For years I have been a writer, an editor and a teacher of creative writing. Now I want to share some of what I have learned along the way. Write On The Fringes is a blog about the dangers, the disappointments and the rewards of writing. It's a record of the writing of a novel, from the tantalising first inklings of an idea, through to the final draft. But above all it's an exploration of the art and the craft of writing and the nature of story, as well as a search for the essence of creativity and the complex nature of truth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Writing Between Worlds – Describing the Indescribable

‘The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn't run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it.’ 
Michel Adjvaz

Two months ago I arrived in Wales, a place of great beauty and wildness, a place laden with mystery and layered with history. Here it seems as if the veil between worlds is thinner than elsewhere, so that from the corner of my eye I see glimpses of other times - a flash of a man on horseback, the swish of long skirts. . . There are glimpses of other worlds too, as I discovered driving home one evening along a narrow country lane with a forest lining each side of the road. Ahead of me, I clearly saw a figure the size of a man yet not a man, moving across the road but high up, almost level with the canopies of the trees. Not wanting to make my children nervous, I decided not to mention it. Despite my precautions my son went strangely quiet and we drove home in silence. The next morning as we retraced the road through the same forest, I told my children that I had seen something the night before. My son stated that he had seen something too in this spot, but by the side of the road, just a little above the ground, a figure the size of a man yet not a man . . .

Real and yet not real. Imagination? Fantasy? It’s generally easy for others to rationalise these things away, as a trick of the light, a flight of the imagination, wishful thinking even. . . and yet when we experience something outside of the realms of what we consider normal or possible, then we know it with a deep and protective certainty. In my experience many people have seen or experienced something they cannot explain, yet most of them keep it to themselves in the knowledge that putting it to words generally reduces the experience, and in the fear that they will be ridiculed. In Weight, Jeanette Winterson wrote, 'Right now, human beings as a mass, have a gruesome appetite for what they call 'real'. . . Such a phenomenon points to a terror of the inner life, of the sublime, of the poetic, of the non-material, of the contemplative.' Perhaps we carry this fear in our genes, stamped by the horrors of history into our ancestors and passed down generation after generation. This has been reinforced by the successes of scientific materialism and the relegation of the non-rational to the status of superstition. Inevitably, over time we have become detached from the natural world around us and lost our own connection with the magic and mystery of life, handing control of the spiritual experience to the priests of organised religion and handing validation of our own experience, to their modern equivalent, the technocrats of science. We have been taught to hold the fear at bay by seeking certainty in the rational, the measurable, the flesh and blood physical world of the five senses, and in so doing we have passively watched the colour seep out of life. Perhaps it is fear that has led so many of us to consider as virtues the deadening qualities of scepticism and cynicism.

The best of religion is not blinkered and nor is the best of science. One of our greatest scientists, Albert Einstein, once said that ‘the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant,’ then went on to warn that ‘we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.’ In so doing we have found ourselves limited by the constraints of the five-senses which have come to define the physical world, and yet there is so much more beyond these restrictions, so many more threads which connect all things and such a thin membrane separating the physical world from the invisible world. I have always been interested in treading the line between worlds in my writing, of finding ways to transcend the boundaries of time and space. Not by creating fantastical other worlds but rather by slipping back and forth between our everyday world and the worlds which sit beyond or within. Yet I know from personal experience just how difficult it is to translate extrasensory experience onto paper without losing its vitality, and for a time this difficulty led me to stay closer to the ‘real’ in my writing than I wished.

Stories themselves are not ‘of this world’. As Haruki Murakami wrote inSputnik Sweetheart, ‘a real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side.' With this in mind, I finally took the plunge and began breaking the rules of realism, playing with space and time, with cause and effect and with the line between life and death. In Eva Luna, Isabel Allende wrote that ‘reality is not only what we see on the surface; it has a magical dimension as well and, if we so desire, it is legitimate to enhance it and color it to make our journey through life less trying.” In a sense this is what I have done in Flight – taken my own experiences, many of which I hadn’t fully understood, and thrown them into the winds, letting them settle into place and form a story, whilst giving my imagination free reign to fill in the gaps. What eventually emerged was something more truthful than any material fact I could cite.

Writing that explores these boundaries between the visible and invisible worlds tends to be called magical realist but more often than not this title is applied to or claimed by only South American writers such as Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In truth, its roots are much broader, including among others, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Salmon Rushdie, Franz Kafka, and  Haruki Murakami. For want of a better word, I will label my latest novel, Flight as magical realist, a genre I am drawn to for a number of reasons. Firstly, magical realism has a strong affinity with Jungian psychology, encouraging a sense of connectedness between all things and often drawing on ancient esoteric beliefs. Secondly, I believe that magical realism is a subversive genre. Whether or not we write directly about politics, our writing is always a political act because depending on our approach it defines, reinforces or rewrites our understanding of the world in which we live. To re-introduce magic into realism is a necessary political act, pushing back against the restrictive socially constructed boundaries of what is ‘real’. And finally, as Lois Zamora and Wendy Faris wrote in Magical Realism, ‘the supernatural . . . [becomes] an ordinary matter, an everyday occurrence – admitted, accepted and integrated into the rationality and materiality of literary realism’. In this genre, magic is a fundamental part of life, as ordinary and as necessary as the air we breathe. This gives us the space to write about our experiences without fear of ridicule, drawing on symbolism and metaphor to create the necessary bridges between one world and the other. In so doing we are finally able to describe the indescribable. 

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