Here is some non-fiction – a biography.
Komitas, birth name Soghomon Soghomonian, was born in 1869, in a part of the Ottoman Empire that now belongs to Turkey. He was an orphan, physically weak, but a wonderful singer. Brought as a twelve year-old boy to Etchmiadzin,
the Armenian Orthodox Church equivalent of the Vatican, Soghoman stood on a brightly coloured carpet and sang for the Catolicos, the Armenian Pope – he sang for his life. If he was successful, he would be taken in by the church, would be fed, would have a future of black clothes and chanted prayers.
The Catolicos liked what he heard, and Komitas did become a priest. He spent years recomposing the Orthodox Mass, and collecting and transcribing Armenian folk songs – like an Armenian Cecil Sharp, or Bela Bartok. Then he moved to Constantinople, intending to bring the music of his people to a wider audience. When the genocide began on April 24th 1915, Komitas was rounded up, with other Armenians, and would have died with them if influential friends had not intervened with the Turkish authorities.
He saw dozens of people he knew taken away, and knew they would die. Komitas survived. He lived from 1919 until 1935 in a French sanatorium, not composing. He had been destroyed, as a man.
After Komitas died, he was buried in Armenia’s Pantheon, near the capital city of Yerevan. Although not well known outside Armenia, Komitas is – for most Armenians – nearly a saint.
Here’s some non-fiction – this time autobiographical.
In May 2009, I was lucky enough to get to go to Armenia – to make a half hour documentary about Komitas for Radio 3, my first presenting job on the radio. It was one of the best experiences of my life – one for which I will never cease being grateful, because it was so unexpected.
I had first come across Komitas’s music on a previous visit to Yerevan. I went into a music shop on one of the main roads and asked them to play me the oldest recorded music they had. After a couple of false starts, with stuff from the 1980s, they played me a recording from the 1910s of Komitas singing his own songs.
I had never heard anything so powerful, so mournful – not Robert Johnson’s blues, not Maria Callas ‘Casta Diva’, not Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’. When I got back to England, I played the CD to anyone who would listen. I wanted more people to hear it – to be moved by it. The title of the documentary I ended up making was ‘The Saddest Music in the World’.
Accompanied, guided and nudged toward professionalism by the producer Zahid Warley.
I spent ten days travelling around the country, interviewing people about Komitas and what his music meant to them and to Armenians in the diaspora. We were lucky enough to have a brilliant fixer called Tigran Xmalian,
who arranged interviews and gave us history lessons and played Led Zeppelin loud as he drove without a seat-belt. We went went to monasteries and chapels, we climbed down into a prehistorical burial cave, we drove up a mountain and drank homemade vodka. And more homemade vodka. Then climbed to the summit.
Toward the end of our time there, Zahid Warley and I were driven out to the Armenian Pantheon, to visit the grave of Komitas.
In the taxi, we discussed the script. What should I say? What should my tone be? It was obviously going to be something we put in at the end of the documentrary. I wanted to say something intelligent but profound, something to sum up the tragedy of the Armenian people.
‘If you’re going to cry,’ said Zahid, as we got out of the car, ‘make sure I get it on mic.’
From twenty paces off, I saw the grave, a small-ish monument with a life-size sculpture of Komitas, and – seeing it – I hit an emotional wall. At that point, I walked away from Zahid. I didn’t let him record me. I did cry, I cried quite a bit, and all I could think to say – to myself – was, ‘Such a sad life. Such a sad life.’
Afterwards, I realized that was all I’d needed to say –
‘Such a sad life.’
Zahid was very good about it, but, as a radio presenter, I’d failed. I hadn’t cried into the microphone. When I’d recovered, we took a photo.
Today I’m going to be talking about using the ‘I’ in non-fictional writing, particularly in autobiography and memoir. I’m going to be talking about tone – trying to help you get the tone of your non-fiction right. As an example of this, I’ve chosen Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which I hope you’ve had the chance to read. And in all of this, I would like you to think about that microphone – the documentary microphone – and whether or not, if you were there, if you started crying, you’d cry into it or not.
I’d like you to think about this, because that’s one of the main questions of non-fiction – how exactly you cry, or don’t cry.
About a year ago, I spotted the writer David Flusfeder in the British Library, and he spotted me. We knew one another well enough for a chat. I asked him what he was working on. He said he was getting towards the end of a non-fiction book, although I knew he usually wrote novels. I said I was getting towards the end of a non-fiction book, too.
‘They’re really difficult,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they?’
