Friday, 10 July 2009


Alex Keegan continues his essay on theme...

Before we continue we need to talk a little psychology. Think, for a moment about all of the things you have done, things that have happened to you. Think how little you can easily recall. Your psyche chose to “lose” many things and remember others. It embellishes, distorts, changes, protects.

Now take the incident of the dog to an extreme for a moment. Imagine that at the age of ten you saw a dog just like that and it ended up dead. Maybe you killed it or maybe your drunken father was driving the car and killed it. Maybe your father had just punched you (or worse) and you looked out of the window and saw this sad little dog, walking in the rain. Back then you did not know a connection was made. You wanted to forget shame, anger, horror, humiliation, or abuse and you managed it (or rather your psyche did).

But now something is burning inside. You don’t quite know it but you feel it, feel it in a massive, swollen, slightly disturbing way.

Now you can pull on size sixteen boots and say, “Hey, brain, I wanna know. So tell me, dog, feeling, why do I feel so strongly? Why does that matter to me and not to my fellow-writer?”

Now the brain is going to roll over with its legs in the air and say, “Fair cop, Guvnor. See, I have been suppressing this stuff for forty years, but you’ve asked me so I’m gonna come clean and tell you what happened that day in that bedroom.”

Yeah, right.

No, you see unconscious thoughts are unconscious for a reason. This psyche of yours doesn’t want you to know! Freud knew of this, hypnotists know of this. If you take the memory on, head-first you will lose. The sentinels of the psyche will trick you, and give you a trivial reason for the connection.

In fact many beginning writers often reach a stage where they invent just such scenarios. The “hidden” reason is always just below the surface and always the most obvious one, the cliché, the one that makes us yawn. This is the stuff of cheap melodrama, of The Human Jungle.

First let me tell you how I access the secret memory.

I don’t.

Brande argues that something in the incident connects primitively, even primeval. Then let it!

Now if you ignore this completely, chances are the old incident will stop vibrating, and gradually, the dog incident will fade and slowly subside. But we writers have to keep the stove burning, keep the wooden spoon turning. We don’t let the connection go, nor do we investigate it. Instead all we do is remember the dog!

We remember the dog, the ache, the “something in the gut” by “visiting” the feeling at least once a day. Maybe we have a white board above our writing desk and on it we write, little brown dog in the rain????? Every day we see “little brown dog in the rain?????” and remember the dog, the rain, the car, and deep in us something stirs.

Now, really, I don’t care what that connection is. But just for the sake of this essay, lets say it was a terribly embarrassing moment. Ten years old and you walked in on your father having sex with your mother. Perhaps he laughed, your mother laughed, and for one split second you hated, hated.

Now YOU don’t remember, but the dog does, the dog connection does, and every time you deliberately remember the dog, when you keep looking, keep stirring, those deep connections are energised.

But what connections? Who knows? That’s the beauty and excitement of the process.

Deep in you, in that sewer, amino-acids surge and split, bubble and seethe. There for a split second was that memory, your sweet, innocent mother fucking like a horse, and her red face suddenly ugly. But you never catch this memory, you never quite see it. But its essence, its essence, that connects. It connects to some scene in Reservoir Dogs, to a line from The Tempest, to a picture you once saw of a little boy humiliated by some girl, and your first rejection at a dance, and...

Real things, imagined things, film, books, plays, TV, dreams, bits and pieces, combinations, new formations (Shakespeare with a .45?) occur, but all connected to that disturbance in the depths, that venting anxiety, that suppressed memory.

Now, this is the bit people fail to capture. We don’t ever, really, truly need to unearth that original memory. The in flagrante delicto incident can be left buried, untouched. What we have to tap into is its psychological force, its power, the pressures it brought into your life, the ways it made you what you are now. Do you make love in the dark, afraid to see someone you think pretty suddenly lustful and full of heat? Are you perhaps misogynistic or lonely, afraid to enter the world of sex and love because something way back has corrupted you?

Don't answer that. It doesn’t matter! What matters is accessing the pressure!

