Tessa Hadley

In a special guest blog, short story judge Tessa Hadley explains how fiction writing is a form of exploration.

Here is a thought about writing fiction which I was developing in my head the other day. I was thinking about how intimidating reading can be, for the apprentice writer. When you’re reading a novel or a short story by a writer whose work you love, it feels so whole, so unattainable. The writing opens up a whole world for you: complex, vivid, rich with the writer’s knowledge. The writer seems so wise, so all-seeing - your own knowledge and understanding seem puny by contrast.

When we read something really good we feel that the world of the fiction – its characters, insights, action, dialogue, detail – is like a great mansion we’ve been allowed to enter. We’re moving around inside it, room after room, one room opening up out of another, its cellars reaching down into the living rock. And we feel as if that great mansion must be discoverable inside the writer who made it, as if that whole world of insight and knowledge must be inside them. They must be huge people, to have all that inside them. We feel very small, beside their great creation.

As an apprentice writer, therefore, we experience overwhelming doubt: because, in advance of our being able to write, we don’t feel this spaciousness, this solidity of knowing, this mansion, inside ourselves.

But learning to write isn’t in fact like discovering a mansion inside yourself. It’s more like lighting a torch, to carry into places – forms - that exist outside us. Writing lights these new places up, and it feels more like exploration than creation. Learning to write, we’re lighting a torch, not building a house; we seem to carry the torch into a place outside ourselves, lifting it up to illuminate what we find, in all its infinitely multiplying detail, room after room - upstairs to the attic, down in the cellar. The torch smokes, it’s a slender thing, but it’s all we have. That’s the initiation of writing: it’s a way in to a place we didn’t even know before we began to write. And yet it feels like home, as soon as we’re inside it.

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Tessa, you have given an uncanny description of my first steps into my writing journey - intimidating as if I am up against giants who know all the mystical secrets to the art of writing and have a huge knowledge on 'how' and 'what' to write, as if it were some mystical and secret code that only a select, or elect, few can be privileged too. Thank you for your insight; I find it wholly encouraging and also 'normal' for a novice such as myself to feel daunted. More importantly, you have taught me that what I have to offer is unique only me. Thank you again - I am refreshed and encouraged by your words.
Art knows no boundaries except those that are implied. What should be illuminated is the mine only to tell dirt from diamond. What is useless to an earthworm is magnificent to a man.
Yes! Thank you, Tessa, for this brilliant post. So many times I have wondered how I'm supposed to write a credible story which I have not yet "lived" when everyone is saying you must write what you know. There's a relevant quote from E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I gained confidence in reading an interview of Haruki Murakami in which he says he does not know what is going to happen next until he writes it - he is just as interested in what is going to happen as is the reader.

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