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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

 

Writing and danger

As perhaps some of you know, I hang around a website called Slacktivist, posting under the name of Praline (for no particular reason, I just like the sound of the word - though somebody there suggested that praline is sweet, crisp and mixes well with ice cream, and as I'd like to be all those things, I'm going to pretend that was the reason), pontificating on life, politics, art and such. (Also making critical remarks about the writers LaHaye and Jenkins of Left Behind fame, which is one of the site's long-running attractions; ordinarily I don't slag off other writers in detail, because I feel it's unprofessional, but as LaHaye and Jenkins are more tract-writers than novelists, I consider them a separate category.) And a charming commenter called Nenya made the following remark, which has got me thinking:

Speaking of your book, Praline, I'm a chapter or two into it, and the weird thing so far is that my brain doesn't connect it to the Praline who posts here. Maybe later in the book it will start to sound like you? Or maybe I'm just not used to thinking of you in connection with someone in so much emotional and physical danger as the story's main characters.

That's a very interesting thought. I suspect a lot of it comes down to different personae.

Posting on the Internet, I have a particular persona - the usually-delightful person you read before you, in fact. In real life, I'm somewhat different. And in writing, I'm different again. Probably most people are the same; I know some people who are shy in real life and downright suave in e-mails, and others who are dreadful correspondents and voluble in company. The thing about my writing voice is, it's a lot sadder than the rest of me.

Why should this be? I can think of several answers.

The first is simply imaginative-practical: sad situations get my mind working. Different people have talents for different moods, and to me, there's so much potential in difficult situations with conflicted emotions that I go back there, again and again.

Another reason is probably to do with personae in a broader sense. You show the different sides of yourself in situations where it's safe to do so. Most crudely, if you drag around like a wet week in real life, nobody wants to be friends with you - but more precisely, there are emotions you can work out in different ways. I feel like a shy person inside, for instance, but I generally don't act like one; it gets in the way of things I want, such as having friends and getting on with people. There are other emotions that I feel which I don't necessarily put out into the world, because the thing is, other people have feelings too, and you have to accommodate them if you want to get along. And I do; I want to be liked, I want those around me to be happy, I want life to be pleasant and agreeable. For that to work, you have to make space for other people. Your own feelings can't rule the world. But in fiction, they can. In fiction, nobody has feelings but me, because everybody who has feelings is created by me. I can vent dangerous feelings safely.

And that's kind of the key to writing, for me at least. I wouldn't say I was one of those writers who exactly enjoys writing. To me, it feels like a race across a tightrope over Niagara Falls: the scenery is beautiful, but you wouldn't do it for relaxation. When I go without writing for a few days, I miss it, but not the way I'd miss a friend or a hobby. What I miss, what writing gives me, is a sense of danger. Life is too safe when I'm not writing; it's a risk, an intellectual extreme sport.

Hence, writing-me and everything-else me are different; writing-me is halfway up a mountain and the rest of me is making tea in the base camp...

Comments:
Do you mix well with ice cream? Has this been established by thorough experimentation?

Good, thoughtful analysis. Do you also feel that you write because you can't not write? I've heard that of a number of authors.
 
When I was pregnant with my children, my hubby and I gave them code names because we hadn't yet chosen their real names.

My daughter's code name was Praline.

So, "code name Praline" cracked me up.

But I agree with your other thoughts too. In life I always--always!--look on the sunny side. It's just how I am. But fiction, not so much. Who would want to read about endlessly cheerful people with perfect lives?

I'm thinking also about Donald Westlake, who writes funny caper novels under his own name and dark crime fiction under a pen name. Even when we write in first person, our writing isn't us.
 
Absolutely true that one's online self and one's various offline selves are not quite the same--and this without any lying or faking anything. People do just communicate differently and think differently in different environments. (This weirded me out for the longest time, until I came around to realize that, yes, while Nenya isn't *quite* regular-offline-me, she IS still part of me. I find this kind of discussion about identity and speech both fascinating and mildly freaky. I have friends who find it more freaky than interesting, though.)

But now I am trying to figure out what marks my writing most (the little fiction that I try). Not sadness or danger, I think--although I definitely do tolerate those things better in what I read than in RL--but something else. Confidence, bravery? Competence? There are a lot of things my characters would do that I don't dare, though whether this is because I haven't thought through what the RL consequences would be or not, I'm not sure. Hmmmmmm.
 
Also I have been meaning to comment somewhere in here--as far back as a Slacktivist comment in April where someone expressed shock that Jesurgislac might ever be quiet and shy in RL--that this phenomenon is in fact found as far back as St. Paul, who writes:

Some say [about me], "His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing."

