Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Paradox: it doesn't make sense but it's worth doing

Writing reconciles opposites says Suniti Namjoshi as she lucidly explores the paradoxes inherent in the craft of writing with the children of The School, Krishnamurthi Foundation of India, Chennai on  28 Jan 2010.

I’m particularly glad to be here because being here reminds me of my own schooldays. Perhaps there will be enough time to chat and for me to find out what school is like now: whether you have exams, what you call the teachers, whether you read J. Krishnamurthi…

What I want to say to you today is that writing is paradoxical.  And what is a paradox? 

A paradox usually consists of two statements which seem to contradict each other and yet both make sense.

The 1st Paradox

Relax. Let the story write itself. 
Exercise control. Shape and polish. 
Work hard.                         

To explain what I mean I’d like to read to you from the 1st chapter of Gardy in the City of Lions. Gardy, the youngest lion cub, gets an email asking him for help. He is very flattered, and asks Aditi and the others to go with him:

 He sent off the email and in no time at all he got Siril’s reply: Sounds interesting. Who exactly sent the email? What is the problem? Ask the Island Sage for permission to go tomorrow morning. We’ll all go. Do not wake everyone just now unless it’s urgent. Repeat: what is the problem? 

Gardy and Baby Shark looked at the email. They both felt silly. They didn’t know what the problem was and they didn’t know who exactly had sent it.

“Better find out,” Baby Shark said to Gardy. 

Gardy sent off another email. This time to Singapore. It said: Please. Who are you exactly? And what is the problem? I need to tell my friends so that if it is a problem we can help you with, we can get ready and come to your help tomorrow morning.

Once again the reply was almost instantaneous. I am the Old Lion, the Ancient Guardian of this Beautiful City, which is threatened with a Grave Problem.  Please come to my Aid with your Entourage, O Noble Prince. Meet me at the North End of the Bird Park and I will explain Everything.

“Well, what do you think?” Gardy turned to Baby Shark.

Baby Shark shrugged. “He likes using capital letters, but he hasn’t told us what the problem is.”        

“No, no, what I mean is should I tell him that I’m not a noble prince and I don’t have an entourage. I just have friends?” Gardy asked Baby Shark.    

“All in good time,” Baby Shark replied. “Let’s go to sleep. We’ll have to persuade everyone tomorrow morning.”

“All right,” Gardy agreed, “but I’ll forward the lion’s reply to Siril first, so that he can prepare the others. It sounds as though he really might have a serious problem. And we’ll need Aditi and the others to help us if we’re going to help him.”

— From Aditi and her Friends on their 9th adventure: Gardy in the City of Lions, Chapter 1.

They set out without actually knowing what sort of help is needed or what the problem is. And at this point, when I was writing the story, I didn’t know either. This is where I had to make myself relax and not force the writing. If you do that, then what you produce doesn’t fit in with the story. You have to let the story write itself.

Gardy doesn’t know what the problem is, but is determined to help. This says something about Gardy – he is both helpful and silly. And Sir Leon, who has written the email, doesn’t spell out the problem properly because he can’t see that he is himself a part of the problem.

And in the process of letting the story work itself out I learnt something that I hadn’t realized clearly before. I realized that when I see something as a problem I have to understand that I am a part of it, and that I have to be aware of that as well. And then suddenly I remembered that in school Krishnaji was always going on about awareness, and that often, when one of us asked him a question, he seemed to talk around the question. He seemed to be asking what the question was about, so that – I now realize – we became aware of what was going on.

In the process of writing the story, the story often reveals something. It has its own logic and writes itself. Well, what about the ‘hard work’ part of the paradox then?  Where does that come in? Once you have a rough idea of the way a story is working itself out, you have to clean it up so that it is clear and sharp. And that is hard work.

Making something that is fun, that is beautiful, is hard work:  99% drudgery and 1% good luck. The luck has to do with catching the story that wants to get written.

The 2nd Paradox

A story or a poem is not just saying what happened to you or what you felt or thought.
yet your own experience is all that you really have to write about.

