Monday Motivation: Writing is both a gift and a burden
One of the most succinct definitions of art that I’ve ever come across is this: Art is repetition with variation. After all, there’s no real conceptual difference between Michaelangelo’s David, and the sunny pictures you encounter at Art-in-the-Park. Or between the paleolithic art on the walls of the fabled Lascaux caves… and an ephemeral piece of performance art created by an avant garde artist in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
They’re all variations of an infinitely repeated exploration of what it means to be human in the world.
So I know you won’t mind if I return, like an old dog, to a much-gnawed bone. The bone in this case is the astonishing fact that writers of creative fiction and non-fiction school themselves in the fine art of imagining what it’s like to be somebody else.
It’s weird, isn’t it? This deliberate injecting of ourselves into other people’s minds – looking at the world through their eyes, judging the actions of others on the scales of their morality, sharing in the most intimate way their sensations, their thoughts and their fears.
You could say that we’re voyeurs who conjure into being the characters we then spy on. We’re guilty in this respect at least of a species of victimless crime: we stalk our characters, whether fictional or real, dead or alive. We spy on what goes on behind their bedroom doors. In fact, we do more than spy: we inveigle ourselves into their hearts and their heads. We feel the pain they suffer, the joy that exilarates them.
Now, this is at once a burden and a gift.
The burden is the burden of truth. We’re free to put our characters through any kind of experience. We can oblige them to soil themselves as they face a firing squad. We can give them children that vex and irritate them. We can confront them with antagonists intent on robbing them of their peace of mind.
But we have to do all of this in a way that convinces those other, less committed observers – our readers – that this is what it’s like to be this person, this character, who exists apparently only on the page but also, somehow, in our imaginations. And the only way we can do that, is by making the characters true, and their responses to the challenges they face authentic.
Not an easy responsibility to shoulder, this obligation we owe reality.
But the odd ability we possess – or have cultivated – is also, as I say, a gift.
Take a step back, now. Imagine that you’re reading a speculative piece of science fiction. In it, a character is invested with an extraordinary ability, the result of a mutation to his dna, perhaps.
His superpower consists of the ability to sink his consciousness into the minds of others. He has unparalleled access. He’s able, for instance, to sneak into the cerebellum of a megalomaniacal world leader and experience his paranoia and arrogance and fear. The understanding this experience gives him enables our hero to throw himself more effectively into the underground resistance that has sprung up to oppose the dictator.
I’m amazed Marvel Comics haven’t come up with this idea. (Or maybe they have.)
But of course, if this ability is a superpower, then it’s one that every writer puts to work every time she opens her laptop, or sharpens her pencil. To begin with we exercise it with caution and diffidence. How dare we imagine what it’s like to be someone else! Or someone of the opposite sex! Or a member of a different culture! Or an inhabitant of a different age – or planet! But with practice, we slip into our characters with increasing confidence. That initial guilt we might have felt from presuming to know how other people think and feel eventually evaporates.
Repetition with variation. The way in which my character experiences the world is only slightly different from the way all others do. But it’s enough to turn his experiences into an unforgettable story.
Read Jo-Annes latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: Listening for your characters place in the world.‘
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