Jy blaai in die argief vir 2010 November.

#22 Writer’s block – Rosamund Kendal

November 24, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Five thousand words into my third novel I have hit writer’s block. It is a huge block, an insurmountable block, a behemoth of a block that I am completely unable to budge. I have tried all sorts of suggested remedies to shift my inertia. Instead of writing in my usual, very mundane, study, I have sought out quaint coffee shops hoping that they will provide an atmosphere conducive to reigniting my muse. I have spent a fortune on original Moleskine notepads praying that the soft, velvety pages might inspire me. Instead, the emptiness of the clean folios fill me with dread. Their virgin purity is proof of my incompetence. I have followed the advice of various experts and forced myself to write five hundred words a day. I understand that the theory is that if one writes enough, eventually the writer’s block will shift. I have disproved the theory and produced page upon page of poor writing. I am completely uninspired; unable to conjure up that elusive x factor that gives soul and spirit to writing. What I have managed to write is so flat, so lifeless and lacking in originality that I have stopped writing completely.

Perhaps it is my background in medicine that forces me to look for the underlying cause of my problem, instead of simply attacking the symptoms. The first thing that comes to mind is that I have succumbed to that poorly defined entity burnout. But I know that this is hardly likely. With two children and two jobs I simply don’t have the time to write enough to have “outwritten” myself. In fact, writing is my reward; a luxury. It is what keeps me sane. When I eventually manage to figure out the cause of my inability to create, it is blindingly obvious. The writer’s block has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what I am trying to write. I have changed genre: instead of writing another medical drama I decided to challenge myself by writing a non-medical drama. The reasons for making this change are numerous and complicated, but the end result is that I have reached a dead end, a cul-de-sac, in my writing.

I begin to panic. Perhaps I am not a good enough writer to write outside the genre to which I am used. I tentatively decide to scrap my current novel and start a new one, set once again in a hospital; but before I delete everything I realise that the problem is even more complicated than I had originally thought. It is not the genre that I am struggling with, it is the fact that I have decided to write a novel the sole purpose of which is to entertain. That is the cause of my writer’s block: I am unable to justify writing a novel that doesn’t offer some sort of social commentary.

My hesitations are reasonable. Historically, South African writers have used their craft as a means of making political statements. Resistance writing was one of the most influential tools levelled against apartheid and much of the literature that came out of South Africa in the seventies and eighties centred on the inequalities of a white supremacist society and the resulting struggle for freedom. Subsequent writing in South Africa could almost be divided into “post-apartheid” writing and “post-post-apartheid” writing. The former was the inevitable fall-out after the bomb of apartheid exploded. It was the trying to pick up the pieces of a ravaged society, an attempt to heal, by narrative, almost forty years of trauma, injustice and human rights violations. The literature that I have labelled post-post-apartheid writing, for lack of a more coherent title, is the writing that is coming out of South Africa now: the novels that deal with the plethora of social, economic and health problems that face contemporary South Africans. With this as the context in which I am writing, how can I possibly produce a novel that does not raise awareness of at least one relevant issue? Am I not obliged, as a South African with a social and moral conscience, to use my writing skills in the same way that my predecessors have, to highlight some of the inequalities and social injustices that face South Africans now, fifteen years into democracy?

One of the reasons I chose to write within the medical genre initially was that I wanted to raise awareness among the reading public of the crisis in South Africa’s health care system. In the same way, I wanted to use my writing skill to shake up some of the denial and ignorance surrounding the AIDS pandemic. I felt that I was able to bring about more change, to reach more people, as a writer than as a doctor. How frivolous now, then, of me to want to write a purely fictional drama with no political or social commentary!

I do not know the answers to the questions that my probing has raised. Do I scrap my five thousand words and begin a new novel that satisfies the demands of my conscience? Do I have an obligation, as a young South African writer, to lever some sort of social commentary? Or am I allowed the luxury, the flippancy, the frivolity of writing a novel just for fun? Perhaps one of the freedoms of a truly democratic society is the freedom not to be bound by the cultural, social and artistic restraints (including those that are self-imposed) of the past.

I can feel the tiniest twitch in the right side of my brain. My creativity is stirring. Writing a novel purely for the sake of writing must surely be one of the most beautiful, one of the truest, expressions of democracy.

At last I am able to put pen to paper again.


#21 On writing, on Winnie the Pooh, electric blankets and the importance of wearing a panty – Joanne Hichens

November 23, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

A friend calls me, says, “Did you see the headlines of Die Son today? ‘Woman arrested without panty!’” she hoots.

