Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Notes: Autobiography, Epiphany, Liminality

In my first posting I wrote about the tension I have always felt between writing as self-concealment and as self-revelation. In terms of my plots that's represented by an attraction to fantastic or historical material, and an equally strong attraction to realism and subject-matter drawn from my own life. In a recent interview for a blog associated with the magazine New Welsh Review, I said:
I have always found it difficult to write the kind of realistic, semi-autobiographical fiction that is a staple for many writers – when I do, I usually find myself getting very self-conscious. I am strongly drawn to historical, or even mythical, settings because I enjoy being taken away from the preoccupations of my everyday life.
Well, sort of. I go on to admit that two of the stories in my forthcoming collection Singing a Man to Death are strongly autobiographical, and other stories contain autobiographical elements - even though the collection ranges from Dark-Ages Rome to the South Pacific and includes such non-autobiographical themes as a medieval Arab assassin cult, a psychic in the Gulag and a 70s rock journalist trying to come to terms with punk. When I teach fiction I try to give equal weight to these two tendencies, the writing that comes primarily from experience and that which comes primarily from research or the imagination. In recent years, I've written more and more about history: both my fiction and my poetry has drawn heavily on historical documents (which the internet now makes very easy to access). This is a kind of material that, even more than fantasy, seems to offer an escape from the self, since you're not only not writing about your own life - you're not even starting inside your own mind. At the same time, as I get older, I am becoming more aware of my own past, and the fact that when I die all my unrecorded experiences will be lost. That urge to record experience, which I was sceptical about when I was younger, is not the only reason for writing, but it is a legitimate one. I come back to it every now and then, and try to work out whether I have anything else to say about myself (or about "myself", since it's always fiction, never straight autobiography). It requires a lot of distance: I find I have to be far enough away to see myself almost as another person, and my surroundings as a fantasy realm that needs to be discovered rather than just remembered.

I think it may be time for another of those excursions into my past. The novel I recently completed was historically based, as most of my recent poems have been. I've spent a few weeks trying to write a historical fantasy, but it wasn't working. And looking back at my stories, I'm particularly pleased with the autobiographical ones, which have a solidity and confidence about them and the occasional real-life detail of the stranger-than-fiction type: a friend who used to break into my room through the window when I was a student (whether I was in or not), a secretary in an adjacent office block lowering a kettle on the end of a string into our school playground for her sixth-former boyfriend to repair.

The problem is plot. Real life doesn't come ready packaged in stories, and the kind of plots that work well in other genres (murders etc) can seem contrived when imposed on it. But writers have been struggling with this problem for a long time now. The solution, I always tell my students, is epiphany. Stories don't need murders or other dramatic incidents to be interesting; they don't, in fact, need much action at all. The essence of a plot is change, and in the psychological novel that has been the staple of literary fiction for a century or more, change is internal rather than external. The term epiphany was introduced into criticism by Joyce, in his novel Stephen Hero. There is something of a mismatch between how he seems to be defining it in the passage I've linked to and how it is generally interpreted now, but we needn't worry about that here. In Joyce's practice, in the short stories of Dubliners, which have influenced almost every short-story writer since, and in innumerable literary-fiction novels by other writers, the epiphany is a climactic moment of insight. A few pages ago you didn't understand, now you do. Even a detective story works like this - there was a mystery, and now it is solved and the reader is satisfied. But the psychological epiphany is an insight into general matters as well as specific ones. In 'The Dead' Gabriel Conroy learns the specific fact of his wife's unfulfilled relationship with Michael Furey, but the epiphany is not that - it's what the reader experiences reading that famous last paragraph. It isn't easy to sum up because it's not a moral or lesson that can be packed up and taken away. It's a complex of emotions and perceptions, inextricably linked to that image of darkness and falling snow, not to mention the wonderful cadences of Joyce's prose. It has to do with the contrasts between youth and middle age, between the living and the dead, between past and present, and between the prosaicness of everyday life and the intensity of a grand and fatal passion. The experience, for Gabriel, is a bitter one, since it puts him in his place, makes him see what a limited and insignificant person he is, both for Gretta and absolutely. But one feels moved and exhilarated rather than depressed, because at the same time as seeing his own limitations he sees beyond them, to things greater than he is: the whole of Ireland, the whole universe, the whole of humanity both living and dead. Poems often achieve the same effect. Compare Philip Larkin looking at the moon in 'Sad Steps':

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

In practice, epiphanies most often seem to be about sex or death or, as in 'The Dead', both. And they are most often found at the transitional points of life. Many of the classic epiphanies are coming-of-age stories, for example, while others, like the examples I've talked about, are stories of middle age and leaving youth behind. As you reach one transitional point, you may well find yourself looking back at another, and asking how you became the person you are now. I suspect all stories, even ones based on genre conventions, like the quest in fantasy fiction, are in some sense allegories of these kind of life transitions. They're about liminality, the way we renegotiate our relationship with the community at different stages of our lives. The word literally means the condition of being on a threshold. The hero of a fantasy quest leaves the community and only re-enters it again after many adventures, having, in effect, become a different person. Similarly, a character who experiences epiphany casts off their old self and re-enters the community with a new understanding and a new relationship to others: now you're an adult, or an older adult accepting the loss of youth and romance, or an old person accepting the inevitability of death etc.

My idea, then, is to write a novel drawing on my own experiences, and using epiphany rather than action or the conventional plots of genre novels to structure it. In my next posting I'll go into my plan in more detail.


  1. This sounds something like a Bildungsroman, where the point isn't so much anything the hero does but rather that he gets older, has experiences and changes in the process?

  2. I'm not really sure what the difference is between coming-of-age and Bildungsroman, but I would guess that the latter is more ideas-based. That is, the protagonist learns some kind of tangible life-lessons, and the writer's aim could be called didactic (not necessarily in a derogatory sense). Whereas what I have in mind is more indefinable and perhaps more passive. Gabriel Conroy hasn't gained much useful knowledge (except, I suppose, that he shouldn't take his wife for granted) but he and we have had a vision of the immensity of the universe and the smallness of his own place in it... which inevitably sounds banal when you spell it out, but the point is to feel it, not to state it as a moral.

  3. This advice is a far better written than the vast (and ever growing) number of books about novel writing.You might be missing a trick here. I don't know of anyone who's written an advice book twined with early drafts of their own novel. Usually you just get examples from finished works.

  4. That may well be what I'm heading towards. Like you, I have a feeling it hasn't been done before.