Sometimes, when my cat is attempting to hunt something - usually a ribbon or an unsuspecting guest’s foot - he focuses on it for a while, builds up momentum through a strange wiggling movement and then goes barreling towards it at top speed. Other times, he retreats from the object of interest, takes up a subtle hiding place (apparently unaware that he is bright white and stands out against the orange floor tiles) and then plans how to sneak up on the object. So focussed is he on his goal that he doesn’t notice, until he literally falls over it, the other often better toy waiting in his path. I wonder if this is how writing works, at least how it works for Nell Stevens. So focussed was she on the need to write a novel that she didn’t see the brilliant story lying in wait along that path until, fortunately, she fell over it.The result is her wonderful book about trying to become a Writer. Potential Writers everywhere: form a disorderly queue to add another layer of meta to writing a book about writing, by writing notes from this book about writing a book about writing.
When you have a grant to go abroad for three months as part of a Creative Writing MFA, where do you choose to go? Paris, obviously? Maybe Florence or Rome? South East Asia? South America? Well, close. Nell Stevens chooses the Falklands, specifically Bleaker Island. Population: 1. Namely, herself. She seeks absolute loneliness and isolation from the world (well, from humans - there are some uninterested penguins and some far too interested caracaras present) in order to write her novel. After three months she’ll emerge with the work that means she can call herself a Writer. Except life doesn’t quite work like that.
Stevens attempts a sort of military camp, serving as both cadet and general, trying to force a routine of daily physical and mental exercises that will result in a novel. Instead, it becomes clear to her towards the end of her trip (and to her readers perhaps rather earlier on) that the novel she is writing has no satisfactory resolution. The book she does write is an original knitting together of her life on the island with the novel that she attempts to write, with past short stories and with her very real previous attempts to inject ‘real experiences’ into her life that she can plunder for material (because why wouldn’t you read Gaza Blues by Samir el-Youssef and then just go to Palestine?). And, for reasons that become partially clear, with Bleak House, the only novel that she has brought with her in hard copy.
Before flying on a tiny and probably terrifying plane to Bleaker Island with all the provisions that she will eat during her stay, rather fewer than she really needed, and her copy of Bleak House, Stevens goes to East Falkland. In Stanley, capital of the Falklands, she can glean ideas about her main character’s background by researching the government archives… if she can overcome the absolute mistrust of everyone living in Stanley and the shock of having no internet or phone signal. Residents who see her out walking assume she cannot possibly have just fancied exploring and must be lost. The response when she tells people how long she is staying is a less than comforting horror. Her host believes that the English novelist reading her Kindle is, ‘a young American authoress. She’s here writing a history of the islands. She works at the archives but she spends most of her time playing on her Game Boy’.
Perhaps the boldest aspect of her writing is that Stevens includes details of her course director’s rules for creative writing. The bold move is not so much that she breaks all of these - of course she does - but that her readers then find themselves analysing her writing in his terms. His rules include excluding large abstract nouns that end in ‘ness’ (just the blurb of Bleaker House announces that this is a book about ‘loneliness’), not looking into your own heart and writing but into someone else’s (enjoy this deeply personal life writing, then) and a general dislike of parentheses (oops). A major rule is that narratives concerned with the thoughts of just one person tend to fall flat - you need the interaction of two characters to keep readers’ interest. Both the novel that Stevens attempts to write and the book that she does are really ‘Onesies’ rather than ‘Twosies’. Does it matter? Maybe to her teachers, but not to the readers. There is no lack of drama in Stevens’ internal battles - c.f. her struggles with hunger which lead to the forming of a sanctuary around a potato, the only fresh food she has, and her relationship with the single ferrero rocher that she eats each night, sometimes taking an hour to do so. And if you need external conflict, there’s a situation with a caracara that I won’t spoil for you.
Similarly bold, Stevens writes about previous work rejected by an agent who bluntly tells her that she found the premise fundamentally unconvincing. You might level the same criticism at the novel that Stevens attempts to write on Bleaker Island. You would almost certainly make such a claim if the story in front of you were written as a novel. But you don’t get to, because here is Stevens really alone, really despairing as she counts out her raisin allowance for the day, really distracted by her ever growing eyebrows and solemnly accepting that Ted Hughes lied - however far she has gone to create the conditions for it, there is no such thing as ‘effortless concentration’. The more she worries about how contrived the novel she is trying to write is, draws graphs plotting dramatic tension against time and maps out formulae where situation + loneliness + instant soup = resolution, the more authentic she becomes. It’s an odd and very personal reading experience and I defy anyone to read it without feeling that Stevens has managed to say something simple and effective about us.
I could not say how much of the story is fictionalised, how far she has created a persona but it must surely be true that Stevens has given a lot of herself to the book’s readers. Not only will aspiring authors be alternately saddened and amused by her exploits, utterly identifying with them as we will, but also will all readers be moved by her descriptions of loneliness and otherness. These forbidden abstract nouns are to be found in the cities, in the office jobs, in the busy public spaces. The almost sentimental elements considering these are balanced perfectly with just the right levels of cynicism: reading the boss’ emails, finding herself used in others’ artistic creations, writing stories slotted into company documents to give the impression of working. This last was one of my favourite touches in the book - another example of Stevens’ stumbling over her work when she is (supposed to be) looking in another direction.
There were moments where I did long for more explanation of the question: why Bleak House? When you have severe weight limits for what you can take with you to an uninhabited island, I presume there exist more reasons for choosing this book than merely, it’s a favourite. I have wondered for a while about the sheer quantity and variety of well-drawn characters in Dickens contrasting with Stevens’ isolation as well as her teacher’s instructions about not writing a onesie and not writing by looking into your own heart. I have thought about Esther’s storytelling abilities in the novel and the lost identities and lonely characters in the huge city of London. I have considered if the choice was a rebellion against her teacher’s insistence that Middlemarch is the greatest novel in the English language, no arguments.
Stevens writes of deconstructing Dickens, searching for how he did it, the steps he took to achieve this result, longing for parallels in her own work. I thought of all those school children forced to read a book for GCSE English, tear it apart and churn out essays according to a formula that destroys anything they might have loved about reading or writing. Perhaps another thing Stevens’ book gives us is the ability to enjoy a story even as we tear it apart, to go with it as it is built back up and appreciate how a whole is formed from parts whose glue we admire without quite being able to see it.