Making characters really speak through your mouth.

luscious lips

Writing in biographical mode, in other words, becoming someone else on the page is a challenge, and to me it is a karmic experience. Let me explain, as there are many misinterpretations of this word karma. I am a practicing Buddhist so perhaps can clarify its real meaning.

Karma actually means ‘actions,’ the idea being that when we act in our lives, or speak or think, which are also viewed as ‘actions,’ everything we each do, or think or say, has a consequence. So, we are each the result of all the actions of our ancestors, which might have been good or bad. Along with modern notions of personality and psychology, character traits, etc., Buddhist thinking says that we, the living, also manifest the karma of all of our lineage, all our ancestors.

To put it more simply and without religious implications, I believe we are each drawn to certain stories and character-types, certain narratives and images, because of our accumulated karma. That would explain as writers why we are not attracted to write about certain topics, and instead develop passions, we might call them, for events and people, and write about them again and again.

We can see this passion more transparently in the credibility of an actor playing a certain part – Liz Taylor as Cleopatra, Chris Reeve as Superman, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. We can see how they become the character they are portraying, and sometimes have to live in that character in order to maintain its authenticity. So, I do become obsessed by some of the characters I create. They get into my dreams, into my senses, and I find that I am hearing them speak and preparing to write their utterances into my story.

This happened very strongly in the creation of my second novel, ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy.’ The two main characters of this Australian fable are Ninija (female tribal leader) and Lumaluma (white-Australian, womanizer and chauvinist). Their dialogue underpins the whole story, which I will resist giving away so that you can read it for yourself. Whilst writing this dialogue my part was Ninija, and Lumaluma’s part was an archetype composed of many cruel despots, misogynists and con men I have been exposed to in my life, either personally or through media.

At first glance, this may seem straightforward. However, the challenge was that Lumaluma is a ghost, visible only to Ninija. No other members of her tribe can see or hear him, even Ninija’s tiny grand-daughter, Gina. The other challenge I gave myself is that Ninija’s mother-language is not English. She speaks her native tribal dialect and her English is broken and mannered, a mélange of Missionary English and the sounds of the phenomena in her world.

Here’s her very first utterance at the beginning of 1 to give you an idea:

‘It no good Lumaluma! I won’t listen!’ Ninija puts her fingers into her ears so that she can’t hear Lumaluma’s whispering. ‘You can’t get me listen the way Ginger did. I too old. I too clever. I never leave the Lands like he did.’ She goes on…….… ‘You whisper again with you silky white voice. You questions. You white-fella bossy with “ought” and “if I were you.” And you promises. Always you offer of money, greenbacks. I got better things to listen to. You white ghost not belong Ninija Lands!’ (p1)

As I was transcribing how I heard her talk in my dreams, I simply found it impossible to make her speak flawless native-speaker English. I had somehow to make her express her disdain of Lumaluma in broken desert English. By contrast, Lumaluma is a smoothie, eloquent and quick-witted. He has a theatrical presence in the story. Here’s his first utterance to give you an idea, though it comes late as only Ninija’s answers to his eternal questions are written at first.

Ninija and Lumaluma are at the dog-box, the name of the prefabricated huts white Australians provide at the settlement. She stands outside, he inside in the dark windowless space. He is logical, insulting.

‘Why are they all staring up into that old tree? On and on. Haven’t they got anything better to do?’

(Ninija tries to explain about tribal customs concerning the Burial preparations for her dead son Ginger. He chain smokes, sucking hard to make his cigarette end glow red in the dark).

‘How can you possibly believe in that rubbish? Look at all those filthy black birds hopping around up there! They’re no “heroes” are they? And higher?’ (p24)

I enjoyed this incredible contrast which shows through their dialogue, and which no-one else except the reader can hear. I dreamed it very often, and I vented a lot of deep-seated anger at the maltreatment of the original people of Australia which my ancestors were doubtless responsible for in the process.

I believe that dialogue in fiction writing, much as in transcribed interviews, is very powerful. Without the surrounding description and time/condition-setting, etc., it can stimulate the imagination and create strong colourful pictures. I would like to feature the dialogue between these two fabled protagonists exactly as it is on this site so you can see what I mean (see side menu).

Finally, I think it important as writers that we encourage readers to use their imagination to the full in the midst of this virtual image-crammed world in which we live presently. Technology is only a wonderful tool! It’s the human spirit, the pulsing heart, that we need to preserve at all costs!

