A thought by Gillian Slovo

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I heard Gillian Slovo, the South African-born author, last Saturday at the International Literature Festival Dublin 2017. She was talking, along with fellow writer Danielle McLaughlin, to author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, on the topic of Why We Write. Orbach was fantastic in gently teasing out subtexts and hidden corners of thoughts – it felt more like being privy to an intimate conversation than listening to a panel discussion where, in the worst cases, the same old clichés are being rehearsed.

The questions of why we write, and how we write, fascinate me. The more I learn about this – also from writing myself – the more interesting it becomes. Susie Orbach said that she writes to explore what she is thinking. She is not alone in that – many people may write a journal for this reason, if nothing else.

I am particularly interested in literary non-fiction, and one of its main formats, the personal essay, centres on a process of verbalisation and exploration. A good essay should walk you through the thoughts of an author as they happen. This is not a special effect superimposed on the finished text in the way a murder mystery is structured. The case in essay writing is commonly that the author has a question, rather than already an answer, and elaborates and records her train of thought. Of course, there may be some re-writing once the reflection has been worked out for the first time, in order to shine up the language or bridge some jumps in the logic. But the essential format of seeking and finding will be kept, and it is actually this journey of discovery that is enjoyable to the readers. Also fiction writers are advised to let the reader discover facts about the story or characters as they go along, and not to overload them with all the details upfront. That is fit for a newspaper article, not a story.

Many writers explore personal topics this way, too, about their own present or past. This is sometimes dismissed as “writing being just a form of therapy”. This is irritating for two reasons. For one, there is nothing wrong with therapy; indeed there is nothing wrong with having mental health issues, but that is another discussion. Secondly, there is nothing wrong with writing being therapeutic. The real question is whether it is good writing, in non-fiction as in fiction. If it is good, it will be worth reading, no matter the motivation or circumstances of the author.

Gillian Slovo and Danielle McLaughlin are first and foremost fiction writers, although Slovo has also published a memoir of her childhood in South Africa as the daughter of two major figures in the anti-apartheid movement. Both authors spoke to Susie Orbach about the curious sensation of finding themselves, various parts of themselves, in the characters of their stories. These are usually not superficial likenesses of age, sex, or background. It usually concerns deeper emotions such as fears or desires. Through a character (or plot), an author can also explore darker sides of her soul, from the petty to the monstrous. As a reader, we do the same – this is one of the fundamental attractions of storytelling.

There is another way of understanding what Slovo said about missing oneself, and that is about the voice of the author. Every writer has a voice, which grows usually more defined with experience – you can also call it their style. Some writers are wordy, others sparse. Some are colourful, others minimalist, tongue-in-cheek, warm, mocking, cynical, forthright or reserved. For the reader, it gives an additional pleasure to reading. But for a writer who has found her voice, the pleasure comes from being entirely oneself, of recognising oneself and realising oneself in the process of creation, of choosing exactly this word over that, to sculpt this thought, or that. It is a feeling that imagine is similar in other artistic activities, and it is altogether addictive.

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A thought by Truman Capote

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Truman Capote (1924-1984) knew a few things about literature, and about gossip. He did not study literature after secondary school, but he was writing every day since he was eleven years old, eventually publishing short stories, novels, plays and screenplays. He broke ground for a new genre, too – the real-life crime story. His book In Cold Blood (1965), about the murder of a family of four in Kansas, is usually called a nonfiction novel, which Capote researched for six years, travelling to the small farming community where the murders had taken place and later to the prison where the murderers were held before their execution.

In Cold Blood was not the first or last time that Capote used real life as material. He mined his own life for experiences and included himself and people he knew as sometimes little disguised characters in his writings. This led eventually to his falling out with the New York social scene that Capote had been eager to belong to in the 1960s.

Author and professor Colum McCann advises aspiring writers: “Plot takes a backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.” This is why we enjoy reading or watching stories based on real-life, even well-known historical events. We know the ship will sink, but we watch Titanic nevertheless. We know of people’s triumphs and failures, but we are keen to understand how they came to that point, the decisions they made and challenges they overcame to get there. The literary treatment, like Capote’s writings, adds another element that we may not find in straight documentaries or news journalism: the rhythm and imagery of storytelling, the depth of character and scenic backdrops. Capote himself acknowledged this, too: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” But still, he just could not resist the temptation of the gossip.