In this post
- The benefit of building people backwards.
- Video: The Sisters of Mercy, ‘Vision Thing’
Follow the freaks.
This is a post about how improving as a writer can help you to understand people better, rather than the other way around.
Years before my first anything saw print I was a regular over on Critters. I didn’t have a tight group of reliable readers to get feedback from, so the site was invaluable for crowdsourced criticism. It thickened my skin and taught me how to view feedback impartially, with objectivity, and then apply what I felt to be sound.
One of the pieces I submitted was a short story called My Father as Ferryman, which was set in a goth club. Shut up. The story hinged on the quasi- (arguably ersatz, definitely pretentious) courtly dynamic of the place. I’m talking about the grand old days when there was future to burn, clubs were the sanest part of the week, every joint had a card-carrying, frock coated, 100% genyooine vampire who could never get laid and LARPing was as popular as naming yourself after ailments. If you were around at the time and never got fanged, cursed or knew someone named ‘Baron Necrosis von Rainfuneral’ (“Have you met myne bryde, Anemia?”) you weren’t doing it right. I saw a kid in a cape the other day and I wanted to hug him.
Of all the critiques I ever received from Critters the one I remember concerns this story. It was from a middle-aged, middle-class American lady and it read, more or less: “The setting stretches plausibility as this place couldn’t possibly exist.”
My response was “It’s where I spend my Friday nights, and so do your kids”, but that’s beside the point. The point is that this person couldn’t conceive of a scenario in which young people might dress in black, dance to moodily poetic rock and build a temporary autonomous zone within a place made of smoke, cider and a shared aesthetic – and that this would in turn lead to the inevitable evolution of a pecking order shaped, styled and structured by their influences.
Like it or not we all live in small, self-selecting worlds. In frustrated middle-class America perhaps goths are as wrong and foreign as orgasms. I could never work out how John Howard kept being re-elected, but clearly enough people believed in being fisted toward a better future to keep voting him back in. Amanda Palmer’s straight male friends prefer their women as nature intended and that seemed to be the basis for her assertion(?) that most people would rather waxing didn’t happen. I asked if it was possible that her straight male friends were telling her what she wanted to hear, given her well-known stance on the subject, but didn’t really get an answer. She’s smart and she’s savvy, but if I wanted a better idea of what most people thought about unshaven ladies I’d start by polling more than the artists of New York’s east village.
Here’s the thing: people are interested in people. Any writer who, when confronted with someone’s behaviour, responds with “I can’t believe they did that” does themselves a disservice. Clearly they did do that. So start with that certainty and work backwards. Locate the things that lead you back to that person’s source. And once you’re there look from the inside out.
This is harder to do in real life than when you’re attempting to write fiction. When you write fiction you’re never wrong when it comes to the decisions of your own characters unless you contradict yourself – and then only if you’re too lazy to address the contradiction and thereby use it to illuminate character truth and/or turn it into character growth.
And here’s something else about contradiction: it’s almost always the awkward meeting of two disparate ideas that cracks a story open. Here’s what I mean:
A homeless woman finds a winning lottery ticket worth a million bucks, and immediately tries to kill herself.
Extreme poverty + sudden wealth = joy. It also = boring as far as a story is concerned. But the same equation equalling attempted suicide? I’d bet a lung that most people would be asking ‘why?’ before they knew they were doing so. And once a reader is questioning, they’re like a theatre audience leaning forward. They’re paying attention. They’re coming to you now, not vice-versa. They’re open, and what’s more you’ve initiated a kind of capitalism: you have offered to provide intrigue in exchange for their attention. You can now do your job.
As a result of working like this I found myself becoming more empathic overnight. Rather than being incredulous at some person’s action or attitude, I accepted the reality of it and worked backwards from there, through their worldview, their experiences, quite literally imagining the world from their viewpoint, to better understand why they took that action or had that attitude. No one thinks they’re the bad guy.
It used to be that if a person wanted to become a better writer they’d transcribe the works of their favourite authors longhand. Doing so went a long way to better understanding that author’s choices, technique and style. In the same way I find just repeating a few things a person has said can sometimes go a long way to understanding the configuration of their mental machinery. This all feeds back into an education about human beings and, I hope, makes me a better writer. Either that or I should be hunting serial killers.
What’s also interesting is this: most of us aren’t great at making that sort of leap. Typically it seems, to me at least, that almost no effort is made to understand another human’s point-of-view especially if they’re from a world completely different to our own. But do your job right in this respect and a few of us will.
It’s been a big week. I’m hoping that in a few weeks I’ll have something to report.
Getting back to people being interested in people, I caught Marc Maron’s set at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival last week. I’ve been listening to Maron’s WTF podcast for over a year and it’s one of the best. He’s been a stand-up comedian for thirty years Stateside and as such knows pretty much everyone on that scene. The idea behind WTF is that someone comes over to his house, sit in the recording studio in his garage for an hour or so, and they talk. The unimposing nature of being in a friend’s garage disarms a lot of the interviewees and Maron winds up getting the kind of honesty you’d be hard put to find elsewhere – due in no small part to Maron being so relentlessly honest about himself. Guests have included Robin Williams, Conan O’Brien, Bobcat Goldthwait, Carlos Mencia, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Hader, Greg Fleet, Joe Rogan, Dave Foley and over a hundred others… about 170 eps. Somehow I managed to miss him in both Brooklyn and London, so I was glad to finally see him here. While he makes the show very much about himself he gets that out of the way before the guest shows up, and puts most of that aside when it comes to the interview. I think that’s probably why the podcast is now the second most popular after This American Life. Maron manages to make WTF almost too much information, but in a way that pulls you in rather than leaving you backing for the door.
Renamed the ghost story from ‘The Girl Upstairs’ to ‘Seen, Not Heard’. Still not grabby enough. Considering relocating it from western suburbia to Tokyo, just so I can call it ‘Fatal Dark Place Gōsuto XII’ and be done with it. The second and hopefully final version’s now with Penguin.
Skynet was meant to go live 19th April 2011.
Tom Baker wrote up a remembrance of Elizabeth Sladen, aka Sarah Jane Smith.
Video: Sisters of Mercy, ‘Vision Thing’
Given the goth club mention above I couldn’t not post this. Some deride The Sisters of Mercy as having too much of a pop sensibility for goth, but they remain a cornerstone band for the subculture. Vision Thing is their most accessible album, probably, but I dig it. It’s fantastic driving music, and brilliant to dance to.