Summer finally arrived in London last Monday evening, just in time for our salon with Francis Spufford. My inner Australian felt quite at home, stewing alongside fellow travellers in the tropical micro-climate of the 176 upper deck, bound for Vauxhall. Everyone seemed to be smiling for a change. I felt very smiley too. The night ahead bulged with writerly promise. I really looked forward to meeting Francis, being a fan of The Child That Books Built and having just finished reading his first novel, the wondrous Golden Hill. Arriving at the Teahouse Theatre Cafe, I found the doors left ajar to catch the breeze. Stepping inside, natural light flooded into the room through the windows. It all looked especially cosy with vases of flowers in abundance and a delicious looking array of calorific cakes on offer.
Once we’d all assembled and arranged ourselves in the nooks and crannies of the cafe, the conversation began with an attempt to define our nebulous topic. According to Francis, creative non-fiction is a mobile feast. It’s a form more developed in the USA than here, although ‘you know it when you see it.’ It may be part memoir, part historical fiction and/or part travel writing or even part something else but it’s almost always personal. The latter is how you can distinguish it from an essay. It’s a slippery form to define in concrete terms. Emma came up with a useful Roethke quote - form is a sieve to catch meaning.
Francis talked about the freedom that creative non-fiction affords a writer. Making a hybrid thing from experience allows room for experimentation. The drama of the self may be the embodiment of memoir but the edges start melting with the productive borrowing from fiction. You have the freedom to decide what gets said. Write with a chip of ice in your heart although this can be ethically tricky. There will always be the tug of tension between questions of 'should I' versus 'can I' tell this story, especially if it involves other people. What if your story doesn't make sense if you omit certain details involving others? Remember that you have the right to tell your own story or point of view. The proportion of selection of facts to invention will come if you hunt through memory looking for vivid effects. There are lots of advantages that come with experimenting with the form as long as your reader understands your 'rules'. One way is to frame your story is with an explanation* (novels can do this too but not on the first page). Do ensure you compensate the reader if you write about odd stuff like Soviet economics, as Francis did in Red Plenty. Make it fun for the reader. Find a way to make other people ‘get’ your self enquiry or the root of your obsession, whatever that may be.
The pleasure is in finding the structure. Francis usually starts with a device to hang his story on. He often begins to write a new project with a starting point in mind and usually has the last paragraph too, as he needs to be heading somewhere. Get that first draft down, from beginning to end, no matter how long it takes. Remember that a whole imperfect thing beats an imaginary perfect thing, hands down. Emma suggested you make your peace with the thing it’s not going to be. It helps to know the sort of writer you are; Frances mentioned Zadie Smith's creative writing lecture, That Crafty Feeling, given a few years ago, where she asked are you a micro planner or do you macro-manage?
Francis was a cracking guest with lots to share. He didn't seem at all fazed when a neighbourhood dog momentarily upstaged everyone with an unscheduled appearance onstage in pursuit of Maggie the Tea house cat. Emma Darwin led a fab discussion. Maggie the cat showed her feline appreciation, post dog chase, and chose Emma's lap for a recovery nap.
Thank you to one and all who came along and made it such a lovely evening. I’ve met some wonderful people in the last eight months since we kicked off. I’ve learnt loads and I’ve enjoyed each and every salon. So it was terribly sad to arrive home after Monday’s happy event, feeling all buoyant about life and it's rich possibilities, only to learn of the senseless atrocity that had just taken place in Manchester. I wish I could think of something appropriate to say here in the face of such grief and horror but sadly I can't.
Moving forward, next month Emma and I will be discussing World Building with novelist, journalist, and mentor, Claire Scobie. We’ll be focusing on how to create an evocative sense of time and place in your writing. Claire is coming all the way from Sydney with a full writing agenda planned for a European summer tour and we're delighted that she'll be joining us at the Teahouse Theatre Cafe on Monday 5th June. Hope to see you then.
* Emma Darwin's blog: Do What You Like, And Teach Your Reader To Like It Too
Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind Occasional Essays (including the essay, That Crafty Feeling) or else for a summary look here: Brainpickings
Some of Francis Spufford's favourite Creative Non-Fic writers & books:
Robert McFarlane's books on nature writing
Olivia Laing: To The River, The Lonely city
Jonathan Raban: Soft City
Rebecca Solnit: Men Explain Things To Me: And Other Essays
Elif Baltuman: The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them, The Idiot
Sybille Bedford: A Visit To Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey
Amy Liptrot: The Outrun
James Buchan’s literary thrillers including A Good Place to Die, also (non-fic) Frozen Desire
Asar Nafisi: Reading Lolita In Tehran, A Story Of Love Books & Revolution
Andrew Brown: Fishing In Utopia: Sweden And the Future That Disappeared