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Wednesday, 20 June 2012

What makes you a writer? - by Roz Morris

An earthquake sounds like a jumbo jet landing on the roof. An immense, relentless assault of noise - rattling, rumbling, shivering, cracking, quivering. In the walls, the ceiling, the windows and the ground. It goes on for ever and when it stops the stillness is thick as rock.

It was 9 in the morning. We were a group of friends from seismically solid England spending a week in a Palladian villa in Vicenza. Our expectations for the day were nothing more challenging than agreeing which old towns to explore or where to have lunch. But now we were dashing out of our bedrooms and bathrooms, all calling out the same - obvious - question. Was that what I thought it was? Is everyone all right?

We had no internet access, no way of pinging the outside world to check. As if it wasn’t clear anyway, for above our heads the heavy iron chandeliers were swinging. All of them, in every room, beat in slow, wide arcs. It took twenty minutes for them to stop.

Gradually we got on with our day. In cafes we glimpsed news footage of tumbled buildings, traumatised faces. While we were merely shaken and stirred, a town just 50 miles away was smashed to pieces. The tremors carried all the way to Austria.

And they didn't stop. If you padded to the kitchen in the small hours, you'd catch the lamps all rocking again.

We talked about the earthquake all that week. Each evening we would drift to it naturally, especially our stories of the first thing we did when it hit. Someone braced in a doorway, someone tried to find somebody to tell them what to do. Someone made jokes and someone insisted on finishing her shower. My husband carried on calmly making toast. After a few recitations we knew by heart who did what, whether sensible or daft, or lovably typical of them. We knew the words they would use when it was their turn to tell it again, but we listened as though it was new.

A theme much visited on this blog is what turns you into a writer. I'm not sure there is anything so sudden or obvious as a transformation. I think it's a default, a response in your essential nature like running in panic or deciding everything will be fine. What was the first thing I did when the earthquake struck? I ran my internal thesaurus for the right words. What am I doing now? I’m telling a little story to grapple, as we did every night, with the fact we escaped something far worse.
Thanks for the lamp pic (above right) she_who_must

 
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at Nail YourNovel  and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris. Her books are Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You CanDraft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available in print and on Kindle  She also has a novel, My Memories of a Future Life available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters right here.

16 comments:

Lee said...

Telling a story: that makes all of us, just about every person on the planet, a writer.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Hi Lee! Storyteller, writer, what's the difference? Is there one? We can all tell stories if we try. Can we all write them?

Lee said...

To start with, at least 10,000 hours of writing practice - unless you're an outlier, and despite wishful thinking and media hype, there are really very few of them folk!

Myself, I tend to think of a writer as someone who writes and keeps writing no matter how often discouraged about (and from) doing so. As to whether that makes you a good writer...

Susan Price said...

Seismically solid England? My Grandad was thrown out of bed by an earthquake in Oldbury in the 1930s. In the 90s, my armchair was shunted across the floor by one - and in 2000 I sat on a sofa and watched the tremors run up the walls and heard the roof-tiles rattle - in Birmingham. It did £20 worth of improvements.
But I take your point, Roz. 'Things don't happen to writers - they collect material.'

dirtywhitecandy said...

Susan, you have lived in a more interesting part of England than I do!

And Lee, it's now 11,000 hours of practice. The standard's gone up.

Lee said...

"But I take your point, Roz. 'Things don't happen to writers - they collect material.' "

But Susan, so does everyone else! I love listening to the stories about life in the mines of Kazakhstan that the man who lops off the branches from my trees tells me, for example. And the stories often get edited from version to version, often get more elaborate (truthful or not). Maybe we make too much of a writer's consequence: lots of people observe as they experience. And lots of writers claim to be writing in their heads as they experience. Maybe. Yup, I'm a bit skeptical. Who doesn't want to think they're special, after all?

Lee said...

11,000? Oh dear, I'd best get back to work instead playing round here!

Ashen said...

... when it stops the stillness is thick as rock ...
This evokes a powerful moment for me.

In writing I want to vividly create an experience, to bring alive its effect, sometimes even before the cause.

Dennis Hamley said...

Roz, as Kay is from NZ we spend a lot of time there - actually in Christchurch. I've only experienced little tremors there. In 1910-11 we were there for Christmas and a Southern Hemisphere summer. By then the Christchurchians were quite blase about aftershocks: they almost laughed at them. So I did the same: the attitude was catching. The small tremors nearly every day seemed so routine as to be really rather pleasant: a gentle, restful rocking. But four days after we left, the big one came and we woke back home to see TV pictures of the cathedral tower a pile of stones in Cathedral Square. A beautiful city centre had been destroyed and is still virtually sealed off. The mood in Christchurch is very different now, The realisation that some people we passed in the street on Friday might have been dead the following Wednesday is a sobering one, so thank God I live in a country which is seismically solid (relatively speaking, Sue.)

