For background on this piece written in 2001, see the post here.
I’d never buy an autobiography by somebody I’d never heard of. Would you? Life’s too short. It’s bad enough starting novels then discarding them after a dozen pages. With autobiographies you have to skip the first forty pages anyway, where they tell you about what their parents did. Rarely is one’s understanding of the subject significantly reduced by this operation. And then, most importantly, there’s the question of what kind of person is it that thinks they’re so terribly interesting anyway?
From my point of view, mind you, the enterprise is immensely attractive. And not just for the obvious reasons. From my point of view the thing about a life story is that the story part is built in. You’ve done your life so there’s no need to worry about the story part.
And I do worry about the story parts. They trip me up. For example, over the last few months I’ve started a number of things: a science fiction piece with no end in sight but an amusingly derivative beginning (first few lines: “They were ranged before the gate, the shimmering vertical disc which, it had been surmised, was a portal unto another dimension. Objects tossed through the gate did not emerge on the other side.”) ; an account of my remarkably lurid experiences in the late 60s with the psychoanalyst David Cooper (opening para: “I was standing with Henry outside the Primrose Hill place when we spotted him wandering along the road. We had been talking about him anyway – there was no lack of things to talk about – so when he spotted him, Henry just muttered ‘Hey’ and nodded to his right. Cooper was shambling towards us, legs quite wide apart, a broken bear that will, despite its utter loss of focus, definitely get to the trash-cans.”); a novel that promised to tie some very promising themes and styles together yet, sadly, again due to lack of forward planning, ran out of steam. It ran out of steam on page 50 because I had no idea where it was going. This might sound like fun – a creative adventure wherein the gall of the adventurer ensures that the paths he takes will simply unfold reasonably in advance of the steps he takes. Magical thinking, I believe it’s called. In this case I felt that because the themes were so dear to me, their articulation would just…happen. I even secured a grant from the Arts Council for this particular venture. The cheque was passed to me by A. S. Byatt at a pleasant ceremony in the Women Writers’ Club in central London.
A photographer captured the critical moment, which was not without its technical difficulty. We winners in a range of categories had all been instructed to shake hands and take the cheque simultaneously, for the purpose of dynamising the photo, thereby compelling, for a moment prior to my walk across the carpet to Antonia, as I call her, a hasty thinking through of the crossed-arm manoeuvre I had only just foreseen. A further instruction obliged the winner to look back over his shoulder whilst executing the move, so that both Antonia and winner could be equally exposed. This would compromise the winner insofar as he would not be able to see where his hands were going. The move went well, however and I felt sure that the photograph would confirm that the left (cheque) arm moved above the (shaking) right and took the cheque with complete certainty.
I learned, whilst enjoying the finger food buffet, that I could purchase a copy of the photo should I so wish. I never took up the offer. This was not because of any antipathy towards Antonia Byatt. I realise now that I was resisting the closure implied by my acquiring a record of the moment – to buy the photo meant I would have to finish the novel. Actually, I think I knew this even as I trousered the envelope. I did hope I would finish the novel. I really wanted to. If I did I would be a novelist again, like I had been in 1988. I thought that the money was all I needed. The fact that I disposed of it in three weeks, paying off, to my great satisfaction, my overdraft, some debts and all my credit cards seems to indicate that although I wanted to be a novelist, I didn’t want it so badly that I would take care to finance the writing part of the process, the part that links the dream to Waterstone’s.
But at the moment things are quite bad with respect to writing. It’s one of two or three things that make me feel better but the trouble is it’s difficult. When I do it I feel I have a decent job on this planet. When I’m not doing it I feel bored. I have written a great number of scripts for all manner of plays and performances, libretti for a couple of operas, some TV documentaries and a quantity of journalism. Much of this was motivated by inspiration and the rest was done to order. Both modes are very satisfying.
The writing, however, is currently bad because of the story part. With the exception of the piece about David Cooper, which I turned into a feature for ‘The Guardian’, my promising beginnings have petered and palled. I had imagined that I could launch a ship before sealing the hull, and you can’t.
I keep a notebook with me at all times. Writers should do this. As a result of wishing not to disfigure the lines of my clothing I have always carried a bag in which to keep the notebook. Given that I also always carry at least one book to read, because I have to read every day, the bag needs to be of a reasonable size. In my final year at film school, in the late 60s, I decided to specialise in sound recording just in case it proved problematic to become a renowned underground film director. I carried the Nagra tape recorder on my right shoulder in order to operate it with my left hand. My shoulder grew strong and was thereafter favoured for many years as the bag shoulder. In my thirties an osteopath told me that as a result of this protracted imbalance I had managed to tip my pelvis to the left, bowing my left leg and effectively making it slightly shorter than its sturdy, nearby companion.
Ideas fly by and must be trapped. Without the notebook they would continue to that point in consciousness where the sea meets the sky and all is indistinct. Many of these ideas are small and illustrate aspects of worlds which need to be comprehensively fleshed out before they could become genuinely engaging. I am pleased to host these fleeting figments but am at my most vigilant in relation to ideas that might deliver a particular sort of novelistic structure. This structure would enable me to write about Everything.
