This blog is late because of next Tuesday as 18th October is Green Ink Theatre’s literary salon at Waterstones Piccadilly. The material is all from our recent Sponsored Write for Macmillan Cancer Support. I produce one of these every year in memory of my friend Sophie Porter (1982-2007). A few things slipped this week for the sake of this very important one. So, sorry for the delay but not all that sorry: I used to berate myself rather too much for any slips like this. To be honest, I still do. But I try to catch myself doing it, and remind myself it’s better to be late with something that can take it, focus on what’s most important and get enough relaxation to enjoy the journey. That sense of perspective can be difficult to hold on to, when everything seems important to include. That’s as big a worry on the page as in everyday life.
In art as in life:
1) You Can’t Do Everything. Keeping perspective doesn't end with not having a go at yourself for a late blog post. Just as we have to accept in life that we can’t do everything, we have to accept it in the fiction worlds we create. If we leapt in and out of characters heads freely, compiled their every passing thought with no sense of weight suggesting what was most important, we make the reader bored and dizzy. Keeping perspective is about knowing who you are, what you mean and where you stand. Prioritise the important characters, incidents and thoughts and you have a story. Include every little thing and you lose perspective – and your reader with it.
2) The View Improves from Distance. Omniscience of the George Eliot persuasion lost its hold on the fashionable mainstream right along with that mainstream’s belief in an interventionist God. When it’s done well, though, it makes for a world every bit as magical, textured and nuanced as it ever did. Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine populates London’s Soho with generations of the same network of family and friends, known and unknown to each other, in the same buildings that themselves journey from office to bar or back again. Place is an important character; in some ways, it’s perhaps the narrator, blending physical in-jokes with the emotional landscapes of its people.
3) Long-John Silver’s Parrot. Close third makes the reader the central character’s confidant, with the option of providing a little more clarity and perspective that that character might otherwise have. Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked follows the passions, both rock and romantic, in the lives of a couple whose lack of irony about themselves does not stop us from getting the message. In their alternate narrations, the reader is in many ways the best friend each central character doesn't have: getting the whole warts-and-all story but seeing parts of it more clearly that the person it’s happening to.
4) ‘Your day breaks, your mind aches.’ Second person is often – and prudently – avoided but, like every rule, works like a treat when broken for a good reason. Paul McCartney’s Beatles classic For No One is a prime example of self-alienation, that sense that whatever is happening in your life isn't, can’t, be happening: ‘You want her, you need her, and yet you don’t believe her when she says her love is dead…’ It simultaneously distances and implicates you in the storyline, letting you take in the reality as the person it’s happening to can’t, and perhaps recognizing yourself in the process.
5) First person
From ‘There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs*’ to ‘Reader, I married him**’, you’re so close you've got no choice in the emotional journey. It’s the most popular point of view to write in, and perhaps the easiest to approach truthfully when starting out. But if you do it, expect to notice how much truth isn’t coming through. Like horror, it pushes you to a level of honesty about the things you ‘shouldn't’ and ‘mustn't’ think about. Maybe that’s why it’s a good one to start with: it makes you face yourself, and the drives behind your character.
Exercises in Perspective
Get to grips with any difficult, or just plain important, scene by rewriting another version of it from the point of view of someone else in the room (a minor character, a person on the next table, a fly on the wall if necessary). You’ll learn more about your major characters and your minor characters too. You’ll learn a lot about your protagonist from being in the brain of their antagonist (what do they most admire?) or their best friend (what drives them nuts?).
Pick a Face:
All the Christmas catalogues you didn't ask for? All that junk mail that Virgin keeps sending (other brands are available)? Cut out all the faces. See who fits into a scene you’re struggling with. How does physical expression link with emotions, or agenda? Are the gestures sometimes the opposite of stereotype? Does a character shrug when they’re relaxed or have a nervous twitch only when at home?
It’s Not Too Late
Thank God for James Herriot and Philip Larkin.
Herriot didn't write a book until he was fifty. His daughter was twenty-two, half way to being a doctor and his son was already a qualified vet when his wife finally said “you’re never going to write a book, you’ve been saying you’ll write a book for all this time…” Out he went out and bought paper.
Larkin was librarian at Hull University and did not do the celebrity thing at all. He just said exactly what he thought, eloquently and on paper. It wasn't what the rest of the world thought. It wasn't always polite. Not everybody likes it***. But it was him, unapologetically.
Okay, when Mozart and Jesus were my age they were dead. But when James Herriot was my age, that pseudonym wasn't going to be famous for sixteen years when he was my age. It’s never too late to be what you might have been – unless that’s a child ballerina. If it’s a writer, you know what you have to do.
*A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
** Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Yes, again.
*** This will always be true of everyone and everything.
Rachel Knightley is a freelance writer, director and teacher. She runs Green Ink Writers’ Gym, resident at Waterstones Piccadilly, for writers of all genres and levels of experience. As Green Ink Theatre, she produces an annual Sponsored Write and new writing showcase, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (Waterstones Piccadilly, Tuesday 18 October). She teaches Creative Writing, Speech and Drama from home and in theatres, schools and universities. www.greeninkwritersgym.com