Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kathleen Jamie and 'Noticing'

While writing my own books, I look for reading matter that is either companionable or instructive. For novels I generally pull a Patricia Highsmith down from the shelf, since the tautness of her prose is a great model. This time around it was A Dog’s Ransom. I’ve not quite unlocked the secret of her style. It’s something to do with brisk sentences, a neat range of detail, all characters somewhat sympathetic and mundane, some ribbon of evil twisting their lives into its threat.

I’m enjoying a sequence of book’s about man’s relationship with the natural world too. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Last Man Standing was a recent one (though the intrusion of the author into the story annoyed me this time around). I’ve enjoyed being taught the quality of noticing as well – from the books of the survival and tracker specialist Tom Brown; from Bear Heart, whose The Wind is my Mother advocates simply sitting still outdoors and turning your head slowly from one side to the other, through hours, noticing very little shift in the surroundings; and currently Kathleen Jamie’s Findings.

Jamie is a poet, which is clear in the beauty and clarity of her descriptions as she surveys different aspects of her native Scotland. She expressed impatience with her impatience, wanting to learn from observation rather than always looking for facts in her encyclopaedias. One particular charm is how her life as a mother permeates the book.

One of my favourite teaching tricks for writing is showing how description works best: we learn through the perspective of a character, so from what we see we learn about who is seeing, (even they have chosen to notice informs us about them). From Jamie I love the fusion of her outdoor experiences and domestic life. Here’s a vivid case in point: ‘Sometimes as I walked, I’d flush a flock of feeding shore birds, dunlin or turnstones. I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.’


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