David Flusfeder looked at me straight on and said, ‘Tone.’
I said it back to him, ‘Yes, tone.’
We made humming noises of agreement – mmm, mmm. It was one of the most satisfying conversations I’ve ever had.
You see, neither of us needed to say any more; we both knew what we meant, and we both knew what the other meant, and we both knew what ‘Tone’ meant and why it was so monstrously difficult. And we were both, I think, finding tone in non-fiction difficult not only because we usually wrote fiction but because tone in non-fiction is – in a way – the whole of non-fiction. Get the tone right – right for a certain group of readers – as, I’d say, Geoff Dyer does, and Maggie O’Farrell, Maggie Nelson, Bill Bryson – get the tone right, and the subject becomes almost secondary. The writing continues in the tone required because that tone requires more writing to fulfil itself.
Both David Flusfeder and I were admitting the thing that was killing us – Tone. I don’t know about him. Tone is what I think about what I think about the non-fiction book I’ve written, and which comes out today, Wrestliana.
(In her very worthwhile book The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes about tone, but she calls it voice. This may be a better way of referring to it, but I’m going to stick with tone. While writing my non-fiction book, I felt I had an idea of my voice, of the things it could say, but what I wasn’t sure about was how exactly to phrase this or that. I wasn’t sure what tone to use.)
Although there are copies of it on sale, and this isn’t necessarily going to sell them, I’m now going to admit two big things about Wrestliana. First, it was a hard book to write, the hardest I’ve ever written, because it was – as you’d say – the one that took most out of me; and second, I had to struggle with tone in every paragraph. Not to get it absolutely right but to keep it from being absolutely wrong. My editors, Sam Jordison and Eloise Miller of Galley Beggar, did a lot of work keeping me there. They were the documentary microphone, held out in front of me.
Having finished the book, I feel more an apprentice at non-fiction than a master of it. My defeats are fresh ones. So today I’d like to talk out of that apprenticeship, rather than try to say anything that pretends to be vastly authoritative and wise. Because nowadays – I think – defeat, and the vulnerability of admitting defeat is perhaps necessary to the tone of non-fiction.
At this point, I’m not sure what to say.
I’m not sure what to say – let’s centre things there. Let me fix on that. As a start point. As a tone. Hesitant, self-questioning. For various reasons.
One is a general, historical reason. Because uncertainty is part of the tone of contemporary non-fiction. It wasn’t always the tone, but more and more it has become so. A tone of righteousness used to be acceptable, in the 19th century, yes – even a tone of self-righteousness. Look at Carlyle, Ruskin. You can still find writers who adopt that tone. V.S. Naipaul, for example. But it’s very hard to pull off – it takes a certain kind of imperial confidence. Since the 19th century, non-fiction has come under other influences. Slyer and more sceptical. Compare Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Look at Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That or Father and Son by Edmund Gosse. These books enacted the death of – the vanquishing 0f – a Victorian tone of righteousness, of moral certainty, of aboveness.
A second reason for starting with not being sure what to say is that a couple of years ago I published a book called Mutants, and in it I included some of these Birkbeck summer lectures I’ve given. The book wasn’t widely reviewed; the main review suggested that the collection’s greatest weakness was an offputting tone of certainty. The reviewer held to the idea of an essay being an account of a voyage into the unknown, undertaken uncertainly, rather than the mapping of already explored territory. Essays are wild rather than tame. The self is wild.
‘I don’t know what to say’ because I am admitting my doubt, my bewilderment – a word with wild in the middle.
Contemporary readers, I would say, prefer to read about bewilderment than certainty. Think about that, with regard to tone. Your tone.
Partly, with Mutants, there was an issue about lectures being published as essays. The tone of a lecture is more likely to be one of certainty: I am up here speaking, and unless I have something worth sharing, from up here, there’s not going to be much point in you listening.
A lecture may retrace steps of uncertainty, lostness, but does so from the safety of the public platform. There is, at the very least, the perspective of retrospect, of the self looking back at the self (this is going to become central to the discussion of tone, and of what an ‘I’ book is). Lectures aren’t given from floor level. They’re not spoken by someone so lost they are lying on the ground, weeping. Lectures may be about lying on the ground, weeping, but lecturers don’t lie on the ground and weep. I’m not going to do that today. An essayist may be lying on the ground, weeping, when they have the idea of the essay or even, possibly, when they are making notes for the essay.
