N Quentin Woolf

Writers, Writing #3:

Identity

Who are you? Really, who are you, sitting there quiet like that the whole time, never saying anything – just watching, the way you do? You know who I am – my name’s at the top of the column, or on the cover, and maybe on the dustjacket there’s a picture of me, and a little biography; and as for the characters, well, hell, I spend the entire text of every piece of fiction telling you about those guys. So the only one we don’t seem to know anything about in all of this is the owner of the big pair of eyes. Yeah, I’m talking about you. Who are you?

Now, I know this kind of finger-pointing is a little irritating, so I don’t intend keeping it up long. Sure, it’s great for catching your attention, but as soon as I start to drift into making accusatory generalisations about your attitudes and responses (‘I know you don’t agree with me’, etc) I’ll feel you get first indignant and then riled up, and eventually you’ll start to slip away. Will you slam the door on your way out? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll just skip on lightly to read something else – right now, perhaps – leaving paragraph two forever unread, and the issue of your identity unresolved. No big deal, for you, anyway. After all, you already know who you are, don’t you?

Don’t you?

This is a piece of writing about making up stories.

One way to understand the telling of stories is to posit that the writer imagines a bunch of things and figures out the best way to set them down in words so that their recipient has only to unpack them, reconstitute them, reanimate them. Literature as dried noodles, or something. But that’s not quite right. You do more than that, and you’re already doing a lot.

Here’s who you are: you are the place where the story happens. You are an interpretation engine, capable of looking at black marks on a piece of paper and transforming them into worlds and emotions and characters and revelations. That’s quite a skill you’ve got there.

You are the person who imagines the characters and supplies the details that I do not (because I am a writer, and writers must show and not tell). You are the hawk that spots the clue and lets the weight of the scene be altered because of it, only to discover that the clue was a red herring. The scenery exists in five dimensions in your head, in a palate of your choosing, and the precise lines on the face of the protagonist were put there in your imagination.

The strength of the process we share, you and I, comes from it being not merely mechanical (we have optical recognition software that can scan a page; we have dictionaries for meaning), but requiring something of you, personally. Of course; this is also the chief weakness. What you do is called reading, and it seems an act of great sophistication, when you think about it, because you’re bringing your character to the party, and your experience, and you’re allowing them to influence what you think of the words – years of growing and improving and learning, acres of literature, years of film and song, all channelled into this narrow purpose, this processing of language from a material form to a mental one; the conversion of physical stuff into nuaunced data. You use an electro-organic computer about which our species knows alarmingly little, and you carry out the process actively – that is to say, you have to do something, casting your eyes across the page, moderating the input speed to best service the material, diligently repeating sections where meaning has eluded you, all the while running background processes based on pattern recognition, behavioural expectations, conventions of genre and form and so forth, and you construct the story in your mind. Yes, that’s the important part: the person making the story isn’t the writer.

But you never took an oath of impartiality. As with anything that requires interpretation, there are many variables that can affect the result, not least among them the identity (biases, preconceptions, tastes) of the interpreter. It would be tough enough if I were merely constructing something on the operational level – instructions to get to the station, say – without knowing anything about you. Should I direct you via the churches, or the pubs? Are you the type who can’t remember street-names? Would you prefer it measured in yards? But with that task there’s a solid core of fact that merely requires dressing, whereas fiction… that’s a whole other barnyard. What have you read before and liked? What are your sympathies – gender, race, age? How can I entertain you at random?

Maybe the answer is to drop the question altogether, and imagine it makes no odds. Yet oblivion, too, feels wrong.

It’s all too convenient to think about the act of writing as being one committed in isolation, without any involvement from the reader. For writers, particularly newer ones, writing as if in a vacuum can be a defence mechanism against fear of failure (‘no-one will ever see it, so it doesn’t matter if I screw up’), stage-fright (‘if I think about the reader, I’ll feel them judging me’) and against having to discipline one’s writing. Ask a writer who they are writing for, and oftentimes the question causes panic, or bafflement. ‘I suppose it’s for someone like me’, they’ll venture – it’s clear they haven’t thought about it. It surprises me that anyone would spend so long crafting a form of communication without considering who they’re communicating with. How do they know the reader will get their jokes? What cultural referents are they going to ask their reader to recognise? Kids’ writers, who have to fine-tune their vocabulary, references, sentence complexity and so on to within a year or two of their target reader’s age, can tell you exactly who their reader is, and they write accordingly. They don’t imagine, as writers for adults sometimes do, that their job is to write in any old style (or combination of styles) and transmit to the general populous, and that the ‘right’ audience will happen upon the text by accident.

Yeah, that’s the bubble that needs bursting, in amongst the tweeting and blogging and banging on: telling stories isn’t merely an act of transmission. It’s people taking each other by the hand and sharing a specific dream-space.

What started out sounding flippant now looks a little more pertinent. I really need some idea of who you are.

Perhaps it’s a good time to start separating identities. You still haven’t said a word, so I’ll go first.

First, there’s the me typing this stuff out. I’m writing this on an outsized laptop on a train in North London, UK. Someplace in the darkness beyond the train’s windows, you must really exist, too. Weird fact: even though they’ve been this piece’s only actual readers (in a series of sneaked sideways glances), I know that the three people who’ve sat next to me so far aren’t you.

