Category Archives: Writing

These are the ghosts that get me

Helena “Griefbacon” Fitzgerald, applying her inimitable turns of phrase to the shifting of the seasons, both external and internal:

It’s easy to forget, in the long memory of a worse time, that there was something bright before it; it’s hard not to write a story where every single thing one does before things go wrong is the cause of what went wrong, joy into culpability and fun into guilt. As though bad ideas are never parties; as though parties are always harbingers. As though everything has to be something more than itself.

Passages like that are why I rarely publish memoir material: mine is always too overwrought, while Fitzgerald has the knack of pitching it just right, sat square in the gap in the mix between profound and mundane — words that move you, but which might nonetheless have been said aloud by someone thinking things through while sat across the table from you.

Again, listen:

This is a brutal time of year, even if all times of year are brutal in their own way. No matter how much I try to convince myself that it’s good, actually, the sudden dark after daylight savings feels like an accounting of all the ways I have wasted time and gotten older.

So much more thoughtful than my own recent railing against the elements, no?

(No, I’m not beating up on myself and my own writing, here — this is just a way for me to externalise thoughts about style. By trying to explain it to you, the imagined audience of this blog, I explain it to myself in a way that can’t be achieved by merely thinking about it, or by scribbling in a notebook. I remain one of those writers who writes less to share what they think about something, and more to discover it.)

the bag contains no heroes

Siobhan Leddy at The Outline on one of the less-well-known but arguably most important bits of the Le Guinean oeuvre.

(Gonna excerpt fairly generously here, because this blog is my online commonplace book, and I learned about link-rot the hard way… but go read the whole thing for yourself, support online writers etc etc.)

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. […]

Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity’s foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing. […] Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another.

[…]

The only problem is that a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting. […] As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account.

(This is what I was talking about here, and many times before — we lack a narratology that can handle systemic causalities.)

The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

(I know, right? But nonetheless there is a market for novels that do exactly that, as KSR’s career indicates… )

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. […] The carrier bag story, with its lack of heroes, is a collective rather than individualist endeavor.

And on to the end with a mention of Saint Donna, still stayin’ with the trouble.

We’ll always have Paris

Umberto Eco on “The Cult of the Imperfect” at the venerable Paris Review:

When all the archetypes shamelessly burst in, we plumb Homeric depths. Two clichés are laughable. A hundred clichés are affecting—because we become obscurely aware that the clichés are talking to one another and holding a get-together. As the height of suffering meets sensuality, and the height of depravity verges on mystical energy, the height of banality lets us glimpse a hint of the sublime.

Via artist/designer John Coulthart, whose Sunday link-dumps are reminiscent of the glory days of blogging; I always find something I want to read. Put him in yer RSS reader, if he’s not there already.

No consolation

Tim Maughan:

Real people don’t have character arcs, or simple motivations, or background stories to be revealed in a prequel – those things are inventions of the entertainment industry. They’re marketable tropes. Real people are far more nebulous, complicated, they live far more in the moment and without definable meaning. They can’t be summed up on a character sheet. As such it feels dishonest — for me at least — to try and write characters that way. Instead I feel more comfortable providing the reader with glimpses into their lives, allowing them to tag along with them in their day to day routines, to let them piece things together and make their own decisions about them. That’s how we interact with most people we meet, if we’re honest: we never really, deeply know that much about them, we can just observe and judge, rightly or wrongly. It’s the best we can ask or hope for, beyond close friends or lovers. We’re not entitled to anything more. I quite like the idea of the same being true about the characters in my books. But maybe I’ll change my mind.

If you’ve not read Infinite Detail yet, sort your shit out. It’s enviably good. Also bleak as hell, but — well, see the title of this post.

Grading the ascent

Many writers insist that when they are writing they write for themselves, they don’t think about the reader. A noble sentiment, even a necessary one, but is it true? Even Emily Dickinson wanted to be read. Do we not all, when we are writing, have in mind if not our ideal reader then our ideal writer, the writer who drives us forward, the writer whose audience we would like to share, the writer – if we dare admit it – we would most like to impress?

It is useful to acknowledge the truth of this, because it opens a window on to the summit of our ambition. Ambition is often seen as a dirty word, but for me it is a powerful word as well as an honest one, an abstraction that is physically revealed in the very act of writing.

How far do we want to climb? I’m not talking about a universal standard, a clearly measurable distance. It is a matter of the kind of terrain we wish to traverse.

Nina Allan