We're driving up the west coast of Scotland. We're on a stretch of dual carriageway somewhere outside Kilmarnock. Rundown high-rises in the middle distance. Litter on the road margins. I see someone on the white line. A girl walking between the two fast moving lanes of traffic. She's wearing a towelling dressing gown over white pyjamas with reindeer on them. Slippers. She has dirty blonde hair drawn back from her face. She has high cheekbones and grey eyes and there is a bruise on her temple. She's smoking a cigarette and her grey eyes are fixed on something in the distance. One minute she is there, then gone, disappearing in the rear view mirror. My wife doesn't even look at me. Her eyes, fixed straight ahead, narrow slightly. “Don't” she says softly. The only thing she said about it on the entire trip.
When we get home I've got a phrase in my head. If there was a realm of bad choices she would be queen.
I've been at this for a long time, this suborning of people into fiction. I've written five novels based on real events and peopled them with the actual players, fit them in with an architecture which is part real and part fictional. I explain it by saying that these stories demanded to be told that way. I still believe that. But there is something else. I seem to need a certain amount of edge in the telling, a scent of blood if you like, something that could blow up in my face. I've started to wonder how real the risk is. The blood on the floor never belongs to me. When I populate the books with those who lived the events I am writing about, it is their heart at risk, not mine.
I started to write the story of the girl in the dressing gown. It began to get entangled in the story of the women we were in Scotland to visit. My wife's friend from college, grievous events in her past. When the story was finished I showed it to Marie. She was furious. I had been told about these events in confidence and I had breached that confidence. This was her friend, and I had betrayed them both.
She was right. I started to horse trade. I didn't like the way she was looking at me. I would show the story to her friend and discard it if she didn't like it. Marie didn't say anything but her eyes narrowed the way they did when we first saw the walking girl.
My wife's friend is an artist and film-maker-in-the-business and got what was going on though she didn't have to and would have been well within her rights to have been angry as my wife was angry on her behalf. But she wasn't. She said that she knew everything she told me might end up in a piece of work and generously corrected some assumptions I had made in the text.
It doesn't end there though. The artist's responsibility in all of this is a broad debate – but the human responsibility isn't. You're intruding in places that you were never meant to be, taking something that belongs to someone else, smuggling it out of the room and shaping it to your own purposes.
You could say that the art, the short story that emerged, is worth it. Beauty is not always lovely, Robinson Jeffers says, and you could say that the steps you take towards beauty are unlovely. A troubled girl is granted some kind of stature by being elevated. But this won't do. She didn't ask for it and will never know of it.
I woke up one night thinking about sin. I went to the dictionary and looked up the word. A moral offence or shortcoming. That seemed to fit what I was doing better than anything else. To intrude on the stuff of other's lives is a personal moral offence, and I'll answer for it in those terms. We can slip into the assumption that the writer has a hand in the moral settings of society. That you lead so that others might follow. That isn't the way it works. I don't write for, to or at anyone. I hum the tune because it is there to be hummed. That's the height of it.
In the story of the walking girl, called “Walking North, Walking Home”, a young woman travels across Scotland by taxi to confront a family trauma. She sees the walking girl in her dressing gown. On the way home that night in the snow having been defeated by her own heart she sees the walking girl again, many miles from where she first saw her:
'Look,’ she said. It was the woman they had seen that morning. She was walking on the other side of the road. Still wearing the yellow dressing gown, her hair stiff and ghostly with cold. Tam slowed the car and stopped but the woman kept walking. Her head was high and the light of ruin and of glory shone in her eyes.
'Jesus,' Tam said, 'she never stopped. She never stopped walking.'
One of the things they say about short stories is that they should, or might, begin with a person or situation and at the end return to that same person or situation only transformed. This story seems to fit that model, although I wouldn't want to apply it as a rule to every short fiction. The writing is good. The story works. It never occurred to me then or now to ask whether the piece of art was worth it in terms of the pain it might cause to others. It wasn't that I was unaware of what I had done, but I was borne along by the imperatives of the work. Thomas McGuane talks about an elaboration of soul, and that is as good a description of writing as I can find. Whether the act of writing, the sin of it, costs you all or part of that soul seems to be beside the point.