Tag Archives: John Cowper Powys

A Splinter of Ice in the Heart

 

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Who will break first – the writer or the text?

 

When returning to a text one must learn to be unsentimental. In the early expansive phase you’re trying to woo the muse with metaphorical wine, chocolates and flowers —  to stimulate creative flow, to get something down on the page, anything … But now you must become the ice-hearted serial killer, methodically going through the text and murdering your darlings, one by one. All those adorable adjectives and amiable adverbs are so many kittens in the sack. Tie a rock to it and throw it in the lake. We may have written our first draft with what John Cowper Powys called ‘the ink-blood of home’ – driven by an overwhelming hiraeth for all that we are trying to evoke or resurrect – but now it’s time to ‘edit in cold blood’.

Putting the manuscript aside for a few weeks or months can help to give you sufficient critical distance.  Coming back to it, reading back through it with a strong cup of coffee, one can hopefully see it afresh: the weaknesses, the errors, the warts and all. All permissible in the dirty first draft: we write that in the dark, groping our way forward. The next, we write with the lights on. Going through it again with a solid set of editorial principles (see suggestions below) is like having a really good Spring (or Autumn) Clean. Beneath the clutter – an inevitable part of the scaffolding of an earlier version – there is a decent story, an effective scene, a salvageable bit of dialogue, a good character in the wrong place or hidden beneath a stereotype. Go deeper. Be ruthless. Time for the bad cop. Interrogate your text.

Print off. Read as a reader. Then read as a reviewer. Be your own worst critic and don’t give some other bastard the satisfaction of ripping you apart (it is easier to criticise than to create, to have an original vision and to manifest it in the world). Deconstruct your lovingly-built cathedral. Build it better.

What is the purpose of this scene? Does it serve the narrative? How?

Is there conflict?  Tension? Suspense?

What is the primary line of desire here (e.g. main character)? Secondary? Tertiary? Your protagonist’s short-term ‘goal’ will focalize this chapter, while they slowly work towards the mid- and long-term goals.

What changes in this scene or chapter? Is there a status shift? A shift in our perception of a character?

Is there exposition? Can it be dramatized (with action/dialogue), disguised (through an expositional device) or ditched (to create ‘space’ for the reader)?

Focus: is your language generalistic? Can you make it more precise? Your analogies more accurate? The universal is best expressed through the particular.

Defamiliarisation: take your sentences out of context and look at them one-by-one. Try rewriting them in different ways. Don’t assume anything has to stay. Everything has to earn its place, its right to exist in your narrative – otherwise, out it goes.

Opening line. Start deep, start strong. Hit the ground running.  Arrive late, leave early. Upset someone.

Last line. Where do you want to leave the reader? Does the last line ‘tie together’ the whole chapter in some way, or set up a ‘hook’ for the next?

Stay on theme. Give each chapter a working title, even if you don’t use it. This will help you sustain the mood or tone. Imagine each chapter having a single song – its soundtrack. Ensure the atmosphere of the song, its rhythm, prevails throughout.

