The ingredients of fiction

Writing fiction is not really about making stuff up. It’s more about making sense of what you already have stored somewhere in your memory or subconscious, dusting it off, ordering it and making it intelligible to the rest of the world. The hope is that the things you write about will also resonate with other people, not by teaching them something new, but by helping them to see in a new way the things they already know.

What that means for the process of writing is that things often take me by surprise. Dialogue and details appear as if from nowhere. Sometimes I don’t recognise them at all, which makes me fascinated by Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious (but that’s a subject for another post). More often, I recognise them as things I have come across in life and been affected by in some way.

Here’s an example. When you live in London and travel by Underground train, you’ll hear fairly regularly the announcement that services are being delayed “due to a person under a train”. In order to live in London and function effectively, you have to have a “normal” reaction, i.e. sigh or tut at the delay to your service, look at your watch, perhaps text the person you’re meeting to let them know you’ll be late. What you can’t do is the thing I always do, which is to think about the human being whose life was so painful that they jumped in front of a train and let their body be slammed by the metal and sliced apart by the wheels, to wonder why they did it, what it was like, whether they made eye contact with the train driver, whether in the last second when it was too late, they might have changed their mind.

To me that announcement and the reaction to it say so much about life in London, about the way we block out things that are too painful or difficult, about how disconnected we are from each other. As I said, the “normal” reaction is the one that lets you live in a city, or perhaps even in the world, in a more healthy, happy way. If you think about every suicide, every beggar, every person in a city of 8 million people who gets their hopes trampled on and their dreams destroyed, it can really get you down sometimes. But it seems I am incapable of having the “normal” reaction, and so I am stuck with these thoughts about people I don’t know, and the way I often deal with them is through fiction.

The following is a short extract from my next novel (still in progress), which shows how that particular “person under a train” issue bubbled up from my unconscious mind one day while I was writing a scene.

I willed the train onwards, and it responded by grinding to a halt.  A deeply depressed driver announced over crackling speakers that we were being held at a red signal; a few minutes later he returned, slightly more animated, to say that there was a person under a train at Euston, and we wouldn’t be moving for a while.  Tuts and sighs escaped briefly from pursed lips.  Newspapers were shaken and rearranged, seats creaked and the soles of shoes scraped on the floor.  All of this activity seemed to come not from individual people but from the train itself, as if it were a strange animal emitting various noises before finding a comfortable place to settle down.  Finally the noises stopped and all that remained was the low throb of the diesel engine and the soft pitter-patter of thumbs on keypads.  I had no keypad, so was at a loss.  I somehow passed the time – I have no idea how long it was – by staring out of the window at a nineteenth-century brick wall.  I felt a strange affinity for the anonymous person under the train; I knew how he had come to that place.  On another day, perhaps, it would be me, or the train driver, or the red-faced man opposite.  One day the urge would be too strong, the promise of release too tempting.  One day the finger that had hovered for so long over the Escape key would spasm, and the program would end.  The data would be erased, the disk formatted ready for the next user.  The mess of a life would end in the greater, but mercifully short, mess of being sliced apart by two hundred tonnes of steel.  Not today, though.  Today it was someone else’s turn to be a service disruption.

What do you think? If you are a writer, do you relate to what I’m saying about things coming to you rather than you thinking them up? If you’re not, then what do you think about all the painful things you see as you move through the world? What techniques do you have for coping with them?

Update: the novel-in-progress I quoted from in this post is now finished: it’s called A Virtual Love. You can read more about it here, or read more of my thoughts on the writing process here.

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There are 12 comments

  1. Interesting post; even to a non-writer (that would be me) your observations make an intuitive sense. I can’t read without trying to sense the empathic awareness behind the narrative. A good reason for not reading the biographies of writers!

    With specific reference to ‘painful things’ it is the idea that it is so easy to turn off compassion which constitutes the horror which I would prefer not to acknowledge.

    I liked the image, in your excerpt, of the spasming finger. Disturbing but resonant.

    Enjoying your blog, particularly the posts on Russian lit.

  2. Beautiful post, Andrew! It gave us readers a peek into the heart of a writer and the art of writing and how past observations and things in the subconscious inspire a writer. I liked very much that passage that you have written. Though it described a sad thing, I liked the comparison between that sad thing that a person does to the formatting of a hard disk. I can’t wait to read your new book 🙂

  3. Hi Sarah,
    Yes, it is quite shocking, isn’t it, how easily we can “turn off” compassion (I like that way of putting it!). As for Russian lit, that was my first love (reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a teenager and being amazed how fiction could take me so far away from suburban London), so I return to it a lot. I saw the image of that short story collection “From Pushkin to Buida” on your site as well – that was a great book, wasn’t it?

    Hi Vishy,
    Thanks very much 🙂 I am still understanding the process of writing as I go, so writing about it helps me, and I’m glad it was interesting to others. I’ll update you on the new book as it gets closer to completion and publication. Don’t worry, it’s not all as gloomy as the passage I quoted 🙂

  4. Hi Andrew. Thank you for visiting my blog and directing me here to your wonderful post. What you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess part of my problem is that I’m not brave enough to embrace or internalize the woes of the world. I’d rather not think about them. To write compelling stories, you do need to dwell on these types of things. That’s why you’re the writer, and I’m not. 😉

  5. @Julie @ Read Handed
    Hi Julie, I’m not sure if it’s bravery really – it’s just that I can’t seem to avoid internalising them. So writing for me is a way of dealing with all of the stuff (good and bad) that I absorb from the world around me. Thanks for visiting, and for an interesting addition to the discussion 🙂

  6. In New York when a person is under a train, it’s usually because they’ve been pushed off the platform by a nutter. Don’t know what is going on here that the Tube is the No. 1 spot for suicides. Unfortunately, my responses tends to be focused on the thwarting of my need to get somewhere rather than on plight of the jumper. Some of this may have to do with a disconnection from the humanity of the nameless faceless jumper, some may be “bad news fatigue”, but most is probably down to my twisted soul as I recently I finished Anna Karenina and I have to admit that I was so sick of her by the time she jumped under her train that I would have pushed her if I’d been on the platform.

    Speaking of twisted. Have you seen this evening standard article?

  7. Wow Nona, that article is amazing! So sad how we treat each other, that a dead person becomes a problem to be dumped in a cleaning cupboard. By the way I don’t think you’re twisted – I loved reading Anna Karenina, but it does require spending a lot of time with Anna’s paranoia, which could get tiring 🙂

  8. Andrew, I finally got to this post after my writers retreat. I’m glad I took the time to come over because this is all beautifully put, thank you. I think my favorite fiction reminds me of things rather than introduces me to new things. Jhumpa Lahiri does this, and that’s why she’s on of my favorites. Your novel did this, if I remember right. I also love the excerpt you gave. I’ve discussed this sort of thing with my friend Davin, and he described it as tapping into our subconscious to reach that “collective subconscious” place – that coming up with these things that remind our readers of themselves is not something that can be done on purpose, really. It just happens if you’re tuned in correctly.

  9. Hmm, writers retreat, sounds great! I think I need one of those right now 🙂 Yes, that’s a good way of putting it – tuning in, like a radio, and receiving, rather than coming up with stuff on purpose. It’s hard to do, and frustrating on the days when you seem to be on the wrong wavelength and all you get is static! But my best writing has felt exactly like that, as if I’m tapping into something much larger. Thanks for the comment!

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