Cultural historian Mary Hamer has published non-fiction books, essays and reviews, but when it came to a project that required imaginative writing, to get at a different kind of truthfulness, she had to re-discover how to play ...
'Go play, boy,
play!' Remember the querulous voice of Miss Havisham in the film Great
Expectations? No surprise if that order was death to creative play. I'm
guessing that for many of us the voice of authority, with its ordering, has
always tainted the invitation to set out on the game of writing.
Back in the kindergarten, all the fun we'd had in making patterns with paint and coloured pens was tamed when we were set to copying the shapes of letters, shapes that had to be just so.
The notion that writing was a game, a kind of experiment, where you had to get things wrong before you could get them right, only reached me as a woman pushing fifty. It took my first course in creative writing to open my eyes.
I'd already published books and articles as an academic when I felt my heart leap at an ad in a Cambridge coffee-shop. Creative writing! It was now or never. Talk about 'Show and Tell'-instead of the fear and withholding of the seminar room, my familiar habitat, I couldn't wait for my turn to read out my story. I felt about five.
That rediscovery was magic. Like that day when I was seven and Sister Mary Peter liked my painting so much she got permission to let me stay and finish it though it was dinner-time.
Demand or cue to daydream?
Of course my habit of suspicion and refusal continued to live on. No use expecting, then, with such ingrained resistance, that I would take eagerly to using Pam's writing prompts. They'd been accumulating on Words Unlimited for months before I really engaged with them. Though I'd welcomed the idea in principle, once they started arriving in my inbox, to my agitated defences they appeared in the guise of a demand. Like a prompt from Sister Ethelbert: 'Late' was all she wrote in the margin after hounding me for my account of the baptism of Jesus. Perhaps I was rather too bold, presenting it through the sceptical eye of a Roman centurion-
It was only when I found myself flagging as I revised the biographical novel based on the lives of Kipling and his sister, Trix, that I'd been working on since 2003, that I turned to a prompt. I began in rather sullen obedience, not at all what Pam intended, I'm sure, but hey, that's where quite a lot of my writing starts. I'd guess I'm not the only one. It takes a while for something more free to break through.
Adhering - and I do mean that - to the guidelines, I gave myself a minute or two to gaze and absorb then settled down for ten minutes by the alarm on my mobile to making an accurate description. As I reread what I'd scribbled, I chose to circle words or phrases that gave me cues for the work in hand.
I can't now make out which prompt led me to see a birdcage - which tells you something important about writing in the moment - but that cage suggested a scene for my trapped character, Trix. This tiny departure from any form of prescription or advice that came with the prompts signalled a shift. Accepting a cue didn't have to mean total subjection.
No Hall of Mirrors
Images are the first language of the psyche, which might explain why these visual prompts are so powerful. But I had to learn how to develop my own use of them.
Later, having set out to make an accurate account of Number 25, I found myself troubled on rereading. Those tools, the careless splashes of whitewash, the ladle, appeared to take me back into the workspaces of the home where I lived in as a child. I'd hesitated, writing: was that ladle used to measure poison or plant food, I'd asked?
ladling poison or nourishment?
I didn't want the prompts to trap me in a hall of mirrors, reflecting only questions concerning my own life. On the other hand, perhaps a healthy scepticism, the ability to look intently without coming to premature conclusions, was being fostered by the very act of writing directly in response to the image before me?
I decided it was important to form an intention and set that down at the head of the page before starting the exercise. I wanted Number 17 to generate 'A fantasy story'. Drawing up a list of objects - fender, backpacked figure, bowl, electric mixer, canister - I set out to dream up a story where each had a place. At that point playfulness shyly emerged, a playfulness, however which was still slightly squashed in my earnest endeavour to be faithful to my list.
The Battle for Truthfulness
In those party-games where you had to remember the objects on a tray, as a child, I was always the winner. I so wanted to be demonstrably right. And here we come to the root of the matter. For a keen learner that party-game and school were all too much alike. In both, imagination, intuition, the powers that form an individual vision, unifying the world of experience and bringing it into meaning through language, were not required. 'Turn away from them. Look at what we've laid out on the tray,' said the voice of my education.
Writing is a battle for truthfulness, which is not at all the same as accuracy. In the end, accuracy's just copying. Because I'm creating a work of 'faction,' based on the lives of Rudyard Kipling and his sister, Trix, I've had to do more than copy down dates and places. I've invited my own imagination and intuition to play over the biographical facts. That's where the battle for truthfulness began, in the tension between expansive fantasy and grounding fact.
Curiously, my response to an image, Number 24, that was impossible to order, or resisted ordering, felt much richer and freer as I wrote. I found myself taking up a newly critical position, writing of 'the oddest muddle' indulging a careless, wayward tone, to exclaim 'forsooth'. I made unexpected links, seeing the shaving brush 'splayed out generously as a powder puff'', 'confusing the symmetry', of the awkward angles and arbitrary positioning of the display. 'Reflection and angle were breaking up the image', indeed but doing so in my mind's eye, as well as in the image of the shop window.
I knew it was a challenge when I took on Number 22, the head of the telegraph pole and went back to the simple task of describing it from memory. 'I don't really like looking at this', were my first words. 'Spinning', 'pair', 'unpaired', 'tight closeness opening out and closing again', 'contradiction', I wrote. In this high and abstract image I saw only danger.
danger or comedy?
But once fancy was allowed to step in I found I could read differently, read it as a comic, was invited to read it as a comic, by the little hairs or strands around the pole like the dashes in a cartoon that indicate motion. By the time I'd finished I'd written myself into an image that was implied but not present in the prompt: a human figure on the ground, with his mates in the maintenance crew, waiting in the van.
All this encouragement to guess at what lies beyond, to allow the unauthorised: I guess I'd better keep going.Mary Hamer is a Fellow of the DuBois Institute, Harvard. She has published widely on literary and cultural history including books on Cleopatra, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Anthony Trollope. You can read her essay, "Kipling and Dreams," here.