Yasser Arafat is notoriously credited with having said that a war about religion is like having a fight over who has got the best imaginary friend. As provocative as the statement is to people of faith, it cannot be denied that human beings have long been capable of intense personal relationships with figures who have no objective existence. Whether such a person is called devout or insane depends often on the social acceptability of the said imaginary friend.
But such friendships are not just the domain of the pious and the mad. Writers, too, can lay claim to relationships with people they’ve made up. Of course, the zealot, the deranged and the author, are not mutually exclusive conditions. The latter two may in fact be interchangeable.
For me, writing is a kind of glorious madness, a descent into the world in my head where it is me who is the figment, the ghost, the imaginary observer. It is a seductive world which I often leave only reluctantly to engage with the real world to which I was born.
The relationships between writers and their protagonists are intriguing, not for the least part, because they can be so varied in intensity and quality. There are writers who insist their protagonists are merely literary constructs, and others who set a place at the table for the hero/heroine of their latest novel.
I have known my imaginary gentleman sleuth, Rowland Sinclair, for five books now, two years of his life, four years of mine. In that time he has always stood in the periphery of my vision, regarding me with a kind of amused resignation, watching me as I watch him. We have an understanding, he and I.
With each book I have, admittedly, become increasingly involved with Rowland, to the point that he is now all but real to not just me, but also my family. My husband and I will often talk about Rowland as if he were an old friend with a tendency of finding trouble. You know the kind. We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Rowland’s actions, as if those actions were fact. Every now and then, I hear our conversations as a third party might, and find myself both alarmed and vaguely embarrassed by the extent to which this figment of my imagination has insinuated himself into our lives. But I reassure myself that I am a writer, and as such a certain level of delusion is not only acceptable but possibly necessary.
My personal writing process is quite instinctive and impulsive: there is no form or formula to my method, just a pursuit of story. I simply sit down and make things up, allowing the words of come out as they will. I write chronologically, beginning with the first word of the novel, and proceeding with little idea of what is coming until I write it. This is undoubtedly dangerous, and risks an outcome that has no structure or resolution or rambles interminably. Somehow though, my work seems to find a natural structure and rhythm, and an internal consistency with ensures it makes sense. I never work in a quiet or serene place, writing instead in the midst of my noisy family, or in airports or cafés, or half listening to the evening news or some late night television show. I used to think that was out of necessity—I was a mother with a demanding day job and I had to multi-task if I ever hoped to find time to write. But I realise now that there may in fact be a purpose to this insane way of working. Writing in the midst of noise and movement, where I am not completely focussed, allows me to engage my subconscious in a way that absolute concentration cannot.
It is not uncommon for a writer to gain new insight into his/her or own work through reviewers or readers, who point out nuances and themes which we ourselves hadn’t noticed. Of course, we’re usually quite happy to claim them after the fact! Because I write without plotting, I have always been surprised at the serendipity by which the details of my narratives fall into place, asides I wrote in chapter one on a whim, by chapter thirty prove crucial as if I had laid the thread on purpose. Both the above, I think, owe more to the storyteller’s subconscious than they do to chance or luck. There are many things we do as writers for reasons, about which we not consciously aware, but which have a purpose and a design nonetheless. Somewhere in our subconscious is stored everything we know and have read, every revelation of research, every image, every sound and every feeling. It’s not surprising then that this is cradle of our creativity, where stories are born. The writer’s trick is tapping into that and then trusting it.
Though I don’t consciously plan or plot, there probably is a subliminal design to my work. What I see as Rowland Sinclair leading me through his world and his story is possibly just my subconscious guiding a story it has planned without needing to bother the poor beleaguered and limited conscious part of my brain which has to deal with the realities of the world.
So what I’m trying to say is that we “pantsers”, we writers who just go with the story and allow our protagonists to do as they choose, are probably not as unruly and unstructured in our writing as we may seem. It is just that we elect not to look too hard at what exactly is at work to produce our plots and our characters. We trust that part of ourselves which tells us “this is the way it was”.
The lawyer in me feels the need to insert a disclaimer at this point. I am telling you what I think I do. It’s my best guess… but I really can’t be sure, and I haven’t tested the theory in any way. Some part of me feels that examining a spell too closely, articulating it too precisely, will break it, rob it of its magic. And I can’t risk that. After all, I have got the best imaginary friend.
Sulari Gentill’s Gentlemen Formerly Dressed is a Booktoberfest title. Buy this book now to go in the draw to win Booktopia’s weekly giveaway – a $250 Booktopia voucher – AND order by 31st October 2013 to go in the draw to win the fantastic publisher prize.
by Sulari Gentill
After narrowly escaping Nazi terror, Rowland Sinclair and his companions land in London, believing they are safe. But they are wrong.
A bizarre murder plunges the hapless Australians into a queer world of British aristocracy, Fascist Blackshirts, illicit love, scandal and spies.
A world where gentlemen are not always what they are dressed up to be… more
About the Contributor
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
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