As an aspiring crime-fiction writer resident in a bizarrely crime-ridden Cape Town, no wonder I take my inspiration from what happens out there before I put it through the wringer to create fiction. Writing, for me, is less of a shoowah and more of a keeping my arse glued to the chair type of effort, in a darkened space, staring at the blank screen while I intermittently pick up e-mails, drink a bottomless cuppa, work my way though packet on packet of Ouma’s rusks, puzzle my way through the words. Another thing I’ve learned about writing is that, much like life, it happens while I’m making other plans.

Life has dealt me a low blow. I am laid up in bed with a cold. Secondly, my intention to construct an essay of (some) intellectual merit has flown out the window. I started an essay on crime fiction, both the writing and reading of it, the dark, secret thrill it is. That abandoned after a coughing bout, I began a Jo-Soap on How Vital it is to Support South African Fiction in all its Guises: breathtaking, forceful, funny, intelligent, touching, thrilling, thought-provoking; how vital to celebrate the extraordinary stories created when writers and readers together engage their most extraordinary resource – the imagination! You get the picture. Then I promptly fell off my soapbox, thinking what the hell, went to sleep, and woke up to find my decent husband Robert standing over me with chicken soup and the unopened post.

With the Silly Season nearly upon us, the advertising brochure I page through is a welcome relief from bills of all colours and all stages of non-payment; the brochure extols Exclusive Books’s latest promotion, and I quote aloud for Robert: “‘The Exclusive Books Store Managers – with their knowledge of all things bookish – have compiled a list of 48 incredible books … there is book to suit every taste and passion.’

“Nothing much here to ignite my passion,” I say, again looking through the titles and blurbs, eighty percent of The Wish List comprising non-fiction titles – some promising heavyweight reads, I concede, Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself a must for me, then the prerequisite cooking, sporting and gardening titles, and Winnie the Pooh cracking a nod for our children – but the only crime fiction teasers are for a Tom Clancy thriller and the Afrikaans Spoor by Deon Meyer.

I’ll ignite your passion for you,” says my husband, standing in front of the mirror, flexing his muscle: “Can you believe in three weeks of gymming I’ve chiselled my body from a slob to a slab?!”


“Go away, Bob,” I moan.

“Why are you writing about Winnie the Pooh?” my eight-year-old son asks as he lies here next to me in my bed, looking at my laptop screen as I type away. He’s brought me a hand-drawn get well card, he’s cuddling with his sick mom. “Stop writing about me and Winnie the Pooh,” he whinges.

“You,” I say, “stop looking over my shoulder at the screen, you pipsqueak, and get yourself to your own bed, now!”

Back to my piece, I wonder why Exclusives is flogging Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit box sets so relevant (not) to South African kid readers. Where are the books, I’m thinking, which reflect our own children’s experiences – playing in the dangerous streets, dodging bullets and tikheads and rapists – not the veggie patch adventures of some out-of-date fluffy bunny in a blue jacket.

In all fairness, Peter Rabbit does get threatened by a shotgun. And his mother does beat him. Maybe times haven’t changed that much after all.

My feet are damp with sweat. I am hot. I swipe a palm over a wet brow. Am I feverish? Has my cold progressed to flu? Perhaps G-d is getting me back for dissing the bunny.

Robert comes to bed. “Jesus, why’s the electric blanket on? The idea isn’t to roast yourself! And it’s summer! Why’s it on in the first place?”

I’m not feeling the love.

What can I say? Our son loves buttons, switches, anything that turns on and off.

I write my own Wish List:

I wish book fans would root for South African fiction the way they scream and yell for the Proteas, the Springboks, Bafana Bafana. People pay good money to see a beloved team knock about, they hang in with their team even on a losing streak, and they pay good bucks to read accounts of the behind-the-scenes infamy – just ask Joost or Herschelle about cashing in on insatiable human curiosity.

I wish books were considered a need, not a want; a necessity not a luxury; books should lie around the house as do scuffed school shoes, a soccer ball, a blazer. Thumb ‘em, dog-ear ‘em, write in ‘em. (Don’t shoot me.)

I wish VAT on books was abolished.*

I wish John van de Ruit would go to therapy or maybe go on meds so the poor chap can move on from his schooldays.

Then again, I wish for a dose of laughing all the way to the bank.

I wish for a Hot Toddy.

