Standing outside a typical Edinburgh tenement building waiting to show viewers round a property, I became fascinated with an elderly woman at a window of a more modern apartment building across the street. The window was open at the bottom and at first I thought she was using a towel to clean the glass, but as I continued to watch a more interesting picture began to develop.
I could see behind her into a miserable and far too predictable bedroom, the furnishings so grey and miserly I wondered if she was in sheltered housing. Two facts dawned on me at the same time: 1) there was no one else in the room with her and therefore she was 2) talking to herself. This again seemed to indicate sheltered housing, which is a little worrying as I talk to myself all the time.
Her chatter and movements suddenly became more aggressive, more erratic and seemed almost overacted to me, her audience of one. She was trying to push the towel out the bottom of the window and then it hit me. Not sheltered housing. Here was a simple elderly woman simply trying to get rid of a wasp or a bee from her bedroom window.
I looked up and down the street for signs of approaching viewers and when I looked back, she had managed to push her arm holding what I could now see was a sweater out the window. She swung the sweater back and forward a few times before throwing it as high and as far as she could.
OK. Not sheltered housing and not a wasp. Someone, perhaps a grandchild had asked her to throw down a sweater as it was getting a little chilly and she became frustrated and cross when she couldn’t open the window. I was waiting now for viewers and a child. Not my ideal way to spend an evening. I waited the agreed 15 minutes past the appointment time and nobody came to view the property or pick up the sweater.
As part of our personal development as writers on the course, we look at why we want to write and how we write. An unexpected twist of events for me has been discovering what I write.
Standing watching the woman at the window gave me some immediate insight into why I write: I don’t know her story, therefore I have to invent one. That’s as necessary to me as oxygen and sparkling wine. My personal horror over the past two years on the course has been story invention. My fiction. Or should I say my lack of fiction. Every one of my flights of fancy have been grounded and I don’t know why, which has meant a lot of angst, worry and freaking out on my part.
The past few years have required me to do a lot of world building in my own reality, world building from the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid up, including a scary few weeks where it looked like I would be homeless with no income and no savings. During mentoring Sam suggested I wasn’t yet in a position to take the kind of leap of faith fiction requires; that my current reality precludes me from imaginary world building. I adore that ‘yet’.
Strangely it is not just my fiction I’ve been wrestling with but also my journal, my reality. It’s all there in black and white, but I realised yesterday the grey has gone. The self-reflection and flagellation is all there but the honesty and openness isn’t. Everything seems too trite, too clichéd, too embarrassing to be written down and this is a major loss; I can’t be me in my own holy of holies. My dreams no longer feature moving to New York and working for Vanity Fair in between publishing marvellous novels and speed dialling Christopher Hitchens for drinks after my return from a week in Maine with Stephen King. Dreams can take you spectacularly off the rails if you are not careful and mine have become more modest, more timid. Perhaps too timid. Self-protection can quickly become self-suffocation.
Working on my final project this past week, I realised every piece of fiction I have tried to breathe life into over the past two years have all had their foundations in reality, their roots belong in a true everyday story. I wonder if this is where I’ve been going wrong? Trying to retell a completed tale that is neither my reality nor my fiction.
At the start of the course I knew already what my final project was going to be, but with a non-fiction project featuring a personal narrative, I couldn’t be further away from that certainty. Interestingly though, there are a lot of similar themes crossing the two and this has given me a glimpse into some of the things that motivate me to write, over and above the story.