Saturday, November 15, 2008

Depends what you mean by a story

In today's Guardian Hilary Mantel writes about revision (including the difference that computers have made to the process).

It was odd to wake up to such an article on a day when I'm near the end of a story I have revised over and over, to an extent I've had never to do with a story before. Though perhaps it would be more accurate - yes, it would - to say that actually what I've been doing is re-writing, not revising, it, indeed over a period of a couple of years, abandoning the thing time and time again as unworkable, but then finding myself bugged by it and ending up having another go...

So what's been the problem? Well, in order to explain I guess have to confess that it was based on a short period in my own childhood. I'm always arguing against the biographical reading of fiction, and stressing the fact that fiction is such an alchemical fusion of fact and imagination that to try and tease them apart is hopelessly reductive, and that even to acknowledge the terms of any such discussion is to deny the real nature of fiction. However, it's to the point to acknowledge my story's autobiographical basis here.

Now, when I think about it I've used this period of my childhood often in my writing - slipping its setting into this story, certain of its incidents into that play, its atmosphere into another - disguised in varying degrees. Yet there was something about it that I had never captured and which these fictive mutations always suppressed and belied, and yet which, as the years went by, I wanted more and more to pin down.

I've written quite a bit on this blog about feeling the need to find ways of saying things I want to say which familiar forms somehow belie, and it seemed logical, therefore, that what I needed for this story was an innovative form, and that was the way I had been approaching it as I tackled it time and again.

Then finally, this week I realized (I think) what the problem was: this story was about the very wrong conclusions you can come to, and the way you can belie reality, when you twist things to make up a neat, satisfying story.

And here's the real paradox: the way to say that, I found, was via a pretty traditional story form...

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