Monday, September 29, 2008
An interesting question from Amaryllis:
Your first book had werewolves in it; I understand that the second is about fishy-people. Is there a theme developing here? Are you fond of talking-animal books, in general, Wind In the Willows/Watership Down/Redwall kinds of stories? And I know werewolves and mermaids aren't animals; they're kinds of people (well, they would be if they actually existed, but you know what I mean). But do you find those animal-like beings useful for exploring what it actually means to be human, and to exist as physical beings in the physical world, but with that brain that keeps inventing non-physical realities? Do you understand what I'm awkwardly asking here?
That's a good one.
For someone who has written quite a bit about animalistic people, talking-animal books are a surprisingly small part of my reading. I read Watership Down as an adult well after I finished Bareback; the Redwall books I'm vaguely aware of, but never read. I'm actually not sure if I've read Wind in the Willows; it's one of those stories you pick up by osmosis - but I remember feeling rather unconvinced by a particular feature in my childhood: the animals wore clothes, drove cars and lived in houses. That is to say, they were basically people.
That's something I never liked. I was fond of stuffed animals as a child, but would reject any that wore frilly little pinnies or hats; I was very clear that animals were animals, didn't wear clothes and didn't act like people. That's what was interesting about them. Too much anthropomorphosis, and my interest switched off at once. The same thing applies to overly human animal stories. The Redwall stories, for example, I've had just one experience with: while temping at Penguin, I picked one off the 'these books will be pulped if no one wants them, so everyone can help themselves to one or two per day' shelf. I gathered it involved swordfighting squirrels, and immediately put it back. The combination of human lifestyle and animal protagonists just threw a switch in my head, and I couldn't be having with it.
Dick King-Smith's books, on the other hand, I liked a great deal in my childhood. His animals talk and interact, but, while they have definitely human personalities, they tend to remain animals: his pigs can't communicate with his farmers, their understanding is limited by their environment and experience. In retrospect, the gulf between animal and human understanding mirrored the gulf between child and adult understanding: being surrounded by tall humans who had power over you and seemed preoccupied with bewildering things was certainly one I could identify with.
The stories that really got into my imagination, though, were the most animalistic. I remember a series of TV shows, whose name I've forgotten, in which real wildlife footage was synced to actors' voices, the actors telling a story of realistic interactions between the animals - hunting, trying to persuade each other to mate, evading humans, and so on - and that interested me a great deal more. Similarly, I have vivid memories of sitting mesmerised in front of David Attenborough's Trials of Life series, a passion for nature documentaries that's with me still. It was animals out in the wild that interested me, animals in their natural state. If an artist could convey that, it captured my attention - again I've forgotten the name, but I remember being very wrapped up in a story about the life of an escaped mink that was all about hunting rabbits and the dangers of liver flukes; I lived in that book for weeks. Animals seemed to me raw and vital, full of experience and utterly uncosy. I had a pet cat which I adored, so I wasn't averse to domestic animals in practice, but I spent time in the country, I pored over Usborne nature books, and my imagination was taken up with foxes and deer and otters. My inner landscape was a thriving English woodland, and it mattered a great deal to me. I was an obedient child, on the whole; in my love of animals was my wild side.
That was in childhood, the era when talking-animal books are in their greatest proliferation. As an adult, such books are not a particular feature. I read Watership Down out of interest, and thought it was well done: his image of rabbit culture is grounded in how rabbits actually live, which produces a bright and rich effect. But when it comes to my own writing influences, I turn to fact rather than fancy.
I read a great deal of werewolf stories when writing Bareback, not so much in search of influences but to make sure I wasn't doing something that had been done before; my strongest interest was in real human history, the stories of people who'd actually been convicted of 'werewolf' crimes in the Renaissance; I was, for an amateur, pretty well up on that lesser-known branch of the witch hunt for a while. When it came to the second book, the stories that really caught my attention were those of feral children. Michael Newton's excellent Savage Boys and Wild Girls was a book I read over and over; I returned to my old love of nature documentaries and wrapped myself up in accounts of dolphins and whales, the interaction of real sea mammals and the the endless life-or-death turmoil of the sea. I read with utter fascination Temple Grandin's extraordinary Animals In Translation, a book I'd recommend to anyone in the world, about animals' emotional experience from the viewpoint of Grandin, a high-functioning autistic woman who considers her own mind to be more similar to an animal's than most people's. The common element was that these were accounts that gave some glimpses, however faint, into a wild experience.
My third book doesn't involve animals at all - it's a few-decades-in-the-future thriller involving medical ethics - so I'm not going to spend my entire life writing nothing but animal stories, but I might return to theme, as it's one I've loved all my life. What I can say is this: stories that show animals as people strike only a faint chord with me; what I'm interested in writing is stories that show people as animals. Because we are.
Thinking about such stories, they're part of a wider principle I have. Some non-naturalistic stories are about escape from this world into another, the secret tunnel that leads to a more interesting place. Such stories never held my attention as much as stories that conveyed real experiences, real life, human or otherwise. I never wanted fiction to help escape from the world; I wanted to immerse myself in it more richly. Animal experience was part of that: animals are creatures of this world. They create it and they move through it, they're beings of perception and interaction. When I write animalistic characters, it engages my imagination - but the interesting thing, now I think about it, is that, as I picture them, such characters tend to be themselves unimaginative. They're too caught up in witnessing this world to invent others. That, from an imaginative perspective, is one of the most fascinating states I can think of. An unimaginative mind is completely absorbed in the world I've imagined, and from there, everything looks different.
Monday, September 22, 2008
Depression and children's fiction
[Prefaced note added some time after the original post:
A commenter has complained that mentioning the literary author Antonia White in a post entitled 'Depression and children's fiction' stands to reinforce a reputation she suffers from as a writer of 'inconsequential children's school stories'. I was not aware that this reputation attached to White, as I have only ever heard her discussed as a serious literary figure. However, for the sake of clarity, let me make clear that this article is primarily a discussion of fictional depictions of depression that discusses two works for children, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling and the Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and two major literary authors, Charles Dickens and Antonia White. While I personally do not consider children's literature to be any more 'inconsequential' than adult, in the interests of avoiding any confusion I hereby state that I in no way wish to imply that Antonia White's books are best suited to or intended for a juvenile audience, and that I consider her a sophisticated and profound literary talent among writers for adults whose work deserves to be widely honoured.]
(I'll be answering more of the questions asked earlier in later posts, but this one seemed to follow naturally on from the discussion about epics a couple of posts below.)
There's an interesting tendency I've noticed: graphic and well-observed portraits of depression are surprisingly common in children's epic fiction. When they are, they can be even more prominent than in adult mainstream.
What's up with this? While only somebody who never reads children's fiction would assume that it only deals with fluffy bunnies and happy fairies, mental illness is a complicated subject, one you'd think would be naturally suited to adult fiction. And yet, when I think of good portraits of depression, the funny thing is, I can think of three big examples: Antonia White's Frost in May series, particularly The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass; the TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. As they would say on Sesame Street, two of these things belong together - but a set of literary classics next to a couple of epics for children packed with Good Versus Evil struggles and things going boom? It's an odd juxtaposition. It is, though, one I think can be explained by a simple factor: all of them involve the concept of evil in some form, and without it, it's hard to talk about depression.
To begin with, I should explain why I'm including all of them as examinations of depression. To start with the Harry Potter series: J.K. Rowling, as most people are aware, courageously outed herself as a depression sufferer, and there are clear marks of it on her books. (I won't bother to synopsise the plots, because even people who haven't read them know more or less what they're about. If you're reading them, or anything else I mention, be aware I will be spoilering left and right.) The most obvious depressive element is her representation of 'Dementors', frightening shrouded monsters that glide around spreading horror in their wake. In the presence of one, you flash back to all the most painful experiences of your life and become convinced you'll never be happy again; in the worst circumstances, it'll suck out your soul and leave you hollow for the rest of your life. That's a pretty good description of depression.