What, in this, is useful for you? Well, writing about the self, about yourselves, you’re each of you – if you take my suggestion – going to adopt a tone that is closer to the essay than the lecture. It’s better to sound less like a confident world-expert on yourself (which of course, if nothing else, you are) than a bewildered observer or oppressed victim of yourself (which you may very well be).
This lecture, although it’s started by being quite a lot about me, is mostly going to be about you writing about yourselves, and about what tone to use in doing that. But I’m going to do that by speaking about my own experiences and bewilderments.
In 2014, I began writing autobiographically. Today, May 1st 2018, is publication day for the book that resulted – Wrestliana. It has changed a lot since the beginning, particularly in tone – and when you hear the beginning, you’ll be glad (I think).
The beginning was in a black notebook with these words on the cover: “SELFISH” – Autobiographical Notes. My tone was aggressively self-defensive:
30th September 2014. Fuck modesty; this is about me – if you’re not interested in me, then what are you fucking doing fucking reading this? If you don’t think I’m worthy of my own attention, you are in a far larger group than those who think I am. Join them. Take the piss. Enjoy the rest of your life without the interruption or insult of this book. For those who have stayed, I intend to be remorselessly open. Not Oprah sofa. But metaphysically laid bare. This is about one male from Bedfordshire’s inevitable failure to exist in a satisfactory manner.
(In a way, I regret I didn’t pursue this voice for longer. It’s embarrassing. It’s crude. It would have been unpublishable, but it might have led somewhere interesting.)
There are books that adopt this tone – the why should I put up with all these stupid readers tone. V.S.Naipaul is famous for it. The patrician tone. Alan Clarke’s Diaries. Readers love writers who absolutely don’t give a fuck. But if you give even 0.5% of a fuck, that means you are nowhere near absolutely not giving a fuck. You care what the reader thinks. You hope for a reader. Your tone is already curving in their direction.
Your tone is likely to oscillate between ‘Fuck off’ and ‘Love me, because I don’t really care about whether or not I’m loved’ and ‘Love me, because I’m doing my best to change, to be more loveable’ and ‘Love me, I’m so needy.’ This wobbling tone can kill a book. If you’re going to be an arrogant bastard, be an arrogant bastard.
But don’t you need to be an arrogant bastard to write a whole book in the first person anyway? I think that’s what I was trying to deal with, in beginning like this.
One of the things you need to think about, in regards to tone, is the bookness of what you’re aiming towards. You need to factor in the fact that if you complete a book that a book is what it’ll be read as – not your diary, not as an email to a friend, but as a proper complete respectable between-hard-covers book.
In pitching your tone, you need to beware of self-hatred, of getting your hate in first, on the assumption that the reader’s going to hate you.
I think it’s probably safer to assume (tone-wise) that the reader is going to start off if not loving or liking you then giving you the benefit of the doubt, for a while. Better an assumption of readerly well-disposedness (they’re interested in me) than addressing, than hectoring imagined possible readers who – in truth – are never going to be your readers. Because they’re not readers at all. They’re the people out there who you feel the need to address, to shout at on the page, so as to justify the fact you’re writing about yourself at all. The general public. Or your sarcastic uncle. Or taxi drivers.
‘I’m writing an autobiography…’
As you just were forced to hear, when I started to write the book that became Wrestliana, I did a lot of this hectoring of non-readers. I didn’t write defensively. I wrote offensively.
But there’s no point writing for the haters. It’ll distort your tone from the first word. That’s what it was doing with me. And some of this tone made it into the first draft, and the second draft.
Let’s say you’re writing a non-fiction book, and you’re writing it in the first person. You can assume, at the very least, that your reader likes non-fiction books in the first person. They don’t hate you on sight. But you are a writer. You are the writer of a book.
For most people, this makes you weird. And enviable. And pitiable.
Non-fiction writing sends two messages to the reader. The first is this: ‘I did this’. The second is: ‘You didn’t do this.’
For example, my opening story about the making a radio documentary in Armenia. I did this and you didn’t do this.
I need to expand this, a lot.
The first message to the reader is not only, ‘I did this – had this experience’ but also ‘I did this – I had the time to do this’ and beneath that message, ‘I did this – I had the time to have this experience and then I found the time to write about it, because you’re reading about it now.’
The second message to the reader is not only : ‘You didn’t do this – you didn’t have this experience’ it is also ‘You didn’t do this – you don’t have time to do things like this – you only have time to read about someone else (in this case, me) doing this.’ And finally, ‘You didn’t do this – and you didn’t write about this either, you had someone else (in this case, me) write it for you.’
Let me go back to the first statement. ‘I did this – I had the time to have this experience and then I found the time to write about it.’
