the rush to the finished 'perfected' work, that the creative process has absolutely zilch to do with getting it 'right' and being 'good enough' and a whole lot more to do with that wonderful thing they do in nurseries called 'messy play'... Try out that crazy idea. Make a splurge. Play. Enjoy. Dare. Don't be neat. Leave those ends hanging out.
Of course the tidying up needs to happen. It can come later. Editors are great at helping with it.
I have a suspicion I'm writing this simply as a note-to-self, and that you, dear reader, have no such problem when you put pen to paper or finger to keypad. Try to make it 'good' too early? Worry about the faults before you've filled that blank page? Nah, you say, that'd be crazy! In which case, forgive me. But, doubling back in a structurally imperfect way, let me ask you: if you write, are your books about you in some way? And if you don't write but read novels, why do you think you are drawn to some subjects and not others?
I will leave you with those questions... oh, and with a postscript on the subject of perfection.
A very good place to get addicted to the pursuit of perfection is at ballet school. I went to one. And I was so desperately far off even the lowest foothills of Mount Perfect that I gave ballet up altogether (with a large dollop of self-disgust) at the age of 15. However, in my late twenties I worked at The Royal Ballet for a few years with dancers who had reached the higher slopes. Some of them, in fact, were as close to the summit as it is humanly possible to be. The very best dancers in the world are, quite simply, astonishing. Here are two very different short film clips as demonstration of that fact (and I must add, with deepest regret, that I did not work with either of these men).
First, please ignore the poor quality of the film and the fact that he's wearing a strange 1970s tiara; concentrate instead on Mikhail Baryshnikov's flawless virtuosity:
Mikhail Baryshnikov - Le Corsaire
Secondly, here is Fred Astaire. All right, so his singing perhaps isn't entirely sublime - but the dancing, for me, puts him right at the top of that mountain (the dance proper starts at 1 min 30 secs):
Fred Astaire - Puttin' On the Ritz
H.M. Castor's novel VIII - a new take on the life of Henry VIII - is published by Templar in the UK and by Penguin in Australia. It is now available in paperback, hardback & ebook format.
H.M. Castor's website is here.
Loved this post. Am I in my books, yes. I just know I am. Even the voice is mine. Perfection-well I used to be slap dash but one good thing about Academia is that I can't be. As I check footnotes and my thesis quotes I am more disciplined than I have ever been, though I keep thinking that my work is just not good enough.
Lovely post. Cheered me up enormously after an intense day of research.
He's evil, your crow. He's been digging his claws into my shoulder for some weeks now...
And you're so right about the research too. You know that moment when you give in and read that ONE more book - and find it contains (unsurprisingly) something YOU DIDN'T KNOW? The panic!! How much ELSE is out there that you don't know? The only way to be sure is to read every book in the world before you write another word...
Thank you for a lovely post - and those brilliant ballet clips too.
Lol, yes exactly, Louise! It's the danger of turning into Mr Casaubon & never ever finishing, isn't it... I'm so sorry that my crow has visited you - I will try & summon him/her back! Thank you, meanwhile, & good luck as you wrestle with your WIP. And thank you to Carol and Judith too for your lovely comments.
Fabulous dancing, I'm a huge Astaire fan, and the Baryshnikov clip is wonderful. And I think the way you write and the way I write sound very similar indeed. The 'emotional autobiography' thing is so true - not (of course) that the characters we write are just us, in disguise: but that we have to draw on our own understanding of emotional truth to make a character 'real'. This is why people who look for Shakespeare in his characters always get lost. The characters aren't Shakespeare (again, obviously: way too diverse) but his emotional intelligence must have been off the scale.
A pox on your crow, Harriet, tell him that Human Beings Are Not Meant to be Perfect. They are meant to be something much more interesting, as are the writers and books. A writer who didn't leave a stain of her or himself in her or his book would be a cold, unpleasant, clammy creature and not to be trusted in the street late at night.
A stain - yes, I love it, Michelle! And I so agree with you - just as Marion Woodman argues, indeed - a drive towards perfection is nothing to do with life (or half so interesting), much more with death. Kath, you have said so clearly and succinctly exactly what I was trying to get at. Shakespeare's emotional intelligence - now there's a fantastic subject for a book...
Great post, Harriet. Research is so beguiling isn't it? Margaret Forster once put it very well; she said that she stopped doing research in case the engine stalled through too rich a mixture.
