Wednesday 29 April 2015

"You Can't Write About That!"

It's Artistic Wednesday, and I feel a rant coming on, so buckle your seatbelts. You're in for a ride.

The worst thing anyone can tell a writer about to plunge into a project is "You can't write about that!" The writer may very well stop dead, as though she's been shot in the head, and discover that she literally CANNOT write about "that" whatever "that" may be.  And not being about to write about "that", she may discover she cannot write about ANYTHING. This will lead to much suffering, especially the suffering of self-blame, e.g. "I'm so lazy."

"What's wrong with me?" the writer will wail as she doesn't write, and what's wrong with her is that her inspiration has been shot in the head by the person who said "You can't write about that!" The person's fear has become her fear. A fearful person cannot write. All a fearful person can get on paper is self-criticism and, if she is lucky, an SOS to the great Author of us all: "Help meeeeee!"

The only rule for a writer, besides knowing how to spell, and even that is optional, as fans of the Inner Child will agree, is to write the truth about human nature. The great irony of fiction is that while you make stuff up, you have to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is surprising or painful or not obvious, but it is the truth, and you must write it. Besides keeping your audience's attention, that is the most important thing in writing.

Yes, audience first; truth second. Look at all the crap on TV; people love it. It makes them happy or dulls their pain.  Look at all those stupid romance novels; same thing. As much as I am committed to good writing, I put compassion for readers first. If a reader wants to read about a man who fishes a woman out of a pond, draws her a hot bath, gives her an enormous pair of his pyjamas and fixes her a hot water bottle and his grandma's chicken soup, who am I to judge?

However, even in a schlocky romance novel there are rules. There must be character development, and the characters must be worth caring about, and the characters should be consistent. In a magical world where a man lends a woman his pyjamas and makes his grandmother's chicken soup on page 134, he cannot kick puppies on page 145. He could have been kicking puppies before the soup incident, but after the soup, no way.

And I am talking about romance novels because we are told to look down on them, even thought they sell better than any other kind of fiction. The kind of fiction we are supposed to look up to is, in Canada, whatever wins the Governor General's Award or the Giller, in the USA, whatever wins the Pulizer or the Carnegie, and in the UK whatever wins the Booker and/or (if you are a woman) the Orange--which is now called something else, anyway. (How stupid. The Orange was a great name and easily remembered.) VERY FEW BOOKS WIN THESE PRIZES and incidentally it is amazing for the authors when they do, for otherwise they wouldn't sell that many copies.  High literature is all very snob, and certainly wonderful, but it doesn't sell as well as romance and thrillers. Personally, I aim at literary thrillers. God, make me good--but also money.

Anyway, so I did write a literary thriller and despite all its controversial aspects, sent it off to dear old Ignatius Press, who decided to take a chance, for which I am very grateful. And eventually a dear outspoken friend took my arm, perhaps to show that she would speak more in sorrow than in anger, and said,

"My dear, excuse me for saying this, but I believe there is fornication in your book."

And I said, "Well, Ann, yes. There is indeed that sort of thing in my book."

I hasten to say (if you have not read, or indeed, bought this book) that sexual sin is more hinted at than described although I discovered, one day while reading it aloud in a Catholic bookshop, that there is a scene which is rather uncomfortable to read aloud in front of the smiling faces of three popes, and although most of my readers do not understand German, it occurred to me then that Benedict XVI (whose photo beamed at my back) sure does.

However, I do not regret that scene at all, for it illustrates exactly the extent my heroine was willing to go to drug her pain, be it physical or be it emotional, and it is a fact that some people treat sex as a drug. Quite a lot of people, in fact.

Also--another fact--if a very charming and handsome twenty-something single man moves into the apartment of a lonely divorced thirty-something woman who was utterly humiliated when her ex-husband had a lot of affairs with younger women, the chances of them going to bed is much greater than the chances of them not. I don't care how religious they are or how long it takes; if each thinks the other is sexy, off to bed they go. It's called human nature, and to assume an engaged couple who claim they are living as brother and sister as they live alone in a shared flat are literally living as brother and sister, with no funny business whatsoever, is to be stupid.

