International Conference of Virginia Woolf Studies

University of  Glasgow, June 2011

Sentence by Sentence…

The Contradictions of Making Fiction

 Everything about sitting down to write a short or a longer piece of fiction is – for me – about creating something in spite of itself. For when I write stories I am confronting not only the natural contradictions inherent in mimesis  – the inability ever to give real body to those shadows in the cave  – but am facing up to, also, my deep lack of belief in stories, as such, in the first place: in plots, in plans, those artificial structures, in that overbearing condition known as “character development”… Everything, in short, that describes “the novel”  – as my publishers keep referring to my work in hand ( as in: “How is the novel coming along…? When might we see the novel?) That’s what I’m not writing as I sit there at my desk.

What I know I am writing – are sentences. That’s what I am really confronting when I am at work on a piece of fiction -  not the idea of story at all, but rather the sentence that sits on the page before me. And in the end, more than any cultural doubts about the relevance of fiction’s form and content, it’s my own inability ever to leave the sentence behind…That makes me wonder sometimes how I might get any books finished at all.

Those sentences, for me, are the fiction. They are its stuff and scent and touch and ballast. They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it. They are, these lines of words, the present tense of writing, and each one holds me in the now of making, these sentences – various, textured, new – full of smoothnesses and bits, what is known and unknown, the lovely and the shocking…So they keep me sifting through their endless possibilities, while out there somewhere is the idea of the project to which they belong, the book with its title, the story with its name…Nevertheless it is, for me, these sentences of mine that, ok, along with “the overall sense of a shape keep one at it.”

That shape is important, of course. I share with Woolf the sense of it being a kind of act of faith to “keep at it”, to keep finding the sentences that will move the fiction to find its place in the general scheme of things, be true to one’s idea of aesthetic and of form. For without that – significance – sentences would be all I would have…

But it’s why I have those doubts about whether I’ll ever be able to get on and “write” – write the story out, form upon the page its imagined shape and artistic idea…Because – all the time the actual sentences that I am making are carrying me off, giving me their own instructions for the next chapter or theme, creating, each line at a time, the whole book – hopefully one in which, as Woolf reminds us, in “How Should One Read a Book”, – “if we try to follow the writer in his experiment from the first word to the last… then we shall have a good chance of getting hold of the right end of the string.”

So one might say then that what I do – making strings of sentences – and what I think I’m going to do (or can’t do!) – write novels …These are two separate aspects of my making fiction. And in a way, it is the space between the two, in the contradiction of agency, if you like, that gives momentum to the entire enterprise, charges it to find completion.

“I shall re-form the novel”, wrote Woolf , “and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole, and shape infinite, strange shapes” – suggesting to me the idea of the energy that can be captured in that space, how in the act of enclosing – a sentence, another sentence – one is both informed by and informing the overall shape.

So the beginning of writing all of my books and short stories is one sentence that starts to play over and over in my mind and that I then “capture” on the page: ”Up in that part the water smelled rivery….” ; “The window with its coloured glass gleamed” ; “He looked up and thought, I know you…”; “You know how sand pools cool in the shadows when you step into it from out of the sun?” and , from my new book, “The hills only come back the same, I don’t mind…”All these are first lines that lodged in my imagination with little idea, when I first wrote them down, of the stories that would follow. Yet follow they did.

And what I also had to make sense of, there at the beginning, was the place where each of those sentences could live. From my first book, “Rain” through to “The Keepsake”, “Featherstone” , “The boy and the sea”, through the collections “This place you return to is home” and “44 things”,  to the present work  “The Big Music” – that I am going to read from to you today – there has always been the strong idea of atmosphere, landscape, a quality of light, even… And, whether I’m making longer pieces of fiction (as those I quoted from above) or any of my short stories and  fragments, this way of writing, establishing line and setting first,  has always stayed with me. While the whirl of uncertainty, and doubt, and questioning, howls and circles about my desk, this practice, at least, I tell the Furies, is fixed.

