Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018. Part 2

Picking up from where David Napthine left off, John Foxwell writes

Once or twice a day, our half of the Festival Bookshop on George Street would transform from a workshop space into the ‘Literary Voices’ exhibition: a condensed (and portable) segment of the exhibition we held in Durham back in 2017. Here, we told the stories of writers who either heard voices themselves or who were intensely interested in the phenomenon (e.g. Muriel Spark, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Margery Kempe, and so on).

For those writers who did hear voices, it’s not usually the straightforward story one might imagine: the voices didn’t necessarily help the writer or tell them what to write (and in some cases they would actually be a hindrance). Instead, it’s more often the case that the writer came to think about voice differently, and developed in his or her writing a complex understanding of the ways in which voices are woven into our mental lives.

WALKING WITH CHARACTERS

Typically, exhibitions have big boards with writing on them, and an exhibition at a book festival titled ‘Literary Voices’ was not the place to buck the trend. Where we were perhaps a bit different, however, was in our map of Edinburgh populated by fictional characters:

The idea which prompted this came from something we’ve termed ‘Experiential Crossing’, which some readers reported to us in our online survey. In a nutshell, it’s the sense readers sometimes have of a fictional character somehow interacting with the real world: being suddenly struck by what Mrs Dalloway would think of Starbucks, perhaps, or finding yourself thinking in the style of Holden Caulfield. (Some writers reported the same experience in relation to their own characters, and a few even suggested that they actively tried to make it happen.) With our map, we invited visitors to draw a character and drop them somewhere in Edinburgh, as a way of both representing and trying to bring about a kind of Experiential Crossing.

TREES FROM BOOKS

As David’s earlier post mentioned, the first set of workshops we ran at the book festival were all to do with creating characters and stories. But although we’re called ‘Writers’ Inner Voices’, we’re just as interested in the inner voices of readers – and that’s what our second set of workshops were all about. In ‘Map Your Reading Experience’, we invited people to reflect on their journeys through books that were important to them, representing those experiences visually through something that was half tree, half mind-map.

If you’re a bit baffled, you’re not alone. While some people took to the activity like ducks to water, others took to it more like ducks to… air: a bit hesitant at first, a bit unsure of exactly what was being asked of them. By the end of the workshop, though, they were soaring:

Usually the mapping was fairly straightforward: the roots would be what brought you to the book, your expectations, preconceptions, predilections, personal history, etc. The trunk and/or branches would then represent the experience of the book itself: emotions, resonant ideas, moments of identification, strong imagery experiences, the point at which you got ‘hooked’… (Usually by this point we’d taken a step back, so the variations were even greater.) Finally, the leaves/blossoms/clouds/nesting birds/random circles would be the ongoing effects of the book, its influence on your life, the way it had inspired your own ideas, and so on.

Of course, this wasn’t the only way people took the activity; for some, trees clearly weren’t abstract enough:

However the ‘tree’ turned out, it seemed to provide a useful tool for people to actually be able to talk about their reading experiences – something which is often surprisingly difficult. It was incredibly helpful for us as well, since it’s given us a whole range of new things to think about in relation to how readers engage with literary voices. After all, reading, like writing, is fundamentally creative, a process of turning symbols on a page into characters and worlds – and even though it’s the writer who puts those symbols on the page, it’s the reader who ultimately brings them to life.

2 thoughts on “Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018. Part 2

  1. I listened to a podcast last week. Three authors waxing lyrical on the subject of writing and they touched on the subject of writers letting their characters talk to them. One of them dismissed letting your characters lead you as a weakness, saying you needed to take control, put your characters back on the page, or you’d never make it as a writer.

    I’m assuming she’d never heard of Charles Dickens.

    I can see where not staying focused on a story can be a problem, possibly this is what she meant. Where I find difficulty is understanding how listening to your characters is in any way not being focussed. I’ve been focussed on my story for five years now (alright, longer, but who’s counting…). Not all of that time has been spent writing, I’ve had other things to deal with, but for the last eighteen months it’s been solid writing/editing/hating the words.

    Some of my time writing this book has resulted in dead ends. I’ve had to restart more or less from scratch about three times – at least with a good grasp of my story world – the last about a year ago, though that was the least complete rewrite, only involving a perspective change. I couldn’t have done it without listening to my characters, who are of course extensions of my own subconscious mind.

    Cutting yourself from your characters means isolating yourself from a major way in which your mind expresses its creativity. Something you do at your peril if you’re lucky enough to experience characters who ‘talk’ to you..

    If you find you’re losing focus, well that’s something different. Are you really invested in this story, are you writing in the correct genre. Should you start over or write something else. Are ever finishing any projects?

    All important questions to answer before turning away from your characters. Should they only exist on the page for you, is that what you want? It isn’t what I want.

    I’m a fine one to say ‘Are ever finishing any projects?’ when I’ve been working on the same book for years, but books do take years, and I’m nearly done. A rushed book is a rejected book. But then a carefully crafted book is also a rejected book, just less likely to be so. Without talking to my characters my book would be garbage, I can be absolutely certain about this.

  2. A Hollywood script writing guru once said that the writer “must know their world as God knows this one.” This can be taken to mean that the writer must do their research so that the story is “real”. Some writers I know of would extend this to include the writer exercising total control over their characters and actions, demanding they act within rigorously proscribed parameters. The thought of a character taking the writer into new places is highly suspect. I wonder if this is particularly true of writers in film and TV. A Producer once said to me that there are three rules of script writing; structure, structure, structure. Thus the writer has to spend hours detailing structure; character, sequence of events, the beat of each scene. This is because film making involves so many factors (e.g. technical; how a scene is shot, securing locations etc) and so much time that once the structure is in place, and been agreed by a hundred people, there is no room for deviation. As the drafts are written the writer may find that one of their characters begins to push against the structure, whispering in the ear of the writer demanding changes to how they live within the story. What does the writer do? Slap them down and tell them to shut up. Only the Producer can interfere in this way.

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