Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Ego and the Imagination

It’s a great day to have something in common with Margaret Atwood—a dystopia that’s been published this season in Canada and that hasn’t been nominated for any of the major awards. Oddly enough, it was just after 8am Pacific time this morning—just after I’d heard on the CBC national news who the finalists for this year’s GG's Awards were—that it struck home for me just how inconsequential all these awards really are. Funny how some incidental piece of news can spur a significant realization of that sort.

More generally, it’s a funny thing with awards. No matter how much one may tell oneself that they’re not really important—how often great books miss out completely, how often horrible books win, etc. etc.—it’s hard not to pay attention. That’s true for both readers and writers, but for readers it’s a matter purely of information and attention, whereas for writers, of course, it’s also a matter of ego. In my own case I have eternally in front of me a reminder of how deeply awards don’t matter in the end—my father’s winning the 1964 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for his novel The Deserter. Dad also won a (to my mind richly deserved) GG for poetry, but The Deserter is a difficult and I would say not very satisfactory novel—I think my mother was right to diagnose among its various flaws an excess of ego showing through. But no one cares now; The Deserter today is largely forgotten, while a novel that didn’t win that same year—Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel—remains arguably the finest of all Canadian novels.

How to get beyond ego is to my mind a vitally important question for novelists—no doubt for dramatists too. You can write great poetry showing off your ego; it’s a lot harder to do so and write fiction or drama that doesn’t come across as self-conscious—or just self-centred. On the whole, successful novels have to be able to convey an understanding of and sympathy for other creatures—pointedly, here, I won’t say other humans. And to do that requires a forgetting of the self, at least while the writing process is underway. For me at least, the great stylistic trick that facilitates such a forgetting in fiction is what academics term free indirect discourse (also known as colored narrative). It’s writing in the third person that takes on the coloring of different points of view—essentially through omitting such phrases as “he thought that” or “it seemed to her that…”. It sounds like a small thing, but such writing seems to me to do far more than allow for faster shifts from one point of view to another in fiction; I think it can also provide to the reader a much stronger and more direct sense of the feelings of different characters. Just as important, for me at least, is how it affects the creative process; I’m sure that using colored narrative allowed me far more easily to lose myself in the characters of Animals than I would have been able to otherwise—and allowed me to stay lost for pages at a time.

(It’s vitally important, of course, not to have the CBC on in the background at such times; otherwise even the least self centred of us runs the risk of getting distracted by news of yet more awards he or she hasn’t been nominated for!)

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