“The entire project of making this book (oddly enough I find it difficult to refer to the making as writing, in this case) has been a process of finding out what I could say, how I could say it, how I felt about saying it.” Clare Best
How to write our own truth is a question most writers will ask themselves at some time or another. And, as a reader, I know there are certain books that hit me right between the eyes, and it’s always when the writer stands firm and doesn’t flinch from telling her or his side of the story, not out of revenge or spite but as a way of understanding it. But I do sometimes wonder what the cost is. So it was a real privilege to read Clare Best‘s upcoming memoir, The Missing List, about uncovering her own family’s dark secret, and also to have her on this blog to talk about the process. Another of my favourite writers, Catherine Smith, interviews Clare here, and has asked all the best questions about the process. I’m grateful to both.
Do feel free to ask any questions yourself, or to make comments, but most of all please read the book. It’s out from the Linen Press on 18th September but you can pre-order. It’s extraordinary – this is what Andrew O’Hagan says about it, ‘A tapestry of time – brightly coloured, beautifully orchestrated, emotionally pure‘, and you can read a fascinating description of how the cover was designed by Neil Gower in the Bookseller here.
But here’s the interview:
Catherine: Clare, I know that you worked on the text of The Missing List for many years… when did you first start writing, and was there a particular prompt/spur?
Clare: Actually I suppose my earliest attempts to write the material go back to when I was studying for my Masters at Sussex, in 2001-2002. Back then I wrote some poems around the edges of fragile memories of abuse, and then I wrote a novella which continued the story of Miles and Flora after the end of The Turn of the Screw. For years I was obsessed with Henry James’ story and Benjamin Britten’s opera based on it – the intricate patterning and symmetry Britten uses seemed to contain all the mystery and not-quite-knowingness that haunted me. Looking back, my fascination with The Turn of the Screw really marked the start of my thinking about how to write the material I needed to write, which was starting to push its way to the surface.
Then from 2003 onwards I began writing short patches of prose which later became central to the memoir. It was, at that stage, a halting and wretched process. I literally had no idea what I was doing. It was as though I was aware of a distant voice and yet I was straining to hear that voice, let alone the words. I pressed a listening device to the wall of my own un/consciousness. I suppose my interest in forensics and detection was manifesting!
“I had to trust the creative process because it was all I could do.”
Catherine: It always seemed to me that, in the earlier stages, you didn’t agonise about ‘what sort of book’ the writing would become – what was imperative was ‘getting the words onto the page’. You were keen that the end result would be what it would be, but that the creative process – ‘just write’ – must be honoured and trusted. Could you say something about your approach, and how you were able to trust your instincts?
Clare: There was already enough agony in the writing itself, and in what seemed to be coming through, so that was probably partly why I didn’t agonise about what sort of thing it might end up becoming. The idea of a book, at that point, was as far away as the moon.
Yes, it did become more and more pressing to get the words onto the page, and once I’d started writing regularly it soon felt like an obligation, a duty – since I realised that the ‘voice’ inside me came from a child self. She grew quite insistent as time went on, and occasionally I almost had the feeling that she was doing the writing, if that doesn’t sound too spooky.
I had to trust the creative process because it was all I could do. The patches I was writing were so disparate and bitty, I couldn’t make any sense of them – there was no narrative thread I could tug at, no sense of joined-up anything. So in some ways it was easier to give myself over to writing these fragments and try to have faith that I’d eventually see something – some picture or pattern – emerge from what I’d done.
It’s a helluva way to write, but you write what needs to be written, and you leave aside any thoughts of what the writing might eventually be. Then of course you have to do a lot of work later on, refashioning…
“I experimented with placing different themes and different kinds of writing next to one another to see how they touched or didn’t.”
Catherine: At what point did you decide on ‘structure’ (or perhaps ‘shape’) for the book?
Clare: Hmm, good question. The shape was more of an evolution than a decision.
I’m very interested in structures as scaffolds, particularly for material that is almost impossible to handle. I had thoughts about shape and structure from 2006 onwards – I cooked up some very complicated ideas, and at one stage I thought a quasi-musical structure might work. It was completely impossible, much too experimental, but just thinking about that helped me to realise that since by then I had about 40,000 words, I needed to begin to address how to arrange them.
