I’ve got my fair share of favourite writers, as I’m sure most writers do. Some are more influential than others. Some are influential for different reasons. Although I think I tend to talk about postmodern/cult/bizarro authors a bit too much when over the past couple of years I’ve built up a fondness for poetry. It started with Dorothy Porter and her verse novel, The Monkey’s Mask, and I’ve slowly started adding poetry collections to my book shelf. I started writing poetry in my first year of uni for course work. Just basic stuff. Form and meter and such. It was fun, but nothing really revolutionary. The next year at uni, I had a semester of straight up poetry. Yeah, we went back and looked at form and meter and feet and all that stuff, but we had a lot more time for it.
Now, I think poetry is one of those things, you either love it or you hate it. You can lose yourself in it or you think it’s a load of wank and you don’t get it. I used to hate it, back when I was gothic horror all the way. But the best writing (I find, anyway) has a poetic colour to it. It does something other than describe, other than tell a story. I remember writing the exercises and assignments for that class, and out of our assessed exercises, there was one form I had trouble with. The haiku.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s just 5, 7, 5. How can you stuff that up? As far as form goes, you can’t. Even an extra syllable here or there, or a missing syllable, no big deal. I mean, you look at the traditional Japanese haiku, they lose their form in translation. So what does that mean? A haiku consists of more than just its syllables. And that’s where one of my favourite poets comes in with his inspiration and his Jedi mind tricks.
Matsuo Basho. I think he’s the most well known haiku poet. I believe he wrote a considerable amount of tanka as well, but anyway… Basho. One of his haiku lends itself to Dorothy Porter’s verse novel, the Monkey’s Mask. And it goes like this:
Year after year
On the monkey’s face
A monkey’s mask.
So what is the haiku about? If you ask some people, they’ll say nature and seasons and the like. While that’s not a wrong answer, it’s only really part of the truth. To me, at least, the haiku is about capturing a very specific image, or a very specific moment, in which you find the spirit of nature, the essence of the poem. You need to be in a particular mindset to write good haiku, which is why, I guess, I haven’t written a haiku since I blundered that exercise in class last year. I think for Basho there was some sort of Zen/enlightenment stuff inspiring his poetry, but I think what I really took from all of that is capturing a specific tone of voice. Getting into a particular mindset and writing from that view. Crawling up inside the head of your narrator and sitting there with a tape recorder and a notepad.
If you think of your narrator simply as a vehicle for your own voice, you can end up in all sorts of trouble. The biggest problem is coming off as a preacher. You don’t want your writing to be all about imposing your beliefs onto the reader. The thing is, there is your mind, which thinks a certain way, and there are billions of other minds which thinks their own certain ways, and then there are the fictional minds of all the characters thought up by a lot of these billions of minds. Now, I don’t want to say that you can’t believe in what you write about, because that’s not true. I believe Basho was quite in touch with nature, and that is why he spent so much time writing about it. But there are more than one Basho-mind at play here. There is the Basho that experiences this nature first hand, and then there is the Basho that writes about it afterwards. Basho the poet is constantly refering to the character of Basho ‘the man in touch with nature’. It’s not about writing about what you see and feel that is important. It’s easy enough to say “there are birds sitting on a tree outside my window” or whatever. The trick is in going to that mental state where he is at one with nature and drawing the character’s thoughts together in a way that captures that state of mind. I think the reason why Basho was such a well-known and celebrated poet was because he spent so much time in character, really getting to know the mindframe of his nature character.
You can try to make sense of yourself, or you can use your writerly senses of observation and the processes of understanding and apply them to your fictional characters. This is where Basho has really inspired me. Looking at the mind. How a character talks, how a character thinks, your word choices must be your narrator’s word choices. When I write, I become my narrator. I get into the mental state that is how they think and I think like them, I see things how they see things, and I let them speak and act through me onto the page. You need a certain state of mind to write haiku, yet you don’t need any of that for Western literature. Sit down and write and hope some “divine inspiration” hits you. No. I don’t have muses coming to me from another realm to give me the gift of talent. I write the way I do because I get into a mental space where I can write and observe and act out a fictional landscape in my head. I control that. Sometimes it comes together, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the level of control.
My narrators aren’t wise and noble storytellers. They don’t tell things as it is. They tell things as they see them. Facts are subjective. Word choice is subjective. A lot of third person narratives (think LotR, Harry Potter, a lot of popular literature) tries to brush over this idea of subjectivity and present you with an impartial, third party ‘objective’ narrator. They bring along a narrator that isn’t part of the story, and they write like this person knows everything. They structure their sentences clearly and grammatically, their word choice is elaborate and intriguing, yet it doesn’t get in the way of the most important part of the narrative: the story.
This is when you get a thousand Tolkiens writing with a thousand identical narrators. And the narrators from text to text, from genre to genre, they’re indistinguishable. What happens when you acknowledge the existence of your narrator is you bring them to life and give them a voice. You can get inside their head and grant them the ability to become unique and original. This is where you get unreliable narrators or narrators who interpret a story in their own way. They become more involved and the narrative becomes as much about the narrator as it does about the story.
Like the haiku, it is as much about how something is said as it is about what is said. People talk about finding your poetic ‘voice’, this applies to prose too. If you can get in control of your narrator, you can write about things you wouldn’t normally write about, or you can play around with language and grammar, use words you wouldn’t normally use or not use words you would normally use, so you’re speaking to your reader as your narrator would. The reader may not like your narrator, your reader may hate your narrator, but your narrator is not you. You have created the narrator to act that way, and if they’re a massive bigot, then that’s something your readers will pick up on, and that’ll lead some of them towards thinking what you’re trying to say about your narrator.
I mean, just look at American Psycho.