I read this interview with Steve McQueen recently, and was very interested to see what his background in the visual brought to his film-making. Decca Aitkenhead says:
despite having made three films about human survival in states of extremity, none has even begun to unravel why people behave as they do. His protagonists’ pain is always privately contained, never shared with an intimate or explored through dialogue, so we scarcely know them any better by the final scene. Instead, his films just show what people do – in unflinching detail. […] we never see inside their minds. For McQueen, the visual artist, showing what they look like is what matters.
She does also suggest that this method has to do with his privateness as a person, which I couldn’t comment on, but McQueen himself added:
I was just interested in telling the truth by visualising it.
I’ve kind of just done the same thing in one of my recent short stories. I mentioned the story in my last post , and although it’s definitely finished it’s still on my mind quite a lot. The main character is only seen, not understood, and I definitely wanted to do it that way. I had a crystal-clear picture of what I wanted her to do, but I didn’t really know her motivation and I was happy to stay at arms length. I was just far more interested in looking at her than connecting with her. My intention, really, was to do exactly what Aitkenhead says that McQueen does: ‘just show what people do’.
Reading that article, though, did make me think a lot about my own practice. Working as a video artist makes placing the emphasis on looking a natural choice: I am a strongly visual person, so I’m not sure why I’m so inclined to work with words. I think in pictures, I respond to them, and I definitely learn through them. I was attracted to my undergraduate degree because history felt far easier to access via images than via wordy documents. It usually takes an object or a striking image to trigger an idea in my head, and once I start a writing project I have to have a really strong aesthetic sense of it. Why not make sculptures or visual art? Why not make films or work in set design? I just know that those are not my medium.
I think I will conclude that I use the pictures in my head as a foundation: if I’ve got those, I feel confident about getting the words down. I don’t feel the need to perfectly convey the picture as seen in my head, only to have it for myself.
Personally, I like a cinematic element to writing. I am, however, still wondering about how effective it is to write a character only from the outside – as a writer you are meant to Know Your Character Off By Heart. They aren’t supposed to have secrets from you. I think this is worthwhile in that a character whose responses are inconsistent is really no character at all, same as a reader ceases to believe they’re in a fictional house the moment it grows a new staircase and the rooms get all baggy. And if I’ve learnt one thing this year it’s that you can never be lazy: if you don’t know something, or can’t be bothered to write that scene the way it should be, it shows. Always. I suppose it’s about being a confident writer, giving the reader no choice but to draw the conclusions you intend them to. Convinced therefore convincing. In this sense, I suppose a grasp of the visual is pretty vital.
I’m still turning all this stuff over. More and more, this course is giving me the confidence to play: I am going to know my own work so much better by the end of this year.