Monday, 16 April 2007

A Little Brown Dog in the Rain

More Notes

Getting to the Heart

Beginning writers, almost all of them, exhibit the same problems. They tend to think in terms of plots, clever ideas, twists, surprises. They tend to create characters that are simple, one dimensional, stereotypical, or “stock”, or they create what they imagine are “better” characters, stereotypes with a reverse image: the hit-man who loves his Momma, or the bully who is afraid of the dark, the smiling priest who is an abuser.

If the beginning writer becomes ‘conscious’ of being like other writers he may go to great lengths to get away from the stock character in a classic situation, doing a volte face or springing a not-quite-believable extraordinary change. The result is low credibility and little or no reader satisfaction.

The singular thing I find in beginning writers is no writer.

That is, the writing, so often could be by “any beginner”. There is little or no voice, no personality, no accent, no dialect, no attitude which obviously is Jack or definitely Jill, (rather than any old Tom Dick or Harriette). The heart is missing, nothing beats, there is no ache, no sense of having been invited into another mental or spiritual world. After reading beginners’ stories we get no sense of the writer, the author, the person, the dark recesses of the mind. We have the feeling that the words on the page are false, mere cheap and easy constructions, superficialities, distractions, asides, falsenesses.

If the beginner goes to his own life for material, in some ways the problem becomes worse. Now we get apparent truthfulness, for isn’t John writing about his lost love? Isn’t Jill talking about a cheating husband? Why then do these stories too, echo with emptiness and reek of artifice?

Because, there is no heart, no soul, no nakedness, no unconsciously made connection, no risk, no blatant truth, no smell of the inner person.

It’s simply falseness, like a celebrity’s plastic smile.

How then, do we avoid these stories?

Well, my first approach as a teacher is to suggest beginners write a lot of stories in a short a span of time as possible and then to expect the clumsy twists-in-the-tail, expect the crude flip-flop characters, the obvious stories, the simple, linear, superficial plots. While the beginner learns basic rules of craft he is also “burning off” the bulk of those awful stories, those same stories all beginners seem determined to write.

This time is tough for these writers. Everything they do is blue-pencilled by their cruel taskmaster. The stories are stamped with “cliché”, “stereotype”, “stock”, “samey” and “so what?” and life, for a while seems ever uphill.

But it’s only after the beginner learns the hard way that plot-driven stories are devoid of resonance, weight and deep believability that they are prepared to alter their approach and seriously consider the power of character, the effects of theme and the extra textures that come from language.

It is now that we can really talk about the opening, the setting, the character, voice, tone, musicality. Finally they are prepared to listen (and thankfully, they are not quite so eager to write “Mrs Jones’s Funeral”).
Now we can get into an area of greater difficulty and subtlety. We can talk about “writing thing that matter”, “saying things that resonate”, “going naked” and “telling real truths”.
The writer John Ravenscroft has talked about ‘The Land of the Scary’ and I have said much the same even if I am only satisfied when travelling there. I have also talk about going naked, of outwitting the sentinels, and of accessing the depths, surprising one’s self.

Think for a moment about daily life, how superficial most things are, how we glibly lie and accept those lies, how we are trivial, duplicitous, deal in clichés, bigotry, simplifications, sound-bytes and misinformation. We do this mostly all the time. Listen to a conversation and hear repetition, “you know” and cliché after cliché upon cliché. We are all, almost, sailing alone, rarely connecting, rarely telling a deep truth or hearing one.

Most of the time we say stuff we know will be half-heard and half-absorbed by people who don’t particularly care. In writing, this kind of communication is the womag story: simple plots and trite characterisation, everything signposted, and that’s it, next story please. A little beyond this is the formulaic romance, the books you know pretty much from cover to cover before you’ve bought this month’s batch.

But step beyond here into the lower reaches of other genres, like the puzzle-style crime novel and we are still in the land where behind closed doors we ask SFW? (So F-— What?) but in politer circles we might say it’s a DIM book. Does it Matter?

I’m aware that thrillers, good mysteries, and romances may be written well artificially plotted and peopled with simplistic characters or caricatures and genuinely entertain. Fine, fine, fine, but do these stay with us? Do they make us feel? Do they change lives? Do they change the way we think? Do they alter our state, or disturb our steady state?
No they do not. They fill time and kill trees.

I’m talking, then, about writing stories with weight, with power. Stories which can move us, deeply, heavily, meaningfully; stories which when finished leave us feeling slightly different. We need to take a deep breath, rest, absorb, wait. The story has stepped inside us.

