Pain, passion, power

26Jul09

I put my fear back in its box
And I put the box where love is blind
And I walk in the dark
Where pain waits smiling
And I know that I can’t leave

I look at what I’ve become
I’m a pure and perfect lie
Like a blind man falling
Scared and helpless
And I’m still falling from grace

I’m so cold
Don’t leave me blind
I’m so cold
Don’t leave me blinded

I don’t know why I’m afraid
I don’t know why I’m unsure
And if it all comes down to
What I’m feeling
I don’t know what I can say

Gary Numan – Blind lyrics, Jagged Album (The link will take you to a youtube recording of the ‘Blind’ performance last night … I wish I could include the whole performance – I can highly recommend taking a look at more of the youtube recordings from last night 🙂 ).

We went to see Gary Numan at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire last night, and it was one of the most intense and overwhelming experiences of my life – the man is a legend and I could run out all sorts of cliches to attempt to describe how awesome he was. But I’m not going to do that … I learned some powerful writing lessons last night and I want to try to capture them.

Gary Numan by Arathrael (Flickr Creative Commons)

Gary Numan by Arathrael (Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Gary Numan has been one of my heroes for more years than is comfortable to count, and over the past 30-odd years has produced a pretty constant stream of edgy, dark, epics that both keep his existing fans fanatically loyal and attract new fans to his work. As a performer, I guess that 30-odd years of live work has allowed him to hone his stage presence so that he can both hold and electrify an audience to the extent that they are totally with him for the duration. The age range at the concert last night was the broadest I’ve ever seen – from people in their late fifties, through people of my generation right down to teens for whom this must be amongst their first experiences of live music (and it’ll be a hard act to follow if it was).

As a writer, understanding that this is a desirable state of affairs – to have people so loyal to your work that even after 30 years they are still desperate to hear not only the *new* works but to hear again the old standards – made me think a little more deeply about how he does it, what it is about his work that commands such adoration and commitment.

I think there are a number of elements. Firstly, his themes are consistent – dark, edgy, futuristic – and his songs are both passionate and intelligent, and all have that epic electro-synth-rock drive underneath them … but even with this consistency, he’s evolving,  so that he’s moved with the times, from the punk energy of the Tubeway Army through the controlled emotional stillness of New Wave to the current incarnation – electro-rock-god. So, with his consistency in terms of theme, he’s constantly finding new ways of exploring those themes and keeping them relevant to his audience and the musical times in which we find ourselves. It’s an offering that satisfies the needs that drew his original fans to him in the first place, but gives some new twist to keep them interested, a new interpretation, a shift of emphasis and delivery that builds on what has gone before but does not repeat itself. And those same twists, reinterpretations and shifts are what draw in new fans.

That’s something worth thinking about: certainly, I think you could do a lot worse than to have people coming back to you again and again and pulling new people in with them, because your work has something powerful about it that compels such loyalty.

How does he do it?

Thinking about the structure of the set gives some clues. The music is epic in scope, theatrical and utterly compelling, rich, complex and carefully structured so that the contrasts of peaks and troughs add weight and emphasis to the lyrics. The set echoed this, with the slow build of tension and energy up through the songs until there was a massive explosion of power in the heavy guitar drive of Pure about midway through which carried everyone through to the emotional and poignant conclusion of ‘Prayer for the Unborn’.

To engage with and involve an audience to that extent, to carry them with you, is a feat every writer should aspire to, to evoke that heartsick yearning, the adrenaline rush of total commitment to the action, the tearful farewell ….

How does he do it?

And this is where one of Holly Lisle’s lessons is vividly illustrated, for me, at any rate. For copyright reasons and out of fairness to Holly, I won’t go into any detail about the lesson, which is part of her SURVIVAL SCHOOL FOR WRITERS, but, essentially, she says that in order to write powerful, compelling novels you need to draw fully on your experiences, emotions and understanding otherwise you just won’t deliver the goods. I read it, but her meaning didn’t fully dawn on me until last night.

What Gary Numan does so well is to take us to the dark places in our souls, to write out of the fear and pain and longing, the unacknowledged needs and terrors with such total, unflinching honesty that he provides a black box for his audience to place their own fears, believing that he understands and can take their pain and reshape it so that, just for a while, it becomes a little more bearable, to take it to a place where it can be shared and diminished and translated into something common and controllable.

To bring that level of passion and power into my writing, I need to be brave enough to face the levels of pain that go with it, to open up my own black box and take a walk into the darkness to find those levels of emotional honesty that will allow my stories and characters to engage with readers across the barriers of words and genres, to speak from one soul to another and to be strong  enough to bear it and go back again and again.

It’s daunting and frightening.

Those things are in the black box for a reason.

But perhaps that’s the boundary between those people who are artists and those who are not: artists access those dark, lonely places to express and articulate in words or music or images the shared fears and needs and emotions on behalf of everyone else who has to keep them under control and shut away so that society can function. And in return artists are permitted that necessary relief in child-like playfulness, to stay connected to a child-like sense of emotional honesty, intense sensory awareness and distance from social dissimulation in order to both offset and maintain that contact with the painful isolation of the black box.

To go there myself, for real, to allow all artifices to fall away, to fall from the grace of contentment and complacency? 

It’s daunting and frightening.

Those things are in the black box for a reason.

I’m scared and helpless, but I know that if I want to deliver the stories as they exist in my head, then I cannot pull back from those truths, I cannot diffuse them, I cannot distill their power without accepting their poison back into me and hoping that somehow I find the antidote before they drive me into madness.

I know I cannot leave.

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