Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Why non-fiction?

I love writing fiction. I love the mysterious way that observation and imagination mesh and wrangle to make something that feels complete and true. My characters can often be found moving through wild or semi-wild landscapes, taking some sort of personal meaning from mountains, or going on journeys. And yet they are not me.

I’ve long walked the hills, loved journeys, felt satisfied by going solo, revelled in the wakening of the senses, the opportunity for inward reflection, and the sense of walking a narrative. I’ve also had a long fascination with paths and other trails in the landscape – aqueducts, tunnels, dykes, switch-back pony routes, all have me asking how they got there and who made them. Did they come about through the tread of feet on a repeated journey, or were they constructed by a third party for other feet or wheels like the roads on the west of Scotland estates, built by Irishmen displaced by the potato famine? Relics in the land, and particularly those that appear to lead somewhere, always make me look for stories.

Not all the paths I want to follow have left a physical trail. Three summers ago I followed the route taken by a friend’s father as he escaped Nazi capture from the west coast of Norway through the mountains to neutral Sweden. The trail we followed wasn’t way-marked in any physical sense, but he had already written his own story, and it was brought to new life by the trail of people who participated in our reconstruction. They contributed what they remembered of the man and his journey, or what their father or grandmother had told them of it. They showed us the rooms and barns where they hid him. They helped us ford the same streams they had showed him the way over. One old lady passed back to his children the shoes he had left with her at the start of his journey when her brother had offered to exchange them for his robust leather walking boots. Sixty years on, this journey-story was still thrillingly alive, the route sketched in pencil on the maps we carried, and engraved in the hearts of people who came to celebrate its retelling as we passed through what seemed to be wild terrain.

So these are the kind of journey-stories I want to engage with. The whispers or shouts left in the land by people before us. The resonances. But why non-fiction? I’ve written two collections of short fiction, a novel of sorts, a few pieces of radio drama. Why depart from this now? And how will my fiction writing skills enhance or benefit from this new adventure?

I can hardly explain it, other than it is a gut feeling. Is it, as a friend and mentor has suggested, an instinctive need to write closer to life, to get ‘toe-to-toe’ with subject matter that I have circled around in my fiction, so that I can connect personally with the natural environment and personal stories of my own? After all, there is emotional territory in my proposed journeys – following the father who died when I was 18 months old up an Alpine summit. Past loves and other lives I might have had are linked to places on maps that I will pass.

In a recent article for The Guardian, V S Naipaul wrote about his own turn to non-fiction as an engagement with history and the wider world in a way that his fiction wouldn’t wholly allow. By doing so, he was able to learn about the world and thus feed his fiction. ‘After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.’

In the same paper a week before this, Milan Kundera, reflecting on the art of the novelist, suggested that a lyric poet ‘gives voice to the inner world so as to stir in his audience the feelings, the states of mind he experiences.’ This sounded a little like what I want to do in these ‘journey-essays’, connecting inner and outer worlds through movement and an opening to environment, a meditation resulting in textured writing. But Kundera goes on to say that as this lyricism connotes youth, ‘then to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude.’ Will I be going backwards then in my development as a writer, moving into the region of the lyric and poetic, preoccupied by myself and my own fascinations?

These are some of the questions which preoccupy me as I prepare for this project and ask myself what I am really trying to do. Robert Henri said, ‘An artist’s job is to surprise himself.’ That’s what I will set out to do.

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