Friday, May 14, 2010

"I'll show you the life of the mind..."

By Russel D McLean

Its 2002 (I think), and we’re trudging through a Graveyard. The Necropolis. The West End of Dundee, overlooking the newer Balgay cemetery.

My flatmate is looking for old graves. For Ancestors. For stories from history. I’m there for the ride, as is another friend. If I’m honest, I find graveyards oddly peaceful during the day, especially ones as isolated as this.

Up here, on a hillside, with trees overgrowing, and a sense of isolation, I start to look not at the inscriptions or the stories already told by history, but at the way the graves are laid out, the way the trees bend over some stones protectively as though through the decades they have come to care deeply for those buried on the hillside.

I see shadows move.

I tilt my head.

Connections are made.

Neurons fire.

My other friend – her name is Becca – says, “You look funny.”

And I do.

Only when I snap out of it does she realise what’s happening. “You’re thinking about a story,” she says.

I smile.

Because I am.

At long last, I think, I have a setpiece ending for the novel I’m working on*.


The thing about most writers, I suspect, is that we view the world in very different ways from other people. In the past, I’ve talked about going out for walks with my parents and seeing things among the trees that leads into later projects.

Sometimes its hearing something, even, a random line of dialogue. The story, “Pedro Paul” in the Expletive Deleted Anthology was inspired by overhearing two old women talk about the horror of the “Pedrophiles” in modern society.

But whatever it is, I think it’s a tic in the brain that makes us write, that forces us to create new worlds and seem alternatives in every situation. It is, perhaps, something that can be learned, but as far as I’m aware, it’s the way I’ve always viewed the world, as though I’m not content with reality the way it is, I have to recfocus and reinterpret it in my own way.

Which makes me sound more than a little nuts.

But then maybe I am. At a recent event, I bumped into my primary teacher – one of the many people who encouraged me when I was younger – who said that I was always away in another world, my “head in a book”. Now, that’s a cliché, but its true. I have always been happier using fictional world to make sense of the real one (its what fiction is best at, even on an unconscious level) so it was a natural extension to use my own fictional worlds to try and make sense of what was happening around me.

This does not make a writer, however, just a very odd person. Not that there’s anything that wrong with being odd. Its harnessing that point of view and turning it into a skill that can communicate with other people that’s been the hard part.

But I think – I believe – that the writer’s mind – the storyteller’s mind – has to be different in some way from normal people’s. I think that a writer has to be able to see not just the world around them, but the way in which the world could be. They have to see the alternatives, the out of view events, the probable and the possible. And above all, in some form, they have to be able to believe in these things they see, to make them concrete and real and communicable.

At least, that’s how it works for me.

*for anyone who cares, the setpiece – and the cemetery, in fictionally modified form – made its way into the finale for The Good Son. In fact very few of the beats changed from my initial conception of what would happen except where characters, story and plain physics dictated.

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