This is almost inevitably going to create a feeling of envy in the reader, time-envy.
(People are especially time-envious of writers because they believe writers have lots and lots of time – time in which to write books, which take a lot of time, of which there is never enough.)
To have time to write all the words in a book, the writer is obviously some kind of life-avoider – a truant from the business of living; and they will only be tolerated if they make of this theft (this theft of time) a gift: a good book.
Time-envy is, in a sense, the core of non-fiction – and perhaps of all books, these days. When I step into a bookshop, my first reaction is often panic, a time-vertigo. Oh my God, I don’t have time, in the rest of my life, to read even half of the books I can see at this moment. Bookshops make me feel extremely finite.
But the management that time-envy – that I don’t have time to – is the point of lots of kinds of non-fiction books. Cookery books, for example, never show the food that has gone wrong, because it has been rushed. They show perfect, perfected versions of the dishes. The celebrity chefs seem to have an infinity of time to create their masterpieces. When cookery books are bought, or given as presents, it’s highly likely that the reader will spend a small rushed amount of time, looking at the pictures and wishing they had a kitchen like that, than a large leisurely amount of time cooking the recipes through, one by one. Same goes for gardening books, DIY books, self-help books. And the reader is almost certainly to think, even if they do do the gardening or the breathing exercise, ‘Oh, I wish I had time to do this as well as the writer of this book – I wish I was living their life.’
That’s time-envy – and the strange thing is, readers seem to enjoy it. They love vicarous experiences. Just as novels are vicarious life; cookery books are vicarious cooking.
In writing non-fiction, your tone needs – without necessarily ever mentioning or acknowledging this – to manage the reader’s time-envy. If you come across as too smug or privileged, as if you take your time for granted, you will lose the reader.
Hence the sentence I included in my Armenia story:
In May 2009, I was lucky enough to get to go to Armenia – to make a half hour documentary about Komitas for Radio 3, my first presenting job on the radio. It was one of the best experiences of my life – one for which I will never cease being grateful, because it was so unexpected.
There is a flip side to time-envy. There is an opposite to cookery/DIY/self-help books. These are non-fiction books that take as they subjects unenviable experiences. The extreme of this are so-called ‘tragic life stories’ or ‘misery memoirs’ – Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It – white covered books with black images of pitiful faces, fonts that look a little like handwriting. They are non-aspirational, because they don’t offer a recipe for better food/plumbing/posture in the future; they offer a catalogue of worse everything in the past. The opposite of time-envy – managed by these books – is time-pity.
Depending upon what kind of life-experience you are covering in your non-fiction, in your piece of I-writing, the reader’s reaction to the message ‘I did this’ could be time-envy or time-pity or a mixture of both or both at different stages of the book.
If the reader is likely to be extremely time-envious, if you are telling them of an immensely good, fulfiling experience – then your tone, if you are sensible, needs to send this accompanying message: ‘I – the privileged writer, who acknowledge my own privilege – was lucky enough to do this, and lucky enough to have the time and money and opportunity to do this’.
If the reader is likely to be time-pitying, the accompanying message is: ‘I – the suppressed victim – was unlucky enough to spend a large part of my life having to go through this, and unlucky enough not to have the time and money and opportunity to escape’.
The origins of these two genres of memoir, time-envy and time-pity, are, I think, likely to be in two different kinds of religious texts – the autobiography of ecstatic union with god (such as Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love) and the biography of terrible martyrdom (Foxe’s Booke of Martyrs).
Time-envy, in this case, comes down to What a blessed life I’ve lived, and now I’m going to heaven. Time-pity, by contrast, is What a terrible death they died, and now they’re going to heaven.
As cookery books are vicarious cooking, misery memoirs are vicarious misery.
The epitome of the time-envy book is A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, and of the time-pity book, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
Years ago, a music book came out.
It was called We rock, so you don’t have to. This so you don’t have to is the time-relation of non-fiction, the relation between writer and reader rather than band and fans. So it’s ‘I’, not we. I do this, and write about it afterwards, so you don’t have to.
It’s a good game to play, coming up with versions of this for different non-fiction books.
I fall off a mountain, so you don’t have to.
I travel around Ireland with a fridge, so you don’t have to.
I have a nervous breakdown then train a goshawk, so you don’t have to.
I wrestle with being a man, so you don’t have to.
This is where non-fiction starts – I am me, so you don’t have to be.