In my file I had patches of writing which fell into threads or themes, and I thought about mosaic, collage, weaving, all those metaphors – and I tried to imagine them as ways of putting material together. I experimented with placing different themes and different kinds of writing next to one another to see how they touched or didn’t. I put pieces together, tore them apart. About six or eight times. Trial after trial of weaving reflections, flashbacks, descriptions of ciné films, my father’s account of his own life. Then I hit on the idea of also using extracts from the journal I kept during my father’s final year. Something clicked into place and I saw that the journal pieces could become a framework to hold the other writings. At about the same time, I wrote most of the pieces in the series ‘The World According to My Father’ and these introduced elements of humour scattered through the text, which were important as leaven.
There are a number of symmetrical details in the book, most of which you probably wouldn’t spot unless you read it several times, but putting them there kept me connected to that original idea of musical patterning, and they still satisfy me.
Last year at the Royal Academy there was a fabulous exhibition, Matisse in the Studio, and I was struck by a painting entitled ‘Gourds, Issy-les-Moulineaux’ (1915-16) about which the artist had written, ‘A composition of objects that do not touch – but nonetheless participate in the same intimacy’. That seemed to express, retrospectively, what I had experienced in my emotional life and also in the intricate work of piecing together the memoir.
“There has to be outrage and anger in the book, because these feelings have been part of my truth”
Catherine: Did you have a strong sense of what you didn’t want for this book? And if so, how did you stay true to that conviction?
Clare: I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want it ever to be thought of as ‘misery memoir’ and yet I didn’t want to fall into the trap of making it conform to a classic uber-positive redemptive arc. It was tricky to tread that path, and I’ve slightly cheated as the book almost has two endings, which I can justify. But that’s another story!
I don’t want the book just to tell my truth, I want it to tell the truth in a way that reaches beyond my story. I want to let the reader in as much as possible, so I hope I’ve not fallen prey to bitterness and other alienating emotions. There has to be outrage and anger in the book, because these feelings have been part of my truth – dealing with these emotions has been a balancing act too. Anger is vital, and particularly in the context of my material, but it gets a bad press.
When creating a book like this, I think it can only be good that the processing of emotions and the writing have taken so long. I’ve worked things through in ten years of therapy, and the writing has been filtered and distilled as well.
“Early on, when I was writing the first patches, I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing (a terrific book) and that sort of gave me permission to write my own ‘odd, herky-jerky’ story”
Catherine: Did you have any ‘seminal’ or ‘Aha!’ moments – epiphanies which allowed you to be bold – and if so, did any other writers/texts inspire/liberate you on your journey?
Clare: Lots of ‘Aha!’ moments – arriving either in the middle of a wakeful night or after a reasonable night’s sleep… I don’t know which is more productive for ‘Aha!’ moments. Sometimes the middle-of-the-night epiphanies don’t look so good in the morning, whereas the morning ones tend to have legs.
Early on, when I was writing the first patches, I re-read Stephen King’s On Writing (a terrific book) and that sort of gave me permission to write my own ‘odd, herky-jerky’ story, or parts of it, and not worry too much about the parts I couldn’t remember.
Over the years, I’ve read heaps (literally) of life writing, and two of the books that have been most inspiring for me are Susan Wicks’ Driving My Father and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Both are admirable. The Winterson came out in 2011, and I read it in 2012 when I was finishing the fourth draft of my memoir. I felt reassured by Winterson’s combination of recollections and reflections, it made my work seem okay.
I find titles difficult, so one of the best ‘Aha!’ moments was finally settling on the title The Missing List (there were at least five working titles along the way…).
“But as writers we shouldn’t be shy of causing discomfort in others.”
Catherine: Writing any kind of autobiographical work can be ethically complex, because, as writers, we have to grant ourselves permission to, as Hemingway instructed, ‘Write hard and clear about what hurts.’ The book deals with very raw and difficult experiences; did your attitude towards ‘self-censure’ change throughout the writing of the text… or did you start with a particular, personal ‘mission statement’ and stick with it, however uncomfortable that became?
Clare: This is such an interesting area for me to think about. The entire project of making this book (oddly enough I find it difficult to refer to the making as writing, in this case) has been a process of finding out what I could say, how I could say it, how I felt about saying it. And because the book has been made over so many years, of course I’ve changed and grown with it.
