Last month Hilary Mantel wrote a short charming thing on her writing day for the Guardian. One takeaway: she does morning pages—or the Mantel version of them—then goes back to bed for another couple hours. It didn’t mention how work is going on The Mirror and the Light, the final book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, but I hope swimmingly. In a (great) profile published in 2012, the profile writer got a look at the binder where Mantel keeps her notes for the book.
In an interview last year Mantel said this about The Mirror and the Light’s progress:
That interview was published in February of last year so that’d put the manuscript finishing up around the end of this year, assuming all goes well. Godspeed to her.
As she taps (and roasts quail), let’s enjoy some advice on writing from her 2003 memoir Giving Up The Ghost. Stay with it through the end—or at least the second paragraph.
I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it. I’ll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage!
But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s elitist.) I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency—windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in? How about shutters, or a chaste Roman blind? Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.
So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear? I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can be told only once, and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, “The written word is so much like evidence—like something that can be used against you.” I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong.
There’s a lot packed in there, so much of it useful—the last line especially. ‘Persiflage’ means “light and slightly contemptuous mockery or banter,” by the bye. (I also like how it sounds like the name of one of King Arthur’s lesser knights—Lancelot, Galahad, and Persiflage.)
If you haven’t read any Mantel yet, I wouldn’t start with Giving Up The Ghost. I’d go with Wolf Hall. In a couple interviews Mantel’s sounded like she thought A Place of Greater Safety, her French Revolution book, got overlooked—like if all her books were posed in a portrait that’d be the shy one she’d be pushing toward the camera—so that’s the one I plan to read next.
A Morning Pages Aside
Until next Tuesday,
Hoping your binder is full of recipes to try,
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Black Cardigan Edit