I read this post by Diane Becker a few days ago, and it struck a chord with me – having recently had a fairly horrible stay in hospital myself. (There aren’t any nice stays in hospital, are there? Or should I save up for BUPA?) I don’t go into things like that in my blog, or too much in real life either, and I never thought about how that linked to my writing method until I started reflecting on Diane’s post and the way she chooses not to talk about things and how she feels that affects her writing.
I hope my writing isn’t formulaic, but there’s a knack to working out a good first person narrative – deciding what the person thinks they are telling you, and what they are actually telling you. What they don’t want to say, and what seeps in around the edges anyway. What they don’t want to talk about might be near death experiences or trauma. It is just as likely (in my stories, anyway) to be secret humiliations, sins of omission and social failures. How does it seep around the edges? How do you show what they don’t want to tell?
There are a couple of things in my life that I’ve very deliberately decided I will neither think nor talk nor write about. It is like editing a novel (everything feels like editing a novel right now, though) and cutting out the bits you don’t like and rearranging the rest to cover the gaps. It’s very important and makes the rest of the whole wobbling edifice possible. Not amnesia. Editing.
Perhaps you will find some of this deleted material seeping in around the edges – in jokes, dreams and stories I make up – but not, I think, if I am vigilant. Not if I am really good at what I try to do. But if I can spot the way the truth seeps in around the edges and replicate it for my pretend narrators, I should be able to get a handle on it in real life, shouldn’t I?
It is lazy thinking (it is, isn’t it?) to go through a writer’s output and circle the recurring images and themes and label them as autobiographical – as the juicy trauma they’ve edited out of their real lives and allowed to seep into their fictional ones. I don’t doubt lots of writers make conscious and unconscious use of their secrets and unspoken events like this. But it isn’t quite what I am talking about.
I reject the Romantic and romantic notion that a writer is more hurt, more embarrassed and more traumatised than the rest of the population and good writing comes from their working-out of that trauma. Life is often humiliating and frightening and crap for everyone and people who shuffle words are not special or more sinned-against. Trauma is boring and ordinary.
But trauma, or the things we don’t want to talk about, is important to writing. It doesn’t matter what the content of the trauma is. One person’s car-smash is another person’s disastrously violent c-section (plucking an example off the top of my head…) is another person’s wrong-shoes-for-the-party is another persons saw-my-parents-shagging. We have all got the things that we edit out of the stories we tell about ourselves.
It is important to writing because understanding the way this works is understanding one of the basic things about writing and noticing the way it is done in real life is practice for being a writer. In other words, writers are not more hurt, they are just more cold blooded about noticing the way they deal with the hurt – the editing is never complete because writers look at how they self-edit and replicate that when they’re dealing with sentences and paragraphs.
Having a sad secret isn’t unique. Picking the scab of your sad secret in front of the mirror (on a blog, in a poem, during a novel) is possibly a little bit more unusual / narcissistic / healthy / unhealthy / interesting / pathetic / useful because nothing makes you notice the difference between what we tell and what we show more. I’ve been invited back to the hospital for a chat with a professional that will, apparently, prevent me getting post-traumatic-stress-disorder. No thanks, says I, I’d rather suppress it, watch myself doing it and then blog about the process. Could come in handy for the next book (this is why writers don’t have friends – I’ve never heard of anything so vain in my life).
Body language experts call the signs – the ticks and twitches – the body makes when we are lying / omitting parts of the truth ‘tells’. They aren’t tells. They are (some of the) shows. Creative writers are instructed to avoid one and encourage the other – better teachers advise writers to be aware of which one they are doing, and control it. My narrators are all ‘tell’ and the interesting bit – the ‘show’ is the bit that is between the lines, the silent bit, the unwritten part.
How else did you think I learned how to do it?
The blog post was a response to Too Much Information which you can find, along with many other illuminating ruminations, at Not Designed to Juggle. The photograph, which is not as good as Diane’s, was taken by the Mr – who was slightly baffled by my weak laughter and insistence he take this snap for me because I wanted it for my blog.