Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:

 

1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards –https://literaryreview.co.uk/bad-sex-in-fiction-award if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.

Subjectivity, James Wood and First World Problems

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.

Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.

Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.

Upstate
reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).

It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough.  When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.

May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:

Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.

For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).

Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.

Make things happen.

There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.

Show it to friends who know about writing.

You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.

Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.

Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.

Encourage your editor to challenge you.

For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes. Private sessions in Ealing, Piccadilly, Barnes, Putney and by Skype. More venues across London. Contact Rachel or book online: www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Realism, Magic Realism and Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Most performers will have been asked at some time or other how naturalism onstage is different to being natural. My way of dealing with that one is usually to illustrate it. You only need to be the other side of a room from a conversation to see how vague and rapid our gestures and sentences are, how much more comprehensible our meaning when words and gestures are simplified (or edited, if you will). That’s how to get the meaning into the audience’s mind as directly and “effortlessly” as possible. “Naturalism” – a simplified, streamlined version of the truth – conveys more of that truth than “nature” could at such a distance. It’s the difference between a good novel and a first draft. So, yes, a lot of art and effort goes into creating the appearance of the real. And, no, reality itself doesn’t cut it.

Most people grasp that difference, if not with the visual demonstration then with the audio equivalent: for those worried about public speaking, clarity is a much better focus than volume. Focusing on what you’re trying to say, and not what your hair is doing or what the audience might be thinking, you make the point without apologising for it or for yourself with the smaller, awkward false starts and gestures of everyday life. You don’t waste mental space with words that sound big or clever; you choose words because they are the most direct route to your meaning.

I’ve known graphic novels to take similar explaining. We’ll take as read (sorry) the sadly common assumptions about “comics” being “for kids” and go back to directness and clarity. Authorial voice is, of course, saying what you mean as only you can – hence the finite number of basic plots and the infinite number of original voices. Graphic novels do this in pictures as well as words: a beautifully direct route into someone else’s world. My favourite example in a long time is Bizarre Romance, published last month by Jonathan Cape.

This collection of “short stories with pictures” is partly inspired by the long-distance courtship of its creators, Audrey Niffenger (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters &c) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell, Baccus, Alec &c). Living in Brisbane, Australia and Chicago, USA, “two cities that are almost exactly opposite each other on the globe”, they heard about each other’s days, weeks and worlds by telephone. Once married, and asked by the Guardian to collaborate on the “Novelists Do Comics” section, they revisited other stories by Niffenegger: “In the past I have been my own illustrator… Taking risks is always surprising and often uncomfortable… The result has been a book that neither of us would have made alone – a book that is ours.”

Mental and physical distances, familial and romantic relationship, endings both happy and unhappy flit between the world as we know it and beyond with courage and precision. From angel-infested loft to Victorian asylum, cruise-ship to afterlife, from parent to friend and pet to partner, every love and every story is crystal-clear in voice and insight. The introduction is Audrey and Eddie’s courtship, a beautiful love story that means the punches the next few pack catch you off guard. This is not romanticism, it’s nowhere close: it is magic realism, fully deserving both parts of that name. You’ll recognise yourself, your loves, your fears. The truth and beauty of magic realism, like realism onstage, is the strange brings the familiar into sharpest focus. Reading Niffenegger is like the first day of wearing new glasses.

April writing tip inspired by this month’s authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell:

Get Real…
Forget the reader just for a minute, or just for a page. Forget what you think you “should” write, “normally” write, or “can” write. Look at the image in your head, look at the reason it’s there. Pick up the pen, and say what you see. Don’t stop until the page is covered. Now look back. Maybe cross out the conjunctions. See how clear, how simple, how specific you can be. Anything that apologises for what you want to say, cross it out. It doesn’t matter how big or small what you want to say is – you have the right to say it.

…But Don’t Stop There
We don’t live only in here and now. We’re worrying about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. We’re associating, and remembering, and hoping and fearing. Why put all that in backstory when the little voice in your character’s head could be a bird/rabbit/dragon sitting on the nearest wall? Just as an experiment, add an extra dimension to the world you’ve created and see what happens next. You might find the questions you’re asking have more ways to venture out. That’s how to start freeing your voice and ask your questions.

