Marking student stories this week reminds me over and over of the wonderful story UK writer Jim Crace tells about a donkey in a desert. He tells it by letter to a fictional pesky would-be writer called PJ to illustrate what it is that makes a good writer .The letter was part of a Guardian article which came out four years ago when I was studying for my MA in creative writing and battling with The Blue and needed Crace to remind me that research has a limit where fiction's concerned. [It was Crace who audaciously made up how a dead body decomposes in Being Dead.]
For the whole article by Crace go here. It's a hilarious read. Btw, his other novels include Signals of Distress and Quarantine.
Extract from The Secrets of My Success by Jim Crace, The Guardian 5/02/05
To be a good writer, a confident writer, especially a Fantasist, you do not necessarily need to assemble the mere facts and then allow them to dictate the shape and colour of your work, you must instead do what the dictionary indicates and master the art of lying. And to do that, it is not information you require, but vocabulary. I appreciate your kind comments about my novel, Quarantine, although for the record, you are incorrect to say that I know the Judean desert like the back of my hand and that the depth of my knowledge was displayed in every paragraph. That's what the critics said, too. But actually I only spent a couple of nights in the Judean desert, and those were only to give me the confidence to make it up. I had a professional tour guide up there, a Bedouin called Izzat abu-Rabia, who had a gun on one hip, a mobile phone on the other, and a clutch of languages at his disposal. He spoke better English than the average Anglican bishop. (He made it musical and interesting, in other words.) So this is not a point about language. It is a point about culture.
On the first night, Izzat and I slept out in the desert above Qumran under his Jeep. In the morning, as I stretched the aches out of my shoulders, he asked me, "Well, Jim, how did you sleep?"
I said, "I slept like a log," and as I spoke I saw his eyes narrow with less than comprehension, and, as his eyes narrowed, I looked across his shoulder to see the bald and baked Judean hills stretching away without the benefit of any vegetation. This country hadn't seen a log for aeons. If there were a log then it wouldn't be sleeping. It would be snatched up and put on the fire. Wood smoke was preferable to that of the only other option, camel dung. My log image, like fine wine, hadn't travelled well. It had no meaning in Palestine.
"OK, Izzat," I asked, "How did you sleep?"
"Me?" he said, "I slept like a donkey. I slept like a dead donkey. If you had kicked me I wouldn't have woken up."
So there's the simple ploy, PJ. Vocabulary. I now understood that if I wanted to dish up a convincing version of the Judean desert without doing any real research, I would only have to remember to turn all my logs into donkeys. The trick of words.