Meanwhile, I know all this without having ever lived in sin with a twenty-something myself. Like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, I have lived long enough to have observed trends in human nature, and like Chesterton's Father Brown, I can imagine myself as the killer. Indeed, I would be very surprised if, given a gun, I did not shoot an intruder between the eyes. I used to box, and I once hit the sweetest little blonde girl ever to set foot in the ring in the nose. I felt bad about it, but I still did it.

I could do a lot of things I choose not to do. Indeed there a lot of things that I would like to do even though I choose not to do them. I am sure you can say the same. And these may be the very things you want to write about. Would you like to walk up to the hipster barista at Starbucks and invite him to your friend's wild party where you will companionably drink shots of tequila and end up kissing by the fridge? Great! Write it. Change all the names and write it all out in the third person. Maybe you will even begin it with a dare.

Two well-dressed girls, one blond, one brunette, were sitting in Starbucks, shooting covert glances at the hipster behind the counter.

"I dare you to ask him," said blonde Belinda.

"Yeah?" said dark-haired Stacy, grinning. "That's only because you think I won't. But I'm telling you, today I feel so great, I'm actually going to do it."

"I dare you," chanted Belinda, passing a hand through her spiky  hair. "I dare you! I dare you!"

"You dare me?"

"I dare you."

"Challenge accepted," said Stacy and went to the counter, smirking as behind her Belinda gasped in surprise and choked on her frozen macchiatto. 

Keep on going. What do you (i.e. does Stacey) say? What does the barista say? Where does Stacey meet him? What is he wearing? What happens at the party to get them to making-out-beside-the-fridge point? And how, in heaven's name, are you going to write that part without it sounding icky and stupid?

For that, my friends, is really a challenge. I can't do it myself, and I don't need to to it myself, for if I ever write a juicy make-out scene, you can bet someone at Ignatius will yell "CUT!" Nevertheless, here am I, with my MDiv and all, telling you that if you feel inspired to write about asking that barista boy to a wild party, you should do it. I don't think you should ACTUALLY invite a complete stranger to a party, not to mention make out with him by the fridge, but if that's what your inner writer voice tells you to write about, you should write about it. Just change the names, and be honest about human nature. Maybe the barista will think he is in for more than a quiet snog, which means Stacey will have to deal with that. Maybe he stands her up, having forgotten all about her. Maybe she goes to the loo and returns to the fridge to find him making out with Belinda.

The interesting thing is if you change the names, they will cease to be the people you know (or sort of know) and become whole new people, your creations. When I was a teenager, I used to write stories about my friends, and part of the amusement for my friends was recognizing themselves and others and laughing because I "got them"--usually their turns of phrase--"to sound right." Well, guess what? People grow up and continue to write about their friends, only as adults they have the brains to change their names and tinker with them so much that they become less and less the friend and more and more a new creation. Lord Sebastian Flyte was based on  the Hon. Hugh Lygon, but he wasn't really the Hon. Hugh Lygon. Charles Ryder was based on Evelyn Waugh, but can you imagine Charles actually looking like Evelyn Waugh? Ew. No

My character Dennis is not just a male version of Graham Greene's Phuong but based on a real handsome German boy I knew in Germany and was not shacked up with. I had a crush on him the size of a planet, but fortunately nothing untoward ever happened, unless you count his uncle hitting on me. This was not because I was tremendously saintly but because I was afraid of my priest-professor (and dozens of other people) finding out. Boys talk, and one poor girl around was widely known as the... well, never mind.  It is taking me too long to write this as it is as I keep breaking off into giggles. Oh, the comfort of a clear conscience.

At any rate, when I wanted to write about the issues of an older woman shacked up with a younger man in Germany, I just did it. As it was not biography and as I was not pretending this was a wonderfully glamorous and morally neutral situation (au contraire), I did not feel embarrassed about it at all. If I mined my own feelings of sexual attraction for material, well, so what?  Men are the caffeine in the cappuccino of life, as I said when I was Single, say now that I am married, and will even think when/if I am a widow although perhaps as an old lady I will prefer decaf. Who knows?

Meanwhile I have just written an exciting romance about swing dance class, and I hope B.A. likes it. Of course, I may have to assure him that the hero does not actually exist. La la!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. It seems to be a particular scourge of Catholic writing (at least some) that is so overly pious that it's unrealistic. How can people relate to the Church when all the writing is about "good" people? or those who convert/repent with so much ease?


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