the m john harrison blog

Tag: writing

‘“to thaw” is to ungive

“There are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a distant echo. Nature will not name itself. Granite doesn’t self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject.” Robert Macfarlane in the Guardian today, as exact as ever. I read him & I think, “No contest.” I’ve no idea what I mean by that, except that at his best he somehow obviates the collision–the war–between prose and things: even when, as here, he’s confronting it, admitting it (both admitting to it and inviting it in). This is everything you want from an essayist and landscape writer. I can’t wait to read Landmarks.

note to self

Won’t do to have them separated for the whole thing. Structure would work better if they were given another chance at each other maybe two thirds through. She comes down to London. Semi-alienated encounter–heavily flagged up for the reader but a bit empty of apparent content–in which neither of them seems able to talk about their actual anxieties. (See 2nd meeting for tone.) He’s too preoccupied to pursue her over it. Tell this from his pov, then when you return to hers, have her write him an email in which she takes him to task about it while admitting that she’s also to blame & still not addressing her concerns. He doesn’t answer. When we switch back to his pov later, no mention is made of it. The ending solves this. Or not. (NB: placed right, the third encounter would also amplify the readers’ anxieties about what’s happening to her.)

acts of composition

If To Kill A Mockingbird originated as some sort of back narrative inside the larger structure Go Set A Watchman (and it did, and now we know that we can’t unknow it) then Go Set A Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel but part of another kind of structure altogether. When the book appears, the complexities of this distinction, including the possibility that many actual prequels and sequels may have originated in a similar but unrecorded process, might be worth an article in themselves. Distinctions like this undermine generalising terminology and force us to return not just to the individual book but the individual act of composition.

learning to skate

The first time you read Love for Lydia, you understand those opening scenes in which she learns to skate not just as a metaphor for life, or love, or sex, but as the beginning of a forty page allegorical synopsis of the rest of the novel. You know, somehow, what’s going to happen. Everything is unutterably lyrical but unutterably full of tension. You don’t know quite what you’re being told, but you know you are being told everything. While Lydia learns to skate, you are learning an emotional symbology. Later on you’ll be mapping every single tragic turn on to those frozen marshes, the bitter air, Lydia’s confusion and blunt self-consciousness as it gives way to elation, the great cry, “I can do it!” She can skate. Lydia can skate! “She went forward in a flash of release, suddenly, as everyone does, all alone, clear and confident at last and free.” Lydia can skate, and everything has already started to go wrong…

“After the death of their elder brother the two Aspen sisters came back to Evensford at the end of February, driving in the enormous brown coachwork Daimler with the gilt monograms on the doors, through a sudden fall of snow.” —HE Bates, Love For Lydia.

abandoned opening

My life built itself round a hallucination, a repeating dream, and one of those events that fills the media for a month or two before vanishing. To start with they had a curious similarity in tone. They were equally distanced and unthreatening, as if it wasn’t actually me experiencing them. In a way, it wasn’t. The person who experienced them came later. My mistake was to think of him as me, as the identity I had constructed by living my life. By then I had an identity all right: but all along it had been assembled…

“Douglas Coupland told Disney that the problem with their films is that they’re too efficient, too seamless. I feel like recently every film or narrative structure is becoming too efficient. There’s no time to be distracted, you know what I mean? There’s no time to find your own time in the narrative.”

Pierre Huyghe interviewed by Doug Aitken

writerly advice

I once lived for a couple of years with another novelist. At that time I played the lottery. Every ticket I bought she would complain, “Why are you doing that? We’re writers. We already play the lottery.”


However complete a fauxthentication is, it can’t actually be a world–-therefore the criticism, “This novel is still not fully & properly fauxthenticated” is always possible. The constant bolstering of the “world” constantly reveals it not to be one, ie reveals it never to be complete the way the world is. This seems to say more about the limits of writing & the act of suspension of disbelief (an immersion which can clearly be brought about in other ways) than it does about the actual need for a world to seem to be present in front of the reader. Also, it strikes me as a bit mad to be a fiction writer if you have to struggle so desperately to pretend you’re not. There’s some kind of guilt trip behind that. Fauxthentication seems like an attempt to deny your position as someone who makes things up.

make u think

Jackdaws bickering in the air in the tall back corner of the house made me think briefly of Ravensdale, a crag with which I was so obsessed in 1977/8 that I gave it a bit-part in A Storm of Wings, that well-known novel of documentary realism. Watching the “Entertaining Angels Unawares” video on YouTube made me feel old, but also made me think briefly of this, from 1991. Meanwhile, I just stumbled across this, from Neel Mukherjee; & “Cave & Julia” has earned some more money on Kindle, making it one of the more economically productive short stories I’ve published (maybe a lesson there). And, describing the people he claims to speak for as convenor of some mythical Tory “trades union”, David Cameron has accidentally used the word “resent” instead of “represent”.

Generally, it’s been a weirdly mixed day. & only half over.


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