Monday, September 21, 2009

The Little Book Room

Halfway up the Burke Road hill in Camberwell, just before the railway station, there was once a bookshop known as The Little Book Room. It was unusual for its careful selection of books, as if the owners had hand picked each book with great and loving care. It had the feel of a personal library, like roaming through someone’s store of books in an overcrowded house. The books lined the steps and at times came in what seemed like no particular order at all.

It was in this shop that I first came across Drusilla Modjeska’s Poppy. The cover drew me in, the sepia toned photo of a mother and her baby, the words transcribed from the text, Modjeska’s words, so familiar to me now, a mother urging her baby to look into the mirror. 'There, see there. See, it’s you.' That moment of recognition, of mother and baby, that moment of connection.

I bought the book and read it over the next weeks. The story, the writing gave me hope, the greatest hope of all that someday I too might be able to write like this.

Modjeska became my point of reference for my own attempts at writing. When my writing teacher in the novel writing class I had joined in 1997 once criticized my narrator as drowning the energy from my story I listened only with one ear, one eye. I wanted too much to be like Modjeska and she could get away with it. Why ever could I not join her , imitate her style?

Now I recognise the need to find my own voice, even as it echoes back in my ears, tinny and self serving, with none of the gentle cadences and rhythms of Modjeska’s words. But I must trust myself, otherwise I will plunge back into that empty space of my childhood where I seemed able only to try to imitate the greats.


Jim Murdoch said...

I would love to be all empathetic here but I'm afraid I can't. With the exception of a couple of poems about thirty years ago I can't ever remember consciously trying to imitate anyone. And even reading back over old stuff I can't really see anyone's influence glaring back at me. When I was getting ready to promote my novels I had to think of some stuff to say and so I dropped a few names like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett to try and suggest what my demographic might be but the thing is I'd never read either of them when I wrote the books, in fact I've still not read any Pratchett. I suspect the reason for this is the fact that I read so widely that I never socked up any particular style. There are a couple of writers where I have read just about everything they ever published – Brautigan and Beckett – but their voices are so distinctive that it would be obvious if I tried to copy them not that I've ever felt I wanted to.

I think voice is important. With my short stories I've managed to write in many different voices and I've been complimented on my female characters but this current novel is just killing me. One of the reasons I suspect is that I've tried to keep humour out of the thing and it feels anaemic frankly. I've tried adding humour in but now it feels artificial as if I've grafted on a third leg. I wrote the thing in the third person and then rewrote in the first which helped. I've changed the age of the protagonist from a teenager to a mature woman but none of it is working. The thing is I've devoted so much time to the project that I can't seem to drop it either. All I need to do is get the voice right and everything else will fall into place.

Elisabeth said...

I can't see how you can change the age and gender of your protagonist without having to change the whole lot.
That said, I agree with you about finding your voice. Isn't this what happened to Frank McCourt of Angela's Ashes? Mind you his is memoir.
I remember reading somewhere that he had been trying to write his book for years and years and years, then one day suddenly the voice came good and the rest is history. May this happen to you.