THE MOTHER OF THE MUSES,  MY FRIENDS AND MNEMOSYNE
Mnemosyne - The Mother of the Muses
 
Mnemosyne,, the Mother of the Muses, has been on my mind a lot recently as I search for inspiration for my first novel or collection of short stories. Plot, structure, characterisation, pacing etc are one set of difficulties but there is another fundamental question that causes me to seize completely.  That stumbling block is purpose.  What is it exactly that I am trying to achieve with my writing?  This is not the first time I have wondered about the purpose of literature.  This topic has occupied my thoughts for many years. Rewind 10 years or so ago to a casual phone call with an old friend from university when we ventured rather close to philosophy when I asked her what she thought the purpose of literature was. After all,  she had studied it for four years while I had veered off after two years to specialise in Psychology.  We were both entirely sober at the time, and she had the benefit of a further two years' study and a clutch of creative writing experiences so I had high hopes of enlightenment or at least serious discussion. I was seriously disappointed.  After a nanosecond, more to breathe than to reflect, she informed me that the purpose of literature was entertainment.  She had clearly answered that question to her own satisfaction a long time previously.
I was flabbergasted.  That is not what literature meant to me: I like written arts to shake up my preconceptions; I like them to astonish my ideas or inform new ones; I love to be lost in a different world that I may never recognise or experience physically but in which my psyche is perfectly at home. I like them to be audacious.  And if I am lucky enough to discover a novel that has the whole Yvonne Stevenson-Robb package, then I love beautiful, inventive language too. I am supported in my argument by Jane Austen whose views on novel writing are laid out in Northanger Abbey thus: It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”.
Surely then, literature or the act of reading, can be more than just entertainment or a casual leisure activity. Is my friend correct and am I some kind of snob?  Should we define more clearly what we mean by entertainment or should we all just defer to Jane's quote above?
These are questions that I find myself asking more and more as I attempt to find a way into creative writing.  I assume it relates to finding your voice as a writer and is a signpost to finding the genre which best suits your purpose in writing. This is where I am lost at the moment.  I am very happy to have ideas that I feel would make a great poem or short story or novel but as soon as I start to sober up from the intoxication of research or recover from the beauty of a breathtaking sentence, I start thinking that really it was not such a good idea after all. The next difficulty is in knowing the style I want to use for the topic I have chosen, which is inextricably linked to whatever effect you want your book to have on people. Once at this stage I get lost in the purpose of literature and then I grind to a halt. Again.
Perhaps you have shared this experience?  I suspect it is very common and I recognise that all these questions could be little more than displacement activity.  So I am going to do what I generally do when I am stuck and that is to take the advice of actual and virtual friends to get something finished. 
I have one actual friend, with three or four novels under her belt and now a qualification in creative writing, and her advice is simple.  ‘Park your bum in front of the computer and just do 1000 words a day.  It doesn’t matter if it is shite.  Take the same approach to writing as you do to knitting a very long scarf. You can always re-shape later.’ As a knitter myself, I can see plain sense in this method.  Another friend, also a writer, once actually knitted her son a very long scarf.  She started out with great enthusiasm, then became bored and involved all of her friends, her mother and grandmother in knitting rows in the magnum opum.  Eventually she tied it to the banisters and spent a drunken evening swinging from it in the hope that it might stretch. The parallels with great creative literature may not be immediately apparent, but perhaps writing groups have something to learn from this idea!!
Another non-virtual friend and I went to my favourite Cafe for writing, called Buchanan’s Bistro in Banchory, Scotland http://www.buchananfood.com/barn.html, and we had the talk about the purpose of writing.  She said all the cerebral stuff is entertainment too, so just get on with it. It’s time to move on I suspect.  As another co-founder of Cafe Aphra and a very direct woman, I think it advisable to listen to her. However, my proviso would be that literature and general entertainment writing probably do fulfill different functions (both equally valid) and therefore what I need to do is just work out what kind of writer I would like to be.  What purpose and hoped-for reader response do I want to create in my writing? I guess the only answer, as in every other aspect of life, is that you can only find that out by doing. 
Buchanan's Bistro, Banchory, Scotland
Finally, in an audacious move for a technophobe, I turn to virtual friends for creative direction. There are three ideas bouncing gently in the outer atmosphere of my consciousness requiring only a burst of gravitational pull to send one creative concept directly onwards. Or at least that is the hope.  Call it market research or call it laziness, it does not matter.  The point is, it would stop the stalemate of ‘not writing’ on which more will undoubtedly be written in future blogs.

Actually, it is pertinent to point out that seeking audience feedback whether virtual or any other way, is not so very different from what authors used to do in the time of Dickens when they would publish one chapter in a newspaper and if the audience liked a particular story, more chapters would be written and if no-one was interested, the idea could be left aside. It is also similar to the digital publishing tool ‘Unbound’ which works in the same way but by attracting money online for publishing to go ahead.
You will be pleased to know that I don’t want any money.[Although advance orders might be nice]. But I would greatly appreciate your kindness in reading the following three short synopses and telling me which one you think sounds most interesting.
1.     A collection of short stories and poems on the consequence of fertility issues and choices in women’s lives. It would be told in a number of different voices looking at the experience of the biologically fertile period in the lives of women in other times and in different countries.  It would include a range of stories from comic to dramatic, from thought-provoking to shocking and from a different perspective on the usual meaning of fertility to include a wide range of creative outputs.
2.     A novel based on parents’ experience of arranging the sex life of her learning disabled adult son because he has been unable to find a girlfriend in the usual way.  It would follow the relationship that develops between the sex worker, the mother, the father and the son as well as the impact of this unusual arrangement on the siblings of the young disabled man.  It would have a strong psychological bias and would be both comic and tragic dealing with a serious subject in a way that allows humour to shine through. 