Let me try to explain. The settings of the Aditi books are usually places that I’ve been to, except, of course, the moons of Jupiter. And Aditi and her friends set off from a real place where I once lived as a small child. And just as Aditi loves her grandmother and is close to her, I loved my grandmother and was close to her. But if I just said all that, I wouldn’t end up with a story. I would just be telling you a little bit about myself. That’s all.

So you have to use your experience – it’s what you know about – but you have to infuse it with your imagination, with what excites you, and then work hard to give your story shape so that it holds together.

Your experience need not be just something that happened to you. It can be something you know. For example, I happened to study a little bit of mathematics at one time, and so I know a little bit about conic sections.

I used that in a scene between Aditi’s grandmother and Beautiful Ele the Beautiful Elephant in Beautiful and the Cyberspace Runaway:

 When Beautiful arrived at the banyan trees, she found that a long table had been set out, and on a the table there were a dozen ice cream cones, two or three plates,  a gleaming knife and a large dish of pistachio ice cream (Beautiful’s favourite).…

The queen held up an ice cream cone, and handed Beautiful the knife, which Beautiful held by the handle in her trunk. “Slice the extra ice cream off the top of the cone and put it on a plate,” the queen instructed Beautiful.

Beautiful did as she was told and then asked politely whether she might eat the extra ice cream, and when she was given permission to do so, she liked it up in one scoop. “What next?” she asked.

“Now slice about half an inch off the cone parallel to the top surface,” the queen told her.

“May I give the sliced off bit to Aditi?” Beautiful asked.

“Yes,” replied the queen, “and when you have done so, look at the cone. What you have on top is a conic section. In this case a perfect circle.”

“I see,” said Beautiful enthusiastically, “conic sections are sections of ice cream cones.”

“Of any cones,” the queen corrected. “Now slice the cone at a slight angle. And yes, you can put the top bit on a plate and give it to Monkeyji.”

“What’s this shape called?” Beautiful asked staring at the top of what was left of the cone.

“That,” the queen told her, “is called an ellipse.”

“There’s very little left of the cone,” Beautiful said. “Shall I give it to Siril and we can start on another cone?”

“Do,” agreed Aditi’s grandmother, and picked up another ice cream cone.

“Who invented conic sections?” Beautiful asked.

“A philosopher called Descartes,” the queen told her. “Like you, he believed in being rational.”

“And like me, perhaps he liked ice cream,” Beautiful added.

From Aditi and her Friends on their 12th adventure:  Beautiful and the Cyberspace Runaway, Chapter 2 

Of course when they taught us conic sections in college, they didn’t use ice cream cones. But they might have done! And that’s where the imagination comes in.

 The 3rd Paradox

Forget yourself. Remember the craft.
Believe in yourself.

When you write, you are trying to make something. It’s a bit like making a good pair of shoes or a good drawing or even like trying to play a game well. You are trying to do something well. You are not trying to be a Big Shot or a Celebrity or a Famous Writer or anything like that. It’s a matter of making not being.

But you are going to be told sometimes that you are rubbish at something, that what you’ve done is no good. Or you’re going to find that it hasn’t produced the effect you wanted it to produce. That’s when you have to have a strong ego, that’s when you have to believe that what you are trying to make is worth making whatever anybody else thinks.  And you have to say to yourself that whatever anyone else thinks, all you can do is your best.  The rest is not in your hands.

And now, in order to leave a little bit of time for chatting and for questions, I’ll finish with a fable from one of my books for grown ups:

Bird Woman

Once there was a child who sprouted wings. They sprang from her shoulder blades, and at first they were vestigial. But they grew rapidly, and in no time at all she had a sizable wing span.

The neighbours were, horrified. 'You must have them cut,' they said to her parents.

'Why?’ said her parents.

'Well, it's obvious,' said the neighbours.

 ‘No,' said the parents, and this seemed so final that the neighbours left.

But a few weeks later the neighbours were back. 'If you won't have them cut, at least have them clipped.'

'Why?' said the parents.

‘Well, at least it shows that you're doing something.'

‘No,' said the parents, and the neighbours left.

Then for the third time the neighbours appeared. 'On at least two occasions you have sent us away,' they informed the parents, 'but think of that child. What are you doing to the poor little thing?'

'We are teaching her to fly,' said the parents quietly.

From 'Feminist Fables'