Does this mean “a literary story”?

Tricky question. If asked it, ask the questioner to define “literary”. Do they mean arty-farty? Do they mean highly-languaged? Do they mean dealing with minutiae or deep philosophical issues? Do they mean, “There aren’t any guns”? We need agreement before we continue.

For the purposes of this discussion I consider genre stories, non-literary stories as highly dependent on plot, on what happens, and when it happens. The better kind of fiction, more meaningful fiction “carries something”. As well as what happens, there is a why, perhaps a how, but what matters is not the action but its meaning. From the reader’s perspective that action may or may not be vivid, but it’s the meaning of that action we are here for.

So in the genre story, perhaps Jack returns to the bar to confront his tormentors. There’s a great fight, some gun gymnastics perhaps. End.

Maybe, feeling in a good mood, the writer might tack on some guilt, some remorse, or one cool final comment, but it’s still tacked on. The resonance is like a minor electric shock, a tickle, a flourish.

In the more serious story (and it can be as exciting as the genre story) the facts of the return may well be the same but the writer is more interested in motives, reasons, choices made, and why they are made. Why not simply walk away? Why not simply refuse to go back? If he doesn’t go back is it cowardice, apathy or a greater kind of strength? Done well, this kind of work lifts us, makes us learn about life. Both styles of writing seek to entertain, but the genre story does it superficially, on the surface, pressing well-known buttons and, however well it works, it’s still DIM. It doesn’t matter.
But the quality story still entertains. As Raymond Carver said even literary stories set out to entertain. The differences lie in what we seek. Do we seek cheap thrills or satisfying adventures?

OK, so I am talking to writers who want to entertain, but they also want to linger in the heart or the soul. They want to reach the reader in some way, to say something about life, about the human experience. After their story has been read they hope to stay with the reader, ideally forever.

Small task, eh? The next question is how? And the issues are how do we access these other kinds of stories, these deeper connections?

I’ve mentioned Dorothea Brande before. She posed the situation where two writers see an incident. Let’s say it’s a small dog struck by a car. To one of the writers, this immediately “impinges”. It feels important, and meaningful, it rattles internal connections. The writer can feel the event sticking, and for whatever reason it matters. It is the opposite of DIM.
But the second writer? Nah, dog under a car, let’s move on.

What, Brande asks, is the difference between the two writers? Why did the event affect one, connect and impinge for one, but not the other? In other situations the uncaring writer seems to care more. It’s not just “sensitivity”.

What it is, Brande says, is connection, something primitive is happening. Some element in the event connects to something in the soul, the heart, the memory of one writer. It’s a key, a viral fit. The question is what is that fit, what is the event saying to me, how can I find the answer without damaging the connection?
Later I hope to show you how to make those connections happen, how to write drunk, to flash, to work without seeing your words, to “spike your soul”. It may or not be The Land of the Scary, but it for sure is a rewarding place to visit.

Before we continue we need to talk a little psychology. Think, for a moment about all of the things you have done, things that have happened to you. Think how little you can easily recall. Your psyche chose to “lose” many things and remember others. It embellishes, distorts, changes, protects.

Now take the incident of the dog to an extreme for a moment. Imagine that at the age of ten you saw a dog just like that and it ended up dead. Maybe you killed it or maybe your drunken father was driving the car and killed it. Maybe your father had just punched you (or worse) and you looked out of the window and saw this sad little dog, walking in the rain. Back then you did not know a connection was made. You wanted to forget shame, anger, horror, humiliation, or abuse and you managed it (or rather your psyche did).

But now something is burning inside. You don’t quite know it but you feel it, feel it in a massive, swollen, slightly disturbing way.

Now you can pull on size sixteen boots and say, “Hey, brain, I wanna know. So tell me, dog, feeling, why do I feel so strongly? Why does that matter to me and not to my fellow-writer?”

Now the brain is going to roll over with its legs in the air and say, “Fair cop, Guvnor. See, I have been suppressing this stuff for forty years, but you’ve asked me so I’m gonna come clean and tell you what happened that day in that bedroom.”

Yeah, right.

No, you see unconscious thoughts are unconscious for a reason. This psyche of yours doesn’t want you to know! Freud knew of this, hypnotists know of this. If you take the memory on, head-first you will lose. The sentinels of the psyche will trick you, and give you a trivial reason for the connection.