There's also, though, a broader sense in which the disease is represented. Harry, our hero, is confronted with the villainous Voldemort as a baby: in attempting to destroy him, Voldemort marks Harry - and in marking him, somehow entangles their souls. For the course of the story, Harry is stuck with something absolutely evil inside him, a force that yanks his emotions around at unpredictable moments, causes him agonising pain and leads to extreme and erratic behaviour that has all his friends worried and him defensive. The final conclusion is a pretty traditional one - the hero and villain must fight to the death - but it's interesting that in this case, the hero has to kill the villain, not just to stop him, but because there's a piece of the villain inside himself that he has to rip out for everyone's sake.
Voldemort himself is the least realistic character in the series, to the point where his villain shtick sometimes contrasts oddly with Rowling's more naturalistic portraits of human badness as expressed in sadism, pettiness, denial and spite rather than capital-E Evil. Yet it's significant that, from what Rowling depicts of his motivations, his main desire is not for pleasure or even primarily for power: it's to avoid death. His desire to remain alive, no matter what the cost and no matter who he destroys along the way, is the primary force. If you've ever seen a recovering depressive panicking at the opportunity to do something positive, there'll be something familiar in that.
Depression can act almost like a parasite personality, setting up a voice in the sufferer's head that, ever so convincingly, talks them into taking the worse course of action, acting the worse way to those around them, forming the worse view of themselves, and gradually getting them to sever all their ties to life until suicide looks like the only sensible option. When a sufferer faces the chance to do something that'll help them improve, sometimes their first response is fear: not the healthy fear of a self-preserving organism, but the depression itself screaming, because if the better course is taken, the depression will take a body-blow. Like a real creature, depression fights for its life, which means fighting to keep the sufferer down. It's you or the depression, and your interests are directly opposed; depression will talk a sufferer into anything that'll keep its hold strong.
In the light of this, a villain who occupies the hero's soul and whose only concern is to stay alive no matter what he damages in the process starts to seem less like a character and more like a personification. Voldemort as a child is shown as grandiose and resentful - two traits that depression breeds in abundance - but it's his resolute will to live even if the world has to burn to keep him going that stands out the most, and that's the will of a disease more than a person.
In short, there's an interestingly depressive note to the structure of the Harry Potter narrative: a relentlessly negative force that consumes all in its drive to preserve itself becomes part of the hero that has to be purged if he's going to survive. In metaphorical terms, Harry's depressed. And while depressives themselves tend not to conquer or save entire nations, depression does ruin entire lives. The concept that the negative force has to be stopped or everything will be laid waste is in some ways a pathetic fallacy: by turning it into the fate of the world, Rowling manages to convey the urgency and danger of the disease. To a sufferer, it really can be that important to get a cure.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is another interesting example, which I'll summarise as it's less well known. Set in an imaginary world divided into four nations - Earth, Air, Fire and Water - the series rests on the premise that some people can 'bend' their natural element, with spectacular results. Only one person, the Avatar, can bend all four: this Avatar is reincarnated into each of the four nations in turn, and is destined to keep the balance between them. Unfortunately, a hundred years before the story begins, the Fire Nation declares a war of conquest against everyone else just as the Avatar - an amiable twelve-year-old airbender named Aang - disappears. The story begins as Aang is discovered frozen in a glacier and revived by a waterbender named Katara and her brother Sokka; the three of them team up and start roaming the world, trying to get Aang to find teachers for the other three elements so that he can confront the Fire Lord - a notably nasty man named Ozai - and stop the war.
In this story, depression is not a personified character; our heroes all show robust emotional health, and the villains are reasonably naturalistic people for a children's epic. But what's interesting is the handling of evil. The Fire Lord dynasty, while unquestionably in the wrong, are not presented as all-purpose bad guys, but instead as a messed-up family with a history of emotional damage that's spread down several generations, worsening as it goes. And watching them, there's something eerily familiar.
The Fire Nation character who spends most time on screen is Lord Ozai's conflicted son, Zuko, whom Ozai has banished from his homelands at the age of thirteen and told not to come back unless he has the Avatar captive. This banishment is unreasonable - Zuko speaks out of turn in a war meeting to protest a general's plan to sacrifice soldiers; offended at the breach of etiquette, Ozai demands he fight a fire duel; Zuko agrees, thinking he'll be fighting the general, but finds himself confronted with his father, who ignores his pleas for reconciliation, blasts his face with flame leaving a massive scar, and then banishes him for being too cowardly to fight. Not unnaturally, Zuko is a rather disturbed young man, obsessed with finding the Avatar and regaining his honour - or, more accurately, regaining his father's approval, a fruitless endeavour as his father has clearly never much cared for him and prefers his aggressive, talented sister Azula. Eventually Zuko comes to his senses, tells his father where to stick it and joins the Avatar, but there's a lot of unstable behaviour along the way.
And if you watch him and his family, and if you've seen a depressive panic, there's something very familiar about it. Zuko's odd mixture of fragility and relentlessness; his rigid body language that alternates with fits of near-hysterical lashing out; his unfocused, inturned glare; the tension that contorts his face into a classic depressive scowl; his irritability; his fixated insistence that his life will be without worth or meaning until a specific thing happens, and that thing an unlikely event that's outside his control; his bitter conviction that others are irrelevant at best and hostile at worst; his determined refusal to find any enjoyment in ordinary things ... All of this rings a bell. His appearance changes considerably as his mood lifts, and that's familiar as well; Antonia White's husband, for instance, remarked:
Nothing is more startling than the rapidity of her physical changes ... I've know her undergo changes which could, I am certain be verified with a tape-measure and scales ... I have seen ... her whole face sweet, contented witty. I have seen her in a few hours collapse & put on twenty years, her features stiffen and set, her skin crinkle & age, the flesh of her face sag into a heavy Neronian scowl. She could be a daughter of the morning or an 18th century debauched marquis all in the same day.
- and that sense of change, the difference a glower or a smile can make, is something the animators capture well. (I'll return to White later.) The sense of Zuko as a basically nice person trapped inside a permanent black mood that pains him deeply, yet which he somehow clings to, is well-drawn and convincing.
Similarly, this emotional damage is tied firmly to childhood trauma, in Zuko's case his father's rejection and the earlier disappearance of his mother; portrayed as an earnest, anxious and impulsive child, his mother's mysterious exit leaves him isolated and desperate to please his remaining parent. But depression runs in families in real life, and so it does in Avatar. Zuko's sister Azula, favourite of their brutal father, carries similar damage, although it's better concealed: the implication is that, having witnessed their father's dislike of her brother from an early age, Azula draws the conclusion that there are sides here and she'd better be on the winning one, and consequently bullies Zuko from childhood as if to separate herself from him, and with him the chance of being victimised - as well as domineering relentlessly over her few friends, regarding all others with an intense, wary watchfulness, using threats as her main means of communication and generally remaining permanently braced against any possibility of imperfection. In an unguarded moment, she remarks that controlling others by fear is the only thing that works; eventually she degenerates into paranoid insanity. Along the way, her bipolar swings from wild grandiosity to furious meanness chart a dangerous course through her life. (If you don't mind spoilers, you can watch her fighting her much-recovered brother here: Azula's facial expressions are a good example of the 'depressive scowl' I was talking about earlier with Zuko. Sorry I can't find one to back him up; YouTube is full of mash-ups with pop tunes and I got tired wading through them. You can watch full episodes here; 'The Storm' will give you the childhood flashbacks, but it's worth watching properly, as, despite all this talk of depression, it's actually a lot of fun and very entertaining. But if you're going to watch it all, try to buy the DVDs as well, because copyright infringement leaves people like me poor and sad. We get no money for our work, so we have to eat our shoes, and shoes taste bad.) [Later: found an still image here that's a pretty good example.]
Both children, in short, are shown less as power-hungry than as obliquely terrified of powerlessness. Lost in a world where there's a grim dichotomy - either you can control others, or they have power over you and will use it to hurt you - each finds it tremendously difficult to have ordinary social interactions or experience any pleasure beyond the brief exhilaration of triumph. (Self-medicating with adrenaline, perhaps.) This tendency to place one's self-worth in the attainment of impossible goals rather than in a fundamental sense of being all right as you are, the horror of failure and the classing of failure as anything short of perfection is all profoundly depressive. 'Perfection or nothing' is a depressive credo, and the creators of Avatar convey it well.
