Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A Wave Theory of Writing by Sarah Bower

Or, how to write without killing the cat.

What is home? A small, humble word within which is contained a whole universe of meanings. Home is a place – a room, a street doorway, an island, a lover’s arms. Home is a state of mind, the interior place we retreat to in our dreams, when listening to a favourite piece of music or watching a movie we love, or reading Wuthering Heights for the nineteenth time. Home, for the writer, may be somewhere between the lines she writes. Ultimately, however, home is this planet we live on and every version of it is defined by the laws of the universe through which our small world spins.

The other day I received an email, at the end of which my correspondent apologised that what he had written was ‘trite’. The emails in his head, he said, had been more ‘fluent and persuasive’. I knew exactly what he meant. It happens to me all the time. I might be driving, or out walking my dogs, or lying wakeful in bed in the middle of the night, and words, phrases, whole passages of fiction come to me which are the last thing in elegance, economy and emotional power. By the time I come to write them down, however, the magic has been lost. Once committed to the page, the words look every bit as inadequate as words are to express what we have stored inside our hearts and minds.

I wonder why this is? Do the words change, somehow, in the process of being extracted from our brains and set down on the page? Are they like ancient cave paintings whose brightness and beauty are lost the moment they are exposed to the air? Is there something alchemical in the writing process that turns gold into base metal rather than the other way around? Perhaps this is why so many writers spend their time in a perpetual state of self-doubt and frustration, wondering what happened to the fluent and persuasive sequences of words that glittered in their imaginations before they were committed to the page and their edges dulled?

Doubtless there are many answers to this. They were never as good as we thought they were in the first place. They were perfectly beautiful, but we had forgotten how they would have to be strung together with the unavoidably pedestrian – the articles, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions without which even the most gorgeous list of words makes no sense. They simply refused to submit themselves to punctuation. They desired to be dreamed, not written down, to fly rather than be chained to the page.

Then, once you have pummelled these unruly and unpredictable words into a form you believe is, if not an exact replication of your original inspiration, at least comprehensible, along comes the reader. Every writer knows how hard it is to successfully manipulate readers. All writers who have given public readings have experienced that mixture of thrill and vague discomfort that accompanies a reader’s discovery of something in their work they didn’t know was there. The lifeblood of reading groups flows through controversy and disagreement. Every reader brings a unique set of expectations to her reading, evolved from her life experience, her prejudices, her intellectual and emotional bent. Every reader has therefore read a different book and every reader, unless the writer has failed completely and elicited only indifference, will fight his corner as if his life depended on it. So rarely do readers agree about books that, when they do, the experience may assume the fairytale magic of love at first sight. (I remember seeing, years ago, the advice given to boys who wanted to attract clever girls, to carry a Penguin Classic just sticking casually out of a pocket or backpack, though I can’t remember ever falling for it…) Conversely, disagreements about books can cause profound rifts, between writers and readers as well as readers and readers.

The fact that there are so many possible reasons why the transition from brain to page can fail, so many possible versions and approximations of our original concept, and so many more of these once readers get involved could have something to do with those ‘laws of the universe’ I mentioned earlier.

In the arcane world of quantum physics, we learn that, at any given moment, everything is possible. Imagine you have a particle in a box, an electron, say. Before you open the box, this electron exists as a wave theory, which is an array of itself in all the places it might possibly be in the box, in all its possible states at once. This is called superposition, and is a bit like the effect of a superimposed photo of a moving object (a writer, say, pacing her study) in which the film is exposed every couple of seconds. What you end up with is a blur. However, at the point at which you open the box to observe your electron, the wave theory appears to collapse into a single state, fixed in time and space. Your blur resolves itself into a singular object.
It occurs to me that this mysterious quantum process is not unlike what happens to the flurry of words in the writer’s head at the point at which she sets them down on the page. They seem to become fixed, immutable, and in the process they lose some of the magic with which they were invested when they existed only as an array of themselves in a whole range of possible forms and combinations racing along her synapses. Once written, the words are weighed down with the responsibility of the moment – the moment the physicist opens the box or the writer, in an image I have borrowed here from Martin Amis, is propelled out of the armchair where he dreams to the desk where he performs the mechanical and limiting task of committing his dreams to paper or screen.
I am heading, surely, towards a bleak conclusion here. If writing works like quantum theory, there comes an inevitable point at which the words can no longer be changed. They are, for better or worse, fixed by the restraint of the physical laws of this universe, this home of ours, in which they were written. By the very process of committing words to the page, the writer makes herself redundant.
But wait a minute… Let’s hear three cheers for Hugh Everett who, in 1957, devised a mathematical formula to support the theory that, when observed, the quantum system doesn’t collapse but branches. Schrodinger’s cat (which was in the box, of course, long before my little electron) is neither dead nor alive when you open the box but both dead and alive, as two different cats in two parallel worlds. Surely this helps the writer out of his predicament. His words are not condemned to eternal inadequacy but remain, after all, alive with possibility, in every version in which they ever existed in his mind and in every new interpretation put upon them by their readers, by the audiobook, the film version, the videogame, the interactive e-book…and the listeners, viewers, gamers and so on and so on, ‘unto the last syllable of recorded time’ (which was quite quantum of Shakespeare, if you think about it…)

Sarah Bower has been thinking about the parallel lives of stories quite a lot recently since spending a morning at Broadcasting House listening to the recording for Radio Four of her own short story Moon and Henry (originally broadcast on the 8th September 2013 but still available on iPlayer) She, her producer and the actor, Poppy Miller, who read the story, together turned three versions into a fourth…and no cats died in the process.

1 comment:

  1. This is so true. There is a feeling of never being quite satisfied with what is out there. It always requires tweaking, no matter how many times it has been or will be revised. One can change the whole fabric, create a terrible twin. Sarah, has really opened a pandora's box with this one.