By reading, readers save time. I think readers love vicarious living because they get a different kind of time rush to that I experience in bookshops – not time-vertigo but time-intoxication, a head-rush. They get to gain experience on fast-forward. Because what non-fiction, all non-fiction, offers readers is a distillation of time and experience.
I did all this, over all these years, so you can read about it in half a day.
Just as brewers distil alcohol, so writers distil time – and for the same end: to get people’s heads spinning.
The second half of this lecture is going to be about Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun.
It isn’t a perfect book. I haven’t chosen it because it’s a classic, though it has made a good start and may last quite a while. The Outrun started as a series of blogs for the website Caught By the River, and it retains some of that offhand freshness but it’s also a little scrappy, particularly towards the middle. It’s a bit of a grab-bag at times. But there’s an aesthetic reason for this. The book is dealing with a life – Amy Liptrot’s life – that is anything but neat, and anything but finished.
I am interested in The Outrun because it steers an extremely fine course between time-envy and time-pity. Generally, the time-envy is the time Amy Liptrot spends in the Orkneys. The further north she goes, the more enviable she becomes. And generally the time-pity is London-time, drunk-time. This isn’t always the case, but when Amy Liptrot describes herself as happy in London the reader knows this is a fleeting, hedonistic happiness that is going to come at a cost:
The trips to the off-licence grew more frequent, the shrieks louder, and the poppers were passed around. Someone, it might have been me, dropped the bottle and the contents spilled onto the rainbow blanket. We all dashed to the wet spot, heads down, gasping in the fabric, snorting and squealing, like pigs at the trough, breasts down, ankles up. It was stupid and pitiable and fun, as I breathed in the solvent, rolled onto my back and looked at the sky. As the horizon tipped I was covered with warm light and flying with my friends, limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet, and the sun was blinding me, and I had never been so high. (pg 26-27)
At the points where the reader is feeing the greatest time-pity, Amy Liptrot is not afraid to seize hold of the microphone and cry into it – cry unashamedly:
In another new house, a flat in an ex-council block in Tower Hamlets, my flatmates began to understand that I was drinking alone in my room, then coming out in wildly different moods, and confronted me about it. I got a by-now-familiar ‘We need to talk’ email, followed by the sickening drop in my stomach. I’d let people down before and couldn’t bear to fuck up again. Broke and borrowing money to buy booze or convincing the local shopkeeper to give me some cans on tick. I avoided bumping into my flatmates and neighbours in the street because I knew they could hear my crying at night. (pg 58)
And yet, Amy Liptrot is also aware that the reader might judge her – that her experience of life might fall short of what the reader deemed worthy of pity. And so (as I did in the Armenia memoir) she stresses her luck:
At seventy-three days since I had had a drink, more than two months into the programme, one of the main ‘feelings’ I had was a sense of luckiness. I listened all day to the others’ stories and was so sad at the places their addiction had taken them… I had never injected drugs, been a prostitute, smoked crack in front of my baby, spent eight years in a Russian prison, mugged an old man in a park, or been through six detoxes and four rehabs, painfully relapsing every time… I also felt lucky that I’d had the luxury of taking three months out of the ‘real world’ to sort my life out, publicly funded, with the support of the excellent counsellors on the programme. (pg 71-72)
The Outrun is, in lots of ways, an autobiography. If you were being envious, you might say this: Every sentence within an autobiography ends not with a full-stop but with And then I wrote this book. However bad a time they (the ‘I’) may be having on page 100, this writing in this book is the pay-off – this is the moral: I was able to turn this experience to some account. I was able – because I am a writer – to convert these shitty experiences into decent sentences.
On page 16 and 17 of The Outrun, we read:
At the oil terminal, I had to clean workers’ bedrooms, mop bathrooms, sweep corridors and make beds. I became familiar with different types of dirt: from sweat on sheets, unseen but smelt, to dry footprint mud, satisfyingly hooverable. Toothpaste flecks on mirrors revealed the enthusiastic brusher, and ash showed who had been smoking out of the window in a non-smoking area. Dry and wet poo, ably distinguished by my supervisor, required different cleaning methods, and pubic hairs were left coiled on toilet seats. Most of the rooms I cleaned contained partially drunk bottles of Irn-Bru and some had finger- and toenail clippings buried in the carpet.
I felt as if I had become a ghost, walking nameless corridors under buzzing lights carrying a mop.
This – as writing – is very different, appearing in a book with ‘The Sunday Times Bestseller’ and ‘Winner of the Wainwright Prize 2016’ on the cover. Imagine it, instead, in the diary that a cleaner might write this evening. ‘Today I cleaned a hundred toilets. I feel as if I have become a ghost, walking nameless corridors under buzzing lights carrying a mop.’ But why would a cleaner bother to write that, if they cleaned a hundred toilets every day?
