The Writers’ Best Tool
In all of the self-help writing books that teach technique, plot structure and overcoming writer’s block (to readers who haven’t yet started writing!) hardly anyone addresses the one thing would-be authors need more than anything else. Take a look at the photograph and ask what you see. This was my secondhand paperback haul on Saturday in a Brighton market.
Ellen Wood’s ‘East Lynne’ was a Victorian sensation novel remembered chiefly for its elaborate, implausible plot built on infidelities and double identities. There have been numerous stage and film adaptations, so many that rep companies put on a performance whenever they needed guaranteed revenue. It became so common that theatres stuck with a crap play would tell audiences, ‘Don’t worry, next week, East Lynne!’
Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’ is set in Haiti under the rule of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, and fits perfectly into the category ‘English Exotic’, which was explored by writers like Norman Collins and Evelyn Waugh, usually playing up the blackly comic angle of the inept English abroad.
David Madsen’s ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’ is a highly peculiar romp about gnosticism that’s more of an excuse to give religion a good rogering, and is shockingly funny. The oddest one in the group is ‘The Poet and the Lunatics’, a very rare book by GK Chesterton about a mad poet who sort-of solves crimes because he can enter the mentalities of the perpetrators.
The connection is that there is no connection, but we’ll get to that in a moment. ‘How To Write’ books are to me like plot notes written on postcards or extra bits of software; another barrier placed between the mind and the page. I tried ‘Scrivener’ when it first appeared and found it so complex and annoying that I was working on the app more than the book (although I’ve heard that the 3rd gen version is better, if still over-complex).
The problem is that the innate requirements to write are in the DNA, not the accoutrements. The writer’s best-kept secret is curiosity – the desire to know an awful lot about any subject that takes their fancy. However, there’s a cavil to the curiosity; it usually involves people rather than things. It comes from wanting to ask; ‘How did this make you feel?’ or ‘What made you do this?’ or ‘What was the impact on your family?’
Without curiosity there can be no real interest in writing, because curiosity is coupled with enthusiasm, a very desirable trait for anyone in a creative field. I have a friend who is not a writer but has the most insatiable curiosity about everything (he eventually became a Justice of the Peace). I feel he has a book in him, more so than some of the extremely erudite but incurious students I’ve met.
Often the abilities required for a particular job are not possessed by those in the job. Think of Basil Fawlty, a man who is not good with people working at the customer interface.
So, those four books…why did I pick them? Victorian sensation, English exotic, Medieval religion, poetic madness? They all tell human stories and all cover topics I’d like to know more about. So my curiosity will be assuaged – and at some point further down the line, something I’ve read in them may just become useful…