Dropping Your Pants in Public

A friend once said to me ’Creating art is like dropping your pants in public. If you aren’t brave enough to do that, you should do something else.’

He was talking about making music, though the idea applies to writing too. In writing fiction your real personality ‘leaks through.’ Writers reveal themselves in their work. When I wrote Cars Just Want to be Rust one of my early readers said of the central character, Kitty Lockwood, ‘Well, she’s you, isn’t she?’ I was shocked. Had I simply invented my own avatar? Would all my prejudices and foibles be revealed? It’s that sort of fear which leads to self censorship. We all want to be loved. If not loved, then liked, or at least respected. We want to retain our dignity. We want friends to think we’re decent people. We’re warm, caring people who don’t make loud noises or frighten the horses.

So there is a temptation to stick to safe topics: to tailor the subject to the safe and acceptable. But self censorship is crippling. It hobbles a writer, preventing them from examining difficult subjects or creating characters who are repellent or weak.  I was discussing Alan Bennett’s The History Boys with the writer Fiona Veitch Smith. ‘Of course, it couldn’t be produced now,’ she said. The central character of The History Boys is Hector, an eccentric teacher, who delights in knowledge for its own sake. But Hector is discovered sexually fondling a boy and his latent homosexual inclinations emerge. The teacher  in the film version was played by Richard Griffiths. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, such a relationship is seen as sinister and predatory. The sympathy the audience feels for Hector would be tainted. There would be a temptation to write less than the truth.

When I worked in prisons I discovered that nobody considers themselves to be ‘evil’. While inmates allow they may have committed foolish, or regrettable crimes, they consider themselves to have been forced into such behaviour. I taught a young man who had run over a policeman who had forced him into it. ‘It was his fault! He was gonna arrest me!’ Real life villains such as Hitler or Radovan Karadzic look upon their crimes in a similar way – sad, but what else could they do? Even people who do evil things do not regard themselves as villains. Which is an important thing to bear in mind when creating your characters. Good people can do bad things: bad people can be sweet, merciful, even kind. Norman Bates and Hannibal Lecter are not rotten to the core – if they were that would be somehow less frightening. So don’t self censor – be brave – dare to explore the dark side. It does not mean you are evil. Writers are not the characters they create.

I was pitching radio play with a heroine who was a traveller. The producer said ‘I think we’d rather have such a play written by a member of the Romany community.’  That comment suggests that a writer can only create characters of which he or she has personal experience. So if you’re a woman, you can’t write about men. If you’re old, forget writing about children.  Most stories we know would never have been written. J.M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, would not have created Captain Hook. Barrie, you see, was not a ’member of the pirate community…’


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