Example from this month’s author:

“The thing that makes us want God is the same thing that makes us want Art – we want meaning. We want there to be more than meets the eye. God is an attempt at an explanation for the universe. Art is not an explanation. Art is a question permanently unanswered.”

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes. Private sessions in Ealing, Piccadilly, Barnes, Putney and by Skype.

Book now at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Memory, Julian Barnes and how not to apologise

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

I do not believe in “guilty pleasures” when it comes to art of any kind – but I have one and he is Julian Barnes. The joyously unapologetic dwelling on every aspect of a fictional world, the brazen yet beautiful revisiting of images and phrases over and over again, and the sheer quantity of introspection make a list of everything most writers will never get away with. Literary fiction has the time and space to analyse, to dive the psychological depths, but Barnes manages to survive with fewer oxygen breaks than most. He does exquisitely what almost anyone else would make incomprehensible and/or embarrassing. It is like reading the tide, coming in to the same places and images over and over again yet never repeating exactly, always giving a new and slightly different picture.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.” p1

The Only Story is about memory, so this revisiting is subject as well as form. The book is divided into three sections, and with them three points of view, over the course of the narrator’s life. The “I” of part one is Paul. At nineteen years old, Paul is young enough to feel he knows everything he needs or will need to, and self-centred in all the best and worst ways. He has absolute faith that his relationship with an unhappily married woman twice his age is all the more true and secure for flying in the face of social convention, and for the loveless and abusive marriage it is helping Susan to escape. The second section is narrated in second person. “I” has become “you” as Paul explores the launch and crash of his adult life, much of which is spent trying to deny and support Susan and her decline into alcoholism, age and the guilt or self-hatred that keeps her ties to the violent ex-husband she never wanted to be with in the first place. In part three, “you” has given way to “he” as time brings the self-acknowledged false-clarity of hindsight and Paul revisits his choices and Susan’s words from a greater distance.

“But here’s the first problem. If this is your only story, then it’s the one you have most often told and retold, even if – as is the case here – mainly to yourself. The question then is: do all these retellings bring you closer to the truth of what happened, or move you further away?” p1

However we choose to answer, The Only Story is a great how-to and how-not-to guide for writing and for life. I truly wished I could throw this book back through time at myself – as is always the way of hindsight – thinking that if I knew what happened when you didn’t leave an unhealthy relationship before it had taken most of you with it, that you wouldn’t make that mistake. But the truth Paul comes to is we will make our mistakes anyway, in our well-meaning arrogance. And we rewrite, and reanalyse, all the way from intentions to results. The stories we tell ourselves are rarely if ever entirely without truth, yet none are quite true.

March writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Julian Barnes

Free Ranting

One of the reasons Julian Barnes’ introspection is greater literature than many of ours will be is the lack of apology I mentioned.

Free Ranting is an exercise I led at Green Ink Writers’ Gym recently when a member of the group had been through something difficult just before the session. I challenged the students to cover the page with everything that had made them feel strongly that week, particularly in what we might consider a negative way. I asked them to let themselves go with the anger, or resentment, or sadness, or frustration, and not to stop the pen moving for five minutes. It’s a “free writing” warm-up (I hate that phrase. Freeing your voice is what all writing is about) with an extra dollop of honesty, and the less you think about it as literature the more articulate, passionate and individual it will be. Which is, of course, a big step closer to literature.

The student in question struggles with dependency on stock phrases (clichés). As soon as the emotional training-wheels were removed by this exercise, all her phrases were individual, full of the voice, information and passions that made her who she is internally.

The lack of apology or editing that happens when the mind is passionately involved is your goal. Aim for that: the conviction to mean what you are saying. Make it till you can fake it, then share it with your characters.

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios Barnes and venues across London.

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Friendship, Suffragettes and Sally Nicholls

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at www.greeninkwritersgym.com

Things A Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls (published February 2018)

Sally Nicholls began her career in YA fiction with a novel about living with terminal cancer. The emphasis for eleven-year-old Sam was on the living, not the dying. Sam loved lists and facts but found adults shrank from sharing them with him about the subject he had the most right to understand: his own life. From English mythology to bullying, adoption and death, Nicholls’ subjects continue to reveal how adults can fear and fight against what they don’t take the trouble to understand.  The misconception that Young Adult fiction or Children’s Fiction cuts emotional corners isn’t worth dwelling on, but the publication on 1 February 2018 of Things A Bright Girl Can Do is a particular opportunity for gratitude and joy that we are living in age where lesbian eroticism underpins a YA novel about the Suffragette movement and the First World War.

