I was struck, recently, by something Colm Tóibín said after watching the film adaptation of his novel, Brooklyn: ‘On screen it looks complete, as if it was always there, but you are the only person who knows how tentative it was.’

It’s easy to forget those tentative beginnings, and yet it’s that tentativeness that I pay attention to when it arrives. Invariably, it’s a sign that here’s a story I need to write. Invariably, it’s where the work begins; with reminding myself what Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo: that if there’s a scene that must be painted, then you must attempt to paint it, even if you fear you can’t.

It’s the start of what can feel like an interminable process of trial and error – what Nell Freudenberger has called ‘a blind groping in the dark – for something, anything, both resonant and concrete.’

All good stories are both resonant and concrete; they live in the mind of the reader and reverberate beyond the pages of the book. But that resonance and concreteness are elusive. I can lay down sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, images and connections, physical objects and dialogue and thought; I can labour over structure and the handling of time, and yet, somehow, the alchemy doesn’t work, and I have to remember something else Van Gogh wrote to his brother (partly, it has to be said, because he was begging Theo for money to buy more canvases, but no less truthfully for that):

‘Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.’

One of my favourite examples of this in my own writing is when I’d been struggling for more than five years to find the voice of a young girl called Alyss in a short story.  I’d written the story countless times, yet still Alyss’s voice on the page wasn’t the voice in my head. It resisted all my efforts. And then, one day, two completely serendipitous things happened:

  1. I read the opening chapters of The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien and
  2. the e key on my keyboard stopped working.

Somehow the two things – O’Brien’s joyous verbal gymnastics, together with the weirdly fresh and funny look of a page of dialogue with no e in any of the words – brought something new to my failures. They turned a key in them, unlocking something that was there but which I’d never managed to bring to life, leading me to Alyss’s voice. It wasn’t e-less, and it didn’t mimic O’Brien’s prose, but at long last, I had it.

Trial and error – I don’t know of any other way to write. I try something this way and I try it that way, over and over and over.

Which brings me back to the notion of tentativeness – to doubt and uncertainty and to the exhilarating openness which comes with that, to whatever might come along.

On the shelf above my desk I’ve stuck, over the years, various scraps of poetry and assorted quotations, but my favourite by far is a line from Stendhal, or maybe it’s Gide; I can’t remember now, and it doesn’t really matter – what matters is that it’s up there, and that I look at it all the time:

‘My best sentences are the ones I begin without knowing how they’ll end.’


Photograph © HelzT93

Three Stories
Painter to the King