In fact many beginning writers often reach a stage where they invent just such scenarios. The “hidden” reason is always just below the surface and always the most obvious one, the cliché, the one that makes us yawn. This is the stuff of cheap melodrama, of The Human Jungle.

First let me tell you how I access the secret memory.

I don’t.

Brande argues that something in the incident connects primitively, even primeval. Then let it!

Now if you ignore this completely, chances are the old incident will stop vibrating, and gradually, the dog-incident will fade and slowly subside. But we writers have to keep the stove burning, keep the wooden-spoon turning. We don’t let the connection go, nor do we investigate it. Instead all we do is remember the dog!

We remember the dog, the ache, the “something in the gut” by “visiting” the feeling at least once a day. Maybe we have a white board above our writing desk and on it we write, little brown dog in the rain?????
Every day we see “little brown dog in the rain?????” and remember the dog, the rain, the car, and deep in us something stirs.
Now, really, I don’t care what that connection is. But just for the sake of this essay, lets say it was a terribly embarrassing moment. Ten years old and you walked in on your father having sex with your mother. Perhaps he laughed, your mother laughed, and for one split second you hated, hated.

Now YOU don’t remember, but the dog does, the dog-connection does, and every time you deliberately remember the dog, when you keep looking, keep stirring, those deep connections are energised.
But what connections? Who knows? That’s the beauty and excitement of the process.
Deep in you, in that sewer, amino-acids surge and split, bubble and seethe. There for a split second was that memory, your sweet, innocent mother fucking like a horse, and her red face suddenly ugly. But you never catch this memory, you never quite see it. But its essence, its essence, that connects. It connects to some scene in Reservoir Dogs, to a line from The Tempest, to a picture you once saw of a little boy humiliated by some girl, and your first rejection at a dance, and...
Real things, imagined things, film, books, plays, TV, dreams, bits and pieces, combinations, new formations (Shakespeare with a .45?) occur, but all connected to that disturbance in the depths, that venting anxiety, that suppressed memory.

Now, this is the bit people fail to capture. We don’t ever, realy, truly need to unearth that original memory. The in flagrante delicto incident can be left buried, untouched. What we have to tap into is its psychological force, its power, the pressures it brought into your life, the ways it made you what you are now. Do you make love in the dark, afraid to see someone you think pretty suddenly lustful and full of heat? Are you perhaps misogynistic or lonely, afraid to enter the world of sex and love because something way back has corrupted you?

Don't answer that. It doesn’t matter! What matters is accessing the pressure!

We need to keep accessing the feelings of wrongness, our dissonances, the unresolved tensions. The more we stir the more connections we make, all barbs sticking to this particular thread of wrongness, the thread undone by seeing a little brown dog in the rain.

And understand this. If my dog in the rain connects to that bedroom, and even though I never remember the bedroom, but the hooks are there, the pressure and stickiness - when my connections start to catch, they will be, maybe, something from Reservoir Dogs, but maybe also Kathy from 4B, and she’s walking alongside John Wayne and I can hear Dylan Thomas, the slow black, sloeblack sea, and suddenly I think of my first wife, and...

All these things are what make me, me, utterly individual. When you see a film it is not my film, but each of us is a filter, a sticky ball, a builder and deconstructor all at the same time taking all of history, shuffling it up, then bringing it, some of it, out to the light.

But how? It seems if we TRY we kill it. How?

Years ago I tried in a poem to explain why I couldn’t come home, have a drink and just turn into a writer. I said something like “At work I am steel and glass, but here I need to be wood.”

In the context we are now discussing, the problem is we have be wood not steel, to keep tickling the trout, making it (or something) rise to the surface. Try to be steel, grab and it races away into the depths (or we end up with an old boot).

What has to be done is to think in the zone, to look but not look, see but not see, hear deaf. If you like it’s like lying back with a few glasses of wine and remembering the feeling of a film rather than the plot or the dialogue. Just wallow, be near, imagine, sense, but don’t try to make anything happen.

Now sort of listen for a voice, feel for a setting, sense an attitude, try to think of a line, an opening. This sounds bizarre but once you have done it you will understand. I believe that the so-called “visit of the muse” occurs when we get just such an opening voice, character, or setting because some unconscious pressure has caused a welling up and an eruption of story.

I believe we can create “favourable conditions” and “encourage” openings to appear in this way. Writing every day, thinking like a writer, being more and more sensible and sensitive increases the number of antennae we have and trains our intuitive delve-and-connect procedures. I am so old and crusty now I can almost “will openings to rise” and I do this because I am always thinking about why does that matter, when this doesn’t, why do I like this but don’t care about that?

