All that glitters: writing for a post-prize world
One month in, this year has so far been a strong one in terms of novel writing. I've managed to carve out space for a small writing session just about every evening - except for the odd night when I've succumbed to a Charmed boxset binge (literally partying like it's 1999!) Most importantly, this slow-but-steady progress means I feel like I've finally taken hold of my novel in both hands. I still don't know if and when it will be published, but it is something I've committed to: my own creation in which I tell the story within me as passionately as I can.
Yet knowing what my novel is, and what it means to me, also means becoming aware of what it is not. Specifically, the fact that it might not - will not! - appeal to everyone. The more honestly I write and focus on what I care about, for example, the more animal rights come through as a theme within the book. My main character Ellen is finding herself after being cast aside, and in the process she realises how many of the most vulnerable lives around her - including non-human lives - have also been devalued. When she discovers the expressive power of art, she's increasingly motivated by the knowledge that there are many within the world who have no means of expression at all. It feels authentic for me to feature animals so significantly (and in fact I hope it brings a new sort of originality to the work!) But it won't be right for everyone, and I'm conscious that anyone who isn't an animal lover (boo!) might find it a saccharine, less 'literary' angle to take.
I've been extremely fortunate in the past to win or be shortlisted for several writing prizes (mostly for poetry in fact, which is surely amongst the most esoteric of natural 'talents'!) The vote of confidence these awards provide means a lot to me. Yet it's frighteningly easy for even the smallest snippet of success to lead you into writing with award-winning in mind. Knowing what other people like and what is thought of as the ‘best’ writing changes the shape of your sentences, and your sentences change the shape of what you say. Believe me, I can understand the impulse, in both myself and in others - we trust institutions of authority, and their approval encourages us to believe a writer must have a voice worth listening to. But the prizes that actually meant the most to me, and those that truly inspired me to have confidence in my abilities, were the ones that happened naturally, with a simple kind of serendipity - when I'd written something honestly and it was just good luck that it appealed to someone else.
To quote Audrey Hepburn (who greatly inspires me as the epitome of chic compassion!) 'success is like reaching an important birthday and finding you're exactly the same'. This year perhaps more than any other has shown the flaws in many systems that equate success to rewarding some with disproportionate power over others. If one elite after another (across film, sport, religion, media and the arts) is proved capable of protecting abusers, or at least protect themselves by withholding empathy for survivors, then whatever our field, we must remember all that glitters is not gold.
So I accept that my novel might be different. It might never win a prize. It might never even be published (which is why I spend 1/2 hour a day on it, rather than every waking hour!) But perhaps for the first time, I no longer care. It may not shout loudly, but what it says has meaning to me. And what does that translate into practically? Well, I've started to consider a change of title. Pentimenti might turn out to be just right, but I'm also drawn to something with a little more balance. Something that encapsulates you and me, ying and yang, creation and contraction, or (spoiler alert!) human and animal. Something that says (returning to Audrey again!) a woman can be in the world and of the world. For now? Let's call it Ellen and Arbor.
Line of the Week (my favourite line I've written this week - although whether it makes the final cut or not is a different story!)
'And then Ellen sees the dog. A thin dog: with spherical eyes and a pointed nose, and hair that sticks out in hedgerow clumps from its shoulders and flanks. A small, dirty border collie.' Meet Arbor, everyone (and don't worry, she'll scrub up eventually!)
Bookmark (what I'm reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I'm so excited to recommend this book! It came into my life as part of the GWL haul I've described previously, and the cover bears the quote that it is 'as perfect a novel as you will ever read'. High praise indeed, and I don't mind admitting that I was sceptical. On this occasion, however, I'm very happy to have been proved wrong! Strout combines needle-fine social observation with an elegant light touch, and despite it approaching weighty themes, reading this book feels like a refreshing literary breeze skimming across your face! Ironically enough, Elizabeth Strout actually won the Pulitzer Prize for this work (so perhaps I should have chosen another bookmark!) Despite the angle of this week's blog, however, I'm still delighted to include Olive Kitteridge here. Learning more about Strout's career, it seems that she struggled through many years of doubt and rejection before breaking through as a literary force to be reckoned with. I hope, and after reading this novel I believe, that staying true to herself was worth it.