The lesson came to me from the poet Sean O’Brien via a friend, who quoted him as giving the advice to “put the problem into the poem.”
So I did that.
The lesson had already come to me from my supervisor, when he told me, “There are doors here that you’ve still to open.”
It took me nine months to work out what he meant. And I’ve begun that.
The lesson comes to all of us, if we write. It’s one of the first lessons you are told. “Write about what you know.” How that is interpreted is often one of the most debated or easily thrown about dictates in all writing.
As if writing needs dictates. But if only we’d listened and learned.
I like O’Brien’s phrasing best. Because what you know are your problems. They are the anxieties that consume your day. Or your angers, fears, loves.
“And a novel, a good one, is a living thing. Its story is charged with the emotional, psychical and intellectual energies with which its maker has shaped it. As writers, those energies are ultimately all we have. The words might be our medium—our paint, clay or stone—but they’re merely marks on the page until those life-giving energies breathe them into being.”
That is, until our characters and scenes move. It is not Cormac McCarthy’s description of the mechanism of the trolley that the Man needs to fix in The Road, but the emotional energy of the despair and love with which the Man’s need is rendered through the precision of the work (the fixing, the words).
It’s interesting MacLeod leans on the metaphor of the breath. In ancient traditions, we are born without a soul, and our first act is to breathe in the universal life force, in an act of pneuma. When we die, we exhale it back out into the universal field. There is a kinship here with writing, when good writing works.
For the last week or so I’ve been working on this thought: put the problem in your writing. It’s closely associated with opening doors. To be brave enough to admit to your helplessness or struggle is the first thing (it’s the first thing in the AA 12-Step Programme too… admitting the problem has overwhelmed you, and has beaten you, although of course not everyone agrees with that approach.)
Because that’s at the heart of writing. If, as MacLeod says, the energy is all we have, and writing only comes alive with these energies, we have to find some way to channel them into our work (what Freud called sublimation; what, in a way, Keats called Negative Capability; what William James called ‘the vague’). It means being willing to live with uncertainty, a little bit of chaos, and finding a way to bridge the gap between inner fantasy/imagination and outer reality, without panicking, or giving up, or striving for perfection at the cost of never finishing anything.
It requires, first of all, then, admitting, the problem. As MacLeod notes of a review of her first novel, The Changeling, which said ‘In true 18th century style, [The Changeling] admits of other voices.’
‘Admits,’ says MacLeod. ‘Yes. One opens a door.”
So I sat down to write last week, and admitted, at least to myself, and now to you, dear reader, three things:
- cannot stop thinking about X (you don’t expect me to give away everything?)
- As his wife says of the author Nick Thorpe in the self-help narrative Urban Worrier, “he struggles when he doesn’t have a project”. Ditto.
- This veil that obscures my writing: the fear of meaning nothing
These admissions, and letting myself over to write, led to two of the most honest and fun to write pieces I’ve done for a while. Just scraps, really, scenes, ideas, but alive with energy. Alive with the energy that was missing from my novel, for much of the writing process. The energy that keeps a project alive, but is not, finite, either. One of which, is included below.
Being then reflexive about the process was also, for me, useful, in seeing that what I was writing about, and what I have in fact written about for the five years, far more freely in my academic work and creative non-fiction than in my non-fiction, is this, perhaps the central problem (not just for me, but as D W Winnicott noted of Marion Milner’s concept of creativity, for everyone): the tension and conflict between fantasy and reality.
Or, to put it another way, of living too much in fantasy. Of letting fantasy grow too big, without a necessary drive of that fantasy into reality.
To put it clearly: my problem has been letting my imagination run away with me and, in some ways, living too much within that fantasy, rather than finding a way to sublimate, channel, deal with, make the most of… etc… the energies, conscious and unconscious, that could be used in writing, love, and life.
- Meeting someone and having so many conversations in your head with them that when the chance for a real conversation comes, you’re already convinced you’ve got some sort of relationship with them
- Thinking of the success that a published book will bring, rather than doing the real work to bring that book to publication
- Being afraid to be creative; pulling back from creative risk
There are more: always thinking the worst, for example, preparing in advance for threats that never arrive, is the base cause of so much anxiety in modern western societies. It’s a lag from our more primitive brains, where anticipatory alertness was evidence of natural selection working well. But we’re not at risk so much these days, and so those patterns are no longer beneficial (or wholly beneficial). Such fantasy thinking is the malaise of modernity.
It is, of course, a structural problem too. We live in, and attach ourselves to such fantasies, and are encouraged to attach ourselves to such fantasies, by neoliberalism, the state, advertising, consumer corporations, as they are highly beneficial to the rich, ruling elite. The American Dream, perhaps the most infamous fantasy, which Katie Stewart has written about so eloquently in her essays and in Ordinary Affects, can be a nightmare. Or as Lauren Berlant puts it in her book Cruel Optimism, “That the route is a rut matters not” when the alternative to the rut of modern living is to fall in between the cracks.
Fantasy works. But it can also overwhelm us, keep us stuck, keep us from doing things that might change our situation.
Coming back to the creative process, and this question—how do we work better as writers?—what I have discovered by putting the problem into my writing, is that many of my stories are structured around this problem:
- a man wants to recreate the Ancient Greek civilisation and fraternity in his mansion just outside Lewes, Sussex, and it all comes crashing down around him with the reality of the First World War
- a young man wants to publish his book but realises he is not the great writer he thought himself to be
- an old man builds a boat on the roof of a tower block, unable to give up his past
In all of these, the passage from giving up fantasy to recognition of the reality is the heart of the conflict. It is what is at stake. That each of the character’s lives will only move forward from their stuck point when they sacrifice the comfort of the fantasy for the gritty and humble, but real, reality of who they are, or where they are in their life now.
What has changed for me? I have come to the end of writing one of these novels, and realised, yes, life has not changed for me, that the reality of finishing this novel was not the same as the fantasy I’d concocted in my head, and which I had lived in more than I’d realised. That I imagined it much better than I’d made it. That publishing did not automatically follow. A reality that I have now faced, felt, hurt, and accepted. Or, admitted. Some of those doors inside are now open.
So two final points
1) First, clearly, my unconscious was at work in these stories, anyway, to have structured them around my own major ‘problem’.
2) Second, I feel I am a little further along the road of what the poet Bill Herbert the road from ‘self-consciousness’ about one’s writing to ‘self-awareness’.
This second point is critical. And teachable. Or rather, educable. Education is, after all, to lead out. To help the student open the door, and show them a way out of their problem. And that problem, as with most Buddhist and Eastern thought, is not the obstacle, but is the way.
And so in a way this is a little thank you to my teachers (directly or vicariously) for helping me admit of what it is that is important for me to write about, another slap in the face to Kureshi’s idea that creative writing cannot be taught.
And here’s one of the pieces I wrote this week by putting the problem(s) into the writing, and it felt to me one of the most ‘energetic’ in MacLeod’s sense of my recent pieces.