I’m sorry if what follows seems a little esoteric. It isn’t, truly. Believe first that the connection (the little brown dog) triggers a fundamental memory (the hidden, repressed memories of that bedroom) and by keeping the dog-feeling alive we energise the old memories and create new connections.
Now believe that as the pressure increases and we approach a sense of an opening, that opening maps from the pressure (the nuclear, pulsing core of the original incident). Hold that.

Now the voice, setting, a character begins to come, and if we don’t grab at it, it becomes less nebulous. Quite often we almost have a sentence or more “close but not it” when suddenly it tunes in, like first hearing static, then garbled stations, then almost the station, and then suddenly high-fidelity.
Bang, when this hits it arrives with a tremendous force of rightness, with an inevitability. This is like when we talk as if the story was always there waiting for me to write it or others talk of the muse. But the muse is us and great stories come from us, the heart, the gut, the soul, the loins.

Now, here is the bit that might be argued as esoteric or mystical. I believe that the voice, the setting, tone, and characters chosen in the opening connect to us primitively and express us primitively. That is, I believe that if we have come to the voice with patience, by looking the other way and avoiding eye-contact with the demons, or sentinels, or trying too hard to connect to that bedroom, our psyche gives us the voice it wants.
Now if that is true, the character, voice and tone contain the essence of the story. The tone came because of the pressure and the voice came because of the pressure. That means that the voice and character, the tone, and the setting embody the uncertain feelings we are trying to articulate.
What comes now might be a story about a little brown dog. It might be a story about a boy seeing something he wishes he hadn’t. But it might be a third thing, a fourth, or a fifth - but, whatever it is, the story is the one that wanted to be written, the one that was driven by the key (dog) and the old incident (but not the incident itself, rather the human response).
I believe that the opening embodies what I need or want to say, that the characters, language, tone, attitude will ‘look after” the theme. I can trust them to write the right story.

OK, we’ve talked about when life pops up and smacks us. We see a car smash, a dog in the rain, experience pleasure or pain, but what do we do when we feel we are in a desert, nothing is coming our way?

Read. I have hundreds of books with scribbles in them. Reading a book or a story or a poem often sparks an idea, a connection. The richer the book, the more barbs.

Listen to the news. Not just the main news, but the BBC World Service, or CNN if you’re a Brit or news in other languages if you can understand them. Read news-papers, but read the smaller stories, the odd, the quirky. Read like a writer. Imagine combinations of stories. You read about a bloody murder, you read about genetic modification, but what if these were combined?

Browse junk shops for old books, scrapbooks, photographs. You can do this and look for curiosities that amuse you, but also search for those things that hit you and connect more deeply. Look at junk as a writer. Why do people throw away family photographs? What does that say about their attitude to their heritage? Who ARE these people in funny clothes? How would you like your photographs thrown away?

Read books of photographs and live in them. Read about 9-11 of course, look at the pictures, yes, but really look at some of the smaller, less well-known pictures, weep when you see the worst, be there, identify, empathise.

And when you are really struggling (remember to be a writer you should write every day) start to employ tactics to beat the blues, unlock the doors, dodge the mental guards.

Smell things, look at food, stand still and people-watch. Be a spy and follow someone, get on the wrong bus and go the wrong place. Turn round in a line of people and face the wrong way. Stop skimming, start seeing.

Try the internet. Pull up Google and type in a number and press search. I typed in 456 and discovered Aeschylus the Greek father of the tragedy. It gave me both a wonderful story and the most bizarre death ever!

Type combinations of words, random, silly, chocolate wire resulted in 510,000 hits including a management company and “our keepsake gold crazy wire heart has a hinged lid that can be used to store those precious items and comes with an assortment of five of our chocolate dipped strawberries.” A story? No, but I bet I could get a great one if I followed a few links. Learn to open your heart, mind, soul, every site is a connection, two sites may be a unique combination and a stunning new idea.


Ideas are one thing. Stories are another. What connects an idea to a story and what makes the story ultimately satisfying? My answer is usually “theme” or “premise” the story’s “why”, its point, its message. But hopefully from all that’s gone before you should have TWO why’s, why is the author writing this, and what is he trying to say? Not always the same thing.

Sometimes we have an instinct, an intuition, the nagging feeling. I can now encourage mine to form openings. What if you can’t?

