When I was at college in the early 70s, a friend of mine had a chat with me over a pint about his forthcoming marriage. Bryn and I had known each other for nearly three years, in which time we’d got drunk together, visited each other’s homes, gone trekking on the Gower Peninsular, played football together for the college.
“I wanted to explain to you why I’m getting married,” said Bryn.
His bride-to-be was his first real girlfriend. A lovely, pretty girl, from the next valley to his in the Rhondda.
“Why would you want to do that?” I said.
“I want you to know it’s because everyone else wants me to,” he said.
“Then you’re an idiot,” I said.
There was more but this exchange sums it up. And it marked a divergence in our lives. He went on to have kids and stay married to the same person, to be a strong part of their two families’ storylines; I didn’t. I don’t really know how he feels about that now. To say we no longer have anything in common isn’t necessarily true, however. But what we share is rooted in early adulthood, just before other people put serious pressure on us to shape our lives the way they think they should be.
What I think this story has to do with writing is that we writers need to be aware of the crucial turning points in our lives, and what they might cost us in terms of creativity.
Ancient bards, at least in myth, used to travel the country beholden to no one other than their next patron, just for a short time. I like to think their audiences greatly valued their otherness: that, unlike kings and peasants, they were free to tell stories that would excite, challenge, even offend. In reality, I suspect they were canny characters who would censor their material according to the vibe they detected in their hosts. But still, their art was not essentially compromised by domestic confinement.
Modern authors can suffer from the double-whammy of living a compromised life and having to write within an world that’s been internetted to death. How do you get hold of that otherness these days? Everyone’s watching the same films as you; reading the same books; listening to the same music; visiting the same chain shops on the high street, any high street; eating the same food; wearing the same brands; exchanging the same guff on Facebook.
In the past, if you didn’t go the route your family wanted you to go, you almost by default found yourself in strange new worlds. Now, those worlds are harder to find, and even when you do find them, there’s almost always a connection to everywhere/one else to link to.
For the writer, I think the answer may lie not so much in physically breaking away from the norm, but more in mentally sitting down with oneself and challenging one’s thought-routes towards a story. You have to be honest with yourself and admit that the pressure on you is to produce a story that’s easy to follow. Publishers like to say they look for stories that are ‘the same but different’, although what they really mean is ‘THE SAME but also a tiny, little, not too upsetting, bit different’. If you see that to be the direction of the idiot, then you need to tell yourself that you’re just going for different.
Before the world got connected, a lot of writers lived in different; and their challenge was to make it same enough that readers could get it. Now, we all live in same, so the challenge is to get different. The problem is, of course, that readers now not only live in same, they don’t really want to leave it; perhaps don’t even know what different feels like. So, the extra challenge of the writer is to provide different but in such a way that the reader wants to go there, even if they never actually will.
But it gets worse, because the writer is now expected to get on board the inter-same outside of his stories, as himself. He’s also surrounded by big hit movies and TV series that are fully of wonderful special effects in High Definition but populated by characters who wouldn’t be out of place in his local pub.
So, my friend met a crucial turning point in his same/different journey as a young guy of 21, facing a pretty clear choice. In one direction lay buying a small house, then a bigger one; visiting relatives; parents babysitting; putting kids through school . . . solidity, security and settlement. In the other was anything from squats to caravans to tents to igloos, with perhaps a string of strange, unpredictable and heart-breaking relationships; money, no-money; adventures, dangers, the bleakness of existence perhaps followed by a proving of the spirit . . . nothing predictable or dependable.
I believe these two directions have merged now for the most part, with the connected world approximating different but its risk hedged in by ultimate global familiarity. Which means the writer who wants to say something meaningful has to find a way to un-merge himself. I think that’s through challenge: to question every idea, story structure, character act and word he considers using. And if he does that, he may well decide there’s not much point in writing anything at all. But at least that decision lies in the direction of different.