And what is known, too, I tell them, what I hear to be true, is sound. The sound of a story, its note, its key, it’s Woolfian sense of rhythm… “Once you get that” she wrote, “you can’t use the wrong words.” There is Woolf’s “wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it”…This “wave” I hear through the chaos of composition: How the story will “play”. How its key and time signatures, its tonic and accidentals will translate in my mind as a tone and a kind of tune sounding out through the fiction, across its landscape.

So then we have a sentence and a place where it can live. So too we have a sound – music, rhythm. And we have the idea of a shape that both informs and is informed by the writing as it goes along its way, that I can come to by attending, listening, by following the line of string… So, I have always worked. And sometimes I have had to wait until I was pages in, sometimes many, many pages, before I become aware of how that shape was to describe the structure of the book. For every long piece of fiction I’ve been involved with, when it comes to structure, it has been a case of: write and see.

Excerpt (!) for “The Big Music”.

From the outset, with “The Big Music”, I had a clear design, an aesthetic for the project, the minute I wrote that first sentence: “The hills only come back the same: I don’t mind.” In fact – to be even more contradictory! – I had it in mnd before I wrote a single word.


To explain: The phrase “The Big Music” is the English translation of Ceol Mor, the classical musical form of the Highland Bagpipe. It means music that is too big to be kept inside, that describes that for which we cannot always find words, for those events that are solemn and grave and life changing, joyous and wretched – for salutes and gatherings and laments and farewells. Piobaireach, which is what this music is, literally meaning music of the pipes, takes a grand and lovely stand then in our cultural life – uncompromising, certain of its objectives, clear in intent – yet is near invisible, soundless. A form of music that is barely known in Scotland, let alone through the rest of the world… It’s what I had to begin with here, that sound. And I had the structure – for Ceol Mor,  like a concerto or a sonata or a suite, has a structure that composition must follow. Here is the first movement, the Urlah, or ground, in which the central musical idea is laid down; then the Taorluath, the development of that idea that takes certain musical risks, and is bold; followed by the Crunluath ,or Crown, where the musical brilliance of the piece is brought out in full, and finally the Crunluath a Mach, a reflexive coda that demonstrates the music’s own structure in the show of  the piper’s understanding of content all gathered up together in a display of technical bravura…Before the music returns at its end to the simple unadorned notes of the Urlah’s opening line.

So in the way I had from the outset, shape and structure, place and sound and, yes, the line, the opening line of my Urlah, so“The Big Music” has come onto the page  in a way that seems different from my other books. And of course this idea of positioning a story so clearly, from the beginning, within a claim for itself, to place the art evidently within, as it were, the art’s manifesto…It’s something you Woolf scholars know all about, thanks to her clearly set down aesthetic and intellectual deliberations from which she let go her imagination. Nevertheless it’s a practice that feels like a departure for me.

And yet…

(A phrase, by the way, that chimes repeatedly through all my work…)

And yet.

That same idea, of the sheer project-like nature of a piece of work, the idea of exploring its making, its aesthetic, as part of the pleasure of the making, that the fiction and the exposure of its “works” should together be what we experience when we crack open the front cover of a book and turn to the inside page….All these ideas have been with me from my first book “Rain” onwards. It’s only in “the Big Music” though, that I’ve made my interest in “making fiction” sound out so clear.

