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Monday, 7 November 2016

Writing Out the False Value of Self

One thing I'm very sick of hearing is how 'personal' and 'unique' the writing experience is. Apparently, the whole art of writing is a simple matter of aligning your chakras, embracing the woo, and communing with the universe until literary brilliance pours out onto the page as a direct result of personal inspiration and divine intervention. I would humbly suggest that this is utter bullshit.

In Donna Tartt's excellent book, The Secret History, one of her characters says something along the lines of, "The greater the amiability, the greater the coldness." The contention here is that being amiable is a process which involves manipulating and managing the feelings of others, and that those who are best at it are necessarily those who possess the objectivity of indifference.What is writing, if it is not the manipulation and management of the reader's feelings and experience? It follows, then, that writing must, on some level at least, be a somewhat cold-blooded experience.

Due to some very poor early life decisions, I often find myself reading the works of new authors and being asked to provide comments and advice. In the real world, this translates to telling them what's wrong with their stuff. In almost every case these works share a common flaw, and I strongly suspect it arises from the neo-Romantic hippie bullshit that gets circulated in schools, creative writing courses and smoke-filled coffee houses. Almost every single one of these works falls down badly in the area of "getting over oneself". One of the biggest tells which reveals the rookie author is a kind of adolescent insistence on their own 'unique' and 'personal' vision. Narrative, description and atmosphere get shoved aside so that the author can stand on a soapbox and descant on their pure and individual perceptions, their deeply held convictions or, in extreme cases, their delusional belief that they have some kind of unique facility with language.

No writing, from airport garbage to towering works of literary greatness, is about the author. Whether we're asking fundamental questions about the nature of truth, or assembling cracking tales of mystery and suspense, the prime and most important thing is to get out of our own damn way. One of my favourite (apocryphal) stories about Alexander the Great concerns his study of the Iliad under Aristotle. "Of all the characters in the Iliad," Aristotle is said to have asked the young Alexander and his companions, "who would you most like to be?" The cleverest answered, "Homer, because he's the only survivor." But Alexander disagreed. "If you were in the Olympic games," he said, "would you want to be the Pan-Hellenic athletics champion, or the little fat kid who calls out the scores?" As authors, whether we like it or not, we're the little fat kids calling out the scores. Just as the Iliad isn't about Homer, but Achilles, so too our writing has to be about something we're interested in which isn't ourselves.

There is a wealth of writing advice kicking around in the ether written by masters from various points of the literary spectrum, from the decidedly commercial but technically brilliant James Patterson, all the way through to the rarefied intellectual uplands of W Somerset Maugham. Form, construction, aesthetics and other vital aspects are patiently explained, but all of this advice boils down to one simple statement: remove, as far as is possible, any trace of yourself. Do I have a unique way of using adverbs? Delete. Do I write long passages tenderly painting the special unique specialness of the sights and sounds of my childhood? Delete. Am I relying on my own idiosyncratic manipulation of language to generate sympathetic resonances within the audience? Delete! Delete! Delete!

Like all arts, there is a strong requirement for competent craft. Until the basic technical skills are in place, nothing of any worth can be adequately depicted. The implication, then, is that a great deal of cold, mathematical exercise needs to be undertaken. It's a supreme irony of writing that prose which sounds natural and easy is necessarily the product of careful calculation and painstaking labour. I think most authors will agree with me when I say that building that nebulous thing we call 'voice' is always, in the beginning, an exercise in stripping and burning away every single thing we think of, initially, as unique to ourselves. Once this is done, we can then trust to the idea that our individuality - our uniqueness, if you like - will take care of itself. If it actually exists it will necessarily do so, leaving us free to focus on how to dissect, translate and then reassemble an experience which feels real and true to the reader.

This might sound a bit extreme, but it isn't. The fact is that we're always going to present in anything we write. Whether it's a short story, a novel, or a sales report, we can't help but leave our psychic fingerprints all over it. But as a story-teller or explorer of the human condition, it's our sacred duty to deliver the content, and this has to involve putting ourselves aside. As a writer, one has to work under the assumption that, for a while at least, we will be writing for people who don't know us. And a universal truth about strangers is that they do not give a crap whether we live or die. This means that in order to capture their attention and convince them to keep giving it, whatever we write really does have to be about something that isn't ourselves.

I don't care what anyone says - writing does not primarily exist as a form of therapy for the author. Writing exists to be read by people who are not the author. This means that no writer can ever really produce anything worth reading until they can climb over the detritus of individual identity and access that part of their existence which is universal.

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