I couldn’t sleep. I put the light on and decided to read for a bit. A single book lay on the dusty top of the little chest of drawers next to the bed: Keats’s letters, newly edited by John Barnard, a friend of mine. John had kindly sent me a copy on publication. I picked it up, opened it at random, and began to read about Negative Capability.
In a footnote John pointed out that Keats began defining this term in his letter of 22nd November 1817 to his friend Benjamin Bailey: ‘I wish you knew all that I think about Genius and the Heart… In passing however I must say of one thing that has pressed upon me lately and encreased my Humility and capability of submission and that is this truth – Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect… but they have not any individuality, and determined Character.’
Keats went on to assert: ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.’
Keats pursued this thought in his letter in late December 1817 to his brothers George and Tom. He was walking back from the Christmas pantomime with two male friends when ‘several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’
When I first read this passage in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t appreciate it. In those days I longed to be invulnerable, in complete control of myself. I was going through a difficult time that I could not handle at all, which involved conflicts – ‘uncertainties, Mysteries’ – that I could not tolerate. I just wanted to get rid of them. In the end I found a way to use them: I let them fire my first two novels.
Much later, I used to quote the passage from Keats’s letter to my UEA writing students when they got stuck, and were either thrashing about determined to Solve Problems Immediately or else were sunk in gloom convinced they couldn’t write and should give up now and for ever, and indeed I quoted it to myself when I got stuck in my own writing difficulties, or when I’d been commissioned to write a short story but felt blank.
I’d learned that when confronting a block, or what seemed an unsurmountable structural problem, I just had to wait, for as long as it took, resting gently in not-knowing and not-being-able and not-being-in-control, not so much ignoring the problem as just holding it and not fretting, it was the very gentleness and calming down and ceasing to struggle and even to think that did the trick: eventually, after days or weeks of waiting, up out of the still waters would jump the silvery fish of inspiration. The solution having presented itself, I could indeed feel powerful, not invulnerable but simply able to work, get on with making something.
However, it often seemed hard to remember Keats’s bit of wisdom at the time I actually needed it. Why was that? Something in me kept on wanting to feel in control, that any difficulties were safely in the past, that I’d mastered my writing problems, could painlessly invent a new form, finish a book, do well. Part of me wanted to avoid the uncertainties involved in beginning to write a new piece of fiction even as another part wanted to go forward and plunge in. It always felt frightening, starting a new novel, because it required going beyond conscious ego into the unknown, tearing myself open, tearing myself apart, letting destruction happen, destruction of old grammars old fictional shapes old ways of seeing, in order to let new ones happen, and that felt very close to going mad, with no guarantee that you’d ever come out the other side.
Routine helped: you went ‘mad’ for four or five hours every morning then you came out into the kitchen and made lunch, took a walk, rang a friend, that’s to say re-entered a composed and composing narrative rather than whirling non-stop in the timeless chaos of the unconscious imagination. Then next day you redrafted and rewrote, plunged on again, went ‘mad’ again.
Now, rereading Keats’s letter, suddenly I felt able to see that perhaps I’d written that early version (the nineteenth century one) of my novel too quickly, too eager not to have to go ‘mad’ at all. So the Publisher had been right to reject it, even if she hadn’t been able to help me see what was wrong. She had indeed tried, saying ‘too heavy… too intense’, but I hadn’t at that point been able to understand what she meant. I had failed in understanding. However, at least I had gone back to spending every day rewriting, rewriting.
Perfection of the life or of the art? Recently I’d perfected neither. But why did Yeats think you have to choose? Was the choice inevitable? Perhaps I valued writing fiction so highly not simply because I wanted to serve language, my beloved mistress, but because my life often felt such a mess as I lurched from crisis to crisis. Sometimes, I reminded myself, the mess did feel creative, the formation of a different pattern of living, my life could feel cheerfully unconventional, and that was fine and dandy, but sometimes, as recently, the mess felt like failure, and that hurt.
Some people suggested that writing novels had a compensatory function, like daydreaming, enabled you to reshape the world, to live in one you preferred and controlled; to ‘perfect’ it indeed; to live inside your head rather than in the ‘real’ world. I could worry, in black pram moments, that I sometimes did that. At calmer moments I knew those people were not accurate, because writing a novel meant living in a world that made serious demands, that had its own real existence, the world of psyche and imagination and language, definitely part of the ‘real’ world, the inside world and the outside world co-existed, sometimes overlapped, sometimes just touched, but you did live in both at once while writing, I mean that while in the thick of writing a novel I could still read the paper and cook and talk to friends and go to meetings and look at art. You entered that expanded world when writing, but also of course when reading a good novel. A fine, delicate, golden vision both outside you and inside you.
Half-English and half-French, Michèle Roberts lives in London and in the Mayenne, France. She is the author of many critically acclaimed novels, including Daughters of the House, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1992. She is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.
Author photo by Catarina Heeckt