Reviewing those other books, “Rain” and “The Keepake” and “Featherstone” and so on, and describing how they were made with that same principle of reflexivity in mind, would be a paper in itself and one that I would love to write : How “Rain” was my “Voyage Out”. But for now it must be enough to say that all my fiction, actually,  has followed the line expressed most fully in “The Big Music” – of a self-conscious structure being an integral part of the story. Whether it’s the deliberate muddling of a time sequence in the ordering of chapters,  the meta-narrativity of that first book, “Rain”, that has the adult voicing herself as the child, dipping back and forth from childhood’s looking and adult knowing; or by contrast, seeing through the sequence of time in a weekend that is “Featherstone”, or the experience of a day of hours in “the boy and the sea”, only to overturn time in both cases by stilling the story  into a tableau or parable – into something timeless in the way the sea, in “the boy and the sea” herself returns to the end of each section of that book, to pull back the narrative that has preceded and discharge it into a space that has no hours or minutes in it… So we seem to be moved through and around and under the events taking place in the story…In all my books… It’s continually present, this interest in a kind of infra-fiction, a fiction that constantly re-aligns itself, repositions itself, to the reader while the reader is reading…

Here in the new book I put all that on show, deliberately heightening that sense of a sort of performance taking place here and now -  my intentions marked from the outset and made physical, in that “The Big Music” looks on the page and is structured as a book, as physical artefact, to be something that is as much about itself, its notes and organisation and background, as it is about the story it tells. (How Faber will make it look) In other words: “The Big Music” has been made to be Big Music in the way it’s been fashioned on a certain scale, with certain attributes, placed within a certain cultural context.

So it’s true, in no other work of mine, in quite the same way, has my artistic ambition, if you like, been so clearly displayed.

But, as I say, it has always been there. Each sentence of my writing is like a microcosm of that larger ambition. Before I start to read – from the first sentence of “The Big Music” taken from the opening Urlah, the Ground  – I want to tell you that the title of this talk came from the beautifully modulated laureation, I may describe it, given by Dame Gillian Beer upon the occasion of the launch of the Cambridge edition of the Complete Works of Virginia Woolf edited by Jane Goldman and Susan Sellers. In that address, Dame Gillian spoke of Woolf’s technique, her making of art as involving in each sentence “the grating together of the elegant and the grotesque.” In one sentence herself she showed me why I’ve always loved Woolf’s writing, endlessly inspiring and instructive and wondrous…And how I’ve learned from her that the most interesting sentences are not preordained, not smoothly understood to the conscious mind. But their contents must be disparate and unknown and forged from deep, deep thinking if they are to take us, sentence by sentence, to where we writers want to go.


Katherine Mansfield International Conference

University of London, September 2008

Place, familiarity and distance: What Katherine Mansfield taught me

In Edward Said’s beautiful memoir “A Sense of Place” the author talks about the writer as nomadic, belonging nowhere and so, by necessity, making for him or herself “a home of words”.

It’s a little phrase that means a great deal to me, and I quote it often, bringing together as it does, under one roof as it were, ideas about fiction and homecoming, sentences and location, imagination and reality. For it is in those constructions of words we call stories or novels, fragments, novellas, that we live, we writers, surrounded by our walls of paragraphs and pages, looking out at the world through the doorways and windows created in our texts. And for those of us in self imposed exile from the more prosaic reasons for writing, concerned less with the mainstream entertainments that are also fiction and interested rather in ideas about aesthetics and form – the “why” and “what” and “how” of making art – the phrase has even more resonance. For we who want to “make it new” will be always living alone, only ever really at home within the words of our own work.

Said’s words come back and remind me that it was Katherine Mansfield who taught me these things first. About place, familiarity and distance… About safe, enclosed houses and the wild or unknown, volatile world beyond… This was Mansfield’s home in fiction, her vision, her imaginative landscape. And it was in her stories that I first had a sense of a kind of building, a “making a home in words”, as a literary project. As something that was not just about what the stories contained, but how they were made. And what they might come to mean.

Certainly home obsessed Katherine Mansfield’s writing life. Being “home”. Going “home”. Or rather, not going “home”… So in the end where was home but in the pages of her stories? The place she’d longed to leave became, in time, the place to which she longed to return – a New Zealand, a Wellington, a house in Thorndon

filled with family and the sounds of their calling out, one to another, through the rooms, across the garden and out into the air, into that high wind that gusted down the streets, tossing through the blowy trees up on the hills and over across the water at the bay… Katherine Mansfield’s “home”.