Instead, Amy Liptrot’s paragraph might be read as saying:
At the oil terminal, I had to clean workers’ bedrooms, mop bathrooms, sweep corridors and make beds, and then I wrote a book.
This outcome – and then I wrote a book – turns all autobiographies into success stories. We know from the book we hold that the autobiographer who calls themselves lazy isn’t really lazy. These are not likely to be the life stories of the people you see drinking in your local park, or who present to psychiatric services at the Maudsley. ‘And then I wrote this book’ is perpetual redemption.
Here we come across what you might call the Marcel Proust equation. Marcel, at one point in the novel of his life, thinks his whole life has been wasted. But the two sides of the equation are exactly balanced: all the life that had seemed to be wasted equals exactly the material necessary for the writing of his masterpiece, A la Recherche de Temps Perdu, in English, In Search of Lost Time.
The virtues of The Outrun are honesty, openness and clarity. There are paragraphs where the writing is extremely beautiful.
My reading of The Outrun is that it isn’t simply an autobiography, it’s a contemporary travel book in the form of a recovery memoir.
Journeys around the world have become easier. If you left for the airport now, you could be in Nepal within 24 hours. As this global ease of access has developed, travel narratives have reacted by becoming more psychological.
In The Outrun, if read as a travel book, addiction and recovery have replaced the difficult journey to a far land.
Today, it is – for affluent Westerners, anyway – far more difficult to make the journey from alcoholism to sobriety, from addiction to recovery, than it is to reach to a country it would once have taken them six months to walk to, through dangerous territory.
As a bracing comparison to The Outrun, you might want to read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World.
This memoir gives an account of the 1910–1913 British Antarctic Expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. There are psychological difficulties, but they are caused by extreme physical circumstances – cold, isolation.
It is no longer possible, unless you perversely set out to equip yourself badly – or with historical accuracy to an earlier, less technological period – for anyone to undertake this journey.
You will never be as isolated as someone who had to send a letter home and wait six months for a reply that might not come. You will never be as lost as someone in the era before satnav, before global mapping.
Histories of getting lost are now bookworthy in themselves – see Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. These are both about journeys made deliberately, you might say unnecessarily, difficult.
But even the journey of The Worst Journey in the World was, essentially, touristic. Those undertaking it with Scott didn’t have to go to the South Pole as a matter of survival.
So, if we want to read a narrative – a contemporary narrative – about someone being completely lost, it is going to read something like this:
I remember swigging expensive vodka from the bottle in a suite at a fashionable hotel before falling asleep at a bus stop, climbing over fences and being dragged angrily around a polished floor by my ankles in a silk party dress, trying to go to an AA meeting but ending up in a ‘spirituality workshop’, surrounded by middle-aged ladies in long skirts with bells sewn to the hems. (pg 45)
That was where the lost person (Amy Liptrot) has to journey from, and this is where they have to journey to:
I was running out of options. Although there was lower I could fall – more trouble, further to be cast out – for me, this was enough. One night I had a moment, just a glimpse but it was expansive and ambitious, as if the blinkers were temporarily lifted and my view was flooded with the light, when I saw a sober life could not be only possible but full of hope, dazzling. I held on to that vision and told myself this was my last chance. If I didn’t change, there was nowhere else for me to go but into more pain. (pg 60)
The bravery that was previously required for difficult physical journeys is now transferred to physiological and psychological journeys.
‘It’s been a real journey’ is a cliché of our times but, note, it’s never used to refer to physical travel (that would be tautological), it’s used to refer to personal emotional development. The wild that we go into is the wilderness of the self, because natural wilderness is extremely hard to find. Most places are known.
Amy Liptrot alludes to this wildness, elegantly, when describing her feelings after coming off alcohol:
Lightheaded, with sweet blossom swirling in the breeze around me, waving at mysterious officials in orange boats, an ice-cream van Yankee Doodling from an unknown location and aeroplane trails across east London’s sky, I thought, This is wild. I was finding that being sober could be kind of a trip… (pg 73)
As an aside, I think the reader ends The Outrun fearful for Amy Liptrot’s sobriety. She often frames her recovery in terms of chasing highs – which is addict-thinking. It’s worth you bearing in mind this face about memoirs: What you, the writer, offer as a final diagnosis, the reader is likely to take as an ongoing symptom.
