On Vanishing

Here’s an interesting piece (yes, on Buzzfeed – don’t worry, it’s not ’Ten cats dressed up as other types of cat’) by Catherine Lacey on writing in the first person, and the journalistic convention of attempting to conflate the author of a novel with its narrator. ‘Is it based on a true story?’ is one of those bizarre rather impertinent questions people ask people who’ve written a piece of fiction — a question whose equivalent you feel they might feel silly asking, say, an architect (‘Are all your designs based on a house you lived in as a child?’) or a teacher (‘Do you only teach children the things you were taught yourself?’). In a way it’s the flipside of the old saw about everyone having a novel in them, the implication being that all a published author has done is write down the kind of thing that has happened to them in life, and how hard can that be?

I also identified with Lacey’s description of the sharper kind of wanderlust she feels – a desire to disappear entirely (a shared dream of writers?) – which makes me wonder if, for her, as for me, the act of vanishing into writing a book satisfies this urge. Few other occupations allow the practitioner the chance to inhabit a life that is, even if the journalist who interviewed Lacey didn’t seem to grasp this, almost entirely unlike her own. I don’t believe that writing a novel should be a way to work directly and overtly through ‘issues’ (though in some cases writing can be useful therapy), but maybe it goes some way to assuaging a desire to throw everything in the air and go off to start a new life on the other side of the planet on a whim. (I feel this urge every so often.)

You work in the dark, so to speak, and until you show your manuscript to other people, or discuss it in any specific terms, to write a book means to hide in plain sight, to spend your time with people no-one else knows, to go to a place where no-one can really find you. My partner Mark was astonished on reading the first draft of The Glasgow Coma Scale: ‘So this is who you’ve been hanging out with all year!’ If you can’t flee to that uninhabited desert island in real life, you can live vicariously through the experiences of someone who is shaped by you, and shapes you too.

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