Improbable Fiction and a writer’s paralysis


Yes, I know. Long time between drinks. Very long. Let’s move on!

Last night I attended one of the last rehearsals of a local theatre production of Alan Ayckbourne’s play Improbable Fiction. The central conceit of this play is a clever one–a writer’s group meets to discuss their work (in Act One) and then, following some portentous thunder and so on, the characters they have created come to life (in Act Two) and act out the situations in the books they are writing. It’s quite a romp–very funny, very well acted by a strong local cast, providing further evidence of the cultural strength and resilience of my little corner of the world. Congratulations must go to the Launceston Players.

However, I was taken by one of the characters in particular and I thought I would muse briefly on her situation. The character’s name is Jess and the book she has in her head is a historical costume drama, a la jane Austen perhaps, but despite her best intentions she has yet to commit a word of it paper. I cannot remember the exact way it’s expressed in her dialogue but, to paraphrase, she is afraid that if she attempts to translate the perfect world of the book that she has in her head into words on paper, it won’t work–she will never be able to capture exactly the story that she has crafted in her mind.

Many people will tell you that the easiest thing in the world is not to write. I have been told at workshops and so on, many times, that no one is expecting it of you; the world is not holding its breath in anticipation of your masterpiece. So in writing, we have to look beyond this and find motivation to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping. This situation might well be compounded by fear of the type that Jess articulates–what if we get it horribly wrong? Here’s a truth: you might. Hemingway said that the first draft of anything is always shit, if you’ll pardon the vulgarity. But writing is nothing if not a search for meaning and part of the intoxication, the thing that more often than not keeps me heading back to the pen or keyboard, is that everything is part of that search. It’s very unlikely that you will ever complete a story or a poem or a novel exactly as you initially imagined it, because that’s what ideas and characters do–they evolve and react and change and, sometimes, they argue with you.

Perhaps writing that first draft, just committing words to paper, is akin to casting yourself off from shore and going where the wind takes you; don’t argue too loudly, and don’t be afraid.  The American novelist Jane Smiley says that she searches for the energy in her writing: “…at some point in every day’s writing, there will be a sort of takeoff…there’s a place where I feel the energy moving itself forward, instead of me pushing it.” (Reference below.)

Yes, writing takes courage–if for no reason than because you do it in spite of what the world asks of you. All creativity, someone once said, is courageous. I understand the sense of paralysis that Jess refers to; perhaps it’s small act of rebellion to cast this aside and just get on with it, and appreciate that I probably won’t land where I expected to.

Jane Smiley cited in Maran, M. (ed.): Why we Write: 20 acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do. 2013. New York: Plume Books (Penguin).

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