What you offer as diagnosis, the reader will read as symptom.
We live in a world of known unknowns. The end of the recovery memoir is a known unknown, a foregone conclusion. If The Outrun ended in relapse, it wouldn’t be in the genre of recovery memoir. This doesn’t mean that Amy Liptrot may not relapse, but at the point in time chosen for the end of the book, she hadn’t.
Like most writers, perhaps like most human beings, I’m obsessed with time. (I think Julia lectured about this last week.) If you’re writing using the non-fictional ‘I’, you’re likely to be obsessed with time, too. Because the relationship between yourself and yourself in the past, in non-fiction, is extremely complicated.
To talk about this, I’m going to first of all borrow a couple of terms from another non-fiction book, of a different sort, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is a book about how human beings make decisions. On page 14, Kahneman says, ‘..recent research… has introduced a distinction between two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self’.
The distinction between the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self in The Outrun could be taken as a. key to the book and b. very simple. But it shifts around a lot. At one point, in the paragraph quoted earlier, the Experiencing Self is the cleaner and the Remembering Self is the writer. In lots of other places, the Experiencing Self is intoxicated and the Remembering Self is sober.
But Kahneman’s split self is far too simple to account for the non-fictional ‘I’. That ‘I’ has at least one other aspect to go along with Experiencing and Remembering and that is Narrating. There is a Narrating Self.
Memory is not writing. If it were, everyone would be great non-fiction writers.
There are further complications and curlicues of time and identity in non-fictional ‘I’ writing. We can get at them by combining Kahneman’s categories. For example, there is the Remembered Experiencing Self – not the Experiencing Self in a present moment, but the Experiencing Self as Remembered years later. In a non-fiction book, this would be further recessed. It would become the Narrated Remembered Experiencing Self. This may sound unnecessarily complicated, but in fact the most simple diary entry would take this form. ‘I saw the first daffodil out today, and it was beautiful.’ That is theNarrated Remembering Experiencing Self.
Here’s a paragraph that touchingly does this:
In the car on the way to her house, I remember how, when Tom and I were small, Mum would reach back when she was driving and hold our ankles to reassure herself we were still there. (pg 86)
Another simple example would be the Remembered Remembering Self. Whenever you think back to what you once thought about something, that’s what you’re engaging with. And if it takes the form of non-fiction, it will become the Narrated Remembered Remembering Experiencing Self.
An example comes when Amy Liptrot remembers remembering her car crash:
Trying to sleep in the wind-rocked caravan, the muscle memory of the car hitting the verge keeps jolting through my mind and body. (pg 92)
Don’t worry. This expansion of the terms in Thinking, Fast and Slow is meant to be confusing. But it’s also meant to make a very simple point – by choosing to use the non-fictional ‘I’, you are setting out to do something very complicated. The best way to simplify that for yourself, I’ve found, is to be extremely honest. If you follow your thoughts, where they lead, then edit later, you are likely to come up with a much more interesting structure than if you try to write to a preexisting plan. Managing non-fictional time may be extremely complicated, but you’re already well equipped to do it, because you to know your material – your life – very well.
I’d like to look closely at a couple of pages from the first chapter of The Outrun. I’ve printed them as a handout.
What I hope you’ll see is that the ‘I’ is very fluid. It moves quicksilver through time, and through tone.
The passage begins: ‘The wind in Orkney is almost constant.’ This first sentence is objective. There is no ‘I’. (Although an ‘I’ viewpoint has been established on page 1, and earlier – in the Prologue.) An anemometer, placed at the correct latitude and longitude, and monitored over a year, could confirm that the wind in Orkney is almost constant.
The next sentence doesn’t introduce an ‘I’ but it does become more human and more personal: ‘At the farm, the westerley gales are the worst, bringing the sea with them, and tonnes of rock can be moved overnight, the map altered in the morning.’ The gales are ‘worst’ for the people living on the farm, as the narrator has – we already know this.
‘Easterlies can be the most beautiful – when the wind blows towards the tide and skims a glittering canopy of spray from the top of the waves, catching the sun.’ This is even more personal. It is an aesthetic reaction to the natural environment. In other words, it’s the reaction of an ‘I’ who is time-rich, who is able to note light effects. But it’s not a specific moment. It doesn’t put ‘I’ into their body. That takes another couple of sentences.
‘The old croft houses are squat and firm, like many Orcadian people, built to survive the strongest gales. The sturdy balance has not been bred into me: I am tall and gangly.’
