“You write books because you have truths to tell; you work in a bank … because you want a fast car and a big house”
It’s not often that you can feel yourself being influenced in a way that develops and encourages your own aspirations rather than suffocating what is yours with the weight of what has gone before. The quote comes from a superb article written by David Peace, who wrote the Red Riding quartet, and whose work resonates deeply with my ambitions for writing.
The Red Riding series on TV is a perfect creation. I mean there is zero fat or chaff, nothing left in that doesn’t work so hard all the time that every minute is infused with atmosphere and intent and narrative. Principally it’s a series about crime, but it is about men and their motivations, their actions and their darkness.
It also, it seems to me, expresses a hugely positive and inspiring reverse argument to the ever-present insistence that evil – real, human evil, terrifying in its humanity – is unstoppable, or that there’s too much bad to ever make it good. The characters who represent ‘good’ in Red Riding are flawed, are human, but though evil destroys good again and again there are always more good men with noble fibre to step into the breach.
Before I turn this into a review, I’ll return to the quote. My better half has made the point that I’ve spent these entries writing about writing, the process and my struggles and motivations behind it. When I’ve worked into a vein which examines my own writing and what I want from it, or for it to examine, I haven’t followed the same rigourous path of questioning.
When I began writing, began jotting down first paragraphs or pages, half-heard comments and ideas, I would attempt to think about what I wanted to write about. What truths did I want to tell? But it wasn’t the right time. Invariably the writing I did then, and even now, was far more anecdotal or focused on particular moments or happenings – they would never go beyond short stories. So novel writing felt alien to me.
I wrote then for my own pleasure, for a gratification from the creative process, seeing something come to shape as I wrote it. Like many things in my life I didn’t consider planning, as it was instictive and born from the moment. I often had ideas to tie up but I rarely had something to say, and so I could write anything and see where it took me.
Occasionally I’ve had an idea for a novel which was big enough, except it wasn’t anything more than a story – I planned out sequences of events, twists, revelations and climaxes. Beginnings middles and ends. But there was still nothing to say, no truths to tell. I was writing story plans and not the story, because once it was planned out what more was left?
I’m not sure that my actual writing – my language, my command of phrases or turning of a sentence, my use of dialogue – is particularly special. I can write, but I haven’t written consistently for long enough that the practice begins to tell. I know I have exciting ideas, but even with improvements to my writing an idea would still only make a story. And I always lost interest in just telling stories so I could never improve.
But there are truths I want to tell. I feel that being a man is for many of my generation a trip down the rabbit hole, where everything is backwards and nothing is to be trusted or followed. We must lead but without trampling. We must listen but always have something to say. We must be decisive but open to change. We must be strong but also weak. We cannot be the men of 50 years past, of 20 years, of 10. We must be ourselves.
Many of us in my generation were raised by women who had campaigned, who had stood up and fought or made themselves heard. It was the mothers who raised the hand and the fathers who were never angry but disappointed, but fathers who never intimidated. We are sons who, for all that we love them, did not want to be our fathers or to overcome them. We are sons whose potential role models themselves struggled with that burden.
I cannot truly tell whether this is merely a strong and emotional element of my own makeup, or that there really is a number among the generations since 1980 who have asked themselves the question “What is a man?” and have discovered that there are a 100 answers and an equal and increasing number of counter-arguments to each one.
I can see that what I need to start doing is not asking the question “What makes a man?”, but to start examining what men are in the post 1980 years. What changed? What influenced that change? What were the causes, the ambitions, the goals? Whether there are answers to be found I don’t know, but by asking the questions I’ll already be closer to the truths I want to tell.