At the moment I’m up to my eyes in – and starting to enjoy – revising a non-fiction book. It’s one of those times where there seems hardly enough time, and yet time unwinds and becomes something you and only you control, like god in a self-made universe.
It’s been an instructive experience, both scary and fulfilling (I had to go through the first to get to the second). It’s also been a very different one from writing my first novel.
And it’s my first piece of long non-fiction. I sometimes ask myself why I chose to write it after starting with fiction. Why not a follow-up to the first one? Wouldn’t that have been more sensible?
The answer is yes. But there were reasons. One was that when I’d finished the novel and no-one would publish it (a state of affairs that lasted 6 years), it seemed better to try something else. A second was that switching genres or types of writing seemed like a good way of encouraging myself. A third is that this business of writing is something I feel I have be very professional at.
By which I don’t mean piles of money (forget it), fame (meaningless!), or a sense of achievement (better trying to be a millionaire or a high-flying captain of industry – it’s easier).
No, what I mean is that whatever I write I’d like to be good. Which is a subjective term of course – but by it I mean high-quality, thoughtful, convincing, different from the ordinary and, most important of all, deeply affecting to the reader.
I want my reader to have a special experience, to be taken away from who they usually are, to be transported, maybe even to believe for the time they read my book that they’re someone else.
Which writer doesn’t want this, really? And if this is the real driving force rather than vanity, what does its genre matter?
To put it another way – some of the best books I’ve read or films I’ve seen haven’t been fictional at all. They’ve been about real events. They’ve been true, in other words, just like the best fiction. But true in a different way.
Recently at the Celtic Media Festival I spoke to Bernard MacLaverty, a writer I’ve known for many years, a truly great one. He’s written short stories, novels, children’s books, screenplays, TV scripts, radio plays, stage plays – you name it. At the moment he’s writing for opera, a technique he compares to laying slabs. There’s nothing fine or elegant about it: you dig a big hole and crunch the narrative into it. The music does all the fancy stuff.
One thing he said stuck in my mind especially, when I said that he was one of the few authors I knew who’d really crossed over between forms. “The emotions come from a different place.”
Wow. Typical Bernard, so exact, said so simply.
So maybe then, the difference between forms is that the feeling stems from a different source. Which might be one clue to the many challenges and difficulties of adaptation.
For films, the amazing power of the visuals. For radio, a secret sense of sharing. For novels, a deep and nurturing privacy. For non-fiction …
I really must get back to my revision.