Evelyn, May and Nell are three young women living at a time when growing up means fighting the German army, the English politicians, their families and eventually themselves for freedom on every level. As always, Nicholls shows sweetly, concisely, with a kind and bittersweet (yet never bitter) irony, exactly how unpleasant and unjust the world can be. She also makes you laugh, nod and learn. According to the reviews, this book is about three women in love, and that is absolutely true. But my favourite thing about her portrayal of love is the unromanticism. For Evelyn, whatever else Teddy may be – her fiancé, a soldier, an invalid, a husband – he was her best friend first.

Nicholls also handles the realisation that shouldn’t be a surprise yet always is: that getting what you want does not make everything else alright; in this case, that women getting the vote still means living with the everyday injustices you can’t fix; that you can’t always make the world the easier, kinder place you wish it could be for all those you love.

Friendship forms our identities in so much greater quantity than love affairs, yet can get overlooked as driving forces. My best friend when I started primary school was Katy. Apparently, the moment Katy knew she wanted to be friends with me was when our form teacher, Mrs Wilmott, told us we were about to do Maths. I said, “Oh no, not Maths!” and burst into tears. And Katy just knew.

I don’t remember the Maths incident. I do remember the sparkly rainbow wig Katy wore when she came to my house, the white moon and star drawings on her bedroom ceiling, the seagull puppet that you pulled a string on and watched it flap its wings. I remember her brown cuckoo clock and the magic of it striking on the hour. I remember how mind-blowingly exciting it was to be in a house where everything in the kitchen was safe to eat (my family was kosher, her family was vegetarian). I remember watching Labyrinth and The Neverending Story for the first time and being fascinated and terrified, not simply by what was happening in the film but by the creeping realisation that fiction was real and powerful in its own way. I remember playing Hide and Seek and hiding in the tiny the cupboard under my family’s stairs and my mum shutting the door; the sound of my fists and tears and how big a thing it all was for thirty seconds. I remember making pizza (my mum did most of it really) and wearing printer-paper chef’s hats (all our own work). I remember the words to the song Katy and I wrote about polystyrene (but I don’t remember my times tables).

Katy and I lost touch for several years before we found each other again over Facebook. In that time, we had both turned into five-foot ex-copywriters. We’re living in different cities now, both working on our first novels, both love horror and David Bowie. We both live in vegan households, with angry-looking cats.

Romantic relationships are one thing, but there are quieter influences with just as much mileage for fiction. That’s my earliest, but there are many others I could plot with a similar list of specific memories that informed my personality, choices and future.

February writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Sally Nicholls:

Plot a Friendship

The power dynamics, memories, passions and assumptions that underpin friendships are wonderful writing territory. Every friendship in your story is a window, so there are views in two directions: insight into the soul of the character (who they are) and out into the world (who they could or want to be).

Pick a character. Your main character who you know well, or the oddly memorable stranger you saw on the bus the other day and haven’t written anything about at all yet.

Build a Character:

  • Who is the friend your main character takes advice from?
  • Which friend do they like but somehow look down on?
  • Which friend makes them feel most like the self they want to be?
  • Which friend reminds them of the past?
  • Which friend do they need more than they like?
  • Who do they wish they were closer to?
  • Who do they wish would go away?
  • Why?

Structure a Plot:

  • Write the scene they met for the first time.
  • Write the scene where they argue for what is not the first time. What’s it about? Does it matter? Will they even remember it happened?
  • Write what they’d normally do together.
  • Write the most important thing they go through together.

A plot is the ladder-rungs, or spinal column of your story. A friendship underpins all kinds of new plots. Take one friendship, fill it out, and you’ll have any number of new offshoots for stories from the one you thought you were working on.

Example from this month’s author:
This one’s just been published, so no spoilers, bUT the example I’d pick above all others is when Evelyn prays to the God she didn’t believe in for the old friend she doesn’t know if she loves. In doing so, she learns more about the self she’s fighting for than at any other time in her story.

Join Green Ink Writers’ Gym at Waterstones, Piccadilly; the Barbican Library; Olympic Studios, Barnes or the Grange Pub and Dining Room, Ealing.

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