Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A sliver of ice in the heart

Apparently this is a phrase that Graham Greene used when describing artists/novelists. (I know I have read the full quote before, but frustratingly can't seem to find it on the internet this morning). According to Greene the "true artist" possesses "a sliver of ice in the heart" which enables him/her to portray in some way/write about the human condition. It's that little bit of detachment (which to be honest we probably all have to a degree in moments of high stress) that enables the writer ( I think in the main he was thinking about writers) to bank experiences and draw on them later, even if it seems exploitative to do so.

Now I wouldn't claim to be anything as grand as an artist or a novelist,(though I am beginning to think I can call myself a writer now that I've had two books published. ) but I do completely get what Greene was talking about.

I'll give you an example. The day my father in law died was possibly one of the most stressful (and at times unintentionally hilarious) days of my life.I had a phone call from my mother in law to say he was ill while I was in the middle of icing no 4's birthday cake (it was her first birthday). I ran up the road with two small children and spent a very odd half an hour having tea with my mil while she wouldn't let me into see fil as she kept telling me he was resting. My first instinct had been that he'd died, but she covered it up so well I thought I must be imagining things. Suddenly she announced I could go and see him, and I walked into the room and immediately saw he was dead. Don't know how, as apart from seeing my dad's body in the funeral parlour (which was completely different) I'd never seen a dead body before. I was just panicking about wtf I did next when there was a ring on the doorbell. The District Nurse had come to visit him. "Thank god," I said, "I think my father in law's just died." Which was probably just what she wanted to hear...

Now obviously I was in a state of high stress with all this going on, but do you know, even at that moment, a bit of my brain had detached itself and was taking notes and turning it into a tale to be told later. I could even hear Fil's voice in my head, Saying "There was poor old Jules, with Mum, and the children and my dead body." To this day that makes me laugh. (I hasten to add Fil, to whom I was utterly devoted, would also have laughed, he was that kind of person). And I know I tapped right into that experience when writing a scene in Pastures New.

I mention all this because I am about to start a new book. I know it's going to be about weddings. And I have four characters forming in my head. Up until relatively recently though I had envisaged writing a bubbly frothy kind of book. But I am rapidly coming to the conclusion I can't write that kind of story. The more I've been thinking about it, the more I want this one to celebrate friendship - and specifically female friendship, of the sort I have been lucky enough to share with several people over the course of my life. The sort of friendship where you casually trade details of your boring domestic life, but underpinning the crappy boredom of your daily dross is a much deeper bond. I know I've been fortunate to have that kind of friendship at several different points in my life, even of sometimes the friendships haven't for whatever reason stood the test of time. I also know at the moment I have several friendships which are so rock solid I could probably just pitch up on the door at midnight in trouble and each one of the women I am thinking about would calmly put the kettle on and ask how they could help.

So that's what I want to write about. But since I've finished book 3 (well not finished properly -this is the lull before I get to do rewrites) and I've given it more thought, my subconscious appears to be playing havoc with my creative synapses (not sure that sentence makes sense, but I hope you understand what I mean) and I am finding myself drawn to a difficult period in my life which happened some time ago, which I never ever thought I'd write about. It was painful and sad and I don't particularly want to go back and revisit it, besides which there are other people who might be affected by what I write, which is something I'm also not sure I want to do. It's also the only time in my life when I couldn't have found the necessary detachment to write about it.

But suddenly the sliver of ice bit of me is taking hold to a quite alarming extent, and I am feeling quite compelled to write some of this stuff in a way I could never have imagined before. So now I am trying to find a way to harness all this emotion in a positive way, because whatever I may think I want to write, I feel the book will be a shadow of what it could be if I don't let some of this stuff out.

Interestingly, I also wrote the first rough scene yesterday, which actually I didn't write. It kind of wrote itself. It's a wedding day scene which seems a good way to start a book about weddings dontcha know, and features the bride tensely waiting with her father for the wedding car to arrive. I freely admit to plundering my own wedding day experience here, though my heroine's reasons for being tense with her dad are somewhat different to my own. I can't recall ever having felt so gripped with the need to write something down. It was most peculiar.

