Posted on September 22nd 2015
Jane used to compare the experience of writing a novel to rowing a small boat across the Atlantic. You set off to the cheers of friends and well-wishers, but soon you’re all alone in an immensity of sea. The place you left is a long way away. The land you hope to reach is not even a dot on the horizon, and there’s no telling whether the natives will be friendly when you arrive – but you just have to keep going.
Biography is nothing like so nerve-racking. The plot is already in place, and you’re on firm ground for most of the way although there are some boggy bits. It’s not as lonely as fiction because you rely on so many people to share their memories and tell their stories, and most people are unfailingly kind and willing to help. But there does come a point when you have to sit down and start work. It’s always astonishing to me how writing clarifies what you think, forcing you to put vague feelings into words. I wish I knew more words and could think deeper and more elegantly, but there it is, all I can do is push what there is as far as it will go and hope for the best.
I’m now about half-way through: it’s the end of Chapter Seven, and Jane has just met Kingsley Amis. This is going to be like two asteroids crashing into each other. For one exciting moment there’s a blaze of sparks and light, they might even hold together – and they did, for a bit. But they were both damaged by the collision, and when they finally split up they went their separate ways, slower and wobblier than before.
For the first time this weekend, I printed out the text so far because I wanted to show it to a friend who knew her well. I haven’t read it all but one thing I must go back and emphasise is the quality of her loneliness. We all get lonely, but many of us also enjoy solitude: it’s a chance to re-charge the batteries, take a break – and as long as it doesn’t go on for too long, it can be very rewarding. But Jane really hated being on her own and never got used to it – it was as if she was not whole unless there were other people around her. Odd that she took up such a solitary profession as writing books, then; but I think that it was only when she was writing that she was free of her loneliness – and much else besides.