The first time I died - thoughts on writing

The Kid in the Picture | 30 July 2010 | LitNet

There was pandemonium at the bus stop. A heavy truck had stopped on the zebra crossing. Screaming children and shouting parents crowded around. Someone had been run over. Everyone was in the way, so I couldn’t get a good look. But that was a good thing, judging by the faces of those who had. So I turned around and walked home. I must have been about six or seven at the time.

At school the next day, they said some kid had tried to hang on to the side of the truck as it trundled uphill with its heavy load. He had slipped off and landed under the back tyres. His head had been crushed. It was hard to imagine, even when I saw his picture in the paper. But as I sat gazing at the photo, something else was jump-started in my brain:

It was me.

The kid in the picture.

Same green blazer. Same straight blonde hair. Crooked fringe. Blue eyes. Gap-toothed smile. I stared perplexed, nauseous, as if I was reading my own obituary.

Then my mom came in and asked me if I’d made myself a sandwich. As I brushed past her on my way to the kitchen, she scolded me for my bad manners, and I recall the relief I felt, as if she’d confirmed I was still alive.

This is where it all began. I don’t fully understand why I feel the need to write and draw, but I do believe the key lies hidden somewhere in this incident. As if my synapses suddenly made the connection between fact and fantasy, between the real world and everything it triggered in my brain.

It gradually dawned on me that the involuntary concoctions of my mind were not only more entertaining than the stimuli and experiences of the real world, but also sparked very real emotions. It took some time before I felt confident enough to share my imaginings and the accompanying emotions with others. At first I suppressed them, because they frightened me, and later I hid them, because I was afraid no one would understand, but eventually they could no longer be contained. At university, fellow students expressed delight at the surrealistic doodles I drew during lectures, and I finally began openly sharing the random firing of neurons and gaining enjoyment from creating something tangible that others seemed to understand and enjoy.

Sponge | 30 July 2010 | LitNet

Often I feel uncomfortable when asked which authors or artists have inspired me. The only honest answer I can give is: all and none. I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the experiences of the real world and then gently squeezing out a trickle of fiction that looks and tastes real and clear, but only because all the imperfections have been filtered out. It’s as if selection is the main challenge. Choosing the stories that are worth telling.

Tenement | 30 July 2010 | LitNet

Sometimes it’s as if I have a block of flats towering above my head. I merely have to step into the lift and press the button to a random floor, where I can explore to my heart’s content, opening doors and observing the tenants. I feel no need to interpret their actions, words and thoughts. I simply have to slip into their skin, assume their roles and perspectives, and tell their stories. Like an inquisitive spirit or an actor who can inhabit characters, who can become the torturer, his victim, his wife, his daughter, her dog, their god, the undertaker washing his body. Or even his brush, his comb, his sponge, the coffin, because fiction can also bring inanimate objects to life.

The Schizophrenic Writer | 30 July 2010 | LitNet

Stories and metaphors allow me to make sense of the world and the thoughts and processes that stimuli and experiences seem to trigger in my brain. I once read an article about a scientific study of brain activity, which suggested that there were remarkable similarities between the patterns recorded in creative minds and in people suffering from schizophrenia. This brought to mind a documentary I’d seen about a doctor who had learned to control his schizophrenia by creating hundreds of paintings during his waking hours. All this really struck a chord with me, because I tend to see my creative drive as an aberration, rather than a talent. Like a feral stallion that needs to be reined in, steered, controlled, to prevent it racing off in all directions; or like a madman who needs an empathetic and experienced ear to make sense of his garbled musings.

The Nesting Narrative | 30 July 2010 | LitNet (revised 7 February 2017)

One of the things I love most about writing is that there are always stories within other stories, waiting to be discovered and told, much like the Russian matryoshka dolls that fit snugly into one another – a nesting narrative as it were. This means you can take a character out of a story and then write their story, which will give rise to a new characters, whose stories are also worth telling.

This is allied to the theory that there are actually only two stories: “a man goes on journey” and “a stranger comes to town”. The latter is a nesting narrative, because it allows a story to be told from multiple perspectives, each of which offers new insight into the stranger’s arrival or the world in which he has arrived. The novel I am working on is based almost entirely on this approach, relegating the man, the stranger, the hero, the protagonist to a cameo role in many of the constituent stories.

The nesting narrative also works the other way round. In my first novel, a man describes his brother’s actions, but there is also a narrator describing the interaction between the brothers. And then there’s me, the author, describing the actions of the narrator and the two brothers. In retrospect (and quite possibly to the detriment of the story), I might have added further layers. A psychiatrist, for instance, trying to explain the actions of the narrator and the two brothers. Or a god trying to control the actions of the psychiatrist, the narrator and the two brothers.

Strangely, all of these layers seem to give me greater control, although I suspect they may confuse some readers. Each doll, each narrative, is contained by the next, and I, as the author, get to decide at which level the narrative will unfold. This allows me to remove myself further and further from the actions of my characters, adding new levels of interpretation and meaning that mimic the rather complex interconnections that my brain seems to generate automatically. Fortunately, I’ve had very good and strict editors, who help me decide when to stop.