THE WRITING PROCESS
The Varuna Creative Team –Peter Bishop, Helen Barnes-Bulley and Carol Major– introduce a new series for the Varuna Creative Team blog. In this series, writers will explore the processes of their writing. Creative Director Peter Bishop is going first, with a four-part exploration of an essay he’s writing.
PETER BISHOP –AND CHEKHOV IN MY LIFE
Over the next four months, if you’d like to, please join me in a little experiment. I’m writing an essay, titled Chekhov In My Life. I know a few things about this essay –for example I know that it’s in four parts, and I can tell you something about each of these parts, though the real joy of writing comes with all there is to discover through the actual processes of writing, of carrying a work round with you over a period of time. Each month –April to July– I’ll have a full draft of a part of the essay, and each time I’ll make a commentary on the process –what I’m discovering, how I find myself listening, where this listening is taking me…maybe the paths I find myself looking down wondering whether they belong in this essay –or maybe will find their belonging somewhere else, somewhere I don’t know about yet.
Chekhov In My Life started in a bookshop. I never know what I’m looking for in a second hand bookshop: it’s a place I haunt to surprise myself, to find missing pieces for my endless jigsaw puzzles of self. At first it was the book itself –elegant, slim, soft blue –and the title: Chekhov In My Life… Now there’s a condition I know well! Everything I write could be called Chekhov In My Life… And the writer: Lydia Avilova. As a reader of Chekhov biographies I know about Lydia, and I’ve often pondered the sense of reserve Chekhov kept with the women in his life… Maybe a necessary reserve: intelligent young women in the provinces with no prospects beyond maybe the son of the local landowner with his persistent smell of boiled cabbage… If ever you want my life, come and take it –offers the passionate Nina to the writer Trigorin in The Seagull –and why not, thinks Trigorin. But Chekhov himself preferred to keep that enigmatic distance, that mysterious reserve.
We’d know nothing of Lydia Avilova if she hadn’t had Chekhov in her life. All we have of her writing is this little volume –though she published books of short stories, maybe even novels. She first met Chekhov in 1889 –she an aspiring writer of 24, he at 29 the new literary darling of the social set –and she lived almost 40 years beyond his death in 1904, her memoirs being published posthumously in 1943.
Most of the biographies I’ve read don’t have much time for Lydia Avilova. The assumption seems to be that she’s giving herself a role in Chekhov’s life that she didn’t actually have…but what I noticed immediately about this book is that it’s one of those books that is telling the truth –one of those books that explores with passion the writer’s own quest for the truth of a life… I found myself thinking how I might use Lydia’s words –they kept sounding in me, and I thought at first of a radio play– but then I became aware of a familiar, urgent feeling: a conversation was beginning…
I don’t know if others experience it this way, but some books –some images, some sentences, gestures, comments even– start off a conversation in me. Yes, I’m reading, watching, listening –but something else is happening, and I’m learning to listen for and to that something else. Something in my own world is starting to speak in conversation with what I’m reading –some preoccupation, often one long buried, half-forgotten, some story that never knew how to finish –something comes out to meet the thoughts and emotions my reading is arousing.
I love the essay form: it’s a form that’s constantly discovering itself, and so it’s the form that’s ideal for exploration, for finding the new in the known, for chancing on surprise and revelation… It’s a form that can listen to those mysterious, animated conversations of self that I’ve always felt –usually with a feeling of helplessness– are conversations in a private language, and therefore not conversations that might find a place in the reading and thinking of others. It’s a form that allows me to overhear…
The first part of Chekhov In My Life, is taken almost entirely from Lydia’s text, translated by David Magarshack, first published by John Lehmann Ltd in 1950 and not reprinted until 1989 when it was republished by Methuen Drama.
All I know for certain about the second part of the essay is that it grows from these words in the first part:
But didn’t it seem to you –Chekhov had said to me, three years after our first meeting– that when we met we didn’t just get acquainted with each other but found each other after a long separation?
And something else Chekhov says to Lydia at that second meeting: “If I’d married, I’d have proposed to my wife that we should not live together. So there shouldn’t be all that laxity of behaviour –all that undignified familiarity and –and all that abominable unceremoniousness.”
Until next month!