Explicate yourself

This is a bit esoteric (a word which will probably  invite you to click ‘exit’ and start looking for something more entertaining). But it’s a blog I wrote years ago for the excellent Authors Electric site  and it conveys some thoughts about the writing game that I think are worth repeating.

A page of a Flaubert manuscript (which his editor had to decypher).

Explicate yourself, I dare you.

I used to lecture and give tutorials on French literature, so I know how to do what they call ‘explication de texte’. ‘Explication’ in French and English goes further and deeper than ‘explanation’ and it’s fun. You see things in a novel, poem, play, story that weren’t obvious at first – links, connections, rhythms, meanings. But …

… it’s not so easy to do it when you’re talking about your own writing. Because if you start claiming things about your intentions, explaining what your symbols, images, etc. ‘mean’, or talk about any of the normal stuff that crops up when people discuss books, you can’t help but sound pretentious.

I take my writing seriously. I want it to entertain, amuse if possible but also to say something – usually about how human beings treat one another. I marvel at the resilience of some, admire the ‘cheerfulness against the odds’ of others – not just by describing them and their actions and circumstances, but by using other subtextual tricks and juxtapositions to try a bit of subliminal persuasion on the reader.

But there, you see? Already, that’s making me sound like a candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.

So what do you do? Let the writing speak for itself? Yes, of course, but that works best when the reader’s tucked away somewhere with just the book and his/her own imagination. Your ‘critic’s voice’ would only be an intrusion. And anyway, if you’re just plucking short extracts from a 350 page novel to study, you need to give each some context. So you find a lot of your explication time is taken up with something like ‘Well, in the sixty pages leading up to this paragraph, Laura realises she’s pregnant by the customs officer so her sentence is commuted to thirty years, her seventeen children are put into care in Leamington Spa and the cosmetic surgery is postponed until the surgeon is released from quarantine. Meanwhile, the genetically modified chimpanzees have been recaptured but the green one is found to have a wasting disease and so the vet, Laura’s husband, has to retrace its steps in order to find the source. We rejoin Laura in her cell just after the one-eyed warder has kissed her and gone home to his vegan wife.’

OK, that’s stupid, but it’s much more interesting for an audience than pointing out how I’ve expanded the imagery, fused abstract and concrete, reinforced a particular theme, inverted ethical conventions or something equally off-putting. Apart from anything else, whoever heard a reader saying ‘Oh goody, he’s inverted the ethical conventions. I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hegelian dialectic’?

I’m not questioning the reader’s sensitivity to things other than ‘the story’ or doubting his/her ability to operate at several levels of comprehension and appreciation; I’m just saying that I find it difficult to do that when it’s my own books under discussion. My characters continually surprise me, their actions create parallels and contrasts that I haven’t always anticipated, so once I set them going they work some alchemy of their own. Maybe they’re in tune with all the sub-textual stuff and how they reveal it occurs at some level below or beside consciousness. When it works, it’s a wonderful feeling but, strangely, I don’t always feel I should take credit for it.

All of which probably reveals something sinister about my psyche, some deep, quivering inadequacy. It also reveals another potential explanation: I know life is serious but I often find it hard to take things too seriously.

A Tale of two Geralds

For a while now, much of my writing has been collaborative, mainly with my Canadian friend, Eden Baylee, but also with other writing friends here in Scotland. It’s a fascinating process and, despite the fact that I’ve been a writer for a very long time, it’s still teaching me about the game. Earlier blogs have featured both my own stories and collaborative ones but this one’s different. It’s a story I co-authored with Eden for R B Wood’s Word Count Podcast  and it’s the only one where we disagreed about the ending.

For a while now, she’s encouraged me to publish the original but with alternative endings so, with this photo as our prompt, here’s what we wrote…

 

ANIMAL PLANET

It used to be easy being a meerkat. Just living in a pack. Plenty of beetles and other insects to eat. Frogs, snails, even a few birds and lizards, and if you’re a vegetarian, well, the world’s your oyster. Also, if you’re tall, (like me, I’m over 12 inches), you’re one of the dominant ones, which means you do all the breeding and the smaller guys have to look after the pups, so it’s a pretty good life.

And, as I said, it used to be easy. That’s until that naturalist bloke came along and found we were made for TV. Now we’re all over the place – documentaries, pets, kids’ toys, even adverts for insurance companies. Meerkat heaven. At least, that’s what it seems like to non-meerkats, but I tell you, it’s made a helluva difference, in ways you’d never guess at.

