Skip to main content

The Agony and the Ego...

I felt drawn towards an old classic yesterday. It's The Agony and the Ego, edited by Clare Boylan, a series of essays on the 'art and strategy of fiction writing', from writers such as the brilliant John McGahern, John Banville, Patricia Highsmith and Marilyn French - and the latter gives a revealing account of how she came to write the feminist The Women's Room. I love this book because the essays within are not 'how to's...' but 'here's what I do/don't do...and I'm not saying they'll necessarily be comfortable for you.' And I also like the revelation that some of them declare themselves astonished that some writers talk of their characters as 'talking to them, like real people' as though justifying the fact that they then ought to be considered as fully-fleshed out characters and not simply constructions of words written by the author, similar to the belief that some writers have that they are connecting with some Divine Author who pushes characters this way and that, as opposed to the belief that, actually, the author is the creator and let's not be talking about voices in the head. John Banville agrees, 'When I hear a writer talking earnestly of how the characters in his latest book 'took over the action' I am inclined to laugh (or, if I am in a good mood, acknowledge a colleague doing his best to get through yet another interview). Fictional characters are made of words, not flesh; they do not exercise volition. They are easily born, and as easily killed off'. So many myths do the rounds within creative writing. Don't use too many adjectives. Don't tell, show. Don't use flashbacks, dreams et al. The truth is some of these tactics are great when used by some, and not so great when used by others. It's all in the handling. And we are all different. There is no 'one' formula - that there comes a change in the life of a writer when they grasp this and then begin to write the story they would like to read or that they feel they simply must tell, is something I like to believe. We each find our own way to telling that/those stories. As McGahern says, 'When I began to write - it was without any thought of publication. In many ways, it was an extension of reading as well as a kind of play.'

McGahern begins his essay by stating the obvious: I came to write through reading. He continues:

I came to read through pure luck. I had great good fortune when I was ten or eleven. I was given the run of a library. I believe it changed my life and without it I would never have become a writer. There were few books in our house, and reading for pleasure was not approved of. It was thought to be dangerous, like pure laughter. In the emerging class in the Ireland of the 1940s, when an insecure sectarian state was being guided by a philistine church, the stolidity of a long empty grave face was thought to be the height of decorum and profundity.

What I love about this is that I can hear so clearly McGahern's voice, and with it his outlook on life, and can almost see the twinkle in his eye at the thought of the danger of 'pure laughter'.

Popular posts from this blog

Who was Mary Burns?

On 7th January 1863 Mary Burns was found dead from a suspected heart attack. She was 43 years old. Since her death Mary has received barely any attention despite the fact that she spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, one of the world’s most influential thinkers and the co-founder of Marxism.

Born in 1822, Mary was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy, Irish immigrants from Tipperary. Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s in an area known casually as Irish Town, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. The year of Mary’s birth and her infancy were significant in that Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the event that became known as the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a peaceful protest of the working-classes on the site of St. Peter’s Fields in which several people were killed and hundreds injured. The Massacre occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of t…

Booker Shortlist announced

It's been a while... I know. Dog walking on the Downs, a bit of theatre, a bit of baking, a bit of writing etcetera etcetera. I also managed to read two complete books in the past month, which I was so pleased about. I had not read a whole book for about a year. The first was A Lie About My Father by Scottish poet/writer, John Burnside; a very well written memoir about father and son, but like all memoirs, some unreliability I felt. Poignant and tragic in equal measure. Then my husband returned from Cyprus (too hot for me this time of year, I can barely cope with England!) with Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. He loved it. And then I read it and also loved it. I had originally picked it up several years ago but didn't get beyond Amiens, where the first section is set, but was really glad I did this time around. Another incredibly well written book in the style of a good Victorian! I felt a bit unsure about bits of Elizabeth, in the later section, but I have never learnt so muc…

Good Canary

Forgot to mention that we went to see Good Canary at Kingston's Rose Theatre last week. Star role played by the brilliantly intense Freya Mavor, who plays a speed addict. It's directed by John Malkovich - his UK's theatre directorial debut. Will try and post more about it later.