I had at least two selves to consider from the start – the injured child self, the one I listened to when I started writing patches (and I’ve tried to be true to her always) and the person who grew from that self. The child and the adult would censure different things. I’ve often had to dialogue with my selves!
As the writer (at times more of an investigator or reporter), I’ve tried not to impose my interpretations onto the child self, which is partly why I adopted three different points of view in this book. The journal extracts and reflective sections are written in first person, as you’d expect. The descriptions of ciné-film footage are written in third person, which I hope conveys the distance that I felt watching the films and scanning them for clues to our family life. Then a few passages in the book are written in second person – these are the passages that come directly from very painful memories. I couldn’t write these in first person because the self to whom those things happened feels separate from the ‘I’ of the journals and reflective pieces. And I certainly couldn’t write these passages in third person – too voyeuristic and too detached. So I settled on second person, which is a fascinating pov – the ‘you’ is another aspect of ‘I’, and is also a remote ‘other’ which reflects how those memories feel. The ‘you’ can also appear to address the reader directly, of course, making those sections even more uncomfortable to read.
The tussles around self-censure went on until the end. The most difficult part of the book for me to include was the List of Charges Against My Father, in the Afterword. This was added quite late in the process, but oh dear the debates I had with myself about whether to include it or not, almost up to the moment of going to press, because I didn’t want to cause acute discomfort in the reader. But as writers we shouldn’t be shy of causing discomfort in others.
“The tussles around self-censure went on until the end.”
Catherine: You’re a scrupulous editor of your own work, and you seek advice from those you trust to understand your projects, whether poetry or prose. How many drafts were involved in producing this book? How different is the ‘finished’ book from the earliest draft?
Clare: There have been six or seven main drafts since the first whole one, which dates from 2010. Many sections of the book have persisted fairly unchanged from that draft, but I’ve added quite a lot of material over the years, and cut some, and I’ve done a lot of reordering, resplicing. I did an extensive rewrite in July 2015, holed up in a hotel in Eastbourne for several days. The changes since then have been, on the whole, more subtle. The Afterword is the most recent part, as you’d expect.
I’ve been so grateful to have the responses of those who’ve read sections or drafts along the way. In the acknowledgements at the back of the book, I’ve simply referred to ‘my writing family’ which is how I experience the writers and others I share work with, so I’d like to say thank you here to those whose support and feedback were central to the evolution of The Missing List: Alice Owens, Andie Lewenstein, Beth Miller, Bridget Sleddon, Catherine Smith, Celia Randell, Charlotte Gann, Christine Baker, Fay Young, Heather Holden-Brown, Helena Nelson, Janet Sutherland, Jess Moriarty, Juliette Mitchell, Kay Syrad, Liz Bahs, Monica Suswin, Niall Christie, Sarah Salway, Vanessa Gebbie. And then there were all the editors on both sides of the Atlantic who read the manuscript as submitted by my agent and who responded with helpful, supportive and appreciative comments even if they didn’t feel they could take on the book.
“..people tend to assume that the abuse itself is the main issue, whereas the greatest challenges flow from psychological and emotional damage that must be lived with, often forever after.”
Catherine: It’s been a long, sometimes painful and frustrating, but ultimately exhilarating gestation… and now your book is about to be born, to be held up to the light, and then go out and make its own way in the world – to be read, reviewed, discussed. With your blessing, what would you most like it to achieve?
Clare: I hope it helps to nurture understanding and compassion about the kind of enduring pain and life-changing fallout that result from sexual abuse experienced in childhood; people tend to assume that the abuse itself is the main issue, whereas the greatest challenges flow from psychological and emotional damage that must be lived with, often forever after.
I’d also like this book to help bust some myths and misconceptions about abusive individuals.
But perhaps my greatest hope is that The Missing List will continue to be an agent of connection, reconnection and healing for others, as it has been for me.
Thank you so much, Clare and Catherine!
The Missing List – a memoir by Clare Best is published by Linen Press (£9.99).
To order: https://www.linen-press.com
And to find out more about Catherine and Clare, do visit their websites:
Catherine Smith https://catherinesmithwriter.co.uk
Clare Best https://clarebest.co.uk