OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight. I’ve been writing for sixty-two of my seventy years. In all that time I never completed a damn thing convincingly, not a poem, letter, not one autumn pickle recipe.
I’m constantly amazed at what little I’ve managed to achieve, which is why, when most people would be content to break out the cardigan and slippers and put their feet up, I’m about to take the next step in what might be called, Harry’s Renaissance. Doing something to the finish.
I’m not teaching here, two reasons for this: I’m learning this creative form for myself and two, I just like talking to myself.
Okay, Harry. Every writer has a certain style, a way about doing things. Call it a signature, style, method, whatever, and a reader likes to see it demonstrated and, better yet, repeated. Repetition can work like foreshadowing. One of the fascinating things about a good story is seeing this dynamic repeating itself, adapting itself to each new challenge, different but the same, a thing watched and followed to see if our hunch on how things will play out is a good one. You get that, right?
Look, a person leads a life that is not particularly exceptional except for a moment or two that stand out. For the most part, life is uneventful and not terribly exciting. However, there are moments in most everybody’s life that are, for want of a better description, life changing.
I’ll say. I’ve been there.
Okay, good. So, imagine yourself as the central character in your story. Lean on your own experiences.
Hmmm, maybe not. They are shadowy experiences.
Everyone has shadows, Harry. Your story needs to show an event early on and at the same time the type of character you were when you went into it.
But hasn’t a good story to begin at the good part?
That’s one idea, there are many. Your story must have a certain structure, a plot and ingredients that are consistent and unchanging. When developing your story line, the priority is to create interesting characters around you. This development process is so important to a longer work. And Harry, this is the nugget of your past failings. You must focus on giving your reader a before snapshot of who you were before approaching your life changing event. And something else, in a novel there is no physical sight or sound. There is only imaginative sight and sound. Sight and sound must be fed into the reader’s awareness, illuminating the reader’s imagination.
Okay, sounds fun.
For this experiment, you are your central character. It should come easy, you write about your life all the time, to the point of repetition.
You said that’s good, right?
It’s good to the point your readers know what to expect. In this discussion with yourself, pontificate on sketching out the central character and understand what an important task this is. One of the reasons readers often find it difficult getting into a story is because they don’t understand who the central character is. This is not someone who creeps around the fringe of a story peeking in the window. This is the character who owns the story and needs to plop down early right in the middle of things.
Okay, Harry. What’s the life changing event?
Now? You need to know that now?
This has been your life-long failing, Harry. You wont listen. I read something of yours in which you said:
Quote: There’s a universal intelligence at work in creative writing tutors; a desire to turn the living soul of a ‘would be’ writer into a black ink monster in unspeakable torment. End Quote.
I am a creative writer. I suck on sticks of ideas. So, what if my ecstatic flight through things unheard of isn’t matched with the science of the correctly spelled word? I lived a life knowing nothing about adjectives or the modern use of grammar. I never wanted to stand with writing weaklings searching for academic acclaim. Look, there have been landmarks. Call them life changing events, or whatever.
1957, the summer I first became someone, though I didn’t know who I was, or where I was, or how I came to be there. But somehow it felt safe. The two people who brought me to that place said I should call it home.
1959, I sank my father’s rowing boat.
1974, I got to wear a suit, for goodness sake. It was for her I got dressed up. I remember the venue, it was the Craignure Inn on the Isle of Mull. I remember the event. My marriage.
1980, wings were pinned to my chest.
1994, I never got to bury my wife or my son. They left to become nature.
Intermission. A chance to have a drink. Strangely enough, I don’t remember too much of what happened during the intermission though I do recall the drink that made things crystal clear and the look on the faces of my friends during the time. I won’t say they were exactly there under sufferance, but they certainly weren’t in the first team as far as Harry fans were concerned.
2001, Jenny. Don’t you hate it when real life gets in the way of your daydreams? If I close my eyes and really let my imagination run riot, I imagine Jenny.
During all this, and so much more, I never stopped writing.
And you never finished a damn thing, did you, Harry?
Something always got in the way. Prison, fighting, alcohol mostly. There were always these people before Jenny, exhausting me with their charming ideas of direction, their smooth cultivating style, their superhuman strength and knowledge. I listened too intently while they grafted warts onto my creativity and told me to ‘re-work' everything. What the fuck! What was it they said: encouraging my natural development? So here I am, depraving myself as much as I can. Why? I want to be a creative writer. I won't understand it at all. What do I know? I'm not even sure I can explain it. But I refuse to strip away the essence of my vision until one evening I lie in the ground, a pile of bones.
You’ve gone off, Harry. This is your achilleas, right? Staying on point.
Jesus. I speak as comprehensibly as anyone in pain. Help me. It seems so strange to me that I feel I have to assure myself I'm in earnest. Allow me my dignity.
When you’re done with the self-pity, let’s continue. People have a style, a way about them. Being a keen observer is having the ability to recall details. The more details to flood the mind of the readers, the richer the image that emerges and coalesces in their minds. So, you have this character moving about doing things in a way the reader is becoming familiar with. As readers observe the central character in action, they think, “I once knew someone very similar who behaved in very much the same way.” This gives the character a ring of authenticity the audience can latch onto, relate with, and begin to experience vicariously. Readers enter the character in some inexplicable manner and begin to see the world from the character’s eyes rather than through their own? This is the magic and is exactly the effect you are trying to achieve. Am I right?
You’re beginning to sound like a creative writing tutor!
Just remember, the writing of vignettes and synopsis begins to pay big dividends as readers find themselves in the character’s head, seeing what is coming, and anticipating what is about to happen while experiencing viscerally the actions unfolding. When all this starts taking place concurrently, you know your art as a writer is expressed in its highest form. The better your character can be recollected, the more authentic. It is more important to start with a seed of truth and embellish it than to try to build one from scratch, conjuring with loose assumptions someone out of thin air. Only you will know where your character originated, but the reader will know if the character rings true.
I get that. Writing is so much fun when an idea comes floating by waiting to be plucked out of the air and thrashed onto the blank page. But writing, I have found, is mostly about not having an idea. It is then that the blank whiteness becomes some absurd monster waiting to devour me. I approach the blank page as the beginning of a new adventure or, as some days have proven, a self-assumed trip into purgatory with the computer screen screaming at me… ‘You can’t leave me…you cannot leave me like this!’
Very good rant, Harry. But you’re not going to divert me. As fast as you can, put what’s at stake in the beginning…imagine you’re in terrible trouble and don’t know what to do…but now you’re going to try and work it out in front of the reader. But also, imagine where the story goes if the surface dilemma is not the real problem; maybe the real problem is guilt over the dissipated life he’s led, and it is this playing out beneath the surface in the bigger back story and represents what the character’s problem really is.
The back-story is the totality of a writer’s life; of your life, Harry. As a writer, you have an intimate understanding of the life you’ve led. You write about a fantasy world, but the characters are anything but figments of your imagination. You know the characters are real because you have met them at some point in time and gotten an eyeful. It’s true, think about it. A story that fits into the greater context of the totality of a life experience. Now it is okay if you embellish on your life experience taking a different turn than perhaps you chose to take and in the story your characters wind up doing things differently from what you did or would have done; but you don’t want to stray too far. As long as you stick to a world you know something about, you will always be on fairly solid ground.
I’m tired. Can’t I just write?
Sure, you can, but didn’t we agree what is left of your life will be a renaissance. You’ll finish something…completely? Remember this only: The trick is how you go about doing this without putting your reader to sleep.