We need to keep accessing the feelings of wrongness, our dissonances, the unresolved tensions. The more we stir the more connections we make, all barbs sticking to this particular thread of wrongness, the thread undone by seeing a little brown dog in the rain.

And understand this. If my dog in the rain connects to that bedroom, and even though I never remember the bedroom, but the hooks are there, the pressure and stickiness - when my connections start to catch, they will be, maybe, something from Reservoir Dogs, but maybe also Kathy from 4B, and she’s walking alongside John Wayne and I can hear Dylan Thomas, the slow black, sloeblack sea, and suddenly I think of my first wife, and...

All these things are what make me, me, utterly individual. When you see a film it is not my film, but each of us is a filter, a sticky ball, a builder and deconstructor all at the same time taking all of history, shuffling it up, then bringing it, some of it, out to the light.

But how? It seems if we TRY we kill it. How?

Years ago I tried in a poem to explain why I couldn’t come home, have a drink and just turn into a writer. I said something like “At work I am steel and glass, but here I need to be wood.”

In the context we are now discussing, the problem is we have be wood not steel, to keep tickling the trout, making it (or something) rise to the surface. Try to be steel, grab and it races away into the depths (or we end up with an old boot).

What has to be done is to think in the zone, to look but not look, see but not see, hear deaf. If you like it’s like lying back with a few glasses of wine and remembering the feeling of a film rather than the plot or the dialogue. Just wallow, be near, imagine, sense, but don’t try to make anything happen.

Now sort of listen for a voice, feel for a setting, sense an attitude, try to think of a line, an opening. This sounds bizarre but once you have done it you will understand. I believe that the so-called “visit of the muse” occurs when we get just such an opening voice, character, or setting because some unconscious pressure has caused a welling up and an eruption of story.

I believe we can create “favourable conditions” and “encourage” openings to appear in this way. Writing every day, thinking like a writer, being more and more sensible and sensitive increases the number of antennae we have and trains our intuitive delve-and-connect procedures. I am so old and crusty now I can almost “will openings to rise” and I do this because I am always thinking about why does that matter, when this doesn’t, why do I like this but don’t care about that?

I’m sorry if what follows seems a little esoteric. It isn’t, truly. Believe first that the connection (the little brown dog) triggers a fundamental memory (the hidden, repressed memories of that bedroom) and by keeping the dog-feeling alive we energise the old memories and create new connections.

Now believe that as the pressure increases and we approach a sense of an opening, that opening maps from the pressure (the nuclear, pulsing core of the original incident). Hold that.

Now the voice, setting, a character begins to come, and if we don’t grab at it, it becomes less nebulous. Quite often we almost have a sentence or more “close but not it” when suddenly it tunes in, like first hearing static, then garbled stations, then almost the station, and then suddenly high-fidelity.

Bang, when this hits it arrives with a tremendous force of rightness, with an inevitability. This is like when we talk as if the story was always there waiting for me to write it or others talk of the muse. But the muse is us and great stories come from us, the heart, the gut, the soul, the loins.

Now, here is the bit that might be argued as esoteric or mystical. I believe that the voice, the setting, tone, and characters chosen in the opening connect to us primitively and express us primitively. That is, I believe that if we have come to the voice with patience, by looking the other way and avoiding eye-contact with the demons, or sentinels, or trying too hard to connect to that bedroom, our psyche gives us the voice it wants.

Now if that is true, the character, voice and tone contain the essence of the story. The tone came because of the pressure and the voice came because of the pressure. That means that the voice and character, the tone, and the setting embody the uncertain feelings we are trying to articulate.

What comes now might be a story about a little brown dog. It might be a story about a boy seeing something he wishes he hadn’t. But it might be a third thing, a fourth, or a fifth - but, whatever it is, the story is the one that wanted to be written, the one that was driven by the key (dog) and the old incident (but not the incident itself, rather the human response).

I believe that the opening embodies what I need or want to say, that the characters, language, tone, attitude will ‘look after” the theme. I can trust them to write the right story.

Final part to follow soon.


Anonymous said...

Nothing about the Cricket Thomas?

TOM J VOWLER said...

Why so shy, anon?

Was there a cricket match on somewhere?