The Day the Stories Fail

I’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones for the who-knows-how-manyieth time. And in the process, mainly while the credits roll or I’m fast forwarding through the parts that I don’t enjoy as much, I have been wondering why I watch this, why it is so enthralling, and why I can watch it for the who-knows-how-manyieth time and still find it enthralling.

In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge wrote about the willing suspension of disbelief:

“My endeavours” he wrote, “should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

But I don’t think that’s it. It’s not a suspension of disbelief. And it is not willing. There is nothing of choice about it. We are enthralled - or we have enthralled ourselves. But it is not magic - it is neurology that captures us.

I believe stories work because of the imperative of belief. Deep down in the animal brain (which, let’s be honest, is almost all of it), there is an inability to understand that stories, whether on the page or on the screen, are not real. In some small part of the brain, we know, but we can’t overcome the other part. Or we forget about it as the story unfolds.

Yet there is a difference between stories and reality, if that exists anymore. There is some understanding that stories, real or not we can’t say, are not happening to us. This gives us the safety to enjoy, to experience the terror and heartbreak and grandeur without the need to run to safety.

One day, far in the future, I imagine, we or our descendants, or the descendants of whatever species are left, will lose this disability, this imperative to believe will disappear. Brains will automatically distinguish between what is real and what is not. Stories, all of them, will fail.

These lucky creatures, unable to see the world other than it is, will not understand the power our stories held over us. And they will wonder in disbelief why we writers spent our lives creating them.

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Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.


The voices gently rise to the stone vaults and fill the 12th-century church, one of London's oldest.  The congregation forms a queue.  Slowly, everybody advances towards the altar steps.  


Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.


The rector's expression is stern, menacing almost.  I think I am supposed to look down in humility.  Instead, I stare straight into his eyes, searching for an echo to my thought.  "Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,"  he says as his thumb traces a black cross of ash on my forehead.


I am thinking of the phoenix.  Of what happens after the return to dust.


Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.


The soprano pierces through the semi-darkness, and lingers high up before fluttering downwards, graceful, having made her plea for us all.


I return to the wooden pew, kneel, close my eyes and breathe in the frankincense.  Yesterday, Shrove Tuesday, I ate pancakes.  I realise that I haven't decided on what I will give up for Lent.  I remember those friends who will probably give up chocolate, or alcohol, or both.  Not eating chocolate is easy for me, and, since I hardly drink, renouncing alcohol would hardly constitute a sacrifice.  Now cheese, on the other hand... Could I manage a whole forty days without cheese?


The futility of my thoughts suddenly makes me sad.


Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

What's the point of giving something up that you know you will go back to on Easter Sunday? Doesn't knowing a privation is temporary make it too easy? Easy and pointless? Isn't the true purpose of Lent to cleanse your soul for Easter? Will my soul really be purer without cheese or olives or whatever other anodyne habit I decide to break? 


For Lent, why don't we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradicating from our minds and washing from our souls?


Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we pledge to give up resentment?

We could train ourselves, little by little, to replace resentment with responsibility and forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek.  No, not to ask for another slap, but to remove whoever has struck us from our field of vision, from our thoughts, from our world.  To set ourselves free.

When someone upsets us, we could indulge in making up a story about something that just might have happened to this person that would explain his or her unpleasant attitude.  It doesn't have to be true, only plausible.  And the self-storytelling might make us feel better.


How about we give up gossiping? 

We could try never speaking of a third person except to praise at least one aspect of him or her.  Is there nothing good to say about him or her? There must be something, however small.  We could avoid divulging personal information about others.  Instead of using what we know about them as social currency, we could cherish it as a secret treasure.


How about giving up sadness?

We could choose an image, a tune or a thought that makes us smile and summon it whenever we feel the clouds gathering in our minds.


How about giving up fear?

We could try to imagine that we are safe.  Just making believe at first, until it becomes reality.  After all, we can't make it real if we don't imagine it first.  And if we can imagine it, then perhaps we can create it.


Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.


How about we monitor the words that leave our lips and give up using them irresponsibly?

We could replace "Filthy weather, today" with the more accurate "It's cold" or "It's very wet" or "It's very grey".

When someone asks us how we are, we could discard "Not too bad" in favour of "Very well, thank you".  It may not be true at the time, but people mostly don't ask because they really want to know.  And "well" might make us feel better.


How about we give up believing we can't and, at least for a while, try to imagine we can?


How about we give up the familiar comfort of darkness? There is a lot of darkness, I know.

Just one candle.  It's surprising how much light just one little flame gives.



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Translator or Writer?

I used to write.  A lot. I never set time aside to write but grabbed it as and when I came across it.  At home on a Sunday afternoon, when I had a twenty-minute Tube journey and could get a seat, in a coffee shop between clients, in a classroom while my students were sitting a test.  I wrote while working as a teacher, and as a theatrical agent. I produced short stories, plays, half a novel and a weekly blog.


I write even more now.  Two or three novels a year, short stories, non-fiction and even the odd play.  My style is more versatile than before.  Historical novels, crime, travel, popular women's fiction, high-brow women's literature, fairy tales for children.


And yet now I can't even manage a blog post scribbled à la diable once a week.


Because I now work as a literary translator.  I spend all day writing, yes, but writing other people's words.  Correction.  The words are mine but I choose them with care, so they may convey other people's intentions as faithfully as possible. 