For Mansfield, a writer with an intricate and finely developed sense of what she wanted to do in her fiction in terms of its making, really needed to create this place for herself in words. There’s a psychic imperative, I think, in her return, time after time, to familiar places – the Bay, the Harbour, the Karori country home. As though the young woman out in the world alone and vulnerable to its every shift and change of mood, who redefines and re-imagines herself at every turn, needs to create somewhere that can be unchanging. So she can live there. Be still there and be safe. Yet this drive to make such a “home” in her stories is not just the simple result of her experience, but is grounded solidly in the literary truth of her writing. And in the way she describes the world of her fiction, that pressing together of heightened detail and a careless-seeming, throwaway tone, in her instantaneous recording of the minute that is gathered up at once with both the known and unknown, she is bringing herself, a new kind of writer from a new kind of world, straight into the centre of Modernism and the activities of English Literature in the Northern Hemisphere.

Of course, at first, it may not seem she has any kind of agenda this way. By contrast, there is Said, a writer possessed first and foremost of political identities, concerned always about the relationship of countries and literature, how they stand, one to another – who remained honestly preoccupied by other more practical realities to do with place and land that resonate far beyond my argument today. And here is Katherine Mansfield, writing her apparently quiet, small scale tales of family life and those slice-of-life pieces that create vividly here and now a park, a drawing room, a garden …

But looking back to the time when I first came across her stories, when, as a child, they were read to me, some of them, and then later as a teenager and young woman when I went to them for all the literary excitement and freshness they offered, I think I did have a sense, unformed at the beginning, but growing, the more I engaged with the study of English Literature – first at my school, Queen Margaret College in

Thorndon, part of which had incorporated Mansfield’s birthplace and where I was taught by an English Staff that included Jill Body and Joan Cochrane and was dedicated to the study of Mansfield as an important part of our curriculum, and then at university and beyond – that here was a writer who was re-framing place, doing something with it that was (though I couldn’t be fully aware of it then) if not political, certainly culturally significant. It was, I was coming to think, to do with the way Mansfield was set on establishing another world, a different faraway world, in the salons of Edwardian London, having it sit alongside that world and be brought into it, in the stories and pages that she published in her time, and that were taken up also in Europe, and read there, and discussed. And for me, with my admittedly meagre knowledge of “Great Literature”, and little understanding of the Maori and Polynesian literatures that today enrich and inform that country and the rest of the world, this idea of a writer giving me a New Zealand that was both at home within in its own boundaries and in the world was new to me. It felt new. As though Katherine Mansfield had transplanted a Cabbage Tree to Russell Square and it was growing there alongside the Oak, offering its shade and beauty along with the other, made as familiar in Bloomsbury as those British trees were in Wellington.

But there was more to it than that. For with this awareness of the elements of her stories, the way the contents of them jostled up against each other, the old world and the new, the way she placed, if you like, those two kinds of trees side by side and let them sway in the breeze, was another growing understanding: That for me, it was becoming clear that place, the elements of place, was not just the setting for her stories. It was her subject.

Yes, of course there was more, much more, in terms of how she was writing, who she was writing about… And I was vividly engaged with those things too. And was interested in them, that “transparency of her ink” to paraphrase the words of Elizabeth Bowen…But for me it was Mansfield’s sense of setting that outlined her literary territory, that gave her characters somewhere authentic to live, that pulled me. The way she made place her own. And the way she used the originality of that idea to give herself a place in the world of letters.

It began for me properly, coming to this kind of thinking, with “Miss Brill”. As I say, I knew some of the stories, “The Doll’s House” and so on, they were familiar to me from my mother’s reading, and as I also say, I’d always had this feeling, like a kind of dream, of what I loved about Mansfield’s stories was the way she was melding together a New Zealand and an England, a Wellington and a London. But the feelings took form as an understanding that meant something, that was culturally significant, when I came to “Miss Brill” in an English lesson at school, at Queen Margaret, and there she was, that lonely woman in her bitten fox fur, suddenly put in amongst Shakespeare’s heroines and Tennyson’s Lady of Shallott and all the other illustrious members of the Eng. Lit. Curriculum, sitting in her deckchair at the Botanic Gardens.

