Friday, January 28, 2011

Making Stuff Up

Delighted for Jo Shapcott winning the Costa for Of Mutability, a collection that partly arises from and explores her experience of cancer. She’s called it ‘emotional autobiography’, less interested in what actually happened than in what it might mean. Most of the hordes of books on the subject are probably non-fiction memoirs, but I find the approach of fiction and poetry more interesting. People sometimes say they prefer non-fiction, because why should they read someone making stuff up when they can read what really happened. It’s an argument which reveals a basic misunderstanding of how stories work, and how writing in general works. Non-fiction is far from reliable about facts, let alone truth; fiction and poetry are excellent investigative instruments, looking beneath events, unpeeling emotions.

My first novel emerged from my experience of cancer. Like Jo, I was preoccupied by the different world you enter when you have a serious illness. The alienation, the stepping aside from the normal current of life. For me, it was bound up with the standard alienation of the angsty teenager, and the outside-looking-in feeling of the developing writer. And of course that experience was only one ingredient in the mysterious process of writing a novel, but it was an essential ingredient, a place to begin.