The other day someone asked me to bring Solstice to a gig, having come across it in Fox Unkennelled. It’s an old favourite so that was lovely … but, ‘You mean my poem about sex?’ I asked.
Almost no one (no, not even poets) spots the metaphor – despite the opening word (“Come!”) being a bit of a hint. But it doesn’t matter; people like the poem for itself, which is the main thing. I’d rather the metaphor was (too) subtle (even though I then tend to smack people over the head telling them about it) than in any way too obvious.
I lived in California in the ‘90s, long before I dared write. Driving along the San Francisco Bayshore Freeway 101 listening to local radio one of the bands making it then was Third Eye Blind (along with Green Day and No Doubt).
This was – and still is – is one of my favourite songs and part of the reason is the way the lyrics say the exact opposite of what they really mean. It’s a brilliant piece of subversion.
When I say out loud
I want to get out of this
Is there anything I’m going to miss
‘Cause I don’t care
The defiant narrator allows himself to wonder if it will hurt when they split up – they are fighting, the opening verse shows – and telling himself there’s “nothing” “between you and me” and they won’t even recognise each other soon. (Plus I love ramping up the volume and singing along in the car. It’s that kind of ballad.)
When writing, what you leave out (or edit out later) matters as much as what end up remaining.
At a basic level that means cut irrelevant backstory, cut ANYTHING that doesn’t take the story (or poem) forward. Cut the mush. Somewhere in the mulch of a first draft there may be a seedling of something that will grow into … oak tree/celandine/hemp/truffle/triffid/GMO angel. Or try the sculpture analogy: you need to cut away the material to find the shape within. Greek god or Hepworth abstract? Doesn’t matter but it must be chiselled cleanly and with clear vision and be yours.
On a more subtle level it means letting the characters leave out things they might – or should in a literal world – say. Think of the best romance scenes in books and films. How often does one – or both – parties not actually admit their feelings, perhaps (like in the song above) even to themselves? Pride and Prejudice, Gaudy Night, Twelfth Night … endless list. and if they do admit feelings it’s for a doomed romance.
We often say one thing and mean something quite different. We have unwritten rules in any society and its subgroups. There’s a game to be played for any group from immediate family through to country/religion: a wide circle drawn on a big piece of paper (or a loop of string on a table); write out rules for the group and then place them inside the circle (explicit rules) or outside (assumed rules). It’s easy to break the second set by accident as an outsider. Imagine your own street and the people that live there. Often that’s how we – as insiders – identify “other”s. However argumentative and annoying the community it has its own rules as well as those of the more general locality. It’s likely our biases make us police the rules more for some people more than others – we might be suspicious and critical of a single parent, for example, or a Muslim family (I hope not but judging by the UKIP votes I may be sadly wrong). I was very aware of being an outsider in the years I lived in the States.
This how-we-get-on-or-not in our families and wider communities is politics. Politics is inherent in Homo sapiens. Every factor of our complex social networking is political on an individual basis. At home it’s as basic as who does the dishes? Who’s on taxi duty for kids? Which neighbours do we like or fall out with, and why? Who do we fancy? Do we show it or hide it? Sex is political – in so many ways. We don’t think of these things as politics but, at the most basic level – shared with other primates (and other creatures – “pecking order” is not a cliché for battery hens) – it’s the measure of how we function in our social groups.
We seek love and approbation but that opens us up to rejection and scorn as individuals and as groups/tribes. Balance characters on that tightrope and make them strive for some (any!) kind of solid ground. Where do they end up? What are the social politics of your setting/characters – in a story/poem and/or in real life? How dishonest (deliberately or inherently) are they? What do they leave out?
PS The GMO angel is all mine – gorgeous as he is.