Time, Death and Maggie O’Farrell

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell (published December 2017)

Confucius lives on the home screen of my iPhone. It’s a photo I took of the cardboard box my Sherlock Holmes candle came in a couple of Christmases ago. Confucius shares the screen – and the cardboard – with Plato and Chekhov (in word form, of course). ‘Choose a job you love,’ says Confucius, ‘and you will never work a day in your life’.

Today, though, I was sure I must be cheating.

Green Ink Writers’ Gym had just begun its Christmas break, LAMDA Exams tuition had finished for the term and as I moved into my holiday “office” (laptop, coffee, sofa) I was looking at one of the best “have to”s of my career. My deputy PhD supervisor had suggested that for the first part of my exegesis I reread every novel by Maggie O’Farrell. I would document why and what I loved about my favourite author, explore her influence on my writing and what I thought we (she and I, a comparison I barely dare type) derive from our shared family tree of gothic literature. I would reread her seven novels in order – just in time for the publication of her first autobiographical work, I Am, I Am, I Am: seventeen brushes with death.

I was introduced to Maggie O’Farrell’s books by my friend Jim Craddock. It was the early 2000s and Jim was Head of Workshop at the Questors Theatre. He’d begun that twenty-year career when he hit retirement age as a teacher and inspector of schools, so would have been pushing eighty when he photocopied the openings of a selection of his favourite novels for me to consider as I worked on my own beginnings. One of these was After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. The feeling was less akin to falling in love than falling in empathy. With an author, yes, but also with the world as I knew it. The clarity with which she inhabits time periods, keeping different eras of characters’ lives and generations of families while keeping the reader within a vivid timeline, brings you close to an individual and their personal and familial networks with the thoroughness of an encyclopaedia and the lightness of a feather.

I’d like to think Jim saw something in me beyond the shyness and the mentally and physically paralysing wish to please that have characterised the hardest times of my life. I’d like to think he saw a writer. I am sure, given that Jim was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, that it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t. Jim gave me confidence to see myself as a writer. The Green Ink Writers’ Gym slogan is Boost your confidence – and your word-count. Jim didn’t live to see me begin teaching at Waterstones Piccadilly or any of the venues that have since become home to the workshops, but he did live to see me get my first short story published and my first request for more from a literary agent. I’m glad I’d found enough voice in time to thank him for what he’d (possibly) seen and (certainly) done. One of the two other quotes keeping Confucius company on my iPhone is Plato’s ‘The beginning is the most important part of the work’.

For linear beings, we humans are never exclusively “now” any more than we are exclusively ourselves. We are networked in time and in voice with friends, family, teachers, colleagues, heroes and anti-heroes. Drafting the first version of my exegesis – and flicking to another Word doc or seven as my mind interrupts with new material or edits the old like the centrifuge I am – Jim is as present in my sofa-office as my own characters and Maggie O’Farrell’s. But so are less helpful influences, such as those to whom it was more important a sentence be correct in form than true in voice. At best they didn’t make clear to us the difference between technique (learn the toolkit) and interpretation (use it creatively); at worst they were training us for a literary world they wanted back, instead of opening us up to the undiscovered country. In my case, that teacher made me love and feel welcome in literature in the first place so I regret nothing, least of all the struggle to identify what rebellion was needed. The challenge is learning to take from the past what I want but leave what I do not. After all, it’s my past. For a short story or chapter to come to life, it needs to be secured framed in a present from which to remember and to project. Past and future are important but there must be no time like the present.

The third quote on my iPhone screen is Chekhov’s ‘You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.’ It’s as true on the page as off: every character is the product of every character and time that formed them. We are all networked, but we’re also all alone with ourselves and that’s who to trust to get truthful, individual developing characterisation. So dip into the past. Wallow, even. You never know what you’ll find. But remember the point of the journey back is the journey forward. What you’re really there for to propel your story towards an authentic future, shaped by your own voice.

January writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Maggie O’Farrell

1. Past/Present/Future: Self
Walk your character around somewhere very familiar to them (on paper, naturally). Perhaps pick a place you, their author, haven’t spent enough time in yet and could do with seeing more carefully (and hearing and smelling and touching and even tasting). It could be a current home, the local pub, a childhood haunt they loved or hated. Every room will have memories in it. You might find as soon as you start allowing yourself to write about the memories they overwhelm the piece. That’s fine, in fact it’s the whole point: a first draft is a playroom, a place of discovery.

2. Ladder Rungs
Now comes the structure. What is your character trying to do? Are they looking for something? Performing a task? Are the memories an obstacle to what they want or have they come here to see if the past where the answer lies? Shape a beginning and an ending for your chapter or story through their intention and the result. See how much exploration of memories can be supported by the current, linear time of the story. ‘Now’ is your story’s ladder rungs: keep checking in with ‘Now’ or your reader will fall through the spaces instead of floating happily from one rung to the next. Just make the past your story’s carrying so heavy you break the rung.

3. Painting the Ladder
Now zoom in on your character and their reactions to their environment (present) and memories (past). What do they see? How do they judge it? What does it remind them of? Are they wearing rose-tinted spectacles? Blinding themselves with hindsight? Wishing something was different? What are they going to do about it? No memory is neutral, or entirely reliable. What does their attitude to the past tell the reader about who they are in the present? Allow yourself to play with details and interpretations.

Example from this month’s author:
Check out this “ladder” example from Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel. It’s the first section called Gloucestershire. In the first edition it’s on page 41. The section begins “For Monica, it began with the cat.” I’m not going to comment on it, just wish you a happy journey. Do start at the beginning.

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes or the Grange Pub and Dining Room, Ealing.

Book now at www.greeninkwritersgym.com