Something I hadn’t thought of before . . .

21Sep08

I sent some short stories out at the beginning of this week, and just as a ‘by-the-way’, I emailed copies to my mum. I spoke to her this evening, as I do every Sunday . . . she didn’t say anything about them, so I asked her if she’d read them.

There was a really uncomfortable silence.

I got really worried: she’s always been unfailingly enthusiastic (to the point that her praise doesn’t really mean much anymore because everything is wonderful). Cripes, I thought. They must be really terrible and she doesn’t know how to say it!

In the end she said: “I think they are compelling, intricate and very well-written. But they are very dark.”

And?

“Well, I’m your mother. I worry about you. Are you depressed?”

WTF??!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

NO.

So then I had to explain to her that very little of myself actually goes into the stories I write. I am not the main character, and I rarely if ever draw on autobiographical details for backstory. An occasional element or experience may be the trigger for something, but there’s a clear distinction between who I am and the people who populate my stories.

It really seemed to throw her, and I’m not sure she’s entirely convinced that I’m not a total lunatic.

But it got me thinking about the whole writing process, and how it feels when I’ve got the flow on, when the words are coming and I’m not fighting for wordcount or progression. And it IS almost like my conscious self is totally suspended – it just seems to get shunted off to one side where time and control have little or no meaning, and the stories come from a whole other place.

It reminded me of a book I read, years and years ago, by Richard Adams (Watership Down, not Hitchhikers Guide). It was called “The Unbroken Web” and was a collection of short stories. I don’t remember many of the stories, but I do remember the introduction. He talked about how stories are told over and over again, and how the experiences of the teller change and influence the way the story is told, but not the core elements of the story. I think he quoted an example of the Cinderella story, which has a parallel both in English/European storytelling AND in Chinese stories. The emphases in the two traditions are different, the cultures highlighting different points of the story, but the core of the story remains the same. He went on to evoke an image of the world revolving in space, and then added to the layer(s) of atmosphere an ephemeral, unbroken web of stories which rotate with and around the world like a carved chinese ivory ball, and all the storyteller has to do is reach out/up for them, and draw down the web to release the story. What makes it their story is the filter of their own culture and individual experiences and beliefs.

For some reason, that image has always stuck with me, and now I think about the hows of writing, when it’s going well, that is how it feels. Like I’m making some connection on a level that I can’t really comprehend, but is physical and actual, almost like I’m mainlining the story, a direct flow from the ‘web’ to the page where I am the intermediary, the facilitator, or perhaps something more mystical (though that sounds a bit pretentious) – a diviner, or medium, or shaman, perhaps, an interceder with the ‘other’ that allows the experience of the ‘other’ to be translated to an experience that is universal and comprehensible.

This image also ties in with the idea that there are 36 basic plots out there and the variations around those are, again, the filter of culture and individual experience. The two seem related, or maybe only so because I, as a writer, find them useful tools for understanding the mechanics of how I do what I do, and how I know when I’m on to a good thing (I’m in the web) or not (I can’t connect).

The importance of that image has a bearing on the name of this Blog, too:

“This web of life is a mingled yarn” – All’s Well That Ends Well (Mr Shakespeare)

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4 Responses to “Something I hadn’t thought of before . . .”

  1. Funny about the “dark” stories. My husband was horrified at how “dark” one of mine was too, though it didn’t seem particularly dark to me. Why do people assume such a connection between your writing and your self? It’s fiction, after all.

    For me, I think the freedom to play around doing desperate things to my characters comes precisely because I’m not down and depressed in real life. From a place of safety it can be fun to experiment with disaster. I don’t know that I would feel like writing at all if I was miserable.

  2. Nicely written and I so had to laugh when I saw your mother’s reaction!

  3. I think you may be on to something there, although I think a good stock of experience helps to draw out the emotions when you’re writing . . . both highs and lows.

    I write almost every day, so I’ve written happy and written miserable, and there isn’t really much difference in the stories that come out of either state. Again, this is part of what makes me feel that the writing comes from a place other than my emotional core.

    But you’re right – there is a widespread assumption that all fiction is (auto)biographical to some degree – mainly, I think, amongst those who do not write . . . I know that when my friends read my work they’re always looking for themselves, each other and me in the work and are hugely disappointed that they’re not included! I’m sure they think I’m hiding the stories they feature just to annoy them . . .

  4. @ Alex – Thanks! I’m laughing now, but to say I was a bit taken aback at the time is an understatement (one of the stories featured someone whose skin fell off).


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