Again realistically, the narrative depicts the damage as something that goes back several generations. Ozai's father is portrayed in his single scene as impatient, rigidly punitive and harsh; Ozai himself is the second son of this unpleasable father who's clear that first sons come first - which may partly explain his lack of sympathy for his own first son - and shows a fierce rejection of imperfection in others, a preoccupation with failure, a violent overreaction to small slights, and a grandiose hunger to control and impress, which again all have a depressive ring; a desire to be impossibly perfect, to outdo those you cannot please, destroying the ability to relate to people. His cruelty to his son can most sympathetically be read as an inability to deal with his own embarrassment, first at the boy's blurting out his concerns and then at his apparent fear in a public duel where he's supposed to display courage, except by a desperate, vengeful overcompensation; if your empathy's broken, it's harder to see your children as people who need care, and regarding them as trophies to be displayed or smashed depending on how much credit they seem to do you, according to your own unachievable standards, becomes easier. Other people probably aren't judging you as worthless and disgraced just because your kids occasionally act on impulse or look scared (especially if what they're actually scared of is losing your love rather than getting injured, which would seem to be the case in this instance to anyone whose empathy is working) - but if you judge yourself without mercy, you expect others to as well, and that can lead to a panic that you end up taking out on those close to you. It's difficult to be a good parent if you're suffering from depression, and many sufferers pass the disease along; there's a genetic predisposition towards it, and if you're vulnerable to depression it can be brought out by stress - and as having a depressed parent is unquestionably stressful, the damage perpetuates. The inner depressive is a small, frightened child, no matter how old you are, and it's difficult for one small, frightened child to be a forbearing and sympathetic parent.
The overriding sense is that people need to experience love and security if they're going to be all right: Zuko is redeemable largely because he's experienced the love of his mother and, latterly, his kindly uncle who follows him into exile and endures his mood swings with a deep paternal patience (while also trying to make Zuko do something that CBT recommends, which is seek out opportunities for enjoyment. Much of the affable Uncle Iroh's conversation is suggesting stuff that might kick some pleasure circuits into life: eat something, drink something, come for a walk, listen to some music, take a girl on a date. It all has limited short-term impact, because 'cheering up' a depression sufferer who isn't working with you and actively trying to grapple down their black mood is all but impossible - mood management has to come from within - but it's also clearly a lifeline, and while Zuko frequently snaps at his uncle, he also desperately needs him and is heartbroken at any threat of losing him.) Our other heroes, Katara and Sokka, are shown as having a mother who sacrificed herself to save them and a father who handles them with sympathy and support, while Aang's mentor/foster father is presented as an affectionate, playful man who tries hard to protect Aang's right to have a normal, happy childhood. The struggle is ostensibly between good and evil, but the Fire Nation is not shown as inherently bad - there are a lot of nice people in it and a lot of good things about its culture. Instead, the conflict is between emotional health and emotional damage.
In this case, depression is not a personification, but instead a force that distorts the souls of characters and disconnects them from others until they become harmful. Significantly, there's a moment where Zuko succumbs to a mysterious spiritual fever that purges him, and while he relapses and makes further mistakes later, he rises from his sickbed with a relaxation in body language and tone that bears a good resemblance to a sufferer who's feeling much better now the Prozac's kicked in.
Two different children's epics, both presenting depression as a force for evil. Where does Antonia White come in?
For those unfamiliar with her works, Antonia White was a mid-twentieth century novelist who wrote four novels closely based on her own life. (And who might well be offended at the comparisons I'm making, given that she was a very literary author; I can only apologise to her ghost and say that I'm not placing her in the same genre but looking at portraits of the same real phenomenon in a variety of fictions, because looking at something from different angles improves our understanding of it. Given that she's one of my favourite writers, I hope she'll forgive me.) The first and most famous, Frost In May, details experiences in the rarefied and oppressive atmosphere of an aristocratic convent school; the latter three, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass, follow the character's life into her mid-twenties. Antonia White's life was ravaged by bipolar depression; in her early twenties, following a failed marriage to an alcoholic, impotent young man she married for reasons she found hard to explain to herself, she suffered an onset of mania leading to complete collapse so severe that she was hospitalised, hallucinating and raving. The Sugar House follows the disastrous marriage, Beyond the Glass the mania and hospitalisation, and it's those that are particularly worth considering. Rather than synopsise and analyse, I'm mostly going to let her prose speak for itself, as it's really outstanding.
Though I haven't seen this suggested in her biography, based on her depictions of her first husband, Archie Hughes-Follett (the real young man's name was Reggie Green-Wilkinson), I'm fairly convinced that he, too, suffered from depression. The first encounter with him in The Sugar House describes his mood as 'aggressive bitterness ... his face was set in lines of angry discontent' - which is one of the most precise descriptions of a depressive downswing I've ever read. Their conversation has an air of entrapping gloom that's too long to reproduce, but I'll reproduce some of it here as it's worth preserving:
'Go on, say it,' he muttered. 'You think I'm a pretty poor specimen, don't you? Well, you're probably right.'
The pattern is precisely drawn: Archie's tireless knocking down of positive suggestions, his insistent projection of greater power and talent on to someone he admires, his implicit demands for comfort combined with a rejection of any Clara offers; all are a sharp and pitiful portrait of a man in the process of emotional collapse, trying to medicate himself with alcohol and only sinking further. Archie's laments in this scene are a sharp example of the depressive problem: he does have things to be upset about, but none of them are quite fatal enough to justify, in rational terms, this committed despair. His mother has died; his beloved Clara broke off their engagement four years previously; he's living on a reduced income (though enough to live on, just not extravagantly) until his inheritance comes through in two years' time, and he's under pressure to get a job, which he doesn't want to do. All are reasons to be sad or frustrated, but a more robust psyche can deal with such distresses without finding alcohol 'the only thing that makes me feel human'. Sick as he is, Archie is instead overwhelmed by them: once his mood sinks, each grief reminds him of a new one and locks him in a depressive circle, where he turns from woe to woe, feeling that because no one solution will solve all of them, everything is hopeless.
Similarly the portrait of Clara's degeneration is bleak and detailed. As she and Archie grow progressively more mired in debt and unable to look after themselves, the symptoms are starkly recorded: a 'fuddled and inert' inability to concentrate, an avoidance of social contact -
She did not know what obscure impulse drove her to isolate herself in this way but, once she had formed the habit, she could not break it. The more she was alone, the more she became conscious of her own emptiness. Sometimes she even doubted whether she existed at all.
- her sense of herself as 'sour soil where nothing will grow', her 'paralysed lethargy', of 'being utterly cut off from life, gasping inside a bell-jar', and her crippling tension:
Each anxiety was like an actual weight on her diaphragm pinning her down on the rumpled bed: the bills, Archie's drinking, her own impotence to write, the impossibility of going either backwards or forwards in any direction. But more crushing than any of these was an overall sense of guilt, not localised, as if all these were a punishment for some mysterious sin she did not remember having committed. [Emphasis mine]
I'll return to the emphasis later, but I'll add a final quote first, this one from Beyond the Glass (the others are from The Sugar House). In this, Clara has been rereading her diary, having lapsed into a state of emotional numbness:
She was astonished, as well as disgusted, to find how violent her feelings had been. Could she really have felt such passions of absurd misery, bitterness, frustration and even more absurd hope? The creature ... she could hardly bear to think of it as 'Clara' ... who had written some of those pages had had a short memory too. Over and over again, some state of mind was described in almost identical words as if it were being experienced for the first time. On her second reading she could discern a rhythm in these recurring entries. It was like watching someone hurling themselves repeatedly against a wall until they fell back, exhausted and battered. The creature kept rising up again, full of absurd hope and good resolutions, only to go through the hurling and battering all over again, sometimes in a passage written at one stretch.
That's one of the best descriptions of the recurring swings of a deep depression I've ever encountered, and one I suspect will be familiar to many sufferers.
So, why am I connecting Antonia White with two children's stories? Well, aside from the fact that good art is good art whatever the genre and that it's important to share understanding of this disease wherever it's found, there's something artistically interesting too. I emphasised Clara's sense of having committed some mysterious 'sin' - and I think this 'sin' is one of the elements that gives Antonia White a vocabulary to talk about depression. Raised Catholic, her conscience suffered severe damage at an early age through over-zealous nuns; the concept of being somehow evil and tainted - the cornerstone of depression - was given a framework in which to wreak havoc.