(*This wish will come true.)

“Wow, I’m finished,” says Robert, laying down Bill Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything.

“You finished that big book! Well done!”

“Thanks, Mommy,” he says. “Now let’s get it on.”

“Let me think about that for a moment er … NO,” I cough and splutter.

If I can recommend anything to any aspiring, struggling or blocked writer, it’s don’t be shy to jot things down. Look to your own life and the things that happen in it. I keep a bedside notebook to record seemingly inconsequential scribbles. Jot down five things a day if you can. Five things seen, heard or experienced. Keep your ears and eyes open to whatever happens.

Oh, and to set the record straight, I am really and truly a Peter Rabbit fan and I’ve got tickets for Spud the movie.

My next vaguely compos mentis thought: Buy lots of South African titles this Silly Season. Dish books out as an investment in the future of South Africa. I’m on the soapbox again. Give from the bottom of your heart, but more usefully, buy books from the top of your purse. And the bonus is you’ll earn extra points at Exclusives. On fiction, or non-fiction. As my beloved mother used to say in defence of her offspring reading comics: “I don’t mind what they read, as long as they read.” And here’s another wise sentiment well loved by mothers the world over: always wear a clean panty. In fact, don’t underestimate the importance of wearing a panty in the first place. You never know when you might get arrested.

Family portrait: The “readers”

Leave the dishes unwashed, leave the TV off, get out the books, the junk, the classics, the good and the bad, read, read, read, and grow your imagination and your intellect and your tolerance and your patience and your sense of humour and your capacity for original thought. Then write!

#20: Learning to trust myself – sensory diaries and fiction-writing in prison – James Kilgore

November 16, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

I’m picking up on this notion of research for historical fiction raised by Craig Higginson and Louis Greenberg, but from a very different set of experiences.

Sometime in early 2003  I decided to write a novel about 1980s Zimbabwe. I hadn’t been there in a couple of years, hadn’t lived there in more than a decade. But that shouldn’t have mattered. Novelists are supposed to be imaginative, to be able to remember how the sunlight filtered through the curtains or the smell of the soup boiling on the stove. Getting all those details right provides what they call authenticity. Besides, what a fiction writer is not sure about, he or she just fanatically researches.

I had two fairly major obstacles to this sort of creative process. The first was that I’d never written a novel before. That shouldn’t have been a total show-stopper. Any budding novelist in the days of the internet can just search for something on line like “how to write a novel” or “fiction writers’ workshops” and a whole menu of options will emerge. Alternatively, a search for a writing groups could yield a cohort of supportive and insightful practitioners of the craft.

As useful as such options might have been, they weren’t open to me because of my second obstacle. I was in prison in California, some 8 000 miles away from Zimbabwe, and wasn’t likely to get out any time soon. In this great information age I had no internet access at all. My local library consisted of a bookshelf on wheels which held about 150 well-worn mysteries, adventure novels and Bibles.

But I was lucky. Once I got past writing a horrible first draft of that novel I got transferred to another prison with a serious library in penitentiary terms – about 1 500 volumes. Most importantly for me, the library’s locking cupboards held a set of a “how to write fiction” guides  put out by Writer’s Digest. The series covered everything: plot, setting, character development, dialogue. All the things I really didn’t know anything about.

Somewhere in one of those volumes was a sub-heading called “sensory diary”. This was a tool you were supposed to use to help recall the sensory experience of the setting of your story. What a marvellous idea. I quickly set out to compile a sensory diary of the early 1980s in Zimbabwe. I sat off in the corner of the library and made my lists. I did a different sense each day, striving for a daily quota of ten entries. Ten sights wasn’t hard. Ten touches was a little bit more difficult.

After I had several pages in my diary, I began to wonder about my memory. I’d read a lot of writing by historians where they described how all the people in a village remembered that the troops invaded on an October afternoon in 1944, when the records clearly showed the invasion took place in March of 1945. Such distortions were not merely bad record-keeping. There was apparently something in the process of collective memory that swept people away like a rip tide and pushed them out to the sea of imagination. The point was that a historian couldn’t just rely on the memory of witnesses, especially when they were telling the tale some twenty or thirty years later.

