Inspired by a Facebook post from a former colleague, in which she enthused about a free online course done through FutureLearn, I’ve decided to try out a course for myself. It’s called Start Writing Fiction.
I love to write, as anyone who’s seen me drafting the most innocuous of work emails can attest. Something about finding the right word or phrase gives me such pleasure. I know that people enjoy reading what I write, as well, because they tell me so. I have the gift of being able to take events and ideas from my life, and to say things about them in a way that people find engaging.
Yet as much as I love it, I notice that I’ve written on here a grand total of five times in the last 12 months. That’s a startlingly low rate of productivity for something that gives me such pleasure. I write in a journal most days, and on occasion I get the chance to write for work in a way that is expressive, and reflective, and which others can enjoy. But I have the occasional itchy feeling that there are more things I want to say, and more people I want to say them to. This blog is a pretty good place to start, but I never seem to put in the work.
Hence the course. The first module has been interesting; one of the starting exercises is to write two short passages: one containing one fact and three elements of fiction, and the other containing one element of fiction and three facts. Given it was a Monday evening and I wasn’t feeling too clever – long day at work, headache, etc. – I went for something that arose from a prison visit I made last week, and a scene inspired by my recent trawl through my photos from Ethiopia.
He stood in the gatehouse, turning the plastic disc of his key tally over inside his pocket, momentarily lost in thought in the midst of the shift-change. Officers behind him replaced their shoes and belts, bandied cynical jokes and impromptu reviews of last night’s viewing, chucked the plastic trays emptied of their personal effects back to one side of the scanner, and waited for the glass door to whir to one side. Deep inside the prison, half a razor-wired mile and nineteen heavy barred gates and locked doors away, stood the Westgate unit. He dropped the tally into the slot, and saw an arm rise behind the narrow, thick glass. His keys clattered down the chute and he clipped them absent-mindedly onto the chain that jangled from his belt.
A sandstone spire rises high above the shimmering heat of the Gheralta plain, the scree at its foot held together only by leafless tress and scrubby bushes. Even if, rolling by on the sticky tarmac of the new road, you had wound down your window to blast the sweat from your brow, you would not notice the white specks determinedly beetling up the rock. You would not wonder why they climbed. You would miss the narrow ledge and the tiny wooden door, and you would never imagine the beauty of what had been carved inside.
I was immediately struck by the fuzzy boundary between the facts and the fiction, and the flimsiness of trying to count them. There are some incontrovertible facts here – there is a church in a rock with a new road nearby, there is a Westgate unit, tallies are swapped for keys. Then there are some other ‘facts’ that I have heard from others (there are nineteen locks and gates). I walked to the Westgate last week, and there were inordinate numbers of gates. But I didn’t count them, and it only felt like half a mile. Then there are things that are fact-like and real in my memory, but which differ (and are oddly less real to me) when there is an objective record to check. In my memory, there was only one rock spire. The slopes up to it were looser, the reds were redder, the greens were sparser, and so on. Finally, there are the elements of fiction that I have put in, which are real and believable to me, and perhaps to you. But in fact I’ve made them up.
Messing around with experiences like this was interesting, and it’s a kind of playfulness that for some reason I haven’t really allowed myself, preferring to write, as I thought, honestly about my experiences, and not to write at all unless I had some neat and fully-formed idea.
There were a couple of other interesting exercises in the first module of the course: one about notebooking (there’s a Joan Didion essay that I really like on this subject); and one in which writers discuss how and why they started writing, which interested me because of how similar human difference can be. One of the comments that struck me the most was a writer called Abdulrazak Gurnah, who said (of why and how): “Why I’m not sure, I guess why’s one of those things that happens as you’re doing it, but how is more like a stumbling into it more than, you know, having some kind of ambition at a certain age and saying – I know what I’m going to do. Starting to write, rather than wanting to.”
I’ve never tried writing fiction, despite a nagging suspicion I might enjoy it. I think this is partly because I’ve never really thought about how to combine experience and fiction, and never given myself the gift of playing with them in order to learn. But I also think it’s mainly because I’ve never really started, never got into the habit. Habits are hard to kick, but harder to form. New ones are as fragile as spider silk, but if you work at them, they stay with you and become hawsers.
So for the time being I’ve decided to stumble into this course, and to do a few other things too, besides writing my longhand journal. I’m going to carry a notebook, and go and do some people-watching and perhaps some think-walks, and generally try and capture a few more bits of what Joan Didion calls “the mind’s string”. From time to time, I’ll try and distil a few ideas on here, mostly to get myself in another habit. If it leads to more confidence and some bigger ideas, then I’ll be happy, but for the time being it’s just nice to rediscover something that gives me pleasure. (And that’s nearly 1,100 words for the day: result!)