Writing fiction is not really about making stuff up. It’s more about making sense of what you already have stored somewhere in your memory or subconscious, dusting it off, ordering it and making it intelligible to the rest of the world. The hope is that the things you write about will also resonate with other people, not by teaching them something new, but by helping them to see in a new way the things they already know.
What that means for the process of writing is that things often take me by surprise. Dialogue and details appear as if from nowhere. Sometimes I don’t recognise them at all, which makes me fascinated by Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious (but that’s a subject for another post). More often, I recognise them as things I have come across in life and been affected by in some way.
Here’s an example. When you live in London and travel by Underground train, you’ll hear fairly regularly the announcement that services are being delayed “due to a person under a train”. In order to live in London and function effectively, you have to have a “normal” reaction, i.e. sigh or tut at the delay to your service, look at your watch, perhaps text the person you’re meeting to let them know you’ll be late. What you can’t do is the thing I always do, which is to think about the human being whose life was so painful that they jumped in front of a train and let their body be slammed by the metal and sliced apart by the wheels, to wonder why they did it, what it was like, whether they made eye contact with the train driver, whether in the last second when it was too late, they might have changed their mind.
To me that announcement and the reaction to it say so much about life in London, about the way we block out things that are too painful or difficult, about how disconnected we are from each other. As I said, the “normal” reaction is the one that lets you live in a city, or perhaps even in the world, in a more healthy, happy way. If you think about every suicide, every beggar, every person in a city of 8 million people who gets their hopes trampled on and their dreams destroyed, it can really get you down sometimes. But it seems I am incapable of having the “normal” reaction, and so I am stuck with these thoughts about people I don’t know, and the way I often deal with them is through fiction.
The following is a short extract from my next novel (still in progress), which shows how that particular “person under a train” issue bubbled up from my unconscious mind one day while I was writing a scene.
I willed the train onwards, and it responded by grinding to a halt. A deeply depressed driver announced over crackling speakers that we were being held at a red signal; a few minutes later he returned, slightly more animated, to say that there was a person under a train at Euston, and we wouldn’t be moving for a while. Tuts and sighs escaped briefly from pursed lips. Newspapers were shaken and rearranged, seats creaked and the soles of shoes scraped on the floor. All of this activity seemed to come not from individual people but from the train itself, as if it were a strange animal emitting various noises before finding a comfortable place to settle down. Finally the noises stopped and all that remained was the low throb of the diesel engine and the soft pitter-patter of thumbs on keypads. I had no keypad, so was at a loss. I somehow passed the time – I have no idea how long it was – by staring out of the window at a nineteenth-century brick wall. I felt a strange affinity for the anonymous person under the train; I knew how he had come to that place. On another day, perhaps, it would be me, or the train driver, or the red-faced man opposite. One day the urge would be too strong, the promise of release too tempting. One day the finger that had hovered for so long over the Escape key would spasm, and the program would end. The data would be erased, the disk formatted ready for the next user. The mess of a life would end in the greater, but mercifully short, mess of being sliced apart by two hundred tonnes of steel. Not today, though. Today it was someone else’s turn to be a service disruption.
What do you think? If you are a writer, do you relate to what I’m saying about things coming to you rather than you thinking them up? If you’re not, then what do you think about all the painful things you see as you move through the world? What techniques do you have for coping with them?