Friday, 4 May 2007

Get yer hands OFF!

This is very rough (only just written and the ink's still wet, and it took nearly an hour so think how I sweated)



Recently I was "aroused" (but not in my favourite way) when a promising writer I know well produced a story which was all form and show with no substance, no heart or soul. That is, the whole was artifice, a performance and it stood out as such, it made me grossly "author-aware".

A thread ensued where some felt I was beating up my victim, but my point was that this particular writer always showed herself, always thought of craft before the heart of the story,always showed herself on the page.

The argument followed familiar patterns. I would say something, this writer would say, "but…" This is a writer who was blocked, felt she was writing in a narrow corridor, was frightened of opening doors. "When I let go I write about horrible things and people hate me for it," she said. "I can't 'let go', I don't like my demons."

First we need to deal with a conflation of ideas. My friend here is confusing "going to the well" with going specifically to those dark mansions of the soul. She believes that letting go, writing unconsciously must by its very nature unleash horrible memories, sickness, death, abuse, betrayal, self-loathing, dying children, horrible diseases.

This is absolutely NOT the case.

Of course, I might choose to go to the place where I carry suppressed memories, choose to knock on doors, open Pandora's Box. I might choose to wallow in the horrors, to try to understand myself, what made me what I am not.

But I can go to the place of dark memories, of dark pressures and not seek out specifics. I can go there and simply use the pressures, the aches, the feelings, the idea of certain memories. I do not need to write about "my abuse" to understand the legacy of abuse just as I don't need to murder to write about murder or cheat to write about cheating.

But note the above. By my merely going to this area and discussing ways of using the past (the dynamics of my soul) I am misleading you.

MY history and experience is SMALL.

By that I mean my small life, no matter how traumatic, or sad or dangerous, is small. How does it compare in incident, conflict, setting, moral issues, resonance when weighed against all the great films, the great novels, the great stories and the greatest poems? My life, against all those lives, all those influences, is tiny and insignificant.

When I say delve into the dream-world, be drunk, write drunk, "let things up" there is no reason to believe that this must be "my dark self" or "my suppressed memories". My conscious thinking, semi-conscious day-dreaming, my almost unconscious dreams may take in my history, thoughts from the day and week, but they also combine and recombine every word I have ever heard, every image I have ever seen, all the poems, plays, advertisements as well as stories, novels, films and TV.

For me it's effortless to wallow "down there" in an almost-controlled, almost-conscious world. When I think of characters, places, ideas and situations are they really fresh? Or are they products of the age, some symptom of the world?
It is not uncommon for two or more authors each to arrive at a "new" idea seemingly simultaneously. Deep in them, working subliminally is some thing or combination of things. They have all been exposed to similar news, similar times, often delivered by the same media, and "surprise" they each respond with the same (they thought) original new idea.

After events like 9/11 the dominant thoughts, the dominant news are obvious and easy to see and poor poetry collections and short-story magazines are packed to the straining seams with "disaster writing". No one has any problem understanding this. We all know we all know the same things, and we, as writers, respond. What could be more natural?

We will all be affected by a terrible tragedy, a death of a president, a cruel famine, men walking on the moon. We are all living within the zeitgeist.

But we can use our individualism, our separate and individual way of assimilating, not just our personal history but our reading history, our cultural history, our language, our dialect, our sub-culture, our religion, our schooling, and the randomness of our individual chemistries.

We can use our own chaos theories our own ways of combining lives to create products, characters, voices, products of everything we know and have known.

It is impossible not to have Shakespeare in your stories, impossible not to have Chaucer, Keats, Milton (and Sky News). Because every writer has been influenced by every other writer, and if we have ever read, if we SPEAK, we are Shakespearian, or Miltonian. We cannot avoid our culture or the histories of art.

Which brings me to my utterly original characters…

I have an idea: a magic credit-card. I need to write about "someone" with that card. My upbringing, my politics, my culture, my religion all affect me. It is impossible to be unaffected. Am I selfish or generous? How much of that is parental influence, a kindly teacher or two, or father Maloney staring at me in church his glass eye fixed and the Devil himself boring a hole through me?

Do I pick someone old or young? Male of female? Black? White? I write very few black characters. Not because I'm racist but simply because I know more white people, was brought up by white people, and so on. And when I pick the age and gender of my lead-character how much is truly random choice, how much is the idea singing, seducing, subtly dictation?

I picked an old woman. An English old woman. A sensible, thinking (but not worldly and not highly intelligent) "nice" old English woman. Why?

Is the woman really random? Could she have been a black Scotsman with migraine? No? Why not?

"Why not" is the instinct, the intuition, the-thing-in-the-story that asks me to write, that calls, whispers, gently pulls. The old dear comes to me and says, "this is my story" (and when these people do, we know they are the right people, and they speak with the right voice, the right cadences, the right intelligence). They belong to the story and the story belongs to them.

