Gosh, I have some amazing writers visit the attic! I get such joy out of reading the sometimes heartfelt, sometimes practical, but always different and always special pieces that authors pen for this series.
Today, I’m thrilled to share another beautiful piece, this time by one of WA’s finest writers, Alice Nelson. Alice’s writing is gentle and reflective, as she is in person. I recently read her exquisitely poignant novel, The Children’s House, which is a beautiful book about mothers and children and love and trauma and damaged people.
Here’s Alice talking about the difficulty writers face letting go of their novels once they’re published:
Alice Nelson was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky. Alice’s short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine, the West Australian Newspaper and Australian Book Review.
Her new novel, The Children’s House (Penguin Random House, October 2018, and in other territories in 2019) has been longlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Book of the Year, the Independent Booksellers Awards for Literary Fiction, and the ALS Gold Medal for Literature.
Visit Alice’s website more information
LOSING THE KEY: LETTING GO OF OUR NOVELS
The months after a novel is released into the world are a strange time for a writer. There is the surreal thrill of having the story that you have laboured on for so long in secrecy and solitude out in the world, and the considerable joys of connection that this unveiling brings. There is the whirl of publicity, the events, the readings, the festivals, the book club visits, the conversations with readers, the endless discussions about various aspects of the novel, the thought-provoking questions and the lovely affirmations.
But what has felt to me to be the strangest aspect of these months since my recent novel The Children’s Housewas published, is the way that the universe of the novel, in which I dwelled for so long, is no longer completely accessible to me. Of course I still know the novel intimately, but it feels that the more I talk about it in public forums, the more times I read excerpts from it, the less it belongs to me.
This is not because the novel now also belongs to others; I love the powerful and beautiful alchemy that exists between a writer and reader, a shared making of meaning. The distance is more because I am slowly beginning to forget how the novel was created.
This may sound a little strange, given how long I spent writing it, but as I talk about the book again and again with the certainty and authority required for public addresses, I am beginning to lose sight of some of the doubt and strife, the dilemmas and failures, the revelations and epiphanies that shaped it.
The characters I lived with on such intimate terms for many years feel a little like people I once loved but have slipped out of my life. In my discussions with readers, I feel a kind of rueful nostalgia creeping in; I envy them sometimes the freshness and intensity of engagement with these characters I created but am no longer on intimate terms with.
Sometimes when I stand at a podium reading from the novel I feel that I am reading words written by someone else, that the book I hold in my hands is something very far from me.
I recently read a beautiful essay by the American novelist Nicole Krauss, written in the aftermath of finishing her extraordinary novel Great House, in which she speaks about this strange distance and the way that, once finished, the novel begins to close itself to the writer. Krauss says: ‘The more the novel becomes a solid thing in the world, the less access the writer has to the accidents, reversals, inventions, rejected ideas, passing weather, sudden triangulations, and unshakable intuitions that led to those words, and only those, standing there on the page with an authoritative air about them, as if they were always bound to be’. The writer who locked the door not long ago, says Krauss, loses the key.
Perhaps this is a necessary kind of forgetfulness, an essential distance. If we remained intensely in the world of one novel, how could we ever begin to write another? The Children’s House is about loss and leave-takings, about the necessary shedding of skins that is sometimes required to go on in the world, the ways that we need to leave elements of the past behind in order to create a future.
I do believe that the long, slow work of writing a novel is also in a way a process of educating the heart. Writing The Children’s House was a way for me to spend a sustained period of time dwelling with some of the questions and preoccupations that haunt me; questions about memory, loss, inheritance and the possibilities of restoration and solace. The fledgling novel I’m working on now asks different questions and has different demands and I will need to become equal to them as I write it. I will need to give myself over to it completely, and to do that I need to leave The Children’s House behind.
As I sit here at my desk in France, looking out my window at the cherry trees in full blossom in the ancient orchard and feeling my way into a new novel that is still a mystery to me, there is that quickening that comes with the beginning of spring, with new love, with the blank page and the dream of the story unfurling in front of me, leading me on.
What a beautiful piece of writing about the process of letting go. It reminds me of a talk I attended once where someone asked Tim Winton a question about Cloud Street and he responded by saying, ‘You’ll have to remind me what happens. I can hardly remember the book.’ I know this from my own writing – though essentially non-fiction – this strange disappearance from memory of words that were once my own. No longer mine but with a life of their own out there. Thank you for making more sense of this process.
Thank you so much Elisabeth. That’s so interesting that Tim Winton distances himself like this too from his work. It’s just so strange because when you are immersed in writing the book it is so very vital and consuming…
How funny about Tim Winton, and that his story has stayed in the minds of everyone else but him!
I’ve read my words (not that I have for a long time) with no memory of having written them, too. There are whole paragraphs I don’t remember writing and feel like somebody else must have penned them—but they’re in my book, so presumably it was me. Strange how this happens.
Louise – how funny that you mentioned this, because as I read through Alice’s piece here, it also reminded me of how I was reading some passages of my novel and going “I don’t even remember writing this”. I mean, I do now, because I’ve had to copy edit the bloody thing 8405345 times. But the first time I came back to it, it was surprising how once I’d written it, there was this separation and some kind of forgetting. Fascinating to see how Alice wrote about it here, and reassuring that you have felt the same specific experience too, of writing passages with no memory of them. I feel less fraudulent now, haha!
Haha! You think that after copy editing it 8 million times you won’t forget your own words, yet you do. I was blaming my forgetfulness on my advanced age, but you’re much younger than me, so you have no excuse!
The upside of all this forgetting is that sometimes when you read your own words, you’re pleasantly surprised by yourself!
Thank you for this beautiful piece. Writing is such a mystery. The more I learn the less I know, or so it seems. The stories come, needing to be told and then, it’s as if they unfold before me with a life of their own. Once captured, the need moves on. I understand the forgetfulness and I love the ‘losing the key’ metaphor. Perfect.
I feel exactly the same about writing – it always remains a mystery. I think for me that is necessary though – the element of surprise and discovery.
‘Once captured, the need moves on.’ I love that phrase, and it’s so true. Sometimes, just the need to put an image in words; other times, like a release of a pressure valve. But you’re right in that once it’s written, there’s a sense of fulfilment and we can leave it behind.
I did want to say that I love that feeling when something is wanting to be ‘birthed’ whether it’s an idea or an image that sparks off a story. Was it Mary Oliver who said she would run home, across the fields, to capture the words as they came, lest they keep going to the next person?
I don’t know who said it, but, yes, at times it’s as urgent as that.
Oh that sounds like Mary Oliver. What a beautiful image.
Great reflection here from Alice – it’s so strange to hear how the story starts to belong to others once it’s released, but I guess that is also part of why we publish it – so it can impact on others and become their story as well as our own. Interesting process.
It’s such a fascinating process. I know that your novel is going to create this wonderful sort of alchemy very soon Holden. I can’t wait to read it!
Very kind of you Alice, thank you. It’s great actually, based on the experience you recounted here, I feel more prepared for how it might feel. 🙂
It’s a lovely symbiosis, and I’m sure that your story will be a universal one, too, Holden.
Thanks kindly, Louise. 🙂
Beautiful! I loved reading this. Thanks, Alice and Louise x
Thanks Amanda! X
So, so glad you enjoyed it, too, Amanda! 🙂
I just loved this post, so easy to relate/
I’m glad you relate, too, Amorina! 😊