Saturday, April 02, 2016

Who Are We Writing To? Thoughts inspired by Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein

I just finished reading Wuthering Heights today - yes, for the first time! I am slightly behind on my classics. A few months ago I read Frankenstein. And both these books - I loved WH, but Frankenstein less so - do something which got me thinking about my own writing. Frankenstein is told in a kind of Russian-doll-like set of stories embedded in stories inside letters to people... The narrator is writing to his sister etc... so we don't hear from the protagonist (which might be Frankenstein or, alternatively, might be the monster) directly, but filtered through, frankly, too many filters for me to actually care about most of it. Wuthering Heights is also not told to us directly, but it is Nelly Dean telling Mr Lockwood all about what has happened with Catherine, Heathcliff etc...

What this got me thinking about was how worried I was, when I first began writing short stories, about who I was telling the story to. Surely there had to be someone who was being told, within the story? I couldn't get my head around the concept of it at all. And perhaps this is what was happening with Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte? Although it works, for me anyway, so much better in Wuthering Heights that perhaps this was Bronte's conscious choice, to have a single narrator, and everything filtered through/seen by her - because, frankly, had we been any closer to any of the main characters, this reader might have exploded! We still do have to suspend disbelief here - our suspicion that Nelly could never have remembered all these conversations in such minute detail (as well as the odd occasion where she seems to know what someone else was actually thinking)!

Slowly, slowly, I began to come to terms in my own stories with there not needing to be someone being "told" within the story itself, but that it was my "reader" - although it took years before I actually had any readers at all (not including my mother, who still thinks my best story was the one I wrote at 18 about the women who knits her husband a jumper and then stabs him while he is doing the washing up wearing it. Freudians, make of that what you will. No, that story will NEVER see the light of day.)

What I think helped me a great deal was that my first short story acceptance was not a print publication but was for radio - Radio 4's Afternoon Reading, in 2004. The story wasn't written to be broadcast, but when I heard the wonderful Lorelei King reading it, I felt like my character had moved outside of my own head, that she existed in the world, that she herself was speaking, rather than me writing her. Does that make sense? I cried. It seemed so preposterous, so miraculous, that I should have made her and then there she was.

That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with radio - which widened from Radio 4 to Radio 3 and even dipped recently towards poetry - and that has definitely influenced everything I write. I read it all out loud, and I think that I am my First Reader, the first person the story is being told to. I tell it to myself, literally, as I am writing it. So that question isn't relevant any more. Of course, as my short stories began to find homes, in print and online, this emboldened me, to experiment, to play, and gave me the joyous sense that I was being read - by strangers - and that I also wanted to entertain these people who are so generous as to even get as far as my first line.

But that said - I don't believe that I think as I write, "What will a reader/listener think of this?" Or, actually, "Will the reader understand this?", which is more relevant to the kinds of weird fictions I write. I just wrote a short story for Radio 4 - it has been a long time since I've written fiction, I've been mainly writing poems, which are completely different for me - and I wrote it in the first person plural, the "we", which I love.

What am I trying to say? I'm not sure. If you think you might know, please do comment below! Do you feel like you need to know who you are writing to when you write? Have you read work that unsettled you because of this?

I suspect part of learning to love to read is learning to suspend disbelief that the book you are reading was not in fact written for you and you alone, is not talking directly to you. I'm not sure I could read in any other way; while I read I dissolve myself into it, especially the short stories I love, I become part of that wondrous thing that happens between text and reader, where something new is created each time.

I guess what I am trying to say in terms of writing is: Trust that this will happen, trust your readers and leave space for them. Frankenstein left no space for me, and as a consequence, I didn't enjoy it, didn't feel it. Wuthering Heights had me gripping my Kindle so tightly my knuckles went white. I'd rather that white-knuckle reading anytime, although my blood pressure may not agree!

Okay, back to Moby Dick now...

1 comment:

Caroline M Davies said...

I loved your comment that you are your First Reader. It's obvious but hadn't occurred to me.

The opening essay in Katy Evans-Bush's Forgive the Language is all about how poems and poets emerge "blinking into the sunshine of an unknown, real reader."