Friday, 27 June 2014

Hearing voices

I've been having trouble with hearing voices for years now.

Don't worry, I'm not going nuts, or no more than usual.

The problem I have is a writing problem. How do you convey multiple voices in a narrative? How do you do polyphony convincingly? When you're in the school playground, on the bus, in a restaurant, in a cafe surrounded by mothers, when you're in a park, or waiting outside some activity or other, you are surrounded by conversation. People — especially women — chat about their lives constantly. While it's very difficult to define what the 'stuff of life' really is (once you've identified DNA, you realise you don't even know what consciousness is), we are indubitably brilliant at using language to continually construct, shape and reshape our reality, and that's what conversation is all about. So at least capturing conversation might help you convey 'reality'?

I've been trying to write Motherload for something like four years (I never like adding up the actual number of days that have passed, but I tell myself it's because I'm always managing motherload that I don't have the time to write Motherload). And the point I've got to is this: I can write endlessly about my own experience (somebody listen to me, please!). I've interviewed quite a large number of other people, men and women, and heard with enormous pleasure about how they manage their motherload.

But when it comes to writing about them, about what they told me, I hit this hideous wall, every time.

It's the job of the writer to make some kind of sense of all that material. It's my job to shape it, to purvey it, to curate it, to archive it, to interpret it, select and filter it. The trouble is that I absolutely loathe that dimension of what writing is.

And the reason for my loathing is that I find it desperately manipulative. I am having to choose what to leave out, and that gives me too much power — I could lie about what others have told me, bend their reality to my own account of it. And I undoubtedly will.

I don't want that power — just as I am terrified by the power I have to shape my children's reality.

I want people to step forward as they are, fully and completely.

But here I'm up against my own fantasy.

Because of course none of us is complete or coherent. We are all fragments and chaos, our tired brains constantly chewing away on the data from our senses, busily employed in sense-making, all day, every day. We stop short at certain versions of ourselves, and bundle them into neat stereotypes, because otherwise we couldn't get up in the morning. But we are remaking ourselves every single day. It's only habit that clothes us in uniformity.

So in my snippet-excerpts from other people's reality, in those interviews I conducted using the same questionnaire, all I really ever got was a snapshot at a certain moment of how someone was feeling at that moment. I carefully squirrelled it all away, but it was never the reality I wanted it to be. Those archived interviews are themselves in perpetual motion. Whenever I open one up on the computer, the words immediately start dancing, the meaning scatters, time passes once again. Some of those interviews are now four years old. The people have changed, their children and they are four years older. It is all, always in flux.

Until today I have felt hugely held back by this. As a literary critic and a tutor, I am always telling people to go back to the text, that's the one fixed thing you have. But it's an illusion. Texts are not stable creatures, fixed for all time. They just look as though they are. You only have to read a play script, and think about how a director and actor interpret it, leaving out words, adding tone and expression and movement to those lines, making 3D what had seemed safely 2D, to realise that texts are anything but static.

So why am I feeling happier about my writing problem? Well, last night, I saw Punchdrunk's The Drowned Man at Temple Studios, and it has revolutionised the way I look at my material.

Punchdrunk is now famous for immersive theatre, for abolishing the fourth wall, and taking promenade theatre into hyperreality. The intricacy, attention to detail in set, choreography, acting craft, allusiveness, and mood are unparalleled. The Drowned Man is a piece set in a four-storey disused building, in which they have created an entire film set, with its own surroundings, so that you are never really sure where film set ends and non-set begins.

After an endless haunted-house tunnel, a neon-lit lift takes you up, and a sinister, sexual MC in a ball gown encourages you to separate from your companions, pushing batches of people out at each storey. From then on you make your own way through the world you enter. You are given a slip of paper at the entrance which alludes to a possible story — an already shaky couple get into trouble when one of them has an affair, and it leads to murder (it's based on Büchner's Woyzeck).

Once inside the building, you stumble in the pitch black from set to set — a Western town square with bars and a fountain, a rundown motel, a weatherbeaten cottage, a huge 1950s car, a malevolent night forest, set about with caravans, a head-doctor's surgery, a film set that seems to stage a locker room, a cocktail bar and a domestic interior, a horseshoe-shaped saloon bar, and a desert on the top floor — it is too much to take in, and you don't know what you are witnessing, as the actors move around you, and you move around the setting, momentarily caught up in whatever story fragment they are busy with.

At all times, the soundscape is lowering and terrifying, heavy and Lynchian. At moments you might see a scene repeated. At others you try to follow an actor from place to place, never sure which part of the story you are in, certainly never chronological. At what becomes the end, the audience, all masked, is gently urged to a large room, with a conventional enough stage all along one side. All the actors, some of whom you will not even have encountered before, are assembled, encouraging the audience to sit down, so that their eyeline is below the level of the stage. The action comes to a threatening, convulsive climax — and the audience goes crazy. The ending reassures us all that we have indeed seen a play.

I emerged desperate to piece together what I had seen, unsure whether I had got it right, seen everything I should have done, gone about the performance the right way. I was envious of the actors' bodies, their intense sexuality, their beauty, I'd wanted to be part of the show, sucked in even further. I couldn't make sense of it, felt angry and competitive.

But after a night's sleep, the narrative has fallen into place. All the ellipsis and fragmentation — your brain organises it into coherence for you. The brain is always busy housekeeping. The note at the start really helped, but it's not just that, it's the way we absolutely strive for order — I think what Punchdrunk do emulates the way the eye and our senses take in information from the flux and chaos of lived experience. Punchdrunk represents reality in utterly fragmented ways, then adds in a fragmented, uncontrolled audience, and the brain uncontrollably sets about looking for patterns, organising them according to previous experience, sorting, prioritising, and finally delivers its outcome, like a cat brings in a dead mouse for its owner's pleasure.

What also amazed me (paradoxically, given all the ellipsis) was the directness of the contact between actor and audience. There was so little dialogue, and words were used like dance steps, but the actors were so expressive with such little movements of their faces, and fleeting changes conveyed the 'story' of lust and betrayal as effectively as the structure of individual scenes themselves.

The intimacy was infinitely seductive — that sense of heightened reality, where anything might happen, where you had to be on your guard, you might injure yourself, fall over something, and yet you were also being held safely in a space, looked after in some way, and allowed to look at something deeply private. The connection to the passions — the jealousy, the sexual desire, the hatred, the murderous impulses, the sorrow, the fear, horror, fury, it was so immediate — all of that blew me away.

It felt like a liberation — so much of the day, that's exactly how I experience life, all these wavering passions washing about, in chaos, no organising principle, free radicals of toxic emotion without a home — you see it in people's expressions, in how they address each other, how they move, and I am so often overwhelmed by it, that sense of our inner lives flushing through us uncontrollably.

I thought The Drowned Man was a fantastic catharsis, that for once I was allowed to observe, it was expected of me. Whereas earlier this week, I went to an award party at the RSA, and felt completely desperate at being an observer -- I could see all the ambition, competition, egotism, crisscrossing the faces of the people there, felt repelled by it, knew that I was supposed to dive in and network, but of course it was taboo to talk about what had brought us all there.

That catharsis is what theatre should be about. That's why live theatre is important. And that's how I should be writing (even if I'm rubbish at it). Forget willed coherence, just rely on association to pull in the stories that people have told me, trust that this intuition will operate an organising principle of its own. For someone who saw all this reading Proust, I'm remarkably slow to try it out myself.

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