Of course that’s exactly what I was doing – telling a tale twenty or thirty years later – only I was telling it to myself. So when I got back to that little concrete box where I lived and looked at myself in that tiny piece of mirror stuck to the wall I had to ask some hard questions. Was I really remembering all these sensory experiences correctly? After all, eating matumbu (cow intestines) or drinking chibuku in a rural family kraal in 1982 was a long way, in both time and space, from a prison cell in George Bush’s United States. I had to wonder, could I trust my own recollections? But more importantly, did it matter? Couldn’t I just make it all up? I’d lived in Zimbabwe for seven years, certainly long enough to make everything sound authentic. Who would ever know?

So I sat there and thought about that matumbu, and how when you took a piece off the grill it burnt your tongue and left a coating of fat on the roof of your mouth. And then a sip of very cold Castle would soothe that burn and wash away that coating of fat. At least that’s how I remembered it, but the more I thought about it, the less certain I became. Ultimately I came to two very unsatisfactory conclusions. First, I probably wasn’t going to be able to find out about that matumbu. There were one or two people I could have asked in a letter, but once I’d settled the question of the matumbu there would be another set of questions, and no one wanted to spend their lives answering snail mail queries from an incarcerated guy writing a novel that would probably never get published. So my second conclusion was that I had to defy the historians and trust myself, cast myself as the carrier of some believable version of a true, or at least authentic, set of 1980s Zimbabwean sensory experiences.

Once I made those compromises, the sensory experiences started to flow. I’d spend hours laying on that steel sheet they called a bed and retrace my sensory footsteps through Zimbabwe. I could feel the banana peels squishing under my feet as I walked down the aisle of a Matambanadzo long-distance bus bound for Zaka. The guitar of John Chibhadura rang through my head as I fell asleep each night. I even walked around the prison yard singing a long lost hit of the early 1980s, “Tenga Gumbeze”, the title of which translated as “Buy Blankets”, a musical warning not to waste those precious Zimbabwe dollars (which had real value in those days).

My sensory diary opened the key to new personal universes. For a few moments I could transcend prison’s sensual assault of swastika tattoos and illicit cigarette smoke and take myself to a better time and place.

Sadly, though, as I got bits and pieces of news from Zimbabwe, I began to realise that Zimbabweans were almost as far away from the experience of the 1980s as I was. When I started writing my novel I thought it would have a clear connection to the present, but after a while I was no longer sure about that. Did anyone in Zimbabwe even have money to buy matumbu or the beer to wash away that coating of fat? I’d probably never find that out either. My sensory diary lost some of its life. Not that I was making it up, but aspects of Zimbabwean society I once thought of as immutable were now up for grabs and there was nothing I could do about it. As I continued to write that novel I wasn’t sure if I was trying to live in a romanticised past or to use fiction to carve out a whole new future. I wasn’t certain it mattered, but there were a lot of moments when I lay on that steel sheet of a bunk and washed that coat of fat off the roof of my mouth with an ice cold Castle . Ah, those were the days.

  • The novel James Kilgore writes about here ended up as We Are All Zimbabweans Now (Umuzi, 2009). He is also the author of two novels to be released in 2011: Freedom Never Rests (Jacana) and Prudence Couldn’t Swim (PM Press, Oakland, California). The drafts of both of those were also written while he was in prison.

#19 Judging a book by its cover – The decline of a reading culture and the danger of little knowledge – Jameson Maluleke

November 10, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Way back in the seventies it took a parent or a guardian in a rural setting six months to a year to buy a prescribed book which cost a mere R2,50. Textbooks were scarce. Sometimes our shopkeeper ran out of stock or the publisher took months to deliver.

I still cannot figure out how we pupils managed to become bookworms. It must surely be due to divine intervention that we became avid readers. When one of us managed to obtain a novel, we devoured it until it was in tatters. On becoming students at high school, we read everything from local writers to Dickens and Shakespeare. Professionals and school leavers competed against one another in reading a complete collection of James Hadley Chase, Louis L’Amour or other famous writers.

This love for reading and search for knowledge was to stand me in good stead during my stint in the print media world. I was conversant with our country’s geography and history, and I had a gift of tongues. I excelled in every beat from language, culture, religion and literature to politics. I felt like a walking encyclopaedia or a modern Socrates simply because of constant reading.

