Monday Motivation: Escape from the real world
Why do we read? Well, it all depends on the reader, and, of course, what they’re reading. I doubt that Richard Nixon’s former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the still-redoubtable and formidable Henry Kissinger, reads political analysis for escape, exactly. (Although, who knows?)
But what I have little doubt about is that Kissinger derives something very close to fun – call it enjoyment, a sense of unfolding accomplishment and even self-satisfaction – from writing his latest tome on global political tensions.
Eighty-seven out of a hundred readers will readily admit that they read to escape – the humdrum stresses of everyday life. (It’s a weakness of mine, by the way: to quote statistics that I’ve just made up with absolute authority.)
This is one of the less-acknowledged rewards of writing. In a conversation I heard on the BBC’s Radio 4 a couple of Saturdays ago, the crime fiction writer Ann Cleeves (no, no relation) made this point.
She was married, until his recent death, to a man with bi-polar syndrome, and she was asked how living with this affected her craft. “Oh,” said at once, “it’s such an escape… Story: I think some reviewers are quite sniffy about popular commercial fiction, but if it’s an escape for someone… I don’t know about you, but when you’re going through bad times, just to lose yourself – and it might be very bad television, or it might be a pacy story that you can lose yourself in. Just a different world…”
But then Cleeves extended the courtesy to herself, the writer: “And I wrote the last book quicker than I’ve ever written anything before, because I just longed to be escaping into that fictional world….”
She might have created it herself, but it nevertheless serves as sanctuary.*
I wrote a novel (alas unpublished) over the year during which a long-standing marriage slowly disintegrated. I quite consciously, and probably not very responsibly, turned to my computer whenever I found the silences in our house too grueling to bear. My fiction was not, in fact, a rhapsody of delight. It concerned the problematic relationship between a smallish boy and his father.
But it was the writing itself that provided the escape. The careful consideration of alternative angles from which to launch an attack on a given scene. The judicious choice of a word. The meticulous construction of a character whose essential self had to be laid bare in just a few lines of dialogue.
In a word, it was the technical challenges of writing a complex story that enabled me to escape the rather messier and more miserable challenges of a relationship in the throes of dissolution.
So, while writing fiction only rarely recompenses the author with anything like the financial returns it should, there are other more subtle rewards on offer – and chief amongst them, I’d suggest, is an escape into another world where you are just slightly more in control of events than you are in this.
* Cleeves’ fictional world is rooted very securely in the real world of the Shetland Isles, and a detective who, when she introduced her, burst into a church during a funeral surface. “The first impression,” Cleeves wrote, “was of a bag lady, who’d wandered in from the street.” Lovely.
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Do you have a story to tell?‘
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