Children's literature can be good for exploring depression in metaphorical terms for a simple reason: struggles of good and evil are commoner in children's than adult's fiction. But the fact is, it's hard to talk about depression without talking about evil. It's not just because the disease's effect on people is so utterly, brutally malign -though it is; if there's a Devil, depression must be one of his greatest inventions. It's also because the language of evil, guilt and cataclysm is the language that depression forces sufferers to use to themselves. The official list of symptoms is accurate as far as it goes, but language like 'low self-esteem' in no way conveys the raging drive of the disease, the sense of being corrupt, tainted, poisoned at the root. Depression inflicts on the sufferer a sense of being a bad person - and in a lot of cases, a sense that other people bad are too. I recently viewed an episode of The Wire with a friend who was recovering from a bad bout, and they said something interesting: it was an episode they'd watched when they were sick, and they'd inferred between the characters a degree of friction, tension and hostility that, now they were feeling better, they realised simply wasn't there. That sense of badness had washed over everything; it was an essential part of their interaction with the world.
Depression, in short, casts the sufferer into a moral maelstrom where it's difficult to express the scale of it without using the langage of good and evil.
But with sophisticated adult literature, here's the problem. Good and evil are difficult concepts, especially if your mental health is sound. Get too free with the concept of evil, and you're at risk of projecting it onto other people, and that's a dangerous game. You start labeling people, and from there it's a short step to not caring what happens to them: you risk becoming someone who stands by while scapegoats get hurt. Being too comfortable with the word 'evil' can damage your own morality. It's a problem in fiction, too: if you want to portray vivid characters, Just Plain Bad is not a good start. In real life, people are a moral mixture, and moral stereotyping leads to crude fiction. You wind up with a pantomime villain, which is something to avoid.
Now, that's all fine and appropriate when you're depicting normal mental states. But mental illnesses bring in a scale and crisis that's difficult to depict in a way that's both accurate and low-key. Someone who hadn't encountered it would be liable to think you were exaggerating.
This is one reason why children's fiction allows such room for manoeuvre: it's already exaggerated. You can, to coin a truly vile word, metaphorise the issue. There isn't exactly an evil force that possesses you and has to be cast out and fought down to preserve everything you hold dear, but in metaphorical terms, that's a pretty good summation. People don't usually set fire to your head and then banish you for years, but a sufferer feels subtler injuries just as keenly as if they did. Children's fiction is large-scale, and makes room for large emotions - and depression is enormous.
With adults, it's a different matter. It's notable that many of the famous depictions of depression (or at least those I can think of) are not novelistic. William Styron's Darkness Visible is a memoir. Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode' is a poem. Depressive characters can crop up - Sydney Carton in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities is one example, but it's notable that Dickens, too, had a flair for the exaggerated in his work. Dickens doesn't use the word, and may not even have been familiar with the concept, psychiatry not being then what it is now - but Carton's inability to make good use of his talents or sustain an effort, his self-hatred, his self-dosing with alcohol, his conviction that there's something inexplicable but insurmountable wrong with him, his belief that his self-hatred is merely realistic ('I have proved myself, and I know better', is his bleak response to encouragement) and his corollary conviction that any hope for him is nothing more substantial 'unformed ideas', delusions, 'A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing and leaves the sleeper where he lay down', are all distinctive. It's a typical feature of the disease that the harsher a judgement a sufferer forms about himself, the more he feels that it's honest. Without emotions to spur us, it's almost impossible to act, because belief is an emotion and it's hard to believe in something you we can't feel. Thus, with the inability to feel anything but pain, a good idea thus feels insubstantial and false because there are no positive feelings present to give it the emotional heft of reality, whereas self-hatred and despair are thoroughly backed up with emotional 'evidence'. A depressive saying to himself 'I'm a bad person and won't accomplish anything' feels despair, which is the appropriate emotion to go with such a statement. If he says, 'I'm a good person and my life will be all right', he feels, at best, nothing, and at worst, despair, which would be the appropriate emotion if the statement were false. This is actually because the emotional circuits that produce hope and confidence, the emotions you'd normally feel if you were truthfully saying 'I'm a good person and my life will be all right', are broken; the inability to feel anything but despair doesn't actually prove anything about you except that you're feeling despairing. But the brain is a rationalising organ, and protects itself from the knowledge of its dysfunction very thoroughly; I've listened to schizophrenics give massively complicated explanations of why everybody's out to get them, and some people are even saying they're mad, which is just part of the conspiracy, of course ... If your limb breaks, your brain knows about it, but if your brain goes wrong, it goes into denial: we're wired to make sense of a welter of information, and we usually get it in the right order - but if we get it in the wrong order, we won't notice, because our brain is still giving the 'I've arranged an explanation, yes, that makes sense, doesn't it?' signal. The ability to believe in one's own conclusions doesn't necessarily go offline just because the ability to draw accurate conclusions has: you wind up with someone utterly convinced of something false, because their conviction circuits are working better than their judgement circuits. This effect is particularly vicious when it's a self-fulfilling prophecy: a depression sufferer who believes they can't accomplish anything because their confidence is withered will not try to achieve anything, or be unable to tell a good plan from a bad one because they're equally unconfident about them all, and consequently achievement is less likely, bolstering up the sense of failure. Dickens doesn't go into this degree of analysis, of course, because he's a novelist trying to portray the effects of character rather than the causes, but Carton's deeply convinced sense that it's simply kidding himself to think he might do something worthwhile is a fine portrait of one of depression's many painful symptoms.
Thus poor Carton, unable to keep hold of any pleasant sense of anticipation, finds his good intentions slipping through his fingers. Compare this description of his inner life:
When he got out of the house, the air was cold and sad, the dull sky overcast, the river dark and dim, the whole scene like a lifeless desert. And wreaths of dust were spinning round and round before the morning blast, as if the desert-sand had risen far away, and the first spray of it in its advance had begun to overwhelm the city.
... to Antonia White's description above of the rhythm of hope and exhaustion - or the sense of externalised hopelessness, seeing his internal desert in the city surrounding him, with my friend's comment that they saw, inaccurately, their own tension and conflict mirrored in the characters before them. Even Carton's 'far, far better' suicide is depressive: I can never make a good life; I wish I could just make a good death; it would be better for everyone is the beginning of the end. Interestingly, as I ran this article past my fiance, who's better-informed than me in many areas, he pointed out that A Tale of Two Cities is one of J.K. Rowling's favourite books, and may have been an influence for Harry Potter's semi-suicide. Harry effectively dies, and gets the death out of his system. (Zuko's 'metamorphosis' illness can perhaps be seen as a less extreme example of this: a form of death that leads to rebirth.) When depression's around, it seems, something has to die: hopefully it will be the disease, but it can be hard to separate the disease from the sufferer. Rowling's books in particular are surprisingly preoccupied with death for a children's series - which makes perfect sense if we consider them an image of depression: the natural progression of the disease is to choose one's own death, although it can take a long time to get there and look very different in its early stages.
To return from this digression: Antonia White struggled with horrific writer's block all her life, and found it impossible to write a full-length novel that wasn't at least semi-autobiographical; she considered this 'hug[ging] the shore' and felt it a failure in herself - there's that depressive perfectionism and self-blame again - but the effect is outstanding: a detailed and intimate study of character that spans over a decade and traces the metastasis of the disease with bleak, passionate precision.
And at the beginning of that story is a convent, where good and evil are not just abstract concepts, but part of the fabric of daily life. 'Almost everything's a venial sin', the heroine remarks gloomily, and it's this framework that gives the story, not just a language for depression, but also a scope. An ordinary depression can blow up to massive proportions over small, personal things - I didn't get that job, I wish we hadn't moved house - but Clara's Catholicism ties her perceived failures to an appropriately massive source: the Church. If she can't be a 'good' person, she isn't just failing herself, but centuries of tradition, an international monolith, and God. Catholicism is also a family issue - her faith begins when her adored, intimidating father converts when she's seven and makes his family come along, so failing God is also failing her father, to the extent that the two are almost impossible for her to separate. The domestic, in short, is given a metaphysical grandeur of scale that makes room for the magnitude of depression in the same way that a children's epic does.
