The repellent muse.

I’m currently researching my next novel, the third in the Silas Quinn series. In fact, I’m reaching the stage where I’m thinking about putting the history books to one side and doing some actual writing.

The first thing I will have to do is turn the rather loose outline I submitted to my publisher into something I can actually work from. A detailed, chapter by chapter synopsis.

Usually, it’s my favourite part of the process. Fleshing out the bones of the plot, tying myself in knots and then teasing out the strands. But this time I’m experiencing a strange sense of resistance. In fact, I read the first line of my outline and winced. What kind of sick bastard came up with that idea? I thought. Oh, it was me.

I remembered my editor’s response to the outline when I sent it to her. “Seriously, I worry about your imagination!!!” Still, she commissioned the book – without asking me to tone down any of the gruesome elements. And whenever I’ve met her she’s struck me as a perfectly respectable individual.

I couldn’t help thinking back to a review of Summon Up The Blood, the first of my Silas Quinn books, which had appeared in Booklist. The word “repellent” was used. The book was described as “stomach churning at times”. And yet the reviewer, who also seems like an eminently civilized person, awarded it a coveted star. (Obviously a person of excellent taste, too.)

And, perversely, I have to confess, I was extremely proud of that “repellent”. In context, it was music to my ears: “Mesmerizing, repellent, bizarre, intelligent, dark, provocative—all of these apply to Morris’ first book in his new series.”

But there was no denying my resistance. In an attempt to exorcise it, I took to twitter with my angst and received some very supportive and encouraging responses. For instance, Aliya Whiteley (author of Light Reading, Three Things About Me, and Mean Mode Median) told me to “Have faith in the sickness of your brain that vomits out on to the page. That’s what I do.”

All the same, it seems a strange occupation, this writing lark. And I can’t help wondering why we do it – let alone whether we should. I mean, all we’re doing is making up stories. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we made up nice stories? And if I must write crime, why not write Cozies? Or why not switch to a different genre all together? Romantic comedy perhaps. Or edifying morality tales.

It’s just not the way my imagination works, I’m afraid. The only thing I’ve got to go on, as a writer of fiction, is my imagination. I’m entirely at its mercy. I must go where it leads. Even if I don’t feel comfortable where it’s taking me.

Of course, the truth is I don’t have to write at all. And if I do write, I don’t have to share what I’ve written with anyone. I can lock my outpourings up in a tin box and throw away the key. Despite what Aliya says, the world doesn’t need to see the sickness of my brain that vomits out on to the page.

This is what’s known as self-censorship.

Now self-censorship has its place. It’s self-protective. It helps us keep our jobs because it’s the mechanism that stops us saying exactly what we think of our bosses to their face. Our minds make us think all manner of unpleasant thoughts, often about complete strangers. But self-censorship stops us shouting those thoughts out in the street, and therefore reduces the chances of us getting our faces punched in. A lack of this faculty is usually diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome.

Why then do writers – when writing – deny themselves this perfectly reasonable strategy, a strategy that seems to be essential for us to function as individuals in society? (And one which they are happy to employ when not writing.) I can’t give a definitive answer to that question. I can only answer it in terms that make sense to me.

For me, the whole point of writing is to get out what’s inside. The need to do that is almost physiological. Certainly, if I’m not writing, I feel on edge, not myself. Not exactly unhappy, perhaps – but definitely dissatisfied, unfulfilled. At odds with myself and the world. For whatever reason, I am programmed to attempt this reckless and rude endeavour. God knows, I don’t do it for the money. Though a little of that is always welcome.

Let’s leave aside why this might be and just accept that it is. You might call it a personality disorder, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue with you. The fact is I’m committed to the task. Therefore I am obliged to undertake it on its own terms. Being a writer is a bit like being pregnant. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. In the same way, you can’t be a little bit of a writer. This has got nothing to do with whether you’re published or not. Or whether you do it full time, or only at weekends. It’s just this: you either do it properly or you don’t do it all. (Of course, lots of people won’t subscribe to this – but I am, as I said, answering the question in a way that makes sense to me.)

For me, as I hinted above, writing fiction is an act of the imagination. So my imagination is in charge. I surrender to it. It’s not quite that I’m just taking the minutes. I do have a slightly more active contribution to make than that. Perhaps I’m more like Dante following Virgil through the Circles of Hell – I can’t control where it leads me, but I can try to make sense of what it shows me.

This morning I happened to be reading a book on early cinema called The Dream that Kicks by Michael Chanan. In it he quotes from an essay by George Orwell which I remember reading years ago. I know I’ve read it before because it struck me very forcibly at the time, and even though I haven’t really thought about it since, it came back to me when I read the passage quoted in Chanan’s book. Orwell is exploring the expressive potential of the ‘cinematograph’. He imagines “a millionaire with a private cinematograph, all the necessary props and a troupe of intelligent actors”. Such a man “could, if he wished, make practically all of his inner life known. He could explain the real reasons of his actions instead of telling rationalised lies, point out the things that seemed to him beautiful, pathetic, funny, etc. – things that an ordinary man would keep locked up because there are no words to express them. In general, he could make other people understand him.”

That image, although it is more a premonition of the director as auteur than a description of the writer of fiction, seemed strangely apposite.

2 thoughts on “The repellent muse.”

  1. Thanks for posting this Roger, lots to think about. I guess we’re all creating stories, published or otherwise, that we feel need/have to be told. As you say, it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads or appreciates it, it’s just got to come out.

    It’s a bit Jekyll & Hyde isn’t it – mild mannered on the outside, violent maniac on the inside… Dr Roger and Mr Morris perhaps?

    I’ve read the Orwell piece too, years ago – rereading that extract made me immediately think of Citizen Kane. I wonder if he wrote it before it was made and if Welles had read it.

    Sharpen your knife and get down to it – you know you want to. 🙂

  2. Thanks for looking in, Ed. Jekyll and Hyde is right. I think the Orwell piece is very early in cinema history – pre-sound, even. He was certainly talking only about silent films. Now, where did I put my knife…

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