Interesting. Even though I don’t know who you are – I really don’t – my idea of you is so strong that real readers don’t live up to it. Why am I being so pig-headed as to ignore fact in favour of fantasy? Why do I prefer my Assumed Reader over these real Readers?

Partly, it’s to stay constant. Tonally, and in terms of subject, vocabulary and outlook. Each of my three fellow travellers has given clues about who they are (in their appearance, their body language, their smell) as they’ve sat down; you’d be seeing a shift in style every five hundred words or so were I to attempt to cater to each new person. They are not my Assumed Reader, to whom I continue to write. My suspicion is that the actual reader of this piece – that is, you – are as dissimilar from my fantastic Assumed Reader – whom I also address as you – as are my trio of non-reader readers. Knowing anything about you would put me right off my stride. Fortunately, I don’t know who you are.

In some ways, your real-world identity doesn’t matter much to the writer, so long as both of you are happy that your avatar in the writer’s mind shares enough of your essence for your positions to be represented correctly, challenged constructively, and enhanced through the encounter. The two yous overlap just fine.

Oh, wait a second. That should be three yous. Because there’s also the ‘you’ to whom the narrator narrates: that listener whose existence is often only implied, but implied by the whole narrative, and by the fact of narration. It’s starting to get crowded in here. Sometimes both narrator and narratee belong to the world of the characters, and are themselves characterised; other times, they are figures lacking in identity. The voice of the narrator, when presented as a character, is easy to identify as fictive, but when the narrator is not obviously stylised, when there seem to be enough similarities to the voice of the writer to allow it, the unguarded reader may forget whose voice they’re hearing. Who narrates Tom Jones? Fielding? A narrator created by Fielding, who differs in no discernible way from Fielding, and yet is not him?

Once in a while, you are the protagonist. Second person narrative, it’s called, and you don’t like it much. It makes you do things you don’t mean to do. (In this respect, it’s like hypnotic induction technique, which uses similar patterns of language, to different ends.) You’re everywhere, you are.

Then there’s who you think I am – the Assumed Writer. This is the me with all the gaps filled in – by you, of course. Actual You. The Assumed Writer you’ve got in your head might vary somewhat from the Assumed Writer developed by some other reader, but maybe not by much. In any case, the Assumed Writer and the Writer are different creatures. (No native ever used the word ‘barnyard’ in the country I’m from.) Writers who create their own legend work hard on the Assumed part. Bukowski drank plenty, but he wrote plenty about drinking plenty. Social climbers and Mockneys and the Brontes are players of this game, as is every writer who ever used a nom de plume. Think how your reading is affected by what you think you know of the author. Upon what scraps and clues do you base your opinion? Often, it’s a triangulation, using the fixed points of authorial sleevenotes and the tone of the narrator. Oh, I’ll take that bet.

In fact, if the best we can do is generalise or take stabs in the dark, how close will we ever get, you and I? Even if I sound like I’m speaking right into your soul, what do you really know about me, and what do I know of you?

Your imaginings will not exactly resemble those of other people of a similar age and cultural background, even though the stimulus remains constant, but your responses will occur within a predictable range, sufficiently so that I can write a word and expect that you will see in it both the meanings and the double meanings I expect you to see. Yes, it would be possible to write for a type, but that would be to lose the intimacy of a one-to-one, so I write instead for an individual – one I’ll never meet. You are the person whose company I keep through all those hours when I’m ostensibly alone – on reflection, I realise I’ve spent more time with you than with anyone else I know. You’re the one I try to make laugh or cry. It is for you I write the best words I know, in the best possible order: phrases and sentences and paragraphs structured in shapes I think you’ll find pleasing – because I want to please you, I really do.

Ultimately, what is our transaction? Two phantasms, shaking what they think might be each other’s hand?

They say you should never meet your heroes. They sometimes explain that it’s because you can’t; that your heroes are just constructs, far superior to the meagre creatures who turn up to do the book signing or walk the red carpet. For exactly the same reason, it would be a bad idea for me ever to find out what ‘you’ really means. You couldn’t be the specific non-you to who I’ve devoted myself. Yes, on balance I think it’s much better that you should stay notional, if you don’t mind too much.

And you know what? – if I ever again ask who you are, don’t say a word. SLQ

N. Quentin Woolf is a writer and broadcaster.

He read English Literature, specialising in Creative Writing, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and journalism at the Morris College of Journalism. His short stories have appeared in publications internationally and online, in exhibitions and as part of stage performances. A passionate advocate of the benefits of peer critique, NQW has hosted Writers’ Mutual, a popular collaborative critique group for writers, for a number of years; he also runs The Writers’ Lab in East London, and has accumulated 700+ hours of experience managing group feedback, besides many more teaching creative writing. He is the founder of The Brick Lane Book Group, recently rated by TimeOut one of London’s best reading groups. Having formerly presented The Arts Show for radio, NQW is now the anchor of Londonist Out Loud, a fortnightly podcast focussing on news, arts and history in the capital.

Website: www.nquentinwoolf.com

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