Take Gerald, for example. That’s him in the shot with his back to the camera. He’s not very tall so, unlike me, he has to do most of the looking after the kids and that stuff. Or, rather, that’s how he used to be. He’s not all that bright, either, so he often used to get things wrong. The rest of us had to keep reminding him to know his place, and just get on with his child-minding jobs.

Then along comes that BBC crew. They didn’t bother us, just pointed their cameras and the presenter guy would sit nearby whispering stuff about us. Some of it was quite interesting, quite instructive. We listened, but mostly we just got on with being meerkats, standing tall to keep an eye out for predators, looking cute without really trying to, that sort of thing.

But Gerald felt left out of it. Because of his size, he wasn’t in shot much. He was sort of hidden in the bunch. That’s why he got fed up with it and turned his back to the camera. Of course, as meerkats, all of the rest of us were looking in the same direction. And one of the cameramen spotted him and started telling the others about him and soon they were all ignoring us and pointing their cameras at him, trying to get close-ups, even shooing some of us out of the way to get better angles. At least, that’s what they were saying.

So, suddenly, Gerald’s a star, and he starts behaving like one. Says he wants to be alone. Imagine that, a meerkat asking to be alone! He won’t get the kids’ breakfast, refuses to change nappies. In fact, in a way, he stops acting like a meerkat at all. And, weirdly, rather than seeing the way he was behaving as a sort of betrayal, some of the females started fancying him, and the whole structure of the pack began to crumble.

* * *

Charlotte found herself slumped over the armrest when the sound of music woke her up. She pulled herself upright on the couch. She’d drifted in and out of sleep while watching TV—again. Since the pandemic hit more than three months ago, her nightly pattern had morphed into the following:

Wine with a friend over zoom before dinner. Wine with dinner. Wine with her feet up while watching a show.

She’d become non-discriminatory about almost everything—dinner was whatever she had the energy to throw together, wine was the cheapest she could find at the local store, and the nightly show was whatever would hold her interest for more than ten seconds.

Tonight, Animal Planet featured some odd creatures that caught her attention, so she stuck with the program.  That was, until she fell asleep. The credits were rolling now, so she’d missed most of the hour-long episode. One thing she remembered was the narrator talking about Gerald. It was probably the name of the scientist or animal activist or producer of the show.

The name stuck because her husband’s name was Gerald, described as he was in the program, short, famous (at least in his own mind), and had a way with women. He certainly wooed her tirelessly when they first met. Their marriage, a love affair headed toward its thirtieth year, would’ve been celebrated like no other. They had planned a two-week tour of Europe—Rome, Milan, then Barcelona, and lastly to Paris—their favourite city in the world where they had honeymooned. She even booked the same room in the same hotel in the 5th Arrondissement.

It took her six months to plan the trip.

It took only two days to plan Gerald’s funeral. She couldn’t even be by his side during his final hours.

* * *

The funeral itself did nothing to mark the new beginning for which  she was hoping. Her husband’s presence was still everywhere, in the rooms she used, the day by day choices she made. Then, just a month into her widowhood, almost by accident, she found herself watching  a repeat of the Animal Planet episode featuring her husband’s meerkat namesake. And this time, the hypnotic repetition of those two syllables ‘Ger’ ‘Ald’ kept her focus stolidly on the behaviours of the cute little onscreen creature. To her surprise, she stopped flinching at the frequent repetition of the name and began, instead, to identify it with the beast and its antics. So much so that, when the show ended, her first thought was to Google the details of the programme’s makers and dash off a quick email congratulating them on their achievement and indulging herself in outlining what for her were the show’s highlights.

Of course, in the pack we knew nothing of all this. We heard the film crew talking of how some woman named Charlotte had written to them about their professionalism and achievements, but they were used to the adulation of lonely animal lovers. When we heard what she said about Gerald though, well, he became intolerable. She’d not only identified him as the star of the show, she’d suggested that the rest of us in the pack, the taller meerkats and the females, should perhaps be trained to resemble him and ape his behaviours. The producers were all members of the Association of Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists and had masters’ degrees in biological or behavioural science and at least 30 semester credits of behavioural science, including ethnology, animal behaviour, animal learning and psychology. So they knew they should ignore her and rather than mess with evolution, just bask in the glow of her enthusiastic approval. But the rest of us had to actually live with Gerald’s bloated ego and its constant manifestations of his supposed superiority. Not only was he constantly surrounded by females wanting to bear his offspring, but he now had what he called ‘irrefutable proof’ that his genetic inheritance would necessitate a thorough reconsideration of the basics of Darwinian theory.