Depression is, by its nature, a disease that makes its victims overreact to the world. Unless you give some serious justification for it in fiction, it's hard to portray well or sympathetically; the Wikipedia article on Sydney Carton, for instance, describes him as 'indulged in self-pity because of his wasted life', which is hardly sympathetic. But Carton's depression is mysterious: there's something wrong with him, but he can't say what, and in the absence of an explanation, it seems frustratingly incomprehensible that he'd be drinking away his potential and reject good advice and encouragement. From the outside, depression looks like an easy fix: just drop the moping and do what you need to do. Of course, saying that to someone in the throes is about as useful as telling someone autistic that they just need to be more sensitive to other people's feelings: it looks like won't, but it feels like can't. Depression is an implacable force - or at least, implacable to more or less everything except medical treatment - but the implacability comes from within, and from without, it looks like someone is doing it deliberately unless their illness happens to be tied to something that's easily understood. If it's not, then it baffles anyone who's fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with the effects. You need some way to make the baffling seem plausible, the mad seem believable.
And for that, though it's not the only way of doing it, it's extremely useful to have recourse to metaphysics. It can be done broadly in bright, colourful strokes, or subtly in shades of grey, but it's a fine way to convey a terrible thing. Even Dickens, who keeps religion more in the background that White and whose grandiosity skirts the borders between naturalistic and magic realist fiction, has to resort to moral language to describe it. Victor Hugo writes in Les Miserables, 'The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God - that is love.' Substitute 'Hell' for God: that is depression. It's therefore notable that in all three examples, contrasting though they are, there's something supernatural involved in all of them, be it magic, spiritual illness or religion: in any case, something inexplicable, unchallengeable and overwhelming. What better way to express the sufferings of someone wearing an intangible shock collar?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
An epic Mikalogue
Kit: (Yawn.) Is that the post, Mika dear?
Mika: Oh dear ... oh dear...
Kit: The postman doesn't drop parcels twice, does he?
Kit: Hang on, what's going on?
Mika: Is gonna get in trouble noww...
Kit: It's coming from the kitchen - Oi! You!
The Tub: Gotta get owwt! Give me liberty or give me - ohno ohno is big human -
Kit: You're that neighbourhood cat who keeps breaking in and stealing our Mika's food, aren't you? The one Gareth calls The Tub because you're so much bigger than Mika?
The Tub: Zounds! Open up, cat door!
Kit: You've got a problem, matey. We set the door to entrance-only last night so Mika could let herself in. It won't open unless I unlock it.
The Tub: Ohno ohno human coming down the stairs! Could this be the end for our hero?
Kit: Hero my eye. I've seen you pushing our little Mika around, you big thug.
Mika: Is big bully cat in kitchen! Mika wants out but is big scary cat to pick on her in the way! Is you mad at Mika for lettin trespasser in?
Kit: No, baby. You can't help it, he's bigger than you. Look at you, your poor tail's bristled up like a fox's. Now what are we going to do about you, my fine fellow? Shall I throw some water at you to deter you from coming in here again?
The Tub: Ohno ohno ohno -
Kit's Conscience: (He's just a cat. You can't be cruel to him. I'm sure his owners love him.)
Kit: Okay. Hey Gareth, wake up! Look who's locked himself in!
Gareth: Is he going to pee on stuff?
Kit: Oh, I hope not. Mika, do you think you might assert yourself while he's in your territory, you know, make him less likely to pick on you later?
Mika: Is big, big cat and Mika scared...
Kit: Tub-thumping time?
Mika: Oh dear, Mika's happy place is full of crisis!
Kit: Okay, I guess we'd better let the bugger out. Come on, Tub, I'm going to unlock the - hey!
The Tub: Agh! Human approach! Our hero makes a bold dash and streaks past the terrifying giant!
Mika: Punch you as you go by! ... Not very hard, though. Sigh.
Kit: He's gone up the stairs!
The Tub: In unfamiliar territory, our hero searches for some means to conceal himself from the enemy...
Gareth: You unlock the door and I'll find him.
Kit: Okay, done. Can you see him?
The Tub: Confined in desperate circumstances, our hero waits. Will death pass him by?
Gareth: He might be under the bed. I'll try pulling out the drawers.
Kit: I'll come give you a hand -
The Tub: Ohshit! Must flee!
Gareth: There he goes!
Kit: Right, let's just check he -
Kit: That was the sound of the cat door, right? Yes, there he is in the garden. You! Piss off out of our garden and leave Mika alone!
The Tub: A murrain upon these treacherous doors. Our hero must return cautiously home to get love and reassurance because he really needs a cuddle right now.
Mika: Is he gone? Is he hidin upstairs? Will Mika ever be safe again?
Kit: Let's go back to bed, honey. You come with us and get some love.
Mika: And fites your feet!
Kit: Ow! Sweetie, I know you've got a lot of nervous energy right now...
Mika: Mika is conqueror of curtains and fites your feet! Rules this domain, you hear, cruel world?
Kit: Tonight, I think we'll check the door before going to bed...
A word from our sponsors: Kit's Conscience would like to apologise to the owners of 'The Tub' for giving him such an undignified nickname. He kept pestering Mika to the point where we needed a name for him, and given that he was similar-coloured to her but much sturdier, 'The Tub' just sort of stuck; we were mad at him for hassling her, so it was an uncharitable nickname, but he's probably a nice cat really. I'm sure you call him Aristophanes or Michael or Fluffypet or something more suitable. Now Mika's pretty much full grown, honest comparisons force the admission that he's not that enormous as cats go.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Authors with websites
In answer to my asking if anyone has any blog topic suggestions, an anonymous poster writes:
Also, are you going to change your website to incorporate the new book? Perhaps you could talk about that, about being an author and running your own website and choosing what goes up on it etc. I've been thinking recently about how an author can promote themselves and maximise their exposure, and how websites are pretty much crucial these days, so I'd like to hear your thoughts. It's surprising how many author sites are bad and just plain unhelpful, whereas there are some that are really comprehensive and you can tell that the author actually cares about their relationship with their readers.
Hm, quite a lot of interesting questions there! Let's see.
I am going to change the website to accommodate the new book; I should start thinking about it, but the information's not ready yet. My publishers and I are still discussing what title to settle on, and the cover is in the process of being designed; those two things being foundation stones of any publicity material, I'll have to wait till I have them. There's a bigger time-lag than one might expect between handing a book in and it hitting the shops; the UK version doesn't come out for another five months, and the US version well after that, and in the meantime the publishers have other books on their plate, so you have to work with that.
How much the website changes, though, is going to depend on one of two things: my skills, or my finances. Probably it won't change in appearance too much, as a major re-design would strain either.
In defence of the authors whose sites aren't very helpful, I think it's highly unlikely that the explanation is lack of interest in their readers. There are a number of alternative explanations that reflect less badly on the authors.
Some authors, particularly older ones, may not be big Internet users themselves, so don't realise how major a form of interaction it is for some readers. Those authors may put up a website because it's the thing to do, but it's not necessarily something that will be very interactive, because they don't interact that way themselves. If the site's not user-friendly, it's probably because they aren't users themselves, and don't have the experience to know what's friendly and what's not. Inexperience rather than indifference is the key. In fify years, perhaps, everybody will use the Net all the time, but we're not there yet.
There's also the fact that some authors consider blogging a drain of time and writing energy. They're not entirely wrong; I often blog more when I'm stuck on a plot, because I like to be writing something, and when I'm in a prolific phase I just don't have time to blog very much. Non-blogging authors may feel that their relationship with their readers is best served by spending all their time producing the stuff readers want most, which is more books.
The other main obstacle is this: not everyone knows how to design or re-jig a website themselves. I don't, for one.
