Elmore Leonard on BBC’s “Desert Island Discs”, explaining that he has no computer, mobile phone or TV. Kirsty Young says, “So, what do you do?” Leonard says, “I lie in the dark and think.”
A couple at the table next to us in a local restaurant. Her phone is never switched off. She spends the entire meal looking at it, apart from a brief period when she needs both hands to eat but even then it’s still glowing on the table next to her plate. Her partner looks well phubbed (phone + snub, apparently) and eventually switches on his phone, too, unable for whatever reason to tell her to turn hers off. I thought it might have been more effective if he’d taken out a book and read that instead – ‘bubbed’ her, maybe.
There are the obvious problems with phubbing, for example making your partner feel as if the fact he’s taken the trouble to spend time with you physically is worth less to you than checking out what your Facebook and Twitter pals had for their lunch today. Even if all you ever talk about with your partner is what you had for lunch today anyway and showing him photographs of that nice cheese sandwich you got in M&S, you’re still telling him that he’s second best in getting your attention. For what that’s worth – which brings me to my point, where writing’s concerned.
Writing is all about getting other people’s attention; but the question is, how do you produce something that’s worth their attention? Okay, there are plenty of books around today with about as much original thought as a cheese sandwich, and they appear to find plenty of readers. But I doubt they’re produced by much lying and thinking in the dark. They’re just chasing the tail of the low-consciousness end of the market. Fifty shades of cheddar and all that.
I’m talking about real writing; stories that do more than just reflect surface life. And for that purpose I’m going to choose to interpret Leonard’s words somewhat non-literally. I’m pretty sure he meant actual lying and actual dark, and can see the benefits of both. But there are easy diversions one can take while supine and light-free; kipping for example. No, real writers need to be lying in the dark all the time.
Let’s go back to Facebook/Twitter for a moment. The surface appearance, phubbing aside, is that millions of people are in constant communication. But that depends on what you call communication. Passing on others’ thoughts about others’ thoughts about others’ actual thinking (or not), isn’t communicating. It’s shovelling e-shit from one side of the e-world to the other. It provides the illusion of participation and of course the delusion of exaggerated self-importance.
Real writers don’t shovel shit. They get below the surface and interpret what’s really going on – below their own and others’ surfaces – then turn it into stories with unforgettable characters, plots and emotions. To do that, they have to lie in the dark in plain sight. They have to watch others’ behaviour without them being aware, and interpret that behaviour; and do this all the time. So they live a double life. On the surface, it’s all, “How are you today?” “I’m fine, thanks”, “Had a great cheese sandwich for lunch”, “Really? What kind of cheese?”
But under the surface . . . all apps are turned off; the smart phone is unplugged; the internet is a glossy chimera below the consciousness horizon. Here, motives are uncovered; emotions behind the etiquette feelings are read; the cry for help within the LOLs and the smiley face icons is heard.
Or not. Because I think the real writer goes deeper than this. Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is, that while most peoples’ surface thoughts are predictable and common, so too are the feelings that lie behind them. We all like to think our inner lives are special, which is why we protect them so strongly. But in reality, they’re probably just as ordinary as anyone else’s lunch menu.
So, do real writers plunge into the even deeper world of archetypes, say, or genetic imperatives? Actually, I think it’s at the interface between this level and the behind-the-surface emotions and thoughts that the writer needs to strike out in his own direction. Going too deep will just mire him in inevitable human drive terminal points – something that quite a bit of literary fiction does too much of in my view. Yes, yes, it’s all existentially pointless at the end of the day; yes, yes, people are driven by ancient unstoppable needs – I get it. Now, why don’t you do something interesting?
To summarise, then. Writers can’t afford to become diverted by the constant superficiality of social media. They could, I suppose, use Twitter/Facebook to interpret what anyone is really saying but that path leads only to death by a thousand trolls. Better to lie in the social media dark, watch and interpret; bub the phubber with a good book or a pad and pen; lift one’s eyes from the mini silver screen and face the world first hand, ready to storify it.