Of course, that meant it was up to me, as one of the pack leaders,to arrange a meeting with the BBC to deal with such potentially harmful revolutionary suggestions.

 

(Now the original conclusion)

They say that opposites attract, and this was certainly the case with Charlotte and Gerald. They had never really been tested in their marriage—two wonderful children, four grandchildren, annual holidays, and no money worries whatsoever. Gerald’s savvy business dealings saw to it that they were always comfortable.

Like Gerald the meerkat, Charlotte’s husband revelled in going against the crowd. “I think for myself” he said, proudly on many an occasion. “Those who don’t, are merely followers.”

For years, she admired this mantra from her husband. That is, until she binge watched all the meerkat episodes on Animal Planet, paying special attention to Gerald’s antics on the show. Only now could she reframe her husband’s words.

The epiphany gave her the strength to hound the producers of Animal Planet until they agreed to a call with her and their head writer, Steve Kent.

“Gerald is like a petulant child,” Charlotte said to him, when they finally spoke. “He thinks for himself, but it doesn’t mean his thoughts are well informed.”

“Yes, Mrs. Anderson, but he has star power,” said Steve. “His individualism makes him unique.”

Charlotte took a laboured breath. “Unique, yes, but perhaps he’s merely being a contrarian for the sake of it. He refuses to be a follower, but it will create mutiny and dissent within the tribe. I tell you this as a cautionary tale.”

“Oh?” said the writer.

“Yes,” Charlotte said. “I told you my husband died of Covid.”

“I know, my condolences,” he said. “These are difficult times.”

“They are, but what I didn’t tell you is I have since tested positive, and it doesn’t look good for me. Gerald did not follow the rules, and he died. That was his Karma. I did everything right, yet I will still die because he infected me.”

An uncomfortable silence ensued until the writer said, “I’m sorry, life is unfair, isn’t it? Unfortunately, we are a TV show, and we need to appease our sponsors. The viewing audience wants to see its star.”

“Yes, but—”

“Look …” he said, “I’m truly sorry that you are sick, but I think you’re confusing Gerald, our meerkat with your husband. Gerald is an animal, and animals don’t have human traits. He’s doing his own thing, and it has no bearing on his relationship with the rest of the pack.”

“He’s part of the pack,” Charlotte said, “Of course his behaviour affects them.”

“I must hang up now. Our time is up,” said the writer. “I wish you well, Mrs. Anderson.”

* * *

A week later as Charlotte scrolled through the online BBC news, a picture of a meerkat caught her eye. The headline read “Good-bye Gerald.”

She took a deep breath before reading the article:

Animal Planet regrets to announce that Gerald, the star of the meerkat series has died suddenly. He sustained fatal injuries while inside his social group.

An investigation shows he was bitten multiple times by a predator, but the film crew has found no sign of any known enemy in the vicinity.

The rest of the pack is not talking.

 

THE END NUMBER ONE

Gerald the meerkat had been my invention and, needless to say, I was sorry to lose him so, in a sort of resurrection (and with no thought of releasing it), I wrote this alternative conclusion. It’s only with Eden’s encouragement that it now appears.

(Part 4, version 2)

It was an uncomfortable couple of hours. Kevin and Ashley, the next tallest of our pack were with me for moral support, but they’ve never been great talkers (or thinkers, for that matter), so it was down to me to put our case. The angle I took was that, by giving precedence to an individual in the pack, the BBC crew were interfering with its fundamental structure and thereby contravening most of the principles of the academic disciplines in which they’d made their reputations. That provoked various lame excuses, a lot of blustering and a significant increase in polysyllabic words from several members of the programme’s executives.

At last, tiring of the procrastination, I played my last card.

‘I presume the aim of your programme is enlightenment,’ I said.

They looked at one another, some nodding in agreement, others fiddling with their pens or doodling.

‘Well?’ I insisted.

No-one was willing to catch my eye.

‘Very well, I’ll just assume that to be the case,’ I continued. ‘And if my assumption is correct, it doesn’t really serve your purpose to depict a meerkat pack behaving in ways alien to our lifestyles which may undermine our solidarity as a group and fragment our communal interdependence. Highlighting the cult of individuality in a species that depends on social coherence is a recipe for extinction, and that is not what I would call the enlightened approach of a group of professional educators.’

