Tales from a Podcast: POINT OF VIEW (Part One)

This is the first part of the script I used as a guide to the first podcast episode on creative writing I did for Starship Sofa:

A while back, I was on a conference panel with some other writers including a very successful and famous one. During our public talk, I said that I thought there needed to be better training facilities for writers. This very famous writer said he didn’t think writers needed training; they just need to write a good book.

Well, if that’s all he did to get his first book published, good luck to him. But in all the years I’ve been teaching and editing fiction writing, I’ve never seen a complete, ready to go, book produced by a new writer who’s had no training or teaching.

With that in mind, the issues this series will be working around, as they occur to me today at least – they’ll probably change as we go on, or if someone asks me an awkward question about one of them – are:

No one can teach you to write but somehow you have to get yourself taught.

  • There are no rules to what makes a great story but you can’t be a real writer unless you know the rules in every cell of your being.
  • You have to write stuff that the market wants but no one knows what the market wants.
  • The story you’re writing now must become a finished piece of work but you as a writer will never finish learning how to be one.

I’m going to work live, so to speak, with issues that are bothering my own writing at the present time and the writers I work with.

Let’s start with Point of View:

I’d say this is the area that most of the writers I work with have the most trouble with. Which in one way is odd, in that we all spend all of our lives fixed in one POV.

The most important thing to understand is that POV is the main tool by which you create a sense of wonder in the reader. Here’s how it works.

When people used to gather around the fire for a story after supper, instead of now when they all go to their separate rooms to watch four different stories on TV, someone had to tell it. The story-teller was the POV for the audience. He would say, “Once upon a time . . . ” and everyone would switch off their worries and settle down for an adventure. But here’s the thing: he had to find ways to draw them into the story, otherwise they’d get bored, no matter how exciting the subject matter.

So a good story-teller used his face and hands and knowledge of his audience to draw them into his POV. He’d used analogies they could relate to, like – “The prince felt as happy as a hunter who finds two bears that have just killed themselves.” Even though the story is set in a magical land where there are no bears. He’d even directly bring in members of the audience, say how the prince’s son looked just like little Mugwug over there, only with more teeth; that kind of thing.

And so the wonder: the audience felt as if they were inside the story, and the story-teller as POV was the medium.

Now, moving forwards to the invention of the novel. For quite some time, novels and written short stories tended to carry on the story-telling tradition of having a POV that was not directly inside the story. Only now it was the author’s POV, not the story-teller’s. This is sometimes now called ‘omniscient’ POV which basically means ‘knows everything’ and is often associated with God, which is apt here in that the author’s POV tends to come across like a voice from on high.

You may be wondering how early novelists managed to draw their readers in to their stories and create that sense of wonder. Some people today will argue that they didn’t; that the sorts of people who read novels way back were toffs who liked to keep their emotions, like the peasants, at a safe distance. But at the same time, society was smaller then, people still shared common beliefs, perceptions and experiences. So writers could reasonably assume their readers would know what they meant for the most part. They also discussed the novels they read with each other, and so deepened the effect of the story. These days you could spend a week trawling every pub in London to find someone who’s read the same novel as you, if you didn’t get arrested first.

So, it’s fair to say that omniscient POV is a hard sell today and later we’ll look at why. But for now, think about the Sherlock Holmes stories: here we have a main character who’s brilliant but aloof, insightful of others yet often disdainful of them too. Yet we care about him. Why? Because Conan Doyle was clever enough to use first person POV, not omniscient. First person just means ‘I’ basically: the POV is directly inside one character’s head. If Doyle had used omniscient POV, we’d have hated Holmes and wanted Moriarty to have beheaded him, not just dragged him over a cliff into a gorge, to make sure the arrogant bastard could never return.

