Friday, 16 March 2012

Tell Me a Story

What are stories? And why do we write them? In browsing round the web, I found this Michael Rosen article from a couple of months ago, that grapples with the question without really answering it. Perhaps that's because it's actually quite a complex question with a range of very subjective answers - in addressing it, I can only give the reasons why I write stories and what they mean to me.

When I write a story, it's always because there is an emotional, psychological or philosophical problem I want to work out. It might not seem that way when I begin, but below the conscious surface of my mind, the gears are already turning. It's often quite late in the writing process when I get the light bulb moment and realise what I've been unconsciously striving towards all along. This is essential, because it helps me to shape the ending and also give strong pointers on what I need to revise in the second draft in order to bring the themes to the surface.

I find it almost impossible to detach the meaning and tone of a story from my own state of mind. This may add emotional weight to my work (the jury's still out on that), what it definitely does is make it hard to consider writing as escapism. The novel I've just finished is a good example - writing an adventure story about grief and depression was never going to be easy, but even when I felt happier, the action of writing the book could sometimes pull down my mood. Good for getting into the mind of the protagonist, less good for making me happy. I just hope that after all that work, the end justifies the means!

This idea of story as catharsis is a popular one, and something I've covered before. It's interesting to look back at that post, albeit slightly disappointing to realise I'm still struggling with the same issues a year on. At least I've finished struggling with the book (for now).

So the question becomes: what kind of story should I write next? My enforced layoff from writing fiction (two weeks and counting) has already given me itchy feet – I need to get on with something. Can I influence my own mood by deliberately choosing something light and upbeat, rather than another emotionally-challenging epic? Or could I shape the tale as my very own hero's journey, depicting a protagonist who is moody and introspective at the beginning of the story, yet joyful and carefree by the end?

It strikes me that the stories we tell ourselves are at least as important as the ones we write down. Perhaps this is why the idea of "The Writer's Journey" has become so indelible (and open to parody). This serves to demonstrate how we use stories to make sense of the world, simplifying the messy sprawl of human experience into a recognisable shape. If we believe that the path of:
writing->rejection->agent->publisher->success
is possible, then we will keep persevering, even in the face of long odds.

My journey so far looks more like:
writing->rejection->writing->rejection->
win competition->agent->publisher->rejection->
depression->writing->rejection->leave agent->writing->?
Call that "The Writer's Crawl" perhaps. In my mind I'm already recasting it as The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare...

Nick.

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