Derek, the programme’s producer, and elected chairman of the meeting, leaned forward.

‘Have you any idea how much this series of programmes cost our sponsors?’ he asked.

I looked at Kevin, who shook his head.

‘No,’ I said, ‘But we’re concerned with actuality, a reliable, informative depiction of our way of life. In short, the existential truth of being a meerkat and the preservation of our species’

Derek sat back in his chair.

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Just what we needed, an evangelical meerkat.’

A murmur ran round the table, punctuated by a few laughs, and the programme’s director stood up, walked to the head of the table and whispered something in Derek’s ear. Derek nodded and stood in turn.

‘Listen, you anthropomorphic weirdo,’ he said. ‘This series has been syndicated to over two hundred countries and is now several millions under budget. You know where you can stick your enlightenment.’

And that was it. The meeting was adjourned, a new series has been commissioned, and they’ve moved their filming to Botswana and Southern Namibia.

Oh, and Gerald’s supposed to be replacing Daniel Craig as the new Bond.

THE END NUMBER TWO

The reason for offering this as a blog is not to make any major literary (or other, for that matter) point, but as a mild illustration of the spin-offs a writer may get from collaborative writing exercises and also to suggest that many stories have several alternative outcomes, which are never revealed.

 

 

 

Everybody knew that (Guest post, Ron Kirton)

Followers will be familiar with my tendency to rely on my brother Ron to fill in the many gaps I leave in my postings with the occasional anecdote or chunk of wisdom.  Here’s the first in this series. Thanks, Ron.


I’d driven my VW camper van all around Europe and lovingly maintained it for ten years before selling it. I was mansplaining, to the potential buyer, how everything worked, including a neat little solution I’d devised to help top up the engine oil. This was by means of a home made funnel -a cut-off plastic bottle with the cap removed, but cleverly retained to prevent spillage after use. I suppose I was hinting that I was a practically-minded owner with DIY credentials, just the sort to buy a VW van from. He interrupted me to politely ask,

“Isn’t there a built in extension in the oil pipe?”

And, sure enough, there was and -for the first time in ten years- I eased it out and had to inwardly acknowledge that, yes, those cunning German engineers had resolved this issue some decades ahead of me. I threw my dirty funnel into the wheelie, noticing that the bin was big enough to accommodate me and my ego at the same time.

This embarrassing van memory was triggered by a recent visit my daughter and I paid to her old toy cupboard, in search of any toys we might share with her young daughter. We came across the doll at the head of this blog: a visual aid to use in telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood. I’d never used it to tell the story and think it was bought with grandchildren, rather than my daughter, in mind.

As the fairy story unfolds, Red Riding Hood’s dress flips from toe to head, to reveal the form of her granny, complete with her own dress and a fetching blue bonnet. Because I’d never told the tale, it didn’t occur to me that the narrator needs a third character, namely the wolf. Now, here was my daughter flipping granny’s bonnet to reveal the wolf himself, not too scary but suitably grey and with a knowing smile. I was properly surprised, as if hearing the tale for the first time. This time,  I wasn’t trying to sell the doll or my own powers as a storyteller and my daughter smiled indulgently so the doll was not confined to the bin.

Incidentally, like a good learner, I undid the velcro fastening on granny’s dress to examine her torso, in case the doll-maker had provided the means of granny having a Caesarean wolf-child but so far have found nothing. (There are differing versions of this tale but the one I know has the wolf swallowing the live granny whole and thereafter being sliced open with an axe to save her, she possibly suffering no more than a few hydrochloric acid burns).

Now, what place does any of this have in an award winning writer’s blog?

Firstly, although self disclosure doesn’t have a very positive recent history on social media, this recount has given me the opportunity to unburden myself to an audience that Bill assures me, and the counselling world calls, ‘trusted others’ and thus make room for my next embarrassing blunder -and my next blog offering.

Secondly, and with more relevance, I recall getting stuck, in a story I was writing, where I needed a lothario to come and make a play for the girlfriend of my hero. After some fruitless hours trying to squeeze an intruder into the tale, I realised the character was already in the narrative with, as it were, a bonnet over his face. His subsequent transition from bit part player to villain appeared planned and seamless. Like the scoundrel he became, he was hiding between the lines of my own story.