Things are drastically different nowadays. Reading culture as a medium to intellectual maturity is considered by the young generation as old-fashioned; for this reason it is gradually replaced by other media such as computers, televisions, radios and cell phones. The modern man thinks himself too smart to spend hours on end in isolation imprisoned by a mere book. He would rather browse through several websites on the internet, watch television or study the workings of the latest model Nokia cell phone. However, it is sad that instead of our modern chaps becoming  brilliant in the midst of the unfolding technology their mind continues to be obscured by clouds of stupidity. Our children’s ignorance, irresponsibility and negligence have been eloquently stated by Kariuki in the following extract: “As a consequence of poor reading few youths can sustain any logical thread in social conversation and will resort to catch words and tired clichés when they communicate at all. Indeed outside of the local hip hop musicians and their gossip, the nostalgia of their school and college days, most youths are silent in social debate … Mostly they come across as terrible bores as they display their ignorance of current affairs … It is strange that some youths can read a newspaper and put it down without comment.”

Kariuki is a Kenyan writer who writes about lazy and ignorant children in Kenya, but this imbecilic behaviour is also common amongst our confused children in this country. Unless a person is a student of literature or a guru, such a person is unlikely to cite reading as his/her intellectual or leisure pursuit. Many of our young men and women in particular are ever busy, jittery and impatient, claiming that time is running out for them.

Critics blame parents or guardians of students for lack of a reading culture in the country; some complain that access to books is not easy and is expensive; others attribute this to the effects of the old Bantu education system. Others again say it is a world trend; we can do nothing about it. The end of the world is near.

Far be it from me to assess the veracity or the inaccuracy of these comments and opinions. Logic forbids me to be a referee and a player at the same time. I would, therefore, leave the task of analysis to the general readership.  

All I would submit is that laziness and ignorance on the part of us South Africans play an important role in denying us the opportunity to develop razor sharp, analytical and judicious minds. South Africa has been a democracy for more than a decade now. Yet millions of our people still confuse freedom with irresponsibility, ignorance and laziness.

This trend has also been encouraged by the government, which continues to adopt a fatherly role towards the people. The government has given itself the task to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and hand out money to unmarried girls rather than create jobs. So people are forced to live on handouts and to be looked after like babies. As a result the multitudes are convinced that everything is for free.

I once asked a young friend who is aspiring to be an American (though he has never been to the USA) if he ever reads a book or a newspaper.

“I don’t read anything worthy to be perused unless it is in the internet,” he grunted in what he called “a New York drawl”.

It is easy to mistake my friend for an ultra-modern, technologically advanced reader. What is not clear in his speech is that he is a lazy rascal. People like him love everything American. Hmm … America: that land of hamburger joints, the fastest cars, the latest fashions. They associate the USA with automatic machines where a person is required only to press a button to get whatever he wants without much ado.

Our children’s obsession with easy life is rammed home to us by yet another Kenyan writer, Mbae, who made the following observation: “Who among parents of teenagers has not heard the now-all too familiar claim ‘being bored’? Our youth are bored by everything around them. The food we eat in our houses often ‘bores’ them. They are ‘bored’ by the friends we keep. We ‘bore’ them when we insist on doing certain things in a certain way. In short, everything that is not in their style or taste is ‘boring’ and that includes reading books.”

The word bored is all about being nauseated, but in the above lines has acquired a new meaning; it is a euphemism – a polite way by an idle child to say he/she is tired without having attempted to perform any given task.

In addition to Mbae’s observation, Kariuki has this to say about our obsession with ignorance and irresponsibility: “A snide remark about African people is that they rarely keep abreast with new publications and if you want to hide anything from them, put it in a book. In their bookcases, periodicals and good books are few but past burial programmes and eulogies of their departed colleagues are plentiful.”

Very recently, our grade 12 students embarked on a protest march, demanding to be given 25 percent up front before they write their final exams. The demand was made after schools around the country had wasted a month-long learning period during the FIFA 2010 World Soccer Cup, and three more weeks of no schooling during a teachers’ strike for salary increases. Free everything: free housing, free welfare grants for children borne by school children, free marks for students who were lazing around waiting for their teachers to spoon-feed them. South Africa will soon surpass the USA in their neck and neck pursuit for a Utopian dream.

It should have baffled educationists and other experts that despite thousands of modern libraries and media centres all over the country, some of them equipped with the latest computer models, people are just lazy to read. Those who are forced to visit these centres do so because they want to write their exams.  The rest of the population is too busy (shall I say too lazy) to waste its time in libraries and media centres.

Teachers? Yes teachers, I nearly forgot about them. These are strange fellows. They are quick to embark on strike once they suspect that they are not earning enough. One would expect them to embark on a prolonged, wildcat strike once a public outcry reaches their ear that learners cannot count, read or write. Instead, they hide themselves in their burrows until the uproar has subsided.

