Guest Post: Judith Allnatt
So here it is! My first ever guest-posting. It’s a good one too. Judith Allnatt is a superb writer who seems destined for a big breakthrough in the literary/commercial area of fiction. In this post she has some good advice for any writer: its about the imagination, dammit! [my cursing, not hers]
Her next novel, The Poet’s Wife (Out February 18th on Doubleday) , will –with any luck– provide that breakthrough. Set in 1841, it tells the story of Patty, the wife of the poet John Clare as he descends into madness. A must-read for next year.
Write what you don’t know.
Fledgling fiction writers are often advised to ‘write what you know’. This advice is no doubt intended to persuade them to draw on their own experiences, in the interest of producing something unique, rather than falling into the trap of producing a re-worked version of their favourite read. But is there a danger in this approach? If we stick too closely to what we know, where is the excitement of the explorer, the curiosity that makes us want to imagine in the first place?
I recently worked as a visiting writer in a primary school. The children’s task was to write about a person, or creature, that lived in a rubbish dump. First we imagined objects, the soggy pizza boxes, old hoovers, vegetable peelings and broken bikes: the children were drawing on what they knew and it helped us to set the scene and think about the sights and sounds (and smells). Then I left them to come up with a description of the inhabitant of the tip on their own. There were monsters and aliens, a little girl who had lost her ballet shoe and a rubbish-eating robot. I asked a boy who wasn’t writing if he was stuck. He said that he was ‘trying to think of something that would feel right.’ I asked him to close his eyes and see what picture came. After a few moments he said, ‘There are miles and miles of black bin bags and there’s a unicorn standing chained up, with his head down. He wants to be clean again.’ This stark black and white image of dirt and cleanliness, corruption and purity was vivid and compelling and opened up a whole range of questions. Why was the unicorn there? What had it done? How would it escape? My point is that it was when the kids moved from what they knew to what they didn’t that the results became interesting – became creative. And for that one lad it was the point at which he made an intuitive leap and got that holy grail of writing – a good idea.
A famous writer, whose name eludes me, once said ‘I write what I want to find out’, the exact opposite of ‘writing what you know.’ And how much more interesting it sounds: like a journey that will lead to some enlightenment, a person feeling their way with open hands for the shape of a story that will satisfy, make sense, and feel emotionally true. Wanting to find out, through writing, is exactly how it feels to me. In ‘A Mile of River’ I wondered what would happen if the pull of family ties were at odds with a young girl’s emerging identity. In ‘The Poet’s Wife,’ I wanted to find out how far love might stretch when a loved one changes beyond all recognition and about the blurred boundaries between love and madness. Questions are good prompts to the imagination and trying to answer them provides the underpinning of the story.
Of course we inevitably draw on what we know: to provide details of setting, characters’ voices, the way it feels to be scared or lonely or in love, but a good helping of what you don’t know will power your work. It will at the very least encourage research and at best will result in you finding and exploring themes that interest you. Maybe that’s what inspiration is – the moment when you stumble across something that you want to find out and that can only be found out by the creative act of imagining and writing.
[Many Thanks to Judith for her posting. My next guest (January): Keith Large]