Enjoyed this, Harriet! Hmm, fiction is FICTION... isn't that the whole point? Even if a book is based on a well known character or period of history, it's the author's job to make the invented bits seem real - as you do so well in "VIII"!
Lovely. lovely post. Those dance clips made my day. And I also am fascinated by perfection sought by dancers. I've written about it for both adults and children. I wish I were a perfectionist but I'm not..more slapdash than that. It's the kind of thing you're born with, I fear. Editors have always been very helpful to me and teachers too when I was a girl. I rely on them and meanwhile just go the messy play route and hope for the best. Well, maybe not really messy play. I do do several drafts but never even think about perfection!
Great post - thanks for reminding me why the name 'Fred Astaire' is famous!
We can only understand other people by looking at ourselves, so every character is a version of ourselves, I agree.
But I'm afraid I probably suffer from too little perfection rather than too much of it! Which is why I never claim my books are history - they're always dodging out the back into fantasy or science-fiction. Frankly, I make a lot of it up. I think of what I would do, given the situation and materials available; and then stare that crow down: Prove it couldn't have been done/happened like that! Go on, crow, prove it.
Hurrah, I love your crow-challenge, Susan! And I'm so glad you & Adele liked the dance clips. I do think it's a blessing not to be a perfectionist, though of course that word can cover a whole range of attitudes... Within that range, having a (conscious or subconscious) concern with control and a fear-of-getting-it-wrong (which is going to come back to how we're taught to perform and achieve as children, I think) can fight quite hard against the instinct to play and create, even in the privacy of one's own study. And I absolutely take your point, Katherine - I think the problem is that I didn't express what I meant half as well as Kath Langrish did, in her comment above!
And thank you for your very kind comment about 'VIII', Katherine, too!
Great post (as always) but as I read it and the comments, I kept thinking "Isn't it interesting that the crow is ALWAYS ON THE LEFT?"
That's the sort of concrete thinker I am and why I have to research, research, research and also structure, structure, structure.
My current book is a bunch of jigsaw pieces on the floor. What delicious bit of research to include? What to leave out? What to shorten? What plot element to move here? What revelation to move there? Herbert Lom tic? I've got it in spades!
The left is the sinister side, of course! (Lol) So fascinating to hear what tics, crow-claws or marvellous messy play goes into producing such wonderful books from all these respondents! :)
Great post Harriet! And I remember you at ballet school - the same one I went to - and you were FAR more perfect than I was! But, I guess, still not perfect enough, right? That's one of the many advantages of being slightly more "mature" in our forties: for me, at least, I have finally let go of all that unhealthy perfectionism, given that crow the slap he deserves, become a mother (what better lesson in accepting your imperfection than that?), and have finally started to feel good about everything. I even give conferences about aiming for imperfection! So join the Imperfect Club, you're the perfect member...
Lol, thanks so much, Netta - I love that Imperfect Wisdom!
Thanks Harriet, I nodded and chuckled through your post! I wrote fiction when I was a kid, and somewhere I got it into my head it was not Perfect, and stopped. Only when I to middle-age (OK, upper middle) did I realize that I was more afraid of not writing at all than writing something that wasn't perfect. My quest for perfection stopped me in my tracks.
Now I am going to go put my hands in some mud and have some messy play to brainstorm a scene!
Great post. I love the Herbert Lom twitch - it's just what happens when someone asks you what you're working on - slight pause, then: "Oh, you're still working on that?"
Am saving up the clips for later. Fred and Ginger are my all time favourites, only just below Casablanca.
Thank you, Sue - and I hope you'll enjoy the clips. And yes, Geri, I can relate so much to what you say. Thank goodness you came back to your writing - enjoy your messy play!
A most encouraging sort of post! Thanks!
Adele, you and me in the messy play. I have never been a perfectionist but wish I could, I am always off with the next new thing and hate looking back. Without editors I am nothing!
Recently, I've actually managed to get back into a long-unfinished manuscript by telling myself firmly that it's okay to get it wrong now. and every time I say, "but-but-no, I can't do this, I have to fix it right away!" I remember that character from Camus' The Plague who had spent about twenty years on the first sentence of a novel, determined to make it the greatest opening line ever. Needless to say, he never gets past the opening line.
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