Valid Literature?

hankos rubber stamp

What exactly is ‘Valid Literature?’ Such an epithet may seem at first judgmental, harsh, even ungrateful. I have to say that this is not the intention. Few people are more delighted than I am that writing and publishing are no longer gripped by the iron fist of idiosyncratic and imperialistic publishers. I am truly delighted to see the right every sensing being has from birth, when a pen or crayon is thrust into a baby’s developing fingers, being honored across the board at last. The discovery and promotion of excellent writing should not be a random matter of luck, or right time and place, and other platitudes. At last the public appearance of works is not a matter of economics, or infatuation, or worse, of picking a manuscript out of a box blind.

In my first post I described writing as a random shot from the individual mind in search of witnesses. After all, most of us need a witness to our existence, be it parent, lover, teacher, Buddha or digital recorder! We all have the potential to be a Woolf, a Dickens, an Isabelle Allende, and the odds of reaching out and being read are far greater than they had become before the miracle of the Internet came along.
However, we are all at various stages of literary development, awareness and readiness to be witnessed by the whole world! And do we all have the notion of literature as our goal, or have we even experienced literature? There surely need to be some filters in place and we world writers need to agree on them. I vote for a questionnaire for all writers who wish to be let loose on the floor. The greatest living producers of literature should create the categories, then review the sample writings, to decide on the parameters.
Literature or great writing has for me an almost religious quality. It emanates truly from the higher self. It is not mundane and riven by negative emotions, not turgid or potentially litigious, and not attention-seeking for its own sake. In a way it must be altruistic, still-focused on the writer’s muscles and moralities, that unique view of the world. It is that still quality of the writer’s experience and its salience to others that is most important.

The creation of the biography of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte first published in 1847 under a male pseudonym, is perhaps a great example of this quiet strength and commitment to the subject in hand. As you probably know, this masterpiece was written in an altruistic way to describe and display the social attitudes and class discrimination of Victorian England. Neither fame nor revenue was the motivation. just that quiet concentration on matters that needed to be aired. Perhaps in today’s parlance we might call it ‘consciousness raising.’ So I think the general consensus would be that Valid Literature must have pure motivation, a genuine desire to attract witnesses to the human condition. No hidden agenda of easy fame and fast fortune, no escape from unbearable reality, no ruse. Of course we need guides to all the new methods of internet publishing, but let’s be clear that they are self-help works not Literature.

tribal stories

The act of writing viewed by the proponents of exclusive oral culture and expression must seem so strange. In fact, I experienced such a view during my time living with indigenous Australians in the south Australian desert about 20 years ago. My novel ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy’ which will be serialized on this site, was inspired by such a tribe. The original short story which served to support this later novelised version, called ‘The Caretaker: The Departure,’ recounts the story of an anthropologist who while studying this tribe was chosen by the tribal leader, Ninija. The people had decided at last to leave white-fella’s settlements, to leave their ‘Easy-Happy-Sexy’ ways, and return to traditional desert life.  The ‘caretaker’ as he became known,  was initiated into the tribal wisdom, and given sole custody of the story of the tribe which had suffered unmercifully at the hands of white Australians.
Of course, Ninija and her people had no need of the art and craft of writing, or reading. Documents would never survive in such a harsh environment in any case. The whole of their tribal legends and laws had been committed to memory and conveyed using song and creation story which were constantly performed to keep the Creation myths alive. Even a memo was a thing unheard of to them. So, the fascinating and abstract process of transliterating Ninija’s story on to paper so that writing-reading ‘white fella’ could know it began. Here, the caretaker, the custodian of Ninija’s story in written words, talks:

It was quite soon after I started my wordless dialogue with ninija that she gave me sole custody of her story. This was a supreme act of faith. She knew in some deep way that she could trust me to be her representative to the developed world. Although, she and her People had no reason to believe in modern men of European descent, or in anyone with vaguely white skin. She also knew that she and her People would leave the settlement forever soon, and that it was time the world knew the true story of white man’s cruelty to the original people of Australia, and to Great Mother Nature and Father Earth.
As a result of this amazing process of piecing together her story, I believe now that a story is a precious jewel found by accident in a pocket. It is to be brought out again and again, gazed at closely, breathed on and polished with a silk scarf, then secreted away once more in the darkness. I marvel at the change in me as these words tumble out. Me-the academic, the one who once detested anything made-up and insisted on the facts and proofs. Ninija says that stories are made of pure Sun and Moon, without time, without space. She insists that they live deep in the veins, the soles of the feet, far behind the eyes, and that their energy is indestructible.
Ninija knew that I must communicate her story through the elaborate means of the written word. First I must find enough pens, spend tedious hours at my notebooks reviewing and correcting, attempting to pin down ‘the Lands’ (both spiritual and physical) on white-fella’s paper. She giggled, calling my spiky handwriting, ‘running Ant.’  I meanwhile envied the simplicity of being able to commit everything to memory as she did and her Ancestors before had always done. I have promised her that I will explain all the phrases commonly used by her People as the story goes along, so that nothing will be missed. In fact, I made a glossary so you can read up before you start the story which follows.