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 25 September 2017

Summoning the Hero

The Writer’s Quest, part 2

Enter the Hero - Beowulf steps up to the role

Enter the Hero – Beowulf steps up to the role

At this time, Beowulf, nephew of the Geatish king Hygelac, is the greatest hero in the world. He lives in Geatland, a realm not far from Denmark, in what is now southern Sweden. When Beowulf hears tales of the destruction wrought by Grendel, he decides to travel to the land of the Danes and help Hrothgar defeat the demon. He voyages across the sea with fourteen of his bravest warriors until he reaches Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Every creative act is an act of courage – it is ‘yah-boo-sucks!’ to death, to oblivion, to mediocrity, to being a passive consumer of life. We have everything against us – common sense; the pressure of earning a living; unhelpful peers; inner critics; crazymakers; noisy neighbours; that household chore that really needs your attention; that cold call; Climate Chaos; global financial meltdown; random asteroids and super volcanoes threatening to Destroy The World in an instant! See these as threshold guardians – they are the equivalent of the three-headed dog Cerberus that guarded the entrance to the realm of Hades. They are there to test your mettle, your tenacity. How much do you want to follow your dreams? Is your Push bigger than your Pull? Hollywood screenwriters use the useful idea of the ‘Fear/Desire Axis’ – which, despite its name is not some terrorist cell, or Bond-like super-baddy organisation. Basically, the actions of every character (and, possibly, every human being) is governed by the principle. Imagine it like a see-saw, with Fear at one end, Desire at the other. When a character’s desire outweighs their fear, they move forward. When that mean old bully fear tips the balance, they freeze or retreat. The locus of optimum dramatic tension is the tipping point between the two – the trick is to sustain this as long as possible. Shakespeare kept Hamlet stewing in his own juices for five acts, prevaricating, unable to act. This was the Prince of Denmark’s fatal flaw – he oscillated between ‘to be or not to be’, like some dodgy alternator. If he had killed Claudius in Act One, Scene One – end of story. Instead, Shakespeare wisely spun it out and elicited powerful drama from the psychological anguish experienced by the Dane at his tipping point, creating early Nordic noir.

`Yet, finally, the Hero must act – whatever the consequences. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam reach the uninviting entrance to Shelob’s Lair, reeking of carrion, plot snags and foul things. Neither of them are keen to enter – but they have a mission, to take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. This ‘desire’ outweighs their ‘fear’ and, steeling themselves (Frodo, with Sting) they step into the dark. This makes them heroes. Of course, if they had thought – ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’, and gone back to the Shire, they wouldn’t have been (and they wouldn’t have found much of a Shire to go back to). Novelist John Cowper Powys talked about how a character’s behaviour is governed by a ‘concatenation of imperatives’161 – incrementally, things build up (like ounce weights on the scales) until the protagonists simply have no choice (or so it would seem to them), or if they do, it’s a Hobson’s Choice – a choice which is really no choice at all.

And so into the darkness the plucky hobbits step – with their magic sword in one hand, and the Light of Elendil in the other. And so must we, as writers – armed with only a pen (or keyboard) and the frail light of our inspiration. In the Welsh legend of the bard Taliesin, Gwion Bach is reborn shining with awen (inspiration), stolen from Ceridwen’s cauldron – ‘Behold the radiant brow!’ cries the weir-ward when he is rediscovered, a helpless babe in a coracle. Consumed by our ‘illumination’ we venture into the Perilous Realm, like Wandering Aengus in WB Yeats’ classic poem: ‘I went for a walk in a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…’

Setting off on the Writer’s Quest of the creative process is perhaps akin to being a knight in a medieval romance, venturing into the forest (although we are probably more like Parsifal at this stage – the Holy Fool – more than the accomplished Paladin). Be prepared to make a fool of yourself, turning up at Court on a donkey in a patchwork costume. Let yourself make mistakes – give yourself permission – because so much success comes from creative ‘failure’, from trial and error and happy accidents. Embark in the spirit of creative play – and you will be more likely to create something original. Start thinking that you ‘know it all’, that you have the answers, and you will have nothing to learn (and readers will probably be less inclined to listen). Start your quest with questions – and your journey will be a journey of discovery, fuelled by curiosity and delight, some of the essentials for a writer.

10 Essentials for a Writer

  • Pen. Paper. A lack of excuses.
  • Curiosity & Delight.
  • A willingness to say ‘yes’ to life/a rebuttal of the ‘no’s’.
  • Ability to rewrite and listen to feedback.
  • Staying power (an internal composition engine).
  • An appetite for adventure.
  • Risk-taking.
  • Boldness.
  • Humour.
  • A healthy book habit.

Gawain had a pentagram on his shield to remind him of the ‘five Christian virtues’. In Scotland, at the Castle of the Muses, I met a South-African ‘knight’ called David told me of the essential chivalrous qualities as he sees them. A knight has:

  • the wisdom to do what is right
  • the will to make it happen
  • and the strength to make it endure.