It would be unfair to blame electronic media such as the radio, television or even cell phones for stealing most of the potential readers’ time. Millions of people do listen to radios, they do watch television and do communicate with their relatives and friends through cell phones, yet they put aside time to read. It is a matter of discipline here. People should know when to stop watching television or using a computer. Watching television throughout the night, all-night “MXit” or “chat” is detrimental to a person’s mental development and also alludes to the undisciplined nature of a viewer or a cell phone operator as Healy cautions: “Too much television – particularly at ages critical for language development and manipulative play – can impinge negatively on young minds in several different ways including the following: ‘Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered academic performance, especially reading scores. This may be because television substitutes for reading practice, partially because the compellingly visual nature of the stimulus blocks development of left-hemisphere language circuitry. A young brain manipulated by jazzy visual effects cannot divide attention to listen carefully to language. Moreover, the “two-minute mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing.’ Pundits agree that reading is by far one of the best methods of learning. As such, the importance of reading as an enriching component of a nation’s culture cannot be more emphasized. A person’s intellectual prowess is measured by the variety of books he reads. Such a person is sometimes referred to as a literati, well-versed or well-read. In similar vein, a nation’s literary knowledge is crucial to its social and economic development. A literary blindfolded nation has no chance to prosper. In addition, we live in a global village which expects a citizen of every country to be literate in order for him/her to participate fully in both national and international affairs.”

As I have pointed out before, laziness and lack of interest remain the main obstacles to reading culture. Organisations like Readerthon, Masifunde Sonke Campaign and Bookeish are indeed doing a sterling job in promoting reading culture. We should work side by side with these institutions by trying to pull our brothers and sisters from the murky pool of laziness and ignorance. We must re-educate our people that contrary to politicians’ tomfoolery, there is “nothing for mahala”. It is an instance of a sick mind to believe that a government can substitute one’s mother. Lest we forget: breastfeeding is for infants only. A person must live by his/her sweat. Teachers should also start pulling up their red socks and restore their profession to its former self. Parents and guardians should be workshopped to get a thorough training in allocating more hours for reading to their children rather than turning them into a screen junkies and zombies. Let us please make hay while the sun shines.

List of references

Healey, Jane. 1998. American Academy of Pediatrics News, May 1998.

Kariuki, Karanga. Poor Reading Culture In Our Youth Is Worrying.

Mbae, JG. “Kenya: A Reading Nation?”

#18: Some notes on delving – Louis Greenberg

November 10, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

As the next link in this Big Book Chain Chat, I’m very lucky to be following Craig Higginson’s piece “Is it possible to do too much research?” because I agree fully with him and won’t have to build a compelling counter-argument.

Higginson’s approach to research in fiction is brave for a historical novelist. As he notes, many writers in the genre are so keen to show off how much they’ve read about the period that they bog their stories down in detail. Readers get a painstakingly drawn (and painsgivingly taxing) account of the carriage that someone drove in 1896, the cut of his cloth and the provenance of the leather on the horse’s reins. If this information is well researched, the result might be more like history in disguise as a novel: too much attention spent on drawing a picture and too little on channelling characters. Higginson’s sort of contemporary, thoughtful take on crafting historical fiction promises to refresh the genre.

Drawing a picture in words can be a mind-boggling affair. When do you stop? When is enough enough? Never, that’s when. A novelist is better off carefully studding her book with the “brightly coloured gems” Higginson evokes in his piece. These gems, which I’ve called keystones in the construction of a novel, serve as magnets for a reader’s idiosyncratic experience. As Higginson says, “a good work of fiction should demand that [we readers] tap into our own imaginations in order to bring the piece to life.”

This is where the research comes in: mining for those gems to have them available when you write. Where appropriate, you might find them in other people’s books, but I’ve gathered more gems by travelling, by working bad jobs, by smelling things, by loving and loathing, by poking around in service hatches in shopping malls, by poking around in the shyer folds of my mind. Over the years, these gems lodge in me like shrapnel; often they seem unremarkable at the time, and then one day they present themselves osmotically on the paper. I give them a quick wipe and cement them in amid the character and kinetic stuff.

Higginson suggests that writers should appreciate the collective consciousness. If I’m writing a novel about a mall, say, or a hospital, I will stud my text with evocative keystones and let you do the rest. No matter how many words I could write about the mall or hospital, you have a clearer and more emotionally loaded picture in yours. I’m going to piggyback on your imagination and get deep into your mind.

