by Hilary Mantel
Saturday 28 June 2008
few nights ago, I dreamed that I was going to be hanged. It was a public occasion, and there was a small crowd, but the hangman didn't turn up. The crowd were impatient - there was no rabid baying, but they expressed disappointment, in an eye-rolling, I-blame-Gordon-Brown way. I thought one of them might step forward to do the job. But no one had a rope.
I don't know whether the dreams of writers are better or worse than the dreams of other people, but I think perhaps they are different. I sometimes go by night to a foreign city, a place I cannot identify and have never been in waking life; I sit in a cobbled square sipping coffee, while I decide which of the city's two well-stocked bookshops to visit. Sometimes, when I am asleep, I read in a heroic, domed library, where I get a book in my hand, a huge dusty volume that contains the secrets of the obscure early lives of famous historical figures. The library dream is full of emotion; my heart leaps as I turn the pages - get nearer and nearer to the facts I desperately want. But when I wake up they've gone, and all that is left is the maddening certainty that I used to know, but don't know now; the gulf between night and day has opened like the gap between youth and senility. Sometimes, by way of a change, I dream in verse. The lines fade away as I wake, and leave the rhythm behind, and that rhythm governs all my thoughts for the next few hours.
I am sure it is every writer's ambition to make dreams work for her, but when they do, it can be an eerie experience. I once dreamed a whole short story. Wrapped in its peculiar atmosphere, as if draped in clouds, I walked entranced to my desk at about 4am and typed it on to the screen. The story was called "Nadine at Forty". In its subject matter, in its tone, its setting, it bore no relation to anything I have ever written before or since. It extended itself easily into paragraphs, requiring little correction and not really admitting any; how could my waking self revise what my sleeping self had imagined? By 6am I had finished. I was shaking with fatigue. A voice inside me said: "Print it out." I had saved the work, I trusted my back-up systems, and I could hardly make the effort to hit the keys, but I did print it, and just as well, because when I crawled back to my desk at 10am there was, apart from the printed copy, no trace of the story in my files. There were two computer geeks in the house at the time, and they made it their business to search the system. If it had been there, they would have found it. It had vanished with daylight, like an imp in a fairytale - leaving, handily, a saleable piece behind, like the straw spun into gold by Rumpelstiltskin.
Years have gone by, but I have not lost a sense of the strangeness of the story behind the story. If there had been no printed version, it would have been hopeless to try to reconstruct it in the prosaic light of day. As most dreams do, it had wiped itself from my memory, as it had wiped itself from the computer's memory. Life being so short, and the possible books to write so many, it's good to function by night as well as by day; but would anybody become a writer, if they realised at the outset what the working hours were? There are no hiding places either; there's nowhere to hang out, figuratively speaking, and sneak a crafty cigarette. You are never safe from the marauding idea, and no matter how dull or drained you feel, your book has eyes everywhere. Sometimes, I daren't go out of the house in case I see something that starts off a chain of those damned sentences. They have me fettered in their service, and I suspect I would be their servant even if they paid no wages. There are plenty of books that tell you how to become a writer, but not one that suggests how, if you want a normal life, you might reverse the process.
Not all writers agree that fiction is a hazardous and unpredictable process. It is cooler and smarter to suggest that it is the product of cerebration. Writers do not want to think they are less rational than other people, and at the mercy of compulsions, but in their hearts they know they are like those people who are taken for walks by their dogs, towed through hedges and ditches by an untrained sub-human energy. That said, the forced and relentless nature of the business is not a legitimate cause for complaint. Writing is not breaking stones. It is not picking peas for a gangmaster, or fighting in a war. You can do it without going out in the rain, or undertaking the struggle - increasingly futile, in my case - to maintain a respectable appearance. It has more status than many jobs; as one of Ivy Compton-Burnett's characters says, "It does not involve anything manual . . . not to the point of soiling the hands."
But all the same, it imposes a strange requirement to live in different realities. One part of you deals with the day-to-day; it goes to Tesco. The other part goes down by night - or in sessions of thought as dark as night - into the subterranean passages between the lines, where your accumulated experience and technical expertise shed no more light than a birthday cake candle; where you hope to find not words, but images, hobgoblins, chimeras, piles of Medusa heads. You have to keep shocking your psyche, or nothing happens in your writing - nothing charged, nothing enduring. It's imaginary encounters with death that generate life on the page.
One day someone will ask me to unwrap that sentence and I'll be unable. I won't completely understand it until I'm back exactly where I am now, writing the last few thousand words of a novel and therefore on duty round the clock. This will not always be my condition. There will be a few dreamless nights and aimless days, just not yet. By the end of summer I'll have finished the book, or the book will have finished me.