Patricia Highsmith is quoted as saying – and I paraphrase heavily, that every writer is a very private person, that to talk about one’s self is to a writer like standing naked in front of an audience.
This is a statement I can identify with. While it is obvious not all people who write feel this way, (hello conference talks, Facebook, twitter) many do and plenty of non-writers do too. Maybe it’s just that old high-school psychology definition of introversion but I find that too simplistic, it misses the point.
To have to talk about yourself can be for some very cruel and even once you have mastered not talking about yourself, you will find the problem is still there when people ask you questions.
And when you write, people ask you questions about your work and yourself – all the time.
Just don’t ask!
There is sometimes a strange and instant repulsion that comes from a question. I don’t mean the type that comes from the stranger who stops you in the street to ask where the market is or even those direct questions from your boss about your views on obesity or global warming, the ones that seem to silence the entire room and send the wall spinning off into space. Chilling questions can be inconspicuous to most, simple small talk that can just as easily come from a stranger standing next to you at a wedding who asks you if you don’t find the church beautiful.
Of course we all know about ‘loaded questions’, the ones that back you into a fight, the “You don’t love me” statements. I have one particular friend who I am often very fond of who occasionally asks me a question it seems just to try and interrogate me about my answer. She simply cannot accept that we have different opinions on the fundamentals of life and half an hour in her company leaves me racked and comatose on the sofa
So when you write something that might be interesting to yourself or others, you do so by uncovering an idea that is not explored in everyday life. It can be about an everyday subject; child rearing, food preferences, crossing the street but to make it interesting it has to explore an element of this activity that is novel or not immediately obvious.
Do you have anything interesting to say?
A lot of people, who try to do this, simply can’t. It’s not that they are not creative (I know a lot of very creative scientists and designers who can’t find an interesting thing to say about their day if their lives depended on it) but they lack that certain awareness of the other person’s perspective, the outside view that tells them, this is me- and where I finish something else begins that is not me and what ever words come out of my mouth or fingers will be perceived by the other side completely outside of my control and computed and stored. For me, it is seeing that gap, be it a millimeter or the breadth of a continent that gives you a creative perspective and also the adamant desire for privacy.
For example, I sat in on a creative writing class with a group of students who were asked to write a short story about something that would happen everyday in London, – to write without editing if possible.
One girl wrote about someone finding out she was adopted through a long and winding tale that lead to someone simply telling her. One had a double suicide ending on the big wheel while cameras rolled. One was about a bomb at the Olympic development site.
There was no angle, no feelings or positions on any subject offered. When I thought later about this, I wondered if these people were actually too afraid to just tell a story from their point of view. What if instead of telling the double suicide story, you had someone see it and think it was an act of fame-hunger? Well the rest of the class would judge you. They would look at you and think – right, I know something about that person’s insides, about their personality and attitude to suicide- and as they say “Knowledge is Power” and power if a finite attribute that by definition, we can’t all have.
In the end if you can imagine enough to write something interesting containing the thoughts of someone who isn’t you, you can also imagine what other people think of you after they read it.
With the earlier example of the fellow guest at the wedding in the church, if you take the easy route to this question “Isn’t it a beautiful church” and say “Yes. Very beautiful.” You may be (white) lying and if the conversation continues, if the person digs further this may be reveled and you will then become “dishonest”.
If you tell the truth, that churches, with their over use of gold and violent imagery remind you of all the oppression and thievery of religion, and make you question how anyone could ever consider celebrating a marriage in one, you will be considered rude and possibly insane. Even though the guest may not reply to that answer, you will not be able to block out the thoughts going through her head as they are portrayed in your own.
Let’s talk about Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith wrote about private people with secrets and she played with the attribute of power freely, moving it sharply between her subjects. The people with the most privacy were gifted the most power, and concurrently if the privacy was removed, the power slipped.
In the Talented Mr Ripley, Tom moves quickly through conditions of privacy, first he is living in an apartment with a man who he hopes won’t come home – as the offer comes to travel on the Greenfield account, he hopes this flat mate doesn’t come home before he leaves so he doesn’t have to tell him about his trip. This privacy gives his the advantage. He loses power sharply when he is caught playing in Dickie’s room and after he assumes Dickie’s identity, allowing him complete privacy for Tom, Tom becomes the most powerful character in the book.
Similarly in Sweet Sickness, David has a beautiful house where he lives part-time as the character Neumeister, stalking and obsessing over Annabelle who is married to someone else. He is powerful enough to be able to rely on others not voicing their suspicions after her husband dies but once he tries to ‘come clean’, buys a house in his own name and have a relationship with Annabelle, he is open and vulnerable. Everything unravels.
So how can someone who writes mediate this gap between the Self and the outside world when the essence of creating something interesting requires that the self be exposed and privacy be abandoned and if this is so, how can one possibly write without absolute privacy?
If anyone knows the answer to this…
Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self – Cyril Connolly (1903 – 1974)