That’s one of the ways fiction works. If you want to be told a list of facts about a place or a period or a carriage, read a travel guide or a history or a manual. The urge that novels provoke – to engage, to intercourse with what’s written, to be teased rather than told – is not so much a demand on you but a seductive, slippery slope. Fiction that is not overdetermined welcomes you in; it’s not difficult. Despite yourself, you get sucked in, get the life sucked out of you. There’s lots of sucking and exchanging going on. It’s that visceral.

If you like physics better than physicality, think of the mysteries of science: all matter is a wave of potentiality frozen into actuality at the moment of its observation. Fiction is a bit like that, but instead of being frozen once and for all, each separate reading stills it in a different, temporary composition like a crazy dancer in strobe light. Fiction keeps whirling around in infinite patterns of possibility, frozen for brief moments by different readers, then whirling off again. Pick up a novel you read five years ago and it will be a different novel, a different conversation. People are like that too: a constant whirl that our observations can only momentarily freeze.

It interests me just how many people want to believe in fiction. They want to believe it’s true. It pretends to know so much more about us than non-fiction; if it does, surely it’s a manual for the human soul, surely it’s the new scripture. Readers are often more disappointed if a novelist lies than if a journalist or politician or priest lies. Some writers fraudulently set up a veneer of realism to convince their readers that they know the truth about people. I know the truth: the fact is, nobody knows the truth about people.

I’m being deliberately provocative here. But that’s what fiction allows. It allows me to bug and jostle you, without footnoting my precedents, without justification.

Fiction is our greatest technology. Fiction is dialogue; even better, goading. The author has said her part, but the document keeps on breathing, waiting to be recreated by its readers, waiting to talk with them; this goes on for as long as the artefact exists. A manual, on the other hand, is monologue, filled with frozen facts that will soon grow old. The most lasting interest in history is the fiction inherent in it, when we note its relativity and its lies, when we realise, a hundred years later, that it wasn’t true.

For that matter, is this blog post fiction or non-fiction? What do you expect it to be?


#17 Is it possible to do too much research? – Craig Higginson

November 3, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

I thought I’d raise something that concerns most writers but is seldom discussed in any detail: the matter of research. How important is it? One can clearly do too little. Can one also do too much?

Some years ago, while I was working at a bookshop in Fulham Road, London, a greying, benevolent-looking man shuffled in. He bought some books, and when I swiped his card I noticed his name: Peter Shaffer. I asked him if he was the same man who had written Equus and Amadeus. He said he was. We got into a long discussion about his writing process on Equus. Famously, he got the idea when driving through the countryside with a friend. The friend mentioned a farm where a boy had one day gouged out the eyes of some horses. Shaffer didn’t ask anything else about this, nor did he try to locate the original story. He had felt the spark that led to Equus – and he didn’t need the actual facts of the real story to come and interfere with his burning new idea. He told me that he hadn’t done any research into psychoanalysis before writing – in spite of the fact that the play is about the disturbed boy and his analyst. Having written a first draft, he then did do some research, however, and found that what he had written was about 80 percent accurate. He adjusted the other 20 percent.

The implication of Shaffer’s anecdote is that we often know more and understand more than we give ourselves credit for. When we rely on the written accounts of others, we are giving over the vital act of imagining that is central to the creation of any artwork. Instead of writing out of a deep necessity, we find ourselves involved in the act of cutting and pasting and editing the ideas of others.

Plagiarise is a term first found in the 17th century. It meant to kidnap, seduce or plunder. Still fundamental to the word is the idea of theft – of taking what is not yours and passing it off as your own. Yet the problem facing all writers – and especially those of traditional historical fiction – is how to use other texts without   recycling them and then passing them off as your own.

My next novel – which will be published by Picador Africa early next year – is a work of historical fiction. Called The Landscape Painter, it moves between 1897 and 1900 in southern Africa and between 1947 and 1948 in post-war London. I had two very particular historical periods to research. How was I to bring those periods to life without plundering already-written texts?

My solution for the first draft was to do the bare minimum of research (although I had to know the basic sequence of events in the Anglo-Boer War, for example, because I couldn’t mess with those) and then to try and imagine the rest. I had lived in Hampstead (the location of the London narrative) through several winters, and I had lived and spent time in Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal (the locations of the southern African narrative). So I wrote a first draft rapidly and freely, knowing that I was no doubt getting a great deal wrong. But I also found my version of what it might have been like to live in those places during those times. I later did a whole lot of research into post-war London and realised that I’d got some basic realities very wrong. The extent of the rationing and the bitter cold of the previous winter, for instance, had barely been touched upon. But I also got a great deal of it right – like the children making snowmen and using sticks for the noses because carrots were so scarce.