And here’s where Conan Doyle showed what a great author he was, because he chose the right first person POV: Holmes’s friend, Dr Watson. The obvious choice would have been Holmes, because then the author had the perfect vehicle for telling the reader every brilliant thought passing through the great detective’s mind. But then readers don’t want brilliant thoughts coming at them like an AK-47 (incidentally, that’s a POV violation, which I’ll explain later), they want to feel wonder and mystery and magic and emotion. Holmes doesn’t have time for any of that wimpy stuff; he probably doesn’t even believe in it. But Watson does. He’s clever, too, but can’t usually keep fully up to speed with Holmes because a large part of his psyche is fuelled by empathy and compassion. And it’s those qualities that draw us in to the story. From inside Watson’s humane view of the world we can admire Holmes but not hate him as we would if forced to sit inside his immense head for the duration of the story.

Which brings me on to another very important consideration in the history of POV, the invention of the movie camera.

Now, obviously theatre had been around for a long time, but it wasn’t such a big jump away from the story-teller, who was as much an actor as narrator anyway. But the camera is an inanimate object, not really any different to a pair of eyes looking at whatever they happen to point at.

So, when they came to make films of Sherlock Holmes, there was a problem: the story couldn’t be told from inside Watson’s head. Therefore, there was no contrast and conflict between the empathic Watson and the some would say sociopathic Holmes to draw in the viewer’s interest. Instead, they followed more of a music hall approach – which early cinema tended to follow, rather than the novelistic method – and created a nice obvious contrast between the two main characters: clever and stupid. Watson became the straight man for Holmes, except Holmes wasn’t very funny. Watson was the bumbling fool against which the director could easily show Holmes’s brilliance. This would have been impossible in the books, even if Doyle had wanted to do the same, because we were in Watson’s head and therefore he had to be at least clever enough to understand Holmes’ explanations when presented to him. But in film, Holmes just had to tell the camera.

As film making has matured, and equipment improved, Watson’s intelligence and empathy have been restored and as a result Holmes can be seen as less than omniscient – freed from that point of view – and be far more attractive as a result.


Tales from My Personal Development Tree: Kicking out the Cuckoos from our Inner Comfort Nests

“You teach, don’t you?” I ask Lucy. We’re in The Jolly Farmers. Nige and Al are talking football at the next table. Lucy is on whisky and I’m on beer.

“Yes, Personal Development through the work of Gurdjieff, mostly at retreats in the country. Which means I have to work against the holiday mentality quite a bit.”

“How did you qualify?”

“Well, I’ve actually got a teaching degree, not in Gurdjieff studies, but then there isn’t a degree in that. Why do you ask?”

“Yesterday, I emailed a woman who provides a whole range of writing workshops and yet I couldn’t see any evidence on her website that she’s had anything published. I used an alias, emailed her pretending to be looking for a teacher, said that I’d expect one to either have had published quite a bit or have some kind of teaching qualification. She wrote back to say she has an agent but her novel hasn’t yet been sold. And that’s it: the basis for her offering workshops on how to write. There seem to be quite a lot of writers like her doing the same thing.”

“What’s your concern?”

I go to the bar and think about this. What exactly is wrong with someone teaching even if they haven’t published much? There are sports coaches, after all, who don’t play. On the other hand, they’re at least dedicated professionals, qualified in coaching. Most of these writers who teach are writers, not coaches.

I hand Lucy another whisky. “When I look back,” I say, “there have been all kinds of turning points in my thinking about writing, which only came by getting rejected hundreds of times and occasionally getting stuff accepted. Also, by learning from a professional editor things I couldn’t have discovered on my own.”

“In other words, you’re saying if we don’t ever shift out of the ordinary self we all get given just by being alive, we can’t really help anyone else.”

“Did Gurdjieff say that?”

She laughs. “He was a bit more extreme. Said the vast majority of people never develop or grow. He gave the analogy of acorns – only one will become a tree, the rest are just fertilizer.”

“Wow, that’s the way to keep your students. Did he say how you become the tree?”

“Well, I suppose that’s what his work was about, taken all together.”

“Hmmm . . . reluctantly adopting his metaphor, I guess I’m concerned that a lot of these writing teachers think they’re oak trees but are really just fertilizer.”

