a non-existent land ruled by a deluded writer, Her Royal Highness Justine Brown

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Some Thoughts on 'the spooky art'

I collect skeletons. Yes. I favor the Mexican variety, little clay figurines which proliferate in autumn, the season of the Day of the Dead, a.k.a. All Souls Day or All Hallows. This is the day after the night before Hallowe'en. Whichever term you prefer, it's all the same ancient holiday, Catholic with strong dashes of paganism. Visitors are sometimes a little shocked by my collection, and I myself hide them away from time to time. Why do I keep them? I think it's because they explain one dimension of the creative process.

The amazing writer Martin Amis quotes Norman Mailer when he describes writing as 'the spooky art', spooky because it obliges you to spend so much time in the company of dead things-- memories and persistent images which haunt us until we can make something out of them. In order to do this we have to wander through a kind of cemetery, disturbing the ghosts and rattling the bones. Sometimes it feels disrespectful, as though we were subjecting our memories to undignified treatment, especially since, as fiction writers, we have to perform transformative experiments upon them, recombine the ingredients and mix them up if we are to produce something new, i.e. characters who have lives of their own and are not merely pale shades of people we have once known or merely observed from afar.

No wonder, then, that writers feel strange when they are in the grip of inspiration-- they are shaking the sleeping dead awake, coaxing the spirits to chatter. And they spirits return the favor by grabbing the writer by the lapels and shaking in return, up, down and every which way until the words get out onto the page. And that's just the notes phase, or the first draft.

Just as you begin to want to put these airy beings back to sleep, they hold a house party in your mind, conscious and unconscious, and they invite a bunch of strangers as well. Oddballs wander in and out of the labyrithine spaces of your brain. You hear voices coming from unseen rooms, and you struggle to make sense of what they're saying, to transcribe it all. Who is this or that creature you keep seeing, and what do they want? You want to be free of them so you can laugh at your past experiences and imaginings in peace.

There is something deeply carnevalesque about the writing experience in full swing. And this is why I prefer black comedy to any other sensibility. You unleash a half-funny, half-frightening Mardi Gras of celebrants and then hope to appease them. Writing hard and missing sleep is actually, of course, a great piece of good fortune, but it can also feel like a penance.

Finally, if it all comes together as you hoped and you produce something readable, you are reborn into the present reality and can begin to live it once more-- until the next time, if you're lucky and there is a next time. So there you have it, neatly arranged in a weird little box: the reason I collect those skeletons.


  1. Wonderfully evocative description of the writing process. Unlike the tangible (loud) house party guests in the basement suite last weekend (reminiscent of our days as youngsters), I, too, welcome the latest party crashers that wreak amusement in my head.
    Great bloginnings in Justinetopia!
    Love tam
    Ps. I feel like I may have rattled a few bones (as you say), with my upcoming 'interview' with Joey Ramone...

  2. Thanks, Tami. I'm very happy to hear that the spookiness resonates for you (though as for the youngsters... off with their loud blasting music! Perhaps they will use their headphones tonight).

  3. otterpointstudio@gmail.com28 March 2011 at 22:49