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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'.

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