“To become a tree, you need help, advice, the benefit of experience from someone who’s done it. But I think you need guts, too . . . are you all right; you’ve gone kind of frozen.”

“I’m trying to imagine being an acorn – feels all sort of dense and uniform.”

Lucy sips her whisky. “Do you know what,” she says, “I think growth has to be forced from within. Our parents were always trying to force us to grow, from the outside. So, when our generation rejected their help, we assumed that growth would come naturally, without any effort or resistance but it doesn’t.”

While she’s talking, I notice Al leave the pub. I wave at him, then Nige joins us.

“You two look like you’ve turned up for the pub quiz on the wrong night,” he says.

“Are you growing, Nige?” says Lucy.

He turns his glass slightly, so the handle is exactly at right angles to his beer mat.

“I used to think I was,” he says, “what with all my research into conspiracies and the such. But actually that was just stuff I liked to do. Gave me a buzz. Wasn’t really growing. Don’t we all stop doing that once we learn how to shag?”

“I’m still learning to!” says Lucy. “But you may be right. Gurdjieff said sexual energy is the most powerful kind but we tend to burn it up in physical acts instead of using it to create art and new learning.”

Nige raises an eyebrow. “Are you saying Tel should be dipping more than his quill into his ink pot?”

I resist making a joke about how a ‘pen’ ‘is’. Instead, I say, “Did Gurdjieff mean that we should use the excitement and the longing that goes before having sex to drive our creativity instead?”

Lucy shrugs. “I teach his work but to be honest, I don’t always understand it. Maybe that’s the point. Creativity is about not knowing but being desperate to find out at least a bit more of what’s real.”

Nige finishes the remaining half of his pint then stands. “My ex-wife used to say I didn’t push meself hard enough and she was probably right.”

He goes to the bar. I say to Lucy, “We always back off from the point just before we get there, don’t we?”

“So, go for it,” she says.

I force myself to think past the usual, comfortable response.

“The truth is,” I say, “we writers don’t push ourselves hard enough – not in terms of self-discipline but towards better understandings, insights and inspirations: personal development, I guess. And until we do that, we’ve got no place teaching anyone else, because all we’ll do is pass-on what we think are ‘facts’ about writing but are really just comfort buffers.”

Lucy laughs. “Great, so you have the next lesson for your group.”

“Trouble is,” I say, “a lot of readers don’t really want to go past their comfort buffers, either . . . ”

“Probably the majority don’t,” she says. “How often do you hear people say they read novels to escape, or chill out or turn off their brains?”

We fall silent for a moment, thinking about this. Nige returns from the bar.

“Now you look like the pair who turned up for the Stones gig the night after it took place,” he says.

“I’m not sure how to get past personal own comfort barriers,” I say, “or if there’s any point anyway, and I don’t have a clue how to teach my group to do the same. Or different.”

Nige shakes his head. “Just do what everyone else does.”

“Give up and watch the telly?”

“No, wing it. Fly with the cuckoos, mate. Don’t worry about the facts. By the time your students catch up, you’ll be kicking some other legitimate owners out of their nests.”

I’m about to protest that it isn’t about taking anyone else’s place; that there’s room for any writer who’s good in the publishing world. But I don’t think that’s what Nige means. I reckon he’s referring to our inner nests of what we believe and hold to and won’t leave go of. Not sure if these nests are lodged in our Gurdjieffian trees but I can worry about that later.

Lucy says, “You know, Nige, you’d be a pretty good guru.”

Nige drinks half his pint then carefully places the glass in the exact centre of his beer mat. “Well, I hear the money and the sex are good,” he says.

Back at home, I make some notes but try not to shape my thoughts too much. I understand the point about challenging one’s inner beliefs. But I’m beginning to see that the real ‘answers’ to a lot of teaching issues probably exist more in the spaces between the trees, and that it’s important to not get too distracted by – and now I know it really is time for bed – kicking the cuckoos out of our inner comfort nests.