Is there anything new in the writer’s tool kit?

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.

Alice Munro

For the creative writer, the question, when thinking about using memory, is how far we are willing to deviate from truth.  Then again, what is truth?

One of my most shared personal anecdotes is a story that happened during my eighth summer. Out on the lawn, while playing rounders, there was an accident.

One of us ran forwards as another was raising their bat for a swing. I can see that moment in detail, I remember the blinding impact and the feel of blood dripping down my temple. I cried all the way to A & E, and those three stitches hurt.

facesYet years later, when I mentioned this to my brother, he frowned.  ‘No,’ he said.  ‘It was you who hit me.’  We both lifted our fringes to reveal a scar on our foreheads.

The problem, so far as accuracy is concerned, is that both of us were accident prone.  If I was using this episode for memoir, I could no doubt look up my medical records to check that I had made that visit.

For creative purposes though, this is a gift. Until that moment, the whole story was fixed.  I could have developed it into something more imaginative, but would probably have found it tricky to deviate far from the key scenes.

DSCF4818 - CopyOnce that doubt had been embedded I began to explore the picture from the position of perpetrator, and the boundaries dropped away. ‘What ifs?’ came into play.

It wasn’t just that I might write a version of events in the voice of my cousin, mother, doctor or even become omniscient, this doubt had allowed me to step right outside the memory. I could take one moment from that day, change the time, the space, the setting, add or remove characters, and see where that took me.

It would mean going back to those two pieces of historical advice for writers:

  • Write what you know
  • Write what you don’t know

…and combining them.  Which might just be what Alice Munro was saying in the first place.

Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?