There really is no surface quite as slippery as the blank page. Which is not great when you consider we’re completely surrounded by them at this time of year. There are blank calendars wherever we look, showing all those unwritten days we’re going to fill, whether we like it or not. I hate any new calendar or diary for that. They always seem to offer undiscovered territory. Yours to claim. They’re a map of potential, in that moment you open them, at least. Of course, once you finally start using them, all you really mark down are trips to the dentist and occasional family gatherings.
That said, this year, I want to try and fill that blank space with more than filler. I want to try and push myself. I want to try and really embrace my time. See if I can’t find something to challenge me. Something to force me to evolve a little.
You see, I’m pretty sure I’m lazy these days. Don’t get me wrong, I write a lot, but that’s it. I don’t get the feeling I ever push myself beyond the typing. And we’re not talking about review chasing here. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that review chasing is the modern wild goose chase.
This year, I’m trying to plan ahead. Keep myself moving. Last year, I stalled for months. I want to avoid that in 2018. I want to keep doing live events, if I can. I want to get back onto poetry. Hell, if I get the chance, I’d love to try writing a play or a movie script. I also need to submit more work to magazines and podcasts as well. It has to be worth a try, right?
Or that’s how I was feeling until a couple of days ago…
I know I should be moving full speed ahead right now. Only I got myself stuck already. It’s not a great way to hit the ground running. Although it is a great way to hit the ground. It has also managed to dredge up an old demon from last year.
You see, during Christmas, I found myself beached on the sofa with a lot of festive TV to catch up on. One programme I’d recorded was a documentary about Francis Bacon. I knew a little about his art, but not a huge amount about the man behind it. Watching his brutal and, at times, alienating tale made me start to think about artistic intentions again. It was a thought that ended up being amplified by something I heard just after the new year. I listened to someone talking about truth and about how teachers are on a quest to try and learn in order so that they can find the truth. As in THE truth. I’m not entirely sure I agree with it, but it got me thinking about myself. You know, because I’m egocentric.
I do often find myself annoyed by the world around me. I do want to find a truth that allows everything to make sense. In a way, that’s what my writing is about. Only, here’s the question: am I trying to find my truth or your truth? Do I want to understand what’s in my head or your head?
Everything in the world is understood through interpretation, right? We translate what we see around us into our own terms. Our own understanding. Everyone does it. Most of the arguments in the world boil down to how you’re processing the actions of the people around your through the lens of your own understanding.
So, when I’m writing, am I trying to see how you’re seeing things or am I trying to make sense of how I’m seeing them and then explain that to you in some way. In other words, am I experiencing through you or am I communicating through myself?
Thinking like this made me realise that I’m not sure, which made me think a lot about artistic intentions. (It’s been an overly complicated few days.)
During last year, I got incredibly lost in the question of art versus writing. I get that some people just want to read something fun and that’s fine. Hell, I’m one of them sometimes. I’ve read Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. I would argue that Neil Gaiman, deep down, just wants to entertain us. Only I’m not sure that the current writing landscape is a viable way to keep writing only those stories. Especially for a new writer. After all, the written word now has to try and communicate to a world that has TV, movies and pretty much every song every recorded in their pockets. TV and movies are shiny and bright. They’re loud. They’re easily advertised and they can tell stories with neat editing and heart seizing score. Writing doesn’t have those tools and it needs to ask people to take a little more time out to invest in the work. Maybe that’s why there are a lot of stories out there that want to appear ready for adaptation and, again, that’s fine. I’m just not sure if it’s for me.
I keep feeling this pull, this need to try and find another way to write. I can’t quite put it into words, but I get the feeling that writing can be about more than prose and plot. I think it’s about injecting emotion and intention into it as well.
You know what, this isn’t just Francis Bacon’s fault. I also recorded a documentary Giles Coren made about his failed novel. It was okay. It had some interesting points, but there was a scene that keeps haunting me. Giles took his book (and his camera crew) to a highly respected classroom where highly respected students were doing a highly respected writing course and the people in that highly respected room made me want to disassociate myself with the term ‘author’ forever more.
Their smugness bled through my TV screen. It was like each of them was preparing the outfit and smile they were going to have for their black and white author’s photo or the one that would go next to their debut interview in The Guardian. They boiled his story down to headings they’d clearly underlined in red pen on day one of their studies. They asked questions that dripped with acidic pretension and, yes, I’m aware of the double standard here.
My point is that they disassembled his failed book with routine questions. With processes that made for ‘success’ and it just ripped the art out of what he’d wanted to do. Regardless of whether or not he’d managed to at least create the story he’d wanted, good or bad.
I don’t think we get to decide what’s successful. Not if we’re being true to our own artistic intention. I think we can try our best and I think we can try to make sure we never loose the original intention that sparks an idea. Then we can put it out into the world and hope for the best. That’s it.
Anything else is expectation and I’m pretty sure expectation is the mind killer. We want to do well. We hope to do well. Which is fine, until it hinders what us.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a right or wrong way to do things. Not when it’s personal. Not when you’re trying to be true to your own idea. Don’t get me wrong, it might only succeed for you, but it’s that enough?
I don’t think there are only so many set story structures in the world and I don’t think you can boil them all down to a handy formula that makes a story into a series and series into a saga and a saga into a disappointing movie. Why would you want hat?
The students in that classroom were in that classroom because it was being watched by literary agents. Giles said it himself in his narration. Those people had worked to get on that course to get noticed. They were at writing RADA, to mix career metaphors.
That was where the talent sharks swam to watch for fresh meat, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only fresh meat on offer. Francis Bacon didn’t sit in classrooms, ticking the right boxes in his homework book, waiting until he’d gotten the right grades and attention to allow him to paint his personal, dark and twisted horrors. No, he found that in himself through time and agony. He drew it out of his soul. He found his version of truth and he showed it to the world. He was lucky enough that the world liked it and that set him on his way. I don’t believe he ever went ‘oh yes, this will sell well’.
We all know the story of the ugly duckling, right? The story about the kid who doesn’t belong and hates his non-conformity until he realises he’s a swan. Well, here’s the thing, I think 2018 is the year of the ugly duck. I’m pretty sure an ugly duck could do just fine here, as long as they don’t keep checking their reflection.
I’m also pretty sure that this post got slightly lost on its galloping high horse.
Um…sorry everyone. Happy new year. I’m off to cut the soapbox off my feet.