I can trace a preoccupation with Everything back to some prominent sources. My eighteenth summer was spent reading ‘Ulysses’ in my bedroom. It was the most exciting book I had ever read. It came close on the heels of ‘On the Road’, hitherto the most exciting, in which the characters aspired to Everything while the novel itself settled for the device of the long journey to suggest a passage through Everything. Joyce, however, didn’t just suggest, he appeared to include. One could quibble here but let’s not. ‘Ulysses’ was so painfully wonderful that I could not bear to return to it, fearing that it would develop siren charms that might divert a novice writer from his true course. Thirty years later I started to read it to my wife in the evenings, on the roof, in Spain, on holiday. I didn’t read Pynchon, ‘V’ that is, until some years after Joyce, when the former’s more contemporary, American form of encyclopaedism gripped me very tightly. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ followed in short order, creating in me, amongst other things, a ceaseless yearning for novels that dispersed plain narrative drive by the intensification of incident and allusion, and the circulation of a seething multiplicity of characters around a protagonist who could be at turns naive, open to experience or indignantly unbending in attitude.
Since I started carrying a notebook, back in the early 70s, I have been waiting for the idea that would liberate and animate the encyclopaedia in me. I seem to think that this is what my novels should be like. You can see some rather schematic attempts at the effect in ‘A Diet of Holes’, which has a tremendously busy surface but lacks both emotion and momentum. Not unlike the novels of Raymond Roussel.
In my current notebook is a fairly long entry typifying my preoccupation. It’s called ‘The Reality Dysfunction’ – the title of a 951 page science fiction novel that I have not read, by Peter F. Hamilton. I picked the book up in the Red Cross shop for 60p, captivated by the title and, having been prowling round the outskirts of Hamilton for several months, wondering whether I would ever summon the inclination to risk the disappointment that is so much a part of reading SF.
Hamilton, so runs part of the blurb, had set the saga among ‘Hundreds of colonised planets scattered across the galaxy host(ing) a multitude of prosperous and wildly diverse cultures.’
Plenty of scope for plenty then. All you had to do was write the thing. In my notebook I took another tack. The first bullet pointed entry (where the bullet is a penned dot) reads:
• people start having pleasant dreams about working in offices, getting to work on time + writing reports. – as compensation for their chaotic lives
Now this I find rather promising.
The next note is:
• degeneration of all sorts on all fronts – a continuum from the minor quotidian to the opening of great rents in the thing
‘the thing’ being reality itself. The fourth note (the third is too dull) has a bald simplicity:
• everything going wrong
Reality would gradually start to break down and teams of experts would be hired to troubleshoot the shit as it fell in the fan. A further note proposes:
• genre mix: not clear that events are following one genre consistently – so that, at times, it will seem to be SF, or supernatural, or humanistic-psychological, or thriller or heroic-saving-of-the-world etc
Yes. This was a good page of notes, definitely. I don’t know why I never did anything with it.
I know perfectly well. The encyclopaedic urge is wholly whimsical, an excuse never to start. It’s so fundamentally daunting that the best one comes up with is headlines; sketches that need an enormous amount of development if they are to make it to the page. The dream of the encyclopaedia is the erasure of distinction. If you’ve got everything then nothing is defined.
The funny thing is that, without exception, the writing in my plays is spare and stripped, alluding to little other than the circumstances in which a range of characters of markedly etiolated psychology have come to be so reduced.
My insight into the self-defeating nature of the dream of Everything is not new. I always knew it but I preferred the dream.
But a few days ago I had this rather good idea.
Obviously the problem lay with narrative: putting a story together. In my writing for theatre I worked to themes and disdained narrative. Some years ago, in the middle period of my narrative-free theatre writing, I was commissioned to write a screenplay for BBC2. I had done this once before, when a producer who had seen my theatre work invited me to ‘let my imagination go’ and submit a sixty minute script. I took him at his word and came up with something I thought the world, and the BBC, was ready for. All drama is based on conflict, I had read. Why not write a screenplay in which difficulty for the protagonists at the front end is systematically removed throughout the text – not as a result of any developmental struggle for those involved – until, at the climax, the protagonists dissolve into the transcendent?
The writing of the piece, titled ‘Lots’, was immensely satisfying. Whenever the heroine or hero – I forget their names – wanted something, it would be delivered unto them. In one scene the heroine is asked whether she has any brothers or sisters. She says no but rather wishes she had had a brother. There is a knock at the door. It is her brother. They embrace. That night they share a bed, just like they used to when they were kids.
While the producer and his young assistant loved the script, the producer’s superior, the editor of the series, declared that I must be taking the mickey. To be precise, I think he said that I was trying to make a monkey of him. The project came to an abrupt halt. Then I lost the script, composed in the days before the hard disk. I would love to read it now. At least three people may have a copy but I have forgotten their names. If you are reading this and you have a copy, or know someone who does, please contact me through the publisher of this autobiography. (I found the text in 2010, see account here.)
