Using the Canopener of Writeryness to open the Can of Wrong
Have just returned from a fellow writer’s lounge-room, a small room that I am starting to believe conceals a cauldron and a fire of holly, and I have some Deep Thoughts.
One of the writers in my unit wrote something four weeks ago. What happens is someone writes stuff, we get the file on a USB stick, take it home, read it, critique and submit the critiques. Once a weekish it’s our turn to submit and the other writers’ chance to help us as we have helped them, or exact a hideous and painful revenge, depending on the circumstances.
Four weeks ago one of us wrote something upsetting. It was a story – I don’t know how it ended – of a girl, growing up in post-war Germany, with a caring, decent, kindly mother who had worked as a death camp guard. Essentially the narrative consisted of the author weaving her fingers into our shirts and dragging us down under the water, and swimming down and down and down. My notes started conventionally enough, with comments about sentence structure and verb selection, and quickly deteriorated, scribbled “My God”‘s and exclamation marks, and cryptic and probably useless references to the nature of the materials with which she was working. I think the last coherent sentence was “You are building this, brick by brick, with fissile materials”.
My family, by the by, are German Jewish. My great uncle was a Rabbi, my Opa was on the other side.
At page five I went up, apparently visibly distressed, and spoke to the author. “This is terrifying,” I said. “It’s awful. These are deep issues. This is painful stuff. It’s about hideous fucking things. I can’t read this. It’s too much.”
Our tutor that week was Margo Lanagan. From one point of view, Margo Lanagan’s “job” here, during Clarion, is trying to fit her size twenty two ideas into our size ten heads. I am not very knowledgeable about the Australian literary scene, but my understanding is she is among the most respected authors in this field, and in this country. Charles de Lint loves her writing, John Marsden finds her dazzling. She is lauded and awarded. She wrote a story a while back that was included in Year’s Best, and every time anyone mentions that anthology, people say “Oh, that was the one with ‘Singing My Sister Down’ in it”, and everyone who’s read it will remember it forever. She was beaten to a Hugo by a story that was not as good.
Margo Lanagan read the work. It was, she said, truly brilliant. The following is paraphrase, and I’m not saying this is what Margo Lanagan said, it’s me saying this is what I think when I think about what Margo Lanagan said. This is what I understand to be a truth, or an idea worth chasing, after three weeks of remembering and turning things over in my head. But anyway, Margo read the story, and she told us it was wonderful. I went back and tried to understand. It was almost as if, I thought, Margo was saying it was terrifying, and aweful, and was about deep issues, and it hurt, and was about hideous fucking things, and therefore she could not stop reading it. It was not too much.
See, I have been thinking about writing, and what goes wrong, and how it does not work. It’s like the physiology/pathology thing – some things you learn from watching how things go right, some things you learn from watching how things go wrong. Karenina’s Law (there are infinitely many ways things can go wrong and only one way things can go right) does not hold in writing, but still, it’s instructional to look at what we all do wrong.
Writing, I have worked out, is hard.
It’s hard because there is a natural tendency to flinch, to look away. That is why so often in our stories we skirt the issue, talk about rather than show the conflict, pull the camera back or smear the lens when the terrible thing happens. There are things it’s easier not to talk about, things it’s easier to move around than reach out and grab and hold to your heart. There are things that hurt.
Deaths and losses.
Realised fears and unfulfilled desires. Things gone wrong.
We’ve all had that.
Not dinner table conversation, but close and real and true. That is what the good writers here do. The stories I will remember, the stories whose authors I will seek out in the future – often they’ve done this. Things don’t have to end badly, but things have to matter. At best you have to feel like there are losses that would be unbearable. There are images from these six weeks – mutilated angels, women bartering unborn children, girls pushed under the water – that stay with me.
Hurting is not enough, or every fourteen year old’s blog would be a masterpiece, but it is essential. In some way the reader wants to bleed and see you bleed.
Years ago I read about wound healing. Bleeding stops, new tissue forms, things get smoothed over. Pain recedes and function is restored. If we’re lucky, and the wound is minor, it’s like it never happened.
There is an element of writing that depends on those wounds. Naturally things scab over, but writing is going back and tearing apart the stitches, pulling away that scab. It is facing things where the natural, easy sensible thing is to turn away from them. It is the difficult, dangerous, crazy, stupid, necessary, wise, smart response. This is why writing hurts, and is difficult, and is necessary.
This is a size twelve idea. I do not fully understand it. The inside of my head is stretched, and I know I may have got everything wrong. All errors are my own, as they say.
But I have two more stories to go, maybe only one. I have a wounded character, I have half a plot, I have no real idea of how to finish my story, and I have thirty odd hours to try to work out how to take my readers into Hell, and hold them and hurt them there before I let them go.
My writery blog: http://brendandcarson.blog.com
Facebook (Brendan David Carson)
Novel coming soon!!!