Why is creative writing such hard work? Part of the reason is that writers deal in emotions and it is intense. Fiction is ‘real’ when the emotions are evoked. It is not just about story and plot – that is more like a game of logic, which in itself is challenging. Emotions – even fictional ones – are a full-on experience for the writer. At the same time the writer is trying to direct the work from the higher perspective of his or her own self. I think the process becomes harder as I accumulate years, and memories decompose to a kind of sediment that lines the channel below the current stream of consciousness. It forms an unseen streambed for patterns of thinking. Subliminal and ghostly, thoughts and emotions form like muddy wraiths from the depths and flicker into mind, taking me in particular directions perhaps informing my decisions without me even realising. Deep in writing, I find a whisper of a thought – an idea, like a fly in the room that appears on the edge of perception, buzzes around the light, then disappears, taking with it all sensible meaning, but leaving a sense of forgotten promise. Then there is that sense of déjà vu, like a will o the wisp, leading up a narrow path into a dark wood where it abandons me in a pile of leaf mould.
After a writing session, emerging after an unrecorded ‘personal’ time, I sometimes feel that is I who am the fiction. I even narrate myself into it from the third person. ‘She makes herself coffee. Strong, the way she likes it, like her men…’ If I ever start writing like that, I hope that I know I have come out in the wrong story! But here I venture into the territory of metafiction. Maybe that is a writer’s way of acknowledging the unhinged aspect of her self/work. But I do not think one can regard the mind as absolute, reliable, contained. Or wholly accountable. We are not vessels of truth, but a synthesis of impressions, constructions of language. Writing another life is like creating other selves within.
I should point out for the benefit of those who believe that one ‘writes about what one knows’ that fiction is not ‘autobiographical’, but ‘evoked’ from human experience – from memories and evocations of feelings – perhaps one’s own or perhaps stolen from other lives by empathetic processes. We can’t help this if we are to live as fully integrated human beings. In writing, separation of ‘self’ from the fiction is not straightforward. I suspect that everyone has a sense of having lived in different bodies, of living other lives, and that aspects of character are allowed dominance in fictional incarnations, if only in the imagination. It offers many questions of selfhood, mental health and morality and how we look at human potential and criminality. It does not surprise me that writers are noted for having a higher incidence of mental health problems than the general run of the population. Not necessarily because of writing per se, but because empathetic and imaginative people are drawn to writing.
I find videos of myself, diaries letters and journals activates incomplete past selves to exist in parallel with my idea of my current self. I am sure I am not alone in this (joke?). In actively remembering the past, one rewrites the rewriting of a memory until it is hard to distinguish from the ‘reality’ of the remembered event – it feels like fiction or an anti-novel of my (?) life. Can we truly observe ourselves from the distance of years without getting part of ourselves tangled? There are instances of returning home, when – for a moment – I imagine that I am coming home to a house I lived in years ago. I realise that these memories are strongly engrained patterns that still exist. How deep are these patterns, now hidden by years of ‘sediment’?
I wonder if I could test myself in the way Turing sought to distinguish a machine from a human by the appropriateness of its responses. How can I determine who is the real – current – version of my ‘self’, or even if this is a reasonable thing to do from inside my head – we get back to the self-referential issue – there is no independent framework. The mind is not like a book – its pages fixed – but is more like a rewritable hard drive that cannot be completely referenced and tracked. As the years go by, I hold more and more versions of myself in a virtual theatre of mind.