The Story Behind the Story

Last year, I completed an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree. For the dissertation element, I had to submit a creative piece for 80% of the mark and a reflective piece worth 20%. In the reflective part, two references are juxtaposed:

  • Samuel Pepys and others, The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (London: Bell, 1970), p.xi.
  • Peter Doherty, The Books of Albion (London: Orion, 2007), pp.322-324

The first book was written by naval administrator Samuel Pepys who lived in the 17th century, and the second is by the musician Peter Doherty from The Libertines who’s yet to reach his 40th birthday.

English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The ...
English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899). Book editor died in 1917. Samuel Pepys died in 1703. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the reason they’re referenced so closely together is that they both kept detailed diaries. My creative dissertation piece was in diary form and I used both books to figure out how I was going to structure my own work; for example, whether I should use exact or rough dates, how formal or informal the language should be, and so forth.

It was Doherty’s volume that I find particularly interesting since he uses it in three ways, sometimes on the same page: as a notebook for poetry and lyrics, as a scrapbook for pictures and paraphernalia he likes, and as a diary to document where he is and how he’s feeling. It effectively tells the story behind his work.

At the time of writing the dissertation, I was also trying to convey the story behind my own creative piece, albeit in more academic language.

I was reminded of this last week while listening to Creative Chit Chat Dundee, in which the dancer Gemma Connell was being interviewed; I’ve known her for a couple of years now. Out of a dozen subjects discussed that I could have picked up on, the one that interested me most was that she likes to keep a journal of her process.

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve been journaling in a limited fashion. My own notes were functional, mainly reminders or suggestions for the story, but I was also interviewed by the woman who helps me run our NaNoWriMo region, so she has a weekly record of my progress. I’ll report back when I listen to it.

With journal-keeping at the forefront of my mind, I’m going to experiment with the practice for my next major project. I’m planning to take the Doherty approach. The journal won’t be online; it’ll be handwritten and kept separate from the material I’m writing for the project. Once it’s finished, it’ll be interesting to look back and to see how the endpoint compares to the beginning.

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Paper boon.

Until a year or two ago, I didn’t do much writing on a notepad. It generally went straight into a computer unless one wasn’t handy.

I began to use a pad extensively for two reasons. Firstly, my small laptop has only just enough RAM to run Windows and was a pain to use. Secondly, I type extensively in my day job and my fingers began to hurt, whereas holding a pencil was a sufficiently different motion and it didn’t hurt.

Using a pad is also a different experience from typing: It slows down your thoughts so you become more focused on what to say next. It also looks less like a finished product and I’m more inclined to edit it. Furthermore, it’s easier on the eye to read paper than a screen.

Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.
Kids of the 22nd century: these are called books, which are a bit like websites on paper.

My fingers aren’t nearly so bad now, but I’ve kept up another habit I fell into during this time. I dug out my printed dictionary and thesaurus. Online references generally focus only on the words searched for, whereas flicking through a book can throw up possibilities from other pages. The trade-off is that paper references go out of date – mine are over 25 years old, but I rarely need new-fangled words.

On Saturday, it’s the 37th birthday of one of my influences, Peter Doherty. I feel compelled to point out that he prefers Peter over Pete. Last year, I bought The Books of Albion, containing writings from his many notebooks. I expected to read drafts of his poems and songs in there, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But he also includes a lot of diary entries, many of them with the dates on which they were written. He talks about what’s happening to him at the time, whether it be relationship problems, a budget trip to Germany, or his first professional poetry gig.

I stopped keeping a diary when I was about 20, and started a blog on the relatively young LiveJournal. Almost overnight, my style changed from private and unguarded to public and slightly more guarded. I still have some of the diaries but they’re unlikely to be available in the shops any time soon.

By contrast, Doherty’s diaries start when he was about 20, so there’s a maturity in them that mine don’t have. Yet it’s still clear he never intended them for publication, and it’s perhaps this honesty that makes his writing so compelling.

Initially, I found myself thinking back to what I was doing around the time he was keeping his notes. Then I began to wonder whether I could experiment with bringing back my pre-LiveJournal days and writing the occasional dated diary entry in my current pad. It contains mainly poem and story drafts, yet true events are at the heart of many literary works.

I would then have some events to draw upon when I need ideas.