Lee, I know that virtually everybody is a storyteller. In fact I often think that the difference between humans and all other forms of creation is that humans can tell stories. I've told three stories already today, putting shape on every day happenings and I haven't even been out of the flat yet. Stories are our best, sometimes the only, way to understand our experience. I can't help feeling that what makes the writer different is the urge to shape this experience, to dramatise it, to turn it into a form which (the writer hopes but it may be a hope born to die) will be significant. What separates the writer is the will, the urge, the patience, to look for this significance. It may be done well, it may be done badly, but what matters is that it's done. I don't think that claims any special significance for the writer. I write: I have dome most of my life and I'll go on doing it. It's a pastime and a job from which I get pleasure and is a piece of, as Arthur Ransome said, 'thumping good luck' that publishers have thought it worth publishing, some readers, not nearly enough, have found it fairly diverting and I've been able to earn some money, again, not nearly enough, from it.

And aftershocks in Christchurch will not form any part of any story I write because to do so would be a piece of rank impertinence to a lot of very scarred people.

Kathleen Jones said...

Hi Roz - as someone who lived through the big 7.2 in Christchurch I loved your account of the earthquake - it is so accurate. The noise is horrifying, and the way the lamps swing. Oddly I'm now only about 100 miles from the earthquake in Emilia Romagna and, as I live in Italy, watched hours of footage on the tv - the after effects are still going on. Hundreds of square miles of farmland without water because of liquifaction and the relocation of aquifers. Tens of thousands still homeless, similar numbers without jobs. and the aftershocks are still going on.
We don't feel the shocks up here on the mountain, but on the plain everyone is rocking at regular intervals.
Thanks for a wonderful post that makes the experience real.

Joni Rodgers said...

Roz, I love this observation: "We knew the words they would use when it was their turn to tell it again, but we listened as though it was new."

We Humankind have an innate need for story, and there's a huge difference between briefing for info sake ("I'm making mac and cheese for dinner.") and storytelling as archive-building ("And when Great-Great-Grandpa came to America, he sold his coat to buy his love this ring..."), which passes into lore by repetition. That patient audience is needed to honor the story every time it's retold, and the story is refined based on their reception of it. The storyteller learns what matters. Meaning emerges from that. The "takeaway" that makes the story matter -- or at least instructs us where the best laughs are.

Juliana L. Brandt said...

Amazing story and well written. Transformation has a way of pushing us to relate to others, especially through storytelling. I'm not sure I'd thought about it in quite those terms before.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Ashen - thank you. And what a lovely point you've nailed - that bringing alive the experience is the very essence of what we try to do.

Dennis - I felt I had to be very careful writing this post. It was, as you say, the desire to mark a brush with something unfathomable and significant, a way to pay respect to the untamable in our civilised world. And to do so, I hope, with due delicacy.

Kathleen - I had no idea you were so close to the area. In the UK we hardly hear anything about the after-effects of the quake, and it's astonishing that something so widespread can vanish from the news.

Joni - that was one of the cruxes for me. Telling the story became a ritual, to honour what we knew of its magnitude. Of course, you're no stranger to the unfathomable disaster with your Katrina experience. With that in mind, I'm relieved that my post struck a chord!

Juliana - thanks!

John A. A. Logan said...

It's strange too, how many stories take as their starting point the moment of rupture from all that had been familiar before the impact of a disaster.
And the implication even in the word "disaster" that the stars have gone out of alignment suddenly, for some or all...
Even back to the flood in the Bible.
A lot of stories start at that point, and in them we meet people/characters who have led a whole life to take them up to that moment of involvement with disaster, but all we see is them in crisis...Noah on a boat...
Crisis and disaster, in literature, allow us to see human beings illuminated against this stronger-than-normal background light...and since these stories stand the test of time one way or another, they must have some value in helping us process in story what is sometimes unprocessable in life.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Absolutely, John. The familiar becomes unfamiliar. The reliable becomes unreliable. And nothing is ever the same.

Pauline Fisk said...

Roz, you talk about 'a default, a response in your essential nature like running in panic or deciding everything will be fine' and ask the question, 'What was the first thing I did when the earthquake struck?' My answer to that question is that at the age of nine the power of writing hit and I made a big career decision and nothing in my life afterwards was ever the same.

And Lee, I was a storyteller from the age of three. I have a photo of myself telling 'what happened next' to the big children who lived in the house next door. But joined up letters, words and sentences turned me into a writer. It's as simple as that.