I should have been going out for a drink with Nige tonight but something’s on my mind and I don’t think he can help.
I’m trying to work out what it means to man-up for real. Nige is a direct kind of guy, good at cutting through middle-class wishy-washy thinking. If I needed to make a decision about, say, whether to buy an electric car, he’d be perfect for an opinion, one that would probably contain directions for where to plug in my re-charger.
But I’m not worried about buying a car. Or getting a new hair cut, diet, religion, or even way of writing. I want to know what manning up really means. As first thoughts, I can see there might be levels to it:
1) Facing up to danger/trouble/responsibility when it comes calling
This can often take courage and determination. Most people avoid it at all costs, even if that means selling out their nearest and dearest. Some take it on, even though they know it could cost them dearly, even their life.
But, like war, it comes at you, forcing the choice.
2) Looking for and facing up to responsibility
This is very different. It talks about a fundamental attitude, rather than a reaction to trouble when it turns up. Whereas 1) can be time-bound, and once it’s been dealt with that’s the end of it, this level is never-ending.
2) is about possessing the attitude of taking responsibility in every situation. It doesn’t for example, mean apologising for being leader of an event that has gone horribly wrong but by way of blaming everyone else (a politician’s specialty). It means taking on the blame for oneself. Except that if you possess this attitude, it’s unlikely that you would have launched a war on the basis of false information about weapons of mass destruction in the first place.
This attitude is very difficult to attain and we see very few examples of it in the modern world. And yet . . . I think there is a third level beyond this, one that’s very different in nature to the first two.
3. Creatively manning-up
When a writer’s writing, his mind is either playing creative catch-up or he’s flying with the magic of being in creative control.
Creative catch-up is like 1) above. He’s trying to negotiate his creation, his story, dealing with the issue of whether or not it’s creative only when he has to. In this mode, for example, he has to establish the lead character in the first two pages; he has to bind all the plot strands into the climax; he has to provide a neat and tidy resolution. But it’s also easy for his creative writing responsibility to never get ahead of the demands of the story, like a harassed parent who never has time or energy to do more than just make sure their child is fed, dressed and at school on time.
Many, many writers have made a fortune doing nothing other than play catch-up with their stories. A lot of readers like the result; they can empathise with it.
But the creatively manning-up writer isn’t interested in his readers, at least not as a means of control.
If we go back to responsibility for a moment, 1) and 2) are both linear and cause-and-effect driven, even if someone in 2) is looking for cause more than someone in 1). But what does creative responsibility look like in 3)?
Well, that’s why I’m writing about it, to try to find out. It’s something I’ve felt recently, perhaps because of the various responsibilities I’ve taken on, but I’m not sure exactly what it looks like, how it needs to be fed, where it will take me.
Intuitively, I think one feature of 3) is that a person joins the various elements of the responsibility he’s managing, rather than sits outside of it, trying to control its effects. A writer, then, would join his story, his characters, rather than manage them.
This would be mental fantasy and moral escapism perhaps, in 1) and 2), but in 3) it’s simply logical. In 3) the writer would see no point in creating a story if he couldn’t be part of it. No point in creating a character that isn’t him. Or a conversation that isn’t him speaking, on both sides of it. Again, for a writer to do this in 1) or even 2) the results would be, well, unreadable. It would be like a father joining his child’s play because he feels it’s the responsible thing to do. Which can of course only dismay the discerning child. In 3) he is the play; it’s what he wants to do most in the entire world.
Most blockbuster writing has no place for 3), either for the writer or the reader. Because the reader, too, faces the choice of participating in 1), 2) or 3). If a writer writes from 3) and a reader reads from it – well, at a guess, the world changes! And nobody wants that, of course.
I believe there was more of 2) around for writers and readers up until about thirty years ago. That’s when the corporate world took over publishing; and of course, when everyone’s in 1), consumerism is much easier to control. Writers write books that come their way from the demands of the sales world; and readers need do nothing but absorb them and allow their shiny, instant comforts to temporarily soothe the need. Before buying another. In 2), readers would not just let books happen to them; they’d always be looking for the ones worth reading.
It’s my hope that the corporate world will go too far; signs are that it already is. When it does, the relative innocence of 3) will develop the means to fight, not in defence of but in support of creativity in responsibility: a combination that the corporate world can’t even imitate, let alone achieve. It can do sincere; it can do funny; it can do ironic; it can do brand love. But it can’t do the joining of the real self to its products because those products are inherently without creativity. Or responsibility, come to that.
My last thought on this for now is that a lot of writers believe they can go straight from 1) to 3). They can produce work that simply comes their way – prompted by other people’s work or by their publisher/agent putting it in front of them – then suddenly switch to creative responsibility. But I don’t think it’s possible to go direct from only ever reacting to your world, to flying through it with creativity.
This is clear to see in music. Many of today’s pop stars seem happy stuck in 1), without even being aware that another two levels exist. If one of them suddenly discovered Scott Walker’s later work, for example, and was inspired, he’d probably try to go straight there himself. But Scott Walker had to go through the stage of choosing his battles before doing exactly what he wanted. He had to sing Jacques Brel songs on mainstream BBC Saturday night television, for example; write his own songs that weren’t just about love; turn his back on the corporate world.
And yet, I don’t know for sure if Scott Walker is the example I’m looking for. I don’t know what’s inside his head when he’s making his very experimental music.
And perhaps that’s part of this mystery: that if you get to 3), only you know what it looks like, and only you can work its particular way in your world; it won’t work for anyone else.