Here, I think, is one of the main conscious themes of the book – the narrator as both insider and outsider, islander and Englander. There’s what you might call an evolutionary argument here, but it’s not one I can really go into. If you think about the time that the ‘I’ is referring to here – ‘bred into me’ – it’s genetic time. It’s the time of generations.
The ‘I’ has now gone inside the body, to be the Remembering Experiencing Self. Note that the narrator is using the present tense. ‘Following the familiar coast,…’ The implication is at this particular hour, on this particular day, when I sheltered behind a fridge and walked up to the Outrun for the first time in years, but which I am narrating in the present tense to make it as vivid as I can… ‘Following the familiar coast, I’m trying not to feel unstable. It’s been more than a decade since I lived here and…’ Now we get to what you might have seen as overly complicated – we get to the Narrated Remembered Remembering Self. ‘..since I lived here and memories from my childhood are merging with more recent events: the things that brought me back to Orkney.’
You see what I mean by the narrator’s quicksilver fluidity. The non-fictional ‘I’ here exists in and narrates from many points in time at once. They are at the kitchen table, typing this up on the laptop; they are on the coast, walking; they are on the coast, remembering walking along the coast when a child; they are walking along watching their childhood memories merge with later memories; though not given to the reader, they are remembering drinking, being drunk, deciding to stop drinking, etcetera.
Then we get to one of the key sentences in the book. ‘As I struggle to open a wire gate, I remember what I repeated to my attacker: “I am stronger than you.”
The narrative swerves away from this immediately. We hear no more, for many pages, of the attacker. We have to read on if we want to find out what the attack was and what it continues to mean. Instead, with a new paragraph, the narrator takes us back to something like the objectivity of ‘The wind in Orkney is almost constant.’ We get, ‘At the end of a winter the land is brown and washed-out…’ The rest of the sentence recapitulates the movement of the first paragraph. First becoming more personal, ‘..and the Outrun seems barren,…’ then reintroducing the ‘I’ with ‘..but I know its secrets.’ The book continues by going back to the Neolithic Age, then detouring into biology (the Arctic terns) and botany (Fucus distichus).
I don’t believe this knowledge was all neatly present to the Amy Liptrot at that particular moment, on that particular day. This introduces another kind of Self to the gang of Remembering, Experiencing and Narrating – it is the Researching Self. You might also call it the Googling Self or the Fact-Checking Self.
And all of this – and here’s the important point – all of this has been entirely painless to the reader, probably unnoticed. They’re accompanying a flickering being who is one moment in the present, another in the past. And the tone of that being, the way in which it addresses the reader, varies, too. Sometimes the tone is factual, sometimes subjective, sometimes – later on – it’s superstitious, mythical. At the end of the section in the Tremors chapter, the bit about the Stoorworm, the narrator concludes, ‘A tentacle may still be twitching around these shores and the tremors may be the aftershocks of the monster’s death-throes.’ (pg 12)
What can you take from this?
When you write using the non-fictional ‘I’, you have a great deal of freedom – freedom to move around in time and space. The contemporary reader is likely to expect the ‘I’ you use not to hang around in one place for too long. What the fluidity of Amy Liptrot’s ‘I’ says to the reader is, I am in control of my material – I can move around it at will.
The tone here wins the reader over, because it doesn’t waste their time. They are getting a lot of things at once. Distilled experience, good and bad. They are feeling time-envy and time-pity.
One of the crucial sentences, very early in the book, page 3, is there in case the reader has started to feel too much time-envy. We have just heard about the narrator growing up next to cliffs, walking on them with her mother.
We had a dog once that went over. The collie pup set of chasing rabbits in a gale, did not notice the drop and was never seen again.
My dog died, so yours doesn’t have to. But also, I lived on a cliff-edge, so you don’t have to.
I would say that the whole of The Outrun moves between idealized and unglamorized environments.
I’m going to sum up, with some unsystematic suggestions –
- Don’t start by assuming the reader will hate you
- But don’t assume the reader will love you, unless you give them reason to
- Acknowledge your luck, good or bad
- Be aware of the reader’s time-envy and time-pity
- Think about whether your tone is that of certainty or bewilderment
- Think about whether or not you’re crying into the microphone
- The easiest way to be consistent is to be honest
- If you’re going to be an arrogant bastard, be an arrogant bastard
I started by talking about Komitas, and crying or not crying at his graveside. My only conclusion there was, ‘Such a sad life.’
Amy Liptrot’s conclusion is different, on page 217 of The Outry she says:
Life is getting sadder but more interesting –