Recently while I was teaching, we took a break, sat outside in an English Country Garden drinking cold white wine and talking about writing. One of my students “had an idea”. His idea was that a woman beekeeper was giving men a very hard time. My student was fascinated by some of the sexual facts about Queen Bees, and drones etc.
DIM (Does it Matter?)

I actually said SFW, So F——g What?

This is a cruel but ultimately useful test of an idea. Ideas, when articulated are rarely THE idea, they are either stage seven of a story or merely part of an idea, a symptom rather than cause.

In this case the poor student was asked, time and again DIM or SFW.

Why was the woman a bee-keeper, why not a seamstress? Why in a village? By challenging every thought, pushing, pushing, pushing, we first got, “Well she hates men, so she abuses them”. But why did she hate men? “Because she was abused in her teens?” Why? By whom? And what has this to do with bees? “Because she was fascinated by bees and was seduced by an old bee-keeper.”
Now an idea was taking shape. A young girl fascinated by bees is abused, grows up to be beautiful, a beekeeper herself and she abuses men as a kind of revenge. Suddenly all the beekeeping facts buzzed (sorry!!) as metaphors, great scenes arising like the idea that she can allow hundreds of males bees to swarm on her because she knows how to stop them hurting her. She exploits them for honey etc.

Now in this specific exercise we clinically examined the ideas, pushed until we reached a fundamental point then allowed the story and its attendant metaphors to blossom. Here we appear to be mechanical, whereas earlier we appeared to be doing something far more uncontrolled, even spiritual.

This is true, but becoming a writer is about being mechanical and factual between stories and assimilating craft, techniques, strategies then, but when we actually come to writing the stories we need to be as loose and fluid as we can, to be ‘drunk” and write drunk.

Mechanically we can often analyse half-ideas and seek their origin. Once the core is found we develop the reason. You and I may have the same start-points but produce different stories with very different messages.

“Spiritually” inspired by the little brown dog, we can coax ideas to the surface, bring out a voice. If the voice and tone comes perfectly-formed the story’s theme will be embedded in the opening. If not, perhaps we need a little of the beekeeper process.

The art comes when we can make connections and “fly them” without ever imposing, without becoming left-brained, critical, or analytical. So, for example, in the beekeeper story I would have advised only: “Imagine you are the young lady, the aspiring beekeeper. You were abused. Now you are a woman, great looking. You keep bees. Be yourself, act yourself. What do you do? The point is that the main drive has been established, namely that she is paying “men” back for her abuse. Much of the story will write itself.

When moving from beginner to better writer, many things which will eventually be right-brained, seemingly casual, ‘drunk” or serendipitous will in fact be “worked at”. Slowly but surely the writer learns to be more unfettered, to access the less logical. It takes trust, the ability to let go off the poolside and swim in deeper waters.

Now, when I write I rarely articulate my story’s theme. I simply “know” the whole story, opening, plot, point, even the sense of the language, the tone, the point of view, a general feel-sense of the ending. It’s all there, and I could lie to you and introduce my muse.

But really I write because in there, all the secret stuff, it’s very messy. It erupts often. There are pressures to be relieved. Sometimes it’s because a woman in a shop shouts, “Has anyone seen my seventy-two Wild Swans?” or maybe it’s a little brown dog, a little brown dog in the rain.


Zen said...

Cracking article, really getting a lot out of these new ones, the ones about Truth, How many words does a writer write and this one today is great.

Looking forward to more.

The Boot Camp Diaries said...


Most of these are course-notes from the face to face Kingfisher Barn courses... which reminds me, I ought to run a new one.


Marzipan said...

Can anyone attend a Kingfisher Barn course?

Just wondering..


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

Yes, Marzipan, is the short answer.

The way it usually works is someone (or two) ask about a course and I then advertise it, based on the first person/people's requirements.

So I might be asked to run a "Starting to Write" course. if so I'd then be looking for a few extra beginners"

or it might be someone saying "I've been writing eighteen months, I dont get THEME amd I want to move to the next level..."

Once I have 1-2 people interested I then try to fill the course up as it's cheaper per person.

Millionaires, of course, might prefer 1-2-1


Tom Conoboy said...

Hey Marzipan

I can recommend the KB courses. I did one in January - five days I think it was, or maybe it was a month, I can't remember... ;-)

Not everyone did all five days and on each day different people turned up, but there was a core of about five of us who did most of it, and it was brilliant.

I got THAT close to understanding theme, mainly because AK made me think about what is going on in the background of virtually every story I write. I'm not even aware of it, but it's there. Harnessing that is what turns words into a proper story, and I'm getting close to cracking it...