Sunday, June 23, 2013

Lesson Two: The challenges of defining my project

I want to define my project - I need to define my project so that I can articulate well what it is that I am attempting to do - but my project is not an easy one to explain. I have explored the purposes of writing per se in a recent guest blog for Cafe Aphra, but the blog on this page explores in more detail my purposes in writing Frogsbone.

How to explain writing a novel? As I redraft and rework Frogsbone's final chapters, I find myself pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I find myself driven by the valid concerns of my intended audience (represented by the show's judges, reviews of contemporary literature, and feedback from the writing groups I engage with), but, on the other hand, I am being led (astray?) by my 'muse' (who appears to answer, rather defiantly, solely to the world of my book and the possibility of a bit of beauty).

I am sure life would be simpler if I allowed myself to be driven solely by the needs and expectations of my intended reader. I can imagine, for example, a person who consciously decides to write a 'best-seller'. They would research the things that book reviewers will acclaim, read-up on the similarities between books that are best-sellers, and carry out focus group research with book groups; following this research they would compile a checklist of things that their book must cover and check-off each feature as their writing progresses. Their book would be well-researched, well-managed, and would probably sell extremely well. I can imagine that person, because when I wrote as an academic, I knew how to do this: tailoring my writing (and sometimes my research findings) to meet the expectations and requirements of different academic journals and conference audiences. It's commonly done - it's what most people need to do if they are to be successful within the Academy - but it doesn't feed the soul and, I would argue, it's not what good writers do.

In fact, over one hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde was explicitly cautioning against this kind of an approach to writing (and thanks to Niall Griffiths for directing me towards Wilde's essay, 'Soul of Man Under Socialism'):

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman.

I don't want to be a 'craftsman' anymore. I have been a competent academic, a competent horse-riding instructor, a competent English teacher (with moments of excellence in the latter), but I do not want to be a 'competent' writer. Something bigger has me in its thrall.

I am hesitant to use the word 'muse', but I trust that the artists who have come before me understand this process far better than I, and if the word 'muse' is good enough for them then who am I to quibble? When I write something snatches hold of my thoughts. I reemerge hours later, blinking like a miner who has been laboring underground. My novel has themes about truth and story; about the power struggles involved in building a new life in a new country; about learning what we aren't, what we never were, and what we might yet be. At the end of a day's writing, these themes spill off the page and provoke me to reflect upon my life in new ways. Then, the next day, these reflections and themes and experiences stoke the fire of my inspiration, they shoulder themselves back into the world of my book and drive my characters into scenarios for which I have not yet planned.

Writing in this way is challenging, unexpected, obsessive: it's a jazz improvisation where the tune twists and jumps and slips between the notes. It escapes the structures for which I have planned, and expands beyond the horizons I know. I find myself forced to look into new places - within the real world, within the imagined world, within myself.

Perhaps it is with the final editing that I will be able to better define the nature of my project. It is then that I might find myself able to tease the fragments of music back into the body of the main melody, to balance the improvisation against a more controlled beat. It takes courage to believe that this might be possible and I have always been a person who plans for every scenario and compulsively controls the details. But, it takes courage to write a book and I need to learn to trust that only by letting go might I get to where I want to arrive.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes I get flashes of what I have made: I see the whole creation as if it sits compactly in my hand (which one day I hope it will, of course!), but then that image goes and I am back to wrestling with the many threads and lives I have given life to. It's an exciting rollercoaster that takes us to incredible places, and I'm looking forward to seeing where yours takes you.