To update a website takes a certain amount of computer expertise, and not everyone is good at that stuff. The ability to write fiction is an arts skill, and computers are a technical skill; those skills are not always found in the same people. You can learn, of course - it took me a while to master Blogger, but I've got the hang of it now - but how much your lessons stay in your head may depend on practice. Blogger is something you use regularly, which keeps your hand in, but website re-jigs to accommodate new books only happen every now and again, because it takes a long time to write a book. Even if you knew how to do it when your first book came out, you may well have forgotten by the time the second rolls around. I can recite poetry verbatim, because that's the way my mind's wired, but I don't remember technical stuff unless I do it on a regular basis, and I suspect a lot of authors are the same.
So, if you're not sure how to do it yourself, the alternative is to hire a professional. There are reasons you'd put this off: to begin with, finding one is not something a novelist automatically knows how to do. More importantly, authors don't usually earn very much, and paying somebody to re-jig the website takes a big bite out of your advance. An author whose website is basic or out of date may simply be trying to save money. Possibly they're spoiling the ship for a penn'orth of tar, as my dad would say, but parting with large sums when you're on an uncertain income is never a comfortable experience.
It's actually hard to know how much a website promotes your book. I started this website for that purpose, but in terms of concrete rewards, its main advantages for me are somewhere to express my opinions and a community of posters: working from home, it's the cyber equivalent of a water cooler. But so many variables affect how a book sells - publicity, word of mouth, shop promotions, awards, whether your surname puts you next to a popular author on the shelves, just plain chance - that it would be very hard to get an accurate measurement. I suspect, though I'm just speculating, that how much authors put into their websites is more to do with how Internet-oriented they are than with what publicity they expect to get out of it. Some people love the Net to a positively ideological degree, some people use it like the postal service and not much more, some people just never adjusted to it and some people actively dislike it. Authors, I'd guess, use their own website pretty much in proportion to how much they use any websites; it's a matter of personality and lifestyle rather than strategy.
In terms of choosing what to put on my own website, it's fairly pragmatic. I blog about whatever I think I can make interesting. Generally it's reflections on writing or some kind of cultural commentary, because I spend time thinking about those things and I assume that novel readers do too. A lot of what I say comes from ideas sparked with friends and, particularly, my fiance; I credit people if I'm quoting their ideas directly. Mostly, it comes from chatting to people, hearing myself say something and thinking, 'Hey, there's a blog post in that!' On the whole, my aim is for the blog to be a place where people can have interesting discussions about art in a friendly setting.
I'm actually clearer on what I don't put out. What you say on the Internet stays there pretty much for ever, so it's good to think about whether you'd regret it. There are a few things I'm cautious with.
Personal information is a big one. The Net is the most public place in the world, and if you divulge something private, it's always open to be read by people who do not wish you well. People who happen to swing by my blog are not going to act as the guardians of your privacy, so if there's something you aren't willing to share with everyone, the privacy guard duty is on you. If you read over this blog, you'll see there's actually very little personal information: the name of my fiance, the appearance of my cat, the first names of a few friends and the general location of my house, and that's about it. There are occasional stories about things that happened to me - but most of those are about involvement in public or professional events. My Internet persona discloses about as much as my street persona. It's more about my opinions than my life.
Information about people who aren't me is another biggie. I generally ask permission even before mentioning someone's name on the website: it's freaky to find your friends blogging about you without warning, and I don't see that I have any right to publicise my friends' lives.
Bitching about other artists is one I at least think twice about. I have one basic rule: do not attack living colleagues. I'll express negative opinions within limits, but I generally steer clear of fellow writers. Attacking them is too much like trying to undermine a rival, which just isn't classy: treating other writers as rivals rather than colleagues at all is a counter-productive attitude, and even if they were rivals, it would behove you to be civil about it. You may notice, if you've been reading for a while, that I'm much more comfortable criticising a movie, for instance; I'm not involved in movie-making, so I'm not swiping within my field, I'm just another viewer. Similarly, I'm prepared to lay into dead writers, but living ones, I'm not so comfortable with. That kind of thing can get ugly. I have a semi-exception on the Slacktivist website, where people including me criticise the Left Behind books, but as those books are primarily tracts, the writers aren't so much colleagues as proselytisers who happen to use fiction as a medium, in the same way that a writer for The Watchtower is a Jehovah's Witness before they're a journalist. Picking apart the writing of someone using an art form to further a non-artistic end (in this case a religio-political one) is opposing their end through undermining their means, but I don't criticse equally inept writers whose primary purpose is to write rather than to preach. So, while never expressing a negative opinion would limit the range of things to say too much, I try not to swipe at my fellows, and if I do say something critical I try to back it up rather than just slinging insults. It can be a balancing act, and I'm sure I wobble occasionally, but I try not to be too unpleasant.
I also don't get into discussions of certain works of art that I don't like which have thousands of Internet fans, just because I don't want to be mobbed. A year ago, for instance, I linked to an article about whether epic fantasy was inherently conservative and wrote about my own views on the subject*; in the course of his essay, the blogger I linked happened to criticise the fantasy author George R.R. Martin in one of his examples. It turns out that the Net is full of Martin fans; a lot of people were so antagonised that his thread turned into a discussion of Martin's merits that, rather to my regret, ignored the broader question of how fantasy and authoritarianism or conservativism interplay, and it grew so heated that he ended up shutting it down. (In fairness to the posters, McCalmont had said some rather rude things about Martin fans; some of them were rude back, and it all got out of hand.) There was a lesson there: certain works of art have particularly energetic defenders online, and if you criticise them, you'd better be prepared for that. It's wise to think about who you're addressing, and how much of an argument you feel like getting into.
That was a lot of 'don'ts', which is hardly positive, so I'll move onto something more cheerful, which is courtesy, and the niceness of my posters. I work on the assumption that blog posters generally follow the tone set by the blogger. A blogger who's aggressive will attract aggressive posts, a blogger who's polite, not so many. As I don't enjoy aggression, I try to keep my tone reasonably civil when criticising, and I'm happy to say that the vast majority of posters have responded in kind. I've only very rarely had someone come on and be rude to me, and asking them to stop has generally worked. I very much appreciate how nice everyone on this blog is; just last month I put out a request for comments on the premise of my latest book, and it was remarkable how generously people gave of their time to help me out.
So yeah, that's basically my blogging principles: try to be reasonably nice, appreciate the company of others, if you're going to say something disagreeable at least think about it and try to analyse rather than just blast, and hope for the best.
I'm working on answers to the other interesting questions; anyone who has further ones, just ask anytime. More Mikalogues will appear shortly too - I just need to find the camera with the relevant pictures. Mika says she is carryin me an my blog and I should appreciate her more.
* On a tangent in case anybody goes back and rereads the essay, I've sort of changed my mind on that score. Somebody recently introduced me to the kids' TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is as epic as you please while containing genuine moral content and a very low-authoritarian attitude, so that's another counter-example that suggests my theory might apply in some cases but is not an across-the-board universal. Highly recommended show as well; it's really loads of fun, visually spectacular, admirably well written and surprisingly touching.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
I've just handed in the copy edited draft...
... of my second novel. To my UK publishers, at any rate; there will be another round of copy editing in the States, as the publication dates are different. (It'll be March 2009 in the UK, some time in autumn 2009 in the US.)
Copy editing is hard work. I've copy edited other people's books, and it demands tremendous powers of concentration: you have to be able to spot when somebody is contradicting themselves, which means holding a lot of information in your head about who had blue eyes on page 24 and has green ones on page 427, and who had never seen a live dingo before on page 398 but is shown with a dingo best friend on page 90... Copy editing is a feat of focus and intelligence that I have a great deal of admiration for.
Checking over your own copy edited manuscript is not the most fun part of writing a book. The woman who did the manuscript I've just handed back is a delightful person and fun to work with, so I'm fortunate in that respect, but going through the book page by page, looking at all the marks, can be a slog. The marks tend to fall into two categories: small changes to a piece of punctuation or a word somewhere, which involve a surprising amount of nail-biting to make decisions about, or the identification of serious continuity mistakes, which are even worse, because sometimes you find you've wired an impossibility into the plot and it takes a lot of hacking and soldering to fix. Ellah spotted one place I'd contradicted myself where I had to spend a whole day letting it mull, because resolving the contradiction was such a difficult choice; after a day's mulling, I wound up rewriting about four sentences. That's how much agonising goes into it.