The second BBC commission, for a feature length television film, was secured in the early 90s. I worked on the script with the director Bob Bentley. I decided to introduce conflict into the scenario, having learned my lesson. Even so, our producer, the widely respected Michael Wearing, described the script as ‘European’. This meant that it was not strong on narrative but had a distinctive atmosphere. In the course of writing ‘Blackrabbit’ – a story of stealth technology and the love between a taciturn American airman and a young fen woman – I was obliged to develop characters in depth, something I had not previously cared for. I wrote parts for a whole family, including meal scenes. At one point I had the father asking his son to pass him something. The line was something like ‘Pass me that whatever, son.’ I stopped typing and shook my head in disbelief and dejection. I’d never written a line like that in my life. In fact, the whole screenplay seemed fatally flawed by the pedestrian naturalism that I was grinding out. Days went by during which I felt that the script was becoming increasingly ordinary and my experience of sitting before the computer increasingly unpleasant.
Bob Bentley, Michael Wearing and others to whom I showed a draft thought that the dialogue worked very well. It had credibility and charm. When I could bring myself to read the script, I liked it greatly and formed warm attachments to the fictional family members and the young American airman. I studied the pages closely, trying to remember the passages that had made me so disconsolate. I couldn’t find them for the life of me – nearly every page seemed adequately achieved, with no hint of the numbing awkwardness that had, without a doubt, flowed into my keyboard some weeks earlier.
I had to face the possibility that I might actually be quite good at writing about salt and weather in a credible manner. The trouble was, however, that when left to my own compositional devices I tended away from naturalistic speech and the narratives that might make it credible, preferring fragmentation and other effects that could reflect the sublime lack of story I found in the world. This refusal to narrate worked well, I felt, in my medium of choice: the theatre. Clearly the theatre work thus produced would be experimental in nature. My forays into other media also tended to the experimental, although often I was not aware of this until told so by those who might be commissioning the work. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, I was doing the best I could. In the medium of journalism, however, these problems never arose. I didn’t visit interesting people and places and then come back and compose narrativeless, heavily subjectivised accounts. I understood the contract and delivered the goods in an unsoiled state. It was only when I tried to transfer my theatre writing skills to film and television that I came a cropper.
You might say, But couldn’t you have tried harder? Everybody else does. And I would reply, It is not given to all of us. And you might say, So don’t whine then. And I would reply, Well, it’s just that it stops me writing about Everything in an ordered manner.
I’m already embarrassed by my references to ‘writing about Everything’. It doesn’t describe what I mean and is beginning to sound ludicrous.
Which brings me back to this rather good idea that I had just now. The idea about the life story.
I would compensate for my narrative incapacity by finding a form in which narrative was either redundant or to be constructed with minimal effort. This search for a vehicle for narrative is immediately contradictory, given that I am the one who finds ‘a sublime lack of story’ in the world. Why would you bother? you might say. I should try again: I thought I would look for a form, or a genre, that made certain aspects of writing painless whilst offering me the possibility of enjoying those aspects that were enjoyable. Because I did not want to write a story because I could not, I would find a means of writing wherein the content was taken care of. I would not have to think it up, I would only have to structure it. I would write my autobiography. Not because I was famous or worthwhile but because it promised to be a proper sized job that would make me feel better because I always feel better, much better, when I am writing.
So that is what I would do. And I will do it. I have begun. I am doing it now. The first forty pages will not treat of what my parents did before I was born because who cares? Possibly I care, and I may slip it in later, but that remains to be seen.
Sometimes my eyelids will droop and I will, apparently within their batting, find myself absorbed in a very particular recollection. This is not some catalepsy, merely a symptom of tiredness. When, in the parenthesis of the bat, I suddenly find myself on the inside, entranced by some vignette, I know I must be sleepy. Not primarily a means of determining whether one is sleepy – less exotic indicators are available – this drowsy channel change is something else, something that has been going on for several decades of my life. It’s very similar to the hypnogogic events that precede falling asleep at the end of the day, when the directed vectors of thought melt away and are replaced by things that pop up and then connect themselves to less appropriate things which are joined in an unlikely manner to episodes which have the most tenuous relevance to the scenes that so sinuously ensue.
At this point the mission is aborted. The laying out of the resolution to write an autobiography, as distinct from its execution, was clearly deemed sufficient. The final paragraph promises much but probably something more pressing supervened, such as the need to take the dog for a walk, if I had a dog. A couple of years later, however, I started again and wrote quite a decent amount, up to the point where Hugh and I were standing beneath a very big tree and failing to climb it because we were not tall enough. I suddenly stopped writing because I doubted whether the reader would want to know about this. Mind you, viewed symbolically, the truncated episode could be seen as describing a failure of nerve in the face of an uphill task. A couple of years after that I reframed the text, decided to call it a memoir (less exacting) and imposed a theme that would narrow its scope drastically. The theme proved to be narrow to a fault. A few months ago I read all the abandoned drafts of all the launches and relaunches and decided to ditch the theme and go back to the tree with Hugh. We soon climbed it and from the new vantage point I could see a better terrain ahead. I’m now half way through the fourth attempt. I’m aware that to offer an account like this is to tempt fate. I have never believed in fate. But just because you don’t believe in fate doesn’t mean you’re going to finish your book.