Writing as a Way of Seeing
A novel or a memoir is about much more than learning to use techniques.
It’s common to think of writing as just that - the process of putting words on a page.
But writing a novel is not just about tapping out sentences on your keyboard. That’s just the endpoint of a much longer and much deeper process. A process that concludes with - and is initiated by - a certain state of being, a condition of readiness to receive.
In other words, you are not only writing when you are writing. The work is perpetual, ongoing, sometimes all-encompassing.
It is when you inhabit the world you are writing that you really become a writer. Then it can hardly feel like work at all. Then you become a channel for other forces - mysterious as that may sound.
It’s getting into that space in the first place that is the hard work.
The whole project of creation is not about writing, but about bringing life to your writing.
And this involves a way of being.
One never quite knows when this ‘ bringing of life’ going to happen. Or if it is going to happen at all.
For me, on one occasion - my novel ‘ Under The Same Stars’ - this enlivening didn’t happen until almost the final draft. I then received the spark of life into my work after so much deadness - and after I had more or less given up.
Then suddenly, without warning, I had a novel instead of a series of dead passages of prose. And it’s a novel I would now count as among my best.
How do you arrive at this blessed state of enlivening? ( and without having a certain way of being, I wouldn’t have known it when I saw it).
I’ve talked about a novel being a heroic quest - and a big part of the quest is to find a way of seeing.
James Baldwin put it this way:
“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
You can take all the lessons, you like - and they can be very useful - but in the end, it is like knowing all about the technology of a camera, being a camera buff, but not having an ‘eye’.
If you give any professional photographer even a disposable camera, they will 100 times out of 100 produce a better photograph than a beginner with a £5,000 camera, because they have an eye, that is to say, their own particular and distinctive perspective.
The eye is everything.
The equivalent of the photographer’s or painter’s eye is the writer’s voice.
What is the voice? It’s a very hard thing to define. It isn’t your style exactly. It’s something more than that.
Meg Rosoff has this to say about voice.
“The voice lies between the conscious and unconscious mind. It is the deepest possible reflection of who you are..in your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul”
She concludes her brilliant essay with this:
“ Stop thinking about your voice. Think about your life instead. Live. Take risks. Seek wisdom. Confront the unconfrontable. Find out who you are. Let your voice gain power as you go”
Read the full article here:
Is the eye/voice something you are just born with or can you develop it?
I think you can develop it - to some extent.
This is difficult to think about because it is quite esoteric. After all, what is it, this ‘eye’ that a photographer has? It has to do with composition, lighting, exposure and so forth, but it is also a sort of a vision that other people find it impossible to §conjure - at least not without years of training and some degree of natural talent.
It is similar to a writer. You have to get in the habit of processing information in a slightly different way – standing apart, observing, being scrupulously honest about yourself and other people, picking up scraps of your life and other people’s life, filing them away for later use.
Above all, it means not accepting anything at face value – putting it through your personal processor, looking at it through your particular lens, and then having the confidence to put your vision of the world out there in public.
This is not a continual or even conscious process a lot of the time. But if you are a writer you will find yourself filing away things that you may use later in a book – perhaps the way someone holds themselves physically, or the particular dynamic between a couple you know, or a certain habit of speech someone has that you can give to one of your characters. You are always on the lookout - for characters, for stories, for themes, for anything you can use. For insights. This ‘being on the lookout’ is similar to having an ‘eye’.
To sum up, there are two invisible processes at work when you write.
First, the coming to life of the text itself, which you cannot control except by constant application and a sort of faith.
Secondly, the development of an inner eye or voice which can see/hear/understand in a fresh and individual and above all honest way.
Writing may be a craft, but it is also an art. That means it cannot be known, but only intuited, sought for, or guessed at.
The training of an artist is a personal journey, not a gift to be given to you by a teacher. It often involves suffering ( the Greeks used to say you need to ‘suffer your
way to wisdom’ ) but it certainly involves the invention of a Self that can see the world, and the people in it, through a polished and clear lens.
It is not an easy task.
But it is the only way to become an artist rather than a typist.