Sport 11: Spring 1993
Elizabeth Knox — Heat
Here follow some thoughts first formulated for a talk on ‘The Craft of Writing’ at Dunedin’s Writers Week 1993. My sub-headings are bracketed by two headings—like, perhaps, the date, longitude and latitude at the beginning of each entry in a ship’s log, my bearings in time and space: Conviction and Glee.
Of conviction I will say only this: when writing I
try always to bear in mind a sign that hung in railway stations in
Wartime England: ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ A good motto for
the wall of any writer’s study.
Authenticity. If events or people in the world of my books are strange or mannered, artificial or improbable, they must not seem unlikely. This involves work, planning, pains-taking. The fictional world must be a dense enough medium to float all odd or heavy vessels.
I’ll put in a word for that supposedly outmoded thing, mimetic art; art that imitates life. By which I do not mean to say that the book must be realistic or everyday (my brother-in-law, who writes a little himself and won a short story competition, once told me that the people in my books don’t talk like real people, ‘people you meet in the pub or the TAB’). Lifelike art need not be familiar, or imitate the world the way Health Inspectors of the imagination say it is: plain, day-lit, bread and butter. Lifelike to me means having vitality—unlikely, cunningly contrived, artificial even—but full of beans, grit, texture; a text with a sound set of teeth in its head.
How does a text come by its vitality? Well, by learning. Good fiction can be likened to a lively conversation seasoned by the speakers’ knowledge. Which doesn’t mean you have to have your facts straight; false science and misapprehensions can be fun. Of course what facts you do have should be straight. When a book gets something wrong its stride falters, it loses its readers’ confidence, and induces a particular feeling, worse than disappointment, a kind of queasiness, a dissolution of attention.
So—accuracy. Good fiction need not be a scrapbook of learning, but should imitate the fullness of the world; like a hunter lying in a swamp imitating duckcalls, the writer must make the right noises to attract some blood and heat down into the work.page 112
But fullness isn’t much without freshness. I
want the world in my text not to be quoted, or name-dropped, or
pointed at, but present.
I remember, on my fifth birthday, sitting on the black lino in the kitchen at Pomare, watching a clockwork bird I’d been given, pecking and hopping. I was to start school the following Monday. I remember I felt sad, and old, and I remember wondering how much longer I’d like toys like this—the clockwork bird. And I remember wanting to discover everything about the bird that gave me pleasure. I picked it up and, trying to appreciate it, I only managed to commit it to memory—its warm tinny smell, the rough edges of the staples that joined the two halves of its body; it hadn’t quite wound down and I remember it kicking me.
I recall, at sixteen, being very taken with an aphorism I found in a science-fiction story: ‘The universe is metaphorical; everything that exists describes something else.’ Apart from the fact it had the word ‘universe’ in it, so was attractive to a teenager, I liked this because I’d got into the habit of making things more real and memorable to myself by asking: ‘What is it like?’ So—my son’s earwax smells like Cape gooseberries. And that isn’t whimsy—my imagination at work—it’s an eidetic memory (memory by association) trained by years of habit.
In my early twenties I read a book about ancient lyric poetry—Hesiod and company—which declared that the metaphor is a more advanced step than the simile in the evolution of human consciousness. I went and looked at my writing and decided my consciousness could evolve a little. Hence, from Treasure: ‘Jess walked down to the terrace, to the sundial. The bronze dorsal fin atop the pediment was partly submerged in a frothy wake of fallen blossom.’
And that is whimsy, imagination, a cultivated skill
rather than habit.
A writer I know told me that he didn’t really like or believe in ‘elaborate’ or ‘decorative’ writing like mine. But my imagery isn’t ornamentation. How can I make my world real to readers but by reminding them of what they know; the experiences of their senses? And how can I ask them to take it on faith that their sensations are similar to mine but by setting up a kind of double-check—something is like something else.
My books want their readers’ bodily
memories—not their sympathies, their consciences, or their
consent. I want my readers to hear, feel, smell, taste, see something
again—something of their own. I want my
prose to call
it out, like sweat or saliva. I’d like to alter their breathing, the
tempo of their pulse, alter their skin, their viscera—their
stomachs turned—nay—overturned! So they don’t even have
the will to shut a forefinger between the pages and carry the book
into the kitchen to the fridge.
I should say something about the sound of words. I consider pauses, the rhythm of syllables and of sentences, and the tonal qualities of words themselves. There is a connection between the music of language and the meaning it generates. I don’t know why. I can only think of examples. Macbeth’s sophistry in Latinate polysyllables resolving itself into blunt wishes in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables:
If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and end-all, here . . .
Or that line of Hamlet’s:
O most wicked speed, to post
with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
You have to bare your teeth to pronounce ‘incestuous sheets’; the
words sound and feel fierce (and unrelenting, they admit nothing)
regardless of their sense and context.
For me there are various forms of communion in writing: one is with my readers, another with language and the last with my characters. Detectives and psychologists put a great deal of thought into why people do things (and the TV news pretends to). Writers must also. People don’t generally have to explain themselves or others to disinterested third parties. Look at the distortions Noeline in Sylvania Waters produces because she feels called on to explain herself to the rolling cameras. I know people who suck in their cheeks before looking in a mirror. A writer cannot do this—or the mental equivalent.
Writers often report their characters getting away on them. This is taken as an indicator of their authenticity, both the writer’s and the characters’—their obduracy, their unruliness—like that coy coquetry about hair: ‘I can’t do a thing with it!’ This old cliché reflects the difficulty of having anything happen between people in a work of fiction. To have two characters quarrel page 114 takes as much planning as robbing a bank. That’s why there are so many works of fiction where one character drifts about in an alienated fashion explaining their feelings about their relationships with others. I like my characters to mismanage the people around them in their thoughts as though they are all, each one, struggling authors. I want my characters to want to touch or hurt each other with a desire so acute that their dreams have gone out before their caresses or blows; because, after all, whether I describe their desire or their touches it is all only description. I want my characters to be seen to be imagining themselves and their lives, as we do.
But I don’t want my characters to be ‘just like someone you’d meet’, undistilled, people who sometimes just chew the fat (though they should be able to be imagined doing that when they’re off stage, as it were). Because they exist in a world with a God—a sympathetic ear—their author’s—and they tune their voices to her ear.
A question I am frequently asked is how I feel
confident creating my male characters. It’s a silly question. My men
and women are mine before they’re men or
women. Gender matters to you and me, but it isn’t one of the two
critical decisions I make about a character. Those are: do I mean them
to be like anyone I know, or not; and are they alone or have they
friends or family in the world of the book. Whether they are male or
female, young or old, domestic or foreign, contemporary or
historical—those are decisions that present fewer
My bracketing heading is Glee. A friend of mine says she doesn’t like writing without ‘passion’. But I don’t mean that. Someone I’m talking to about my feelings about writing compliments me on my enthusiasm. But I don’t mean that. Glee goes with Zeal (I used the more respectable ‘conviction’ earlier). Glee is buoyant, but doesn’t defy gravity ( and really nothing in the universe is falling, it is all flying apart).
I’m not sure I can explain this—my essay ‘The Receding Lion’ (in Amending the Vulgar, 1992) demonstrates conviction and glee with a right-handed rhetorical piece followed by a bit of left-handed whimsy. Anyway, what I don’t mean is that teen romantic genius no-revision-no-surrender thing, or ‘listen to this because it is my utterance’.
I like heat, not fever or thirst, but working heat, like a kiln, compost, yeast, or a hot metal press.