Masterclasses and mystical experiences
During my MA year, I measured the importance to me of author visits by how strong a physical response I had to them. It would start with an electric feeling up my spine and usually end with crying in the toilet at break. Often there was one distinct moment in the session that first drew my tears. Some piece that the author read aloud would trigger a sudden, massive gulp of emotion. Like a bubble rising from a subterranean vent into the water of my brain.
It came with Jeet Thayil when he read ‘Spiritus Mundi’, and with Terese Svoboda when she read ‘Bridge, Mother’. Sia Figiel (sigh) triggered it the minute she walked in the room, and Devin Johnston when he read ‘Geode’.
‘Geode’! This is a such a gentle, powerful poem, with its exact positioning of tender, domestic detail alongside geological scale – and the stunning turn in line 5 that illuminates this.
To be in the same room as each of these travellers – from India, Samoa and the US – connecting to their ideas and experiences, which in turn connect to so many other people’s ideas and experiences, may be about as close to religion as I’ll ever get.
Jeet Thayil and epic scale
I find the grandeur of Jeet Thayil’s work particularly affecting. The almost mystical feeling I get from reading his poetry springs from the way he dwells on connections between humans, cultures, creatures, stories, songs, edifices, and objects across great stretches of time and space. And he was inspiring.
He says he always reads poetry before he begins to write, to put himself in the right frame of mind. He also told us, as a general rule: ‘Read the writers who make you feel brave’. He himself reads ‘the Russians’.
He exhorted us to experiment, to take risks, to break free of existing conventions, and to write what no one else is writing. I wish I could recapture his exact words around this, but their effect reminded me of that scene in The Matrix: ‘There is no spoon.’ Up until that session with him, I’d been thinking hard about how to bend literary spoons. Then here was Jeet Thayil telling us, write like spoons don’t exist.
He did ground this in advice to read widely from many writing traditions. And he said something which I’m not sure I scrawled down quite right, but which according to my notes was: ‘Try it, and you might find that you’re part of a literary lineage.’
I love this. And it goes back, once more, to what I see as his preoccupation with history and connections. He seemed to be saying, you can also locate yourself in a vast net of time and space. Don’t just write an epic story – be part of an epic story.
‘Voice’ is an area of writing that I’ve always worked with by relying on instinct and directionless experimentation – and for me this isn’t satisfactory anymore. I find I agree with writers who say they need to find the voice before they can do anything else. To be efficient and effective, it’s good to do this with some intentionality.
Terese Svoboda’s workshop gave me a method to search for voice that proved useful. She set us an exercise: find a word and milk it for all you can – spend a decent amount of time writing down everything that word calls to mind, and when you think you have to stop, keep pushing. Her phrase was ‘bear down on it’.
Later, I came to think of it like smacking a piñata. You just keep whacking and whacking at a word or idea, and bit by bit the treats start to fall out; sometimes one, sometimes a trickle, sometimes (hurray!) a gush.
I started using this to find voice: pick an idea then apply all that weight to it from all different directions. Eventually the voice I wanted and needed began to emerge.
Visiting author Devin Johnston had interesting things to say about voice, too. He talked about the way unfamiliar vocabulary can ‘activate music’ – forcing a focus on sound. It would be interesting to experiment with placing various different artificial restrictions on your vocabulary when trying to find a voice.
He also talked about reading poetry aloud and how the sensory mouthfeel of words is part of their poetry, which is an interesting way of thinking about voice – how does it make your narator’s mouth move and feel?
Point of view, sympathy, and empathy
Since the beginning of the course year, my thinking on point of view has become more nuanced. I’ve begun to see point of view as the author wearing a little jetpack that they zoom around with, in whatever way suits their purposes: hovering with this character now, and these characters a bit later; moving closer here, further away there… But it’s a continuum of distance, not a near/far divide, as point-of-view labels often imply. This is not to say that you have to always flit around widely – usually you won’t – but you can. Your story is yours to travel round inside.
More recently, through reading and discussion, I’ve added ‘empathy’ and ‘sympathy’ to ‘point of view’ as vital and interlinked things for the author to manipulate. (And empathy divides into ‘affective empathy’ – emotional contagion – where you feel what a character is feeling, and ‘cognitive empathy’ where you figure out what they’re feeling.)
Although all these things are linked, they don’t always go together. A story’s focaliser doesn’t have to be the person you’re empathising with, or sympathising with. And vice versa. Realising all this has given me a lot more to work with.
One recent revelation for me has been around the use of gesture, facial expression, gait, and other human movements that demonstrate or embody how we’re feeling. I’ve always been impressed by authors who describe gesture and expression well, but not for any deeply thought-out reason. It just impressed me, as part of creating realistically visualised scenarios. But since reading more authors who describe characters’ body language in detail, I’ve realised just how important describing the embodiments of emotion can be.
Biologist Frans de Waal has written about the development of empathy and altruism in mammals. He talks about the evolutionary uses of empathy and the way that we’re hard-wired to understand what other creatures are feeling by looking at their expressions, carriage, and motions (as well as hearing them), and also, often, to reactively feel that same emotion in our own minds.
Now, in the past, I’ve had a hang up about writers spending what I perceive as too much time on the physical movements of a character whose point of view we are with and not enough on their actual interior thoughts. Over the years, I think I’ve irritated people in classes and writing groups a lot by asking for more interiority. But this year it clicked – sometimes gestures and movements are interiority. Or they have the same effect as interiority or an even more powerful one. This is because as humans, we’re hard-wired to translate other humans’ movements into actual feelings in our own heads.
This led to the thought that there is no conflict at all in having the focaliser in your fiction separate from the character who you are feeling sympathy and/or empathy for. If the focaliser shows you just what that other character is doing in enough detail, those primal human instincts will kick in and we’ll feel what the observed character is feeling. You might even begin to ask – who really is the focaliser?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Johanna Knox’s non-fiction books include A Forager’s Treasury (2013) and Guardians of Aotearoa (2018). She has just had the best year of her life doing her MA at the International Institute of Modern Letters and remembering how much she loves fiction.