For years I have had a post-it note stuck to my office computer monitor. A phrase jumped out from a book proof in my postbag one day and the idea seemed important enough to keep by my side as a reminder, so:
I wrote in caps.
My personal life at that time seemed to have been split and chopped into firewood by love, but here was a more creative, sculptural idea: love might fall with violence, like an axe, but the result might still be beautiful and intended. Instead of fearing love’s consequences, I should accept them – if love is the generative and shaping force behind all things, then how blessed I was in life, to be so brutally felled by it! I was devastated, but this was my lot, to be devastated by love and to build a life again in its image.
Love has been less brutal for a long while now, but I have kept the post-it note by my side as I built my new life – like a tattoo or a scar. And it isn’t an accident that it is stuck to my work computer, rather than to my fridge or inside my diary – as soon as I read it, I recognised in it the author’s imperative, because of course love is the axe that every novelist wields when they hack a branch from the tree of life and try to carve a bowl from it. Without a passionate and persistent love of life how would a novelist generate the energy required to describe it, or find the specific and tender passion for humanity that is required by fiction?
This is a romantic and grateful idea – that a great novelist’s world is world inspired and shaped by love – for their characters and also for us, their readers, whom they love not despite our flaws but seemingly because of them. A great novelist’s cast is taken apart tenderly, never manipulated but instead cast in the glow of their insightful gaze. We the readers are managed just as kindly, invited into a world that seems to match our own, only it is easier to navigate and to understand, with Patchett or Strout or Ishiguro or Dickens as our guide.
In these days of hunger – for home, for peace, for friendship, for health – it is possible to slip into a sort of agony in the perception that life is too short for all the love we have, or to do all the good we long to do in it. We will never express our love to our children enough, we won’t be able to protect all our fellow humans or animals from pain, we can’t find homes for the homeless or stop the clocks forever to give the planet time to re-diversify.
In the novels and art we treasure above all others we find a kind of mercy – a determination to deal lovingly with us in our frailties, even whilst we endure the worst of losses and hurts. This is not sentimentalism, but romanticism, and it’s how to keep moving on, for most of us: when we immerse ourselves in the works of Rembrandt, or move in our imaginations through the pages of a novel as good as, say, A Prayer for Owen Meany, our world is more beautiful, because it is a world in which we are all beloved. Earlier I was reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and soon I will listen to a recording of Renée Fleming singing the aria from Rusalka and wait for the music to uplift me as it did Patchett’s Mr Hosokawa, “a message written on the pink undersides of his eyelids that he read to himself while he slept”. Love is not just inspiration in those moments but a way of deciphering our experience of living – a currency or language passed between artist and listener or reader.
Great art is not a solution or a meal for the hungry but it is a salve for the daily personal crisis — if we read around the good we try to do, we can love and be beloved every day: and for those of you who write or make art, your love for the rest of us will stretch far and have lasting impact. The illustration I used for this blog is a photograph of the garden film-maker Derek Jarman made on the vast shingle beach at Dungeness, where he coaxed plants to thrive amongst the stones and carefully collected and arranged beach finds into artistic forms over the eight years following his diagnosis as HIV positive and before his death from an AIDS related illness in 1994. It was a garden made in joy and in grief, and thousands visit it thirty years later, and wonder still at Jarman’s loving purpose, that ordered the stones with such grace.
Because love is not just the artist’s inspiration, but the great artist’s editor. Love is a shaping axe, not a blanket to keep us warm: it is not just our mercy but our motive: our challenge and our problem and our lost opportunity and our constriction and our burden. Love is the accident waiting to happen; it is the risk of parenting and of being parented; the phone call that became the avalanche that turned my life upside down shortly before I stuck that post-it note to my computer. The great writer’s eye is a forgiving one, but it is a powerfully intelligent and analytic one too, that invents and works within the structure of fantastic plot or risks the loss of our attention and trust. The great novelist drops the axe with brutal effect, even whilst they mourn their creations.
It is in the edit, as it were, that we check in on love, look again for the marks made by that shaping axe. When events are all set down on the page, pieces moved into place, as some writers’ first reader, I am sometimes the one to ask: is it as clear as you intended – why this story, why these people, why this ending, now? Where did the axe fall? What and who did they love, and what did it mean for them?
How can we discern the meaning of any set of events without this? Every story begins and ends this way – with the lifting of the axe. So brutal and so merciful in its sculpture of this beautiful, beloved life.
Dedicated to my very own shaping axe: best avalanche, best editor, SL.