‘Where the story goes today is up to you’ ... I wrote this line yesterday on a sign next to my novel-in-progress notebook, sitting on a small table inside the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. To cut a long story short – not something writers find easy, I'm afraid! – GoMA’s open exhibition season has allowed members of the public to propose their own ideas for events, so for one day only it became the home (and debut public outing!) of my first novel. Its title, Pentimenti, takes inspiration from an Italian term in art that describes when an artist’s early imperfections or so-called ‘mistakes’ remain visible in a finished artwork. I hope to develop that idea as a symbol in my book: illustrating the belief that every living thing has value, just as every mark in a painting is important as something creative, positive and meaningful.
Drawing from that spirit, I began by writing down my first line: Ellen turns to check that no one is looking, and reaches out to touch. What do you think happens next? That’s the question I asked the public, and everyone who visited the gallery was invited to develop the story as they saw fit. From my notebook at the end of the day, it seems that no two readers had quite the same idea!
As people began to write their own stories, a debate quickly developed inside the notebook on whether Ellen should take the thing that she is reaching out to touch. In my own drafts this is a painting inside an art gallery - which she doesn't actually consider stealing! - but none of the Pentimenti participants were aware of that at the time. For them, nevertheless, contributions like ‘Could she take it? No one would know …’ and could she possess it, without feeling guilt?’ soon became ‘aim for it Ellen, reach out, touch it, grab it!‘ (I wonder how many art galleries that person has been thrown out of?!) ‘It is very much deserved,’ wrote one gallery goer, ‘and, as always Ellen, enjoy!’
From the first line, virtually all we know about Ellen (other than the fact she likes to touch things she shouldn't!) is that she is a woman, and the question of a woman being able to take hold of what is in front of her seemed to inspire many of my readers-turned-writers. Fortunately, it will also be a theme that comes across within the novel itself! For me, the spirit of Pentimenti and every life deserving respect will encompass a strong feminist perspective, as well as an environmental one. Not every character Ellen meets along the way who wants to make their mark is a human one, so stay tuned animal lovers!
Speaking of characters and the paths they take, another feature of the Pentimenti Project – alongside a couple of contributions en français (who knew so many French tourists would be visiting Glasgow that day?) was the theme of travel. I was excited to see Ellen pop up on 'a beach in Australia' and 'on the sand under azure skies': a far sunnier climate than she enjoys under my own penmanship! Having recently reached the halfway point of my first draft (after a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and repetitive typing injuries) the action has shifted from the urban to the rural, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to feel the ‘fresh air’ this new setting gives me as a writer! From the Pentimenti Project, it appears that many readers are also drawn to the dynamism of having characters set in motion.
If or when Pentimenti is published - go on, literary agents, you know you want to! - I hope to include photographs from the Pentimenti Project inside, a kind of DIY artwork to encapsulate what Ellen and her adventures will be all about. Thanks to the contributions people made on Friday, this event marked the beginning of Pentimenti’s own journey from the confines of my mind to the real world.
I hope you’ll come along for the ride!