Caretaker: The Departure pp 6-7

“Running Ant!’ This image of writing has definite possibilities when we think of keying words into a screen. However, out in the desert, the caretaker could only use his ‘spiky handwriting.’ But this is how she saw the spirit of the words he wrote.

And how was he initiated do you suppose? Here’s a taste, again throwing interesting light on the interpretation of images and symbols, which is what this site is all about at root level.

I was suddenly on my own, news-less, unsupported by my culture, stricken by a deep-seated panic that what had been my world was land-sliding away and leaving me behind. I became fearful of dying a Desert death. But most of all, I was absolutely petrified of intolerable pain. Despite my studies, I was convinced that it would not be assisted by the ‘magic and other non-chemical means’ available to my subjects, once my own ‘chemical’ medical supplies were completely exhausted.

It was when I was utterly consumed with my mortality, not any longer daring to step outside that I began to speak in my dreams. At first my scurvied lips seemed to be talking to myself using strange unconnected strands of language. I became quickly persuaded that I was in the early stages of malarial madness. But then I realised that there was someone else involved. I searched wildly in my four clammy corners for my interlocutor. To my amazement, ninija was giving me words like supplies of glucose to sustain my frail life, but she was nowhere to be found.

After that scary time when I feared for my mental health, and as I gradually accepted her as an invisible guide, ninija was with me most of the time. My Sleep-dreams and Day-dreams were woven into a gigantic carpet. She invited me continually to believe in ‘abundance,’ a word I had little recollection of ever using before. This word broke my conditioned addiction to the idea of ‘scarcity,’ to fending off hardship, to over-protecting myself until I became a dried Twig. Instead, this new notion of ‘abundance’ gave me a bright outlook of plenty.
Soon, after this mystical dialogue with her had begun, my aids to protection from Desert assaults did indeed run out entirely. Then one strange night, besieged as usual by armies of Flies in here, I inexplicably removed all my clothes, opened this Fly-screen door, and walked outside. To my amazement, I no longer compulsively swatted or cursed the winged squadrons. I was no longer repelled by their persistent tickling and foraging for moisture.
Outside, Moon welcomed me and banished all fears of poisonous Snakes and pernicious Spiders. I was given permission by the Great Mother to be a naked and innocent creature, without collections of possessions or status. I no longer had any use for sensual cravings, and suddenly my heart and mind were empty of their stuffing of pictures and words.
I stood there with my bare feet dredged in Desert dust turned blue by Moonlight, shrouded by insects for which bared white flesh was a new sensation. I was empty and yet full. Instead of images, many of which had been planted there by the media and education throughout my life, the battery of my being was charged with Desert, Earth, Air, Sky, and Moon. My head was unusually clear and quiet. It was simple. I had taken up my place which the Great Mother had been saving for me.
I no longer cowered before the terrifying giants of Desert death and intolerable pain. Instead, I had listened to ninija, and she had led me to freedom. Looking back, I have to confess that my own personal terror of disease and dying in a drawn-out agony had been my major motivation in the choice of my research for the foundation. I had selfishly coveted the secrets of primitive or indigenous Peoples once I was certain that western science had no sure solutions to death or disease. My original motives may seem entirely selfish, but perhaps there was some unconscious wisdom involved, as you will see.
That Night, quite soon after I stepped naked outside, ninija arrived and led me, without any verbal instructions, away from the settlement. She turned left and right ahead of me among interminable thickets and Mulga scrub, the thorny bushes which cover the Desert. It was as if she was obeying invisible signposts. Her broad back was dark blue in colour as we walked quickly. Then, beyond the hillocks of Spinifex Grass, which she and her People called ‘Yellow Hill,’ we went on to a collection of large clay holes which had been dug into the ground. They were deep and smooth-sided.
Ninija turned and pointed at one, and I knew to climb down into it. She slowly lowered her strong body into the hole to straddle me, her cheeks swelling and emptying rhythmically, her eyes closed. Then she began to produce long rivulets of saliva which silvered down the narrow cleft between our bodies into the bottom of the hole. She reached blind arms below us, kneading her mouth fluids with the skin of the Earth to make paint. I must have smiled in a bewildered way, for I had no idea what she was doing, or what it would lead to.
Then her black eyes opened and penetrated my blue eyes as she brought her fingers close to me and began to paint the traditional patterns known as ‘clan lines’ on my naked body. She made what looked like Fish or reptile scale shapes which ranged down my chest and thighs, and a huge tooth-filled jaw line across the width of my collar-bone. As she painted she unexpectedly pronounced the words ‘Baru, Crocodile!’ Finally, moving to my head, on my cheeks she painted Baru’s tiny hooded eyes, and on my chin his ovoid nostrils. I shuddered.
She directed me to lie face-down in the clay grave. Then I felt her strong fingers marking bigger scale shapes across my back, and Crocodile’s thick spine in line with my own. I struggled to resist blathering while she worked, but failed, blurting out impassioned questions. I demanded to know why she likened me to a reptile, exactly what type of Crocodile I was, and so on. But she remained immune to my talk. After a time, the realisation of how inappropriate words and thoughts were on this occasion slammed into my mind, and I was silenced.
When she had completed painting me she told me in broken English that the Great Mother had shared my soul with Baru, Crocodile. That I must go and watch and care for my scaly brother and sister ‘totems’ down by Green River. Baru, Crocodile Man, according to the Dreaming myths, created Fire with the friction of his tail by accident one day during a ritual. He later learned how to burn the Lands with Fire to make them more fertile. But then he couldn’t stop making it. So, the Vast Hot Desert came into being. Soon, all the species the Great Mother had created started to disappear in the ensuing drought, so she and her helpers created the Wet season exclusively to put Baru’s Fires out.
My clan lines painted, ninija left me in the strange blue light of the Desert clay hole. I had only ever seen pictures of Crocodiles, and most of them were in zoos! Now suddenly, this animal was my spiritual sibling. Everything was to be transformed after this Night.

