In this article Niamh Collins explores ‘literary legacy’, how writers can use history and why a good story will always be in fashion.
Paolini’s quote suggests both blessing and curse. A momentary slip of the pen and a writer becomes marred forever by a cliché metaphor, a lack-lustre love scene or an ill-timed joke which distorted an otherwise masterful picture. Do the words have that much power, or is it the order of the words? The combination of the subjunctive, clause, punctuation, adjective, verb, noun (to reduce writing to its merely technical sense), infused like a good brew with imagination, intrigue, hard-work and a sense of unending dissatisfaction until the final line has been completed. Yet doesn’t this quote fill every writer with a sense of excitement? We write, of course, to be read.
MAKE NO MISTAKE, A GOOD STORY WILL ALWAYS BE IN FASHION
I am often reminded of how lonely the writing process can be; the image of the ambitious writer chained to the desk is an apt one. However, is there any dialogue more intimate than what is said between a writer and a reader? Anything more gratifying than the relationship between a reader searching for something (whether it be guidance, entertainment, or merely the fulfilment of curiosity) and finding it in your three-hundred-and-fifty pages? What motivates a writer always intrigues me – and unsurprisingly no writer I have ever had the pleasure of talking to has revealed that money has motivated their first draft. Not that financial reward is a negative, (as Virginia Woolf, arguably the mother of modern prose, crudely claimed, “Writing is like sex. First, you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money” – even the most dedicated of creatives can accept the satisfaction of a cheque through the post!) It seems, however, that most writers have a greater
DON’T TELL US WHY, BUT SHOW US WHY IT MATTERS
To know their readers, enough that they know what they need to read; and sometimes even more complex than that; to know themselves. We all want to tell a ‘damn good story’, but as the 2017 film ‘The Wife’, a haunting portrayal of a talented writer whose Nobel prizewinning voice only achieves fame through crediting the work to her husband, a young Glenn Close is told by an ageing, unsuccessful female writer, ‘a writer has to be read, honey.’ Is she right? Is it not enough to simply write? However insecure we are with our own words as they order themselves both ingeniously and strangely across our pages and we stuff semi-completed coffeestained manuscripts into locked desk draws, is the longing in all of us for a sympathetic reader to pour themselves over these words and feel in some small way affected by them? A daunting challenge, well, yes. But like anything that yields such a remarkable product, it is only able to be achieved through the efforts of the writer.
CREATING THE SYMPHONY
After premiering my first play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, I realised what David Hare meant by ‘the moment’. A moment where everything comes together (however brief) when the actors don’t even
seem to be acting; only being, audiences are absorbing the words as you intended and turning down accountancy seems finally like the right move. All the stressful irritations of running around messy dressing rooms, tracking down elusive set pieces in ill-managed charity shops, flyering in the pouring rain with no promise that the time would translate to a ticket sale, all seemed worthwhile. We were incredibly fortunate. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
START WRITING, NO MATTER WHAT. THE WATER DOES NOT FLOW UNTIL THE FAUCET IS TURNED ON
A London playwright was reviewing a draft of my recent play. His email contained advice he believed all writers should be told before they commit anything more than a few stray hours tapping away at their computer now and then. Words that have the same sort of chiming sentiment as your mother telling you she’s proud of you on your first day at school – an experienced writer waving a new writer into the play park with something profound to take with them – ‘I’ll tell you something for nothing. It never gets easier.’ We all may well begin to bow to the commercial strain, those on the crushing treadmill of the nine-to-five may observe with ill-hidden glee that the Parisian apartment of our dreams has had a rent hike, the espresso machine has broken and we’ve given up smoking for the sake of our lungs. But writing a book is like having a child; it’s an emotional and physical investment; however tough it gets the journey will always be worth it. Even if we only manage to learn something about ourselves along the way. That is no small feat.
THERE IS SOMETHING INTIMIDATING ABOUT HISTORY. HOW DID AUSTEN MANAGE IT?
At the time of writing, a small bug has found itself tangled in the maze of my laptop keyboard. It panics as it is too small to make it over the mound of the ‘P’ tile, so begins to trail its way bewildered above the ‘L’, snaking past the semicolon, resting its wings upon a question mark until I lend it some assistance and it finds itself contentedly placed on my copy of ‘At the Pond’, perched on a painted leaf colour illustration and unmoved by the erratic summer winds of the Surrey Hills. It’s an effort to use language to create symphonies. Jack Kerouac would argue that the words when we find them, will be simple. When I’ve ever been asked to review a draft of anything where the author is struggling, often two things are extremely apparent. The first is that they know their plot but they don’t know their characters. They know them as friends perhaps, but not as one knows their partner.
They know their likes and dislikes, their parent’s names, but they haven’t thought any deeper than what I may know of someone on first meeting and an hour spent
over drinks. They don’t know that Mrs. Jackson always double locks her door at night because she lives in continual fear of the area she was raised. They haven’t really got to the bottom of why her husband insists on swimming every morning at 3am until his lungs can’t seem to fill with air, or why their twenty-five-year-old son can’t book his own dentist appointment. Don’t tell us why, but show us why it matters. The other thing that becomes extremely apparent is that the writer is submerging their own voice in lieu of a voice they feel is more generically ‘authorish’, more palatable, more like what they have read before and what they believe is likely to sell. To point to the fate of Lee Israel may seem like a hyperbolic example but it carries significant weight. Imitation is the least gratifying art form; no one can write like you, and you will never be able to write as authentically as the voice you are imitating.
IMITATION IS THE LEAST GRATIFYING ART FORM
As a student of English, my education has been built upon the legacy of the writers who made it into my Durham English Literature Level 1 handbook; Shakespeare, O’Neill, Shklovsky, Churchill, Marie De France, (a narrow insight into a one hundred and fifty book first-year course.) English Literature varies more than many suspect, new experts blast into the field and offer refreshing and new perspectives; ‘What happens if you read Beowulf as a critique of masculinity?’, ‘Is Chaucer repelled by ‘magyk natural’ or subversively excited by its possibilities?’, ‘Is the Song of Songs actually spiritual or just a highly erotic union of lover A and lover B?’ But fundamentally the texts stay the same. The Pride and Prejudice devoured by the young freckled twelve-year-old girl at the Hampstead Heath swimming ponds yesterday afternoon was the same as the one likely enjoyed by her great, great grandmother decades previously. Austin’s wit and quietly radical plot lines are discovered and rediscovered by generation after generation; cheering at the sarcastic potency of Elizabeth Bennet and mellowed by the trembling revelation of a previously cold Mr. Darcy. Austen has her place firmly cemented in history and she will find her words stitched onto underwear bags and her silhouette emblazoned on compact mirrors for many years to come.
DON’T TELL ME THE MOON IS SHINING; SHOW ME THE GLINT OF LIGHT ON BROKEN GLASS
View the full MardibookClub Winter Edition (opens as PDF in your browser).