In order to achieve this, I must shut away my own inner Scribbler in the basement, under lock and key, to stop her from interfering with my work on behalf of other writers.  I must become a medium, a go-between, a bridge.  I must be creative enough to produce a text that doesn't limp, supported by the crutch of its original language, but one that walks head high, freely, and at the same time remember that it is animated by invisible, yet ever-present, strings.  A ventriloquist's job, in a way, for which one must develop impeccably-controlled, obedient muscles.  Creative – and shrewd enough, at times – to know when it's judicious to improve on the original text, which, sadly, is all too often under-edited – if edited at all – because of misplaced and unhelpfully exaggerated reverence towards the original author on the part of the publisher.  After all, you need to watch your back.  When critics and readers like the book you've "Englished", then you'll be lucky if they take the trouble to mention your name at all (and this omission can, in itself, be a compliment to your seamless translation), but if they don't like it, they sometimes blame it on the translation, in which case they do mention your name.  You're not there to protest, "But I'm not responsible for this piece of overwritten, self-indulgent crap! I just translated it!" And so, very often, you tweak the odd word, rearrange a sentence here and there, polish a paragraph, or carry out a barely perceptible cosmetic procedure.  Even so, tempted as you may be to act like Cyrano with Christian, you restrain yourself, always remembering that, as a literary translator, you are the servant of the text and not its master.


In the evenings, after a day of translating, I go and let my inner Scribbler out of the basement.  In the beginning, as I unlock the door, she bursts out, flings her arms around me, spins around the room, tap dances on the ceiling, and runs out into the sunshine glad of the exercise after a day in the basement.  I pick up my fountain pen and write to my heart's content, pouring out on paper all the ideas I've ignored during working hours.


As my workload increases, I let out the Scribbler later and later, often long after the sun has already set.  She greets me with a warm smile but I can see that she is disappointed to have missed out on the daylight.  As time goes by, sometimes several days pass before I can go down and unlock the basement.  I notice that my Scribbler doesn't smile any more but trudges up the stairs and slumps on the sofa, complaining that she's tired.  Never mind, I think, we'll spend some quality time together over the weekend.  I pick up my fountain pen but the words come out with difficulty, spasmodically, and I can't get my current translation project out of my mind, no matter how hard I try.  


That weekend, the first of many, is spent on translating.  A publisher has given me an extra book to do.  Sorry, please help me out, it's urgent.  OK, I say.  I need to keep on the right side of this publisher.  And other publishers.  I need the money.  


When I next see my Scribbler, I notice she's put on weight around her middle, and her shoulders are hunched.  She huffs when she sees me, and goes to vegetate on the sofa without a word.


I have three books to translate at the same time, so I can't see my Scribbler for a little while.  I forget how long exactly, but not very long.  When I finally go down and unlock the door, Scribbler isn't standing there as usual.  I look inside the basement room.  She's sitting on the floor, her eyes blank, her complexion grey, lethargic.  There's no persuading her to come out.  "I have the whole day off," I say.  "Let's spend it together."

"I'm too tired," she replies.  

"Tired? But you haven't done anything for days –"

"Years," she replies, interrupting me.

The shock silences me.  Has it really been years since I've written anything substantial of my own? I can't believe it, I won't believe it.

I go back upstairs alone, take out my notepad, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen.  The nib leaves blank scratches on the paper.  The ink has dried up.  I find the bottle of black ink and syphon some in.  I draw a squiggle in the corner of the blank page, then stare at it.  And stare at it.  Then I write "Word".  I can't think of anything else to write.


I go back down to the basement and slowly pull Scribbler up from the floor.  My ventriloquist's muscles are now strong enough for me to lift her but hers are too weak to stand up unaided.  I put my arm around her and gently lead her out of the basement room.  She rebels.  I coax her.  She takes slow, sporadic steps.  Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled.  It's a struggle to climb the stairs.  She groans, she moans, she shouts, "I hate you!"

Tears are streaming down my face.  I wish I could tell Scribbler I'm sorry.  "Come on Scribbler," I say. "We're nearly there.  Just a few more steps and we'll be back in the sunlight."

She looks up and I see the light from the upstairs windows glow in her eyes. 

"Come on, Scribbler, just one more step."


Scribe Doll   





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The Angel behind the Window

There is a legend that, when Michelangelo was carving a sculpture of an angel for the Basilica of San Domenico, a small boy asked what he was doing. The artist replied that he saw the angel in the marble and carved till he set him free.

I say legend because I can't find a source for the quote. Though in a letter to fellow Florentine Bennedetto Varchi, Michelangelo explained that the sculptor works by removing what is superfluous. Not as poetic but a similar thought. 

I am working on a new play now, and for me, the dynamic seems slightly different (not that that surprises me). I think of the work, the angel, hidden behind a window covered with ice. Some parts of the ice are thicker than others. In the beginning, nearly all is obscured. I don't have the vision of a Michelangelo. But I can still see through the blurry frame that something interesting might be there. 

As I write, I chip away at the ice. Each draft, a little bit of the ice falls away and a bit more of the work shows through.Though sometimes, when I chip at the ice on one part, another part freezes over again. Other times, what I think is ice is just my breath fogging the cold window. It can be very frustrating. And I never eliminate all the ice and get to see the work as it should be. 

But I keep trying. I know the angel is there behind the window, waiting to be revealed. 

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Beautiful. We labour under the misconception that all knowledge passes through consciousness.
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