When I was a teenager in a convent (in England, run by Irish nuns, in a French Order) I met with the first piece of writing that I understood as ‘good’. The school was cosily middle class and my attendance was anomalous – I’d passed a scholarship in English, but been classed as educationally subnormal in numeracy/arithmetic. Wiltshire County Council, not having anywhere willing to take me, shipped me across to Somerset where I would be educated in a sort of ‘no man’s land’ of Needlework and Cookery. That convent saved my life, the nuns were great – poorly educated cheerful women who didn’t care much about academia but did care about their girls. Still, I was very much a fish out of water, all my classmates were Southern, from reasonable homes, normally intelligent, well behaved, while I was a slum kid from Lancashire, disoriented and confused. No one knew the world I had in my head, the life I’d lived.
I was in the lowest stream where I excelled in English, but I was the only girl in the whole school who didn’t have to do maths and science. One day, in the fourth form, we read ‘The Odour Of Chrysanthemums’ by D H Lawrence. Oh, that was such a revelation for me! Lawrence reassured me that the life I had known was real, not some confused dream. I was deeply touched – that story connected on so many levels. I could hear the boots in the ginnel as the dead miner was carried home, see the grimed heavy body, I knew the cold ‘best room’ parlour where he was laid on the floor, I could see the damp clothes by the range in the kitchen, smell the crude soap as his widow brought in the basin of water…. imagine the children asleep upstairs in dark damp bedrooms. In the hands of a lesser writer I would have hated that dead miner, crowed at his death, knowing about such men after my childhood in that community. But instead I grieved for him and for her, for the meanness of their lives and the love he had abused. DH Lawrence, whatever else he did, held a hand out to a loveless and displaced girl and said “I know. I know. You are not alone.”
That’s what good writing does, sometimes.
I’m going to quote shamelessly from a blog I wrote a couple of months ago : For me ‘good writing’ is any writing which explores and tries to understand human nature, revealing and addressing what Bill Shakespeare called ‘The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’ When writers bring the two together, our nature with the nature of the world, exploring the reaction of one to the other, seeking to understand the nature of our existence, this, to me, is good writing. Even when it fails, the attempt is the thing.
I read two short stories this week, and although they’d been highly recommended to me, they left me cold. To me, the writer seemed a didact, displaying his cleverness and skill from a great height. He looked down on his characters dispassionately. He revealed their vulnerability with a curl of the lip. Poor beetles, lying on their backs, helpless, as he pulled their legs off, one by one.
If you’re going to write about a leper, for pity’s sake don’t hone in on the scabs, picking away at them. I want to know the man, his desires and dreams, solitude, his longing, love, bitterness, anger, his outrage, the people who loved him, the people who shunned him. Make me care about him, reveal our common humanity. Show me that there but for the grace of God go I.
These stories were very well observed and competently written, but good writing does more than tell a story, and it’s more than observation. A historian, a video camera, can do those two things. Good writing is about more than that. This is where I get excited.
Right, hold on while I pull my soap box over and clamber up:
With the arrival of multi-channel streaming, the world has developed a voracious appetite for drama. Like any other addiction, the more we see the more we want, it feeds our appetites, pushes us on to look for ever more exciting, ever more suspenseful, or horrifying, or terrifying or prurient sensationalism. Give us a dead body at the beginning of every episode, and another at the first commercial break, a revelation of adultery at the second commercial break, a perversion at the third, and then an amazing twist at the end of the episode to make sure we return next week. I met one producer who described the sort of drama she was looking for as ‘multi-hook.’ I didn’t meet her a second time.
Forget honesty. Forget truth. Just give us a few hooks. Bums on seats. Advertising revenue. All those hours to fill…..
Because of this hunger for readily digestible fiction, there’s a great demand for thrillers full of homicidal maniacs and sociopaths. ‘No Brain’ drama. Any idiot can paint a monster that we can all hate/fear, without having to discover anything about him at all. Plot is everything. The trailers can be made to look so enticing, so exciting. Lazy telly, lazy writing. Wheel out the usual character flaws and bingo! We have a hit. You’ll forget who did what in a few days, but that doesn’t matter… you’ve watched it and the advertising revenue’s rolled in to make even more immensely forgettable dramas.
