Friday, 3 May 2013

Turning Misery Into Art

One of the most disappointing realisations I have faced as a writer is that living through unpleasant or dark times does not automatically bestow me with an instinctive talent for writing about these dark or unpleasant times, nor does it give me instant access to the necessary emotional tools to create powerful and haunting prose wrought from the blackest caverns of my suffering. A prose style has to be sculpted to accommodate one’s flair for language, stylistic quirks, eye for detail or character insight, around the sympathetic or natural part of one’s personality responsible for the more arresting emotional peaks in a piece of work.
If anything the more suffering a person endures, the less likely they will be able to express themselves in lyrical streams of moving prose. Too much suffering creates psychological barriers between you and the work (writing opens old traumatic wounds), or leaves you too depressed or damaged to stare down the page (because drinking before the TV is nicer). I am not in the business of composing lyrical and emotional prose, but I do write about past miseries in the hope of connecting with the reader for a sort of shared-nod experience in between making them titter or entertaining with the language and pace and dialogue and characters in my stories.
This leads into the problem of trying to capture the intensity of the “minor emotions” that make up our lives. Say I was sitting alone, as all writers do, one evening and wanted to capture the slight melancholy of this loneliness in the story I was writing—not to ring tears from the reader, but make them feel a pang of semi-sympathy by way of recognition. To say James was sitting all alone in his room suggests the character’s own self-pity, and rather than feeling for him we laugh or smile at his sadness, because the very fact of someone’s loneliness suggests a personal failure that could have been avoided through being a less hopeless human specimen. We expect better of our characters. Why couldn’t he go out and make friends? Why should we feel sorry for someone who has only brought this feeling on himself? Our own experiences harden us against the experiences of people in books. Or even worse, our own feelings written on the page seem simply trivial and pathetic without sufficient artistic heft to turn them into valid literary emotions worthy of book-to-human responses.

In my own fiction, I am only interested in “minor emotions”— lonely sighs and self-pitying reflexes: failures of people to pull their socks up and solve their problems and arrive at the moments that precipitate “sweeping emotions.” People who can’t find a partner let alone lose them in a car crash. People who never find themselves involved enough to care if the whole team gets cholera. I want my stories to pirouette between these minor moments: I want my narratives to be largely comic, frosted with moments of pathos and sadness that create a coherent emotional tone behind the comedy. If I can achieve this I hope to represent the pervading sadness behind most human life and aim for a fairer depiction of the stoic emotional tapestry that makes up reality over the more manipulative focus on the “sweeping” that dogs mass-market prose.

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