A Writer’s Diary #39: art as service

In Vodou believers are called serviteurs. In my religion of writing, as I sometimes feel it is, I believe in art as service to humanity. That belief can be stretched to the point where any expression of self by any human being in any form whatsoever is a sort of service to fellow human beings in that it’s a revelation of some new possibility. However, being a minority artist, and one who is interested in representing minorities within that, I have a more concrete sense of service.

I once read a transcript of a literary panel discussion that took place in the late 1960s. It featured various big-name US writers, including African-American legend Ralph Ellison, whose brilliant book about the black experience in America, Invisible Man, had been named Best Post-War Novel and won numerous awards. I forget who the others were, except that they were all white (and all men, and heterosexual). Possibly Saul Bellow was one. Anyway –

At one point the panel were asked what they thought the point of writing was; what the novelist should be attempting to do. All the other writers said that, given all stories were already told, the point was to rework classic themes in novel ways. And don’t we often hear that? That all stories are already told?

Ralph Ellison, alone of them, said that a novelist should write about what’s happening now, and tell all the stories that haven’t been told.

I agree with Ralph.

A Writer’s Diary #38: work is a sort of choice

Many writers can’t really self-edit; some can’t self-edit at all. This puzzles me: isn’t it part of the job? However, to do so – and I believe I can - requires an ability to take an external view of one’s own work, to position oneself simultaneously both as an imagined reader (one who asks, ‘Does this make sense to me? Does my eye stumble over this? Is this interesting to me in the larger context of the story?’) and as a punctilious copy-editor (one who’s always saying, ‘Is this the best word or image?’ and ‘Do we need this bit at all?’).

That is, it requires being a bit anal and ruthless: to be prepared, as I think it was George Orwell said, to slay one’s darlings.

This sort of objectivity is a good skill to cultivate. There’s a quiet joy, once one has that first draft down, in meditatively assessing the merits of a line or phrase or image detached from one’s own ego.

Being able to self-edit doesn’t mean I don’t very much value the input of the perceptive friends who read my manuscripts: I do. And they often offer wonderful and startlingly left-field suggestions that I’m excited to use – most usefully at the early stages, before the vision is set. Good – useful – readers see the possibilities erupting from one’s draft, sometimes in ways one hasn’t seen oneself.

I’m talking here about prose fiction. Film and theatre, being heavily collaborative, require a writer to constantly change stuff in the light of performance realities; and particularly in film the script is only one (albeit a key) component of the machine. The film is a fusion of various visions, not the realization of just one person (the writer’s) by technical drones. (Nor is it wholly the director’s vision either: another story).

Work is a sort of choice, really. If a section – sequence, paragraph or sentence – isn’t working, you have to decide to keep on going over it till it does work. And you have to decide that in objective terms. The aim must at all times be accuracy. A sloppy image diffuses a reader’s attention; a redundant one clutters the sentence. Confused syntax obscures sense. Accuracy is far more important than elegance, and it requires focus and honesty, and sometimes self-sacrifice.

Fundamentally it’s all about accuracy.

A Writer’s Diary #37: Vodou writing

In the oufo, the Vodou temple, there is at its centre the Poteau-mitain post, around which believers dance and sing to bring on possession by the lwa - the deities - and the ancestors. The post connects the energies of the lwa above and the spirits of the ancestors, who dwell la-bas, on the island in the waters below.

When the writing works, when the truth flows from character and situation as if revealed, and themes reverberate and magnify each other, expand and converge in accumulating meaningfulness, the writer is, like that post, the lightning-rod for energies above and below.

This self-abnegation is exactly the opposite of what self-aggrandising literary critics once dubbed ‘the death of the author’: it is what avant-garde dancer and film-maker Maya Deren called ‘the white darkness’ of possession, where one is both simultaneously wholly absent and wholly present.

It is the aim.

A Writer’s Diary#36: I love rewriting

I love rewriting.

It’s the good bit: the salvation, the rendering-down.

It’s also, of course, work.

Having finished a fast first draft of my forthcoming novel Souljah I went over and over the often lumpy prose until it was as sharp and clear and rhythmic as I could make it, which I would guess was about six months’ fairly concentrated work, three to four hours a day, usually six days a week.