Homicidal maniacs and sociopaths… but our greatest human attribute is the ability to love, and to be born without this leads to an irretrievably sad and empty life. Isn’t this the heart of the drama? How often do we see that? Where’s our pity for this person? Haven’t we already seen enough thrillers with a murderous sociopath stalked, cornered, and captured? All tied up in a neat plot resolution in the last act. Can’t we go deeper than that?
I won’t go on about Fargo again, or The Sopranos, because I’ve banged on about them both so often, but these dramas get it right. Thoughtful, intriguing, complicated characters, showing the consequences, revealing the nature of flawed and tender humanity. Even when the baddie of the first Fargo series, Malvo (the deliciously dark Billy Bob Thornton) finally died, the tragedy of his death was shown, the futility of his life. Part writing, part acting, part shared vision.
Don’t start me on shared vision. From beginning to end of any drama, series or single, a shared vision is absolutely essential. Maybe it’s at the heart of every venture, not just drama. But like I say, don’t start me on that, or we’ll be here all night.
Why so much thought about sociopaths and how to write ’em? You’ve rumbled me! I’m planning a novel in the voice of an anti-social man. I think I might be able to get somewhere near him because there’s a tiny tad of the sociopath in me – no, not the predatory bit, the loveless bit. Growing up without love, I learned to live without it and I could still live without it. It would require some effort now, and a degree of denial, because I’ve softened in the last few years but I could still do it, at some cost…. weird, eh?
Here’s a thought for you to roll your eyes at… does a sociopath ever believe in God? Can a sociopath feel regret? Two thoughts for the price of one. Ooh, and a third one, if there is no love in the sociopath, is there any hope of redemption? And where does that leave God? I know for certain sure that God is just and merciful so…….. ? Where is God’s mercy in the creation of someone who cannot love? As we know that God requires a contrite and humble heart, what about the man or woman who seems to have no heart?
We have to ask these questions. We have to be confident enough in our faith, trusting God, to ask them and to wait for the answer.
And here, listen up! Don’t you answer my questions! Seriously. That’s not what they’re there for. They’re the rhetorical niggles of a writer’s addled brain. I sort of have to crawl to the answers on my tod. Any answer you come up with will just annoy the hell out of me. Really! However wrong and slow I am (and I am both), I have to get there under my own steam. I’ll read all the psychiatric reports I can lay my hands on, and books like ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ and I’ll study chief execs who have made their way to the top with ruthless single mindedness, and I’ll review my life in my own family, but I need to go through the thought process on my own. You can’t give me any short cuts, even if you’re the wisest person in the world, because I have to absorb the answer, into my bones, and then write it out of my bones. And, like I said, I’m not the quickest thinker on the planet.
That’s what it is to be a writer. You have to wade through the crap to get to the treasure and no one can do it for you. You may go a bit bonkers (writers club, you have been warned. Oh, no, scrub that – you’re already there!) but you have to ask your own questions and find your own answers.
Good writing is humble, vulnerable, difficult, really really difficult, revelatory and honest. It’s a long haul up a slippery slope and there’s usually someone at the top pouring burning tar down on you. But good writing is worth the effort. I don’t think I’ve ever attained it, but there’s still time. Maybe.
And now I have another strange thought; Maggie Thatcher famously said ‘There is no such thing as society’. It was a stupid thing to say, not least because all the pundits jumped on it and made mincemeat of her. But I wonder now, did she mean that our society is heading towards sociopathy? Psychiatrists have claimed a huge surge in anti-social personality disorders but is that just because we have more psychiatrists than ever before? And does our appetite for these tawdry dramas with their impressive murder rates and torture scenes, feed the surge, or do they just reflect it? Where are we going?
When everything is acceptable, when love is temporary, commitment fleeting, morals elastic, feel-good-is-good, when self is at the centre and even sex is a commodity, is society becoming sociopathic?
Is that our tragedy? And do we have a choice? We need a Tolstoy to unravel that one.