All of this is extremely necessary: the editor is your guardian angel who stops you from embarrassing yourself in public. And while I'd love to pretend that I'm a perfect person who never makes any mistakes in my books, this novel took me two years to write, and if there's anyone out there who's managed to go two years without making a single mistake ... well, I'd like to meet them and hire them to run my life, please. Everybody makes mistakes in first drafts. It's not something to worry about while you're writing, and it's not something to get upset about when you're rewriting either. It's just one of those things.
But it's one of those tiring things, too, and I'm feeling a bit creatively worn right now. So, I'd like to put two questions to you. One: what do you do when you want to recharge your creative batteries? And two: as I'm feeling a bit short of ideas just at the moment, is there anything you'd like me to blog about? Requests will be considered.
Monday, September 08, 2008
Here's a secret: for someone who makes a living writing, I'm really lousy with a pen.
I've had bad handwriting since, well, since I could write. My first primary school was a rather old-fashioned place where the teachers had few namby-pampy ideas about denting a child's confidence, and consquently I was getting my writing roundly criticised from the age of about five; I remember rather clearly a teacher commenting on my nicely-finished sewing project by saying, 'I don't understand it, your handwriting is so messy and your sewing is so neat' - and finding it an entirely justified remark, which suggests I was already used to hearing that, in the physical sense, I really didn't write very well.
Looking back, I'm a little narked - I mean, five is a bit early to condemn someone's handwriting permanently, and if they'd decided to catch me up they might at least have solved the problem that I was holding pen all wrong (a habit that lasted into my teens because nobody caught it) - but, well, it was a long time ago and I was in small school taught by two elderly ladies whose methods were from even longer ago, so it was what it was. (One of them still slapped pupils when they got on her nerves - not as a formal corporal punishment, but just because she'd lose her temper and lash out. At the time, we kids didn't think much of it, as her self-control abilities were about the same as our own. In retrospect, she was much too old to be teaching and should have retired, but I think she had little family and teaching was her main prop. It's rather sad, from an adult perspective. The other was very kind, though.) And if you look at my handwriting now, honesty compels me to admit that it's pretty poor, so perhaps they were right.
However, the fact remains: I really can't handle a pen. When I turned eighteen I spent a year studying cooking and had to take a lot of lecture notes, which changed my handwriting from joined-up to printed under the pressure of needing legible notes, and now I have a fairly disjointed scrawl. The pen slips and slides all over the page, disobliging me in every direction; I just don't understand how some people manage to control it. In Middlemarch, George Eliot remarks that 'the end of Mr Brooke's pen was a thinking organ'; the end of my pen is making continual escape attempts.
Does this have an effect on my writing? I've been wondering about that. I write three 'morning pages' every day, as recommended by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg, and those are done by hand; it's an extremely useful exercise, and while it generally produces ramblings about how I need to get the door fixed, with occasional bursts of insight into how to solve plot problems or personal revelations, the fact that it's done by hand is helpful. There's something informal about writing by hand that loosens you up.
In the past I used to write difficult scenes by hand, feeling that this would give them more emotional tone. Since taking to writing morning pages, I do that less; I feel that the three pages of handwriting loosen me up enough, but there's no saying I won't try it again in the future. But for the most part, I type.
What are the effects of typing? Well, a minor one I've noticed is that I'm more prone to 'typos' when I'm using a pen; sometimes I reverse letters in mid-word, which I never used to do before I learned to type.
More seriously, though, there's a low-level running debate among writers as to whether typing is as good a method as handwriting. It's been my experience that there are a lot of merits on both sides. In terms of managing nerves, I find using a computer soothing: looking at a blank page, there's always a running count of how much of it you've filled, which can trigger a permanent sense of 'I've hardly started' when I'm feeling especially nervy. My best way of dealing with that is to use a battered notebook - if it's already been used, it feels like part of a continuum rather than a whole new enterprise, and if it's shabby I don't have to get all perfectionist about its contents - but a computer allows for a greater sense of continuum: once you've got half a page of document, it's all scrolling down from then on.
Similarly, writing on a computer has an instant freedom of change. In Writers Dreaming, Sue Grafton comments: 'The beauty of word processing, God bless my word processor, is that it keeps the plotting very fluid. The prose becomes like a liquid that you can manipulate at well. In the old days, when I typed, every piece of typing paper was like cast in concrete.' If you don't like something, you can remove it forever without leaving an ugly scrawl on the page; it allows you to let go quickly and cleanly, which frees you to move forward. It's not the same for everyone, of course; David Sedaris says in 'Nutcracker.com' from Me Talk Pretty One Day that '...I don't want a computer. Unlike the faint scurry raised by fingers against a plastic computer keyboard, the smack and clatter of a typewriter suggests that you're actually building something. At the end of a miserable day, instead of grieving my virtual nothing, I can always look at my loaded wastepaper basket and tell myself that if I failed, at least I took a few trees down with me.' Some people like the fluidity of computers and some don't; personally I do, a lot of the time, because the insubstantiality of words on a computer screen feels like a good setting.
Thoughts aren't substantial, they are, literally, notional, and so setting down insubstantial thoughts in an insubstantial way feels free to me. I've committed myself to a lighter medium, and by the time it gets down to actual stacks of paper, it's my publishers sending me a marked-up manuscript, which means somebody's already accepted the book and committing myself to it at least has somebody's blessing. I actually rather dread shuffling stacks of paper; I'll always make a mess at some point and the sheer volume is rather overwhelming: it's always shocking to see how big a stack of paper my latest novel demands. Books are printed both sides in smaller format on, I think, thinner paper, so the three-inch pile on your desk turns into a perfectly manageable novel once it's printed and bound - ah, binding, the beautiful spine that stops the pages slipping all over the place - but the interim page can be pretty intimidating. The biggest problem with print-outs, though, is that there's never enough room per page for many words. I type single-spaced and then double-space it out at the last minute; that makes it easier on the publisher's eyes, but it does mean that not very much happens per page - and then to get on to what happens next, I don't just have to turn the nicely-bound leaf with an insouciant flick, I have to pick up the sheet, turn it over, lay it on the opposite stack, check that I didn't just put it back in the wrong place, tidy the opposite stack up so that all the sharp paper edges aren't sticking out to bite me when I'm not prepared, and then turn back to what I was reading. The turning-to-reading proportions of manuscript work are high, and it breaks my concentration. I start missing my computer, where it's all one long motion and all I have to do is scroll down.
The non-physicality of computers, in short, can be an aid to concentration. While I write awkwardly, I type fast and well, so when I'm working well my fingers move automatically and I'm not really aware of any physical process at all. I don't have to struggle to keep up with my thoughts. Handwriting forces you to slow down, to experience writing as physical. When you're trying to warm yourself up, that's enormously helpful, especially when you're not quite sure what you want to say. This is where the computer screen is at a disadvantage. The trouble is, it's bright: when you're feeling stuck, it just stares at you, an infinity of possible bytes. A page, on the other hand, demands far less commitment. There's only so much you could put on it anyway, and with handwriting as messy as mine it's always going to be the ink-and-paper equivalent of a mud pie no matter what I actually say; I can get down on it and say anything I like with a limited sense of threat, because it's so undemanding an environment.
Typing is great when I'm in flight and the words are unfolding, but when I need to hunker down, I need a page. I don't think I've ever solved a serious plot problem by typing it out, but pushing back the keyboard, picking up a pen and writing it out is my most dependable way of solving things. I could type it - 'Okay, so what's my problem here? Well, Susan needs to find out where the treasure's hidden, but the Red Baron has hypnotised her into losing all her sense of curiosity. How am I going to resolve this? What could reawaken her sense of - well, there's that childhood scene I wrote a while back where her brother tried to teach her about frogs, I suppose I could have a scene where she encounters a frog and remembers that sense of enquiry. And you know, I could bring the old gardener back into that scene, I need to use him more - yes! I know! The old gardener can be the former house manager who knows where the treasure is!' - or something to that effect, but somehow it never works on the screen. When I need to solve a plot problem, I hunch over the page.
