Learning to write with Lucy Barton

In 2015 a creative writing tutor told me: “Publishers don’t want books about writing and writers; readers don’t want to read them.” In 2016, along came My Name is Lucy Barton,  longlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Elizabeth Strout, a stylish and moving author, can elucidate in few words what others take lifetimes to understand. Lucy Barton themes include motherhood, memory, childhood, abuse, small town life and much else, but for this post I’ll concentrate on writing.

Lucy becomes a successful writer after escaping poverty and ostracism. She writes what she cannot say. “…books brought me things…they made me feel less alone…I thought, I will write and people will not feel so alone!” A major influence on Lucy is another fictional  author, Sarah Payne, whose writing advice is a generous gift from Strout to writers everywhere. 27875970Self deprecating Sarah: ” ‘I’m just a writer…Oh you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.’ ” When people are kind to her and she can be kind back, she relaxes. Otherwise, she’s nervous and tired (though beautifully groomed). Yet she lectures on the professional author treadmill, a mouthpiece for valuable guidance.

At one lecture, Sarah defines the job of a fiction writer. “To report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” She mentions readers who have threatened her for the views of characters she’s written, and she’s emphatic that her job “is not to make readers know what is a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.” This strikes me as more an American problem than a UK one. Here, we tend to say: if you don’t like what a character or a world represents, just don’t read it, and anyway, it’s fiction. But I wonder whether the passage, ironically, comes from experiences Strout has had herself as a writer. The idea of attacking a writer for a character’s views clearly angers her: as Sarah says, “Never ever defend your work.”

25893709Sarah aims for compassion: “There was something decent in the way the friend and Sarah treated this man who was in pain…” After a student aims a cruel comment at her, “Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgement…” “…you never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”

“…we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.”  Sarah says: “If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” Lucy admires that: “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful”. It’s good counsel, but perhaps Sarah can’t – or won’t – always follow it herself. A male friend calls Sarah a good writer, but with ” ‘softness of compassion’ that ruins her work” and Lucy too feels “she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something.” In fact it’s what Strout’s characters do again and again, circling the unnameable. Paradoxically, it’s a more evocative way of writing than a clear description would be. (When I blogged Behind the words, between the lines on writing silence, I had not yet read Strout, or there she would be.)

As a writer who struggles with plot, I was relieved by Sarah’s dictum: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Even if she’s only a fictional voice, I so want to believe she’s right! Lucy also appears in Anything is Possible (2017) and I’d be happy to hearing more and more of her her one story, from various angles.

Finally, “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” I do not know, and have decided not to try and find out, whether Elizabeth Strout is a believer. But I think Sarah’s is a loving God.

328741031Other writing advice comes from Lucy’s high school teacher who told her not to use the word ” ‘cheap – it is not nice and it’s not accurate.’ ” (It’s good to read a book that values teachers’ contributions!) And Lucy’s friend Jeremy who tells her to be “ruthless”, which she decides means “grabbing on to myself … saying: ‘This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go… and I will hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!’ “

As a writer, I find fictional Sarah Payne’s instructions comforting, generous, challenging, and compassionate. As is the writing of Elizabeth Strout; I’ll return to her other themes soon.

Footnotes:

  1. I’m fairly sure Strout isn’t aware of the British namesake Sarah Payne, whose daughter Sara Payne was murdered after disappearing from a cornfield where she was playing. If only their tragic story had been one of Strout’s compassionate fictional chronicles of small town America instead of real life.
  2. My giveaway of three mystery books – one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked and one I’ve written – is still open if you comment here on my short story before April 19th BST. Please do!

©Jessica Norrie 2018

 

 

 

 

 

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A story and prizes for my second blogiversary!

The blog is two! Looking back I see I haven’t included as many short stories as I originally promised, so there’s one below. If you tell me what you think of it (good or bad), I’ll put you in the draw for a book prize – could be one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked or one I’ve written. UK only, sorry, readers elsewhere, but I’m a struggling writer….

