Voice and tone: Figaro, Feydeau or the Moor of Venice?
So what did Richard III seem like to the man he murdered?

Is your sex and violence boundary-breaking, brave, or just plain lazy?

One of the things you learn to take in your stride, when you're teaching creative writing, is sex and  violence, on the page, at least. And then there's other "strong material": racism or misogyny in  action or language which would be distasteful to some or many readers. I'm sure anyone reading this blog would agree that for writing as a creative discipline the default should be No Limits - and yet we do all have limits. And very, very occasionally the piece is genuinely ethically dubious, and hopefully the institution you're working for will have a policy that you're not obliged to read it. If you're on your own, then you're still entitled to refuse. This is not what creative writing teaching is for.

But on the whole, the "strong" material is in a good cause - having an honest try at evoking the horror of a rape scene, say. It's  integral to the story not gratuitous, the writer doesn't appear to be getting off on it or breaking boundaries just to show off, and you feel that, as far as possible, it's no more voyeuristic than it can help being. And yet, even after you've steadied yourself and concentrated on the technical merit and artistic impression of the piece, it can still make you feel uneasy.

Sometimes, too, the workshop you're running reacts with dislike or even ferocious objections. It may be because they think writing like that shouldn't be allowed, which is grounds for a discussion. They may make the mistake of believing that the piece is misogynist or racist in itself, because a character does or says misogynist or racist things - another discussion. But their dislike may be because, even if the writer is basically "on the side of the woman", or "disapproves of what X does", they sense that dealing in this stuff is an easy way for the writer to create a striking piece.

In Death Doesn't Always Become You, I was exploring how it's perhaps too easy to use death to give a piece a bit of instant gravitas which it wouldn't otherwise have, and I think this is a related question. The unease, I'd suggest, is an intuition that, in the quest to write a powerful piece - to find writing energy in themselves, and transmit that energy through the piece to the reader - the writer falls back, too easily, on the obviously powerful subjects and techniques.

Put two people in a sitting room discussing whether to buy some cushions before his mum comes to see the flat for the first time, and you have to work a bit to make the conflict compelling - though I'm sure many readers of this blog are already constructing the story where this little fracas is the pivotal moment in the collapsing marriage. But some readers may never get it, if their antennae are wrongly tuned. (I still cherish the memory of the listener who said they enjoyed my story "Calling" on Radio 4 even though "Nothing much happened", I assume because although those two thousand words brought in  widowhood, abandoned children, mental illness and attempted suicide, no one actually died.) 

Put those two people in a sitting room trying to get her pregnant before her husband gets home, and it's much easier to find the drama: there's just more, more obviously, at stake, it's physical action as well as verbal and mental action, and all that is rich fuel for any half-way decent writer's imagination and word-finding engine. It's a bit like Puccini (says my musicologist sister), who got his best arias out of himself by making his soprano suffer in mind and body, and then getting her to sing about it. Even people who don't feel an emotional connection to the situation in the story - either because it's not well written, or because the situation just doesn't speak to them - know that This Stuff Matters.

But, because working with this kind of material (whether or not one would class it as offensive) is an easy way to find energy and conflict, if you haven't actually found something new and particular to say, the "strong" might just seem cheap.  Mind you, I do think that "cheapness" in this context, and other such judgements about the effect a piece has on a reader, ("pretentious" vs "off-the-wall", "lyrical" vs "flowery", "spare" vs. "barren")  are very subjective indeed: what's an excruciatingly awful greetings-card poem for one reader brings tears to another reader's eyes in a good way, and that is an equally valid and honest reaction. But still, if you're defaulting to your usual strong stuff, you may not be trying hard enough to find the new and particular within it. And we may sense that, and feel efficiently manipulated, not led somewhere new and strange.

Of course, as I was discussing in Under the Bugle-beaded Bonnet,  we do all keep returning to our own themes and preoccupations. So I'd never tell a student they shouldn't use strong materials. And the strong handling of strong material is often called brave or unflinching, and of course it may be. The act of attention which a really good piece of writing is, is something that takes extra courage when what you're attending to is stuff most of us flinch from.

But it's actually no braver for a student who defaults easily to strong subjects to stick to writing them, than it is for a student who defaults easily to quiet, domestic subjects to stick to those. And you always learn more if you challenge your defaults, whether they're off-the-peg for everyone, or only for yourself. It's good for any writer to make ourself find real narrative excitement - the fuel for our writerly energy, and the drama for the reader - in a story which is made from  ordinary, humdrum stuff. Chekov is one of the most heartbreaking writers ever, and he said that people don't have grand feuds and huge heartbreaks, they have dinner. There's no need to smash the dining room window and let in Mata Hari, or the zombies. A pudding no one wants to eat might be enough.

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