The books we reach for when we are writing

auster-and-austen

The two books I grabbed after I finished a very long and tricky chapter the other week were Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, my favourite Austen. Why the Auster? That is not immediately obvious to me and is probably the underlying reason for this blog post but we shall see what comes to light as I write.

As for Persuasion I know exactly why I wanted to borrow this exceptional book. Yes, I’m embarrassed to say, borrowed. I don’t have my own copy. The reason is a scene in the book that I will find in a moment. It is the scene where you realise this is not quite the same author who wrote Pride and Prejudice. She has moved one step closer to her character’s thoughts and feelings. In fact she’s almost inside Anne’s head in the paragraph I desperately want to read again.

It is a wonderful piece of writing that I remember as surprisingly modern. This time I want to find out what words and tone she used to actually phrase Anne’s awareness of not just the physical proximity of Captain Wentworth but that his heart may be returning to her as well. Here they are discussing the love story of Captain Benwick and Fanny Harville which ultimately ended with the latter’s death:

“…A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not, he does not.”

“Either from the consciousness, however, that his friend had recovered, or from other consciousness, he went no farther; and Anne who, in spite of the agitated voice in which the latter part had been uttered, and in spite of all the various noises of the room, the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through, had distinguished every word, was struck, gratified, confused and beginning to breathe very quick, and feel an hundred things in a moment. It was impossible for her to enter on such a subject; and yet, after a pause, feeling the necessity of speaking, and having not the smallest wish for a total change, she only deviated so far as to say,

“You were a good while at Lyme, I think?”

And it’s all there, isn’t it? The noisy world intrudes and makes it hard for Anne to concentrate but somehow she does amidst feeling gratified, confused and a hundred other things besides. I think some part of me remembered that confusion of a noisy world yet ultimately the realisation of hope that Anne is feeling in that moment.

My character on the other hand has hoped to search out her new husband at a fancy dress ball and find him dressed to her liking. When he turns up very male and swashbuckling about to reduce her to a damsel in distress she realises that, in the midst of a crowded ballroom, she has been fooling herself as to her sexual orientation. Now that’s all very well but why the Auster? What answers does it hold for me?

I am not confused about my sexual orientation but I am fascinated with identity. My novel is about the perception of identity. The Invention of Solitude is about the study of a distant and difficult father and the second half, The Book of Memory, is a meditation on memory as a writer and father. The texts Auster refers to for answers are erudite and often include the dispossessed. For me the second half of the Invention of Solitude seems to be a search for his identity now that he is a father himself. I really love the way he gathers those texts together looking for answers. Some of these are: Mallarme writing about the life and death struggle of his son, Collodi’s Pinocchio versus Disney’s Pinocchio, a letter that was never sent from Nadezhda Mandelstam to Osip Mandelstam dated 10/22/28 and the bravery of Anne Frank.

Good books are like friends. They console, offer help and sometimes have the right answers. Here, this is one way of writing that scene. Here is the moment an unappreciated and unloved character realises there may yet be a chance of love. Here is an author looking for answers in the work of others. Just as I am doing now. And reading them returns me to my work.

Writing and the subconscious mind

John Sell Cottman Greta RiverThe subconscious for me, as a writer, is like a treasure chest. I might have deliberately or “unconsciously” stored stuff away that over the years I’ve forgotten about. It might be, for instance, a note to myself to read a book that for the life of me, I can’t see at the present moment that I need to read. Or as in the case of The Night Garden a book my subconscious has chosen for me.

It might be a memory or a fact that stays with me but I don’t know what to do with. In the 1990s I was doing research for my third manuscript with the working title of the The Nightingales. It was set over a period of twenty or so years from 1914 to 1937. Somewhere amidst all the pages I read and photocopied, was an account of a WWII army captain (from memory) who was on leave and on his honeymoon. The tyre blew out on their car whilst they were driving to their hotel. His bride died at the scene and later he killed himself in his hotel room. A simple thing for him to do as he had with him his full service kit.

The incident was seared into my subconscious but I didn’t expect I would be able to do anything with it. After all it was years after the period I was researching and at that time I wasn’t writing short stories. It wasn’t until 2013 that a friend asked me for a short story for an anthology he was putting together. The incident of the dead captain came straight to mind. Here was my chance to finally put him to rest. From that short story has come a new character and what I hope will be a series of short stories that I’m currently working on.

My new enigmatic character has memories from the first World War. This week I needed some idyllic memory that a soldier could go back to briefly, before he moved on to the next world. What came to my conscious mind? A bluebell wood I visited somewhere in England in 1976. I did some googling but they weren’t the sort of images I was looking for and the bluebell woods weren’t located in suitable places either. It was then I remembered a card of a bluebell wood I saved from twenty years ago.

It was a painting. Early morning I’m guessing with a green path leading to a wooden gate and bluebells spilling over the foreground. The light is diffused, almost healing in its otherworldliness. The painting was perfect to help me set the scene in my writing and I am so glad I saved the card.

These days I am more aware of things like this. If I get a little nudge to really take note of something, I obey my subconscious and write it down in my notebook, bookmark the page or as I’m doing now incorporate it into my blog.

Here is another nudge from my subconscious. It occurred last week at the Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition of The Greats from the National Galleries of Scotland. Yes, here were a lot of paintings I had seen in art books during high school. 70 incredible sketches, paintings and watercolours spanning a period of 400 years from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Out of all these amazing artworks what stopped me in my tracks? The modest watercolour above – A pool in the River Greta near Rokeby.

The first thing I noticed was how modern the watercolour appeared to my eyes. Amazing to think Cotman painted it over two hundred years ago! Why did it have such an impact on me? I’m sure it is not just because it appears very modern. Maybe the beauty of the location and the name – Greta? There is a Greta north from where I live. It is a beautiful spot too. I can keep on speculating but the why of it ultimately doesn’t matter. I trust my subconscious. I’m sure it has its reasons.