Anyway, you’re all winners, because this story is for you. It came from my writing course at the British Library, when we had to identify an object in the Library to write about. No photos are allowed in the exhibition I chose, so you will have to make do with the brochure, but do visit; it’s free and very inspiring.

bl treasures
About the “Treasures of the BL” , from the current brochure

TEMPORARILY REMOVED

The exhibition’s sparkling name seduced me: “Treasures!” Entranced, I pored over illuminated manuscripts, hand scribed scriptures, painted vellum and pages of early print. I followed a sign that said: To the Magna Carta. But there was only a glass display case, containing a perspex-or-similar stand, and a printed sign with the  message: “Temporarily Removed”.

I racked my memory. What was the Magna Carta, anyway? And remembered: among other clauses, it declared that everybody, including the king, was subject to the rule of law and had the right to a fair trial. It was, in effect, one of the first declarations of human rights.

And now it had gone. Who took it?

Was it taken by a curator, for legitimate purposes? Perhaps it needed a polish, or was dog eared? Or letters had faded and blurred, and the curator had gone in search of ink and whatever medieval scribes used for Tippex – something made of flax, possibly. When she found nothing suitable for a running repair, she took the whole thing away for safekeeping. Temporarily, of course.

It was unlikely to have been stolen. The area bristled with alarms, the Magna Carta would have screamed “Traitors!” as it was lifted, and the thief immediately been apprehended by the elegant Egyptian security man and his Roman nosed Ukrainian colleague, with their ramrod backs and their epaulettes to die for.

I shared my disappointment with a fellow passenger on the trolleybus home. He confided a rumour, and a few days later it was confirmed by a brave investigative  radio reporter. The Home Secretary herself had had the Magna Carta since last Michaelmas quarter day. Picture the scene:

“Basil! I’ve forgotten the law of the land! Fetch me the Magna Carta!”

The under Home Secretary bowed. “You’ll have to fetch it yourself, I’m afraid, Cynthia,” he simpered. “Only you, the PM – and the King I suppose – have the right to remove the Magna Carta from the Treasures Collection.”

So the Home Secretary sent the British Library a pneumatogram and arrangements were made for her collect the Magna Carta at sherry time, to temporarily remove it to Queen Anne’s Gate or wherever it is the Home Secretary resides nowadays. You’d think it would be safe there, but…

… at tea time on All Hallows Eve, she was sitting by a roaring fire, her Persian cat Nero purring in his basket and Basil buttering steaming crumpets for the three of them. She was studying the Magna Carta, her eyes glowing in the firelight.

“This Magna Carta is too long.”

Basil knew that tone of finality. He put the butter knife down and wiped his hands on his pinny. Only that morning, during the regular watch he kept on the Fortnum’s community noticeboard, his careful fingers had stripped the address of a radical organisation from a recipe for gunpowder soufflé. Cynthia’s deft gesture was identical, pinching a section of the Magna Carta between her coral painted thumb and fingernails, and ripping it decisively away.

“Too many rights, too much to police, administer, and communicate. We can never assure them all. The country can easily do without this one.” Rip, tear.

“And this…”

With gusto the gleaming nails scored, tore and flicked.

Much of the Magna Carta lay in shreds on the Home Secretary’s monogrammed carpet. Basil scurried for the bronze dustpan and brush. Efficient percussion filled the room: stiff swipes of the bristles keeping time with Cynthia’s knuckles cracking.

“Decluttering, Basil. Taking back control. A compact Magna Carta will be neater than all that swollen old waffle.”

She rubbed her hands in satisfaction but her hooded eyes remained restless. “Then again, if a job’s worth doing…” She swooped on the shrunken pages.

“I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

That evening the British Library received pneumatogrammed instructions. The investigative reporter was too late to intercept them and could only report post factum. Visitors to the British Library now will find a new sign:

MAGNA CARTA. PERMANENTLY REMOVED

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Please leave a comment below before midnight BST on April 19th 2018 – improvements, continuations, deletions – to enter the draw. And please stay with me for a third year of words and fictions – it’s a fiction, by the way, that the Magna Carta is anywhere other than safely inside the British library, for now. It was something else – I didn’t check what – that had been temporarily removed.

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