Three years ago, when I was in the early stages of realising I was still in love with the writing I enjoyed as a girl, I found I was being visited by imaginary old people, shy children, desperate people, and people with no voice. The first 2 stories I wrote for my new creative writing tutor were about older people, struggling with hidden sadness.
I’m always attracted to the forgotten people: those suffering in silence, those who stand apart in some way or for some reason, those who experience great hardship, those who are misunderstood or unfairly judged.
I am drawn to stories about people with some kind of barrier, or those who might be made to feel they don’t belong in some way, even people who are criticised for seemingly behaving badly. Let’s hear the reasons for these, I think. There’s a story behind every one.
Fiction not only gives a voice to these forgotten people – it draws our attention to them and makes us see what we did not see. It pulls out and exposes the reasons for behaviour; focuses on the insides not the surface appearance, peels back the layers of image – for I feel it is image that so often distracts us in real and everyday life.
Whether reading or listening to fiction (I love to listen to stories and drama), we use our eyes and ears to see and hear words not pictures. Yes, pictures and appearances are what we conjure up from descriptions in writing, but they don’t remain ever-present when we are focussing on the story, or the conversation, or the voice. It’s not like TV and films and face-to-face discussion. In stories you have to pay deep, deep attention. You can have your eyes closed.
You can deliberately avoid distracting with appearances in writing. We might want a reader to focus on the words: “He touched me. I didn’t want him to touch me,” for instance, and not on the character’s bright red lipstick, short skirt or the way she holds herself. Perhaps, we don’t want this to be about sexuality, we want it to be about attitudes. Or you can time when you allow a description to be made available to a reader, so they may look inwardly at their own preconceptions or how others judge on appearance. You can make less of skin colour, or accent, or disability. You can then surprise your reader when another character makes something of them.
When a writer talks to you, it is not his or her face you see, or the way she tucks her hair behind her ear, or the way his black eyes burn a hole in your resolve – it is his or her words. The words captivate you or repel you. It’s all about whether you like what they are saying and not what they look like.
And because of this the forgotten people can talk, and we can see their insides, their guts, we can hear what they would tell us if we stopped making too fast assumptions.
That second story I wrote for my tutor, three years ago, was a story about a grandmother called Pat who struggled with Christmas every year, but braved it for the sake of her family. The family were so wrapped up in their own lives and needs they saw nothing but Gran and not the woman with needs of her own. I found that I wanted to show how the loudest characters were not always the strongest and that looks often hide a multitude of emotions but also that a deliberate gesture may not be done from the heart.
There is a lot of beauty hidden behind a poor image. And we need to be reminded where to find beauty.
The writer is not beautiful. The writer’s words are beautiful.
Merry Christmas. I hope you get to eat and drink well. After all – it’s what’s inside that counts 😉