A lot of it is physical position. Bending over a page, bad for you back though it might be, is a braced position, a safe one. You and the page are very close, and the world can whistle over your head; it's a posture not unlike ducking down to shelter from the wind. It's also a position of physical contact: there's a direct line from the page up the pen to your hand, which is close to your face as you bend. You could draw a line up from the page to your eyes without having to skip over any space. Typing, on the other hand, involves poise. It's a three-cornered balancing act: your hands, eyes and screen form a triangle, a much more open stance, into which you can let your thoughts run. To me, handwriting is for digging down, typing is for flight: in terms of elements, the two are earth and air, and there are times when you need both.
What's your experience?
Monday, September 01, 2008
Plausibility and fantasy
Here's a theory: certain improbable scenarios only support a certain amount of naturalism. And it depends very much on the scenario you pick.
I was reflecting on this the other day as we returned home from the latest Batman movie. It turns out that some people are devoted to Batman, and there's a vast amount of stuff about there about him, mostly comic books; I'd grown up familiar with nothing more than 'na-na-na-na na-na-na-na BATMAN!' somewhere in the back of my mind, but it would seem that there's more to it than that, as witness the increased attempts at seriousness and naturalism in the recent movies.
Now, I like Christopher Nolan's films, and I enjoyed the Tim Burton Batman movies - but the combination of Nolan and Batman really didn't work for me. I suspect that saying this on the Internet is tantamount to singing 'God Save the Queen' in the middle of a Fourth of July celebration, but there it was. Burton's Grand Guignol was fun, and it felt suitable for the subject matter: I was, after all, watching a movie about a man who, for reasons best known to himself, had decided to fight crime wearing the world's strangest hat. An enthusiastically overblown atmosphere worked well for that. In such a bravura world, heck, why not dress up as a bat to fight crime? You'd hardly be more eccentric than anybody else. Nolan's more naturalistic style weirded me out; it called to my attention that, amongst all these rather normal-looking people, there was a man who had decided that the world's strangest hat was an essential component in law enforcement ... and that created a tremendous dissonance in my mind. What on earth was he doing with that hat? Why did nobody blink? Heath Ledger's Joker feeling unable to commit criminal mayhem without extravagant make-up I could just about accept; you'd think you could plant bombs and yell at people without the slap if you really tried, but it didn't strain credibility too far. For one thing, he was supposed to be snooker loopy in a theatrical, performative way: some people enjoy weirding other people out, and he appeared to be one of those, hence it wasn't impossible that such a person would consider a scary white face a useful tool for intimidation. There was a degree of real-world precedent; after all, some people do put on extravagant war paint. It's usually in cultures where everyone does it, but it's a recognisable human behaviour, so the clown-face didn't clang too hard against the naturalism. But, but, but ... nobody dresses up as a bat to fight crime. What were they doing, trying to make such an unrealistic premise look realistic?
But as I heard myself ask that, I realised I sounded utterly inconsistent. I mean, I wrote a book about werewolves that aimed for naturalistic writing. I'd just finished another one about mermaids, and that was trying to be realistic too. Was I a big huge hypocrite, or did I need to reconsider?
So I reconsidered, and in so doing, clarified something in my mind. Because - and this is the general point - there are different kinds of realism. There's physical realism, and there's psychological realism, and they're two separate things.
If you change something physical, then you're more or less pulling off a magic trick. You can rationalise it with science (we've discovered that if you boil protons in strong enough tea, you can make time flow backwards!), you can present it as magic (a woman with spooky powers turned me into a frog!), or you can simply fait accompli your audience (there are zombies in this book because I say so, deal with it or go read something else).
But the thing is, you haven't changed anything essential about people in your world. People are people wherever you go. Shona villagers almost certainly gossip as much as New York bankers; retired French plasterers probably lament about their old bones about as much as retired Indian sitar-makers; Chinese farmers and British industrialists are equally likely to consider their own children better than everyone else's. And if a change in culture, location, socio-economic status or traditions has a limited effect on such things, it's reasonable to assume that they wouldn't be affected by the existence of space stations or witchcraft. They might change people's living conditions, but how people react to those changes would still be pretty human. You have a story about people living in unusual circumstances, but once the initial improbability hurdle is gotten over - and the characters' reactions to their circumstances can help a lot with that - you can be as realistic as you like.
On the other hand, there's the issue of psychological realism - and here we get into different territory. The Batman example is a case in point: people do not, on the whole, react to childhood trauma or law and order difficulties by dressing up as an animal and running around getting into fights. It is a psychologically implausible thing to do. Neither to people generally react to such behaviour by taking it seriously. The Isle of Skye is home to Tom Leppard, for instance, who tattooed himself and fixed his teeth to look like a leopard, but if you watch this YouTube clip of him, you can see that he gets scant respect from strangers; the narrator is more or less openly laughing at him, as are the commenters. His neighbours regard him as a nice guy with some kooky ways, it seems - there's a tradition of great British eccentrics that he fits comfortably into - but he's clearly a shy and uncommon man, doing his own thing in a way that takes him out of society rather than makes him responsible for maintaining it. It's understood by everyone that, while he's welcome to live that way if he pleases, it is a strange choice of lifestyle, and most of the kneejerk reactions you'll see on that piece are some variant of 'What a weirdo'. Those comments are not polite or respectful - it's his own business, after all, and he seems like a perfectly nice man - but that's kind of the point: if you get yourself up as an animal, it does not generally garner respect. If Tom Leppard decided it was time for him to fight crime, especially violently, a lot of people would be extremely uncomfortable. Leppard seems peaceful and charming, but the idea of a man whose relationship to society is so disconnected deciding to arm himself is not a soothing one.
Now, there's no reason not to tell a story that involves some suspension of disbelief about how people behave. Punch and Judy is hardly an in-depth study of behaviour: hangmen very seldom put their heads in the noose to show you how it's done. But it helps a lot that Punch and Judy is performed by squeaky-voiced puppets. They're clearly not real people, so it hardly matters if they don't act like real people; it would be a little unsettling if they did. Caricatured behaviour and caricatured people go together in Punch and Judy, and the result feels comfortably consistent.
If, on the other hand, something in your story demands a degree of suspended disbelief about human behaviour, it throws everything off if you try to make people behave realistically except for that one thing. If they're realistic people, then why aren't they reacting realistically to the one thing; for that matter, why is somebody doing that one thing at all?
It's a question to consider when setting up a scenario of your own. I suspect the main reason why it flew in the recent Batman movies is familiarity: people are sufficiently used to the idea of Batman that it no longer startles the audience. That makes it easier to overlook the fact that none of the characters seem the least bit startled either. But if you're creating your own scenario, you don't have that padding: your audience has not been primed to accept implausibilities. Consequently, any disharmony between the implausibility of the set-up and the characters will stand out sharply.
So, how to balance? If anything, there may be an opposite pull in the two scenarios. If your situation involves some physical implausibilities, having the characters react to them realistically may actually help the audience accept them: one imaginary thing greeted as if it were real, either with the 'But there are no witches, not really,' response of a real person encountering such a thing for the first time, or with the matter-of-factness that people generally display towards the familiar, seems integrated into a 'real' world. If, on the other hand, you have something psychologically implausible, what you need to present is a world in which everyone's psychology is strange enough or simple enough that an improbable piece of behaviour wouldn't seem out of kilter.
A lot of this has to do with imagining the background world. The scenario of Se7en, for instance, is psychologically rather unlikely. People seldom do plan out five murders and a suicide in order to make some kind of religious point; preachers, even extreme ones, are generally less decoratively gruesome in making their points, and serial killers generally kill people because they profit from it or get off on it, and consquently tend not to plan a grand finale after which they'll stop. But the film goes to some trouble to establish so dystopic a background setting - semi-realistic, but drawn in broad, expressionistic strokes - that the killer's motivations seem acceptable, fictionally speaking: he's only acting on opinions that everybody in the movie holds to a greater or lesser degree. His actions are Gothic, but he lives in a Gothic world; it holds together.
If you're creating your own world from scratch, rather than adapting a character you didn't create, harmony of tone seems more likely. You will, after all, be creating both the scenario and the characters; coming from the same mind, they're more likely to mesh. But as a general point to consider, where you need to put the plausibility in your story, what degree of realism and unrealism you can get away with, is worth considering when you're working it out.
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