Most of us walk the same streets every day; catch the same train; buy coffee from the same shop; sit at the same desk; choose the same spot on the sofa; look out at the same view. And we learn to take the familiar features of our daily landscape for granted, so that we hardly notice the street, the train, the coffee, the desk, the sofa, the view. But when significant change sweeps through your life, it is as though the street, the train, the desk emerge from the murk: suddenly you see them anew. Far from being safe places from which to navigate new waters, even the familiar becomes uncanny, different. Same street, same train, same coffee, same desk, same sofa: different woman, different point of view.
I visited an enthralling exhibition of Degas’ monotype prints. His technique: to ink the ‘story’ onto a metal plate before removing, smudging, etching the ink to his satisfaction. The plate was then pressed onto paper to create a print. But then Degas didn’t ink a new story. Instead he returned to the plate, to play with the same image again: to drag the ink, to add to it, to remove ink in further swooshes to reveal new highlights. Print. Tweak the story again: print. More changes to the lighting: print. Same street, same figures: new take.
Inspired by his friend, the artist Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, who once created eighty-five different impressions of the same print of beach and sky so that on one the day seemed to dawn brightly, and on another the whole world seemed to be ending, Degas explored printmaking as a means not to create multiple identical copies but as a way to tell each story – to capture each moment – in infinitely different lights, with differing degrees of focus.
Degas’ messing with ink led to the blurring of forms and faces and landscapes so that his monotypes seem to capture movement: the turning of a head, or the passing of time itself. In an age of photography, when some thought a truth could be captured in an instant, Degas dwelled in an instant and found that there was no one true moment. There are only the moments we live, are dealt: it could all have looked so different, it can all look so different.
Short step from acknowledging that there are infinite versions of each moment to detaching oneself from reality altogether: Degas’ next series of monotypes were of invented landscapes – places he had never visited but versions of ones he knew. The same creative process takes every writer from his or her perceptions of their own experience to the high that is the invention of whole new perspectives, new versions, fresh takes. Who can delineate where invention begins and truth ends in our stories? Who would want to?
Every now and again, authors stumble onto the same or similar stories and sometimes grow anxious, when they spot similarities between their story and another author’s; or even their new story and one they have already told themselves. But it doesn’t matter. There are an infinite number of variations of each of our stories and every one worth telling. We love to read our touchstone stories – love discovered, lost, renewed; journeys, quests; obstacles overcome; the tragic effect of one human flaw; and the others – again and again, each iteration of the same story enhancing our understanding of ourselves and helping to lift the great shifting haze that obscures a clear view of the everyday, familiar, life around us.
Indeed, one of the specific pleasures of reading genre fiction lies in the discovery of new ideas, impressions and sensations within familiar contexts. We know that most romance novels end happily; that most crime novels offer us justice and revelation by the end. When we choose to read genre fiction, we do so not because the story is radically different from anything we have read before, but because it nonetheless looks and feels as radically different as Degas’ first print of a single scene did from his last. Writers infuse the expected and known with the unexpected and unknown; that’s their power – the power their voice and their unique perspective has over us, their readers.
Like Degas, let’s create, revisit, rework, redo, revise: go again and again and again. Tell your own story or your fictional one not once, not twice, not three times, but as many times as it takes, as many times as you need to. Look for the moment now, now, now, and now. If you catch it – if you pin it down – you’re capturing something in movement; a person in transition; no one story ever quite the same, ever again.