Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why We Write What We Write

Emma Darwin’s blog recently discussed issues relating to themes, subject matter, and originality. This left me thinking about one of the questions she implicitly posed: Why do we write about the things we write about?

Stephen King once answered an interviewer who posed that question by asking, “What makes you think I have any choice?”, and a fine answer it is; I don't think King, or for that matter, Kafka, probably had much chance of selecting different themes or topics.

There may be a few writers out there who consciously select their subject matter and themes based on commercial considerations. In general, this sounds to me like a recipe for trying to write a book even though it's uninteresting to you. Who would want to go through such drudgery, and what are the chances it would result in a book anyone would want to read? Lord knows there have been a million people writing Da Vinci Code clones over the past few years, and publishers willing to publish at least a few of those, but none of them have had much success, and I think that's because they were commerically calculated efforts. I found Dan Brown's novel literally unreadable, but I don't doubt that when he write it he was excited by the topics and themes, and that this excitement communicated itself to the book's many enthusiasts.

Alfred Hitchcock once observed that although the public thought he must be some kind of monster owing to his subject matter, he actually worked so well in the fields of suspense and terror because he was so frightened of so many things. In his best work, his neuroses and fears come through to the viewers, and his anxieties and preoccupations become our own.

My own novels are in different genres and vary widely in tone, from comic to earnest to downright dark. Most of them, of course, are still unpublished, and you might think this is evidence of my own thesis here: a writer should stick to their preoccupations and not jump around.

Yet when I peel back genre and style and take a look beneath the surface of my stories, I find the machinery below is familiar, even repetitive; my mind seems to be obsessed with certain kinds of conflicts, ambiguities, and personalities. Those dynamics are a mirror of my subconscious mind.

On the surface, it looks as though I have a choice in what I write about (the less charitable might say it looks as if I can't make up my mind), but I'm beginning to doubt how much freedom I have. Perhaps I can dress my preoccupations in different clothes, even play Henry Higgins and teach them different accents and styles; and, with a little bit of luck (no lyric reference intended) they might seem fresh and new. I'm beginning to worry they're all still Eliza Doolittle at heart.

Do the writers amongst you find that, at some deep level, you are writing the same story or tackling the same themes in different ways in each successive work? And are these phases, like Picasso's Blue Period, or are they permanent?

PS In the comment trail on her post, Emma says, "...having heard Ang Lee acknowledge that Sense & Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and The Incredible Hulk all sprang from his obsession with repression, I do now feel a bit less nervous."


Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

Bloody hell, your timing isn't great. This is a big question on writing and I wonder if I can do it justice in the short time I have.

I would say that first of all, I am here for story. The Secret War wasn't written to be commercial (at the time it didn't fit any boxes - it wasn't deemed as a sellable book because it straddled too many genres). I don't believe in writing for the sake of making money. I see no joy in it. If I wanted to make money, I would have become a .com millionaire or made it in I.T. It does means I feel more freedom with my writing than those who just aim for the largest piñata with the biggest and most unwieldy stick.

As for whether I'm writing the same thing over and over... I'm not sure. Not completely, anyway. The Black Hours is a different beast to my first two books. It's more political for one. It's more brutal than The Secret War stories.

Having said that, there is a sense of injustice running through all the stories I write. No overbearing morality, but a feeling that some people quite literally get away with murder.

So maybe that's my thing... Maybe I do “injustice”.

Tim Stretton said...

Phew! What a question...

I always say that my mantra is "write what I'd like to read", but since my tastes are somewhat catholic, that doesn't really stand up to scrutiny. I write in a pretty narrow subset of my much wider reading tastes.

More accurate, perhaps, is "write what I have fun writing", since I never expect to make a living from it. And I suppose that means exploring the things which interest and preoccupy me. I don't know whether I could sit down and write, in cold blood, something which I thought was tosh. (Writing tosh by accident, on the other hand, is very much easier...).

I would like to think that I'm not going to write the same novel 20 times, but there are some strong similarities between my current work and my last one. Since publishers seem to enjoy having something that's "the same but different", that may not be a bad thing.

On the other hand, there are few sadder arcs than Patricia Cornwell, who wrote one excellent book and then rewrote it ad nauseam, to the extent that I can't read any of them (even the good ones) any more...

Neil said...

That is one damn fine post, young man.

Like you, I write in fairly broad genres, but very much have the same themes working themselves over in most of my stuff. I'm not even sure if them is the right word actually. There's this something in addition to the theme of the work, and that's the way the characters interact with that theme (which is often separation), which seems pretty consistent too. I think I enjoy writing with Aliya because although our themes aren't the same, there's overlap, and there's overlap in the way that our characters deal with the themes too.

I think some constant ingredient with a writer is a plus for a reader, so long as, as in Tim's example, it isn't grating. After all, it's not a turn of phrase that makes most people keep returning to one writer and not another.

Alis said...

I've come to the conclusion that I didn't know what my underlying neuroses/preoccupations were before I started writing but now there they are in each and every book I write. However unalike the themes, settings and plots seem, they're all underpinned by the same issues.
Tell you what they are? I don't think so! If MNW publishes the wip you'll have to see if you can work it out!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Yeah, I can believe the "injustice" thing might run through your woork, though so far I've just read "Secret War."

