Kate and I talk constantly about our writing. We have done it ever since we met over 30 years ago. We don’t always agree but we are the first reader of each other's work and regularly flag up points for each other; passages where the writer thought they had explained something but hadn’t or where things were unclear, unravelling plot points or just letting off steam about frustrations with our work. Last night Kate and I were eating a takeaway, and were chatting about general stuff that had happened recently and our ongoing project ‘Ten Years of Fun'. Out of this conversation came the spark of an idea based on some photographs we had been taking. At first I was hesitant - thinking it was a bit radical, possibly dangerous so I asked her what she thought of it, I’m thinking 'probably not, it’s a bit too weird' and she says: ‘Brilliant! You have cracked it!’ The more I thought about it the more I realised that perhaps I had found the perfect ending to not only this book, but to the whole series of books. The risky writing that you do for your own amusement is so often your best work, and this morning I sat at my desk and roughed out the last chapter. I think it is good. Sometimes I will try something that I have got very excited about and my beloved idea just doesn’t work but this time I really think it is there.
The ending relates to everything that went before, reframes and summarises in a way and gives me an angle that I can use if I get stuck anywhere in the middle. I have been a bit stuck about how to handle certain sections which needed to be written but my rough notes were not giving me the spark that I wanted, the ending now can feed back and give me that spark. Perfect! Now all I have to do is write the bits to keep me excited from the beginning to the end.
Literary non-fiction demands hard choices be made, it takes a massive amount of creativity to find your path through the billions of random events and impressions that make up even a single day and depending on your style, can be just as risky as fiction. Often personally more so.
This is the way it goes when I write, some writers are planners and work everything out exactly. By nature I am an essayist, I explore and don’t always know where it’s going to take me, for a writer that can be dangerous, we could spend months, years even on something that cannot be completed, it happens all the time, writers get frozen into years of inaction having written themselves into a corner they can’t get out of, the book gets abandoned. For me writing is like a scientific experiment, I start with an idea of what I want to explore, and maybe even a prediction about what I will find, but I am always aware that something surprising may turn up. I am exploring an unmapped island only seen from a distance. I could get there and there’s nothing, leave on the next boat and look for another island to explore. I could get there and fall down a sinkhole and remain there until I rot. I could get there, and explore it for years, write a marvellous piece on it and then get told by the first person I show it to, that they know it well, in fact they know it so well they have a holiday home there where they grew up as a kid and have a book coming out on it next June complete with photos and maps. It’s a risky business.
My writing process is simple. I set out to write chapters that are in themselves short stories, each telling a story with a beginning a middle and an end. I want these chapters to be as beautiful as possible, I want to be seductive, or dark, or playful. I want to enjoy each and every word. These short essays link into the next one and that links into the next one and they all loop right back around to each other and to the beginning and the ending so that the whole collection of chapters have a beginning a middle and an ending. That’s a book!
When I have discovered the ending, the natural conclusion to what I have been writing I feel an enormous sense of relief. The story needs an ending, I could do it without one but it would be like an inconclusive experiment that showed only that the question found no answer. Writing, like any art, is a practice of problem solving. A painter sets out to make a work and his journey is about how to resolve this colour with that one to create harmony or vibrancy or drama, how does this line balance this with that shadow? For a writer it is no different. The ending creates a harmony with everything that has gone before.
If a piece of writing tells no story it is a manual. Lots of nature writing is like this, how to identify this bird or plant, how to nurture this species. Nature writers often don’t like my work because they think they are getting a book like this but they are not, they are getting a story about human beings with all their strengths and frailties living in nature and coping with it. So an ending and a narrative is vital. It doesn’t have to resolve everything - I quite like Japanese storytelling where endings are often easy transitions into new or continuing stories, in the way that a Haiku, a piece finished in itself, can be added to to create a Tanka which can then reframe the whole poem. But this book, 'Tales of Spring Rain', this has a clear ending which completes the book and completes a cycle of books and I am a very happy writer.