Then last night I had a very long complicated dream which featured long walks in the country in different locations, with various members of my family, and some of my children. I ended the dream in a house opposite where our walk had started, and I was worried that the rest of the family who were behind us wouldn't catch up. Then the door opened, and I went expecting to find the children. Instead I found my dad. Which was weird and unsettling because in all the years since he died I've only dreamt of him a handful of times, and never have I seen his face. But here he was facing me. It was him in the flesh. Something I've subconsciously wanted for the last thirteen years.

And yet.... my subconscious is unfortunately far too realistic. "You're not supposed to be here," I said. Which wasn't how the planned reunion was meant to go. I think I told him that twice and he crumpled and fell. So I felt a heel and went to hug him. Now, when my father was alive he gave the best bear hugs going, but here he was dead, in my dream, and the hug was completely insubstantial. And I knew as I hadn't noticed before that I was dreaming. And I felt a howl of anguish such as I haven't felt since he died, and I was fighting, fighting through layers of filmy water to reach the surface and wake up. And I knew. Absolutely, categorically that somehow somewhere, that experience is going to find its way into a story (my parallel universe one will do nicely thank you) - so it's as if for me the sliver of ice is still operating even when I'm asleep.

And in a funny kind of way it solved my dilemma about the current book. I am going to tap into the emotions that are calling me. And I'm just going to see where they take me. Because I have a feeling where I'll end up is somewhere a long way from where I started, but the story forming in my head just wants to be told.


Anonymous said...

Recognise the sliver of ice myself. And the dream. All my dreams of our Dad end in similar ways. (He's behind glass, he disappears, he is gone when I try to touch him).Think it is also our subconscious coming to terms with the fact the person is gone - which can obviously take a long, long time...


Persephone said...

The late Madeline L'Engle (one of my most favourite authors ever) described one of her earliest published short stories about an artist whose wife was dying. As much as he loved her and grieved over what was happening to her, his artist's eye was taking note of the way the light hit her cheekbones.

The Stage Manager of Thorton Wilder's Our Town puts it more kindly. When the recently deceased Emily asks him if people "ever realize life while they live it", he replies (and I'm quoting from memory here, so it may be a paraphrase): "No. The saints and the poets, they do, some."

Realizing life while we live it involves quite a lot of pain. A bit of anesthetic helps.

Jane Henry said...

Yup dead on the money oh other half of mine.

And Persephone. No wonder we get on so well. A Wrinkle in Time remains one of my favourite children's books. Ooh and realising life while we live it - I like that. I do think it is a natural part of the human condition to compartmentalise the painful bits because we can't always deal with them. My twinny other half will no doubt quote here from A Prayer to Owen Meany about not losing people all at once, but losing them in bits and pieces. (Have probably misquoted that one!)

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

I really REALLY felt for you when reading this post - for the recognition, for the Madeline L'Engle tale (you beat me Persephone!) and the sheer compusion that a particular narrative has to be told, gotten out in prose form.

I think you have to see where the emotions take you - only once you have started dealing with the 'written word on the page' version can you even begin to assess whether and how these ideas will form part of a potential piece for publication. But currently they're just crying to be heard and addressed - and that's a cry you can't ignore.

Take strength from where you can in doing this writing though - sounds like some of those midnight doorstep friends may be able to offer you some guidance through what may come next as inevitably expressing these thoughts, memories, ideas and dealing with what they stir up will have an impact on you.

Take care x

Jason Weaver said...

Dear Jane, Just found your blog whilst looking for the same Graham Greene quote. I was fascinated and moved by this post. Thanks very much. I hope you don't mind but I've linked and quoted it in a piece I've just written on modern muses. Let me know if you've a problem with that. Best wishes, Jason