Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Creative Experience

As a writer every moment, each chance meeting, all conversations, life in general becomes creative potential … possibilities just waiting to be realised on paper and shared with others. Then there are ideas that spring from nowhere, gifts from the Universe? These stories, scenarios and characters that materialise out of the ether can push our authenticity to the limits …and sometimes we need to go out and recreate an experience that we’ve written about to get the realism that may be missing from our writing.

Comedian and author Nury Vittachi spoke at the Byron Bay Writers Festival about a book that he wrote about a middle aged Asian man being hand cuffed to a young Caucasian women in the creation of one of his Feng Shui Detective novels (I’m so intrigued by the concept that I can’t wait to get my hands on one of his books). When he presented the manuscript to his publishing house, his editor read it and then told him to go out and hand cuff himself to a young woman for 24 hours (just like the characters in his story). His editor said there was something missing – that it would be found in the recreation of the experience. Nury wasn’t sure how his wife was going to feel about it. His editor suggested that he get his wife to find the woman for him. And his wife did. Nury spent 24 hours hand cuffed to a 20 something, blonde Jazz singer (it later transpired after this day together that she was gay – his wife wasn’t stupid!) Then Nury went back to his novel and redrafted it, to the adulation of his publishing house and editor.

A writer wants his or her words to be believed, for there to be an authenticity and sincerity about their work. Readers don’t want to be lied to, or treated like they are imbeciles. Even far fetched adventures such as Captain Juan’s or my favourite Dirk Pitt’s, from Clive Cussler’s novels, have to resonate with an element of truth (though Cussler did push the boundaries leaving Pitt and Giordino in the Sahara for six days without water and allowed them to come across the remains of a historic plane crash that they used to windsurf their way out of the sands – but I could still enjoy it!) I’m not sure what it is that the reader picks up on that makes them balk; perhaps there is a two dimensionalism about the whole concept or the writing runs contrary to the parameters of the genre or pushes beyond acceptable limits. Maybe it misses a sparkle, a connection - we have no empathy or love for the characters - I’m not really sure.

In acting there is a style called ‘method acting’ … and I believe that writing follows lots the method acting philosophies (but then again I write from a ‘doing’ foundation). When writing the scene from Captain Juan where Ruby murders her uncle I was struck with – well how does she do it? How do I make it authentic? I’ve never murdered someone (strange but true!) I’m not a deft hand with knives, a blade or anything like that. I know no martial arts and the physical exertion of an evening walk leaves me shattered. Luckily I was at Annie’s house while I was writing and deliberating.

I looked up to her and asked how the hell Ruby was going to kill her Uncle. Compounding my dilemma of not actually knowing the mechanics of how a trained person effectively stabs another, Ruby is left handed. Annie has done martial arts for years. She grabbed a knife from the rack in the kitchen and showed me how Ruby could literally pull and cut her Uncles throat open in one swinging arc movement. I was impressed. It also gave me a clear visual for my writing.

A clear visual is often what I need when I’m creating descriptive narrative or ambience in the story. Earlier on in the week I wrote Andrew Said, set in a cemetery. I struggled with parts of the descriptive narrative and the ambience, because I’ve never been in an actual working cemetery (I was going to say ‘live’ but that just seemed wrong!) I went to a historic cemetery once before Dylan was born as part of a camping trip out west to Mount Mulligan in Far North Queensland. So I realise to be at peace with the authenticity of this story, I need to go and have a wander through a cemetery. There is cemetery about five minutes from our house that I can go for a wander through and set my story in. I might even take my camera. Charlotte Wood mentioned on the same panel as Nury that she often takes photos of places she is setting her story in and creates montages of the pictures on her wall.

And there’s also the doing, the being. This is where I’m really being pushed most at the moment. In creating and doing a little poking around for my Adam and Eve concept, I found out that Brisbane is actually interlaced beneath the city with convict built tunnels. I had some photos sent to me. Now I’m thinking that to really get a sense of the feeling in them, the terror of being stuck in them without light … I’m going to see if I can find someone who will agree to take me down into them. It’s frightening – actually it’s terrifying for me who is both afraid of the dark, of being underground, in closed spaces and always tried hard to abide by the law – it’s actually illegal to go down into them, but that doesn’t seem to stop a small group of people!

Lived experience can be there without the writer even realising it. I’m currently reading Max Barry’s “Company: a novel”. The first half of the book fell a bit cold on me – I was a little disappointed. I heard Max speak twice at the writers festival, and had a short personal conversation with him and was intrigued and entertained by him. He had read a short passage from Company while on panel and he’d come across as a cross between Ben Elton and Nick Earles. As I was reading through the first 70 odd pages, I was wondering when something was ‘going to happen.’ I wasn’t connecting, I wasn’t getting the humour. I began to wonder if I was dumb because I seemed to be missing the point.

Annie came to visit Monday and as I was firing up the espresso machine she picked up the book, and began to flick through. I could hear her chuckling. “This is so true,” she commented when I brought the coffees over and launched into telling me all about luncheon etiquette and how you never take more than two sandwiches, regardless of how much food it leftover at the end. She was identifying with the missing donut that drives the character of Roger. Annie spent a good chunk of her working life working in large companies and the landscape, the characters and the philosophy is common ground. I’m enjoying it now, I have about 80 pages left to go and I’m intrigued to see how the drama plays out. I’m resigned to the fact that most of the humour is lost on me.

Writing is always an adventure. An infinite array of possibilities, creative exploration and a chance to live beyond the square – both on paper and in real life .. and the smudgy blurring that occurs when the two meet. And would we want it any other way?

Does realism matter- is it necessary … to you …to the reader? It is important to make your realism accessible to others, or do you risk loosing realism in the pursuit of making it accessible and enjoyable to the majority?


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d sinclair said...

thanks for this jodi - you've reminded me of something important here! Lately I've been a bit flat and uninspired, and my writing has slowed right down to a drip, rather than the stream I'd envisaged turning into a river :)

time to get out and experience some life again... if only the current astro-climate were not so darn scary!

d x

Neshamah said...