Books of Blood and Other Countries

 

We’re all a book of blood: wherever we’re opened, we’re red

Clive Barker, ‘Books of Blood’

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

Leslie Poles Hartley

 

Encouraged and supported by some writer friends, I’ve recently got back into writing the novel I haven’t really looked at for a year or two, having been too busy with music. I’m more than halfway through, and know exactly where it’s headed, so it’s all over bar the shouting. But after a quick read through to re-acquaint myself with its unique world, I found myself in a strange position emotionally.

My life has changed considerably since I last worked on it, and while these changes have no actual bearing on the plot, it being a fictional work unrelated to my real life, there are clearly emotional elements that have had a huge, unforeseen impact.

In the past couple of years I have made many new friends and lost a few old ones, some, sadly, through death, others whose circles I have drifted out of. Some old acquaintances have become close friends, and some formerly close friends have faded into acquaintanceship.

This presents a problem when writing because of an old trick I tend to rely on. The easiest way to create believable characters, especially in the context of dialogue, is to mentally cast them. Once you can clearly hear a voice, the character’s dialogue, actions, decisions etc., become second nature. Sometimes I use actors for this, but more often than not I use the speech patterns and mannerisms of people I know. Not their real life characteristics, more I imagine them performing the role as if they were an actor.

In some cases, my changes in feeling towards a particular person make it easier to use them for this. Knowing them better, liking them more can bring extra elements to a character. Conversely, discovering unpleasant truths and feeling colder towards someone can have quite a detrimental effect on a character’s arc. Sometimes this can provide a useful, unexpected twist, but it can also take the story in the wrong direction, or clutter the plot with unnecessary issues.

This has taught me that all my work is personal, despite how hard I try to make it not so.

The easiest and, for me, most satisfying piece of work I have made is my album ‘From Indian Head To Ashland’, which features the voices of alien abductees Betty and Barney Hill, rather than my own, which, as I am primarily a singer, many people found to be an odd move for me, and a disappointing once for them.

For me, however, it was the most logical move. I was doing it ‘for them (Betty and Barney)’ and not ‘for me’ and therefore felt free to put it out there, and even actively promote it if need be where I’m not sure I could have if it had been a work that showcased me, myself alone.

I admire people who can promote themselves to just the right degree. Of course I despise shameless self-publicists as much as anyone else, but when people can present work that represents themselves honestly yet still say something about the human condition, that is something to be applauded.

And that is much harder than it looks. I’m not talking about self-indulgence, meandering romans à clef, bitter ‘divorce albums’, or anything else on a par with the erroneous belief that pictures of (or worse still, by) your children should be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

The best kind of self-revelatory work is a journey of self-discovery; for every known truth thrown out into the universe, another is uncovered, and whether or not the work has an audience is neither here nor there for its creator, but for its reader, viewer, listener, it is as though they are making the journey themselves. For despite surface differences we are all the same: incarnated souls trying to learn and grow as we navigate an uncharted and often hostile world.

Learning to open up and work in this way is tough. Nothing to do with possible reactions to the work, criticism and rejection are ultimately irrelevant, but tough in the opening up itself. Laying oneself bare means allowing oneself to be known by another, naked and vulnerable as if in the arms of a new lover. How does this suddenly bare flesh feel in their hands? How will they interpret what you say? What are your eyes telling them? And what will they do with all this knowledge that could be used to heal or harm you?

It’s not easy, and it’s not always pleasant, but it is cathartic, for both writer and reader. And I’m getting there. The pen is poised, sharper than any sword, ready to open a vein.

By SJB