Our guest blog this month comes from Caro Clarke, author of ‘Furry Dice Chewing Gum’. She reflects upon the writer’s voice and what makes us who we are. As they say in Thailand, ‘Same, same but different…’
Writing: It’s Personal
‘When I was a girl, back in the time of cave painting and discovering fire, I learned penmanship, and the teacher expected all of us to write our letters exactly the same. And yet, graphologists say that our handwriting reveals who we are, the aspects about ourselves that we know and don’t want to tell, or aspects we might not even know. We cannot help revealing ourselves in what we shape with our hands and minds, and why shouldn’t we? Isn’t penmanship the way we communicate ourselves to the world?
As with handwriting, so with fiction writing. When we tell stories, we are not just telling a story, we are telling our readers about ourselves. One of the reviewers of my first novel let me stay in her house while she was away. She had never met me (we arranged it via email) and, when her friends said, scandalised, “You’re letting a stranger stay at your house?!?” she replied “She’s not a stranger; I’ve read her book.”
When we find out that the author of a particularly beloved novel was not, in fact, a lovely person, I think we sometimes question our faith, but often we decide that the author’s “better angel” did exist, but only existed when he or she was writing. I have known writers of very moving or funny books who were dull or morose in real life — until they did something (shelter a moth from harm’s way, suddenly cap a joke) that revealed the secret angel of their nature, that wellspring from which their books flowed.
We write who we are. What we choose to write is shaped by more than the specific inspiration (that headline, that family myth, that half-memory), but by the complete connection of ourselves to our world. This is something that we can’t help doing and what we must do. We must be ourselves, must be true to ourselves. The world doesn’t want another Atwood or Patterson or Lethem, it wants something new — and we are that something new.
What we bring to a story no one else will bring. We are each of us unique, and unique always sells. As a former fiction editor, and as someone who has worked with literary agents, I constantly said, and heard said, “What’s different about this? What’s its USP (unique selling point)?” It was never just the amazing plot-twist or the unusual setting or the brilliant evocation of time, but what I can only call “personality”. The book “had” something. It wasn’t a pile of paper, it was a creation.
I am not convinced by software programmes that will “teach you to write.” They might teach you to structure and improve sentences, but they can’t bring creation to a story. They can’t make the best-structured narrative come alive. Only your mind can do that. Only your heart can do that. How you write might be unusual. I know an author who writes on sticky notes in very tiny letters. He finds it easier to do micro-writing and then use a wall to assemble his book. I know another author who plots for two years, and then writes one single finished draft in three months. A friend of mine will only write in certain kinds of notebooks (unfortunately, these come from France, so how lucky that his books sell well).
I would worry if there was only one way to write. That isn’t how anything works, except perhaps for robots putting silicon chips into a hard drive. There might be a “best way” to brush your teeth or to apply bathroom tiles, but not when it comes to tapping into the mysteries of creation. I have mentioned wellsprings. I believe that we each have our own depth of wisdom, joy, anger, bitterness and fear that we draw on, only half-consciously, when in the grip of our story. How can that ever come forth in the same way from every heart and mind?
How we write is an expression of what our books will be. I myself write my first two or three drafts in pen in notebooks. I then type in, amending as I go, and then grind through a number of drafts either on-screen, or in print-out, hand-writing changes and typing them in after every go-through. I have done as few as four drafts, and as many as fourteen. Whatever it takes to make it right. And I think my stories reflect this. They are considered. They are (I hope) thought through. They are certainly felt through. They might not be great stories, but I have had readers’ comments back, and it seems that I connect in a particular way with particular people. That’s all I ask.
Would my way of writing work for anyone else? Yes, I’ve met many writers who find that the book becomes itself, creates itself, only in the last few of its many rewrites, but this is because that’s who we are. Our books are good on the little details, the small touches, because we work at that level. Others don’t sweat that small stuff; they do the sweeping narratives, the sagas, the larger-than-life characters, because that’s who they are. Even if they seem small on the outside.
Nobody is small who wants to write. Nobody can be small when they want to reach out to the world with a story in their hands, that thing that might become eternal, as Homer’s stories, as Shakespeare’s as Twain’s, have become immortal. How can it be taught, this impulse, this need to create? Like water from a high source, it will come down the mountain and cross the valley by the path it wants to take, must take, to reach its sea.
Who are you? What makes you write what you write? What makes you write how you write? Whatever it is, if you are producing living creations, then it is right for you.
And who cares about your penmanship.
© Caro Clarke All Rights Reserved.