What am I doing?
This is a question I often ask myself in all sorts of situations, often without hope of much of an answer.
However, when it comes to writing then, as a writer, I suppose I should have some reply.
Well, the honest answer is ‘I don’t know’. Writing is a mysterious process to me – not particularly related to intellect or intention. When it’s going well I can really understand why the old poets used to talk about having a ‘muse’ – a goddess who sparks your creativity. It feels like it’s not me doing the writing, like I’m just waggling my fingers and something from somewhere else is coming through.
However, I do feel embarrassed sometimes in interviews when asked to talk about what I’m trying to do in my writing.
There’s a temptation for writers – and artists of all sorts – to begin sentences with words such as:
‘What I’m interested in in my work is….’ and then to launch into a two hour spiel about how hegemonic cultural forms intersect with….yada yada yada. The fact is that, if their work really addressed what they think it does, they’d have no reason to spend days explaining it. As Harold Pinter used to say to his actors when they asked him what he meant by a particular line in one of his plays: ‘Ask the author’. That is, look at the text. If he could have said it any better then he wouldn’t have bothered writing the play.
However, it’s seductive to try to act as your own interpreter. I’ve had some reviews of Wolfsangel that have dug things out that were never in my mind when I was writing it. These things may well be there – what the critics said seems to make sense. Having read the reviews, and felt awfully clever, there’s a big temptation to point to the criticism and say ‘that, the bit about Heideggerian moods, that’s what I was trying to do.’ I’m trying to resist it.
On the other hand, there’s a tendency for some genre writers to say that all they’re concerned with is a good story. Of the two views I lean heavily towards the second.
If writing isn’t entertaining, it’s nothing. That is, very few people will wade through 300 pages of lifeless prose with no plot, no surprises and no emotional engagement with the characters. I’m leaving you out of this, English Literature students, you’re forced to read that stuff.
It’s enough to be just entertaining. You don’t need any more. But the writers I really admire do tend to add a bit extra. They fall into two camps. First is the ‘fantasy of ideas’ brigade. In this I’d put China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K Le Guin and a fair few others.
These writers engage with cultural issues outside of fantasy – religion, politics, gender identity. Crucially, these concerns don’t overwhelm their work. It’s possible to read any of their books just as an entertaining tale without picking up on any of that stuff.
All this is engaging and interesting but the fantasy writing I really love does something more still. This brings us to the other camp – the stuff that has an effect you can’t really explain. It talks to something deep inside us, feelings we all have but can’t name. Really, what I want from fantasy is the chill and wonder that people sitting around a fire might have felt in the dark ages listening to Beowulf, the feeling you get hearing Macbeth on the battlements as MacDuff’s army comes marching towards him.
(Fantasy writers should reclaim Shakespeare, by the way – next time a literary snob looks down his nose at you and asks what of worth fantasy has ever produced say ‘Macbeth, The Tempest, Midsummer Night’s Dream. A little bit more than middle class people having affairs in Brooklyn brownstones, I think you’ll find.’)
The writing I love conjures up feelings so distinctively that it’s very difficult to describe them. I can’t sum up in a couple of paragraphs the strange sense you get reading Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, the disquiet you feel as Le Guin’s* abused Tenar leaves men to starve in the darkness of the Tombs of Atuan, the sense of nations moving to uncertain and terrible destinies you get in George RR Martin, the urggghh and ahh of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. I told you I couldn’t put it into words.
These writers express things that you can’t say in any other way than how they said it. Sure, their work can be analysed but it can’t be reduced to an analysis. There is a level at which its effect is inexplicable. If you want someone to share it you have to lend them the book.
Obviously if I set the bar that high in my own writing I’d be too terrified to ever write a word. In my experience, striving for something in your writing is a guarantee of failure. So I just sit waggling my fingers until the story appears.
But if I could aim for anything it would to capture a feeling I had as a kid on vacation in North Wales - one that I won’t be able to explain properly even if I try.
Shivering inside our rain sodden family tent, looking out at the slate grey clouds dropping onto the Black Mountains** I had a sense that there was something in that landscape that had been there for years before I lived and that would be there for years after I die, something that wasn’t particularly well disposed to me or to humanity as a whole. It’s the closest I’ve had to a spiritual feeling and it’s impossible to put into a concise phrase. Impossible for me, anyway, I think some poets give that sort of thing a go. I might, though, be able to summon it up in a novel.
If I could get near to inducing that feeling in my readers then I’d be a happy man. So, to answer my original question: ‘What am I doing?’ I still don’t know. But I know what I’d like to do and I suppose that’s a start.
* One of my favourite writers, someone with a foot in both camps.
** Holidays like this pretty much account for the British national character.