3.     A historical fiction novel about a young Scottish girl whose family emigrate to Australia in the 18th century.  After a shipwreck in the Torres Straits she is washed ashore and accepted by the Tourareg people.  She marries a local warrior and has children on the island before she is rescued and taken back to Sydney where she is outcast for having had relations with a black man.  This novel would obviously include the need for a prolonged visit to Australia, but do not let this sway your deliberations.....
Think about it.  How often do you get asked to make like the Greek goddess Mnemosyne the Mother of the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses whose role it was to inspire poets and musicians and to promote the arts and sciences.  Not every day I suspect.

Your comments will be eagerly awaited and my understanding of my own purpose in writing might become more recognisable.  
     
Mnemosyne and the 9 Muses

Comments

  1. HI Yvonne great post!!

    To start off I think I like the sound of idea 2. Its a very controversial subject and loads of scope for all sorts of emotions/moral questions etc to come through. Also, by keeping it tight - ie keeping the number of characters and location fairly contained you create a border for your work from the outset which might be beneficial???

    I can understand where you are coming from with you comments about the purpose of literature. I certainly went through my 'TS ELiot phase' where I believed that every single word and phrase must carry deep meaning & purpose. Now I'm writing a fantasy novel!
    However I actually think it doesn't matter what you write, as long as you do. The only way you find your voice is by speaking and the same with your writing voice - the more you use it, the more it will develop.
    It could well be that you can be a writing chameleon and pick a style and tone you want to write in, depending on your subject matter or message, but I rather think it develops as you go. I didn't want to write a fantasy novel (I don't even read that much fantasy!) but I struggled to force myself to write something else, hitting brick walls all the time. Eventually I just accepted I should just let it come - and it did, in bucket-fulls!
    Even though it is a fantasy novel I've noticed when I read it back that various views and preoccupations of mine naturally come through - there are no goblins but there's a lot of politics, no dwarves but issues of social upheaval etc. so even if you think you're writing something frivolous, if your mind isn't that way inclined, it will come through. Just think Animal Farm - a ridiculous story about some pigs, but absolutely poignant.
    (Also the brill thing about writing fantasy is I can use some fab words marked 'archaic' in the dictionary, which I really would like to see revived!)
    Oh and research... don't let it get in the way of a good story!! You really can research your way up an alley.
    Whichever idea you choose will be brilliant. Keep writing - I can't wait to read some!

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    1. Thank you. Yes, you are right, it is just important to write. Full stop. Will start by taking on the Cafe Aphra Challenge for November. It will be interesting to see if I write on either of the above subjects or if something completely different evolves...

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  2. Second attempt at commenting! Hi, I am one of Diane's friend from the Oldmeldrum writers group until I loved overseas. All three books would be possibilities for me, so it would depend on how they were written, though the third option would be a hard sell as I am just not that into historical fiction. Number 1 you would have to work hard not to impose you own morality on the subject onto the stories too much, whilst a good story can challenge and expand the way the reader feels about a subject, it shouldn't become judgemental and preachy, and topics like fertility have a tendency towards that, pro life/prochoice, adoption, conception though rape etc... Plus it might be very emotional to write, well it would be for me. Have you ever read 'Only strange people go to church' by Laura Marney, it also discusses the issues in number 2 but from a different angle.

    Fingers crossed this coment works this time.

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    1. Thank you for your comments and for your efforts to get them on the site. You are completely right when you say that it depends on HOW the stories were written. That is the single most important feature.
      I agree with you that the fertility collection should be completely free from judgemental, preachy, moralistic overtones. With my humanist outlook, that should be quite easy to do. I have no intention of making it sentimental or moralistic. I also do not think I would find it too emotionally challenging because of the stage of life I am at personally and being able to take a more objective view of the whole fertility business..... The disabled adult/sex worker novel could actually be quite funny but I would have to be careful not to offend anyone. I realise that historical fiction is not everyone's cup of tea - but I am fond of good historical fiction like Margaret Elphinstone's and would take it with or without sugar. I definitely think it would be a harder sell to a publisher or agent though.
      I have decided to do the Cafe Aphra November writing challenge without any idea of what I will write and just see where the activity takes me. May I thank you for your input and apologise for not responding sooner. We have had a family bereavement and I was unable to get to the computer. I will make a note of the book by Laura Marney that you mentionned.

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  3. You write because it fills your creative needs and makes you happy. That's all you need to know cuz.


    :)

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    1. Very true. Keep things simple and say it like it is.. 'My name is Yvonne and I write to fill my creative needs'. It won't be able to make me happy unless I can write something that I think is worthwhile though. Substitute happy for contented and you will have hit the nail on the head.
      Thanks cuz.

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