Caretaker: The Departure, pp 5-7

Notice in this extract how all natural phenomena are given capital letters like Proper Nouns or Names. Ninija’s own name does not deserve a capital by comparison in her view. This convention was at ‘ninija’s’ insistence.

Initiation? Story custodians? Running ants? How can these elements make Valid Literature? Let me tell you briefly.

I experienced most of these things first hand. I actually promised Ninija that I would tell the world her story. I experienced the magic of indigenous reality and creation. In fact, my life was changed once I emerged again in the western developed world. From that time on, Ninija became my spirit guide, always appearing in my dreams, guiding me, wise as the hills. In my brief time with her, she taught me so much which I have tried to live ever since. I believe this incredible story has implications for us all, so I dared to write it and offer it up. I could even say that these primitive people through the channel of Valid Literature could teach us all.

You may be familiar with a book called ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett (2009). It was adapted as a film drama in 2011. This has a similar theme to mine – the enslavement and abuse of black Afro-American women in Jackson Mississippi, in the deep south of North America, especially as maids for wealthy white households. Oppression is without doubt a Valid Lit topic. It is a story that simply has to be told so that human beings can elevate themselves. This was also a difficult story for the author to tell because of the huge weight of corrupted opinions and the domination of society by white male power.

So, I urge all writers to become addicted to editing, to sifting continually, to considering carefully the ears and hearts of the world as we publish freely. It’s so easy to let mistakes slip through while allowing the deluded ego to dominate. There are so many editing tools to help us to do this systematically, so there’s really no excuse. As we open out into the world community, we have a responsibility to foreign readers of English too. They need excellent models to import into their own English clipboard.

Anyway, this is a beginning for Valid Literature to build on. After all, when we write consciously, we write our lives, we unlock the store cupboard of our accumulated experiences and offer the contents around liberally. Imagine once more the incredible responsibility of conveying Ninija’s story in the running ants of the written word. We have to make it as plain and as beautiful as possible from deep inside the heart!

Next post number 3: ‘Making your characters really speak through your mouth!’



What do all writers have in common?

Every writer has many writings, some of which are published, others which are not. Some written on paper napkins or bus tickets, others set out deliberately on A4 pages collated together, others remain unwritten, locked in the mind, or written into the air on larynx and lips. Of course, I am like every other writer in that sense. I write because I love to write, but also because I want to share my view of the world using these arbitrary symbols. I enjoy the challenge of pursuing eloquence as interpreted by thousands of other views of the world.

I remember participating as a guest in a Writer’s workshop when I was younger. I had written some poems which were accepted in an anthology, so the prize was to attend a writer’s workshop for a week on the isolated moors of west Yorkshire in England, UK. I read a poem I had written aloud and caused an uproar. It was a poem named ‘The Moment of Soul,’ an elegy to the miracle of being able to live right in the centre of the moment. There were about 25 writers in the audience, and when I’d finished, I found that about half of them hated it berating it as ‘sentimental,’ etc; while the other half adored it, applauding me as a genius. Unlike some of my supporters, I was delighted to have such a mixed response. When asked how I could possibly be ‘delighted’ I said I was thrilled to have got a response from another mind, be it good or bad. In  other words, they were witnessing the contents of my mind and reacting in line with their own.