What I meant to say to the novel-writing class

Prose walks, poetry dances – Paul Valery

This was probably meant to be disparaging to prose but perhaps can be seen another way: when we dance, we usually dance, if not on the spot, then in a restricted space - unless we are dancing in the street.

But when we walk, we walk with purpose, we are going somewhere; even when we’re just going for a walk, we still have some kind of end in mind, some point where we will turn around to come back.

What is it about a walk? You have a destination, but unless you’ve been there before, you don’t know what it looks like and, even if you have, you still don’t know what you will encounter along the way.

A successful walk requires stamina, persistence, a goal, and also, if you are going to write about it, the ability to observe whatever happens along the way. This observation must also be directed at the self, even if you walk – or write – to forget yourself.

Afterwards you come back: that is the process of revision, of preparing for publication, the processes of publication itself.

Fiction writing is a journey in search of a world, which the reader can then enter. The best fiction is that which, in your recall, you think of as real, a place you have actually been, people you got to know, a story that is true.

How does fiction differ from, say, memoir? Memoir fulfils the primary criterion, it makes a world, even if that world is one of so-called facts.

What is the place of invention in memoir-writing? That is like asking what is the place of memory in writing. Memory is itself a kind of fiction, one we take to be real. Invention begins where memory fails.

Which leads to the question of voice. The voice of the author is the truest guide to the fiction, if fiction it be, just as it is to so-called non-fiction, at least as the term is used to describe memoir.

You must make a world and, however private that world is, it must be one others can enter, live in for a while, and then leave with memories of where they have been: reading, too, is a walk, but a walk with a guide.

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