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!
A Writer’s Diary #30: strange knowledge
What you know is a strange thing, often not what it appears to be. And the corollary of that is this: research can only tell you what you already understand. It can’t take you any deeper than you could get without it.
This seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but we’ve all felt it: we’ve all watched a film or TV show or read a book decked out with facts that doesn’t feel humanly true.
There’s a further paradox: those who have endured an experience aren’t necessarily best able to tell it. I once knew a soldier who had been in the Falklands War, at the battle for Goose Green. A gay para invalided out of the army after his parachute failed to open, he was keen to write of his army life. Yet when I looked over a few early pages they were weirdly unconvincing, coming over as what an adolescent, imagining things he plainly had no experience of, would have made up from second- or third-hand sources.
Well, all cultures have always had griots, story-tellers who bring the history and dreams of the tribe, the village, the kingdom to life. Those who through their skill with words are able to tell the truth of a tale.
They have that strange knowledge.
And to this I aspire.
Two years ago, when Team Angelica published my novel Faggamuffin, the story of a gay Jamaican fleeing lynch-mob violence and defiantly trying to build a new life for himself in the UK, Portia Miller Simpson had just become prime minister of Jamaica, and had promised a review of the so-called buggery law, and in my selfish way I worried my story was fated become an instant period piece.
Since then the homophobic murders and assaults have mounted, (including a mob attack on a man ‘rumoured to be wearing lipstick’), and this Sunday just gone, while large parts of the world waved rainbow flags and celebrated LGBT Pride, twenty-five thousand Jamaicans attended an evangelical-church-led rally in support of retaining those same colonial-era buggery laws, which can only incite further violence and further inflame lynch-mob hatreds.
Alas, my book – of which I am extremely proud, and which on revisiting I still find powerful and compelling – is as relevant as it ever was.
A Writer’s Diary #29: clarity
Legendary noir writer Raymond Chandler once said, ‘Sophistication is only a style, and not a particularly difficult one at that.’
I agree, and I think one can say the same thing of subtlety.
We’re all told that subtlety is a good thing in a writer: the opposite of crassness, obviousness and the hackneyed. And it’s true these are things we should all avoid. However, it seems to me that people regularly confuse subtlety with vagueness, incoherence and indecision on the writer’s part. This is a mistake. Subtlety is the delicacy with which we treat a subject, but what that subject is should be clear in the writer’s mind or the result will be weak.
Clarity – of fundamental character, setting and purpose; of, in a broad sense, story - is the necessary skeleton; subtlety the sculpting of the muscles that adorn and dynamise it.
The most massive muscles will just lie there in a heap without bones to support them. Steroids – injections of garish events or inchoately distorted mentalities – will anger the bloated flesh, but won’t enable the work to stand on its own; only clarity of intent will do that.