Monday, 27 June 2011

The Author – Creator or Creative Vessel?

I am currently teaching a creative writing class based on script doctor and story consultant John Truby's book The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, and in one of our net meetings a discussion about this model of the writing process ensued. At the centre of the discussion was the fact that Truby continuously talk about the need to build an organic story, while presenting a model for doing this which can easily be viewed as very technical.

Now, first off, I would say in Truby's defence that there is a difference between an organic result (which comes across as cohesive and alive) and an organic method (which might be how one describes just going with the flow and making it up as you go along). The point here is that the reader or viewer wants an organic result, and more often than not, achieving that requires at least some sort of technique. Especially when committing to writing a lengthier work like a novel, film script or a play.

But even accepting that a lengthy piece of writing requires a solid structure, and that it, by definition, is easier to lay the foundation of a building first, this discussion nevertheless got me thinking about a deeper philosophical issue in how one thinks about the writing process.

On page 84, while discussing the need to start at the end (a sound structuring advice, in my humble opinion), Truby writes:
As with any journey, before you can take your first step, you have to know the endpoint of where you're going. Otherwise, you walk in circles or wander aimlessly.
Now, Truby's metaphor reveals an obvious philosophical vision, but interestingly enough it is not the only one possible to draw out of it. After all, while Truby focuses on reaching a destination, there are those who claim that it is the journey itself that matters, not what destination is reached.

In terms of narrative, I think Truby makes a good point, because narratives (whether fictional or factual) tend to attempt to bring a certain sense of order to our understanding of the world, our lives and our selves. Often even when they deceptively seem to attempt tearing order down. In fact, even when narratives try to mimic reality, they always resort to verisimilitude, attempting to be like reality or truth, rather actually be that thing.* Mostly because if it actually achieved being the thing itself, it would not necessarily make us believe it was.** So, for a story to be credible it needs to be structurally credible as a story. Whether or not it is credible in the sense of whether it could happen in the real world is actually less important. If for nothing else because we normally apply the same rules when relating the real world as well... as if to make that too more credible. Or perhaps just to make sense of its inherent chaos. But I digress.

There are probably as many ways of writing as there are writers. This is not to say that Truby's model and approach are bad, but like I tell my students: while I am there to teach them Truby's model and examine that they have understood it (in order for them to get their credits), what they choose to do with the model after that point is entirely up to them. Planning ahead and working things through on a basic level might save the writer a few (heavier) rewrites down the line, since there will always be a clear definition of where things are heading, and a greater focus on how they can get there. From a creative point of view, it might indeed be more enjoyable to just tag along for the ride, but it also raises the question of what one wants to do with the end product. And where one wants to put in the most work.

At the end of the day, however, the metaphor of the journey hints at a very basic question: are authors to be regarded as creators, in charge of their creation (i.e. the story world and all its inhabitants) or as creative vessels, through which the story world and its characters gain entrance into our reality? I do not suggest this as an either-or proposition. Many writers speak about their writing in a manner which suggests several intermediate states, but the poles are there to be sure.

* Needless to say perhaps, a narrative can never be reality or the truth in this sense, since there is always an imposed distance. Think of René Magritte's famous painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe, for instance, as an illustration of this.

** Dialogue is a good example here: in all writing (though in particular in script- and playwriting), dialogue needs to sound genuine and authentic, like something somebody would say, but at the same time very little fictional dialogue reads like people really speak. Speakers tend to stop, start new lines of thoughts mid-sentence, correct their thought-pattern, etc, all of which would be really inefficient in fiction where most lines have to count. In short, what is required is the illusion of actual speech rather than actual speech.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Newness, that Newfangled Thing

Our topic today is newness. Or rather a certain obsession with the new and its supposed hierarchical superiority to the old. Well, at least in terms of artistic consumerism; i.e. reading books or comics, watching films, or listening to music. I would never suggest that the new in and of itself has a higher hierarchical position in, for instance, old-school academia. Although, it is worthwhile noticing the common critical (academic or otherwise) favouritism of originality, of which I've written before.

While I do not necessarily see the necessity for originality as a quality marker of storytelling, I can certainly understand the endeavour to go where no author, artist, film maker or songwriter has gone before (even though the likelihood of an actual success in that seems meagre and more illusory than real), what I want to discuss here and now is the notion held by more than a few people (and naturally fostered by the market place) that only the latest thing is good enough. This is not to say that whatever the latest thing is is original (or even claims to be), but the idea of defining newness in these fields as only the latest thing is foreign to me.

As a reader, viewer or listener, I utterly fail to see why I have to be obsessed with the latest thing.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying we cannot appreciate the latest thing to be published or produced for our reading, viewing or listening pleasures. But why be obsessed with it? When there are so many things in all temporal directions from us, yet to be discovered. Some of which we've surely not yet even heard.

Let me confess openly: I have not read every book or comic ever written or published, not seen every film film ever made nor heard every song ever recorded. In fact, I have not even read/seen/heard all the ones I know would like to. This is quite simply because the treasure chest of such material is nigh infinite (at least in comparison to my own time here on Earth), and everything that I've not (yet) read, seen or heard is something new... to me.

Obviously this is not a condition unique to me. I would dare say that there is no one out there who has literally read, seen or heard everything in any of the mentioned categories. Thus, we need to rethink what newness is, I would argue. We cannot allow our treasure chests of the imagination to be dominated by a simple market place insistence on the latest hype; that is to say, newness only as that newfangled thing which like a flash in the pan is here today and gone tomorrow. It is true that not all books, comics, films or music remain in the public consciousness (in fact, it is probably more true to say that few do). But even a passing fancy is something which somebody may pick up long after that moment is gone, and enjoy or not, in very much the same manner people could whenever the hype was on.

In fact, perhaps some of these things will find a better appeal when they are not over-marketed and only get to stand on their own two legs. I'm not saying that the fame will be eternal, but there may nevertheless be an appreciation of finding something new, as in previously unread, unseen or unheard (perhaps even unheard of).