There’s an almost sensual pleasure in adjusting internal prose rhythms so they flow fast and deep; and a definitely visceral one in crossing out bad phrases and dud metaphors; in rejigging dialogue so it feels natural while still being concise, ideally as tight as poetry.  In replacing mediocre or overdone images with fresher and more accurate ones that nonetheless do not trip up the eye; that do not call attention to themselves and beg a round of applause for the author’s wit while simultaneously pushing the reader out of full emotional engagement with the story.

The great thing about having a long first draft – and mine was over 120,000 words - is that you can be ruthless: any padding can be sliced away without the worry that what remains will be maaga.  All the best books – even a triple-decker like Lord of the Rings or a doorstop like Moby Dick – are surprisingly economical when you go back over them with an analytical eye: they contain barely a wasted word and include a minimum of digression or filler.

One lesson I’ve taken from screenwriting is, to quote my best friend and brilliant writer and director Rikki Beadle-Blair, ‘A diamond is nothing till it’s cut.’ But there’s another element at play here too: expansion: making the most of moments that, in the haste of composing the first draft, you wrote thinly or sketchily. Getting best value out of each moment and situation. Like an athlete, building up the muscle while stripping out the fat.

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A Writer’s Diary #35: a tentative jazz theory of deconstructive writing

Legendary jazz musicians like Miles Davis and John Coltrane would take standards and dismantle them. How much can you take from a melody line before the song collapses or evaporates, or what you’re doing becomes wholly disconnected from it? How few notes are needed?

What can you take away? What needs to be retained for the song to keep on living beneath it?

A simple swirl of a skilled Japanese calligrapher’s brush-pen yields a goldfish: another sort of minimalism, aiming for essence yet concrete, not abstract, in its representation: accurate, true to the world.

Good TV or film writing, where only the key scenes, the exciting scenes, the compelling scenes are shown, no fat, no filler. (Bad writing: only markers of genre cliché are shown, the concrete, the logical, the human forgotten, skipped over. The needle skittering over the grooves, refusing to settle, just noise. How lightly can you touch down and still land?). When it works the fragmented narrative notes are the telling notes, just anchored enough to the tensile web of format and genre for the story to hang together, to have bounce, the threads perhaps now present only in the viewer’s mind.

This is more subtle than just cutting to action.

I love words but, like people, the less of them there are, the more they stand out.

Put another way: always listen out for the false notes.

A Writer’s Diary #34: what intrigues, what doesn’t

Recently I went to see a play that opened with a middle-class, (white heterosexual) couple bickering. They are arguing about ‘something’, and the writer withheld what that something was for several minutes as the actors darted round the set clearing away children’s toys and putting out nibbles for a looming social occasion. As I watched this I was struck by two things. 1) I’ve seen this device used a zillion times, and 2) it’s supposed to build intrigue, but never does.

What actually happens, it seems to me, is that the audience instantly tunes out, waiting disengagedly for an actual information-point to appear. We, the onlookers, know this is just time-wasting, albeit under the guise of a sort of naturalism that holds (correctly) that we don’t inform each other in conversation of things we both know, (eg ‘your older sister, Margaret’), and that exposition of that sort, just to tell the audience something, is often crass. But this notion of ‘good writing’ just drags stuff out: why not cut to the chase? Why not have the very first line of the play reveal a bone-crunching faux pas and get a gasp from the audience and hook them from line one?

On the whole I think drama is strongest the clearer the stakes are from the beginning. Then add twists and turns along the way. Hamlet and King Lear are good examples of this.

In my short play, Green for the Land, Africa, the situation is crystal-clear: a Nigerian man is seeking asylum for being gay. The interest is in how the dynamics of the power-play between him and his interrogator play out; what surprises arrive on the way. What wouldn’t make the play more intriguing would be spending pages and pages being vague about where he was from, why he was trying to claim asylum, what country we were in, and so on: the audience would be discouraged from caring or being involved.