Now, back to individual writers and their separate lives, their separate experiences, the separate histories, their separate random reading. If writer X and I have the same "McGuffin" (the magic credit card), and, for simplicity have the same idea of what we might like to say, our main character will be "of-a-type" and of a limited type.

If (because of our political stance) the card idea say that we have a fabulous way of showing the corruption of big business, the ruthless heartlessness of the big banks, and if that idea "obviously" tells us our main character will be destroyed then we are highly unlikely to choose an extremely strong, dynamic, resourceful character.

A few characters would "suit", more than one would work, but The Terminator would not. We just know this, so we choose characters that feel right, that slip into the spotlight, almost without us trying.

That's point one. The characters should come to us. And they come to us, better, bigger, more naturally, more fittingly if we let them. That is if we do not interfere, if we "just let things happen", if we "write drunk." Your character and mine? They may be a naïve young man or an old frail pensioner, but both "want to be there" and both will work well enough.

But what if, instead of letting the character come to us we sit down and plan. Now our conscious mind is interfering. Now we get the much more obvious (in a clichéd way) character. Yeah the character "sort-of" works, but deep down, we as writers know she's made up, an artificial being. She, Ethel, doesn't feel like she's a living person we stumbled upon. My point? If we stay drunk, hang loose, the right characters "come to us".

Now that is metaphor. What I mean is this: the less formal, deliberate, left-brained or conscious we are, the more likely our unconscious will naturally select the perfect character for a story. As Peter Sansom writes in his book "Writing Poems" did Shakespeare consciously, deliberately mean all that stuff in Hamlet, or did it just come together? I believe it came together because Shakespeare entered the right area and then allowed characters to first arrive, then speak, then live out their lives.

Back, now to "being drunk" and using the unconscious. More or less unconsciously I chose an old woman. I did not choose to call her Ethel, she was an Ethel. If you don't believe me, go to your ten favourite stories, films, plays and rename the main character.

Your Ethel won't be my Ethel. Mine will be partly my mother, aunts, a grandmother, the old dear who worked in the corner shop, a woman I once helped across the road… And Miss Marple, perhaps, or any of a dozen other older woman of stage, screen or leaping from the pages of my library.

But you and I, our Ethels would be more-or-less how an Ethel should be, and would behave Ethelishly. Neither of us have invented (or discovered) an irascible old bitch or an ex-Nazi prison camp warder. We both see "a nice, soft, possibly-vulnerable, "old dear".

And how does Ethel speak? How does she behave? How can we make her do our bidding? How can we be sure she'll "stay in line" and be soft when we want her to be, tough when she should?


Ethel can do whatever she likes, when she likes, how sh likes and to whom she likes. That's the bloody point!

As soon as we do ANYTHING to control her, Ethel is no longer Ethel, some sweet old lady. Now she is a plastic puppet that reminds readers of that author, whatsisname?

Ethel came to us, remember? Why then do we not listen to her, let her speak? If we let her speak she will always say the right thing.

Why is that (dropping the metaphor)?

Because our subconscious brought us the correct vehicle, the right person for the job, the right essence, the right torch-carrier, our subconscious can continue its good work only if we let it. It will do so by giving voice to the very person we chose as the story's spokesperson.

All good stories "surprise the writer". This has led (unfortunately) to people saying stuff like "I write to discover what I know" (etc) but the real point is, if the right character has come to us (ie: we chose the main unconsciously) and if the right voice has come to us (ie: we waited until we heard a voice that we just "knew" was right) and the setting was right (ie: we found a setting which resonated with our vague deliberately not too-shaped thoughts about the story, AND the main, AND the voice, then we are allowing our unconscious to write the story for us.
All we have to do is record what the unconscious already knows.

The story may appear to surprise us, but does it? In my now-ancient story "The Card" (a Bridport Supplementary Prize-Winner) Ethel was just Ethel and she just did the right thing. I really, truly did not think as I wrote the story, it wrote itself. Plot events just "popped up", Ethel just did what was write (applying her Ethelness to everything and simply acting Ethelishly) and everything worked out, everything worked itself out.

The story had a strong thematic spine. It had that thematic spine because the story spoke like I see the world (or wanted to see it at that time). It spoke with the right voice, said the right things, because that's how Ethel was. And why did I choose Ethel?

I didn't. She chose me.

What does that mean?

It means that if I step aside, refuse to be conscious, my unconscious always makes better decisions than I can consciously.


Lexie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lexie said...

Another good article, AK. Thanks.

Not inventing a character and contriving a story around her ... but picking someone unconsciously out of your personal world of experience and inviting her to inhabit that story space.

[sorry - I meant to edit a typo, not delete the entire post]