On Having a Haunted Writing Process
When I look at all of my major writing projects, both fiction and poetry, I notice one big commonality. They are all based around real people who are no longer around to tell their stories. My writing process has become haunted.
Exploring a character is what interests me the most about writing and there’s something about that exploration being centred around a real person that makes it more intense and intimate. By choosing to write about someone real I enter into a unique kind of relationship with them. I will never be able to meet this person or speak to them, but I have duty to collect everything I can about them to be as true and respectful to them as possible.
For the novel I’m currently working on, about Victorian artist Elizabeth Siddal, there is very little material to be found from her own perspective: one letter she wrote that somehow survived when her husband burnt all of her other correspondence, and her poems and paintings too. But these few slivers are not enough for me to imagine her life. I have to rely on the way others saw her: lovers, friends, family, even enemies. I take their words, and facts laid out by biographers, and try to get a sense of who this woman was. I’m not the first person to be drawn to write about her, but others’ approaches have romanticized her, or allowed the more “famous” men around her to take over the narrative. I want her life to dominate the text with all of the ways it challenged the gender norms of the time and with all the brutal, dark moments that other writers have shied away from.
My first collection of poetry, Throwing the Diamond Hitch, is a lot more personal in that the two main characters of the poems are my granny and her best friend Anne. Both of them were very dear to me when they were still alive. I started reading the travel diary the two of them had written together in 1951 as a way of remembering my granny. Both she and Anne has such a witty, wry way of capturing their adventures and the people they met. My first instinct was that the moments of the diary that really stood out needed to be poems. Why poems and not fiction? I’m not sure, but that’s what my gut told me, so that’s what I did. Writing the poems felt like a way of both honouring my granny and also having a conversation with her, and the challenges of making both her and Anne into a characters were interesting. I had known these two women in real life, but not when they were in their twenties, which is when the trip took place. And while I had all this primary source material to draw from, I don’t think I can ever say that the women that appear in my book are actually Anne and my granny, they’re these strange sort of partial duplicates of them.
I still think about my first literary theory class as an undergraduate. We were learning about Derrida and his concept of différance. Everyone hated Derrida. I felt like I was having this huge eureka moment. His concept around the space between the signifier and the signified in language is something I think about often. For my current work it makes me think about that space between what the “reality” of a person’s life was, and how a writer ends up condensing and translating that into a narrative. We are never really going to be able to write the signified. There’s something really painful about that, but there’s an endless possibility inherent in it too.