Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.
I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.
Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’
This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.
But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.
So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?
We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.
It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.
I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)
But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:
It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …
It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …
And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:
I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …
And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.
For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?
Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.
A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):
* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).
* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.
* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.
* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.
* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.
* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.
* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?
* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.
Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.
And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.
And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.
Follow the energy!