After which he goes on to claim he will be Seriously Serious in person, too, but it's interesting that the guy who's so famous for many strong statements was way more outspoken in writing than in person.
 
Do you also feel that you write because you can't not write? I've heard that of a number of authors.

No, I can not write quite easily. Writing is difficult for me; I don't mean that I struggle to find every word, once I'm in flight it comes quite quickly, but getting off the ground in the first place requires a daily leap of faith that I find positively intimidating. So for me, not writing is a very present possibility: all I have to do is chicken out.

I find that if I'm not writing much, it tends to come out in other ways - i blog more, I write essays to entertain myself, I mentally rewrite stories I think are faulty - but to me, writing feels so dangerous that it's much easier to not-do than to do. I just have to keep reminding myself that I'll probably survive!

it's interesting that the guy who's so famous for many strong statements was way more outspoken in writing than in person

Thanks - a most interesting fact I never knew! In a way, I'm not that surprised. No doubt this isn't a universal rule, but people very often express sides of themselves in writing they can't express otherwise. So a shy man might be all the more forceful in writing precisely because his shyness frustrates him when he's talking to actual people: a lot of energy gets pent up, and gushes out all the more aggressively in a safe medium. If you can't speak up in real life, you're more likely to shout out the page.

To take a tragic example, Cho Seung-Hui, before he shot all those poor people in Virginia Tech, was shy to the point of a medical condition, to wit, selective mutism. According to a documentary I saw, he was very attached to the idea of being a writer, and the rejection by a publisher may have been one of the factors that led to his murders. After the documentary I went and read one of his plays online, and while it's remarkably ill-written - he had no talent for writing, and his social isolation had evidently left him with little idea of how people actually talk and behave - the outstanding feature is that it's filled with tirades, massive explosions of vituperative speech. Which is to say, feelings of anger he couldn't express with his speaking voice.

In the same way, I'd not be at all surprised to find that people who express themselves confidently but mildly online were people who felt little difficulty asserting themselves in reality. In a way, if you practice disputation in reality, you learn what works and what doesn't - for instance, I debate quite a lot, and have found that the most effective debates are forceful yet polite, which I try to import into online discussions, whereas if you insult someone in real life, you get to witness the immediate effect, which is to say, they stop listening to you.

I wouldn't know in general, but I do wonder if some of the most offensive online arguers - you know, the really nasty ones - are actually people who just haven't practised disputation very much, and possibly panic when they find themselves in disagreement?
 
I wouldn't know in general, but I do wonder if some of the most offensive online arguers - you know, the really nasty ones - are actually people who just haven't practised disputation very much, and possibly panic when they find themselves in disagreement?

This seems quite reasonable to me, and also ties in with something I've noticed about myself, which is that I use online arguments (reading them, and more and more often lately actually contributing) as practice for real-life debates. Perhaps some of the more, er, aggressive commentators online will grow out of it as they get more experience--some trollery at least is n00bish behaviour.

(Parenthetically, I am amused at the CAPTCHAs on Blogger, and always have the urge to do what I've seen elsewhere, which is to try to figure out what the words in question might mean in some imaginary language...this post's is "acabbmln", which needs more vowels....)
 
[JL]Do you also feel that you write because you can't not write? I've heard that of a number of authors.

[KW]No, I can not write quite easily. Writing is difficult for me; I don't mean that I struggle to find every word, once I'm in flight it comes quite quickly, but getting off the ground in the first place requires a daily leap of faith that I find positively intimidating. So for me, not writing is a very present possibility: all I have to do is chicken out.

I find that if I'm not writing much, it tends to come out in other ways - i blog more, I write essays to entertain myself, I mentally rewrite stories I think are faulty - but to me, writing feels so dangerous that it's much easier to not-do than to do. I just have to keep reminding myself that I'll probably survive!


This is sort of the definition of writing because you can't not write, I would say. The term doesn't really mean that a writer finds it impossible to stop writing, but that something inside them keeps forcing them back to writing. So ou try and give it up or avoid it and you end up: writing lots of blogs. Whenever you try and stop the writing insists on coming out in other ways.

My girlfriend once tried to give up writing and she wrote a long diary entry about it. In the middle of writing this entry she realised that she was writing and gave up giving up.

I am of the oppinion that many writers write because they are driven to write. Some enjoy it (lucky people) and others struggle with it (like you describe Kit) and most ocelate between enjoyment and struggle. But they do it because they have no choice. They'd often like to give it up... but something won't let them.

All writers who keep writing on and on through rejection do so because they can't not write, I'd say. Well all is a difficult term to use... I'll say most again, just in case.
 
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