Perhaps I lack self-esteem, but I believe my job as the writer is to get the reader or viewer intrigued as quickly as possible, to earn his or her attention for the journey into my world that lies ahead.

A Writer’s Diary #33 : Souljah: telling the truth the story compels.

Liberated to wholly please myself, (after struggling for over a year with a screenplay that was hobbled by paralyzing worries about budget and practicality), and finally free to tell only the truth the story compelled, I wrote the first draft of Souljah hard and fast, at last able to make the choices that felt necessary and natural for the narrative unconstrained by the limitations of what would inevitably be, given the uncommercial subject-matter, a low-budget film.

It was exciting – at times ecstatic - and I knew that the writing was powerful and effective.  The themes (in this case, of competing religious world-views – Protestant and Evangelical Christian versus West African Vodoun and western urban nihilistic atheism) emerged clearly and coherently out of the hard-edged and action-packed front-story, and extraneous elements (mostly to do with drug-dealing and its criminal business background) fell away; and numerous minor elements and sub-stories fell into their natural places and proportions.  Themes reverberated off each other, magnified each other and added depth and intensity, and the story found its shape.

Stephen King compared writing – though perhaps one should add the caveat ‘when it works’ – to Michelangelo’s experience of sculpting: liberating from the stone the shape that was already hidden inside it. Revelation, that is, not creation.  That strange sense that Truman Capote called, ‘Reaching up and pulling something down from there.’

That unexpected sense of revelation that tells you that you’re onto something, that is probably as near to religion as I get: a service to other powers; to that which needs to be told.

A Writer’s Diary #32: what is ‘universal’?

The old con-job. White is universal. Straight is universal. Western is universal. The rest: exotica.

But here’s another ‘universal’: the characters in plays who have no names, who are nationless, genderless letters or numbers; the settings that are ‘nowhere in particular’ or ‘everytown’ or wholly abstract. Novels with unnamed protagonists who leave unnamed lands and reach unspecified cities. These narratives too make claims for ‘universality’. But I’ll say this:

One truth about human beings that really is universal is that we all come from somewhere in particular, are someone in particular, and are somewhere in particular.

To refuse this truth is to produce thin work.

A Writer’s Diary #31: slave to the rhythm

Though I love music, and enjoy belting out the numbers as I cycle all over London, I don’t tend to think of myself as a musical person. Often I find external rhythms an assault: the impositions of others determined to determine what I should move to. However, as a writer I do of course have a powerful sense of internalized rhythm. This comes out most obviously in my dialogue, where I love using the hard-edged choppy, chippy poetry of urban speech and seeing how deeply (and incisively) I can cut with it; but also, in a different way, it comes out in my prose, in the flow of sentences, the bounce of the phrasing, the pull of paragraphs, the word-by-word beat of a line. How long can I riff on a sentence before the structure collapses? How long can I put one word after another with no comma or sub-clause while maintaining a smoothly-accented clarity and even a rise in energy?

Sometimes it’s a sort of bebop in prose: a placing of elements that feels intuitive but is the result of knowing one’s craft – though my skill in doing that, of course, is for others to say, not me.

In my novel Souljah I both consciously and subconsciously adjusted the prose rhythms as I shifted between the (indirect third-person) viewpoints of the three main characters. So in the sections focused on Stanlake, (the former child soldier), and his mother Poppy, I tried to hit a formalized, slightly translated, English-as-a-second-language note; while with black British ragamuffin thug Evill and his click I shifted in a more demotic direction, using the energy in that speech and phrasing while enjoying in a quiet way the paradox that it’s the African refugees’ grammar that is more ‘correct’.

These different tones had of course to be kept within the general prose-rhythms of the novel so as not to seem discordant or clash with each other. This on one level achieved itself as we all have a set of inbuilt rhythms, the autonomous pulsing that happens despite or without our intentions, and this will always come through. More consciously I had always to consider, ‘Does this phrasing put me inside the linguistic environment, the word-landscape, of this character?’ – a rather more subtle question than ‘Would so-&-so talk like this?’ and a deeper and much more interesting one.

A question perhaps ultimately about rhythm.

Back cover of my new novel, Souljah - out in September!