On Listening and Writing

My last class for the year was all about teaching my students to listen to the stories told by traditional owners, and how not to explore artefacts as complete outsiders while considering oneself an insider. We talked about why. We did lots of listening. In fact, we spent nearly an hour and a half and only covered the first quarter of the exhibition we were using as our base. I need to go back to the National Museum sometime in the next month to see the rest. If anyone wants to join me, you are entirely welcome.

My homework for the next month (apart from editing and apart from researching and apart from writing) is to learn how to listen in a different way. I was paying attention to my students’ reactions and I came back and watched some Time Team and I looked at my early map of St Ives (thanks to the kindness of the Norris Museum) and I realised that I still haven’t allowed for time and place in my novel. No wonder I can’t bring my characters to life yet! Every time I envisage a house, it’s a late 17th century house. I’ve been infected by badly designed fantasy, I fear. All the houses are of a period. And I’ve been infected by movies where all the clothes are by the same designer.

In reality, we live in composite timescapes. I have no problems sorting this out for the Middle Ages, or for modern stuff, but the 17th century is still too fantastical for me and fantastical means a kind of cultural and temporal unity that are seldom reflected in reality, due to our cultural predispositions.

I knew this could be a problem. It’s why I have maps and photos. I’m beginning to understand, though, why so many writers can’t move beyond this stage and fall back on fantasy history. I find, though, that I’m not as canny at visualisation as I was thirty years ago. Our minds change. I have a way out of this small dead-end and of getting into a properly visualised place and time, but cannot seem to enact it. I need to juxtapose my maps with my photos with my records of museum pieces and come up with a complex reality.

I used to do this almost effortlessly. Minds change with age. If anyone wants to spend a few days this summer creating a mural on my floor or on my wall, we can create a more convincing 17th century using my data. Pay is chocolate and 17th century drinks. If none of you can visit, then (since I’ve tried to do it alone and failed) I’ll work out another technique.

My big lesson of the week is a reminder why teaching and writing fiction work so very strongly together. If I hadn’t taught my students close listening, I might have missed that I myself was not listening as closely as I should and that my learning style has changed over time.

In an interview the other week someone asked about the teaching of fiction and non-fiction (because some of my research definitely addresses boundary issues). It looks as if I’ll still be teaching those border areas, because I need to learn them for my own fiction. I have the theory. But theory and practice are too far apart for comfort. What I need to factor in now is modes of learning and modes of thinking and how writers themselves work. And I need to do it for me, for my fiction, not for a scholarly paper. This means that fiction/non-fiction boundary will be a part of my teaching for a fair while to come. If someone asked me that interview question today, my answer would be very different to the one I gave a month ago.

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