Monday, June 30, 2014

The Courage to Write Fiction

A group called A Better Brighter World asked me a question:
The word courage appears more than 20 times in Dear Writer Revisited and is noted as the first (and at one point the only) essential for a writer. What can you recommend as the best ways for a writer to develop this courage?


Here is my riff on the matter. I don’t really have an answer to the question.

You write fiction by writing fiction. You develop the courage to do this by developing the courage to do it.

As you know, it is no small thing to decide to dedicate long periods of time to writing stories. The decision disrupts not only your own life, but also the lives of your family, friends, colleagues and so on. As soon as you decide to withdraw to the world of your imagination in order to construct small or large other worlds, you institute a change in all your relationships. You announce yourself as being ‘different’ from what you used to be, what others thought you were. And you are announcing that you not only have a new attitude to complexities of life, but that you intend to display that attitude to the world at large. So your use of time will be different, and your position vis-à-vis the family etc will have changed. You haven’t just taken up a new activity, you have sort of become a new person. 

In all this YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.

The impulse to write fiction comes from within yourself, and it’s going to affect everything you do. Perhaps you have been alert to detail and language etc for a long time, but now you are going to put all that together, create narratives, and take ownership of your creations.

You realise of course that the people around you might be afraid you will expose not only yourself, but them. So now they might start to behave differently. You have a lot of adjusting to do. They don’t necessarily have to adjust, but you do. They might be thrilled and excited and helpful. They might not. As I said, they might be a bit frightened of you. You are claiming to be a magician with words, for one thing. And I suppose magicians are scary. And of course you are daring (at last I am coming close to the word ‘courage’) to re-arrange your usual timetable. You have to give plenty of time to your writing. Regularly. Just about every day.

And all this is only the beginning. You dare to step out and expose your skills and ideas to the world at large, and now you have to work out how to get the world to take notice. Who is going to be your first reader? Well, you are. So that clears that up. You need to be critical but kind here. And when you are satisfied that the work is as good as you can get it, you have the question of what to do next. Do you have a teacher? Do you have a writing group or class? How useful are they? (It’s often best not to show the work to family – doing that can sometimes be damaging to you, the work, the family.) Do you get it professionally assessed? Or do you just send it off to a competition? Maybe you boldly post on your blog. All these courses of action require courage.

Now I have spent some time here exploring the need for courage, while your question asked about how one develops courage.

When you were learning to ride a bike, drive a car – how did you get the guts to do it?
Was it by facing the fear, imagining the act, trying it out, failing, trying again, practising – and getting there?

Getting the courage to write stories is really not so very difference, although in this case there might not be a close group of people cheering you on. In this case there are almost certain to be rejections – rather like failing your attempts to get your driver’s licence, actually. Only here, in the matter of writing fiction, the rules are never as clear as the rules of the road. There is so much freedom in writing.

Ah, freedom. That’s often the problem isn’t it? You come to a junction of seven roads. There are no signposts. You have to go somewhere – the decision is yours.

(I wanted to finish there, but I do need to add a postscript. You will hear people being scathing about the idea that writing takes courage. Courage, they say, is what fighter pilots have, it’s what martyrs have etc etc. No use arguing with them. They’re just wrong. Dictionary definitions are not the be-all and end-all, but in this case any dictionary will tell you that having courage means having the ability to face doing something that frightens you. The quality of the fear is irrelevant. And in fact, the obstacles in the way of a new fiction writer are pretty scary. The possibility of losing your friends, job, family - and having very little to show for it in the end – erk – that’s scary. Publishing stories that critics say are not worth reading – that’s scary.

As it happens, just yesterday, I saw an example of the fear and timidity that can grip a fledgling writer. I was at a party, and a man gleefully read to the group a satirical poem he had just written – about politics. It was in the form of a prayer. It was fun. Now it so happens that I know a publisher who is collecting work for a book of what she calls ‘secular prayers’. I reckoned that this piece the man read out would be a possibility for the book. I told him. And all his pride and bravado suddenly shrank. One moment he was the bold fighter pilot and the next he was a frightened mouse running for the hole in the skirting board – do forgive these silly metaphors – they seemed OK at the time. Later a friend explained to me that the man, who is a local professional, would not be able to publish such a thing because it would be at odds with his professional profile. I think that story goes some way to demonstrating the kind of courage I am discussing. The man was so pleased to make the work public among his friends, but it must go no further, for it could upset his world. I expect his perspective on all this would be different from mine. C’est la vie.)

I decided to put the ending in again – I can, you see – because I’m making the decisions. Here it is: Ah, freedom. That’s often the problem isn’t it? You come to a junction of seven roads. There are no signposts. You have to go somewhere – the decision is yours.

