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.

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