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Column: On Writing a Novel5 December 2009 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
From time to time you meet one when walking down the street: a typical character for a novel. Often my attention is caught by the looks of the would-be persona. For example, I think someone has the face of a gravedigger and a story is born there and then.
Other times you realise that a relative or acquaintance has just the right attributes you’re looking for. In this case it is not their looks but rather their character that interests me. I cannot wait until I can begin writing from their perspective.
This is one of the concepts I try to explain to my creative writing class. Situation: we are eight people sitting together in a room under the glare of neon lighting and the gurgling sounds emitted by the heating system. Instruction: to describe this scene objectively from an onlooker’s point of view. Well, the results of this exercise are invariably very boring.
I continue with explaining that it becomes much more interesting when a writer describes a scene through the eyes of one of his characters. As an example, I indicate one of the female students and request that they please describe the same scene from her point of view. So describe the people present but as seen through her eyes.
Once everyone has finished their piece, now written from this new perspective, each of the students, except of course the lady in question, reads out their work. Someone objects: ‘What we are now describing isn’t reality.’ ‘Oh yes it is,’ I say, ‘it is the character’s view of reality.’
The lady from whose perspective we have written and who has been given another name in this excercise comments: ‘You have described my looks to a tee, everyone will recognise me. So I am glad you have given me a different name but .... these are not my views and this is not what I think.’
This remark points out a crucial issue of creative writing. As a writer it is you who decides what your characters say and think. This turns the real life student who we have used in this exercise into an imaginary persona.
Using this device the writer can tell the truth by making up the facts. Hidden behind his words lie the essence of the writer’s thoughts or theme. The facts may well have been rearranged but the theme always rings true, and this theme can be anything, for example ‘loneliness’ or ‘everyone has to die’.
Being a writer can also offer other unexpected advantages. I once wrote that having a book published increases your chances of finding a lovely youthful girlfriend. Why? Because most books are written by men but are actually mostly read by women.
This idea prompted a PhD student to write to me. He was looking into the question: ‘The effect of finding the right partner (or dating) on the creative output of an artist. Apparently research in America had pointed towards a correlation.’
He wanted to know if what I had written about finding a lovely youthful girlfriend was based on pure research (in which case: who had investigated this?) or if it was a mere conjecture.
Well, I must admit: it is a hypothesis. Creative writing is not always a lot of fun so I do give my promising and eager students some important advice that they should take to heart before starting to write a novel:
1. You will feel very depressed at times. During such times everyone will tell you that you have such a fun-loving, light-hearted personality. You will know the truth and spend many hours in bed.
2. Especially if prior to becoming a writer you were in a well-paid job, your finances will take a turn for the worst. You simply will have to spend all the little money you earn, the so-called gross income effect (people in jobs can only spend their net income).
Anyway, HM Revenue & Customs Self Assessment forms only arrive once a year but unfortunately so do royalties. Never try to calculate your hourly rate! Think of the effects this may have on issue one.
3. Feel for your relatives, friends and acquaintances. They had such high hopes for you. You were really going to make your way in life, certainly with all those starred A levels or even a degree or two. Now they are reduced to (minor) characters in your novels. ‘Besides,’ they complain, ‘father’s eating habits are not nearly as bad as you depicted them in your book.’
4. Before becoming a writer you were a person of moderate habits but working on a plot creates tensions. It is no wonder that you have taken up smoking and that your visits to the glass recycling bin around the corner have increased dramatically.
It is already late when, after the course, I take my students to a nearby pub. Hopefully the people who we have chosen to star in our new bestselling novel are innocently asleep in their beds. That evening we all have a stiff drink.
This is the only scene this evening that is firmly rooted in reality and is certainly not fiction.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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We are pleased to announce that Yugoslav Requiem has been acquired by the Poetry Library
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