I’m sitting here by candlelight, on a hot summer’s evening in Sarajevo. It’s been a hot day, well up in the thirties, and the night has drifted by. Now, just after midnight, it’s dark, and quiet on the street outside, and I’m here, staring at my usual spot on the wall, just below a framed portrait of the New Yorker. It’s my usual routine when writing. Writing-wise, it’s been a good few months: some new poetry coming out shortly in the Canadian literary journal, The Antigonish Review, and the glimmer of an idea for a new collection. I’ve also made some good progress on the novel. I have a hundred and fifty pages now, which is great, but not enough to rest on one’s laurels. So, like many other nights this Spring and Summer, I’m sitting here at midnight staring at the wall.
It’s not as mad as you might think. The wall is real, not metaphorical. It may be metaphorical, but it’s also reassuringly solid. There’s a photo, here:
This particular wall is in my basement, where one can go on hot nights, to escape and to write.
And I’m sitting here, running through my fast-fading collection of mental impressions of two places: the sparse, muddy fields of northern Afghanistan, and the wide open beaches of St. Ives, England. The novel I’m writing is set in both places, and follows a separated couple, one still working in Afghanistan, one returning, wounded, to England. For them, both places are alive. And that’s the problem, because for me they are not. They are indistinct, half-caught, a photograph of a moving target that the passage of time itself has further blurred.
One of these impressions, of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, is much fresher than the other. That helps with the beach scenes in the novel, where the sea needs to hiss in off the page. But Afghanistan is more difficult. I visited only a handful of times, way back in 2003-4. The memories of that time are fading. It’s more difficult to conjure them onto the page, to remember – even with the help of photos, or someone else’s recollections – how it felt, smelled, how it was to be there.
Writing from memory is an interesting challenge. It can be supplemented by so many things, by so many other peoples’ recollections, whether in pictures they’ve taken, stories they’ve written, or tales that they’ve told. My girlfriend spent two years in Kabul, and can conjure scenes, impressions, heart-stopping stories, at the drop of a hat. Some details, even of the impressions of others, are so vivid that as a writer one becomes almost a curator, a custodian of sense-impressions carefully arranged to provoke, or conjure, something for the reader. Only the writer knows which are his, and which are borrowed. But the interesting thing is that the rabbit pulled from a half-real and half-imaginary hat has to seem completely real, both for the characters to interact convincingly in it, and to transport the reader into the period in question. This is obvious to say, but very hard to do. Which comes back to the wall point.
I’m just back from Vancouver, where I locked myself away for the two weeks of the MFA summer residency, sweating until the early hours, pushing on. The walls were different but they were all the same. At least in Vancouver there was at least the gorgeous Pacific coast waiting. I sat in the library and could smell the ocean as soon as I came through the doors. Some of those sense-impressions may themselves have crept into the draft, might have mingled with, or overlaid, the impressions I have of the Atlantic in early April. Does this matter? For some writers it might. Those writers would have to hear, or see, everything that they intend to portray. Personally, I think it’s that messy, beautiful space in which an engaged mind in the present (the reader) connects with an engaged mind in the past (the writer), that matters most. The time travel inherent in anyone being absorbed by a novel does strange things to detail, and authenticity becomes as much about voice as an actual record. So that’s where I’m trying to get to, page by page, sentence by sentence. And the wall? It’s something I rest against, from time to time.