Writing ‘Above It All’ / Angela Graham

In order to consider the germination of my story I’d like to refer to Dan Coxon’s online piece on this site On Writing ‘Sound of the Riverbed’, in which he assesses the worth of the adage, ‘Write what you know’.

He concludes:

Perhaps I was wrong to reject Mark Twain’s ‘Write what you know’. Perhaps when we accept that the creative process is weird and organic – picking and choosing like a magpie, plucking the shiny objects from our memory and placing them alongside each other, seeing how they sparkle – it [the adage] begins to make sense, to offer more than simply a call for thinly-veiled memoir. Perhaps we should write what the magpie knows.

This distinction between what the writer knows and what ‘the magpie’ of the creative process knows is an intriguing one which I’d like to explore.

The seed of my story is a very small incident I witnessed while in Rome years ago. With other visitors I was staying in a large seminary, empty of its clerical students for the summer, except for the young trainee priest who staffed the reception booth and switchboard in the daytime. I was idly waiting for a coach when I noticed him. He seemed too big for the little glassed-in cubicle. He was burly, red-cheeked with health and vitality and the bulky bakelite receiver was tiny in his right hand. He was leaning on that elbow, the phone to his cheek, his intensely black curls as tight, nearly, as astrakhan on his handsome head.

But he was frowning. The slot of space between counter and glass let his voice emerge. “Sì, Mama,” he said. And then again. And again. “Sì, sì, Mama. Sì.” The coach didn’t arrive. I waited on and he continued to repeat this phrase till I saw that now his left fist was hitting the counter with every new, “Sì.” He was completely trapped. “Sì.” Thud. “Sì.” THUD. He was trapped by love. Of some sort. By obligation. The contrast between the spoken acquiescent “yes” and the obliterating hammer blow was compelling. I never got to see how that conversation ended because the coach turned up.

Much later, and in very different circumstances, I sat beside a man thumping a steering wheel – slowly, heavily − while speaking with bitter animosity about a superior he felt was blighting his life. I was primed by the first example to read into that action a reservoir of resentment, frustration and exasperation, mixed up with love – of some sort – and idealism and a yearning to soar; a yearning that doesn’t yet know how to put itself into action; something hampered. But although in both instances there was an unconscious acting-out of a wish to stop something dead, I had to recognise that the second situation was almost wholly fuelled by animosity.

Only ‘almost’ because the frustration arose from thwarted idealism. There was something positive in that toxic mix.

I was intrigued by the violence of the action in both cases − whatever provoked it was felt to be a threat so dire that it deserved annihilation − and by the fact that both agents were unaware of performing it.

In ‘Above It All’ the obliterating fist appears along with other elements the reader will recognise as linked to my two observations. But the fiction does allow us to see how the ‘conversation’ ends and what the consequences are.

This is a story set in the Vatican and here I was, to some degree, able to write what I know because I shot a documentary there and had access behind the scenes. The Rome street that features is nearby, Via Dei Banchi Vecchi, and one art dealer’s window did contain exactly the picture described in the story. I had researched the painting’s provenance because I’d been so struck by its atypicality.

Then, providentially, while researching a feature film script set in Italy, I was given a film to watch, Marco Bellocchio’s “L’ora di religione (Il sorriso di mia madre)”. This made a great impression on me through its intense, colliding sequences and its immersion in the banalities, self-deceptions, ecstasies and sheer visual panache of Italian Catholicism. It’s about a man whose late mother, the Church insists, is a saint. In his opinion, she is flawed. A suitable image of her is needed. Who can provide this? The manufacturing of sainthood; the nature of perfect love…

Dan Coxon embodies the creative process as a magpie, “plucking the shiny objects from our memory and placing them alongside each other, seeing how they sparkle…”

Yes, the magpie does its work. It’s more, of course, than mere assemblage. That “seeing how they sparkle”, pushed a little further, is the faculty of judging and discerning, linked to craft and dutiful work. And more than memory is active here. The transforming juncture of elements, from which something new emerges, is what takes the writer beyond what Dan calls, “thinly-veiled memoir”; and takes the writer beyond him or herself; and, further, takes the writer from “me” to “us”.

To explain what I mean by a move from “me” to “us” I’ll refer to another piece by Dan. In Issue 8 he interviews novelist and short story writer, Tom Vowler. It’s a perceptive and wide-ranging encounter. I liked Vowler’s “Your only duty is to the story (and hence to the reader).” I read this as implying a purity of intention; no self-aggrandisement; the story as gift.

I imagine the story as a house that’s illuminated, room by room, as the reader enters and moves deeper inside, until it’s fully lit up. It has become more perfect than it was when the writer handed it over because someone has come to live in it. That enhancement of the story is the reader’s gift to the writer.

There is a certain purity here too because the writer has to open the door of the story in an act of trust and then leave. The reader is not to be coerced or duped into that illuminating engagement. And the writer mustn’t hang around like some concierge waiting for a tip – the gratification of knowing the reader’s response. If appreciation comes, wonderful. But “Your only duty is to the story…”.

The story is no longer the writer’s only. It is inhabited by the reader. From being the ‘my’ story of the writer it has become ‘our’ story, shared with the reader; and yet again, through the marvellously generous economy of the imagination, it can be felt by each reader to be ‘my’ story because of the unique way that the individual moves around within the house the writer has built.

I suspect that a great story is always more than the writer conceived in the writing: more capacious, more subtle.

Each of us knows much more than is in our memory. Writing, if done with attention and respect, is a process of discovery: both of things ‘new’ to us and of an ever more precise apprehension of things we believed we had the measure of. No wonder writing is exciting, humbling, frustrating and nourishing.

Angela Graham is a filmmaker and short story writer who is working on a  novel about the politics of language and the rural/urban divide. Her poetry has appeared in The North, Poetry Wales, The Honest Ulsterman and elsewhere. ‘Above It All’ is featured in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd. It is also featured in Angela Graham’s A City Burning, an as yet unpublished short story collection, edited by Gwen Davies. 



© Angela Graham, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.