NOTE: Dear Writer Revisited is published by Spineless Wonders

I keep a little journal called The Book of Three Good Things in which, every night, I write down three good things, big or small, that happened that day. Sometimes, I write a few pages about an exciting event. Sometimes, I write down a phrase. From The Information by Martin Amis I recorded the expression ‘pictograms of inanity’, which describes modern playgrounds for children. But sometimes, I write just one word that I have discovered or have remembered, or want to learn to pronounce (I was delighted to discover that a voice on the internet will pronounce any word for you). I can be careless about noting where I found the word, so I don’t know where a recent one came from, but it’s nice: ‘finical’, which means being precise in trivial matters. The more common version is ‘finicky’, but even that word is fairly uncommon, I think.
At the back of the book I keep track of what I’m reading. You might wonder why I have the need to keep track. Well, this is because of my disorganized reading habits. Everything I read takes me off to read something else, and I start the something else in the middle of reading the first thing. It's like clicking on hyperlinks.
I have always read in this jumpy way. Occasionally, I read from beginning to end without interruption, but almost never. In fact, I often read the end of a book when I am just a few pages in. It is still possible to feel and to observe suspense while knowing how it all works out. I am most of all interested in the writing, you see. Of course the story matters, but the writing and the structure matter (to me) just as much. The story has to be there, as everything depends on the story, but the everything-else is very important if the story is to live.
The internet is an important player in my reading. I am forever looking up things that drift into my mind from the books I am reading. Before I go on, I must record the fact that just now my browser crashed. It happened thus: I was thinking—and I’m not sure why—about Mephistopheles. So I googled him, mainly to see that I could spell his name properly. For fun I got the voice to pronounce his name. And then Safari died. And could not be revived. I realise now that google is part of the joy of reading. You can check out reviews, look at places, find dates, learn about the author’s love affairs, discover the meanings of words and how they’re pronounced—well, you know all this. The internet is now part of the experience of reading for a lot of people. Most people.
I recently used the internet to order Philip Hensher’s new novel, The Emperor Waltz. I’m dazzled by the title, and a friend, who is reading an advance copy, says it’s marvelous. The copy I’ve ordered won’t arrive for about a month, so in the meantime, I've started reading Hensher’s 2011 novel King of the Badgers and can’t put it down. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t read it before, but then I remembered that I had been put off by the title. From an epigraph in the middle of King of the Badgers, I learned that the title came from a children’s book by J.P.Martin. And that is how I have been introduced to the Uncle books by J.P. Martin. I wonder why I didn’t know about them long ago. I have ordered one.
No sooner had I read the first forty delicious pages of King of the Badgers than I received a new book on Hans Christian Andersen by Paul Binding to review. This is serious reading, with a deadline. I started reading it straight away because Andersen is a great interest of mine. His stories have a sense of the omnipresence of evil, and, as it happens, so does King of the Badgers. Well, lots of literature does. Of course, Andersen’s evil works as dark, dark metaphor and myth, while Hensher’s is banal and often comic, perhaps all the more frightening for being so. There I was, horribly trapped in the palace of the Snow Queen one minute, and in a cheese shop in Devon, in the company of various grotesque people the next.
As I was in the middle of both of them, the postman delivered a book by Cassandra Pybus, Seduction and Consent: A Case of Gross Moral Turpitude. I have been impatient to get this book for a couple of weeks. Here is the story behind this one: I was having a cup of tea with a friend and she told me she was going to Tasmania where she would, among other things, ‘walk on Kingston Beach’. I said that the mention of Kingston Beach always reminds me that Professor Orr and Suzanne Kemp used to tryst there. She didn’t know very much about Professor Orr etc., and so I said she might like to read Cassandra’s book. I hadn't been able to find my old copy to lend her, as my personal library is so out of control, so I asked Cassandra to send over a copy.
Greedily I read the first six pages on which are listed the characters who will appear in the story. I love this book. When my copy sidles into view one day soon, it will be obvious that I've read it because every book I read (unless I have borrowed it) will be annotated by me. I use a pencil and I mark significant moments with a cross. Then I list the page and a few key words in the back of the book. It’s a kind of personal index for future reference. When I am writing I sometimes want to refer to something I have read, so these lists are invaluable, and save me a lot of time.
Tonight in The Book of Three Good Things will be the note that Gross Moral Turpitude has arrived; that the book on Andersen has been read and reviewed, with several excursions onto google; and that I am up to page 155 of the Hensher, with some googling of the coast of Devon. And I’ll say that my googling has been interrupted by Mephistopheles who has for the time being cut me off. For although this loss of browser is not strictly speaking a good thing, it is important to note.
Written in Castlemaine on 19 June, 2014