And he suggested the three traits of a warrior are: impeccability, unpredictability, and responsibility. These latter qualities could certainly apply to a writer: impeccability in terms of being conscientious of one’s craft, attending to the details, keeping one’s house in order; unpredictability, in terms of originality of thought, ideas and execution; and responsibility, in terms of what you write, what you choose to bring into the world. These are the qualities we need to summon in ourself as we heed the call to adventure and set off to face our foe. In essence, the Hero is our Higher Self – and writing can help us connect to it (as well as to our Lower Self, our Shadow).

I call these the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses.

Basically, writing can bring out the best and the worst in us – both in its execution and on the page. Writers can be beasts and saints, charismatic or tedious bores. Good to be around, or the partner/friend from Hell. Selfless, or selfish. Certainly there is an element of selfishness in writing – in indulging in one’s fantasies, as well as in the single-mindedness needed to see a project through to completion; and yet one could argue that in spending precious years slaving away at a manuscript that might have an altruistic element (the edification of humanity!) we are being selfless to a certain extent (although in reality the act of writing is probably a blending of the -less and the -ish!). On the page, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses can manifest in the form of characters – we can personify them.

It could be argued that all characters are aspects of the author’s personality (for where else do they come from? who else is writing it?). The Hero and Villain of a tale could be seen as the Higher and Lower Self of the author, although this is perhaps a crude analysis and things are often more nuanced than that. Villains often ‘act out’ our Super-Egos (over-confident, slick, successful, sexually magnetic, etc); and Heroes can often be dysfunctional and even amoral. Martin Amis said that ‘novels come from the base of the spine’ – echoing Nabokov’s ‘tell-tale tingle down the spine’162 – in the way that they explore powerful primal issues around security and identity. They can be an instinctual response to the world, almost beyond cognition – hence the mystery around the creative process, and where authors get their ideas from. Often, we can’t say for certain – until afterwards. The first draft is often written ‘in the dark’ – in the process of unknowing, of seeking, or being ‘driven’ – and the second with the ‘lights on’. The ‘scary thing in the shadows’ disturbs our status quo and forces us to give it voice, and then we ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (or the stench of blood) and go in all guns blazing. First, Grendel; then Beowulf.

Of Beowulf, the bards sang:

And many men stated that south or north,

Over all the world, or between the seas,

Or under the heaven, no hero was greater.’163

When we summon the Hero we are, in a way, evoking our better qualities – our unrealised potential – and giving them a form. There is often an element of wish-fulfilment, of power-fantasy (think of James Bond; Sherlock Holmes; Jason Bourne, etc). The Hero can carry for us all the things we wish we could do or be if only… By writing, we literally tap into these and give them dramatic form; and in the process, we inhabit these qualities. By channelling the archetype, for a while we become it. And this is part of the visceral (as well as intellectual) thrill of writing which is rarely discussed. The adrenalin rush of writing can be intoxicating and … addictive. ‘I feel gripped by something stronger than my will,’ is how Alice W. Flaherty describes it.164

That is why, I believe, writing is the ‘best of me’ (as I tap into my Higher Self) and also when I often feel most fully alive (it can be exhilarating). When I am firing on all cylinders, the writer is a turbo-charged version of myself – I feel like I am stepping into my power and being most fully myself. I am living up to my own potential.

And so by becoming writers, we become in effect, the Hero of our own story. We are no longer the passive recipient of another’s narrative. We have seized control of our own and writing our destiny into being.

Whether we accomplish it is another matter.

The way is littered with perils and pitfalls – not least that of Ego the Giant, who lumbers onto our path and threatens to overshadow the whole proceedings unless he is handled with care.

Next we will look at the Art of Bragging and how that feckless lunk, Ego, can be put to good use.

DESIRING DRAGONS - COMPASS BOOKS FRONT COVER

Extract from ‘The Writer’s Quest’ Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2014

Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest, Compass Books, 2014