So that was the first thing. Realising formally that this writer had a literary presence, a context that was worldly and European, that we could be examined upon, made to write a paper about. And we were told about Chekhov then, and Virginia Woolf, and about Lawrence and the rest and there was Katherine Mansfield, not just a writer beloved on her home ground but read all over the world, at home there too…

But the next thing was that deck chair. Or more precicely, where that deck chair was. For it was then, when I saw what Mansfield’s imagination had done, when in my mind I saw those Botanic Gardens where Miss Brill sat listening to the brass band and saw too that the writer had actually created an imagined place from them, a place that could have combined the Botanical Gardens in Thorndon, up the road from where I sat in my classroom that day, and an English park in an English, or, for that matter, European, country… I realised what her fiction was effecting. That is: Its own world. Its own autonomous context. A place where the stories that grow up out of it are made real, not by their reference to a known, real town or country, with names and directions, but in the very pages we are reading. And I point to this awareness of mine, at first vague and inchoate when I was a child, and then later, as a young woman and adult with more words about me, more defined, that Mansfield was doing something special there as having an enormous influence upon me, in the sense of how I make my own writing, how I think about constructing my own worlds of words.

For this idea remains compelling to me: To read about place that way, to realise that part of the imaginative act of writing can be to make a place of your own in words that are not read as filtered through the veil of allusion and empiricism, translated according to the world “out there” and known and judged by it. For then we have created, in that kind of constructed world, a place in which writer and reader equally co-habit, where the story doesn’t need to rely on a known context or sense of history or narrative authority to give it meaning and presence, but is rather, uncovered, sentence by sentence as the eye moves across the line.

So there I was that day all those years ago, listening to “Miss Brill” as it was read aloud but coming to hear in that story, not only about its content, its plot and movement – interesting always of course for I love Mansfield’s stories as stories too, for her characters and her dramas, her uncertain, glancing resolutions – but also about its placeless’ness, its lack of a singular reference place that meant the story was making itself on the page, making for itself a home on the page. A story therefore that was not about something. A story rather that simply was.

That placeless’ness in Mansfield’s fiction is where I go to to feel at home. For though there are place names dotted here and there, I’m sure, nevertheless my overall impression of her work is of an un-named territory that bridges both Southern and Northern Hemispheres, and so lets the world in…Opening up so many other imaginative possibilities. Possibilities that include ideas about inclusiveness, about being able to draw a reader in from anywhere and make the world of the story they are reading about as familiar as their own, ideas about creating a kind of language that is fresh and without literary context, and therefore free from the complications of ideas about, say, class and race and difference that may exist outside the borders of the story. In other words to have a literature in which all those complications may be present, for sure, (and Vincent O’Sullivan who is here today has written wonderfully about this in his introduction to Mansfield’s New Zealand stories) but are present within an imaginative not empirical context. So that this world before us reads as new and vital and existing in the minute of our reading – as though being made known to us in that time frame of the words revealing themselves on the page, and requiring from us then, in that minute, a moral, ethical response.

As I say, this understanding of what I began by calling Katherine Mansfield’s “literary project” is something that has come to me piece by piece, learning all the time about a kind of aesthetic underpinning to making writing. But as I realised in that sunny classroom all those years ago, not assuming knowledge of a place gives your story to the world in a way no marked, defined narrative can. For the story itself then becomes the thing that is known. It becomes that which is familiar. And for that reason cannot be set aside from the rest of literature as being different or strange or colonial or other but will be rather, always a part of it, of its place and culture…

Katherine Mansfield brought me to that idea first. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.