While writing the first draft I also made special trips to each of the locations mentioned in the novel. Even though some of them had changed radically, others had hardly changed at all. I went up Spioenkop in the same week that the battle had taken place (albeit many years later). I observed what birds were in the skies, what plants were in fruit, how the ants flitted across the earth, what colour the rocks were, and so on. I got a wealth of information that was never mentioned in any of the historical accounts I had read – or would later read.

I also had an interesting experience while writing a previous novel – The Hill. Here the protagonist, Andrew, has an unusually close relationship with nature. He runs away from boarding school and into the Drakensberg, and soon the animals he encounters develop particular meanings for him. When I’d completed a first draft, I read as much as I could on San/Bushman mythology in the British Library and found that much of what Andrew had felt and experienced was there in their mythology – with different animals having different ethical resonances. The signs had endured in the landscape, and Andrew (who was a version of myself) had read them in a way that had remarkable parallels with the way the San had read them thousands of years before.

I suppose the provocation that I’m sending out is that research should, in some sense, be a secondary activity. We are always told – especially by those who are not writers – to write what we know. This means that we simply write out of the familiar, the already-known. We confine ourselves to a self-reflecting solipsism. But one of the great capacities of fiction – whether we are talking about novels, plays or films – is that it gives both writer and reader/ audience the opportunity to imagine other worlds – worlds that are not their own. What matters is not what we write but how we write about it. Point of view is central, and so is doing enough research to make what we write pass as authentic or credible. But too much research early on – the consuming and recycling of already-written material – can be hugely inhibiting, and even damaging in the end.

When writing narratives set in the past, we tend to over-signify the period – especially when we’ve done all that research! We work so hard at researching that we can’t resist the urge to put it all in. In his book The Shifting Point1 Peter Brook discusses his legendary production of King Lear with Paul Schofield in 1962. What struck me in Brook’s account was exactly this idea. He suggested that in many plays and films set in the past, the historical period is made so authentic that it draws too much attention to itself. Brook’s approach regarding the design in this production (later turned into a film) was to do the bare minimum. He wanted to give enough detail to ignite the audience’s imagination, but he wanted the observer to fill in the gaps. He also believed that this clearing away of the inessential would help to make the more important elements (like plot and relationships) clearer:

The aim of the setting is to produce a degree of simplification which enables the things that matter to be important … With Lear (…) one has to withdraw everything possible (…) All the costumes we have simplified so that only the essential remains. When in a Shakespeare production you have thirty or forty equally elaborate costumes, the eye is blurred and the plot becomes hard to follow (…) It is interesting to hear people saying, “How clear the play seems!” without realising that the secret was related to the clothes.2

One doesn’t open a novel by Anne Tyler or Roddy Doyle and find sentences like “He got into his A160 Mercedez-Benz with leather seats, power steering and a Matrix tracking device.” In a bad historical or “period” novel, however, we might find a sentence that reads, “He got into his 1896 Hansom four-wheeler with spring suspension and plush crimson seats.” Because the historical novel is displaced in time, we feel we need to describe each detail – paint the picture for the reader. But this is to undermine the richness of the collective memory the reader brings to a book, play or film. As I say – we know much more than we think we know. A good work of fiction should demand that we tap into our own imaginations in order to bring the piece to life. The audience and reader need to be engaged and provoked in a way that is not all surface detail and local colour.

Once your world has been established, however, more research becomes essential. With The Landscape Painter, the new bits I discovered through more reading became like brightly coloured gems I could sew into the already rich fabric of what I’d imagined.

So – if I’d like you to come away from these paragraphs with anything, it’s perhaps a greater appreciation of our collective memory and our imaginative power. What Wallace Stevens once called “the ultimate elegance: the imagined land”.


1 Peter Brook, The Shifting Point, Methuen, London, 1987.

2 Ibid, pp 89-90


Craig Higginson is a novelist, playwright and theatre director. His plays include Dream of the Dog and The Girl in the Yellow Dress (both published by Oberon Books). His novels include The Hill (Jacana), Last Summer (Picador Africa) and The Landscape Painter (which is due for publication in 2011).