I have started a new non-fiction project. I want to write about migration and about belonging and excluding and I also want to directly and indirectly write about brexit. The topic of migration is a bit of a prism and many other subjects have been highlighted by the research I’ve done so far. I’m writing down lists of what to explore further – history, archeology, ethics, nationalism, propaganda, economics.
I’ve maybe done about ten percent of all the reading I need to do and I spend most of my spare time in the British Library. I’m not sure what shape the project will take on as it matures. I’m not even sure if there is a publisher out there who will be interested in the project, but I am enjoying the research and am happy to spend my spare time reading about these topics for my own pleasure.
But there is one question that gnaws away at me. The books I’ve been enjoying the most lately have all been personal essays about difficult subjects. Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, which describes her journey from alcohol-fuelled parties in London to bird watching on Orkney, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s a beautiful blend of memoir, essay and nature writing. The book has had a lot of positive publicity here in the UK and it is climbing the charts, perhaps showing there is an appetite for the personal in non-fiction.
I have also devoured essayist Olivia Laing’s impressive first two books, To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring. Laing has done a lot of research and reading and she reasons intelligently about the subjects she explores. What brings it all together is her persona. These books have filled me with joy because they are intelligent, erudite and human. I feel like I’m learning something new and at the same time acquainting myself with the personality and psyche of another.
So the question is, how much of myself should I allow into the writing? How personal should the tone be? The author needs to be honest with his or her audience. It makes sense to bring that side into a piece when tackling sensitive issues like migration. Potential readers need to know where I stand, they need to know what personal bias I might bring to the project. US journalist and writer Joan Didion always put herself in her writing. Some of the harshest criticism aimed her way argued “the subject is always herself”. But Didion believed (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the only true starting point was the personal, because all we have is our own subjective perspective.
A lot of male writers write deeply personal pieces, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway spring to mind. Did they have the same criticism levelled at them? Were they sneered at for “always writing about themselves”?
I feel a certain amount of fear about bringing the personal into the project. I fear not being taken seriously. I fear criticism. I fear not being able to pull it off making the issues and the quite heavy and difficult topics I’m researching interesting and relevant. But I should know better. There is not much I can do to control the way any of my writing will be received and perceived. I can have my own private thoughts and hopes for a project or a piece of writing, but when I let it go what it becomes is up to those who read it. The only thing I can hope for is that each project makes me a slightly better and more thoughtful writer and that there will always be a new project waiting when the previous one has flown the nest.
Image by Dmitrij Paskevic.