Leslie Tate asks: What is the Purpose of Writing?
When I interview authors on my blog I sometimes ask them: “Why write?” But big questions like that can be counter-productive. Like speculations about the existence of God, they tend to produce standard one-liners. “Because I have to,” is one answer I often get – leaving me wondering what drives some authors to write and write, regardless of audience. Another is, “To say something,” which can mean issue-led writing or it can be simply a record of experience. What some authors specialise in is spinning tall tales and executing amazing plot twists, while others are entertainers who give their readers what they want. A variant on that is the ludic author who does it for fun, playing games with a genre or format. There’s also the author who sets out to punish their characters to see what they’re made of. Finally, some writers simply say, “I do it for myself.”
To discover my answer to that question, I began by listing a few of my own writing habits. Taken from my latest book, Love’s Register, they are:
1. In my books people under stress can flip like coins. There’s a build-up of pressure until suddenly a character turns inside out. When it happens, it surprises me, bringing the story closer to the rawness of life. For example, in this passage from Love’s Register, where a student relationship breaks down:
Matthew could feel Sally closing in. She was weighing up her chances.
“I don’t know how to say this…”
Then don’t he thought fiercely, the idea flaring like a match. Please don’t, he repeated, hoping to deflect. He really didn’t want this, but already he could feel it, she’d brought him here – how could she do it? – not by chance, but like a stalker, with intention.
“Go on,” he said, quietly, surprising himself. Suddenly he was calm, almost glacial, more alive now than ever before. Maybe this was for the best. (p98)
As the scene continues, Matthew continues to veer between pleading and lashing out.
2. All novels move through stylistic changes. Often, it’s the difference between an action scene and a relational interlude with extended dialogue. Usually the difference is slight, but once I’d spotted it in my own writing, I decided to make it a feature and go for polyphony. In the example that follows there’s a shift from Professor M Lavender’s prize-winning lecture on the pattern of relationships – a spoof, of course – to the vocabulary of his children quizzing about climate. It contrasts the generations and their voices.
As a postscript I’d like to set out the hidden law of the family that motivated the research and writing of this book. It’s the study of how selective labels and group patterning can lock us into the collective narratives of Games People Play. It’s also about the personal shift from labeling theory to horse-and-rider adaptation. Or to put it another way, the past is an ever-changing story where we dream our way out of trouble using language. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance”.
Joe, Mia and Cass were in a quiz show. “What makes the world go round?” asked Joe. He was the quiz master, dressed in joggers and a rainbow jacket. “You have three minutes to answer,” he added, placing an upended egg timer on the table. The sand began to run. “Is it money?” asked Mia. She was wearing an animal-print tunic over black leggings. “What do you think?” “Well I know climate deniers can’t think of anything else. They’re culty, like Midas. And remember what happened to him.” “The addict’s punishment, eh?” “I’m guessing money’s not the answer.” “No, money’s out. So, what makes the world go round?” (p458)
3. Writing involves sleight of hand. So during key scenes I find the clock slows while the action is examined from all angles. The opposite is often true of the link passages: they speed up as the story progresses. Transitioning successfully from one to the other can be helped by a gradual change in tempo, but sometimes it’s best to jump, leaving the reader to work out what happened.
4. Description is important. In general, there’s a need for substance, but one standout visual can be enough. I find myself striking a balance between detail that is too thin & see-through and too blocky & opaque – similar to an artist producing perspective through colour shading.
5. Crucially, while writing I’m applying multiple frames to the text. It’s a spot-the-birdie sampling act. I’m judging the tone and emotional arc while looking for depth in the language. It’s about line and flow and going where it takes you.
And the purpose?
- In technical terms: to maintain the illusion while breaking new ground.
- As a person: to rewrite the self, completely.
- As an author: to take risks, strike chords and create a vision of the state we’re in.
One final example from Love’s Register. This is the start of Hereiti Chaze’s Ted-type Talk to the Deep Adaptation Climate Conference in Tahiti:
I’m going to take you on a journey. A nekyia. What my people call te hoe tere. It’s a guided vision exploring what’s to come and what’s being lost. And to share that vision I’d like you all to close your eyes. Tell yourself, as you close them, that you’re happily tired. But not sleepy. You’ve had a busy day and it’s time to rest.
What you might be seeing are ghostly images or a small lightshow. I’ll explain that later.
Now the darkness is clearing and your vision – true vision – is coming back. You’re awake and you’ve walked into a different world. There are sounds all around of people singing and running water. You’re lying on a floral bedspread with the windows open in a house by the sea. Warm rain is bathing the garden. If you listen carefully you can hear it swishing on the leaves. The air is damp, the grass is shiny and you’re smelling flowers – beautiful, creamy, richly-scented flowers that open at dawn. It might be you’ve returned to an earlier existence. Maybe to what’s called illud tempus, when the Gods were real. It’s where everything’s alive and charged with meaning. And that’s where I’m hoping to take you tonight. (p586)
For me, writing is a spirit journey that pushes the boundaries, changing who we are. To do that convincingly requires an ear for character, an awareness of language, and a balance between plausible detail and artistic shaping. Most importantly, there needs to be a depth dimension and emotional fullness to a book. It has to matter.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.