Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Day 4

Several years ago, one of my best friends remodelled his kitchen. He was immensely proud of his work and even went to the trouble to email me pictures of the finished product. 

At the time, we were both still in our early 30s and I suppose that I, at least, was in that early-30s mode of trying to hang on to my youthful cool. Whatever the reason, I wrote a snarky blog post about his kitchen and joked that the old trio –– my two best friends and I –– had become old and busted.

A few days later, my friend emailed again to say he had been hurt by the post. I apologised profusely but to this day (with his permission) keep the post "live" as a sort of reminder to myself that writing stuff can often deliver the unintended consequence of offending people you care about. I thought I was being funny and clever; my friend felt I was being snide and jeering.

A quiet truth about being a writer or professional author, or whatever it is that I'm trying to call myself, is this: there will always be someone, somewhere, who will hate the fuck out of whatever you do. That forces a cruel kind of balancing act, because, I feel, a good writer is probably thin-skinned and thereby better able to receive and perceive the opinions of others. Through that, he or she can convey a more dynamic world, convey a better story. But in order to ever finish a story, to be able to say, "OK, this is 'right' and complete," let alone release that story into the world, a writer has to be thick-skinned enough to accept that some people, almost by nature, will think it is awful.

Generally, all you can hope for is that the people you upset aren't people you care about. Paying too much attention to that latter group, though, caring too much about certain people's feelings, can tip the delicate writing balance toward inaction.

And I suppose that on one level that is the reason I've been so quiet over the past year or so. The book that I have written, that I'm now submitting to agents is not exactly loving toward Welsh-language society, and I know that is going to earn me a lot of pissy anonymous blog and Twitter comments. Of course, anonymous comments have all the value of the names attached to them (i.e., none), but deep within me lurks the knowledge-fear that somewhere in Wales or the world there might be a perfectly wonderful human being who might feel really sad about the things I have to say about their country/language/culture. And that makes me kind of sad, too.

It doesn't make me "unfeel" anything, however, nor feel that what I say in the book shouldn't be said. It's just, on occasion, taken some of the steam out of how desperately I want the things said to be heard. I hope that with this 183-day initiative I can push past that internal discomfort, that I can thicken my skin enough to accomplish things.

A way in which the thin-skin/thick-skin imbalance has affected me even more troublingly has been in my difficulty starting my next intended project, a novel I am tentatively calling Nation of Dreamers.

I got the idea for that novel a few years ago when I went on a 3-month road trip across America. But the thing is: the novel is not about that road trip. It is inspired by my experiences but it is not about my experiences. And what I don't want is for people to read it and think: "Ah, this is Chris talking about Chris here. And this alcoholic person that the main character meets is actually Chris' friend, SoAndSo. This is what he really thinks about SoAndSo and is trying to hide it in a work of 'fiction.'"

That's what happened to me with The Way Forward. People assume that Ben is me and that Allison is just a red-headed version of a girl I dated when I lived in Portsmouth and who did, in fact, break up with me in France. I can totally understand why they think that, and for a long time I didn't care much. But as I get older and thinner-skinned I can't help but imagine it's likely that the aforementioned girl has read the book and seen the character of Allison and perhaps felt hurt and thought: "This is what he thinks about me. This is what he wants other people to think about me."

This is what want to avoid in writing my next book. I want to take things that have happened to me, but I want to use them to tell a story that did not happen. How to tell that story, then, has become something of a stumbling block for me.

So, much of what I've been doing on Day 4 has been thinking about how to tell a story. Specifically, I've been thinking about voice.

I am most comfortable writing in first person. I generally like the authority and veracity it lends to a story. We tend not to question the "truth" of events if they are delivered to us first person –– we accept that the events happened, and that they happened exactly as the person tells us they have. (Some authors do a great job of playing with this trust, such as in J.W. Ironmonger's The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder.) And I think it's easier to invest in a story that feels "true."

But, as I say, I'm wary of people interpreting Nation as autobiographical. Writing it in first person, then, is probably a bad idea. When we read a book and the narrator is saying, "I did such and such," and "I had incredible sex with SoAndSo," it doesn't matter how many times that character tells you what his or her name is, we automatically think the person saying all these things is the person who wrote the book.

The obvious alternative is third person. And certainly it's a style that has some advantages, especially when trying to address the main character. Think of the difference between something like, "Marie had dark, brown eyes that made men need to fall in love with her," and "I have dark, brown eyes that make men need to fall in love with me."

The second statement is arrogant and egotistical. When writing in first person the main character has to maintain a tolerable humbleness. And certainly there are things in this book that the characters either wouldn't say about themselves or couldn't say.

But, I don't know, something about writing the whole story in third person doesn't appeal to me. I don't want to produce several hundred pages of, "John said this," and "John did that." I understand that a whole hell of a lot of writers have produced works far beyond my ability using just that voice, but I feel/fear that in my hands it might get a little boring.

I am now toying with the idea of writing in multiple voices: some first person, some third person, and even a bit of second-person oddity for the alcoholic guy. With all of them effectively telling the story of this one person and his adventure across America. 

I like the idea of that, though I'm not entirely sure how it would work out, e.g., whose story would be told in what way. I'll mull it around in my head for a spell while I continue to try focus most of my energy on finding someone who will be able to help me get Tales of a Toffee-Covered Llama published.

To that end, I also today sent another submission to a literary agent. I feel that my work would really appeal to this particular agent, so I'm optimistic that I will hear back and will, at least, get a chance to send my full manuscript for consideration.


Jenny said...

GOOD LUCK! Also, my comment on that blog post made me laugh and cringe so much – like you, I was just meaning to be funny, but it sounds so angry!

Chris Cope said...

Jenny -- Yeah, this is the cruelty of blogs. Every thing you've ever said exists forever in an easily searchable space. It can make you want to crawl into a hole at times.