I also suspect you have have an almost Zoroastrian obsession with Light and Darkness, but that's based on a limited sample...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yes, series books are an interesting problem, and I agree with your assessment of Cornwell (though she still sells by the boatload). There's nothing I like better than a good series, but in general I dislike finding that a book I like will be the first in a series, because few people can bring it off.

I think there's probably a distinction here between grappling with the same sorts of issues over and over (say, Faulkner) and using the same set-up over and over (say, Cornwell). Once again our writing glossary fails us...

David Isaak said...

Hiya, Neil--

You're right--I don't think we have a word for the underlying similarities. "Theme" is part of it, and character dynamics is part of it; for me, how the books end is even part of it.

I can see how writing with someone whose preoccupations overlap largely but not entirely with one's own would be stimulating (though I have to admit I still don't quite understand how one goes about writing with a partner!)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yes, you'll notice that I've been very vague about my own specifics. It's just that, like you, I've begun to notice that they are present, and to wonder about that fact.

And I'm curious to see if those concerns and themes are permanent--or if we'll eventually move on to something else.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Awful question. One that keeps me awake at night.

I'm only writing about the same things over and over. it really worries me that I'm doing nothing new, and reaching no resolution. I don't want to bore myself, or my readers, but I've discovered during 2008 that I can't change my tune either.

Argh. Thanks for bringing that up. While you're at it, why don't you give me a nice paper cut and pour lemon juice on it? (name the film...)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Aliya--

Oh, your stuff is so deeply disguised you need not worry anyone will recognize commonalities. MMM, Three Things, and Light Reading don't bear much surface resmblance to each other--at least not in my eyes.

Paper cuts and lemon juice? The last thing I saw with that combo was the Kevin Spacey movie "Swimming With Sharks." But that was quite a while back. (Good flick, too.) But you might have another movie in mind (nobody has seen SwS...)

If I recall, Tabasco was involved as well.

Tim Stretton said...

Aliya, you're much too hard on yourself. Your two MNW novels are significantly differentiated. I think in fact you're an unusually versatile writer. We all write about the same things over and over - after all, there's not really that much to write about!

One could argue--although I wouldn't--that Jane Austen wrote the same novel six times (in which case Patrick O'Brian wrote the same novel 20 times). You're actually inhabiting a much wider tundra than these two!

This suggests to me that variety of territory is not a good predictor of literary merit.

Which is another way of saying "get back to work, because I'm waiting for whatever you write next!"

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm working, I'm working!

Reading the comments it seems that all writers share these fears. We're even boringly predictable in our paranoias. Hmmm. I feel better knowing I'm not alone. As long as we're all struggling with it, I'm happy.

That seems a bit mean, but there we are.

David Isaak said...

Hey, I never described repetitive dynamics as a fear. It's just something I was wondering about.

Maybe our purpose as writers is to grapple with certain issues. (Look at how issues of faith run through Graham Greene's books, showing up disguised even in some unlikely places.) I figure any issue worth grappling with is probably one that can't be easily resolved, so we keep revisiting it.

Though at least some of what shows up is fetishism or neurosis, too. I don't recall a Jonathan Carroll novel in which a dog doesn't feature prominently (one of the is even entitled "Outside the Dog Museum". I can't figure out what his dog thing is, but I'm always glad to see his latest canine character.

Alis said...

Aliya - I'll name that film. The Princess Bride, one of my all-time favourites. The character, played by Billy Crystal, goes on to say something which has become, with appropriate variations, a favourite in our family 'Your friend is only mostly dead!' So cool!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yes, a good movie, though I don't recall the paper cuts issue. Have you read the novel? One of my favorite books.

Jen Ster said...

Hi David!

I've written some stuff where I've had to sit down the next day, take a long hard look at it and ask myself if I'm sure I've been taking my meds lately. To say nothing of more mundane wrangles where the only reason a character won't do a particular thing is that, uh, he wouldn't do that particular thing. Why not? Well, because he wouldn't. Well, why wouldn't he? Because I know the guy, and he wouldn't do that. Why not? He just wouldn't, okay? Shut up, you're driving me nuts.

Most recent example, one of my characters shocked hell out of me by getting pregnant (okay, I coulda seen it coming, but I wasn't paying attention) and I was stuck in the uncomfortable position of trying to figure out what on earth I/she was going to do about this. Can she have an abortion? No. Why not? Well, she wouldn't do that. Because she's Catholic? Well, she is Catholic but that's beside the point, she just wouldn't do that. Why not? Because she wouldn't do that, okay? Argh. Quite a dilemma for a nonCatholic protofeminist who has to admit it's by far the easiest way out of the mess. Which may be why I haven't done it. I never like easy answers.

See above re: meds. I have to go now.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Having characters surprise you in a "I should have seen that coming" way is something I'd take as a very good sign. So is knowing that a character would or wouldn't do something without being able to articulate why. In both instances it means they are like real people we know.

The only difference is that in books it's a requirement that they be like interesting real people...

Jen Ster said...

So THAT'S the secret!!!

Just kidding.

Frances said...

(Belatedly) a good post, David. I think much of our plot(s) has to come from within, because that's the only thing other people can't access, and therefore has to be at least a bit original. I suppose it tends to be viewpoint/experience/style rather than plot, but that's not a bad start. And I'm delighted you found The Da Vinci Code unreadable - I had to put (throw) it down after about two chapters. It was so incredibly badly written (no sour grapes, of course...)