By Jane Freimiller, MA Creative Writing & Publishing Alumna
I chose to study at West Dean College because I knew I would have a draft of my novel by the time I received my degree. My notebooks were filled with story fragments, character sketches, ambitious research plans but nothing that could be described as finished. When I left the College in the summer of 2019 (the worst thing about studying at West Dean is that someday you have to leave it) I had my draft. But, as I have discovered in the nearly two years since, I have a lot more than a draft. I have a craft practice. Like my fellow students on the various other programmes at the College I have developed and continue to hone my commitment to working with my materials. What follows is an example of what I mean.
‘I thought we were having a proper meeting in the conference room, Norah,’ she said. Pushing aside blueprints to put down her laptop, Lorraine knocked over a box and it crashed onto the flagstone floor. There was, for a moment, silence. Then Lorraine heard crying and saw it came from a young man with obvious learning disabilities. What was he doing here? Weren’t they supposed to stay in the education annex?
Early in my novel the reader is introduced to the truly monstrous Lorraine Lamprey. Lorraine is a former fashion designer, a tabloid columnist, and a regular on reality television shows. She’s also on the board of trustees of a small museum and community education centre in South London where she regularly bullies staff including our protagonist, textile historian Norah Montrose. Lorraine is obnoxious, egotistical, and determined to control every situation she is in. She was a joy to write.
To my surprise, however, I consistently received feedback saying that she was too monstrous. Few people enjoyed reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing about her. They argued she was more caricature than character, and that the reader should find her more relatable. I resisted this advice for a while. But as our tutors at West Dean always pointed out, you don’t have to change your text because someone doesn’t like something about it. But if everyone is making the same criticism you really should have another look. My big fear was that making Lorraine more relatable would dilute the impact she had on the page.
Even more shocking to me were the people who expressed horror that Lorraine had said of the young man ‘Weren’t they supposed to stay in the education annex?’ I was surprised because it was clear (to me anyway) that Lorraine does not say that, she thinks it. There are no speech marks around that sentence. Even Lorraine was not so horrible to say such a thing aloud. But more than one person thought she had said it.
There are two issues I had to address: how to rewrite that paragraph so people do not mistake Lorraine’s thoughts for speech and the bigger issue of keeping Lorraine awful while making her more of a real person. The first issue was the easiest. I added information earlier in the text which makes it clear that the carpentry programme was specifically for people with disabilities. This enables me to drop the awkward labelling of the young man in my original paragraph. I also highlighted in the penultimate sentence that Lorraine is thinking.
‘I thought we were having a proper meeting in the conference room, Norah,’ she said. Pushing aside somebody’s papers to put down her laptop, Lorraine knocked over a box and it crashed onto the flagstone floor. There was, for a moment, silence. Then Lorraine heard crying and saw it came from a young man. She suspected he was a student in the carpentry programme and wondered what he was doing here. They were supposed to stay in the education annex.
It occurred to me, after a lot of angst, that Lorraine’s behaviour (which is important to the story as a whole) does not have to change. But Lorraine’s thoughts about her own actions could provide an insight into her character revealing a more vulnerable side.
She knew, though, that she had stepped over a line at that meeting. She was embarrassed at having upset the boy with special needs and she’d lashed out at Norah. Lorraine took a deep breath. It was getting harder, she found, to walk the fine line between her fearless, outspoken public persona (which wasn’t hugely different from who she was) and going full harridan. It was just another way that older women were treated like second-hand citizens. Not that she would ever say that in public. She was not going to paint herself into that corner.
In the current draft Lorraine is still a monster but a more complex one than before. Though she does not change her behaviour she is aware that she is not always behaving well. As for the young man with learning disabilities – he is an important character in the novel. He’s not just brought in to highlight Lorraine’s behaviour. Writing a character with a disability that does justice to lived experience while not using the disability itself as a plot device is a fascinating journey and worthy of its own blog post.
There were many times during this past year that my writing practice faltered due to pandemic-related fears and sorrows. Yet, I have found that working on my novel; making the scenes in my head intelligible and enjoyable for readers is a lifeline for me.
I look at photos from graduation day and I see that I was smiling because I had my degree and my draft. But now I know I had so much more than that. My writing practice is always available to me no matter what else is happening.
Read more about the MA Creative Writing & Publishing programme. Applications are open for September 2021 entry.