Thursday, October 23, 2008

Working Above the Abyss

My daughter, M, who these days prefers nonfiction to fiction, drew my attention to what the late much missed David Foster Wallace wrote in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007:

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder — because nonfiction's based in reality, and today's felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they're executed on tightropes, over abysses — it's the abysses that are different. Fiction's abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction's abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one's total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

I’ve thought about that a lot. I think finally I agree.

To me, fiction is about tapping into a world that exists in a dimension that you can only access a slice at a time. You work with what you manage to slice off.

Nonfiction is about this world that we live in, and the really hard part is to work out in the first place which slice you want to describe and then how best to do it.

In other words I’m still finding my nonfiction book a killer.

Monday, October 13, 2008


I’m out of the habit of hunting for ideas for fiction now, having been immersed in my non-fiction book about my parents for nearly a year.

The other day I felt an idea stirring in response to a news item. The opening sentences of a short story came into my mind. As I wrote them down I felt the push of the story behind them, but I stopped before the narrator with her intriguing voice took too firm a hold of me.

When I wrote fiction I used to think a short story was an affair – a brief fling – where a novel was a marriage that needed commitment, devotion, faithfulness. It was tempting to have a fling after the long haul of this year, with plenty more work up ahead.

But although my book is a bit like duty to me now, it’s also something that I think needs to be written. And I want to write it. I feel a sense of urgency about it too. My parents aren’t getting any younger.

Each chapter is a struggle but I’m past the halfway mark now and when I look back I’m proud of what I’ve captured.

I can still hear the voice of that tempting short story. I hope she’ll keep but, like my parents in their long marriage, I’m committed.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I was in the doldrums for the last couple of weeks with my current book.

The doldrums are a belt of very still air near the equator that in olden times stalled sailing ships. I felt stalled too. The job was too big for me. It was too daunting. I was too far into the journey to turn around and go back but I couldn’t see the distant shore line either.

I was in about the middle of the book when I got stuck: I’d written around 35,000 words.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to go on. I had it mapped out in my head and even on paper. And I had lots of stuff drafted. It was just that each chapter was so bloody hard and I still wasn’t positive that the idea was even going to work out in the end. For a while I felt as though the wind had gone out of my sails permanently. It was hard to believe I’d ever get moving again.

I knew the cure: push ahead. And I knew that once I got this next chapter done I’d see how close I was to the end and I’d pick up speed again. But the strength and courage I needed seemed to have deserted me.

I kept going somehow. I revised a lot, and plodded ahead a little, and now the breeze is picking up and the book is moving once more. Phew. I’m out of the doldrums I think, but it was scary there for a while.

A steady hand on the tiller, some courage and persistence and I should make it. Wish me luck.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Gate crashers part two

Gate crashers revisited.
They ignored us; they just ate. The mother stuffed leaves in her mouth without bothering about the fan club at the base of the tree, but she maintained her grip on her joey all the time.
It was hard to get a photo with the mother's head in it because she was so intent on dining.