|Portrait of the artist swearing|
at her video game, by her
son Josh (then aged 14)
Today's guest is poet, novelist, playwright and critic Alison Croggon. Alison is the author of seven books of poetry, and a novella, Navigatio. She is also the author of the Books of Pellinor fantasy series, and had nine theatrical works staged. Alison is a former reviewer for The Australian, and keeps an acclaimed blog, Theatre Notes. The latter garnered her the Pascall Prize for criticism in 2009.
Some time ago, I decided that writing is about managing two incompatible necessities. The first is being ever more conscious of everything you do, from tiny decisions about syntax to how your metaphorical superstructure informs meaning. The second is concealing from yourself what you’re doing, so you are able to do it. Writing can take you to places from which your conscious mind is very anxious to protect you, and it will do everything to stop you.
Writing, it seems to me, is a process of a writer tricking herself: of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. In order to be an honest writer (and I believe all the best writers are scrupulously honest) one must be adept at self-deception. The via media is no help here: it’s no use being semi-conscious. In order to write, you have to be in at least two incompatible states of being. It’s a mental suspension that can be very difficult to sustain.
A dose of negative capability helps. So, I have found, do video games.
People are often surprised that I play videogames, although a middle aged woman who likes gaming isn’t that unusual, no matter what the gaming industry thinks. I can’t pretend to skill: I am the world’s worst videogamer. However, what I lack in manual dexterity and directional intuition, I make up for in persistence.
When I’m writing novels, I hammer the consoles. I write until I have run out of words, and then I play my favourite games until I know every corner by heart and can get from one end to another with some degree of apparent competence. When my youngest son played Zelda: Ocarina of Time recently, he said I was more useful than a walkthrough.
Aside from giving me instant cred with 11 year old boys, gaming is an excellent means of shutting myself up. I have a facile mind, which is both good and bad: it means I read and write quickly, can absorb information efficiently, and can make connections between disparate things. The drawback is that my inner selves are so busy chatting about shiny things that sometimes I can’t hear the quiet voices underneath that are most important for my work.
For me, video games are the perfect answer. They require a certain amount of problem solving, so they occupy the upper bits of my mind. They are entertaining, but also relaxingly repetitive, especially as my incompetence means that I often have to do things over and over until I accomplish my goal. The important thing is that I have to think, but not too much or too deeply: they occupy all the distracted bits of my upper brain.
After an hour or so of attempting to assassinate ancient kings or blasting hostile monsters on an alien planet, the next sentence blossoms quietly in my mind. And then can I go and write it down, as accurately and consciously as I am able. If I am lucky, that action will spark a few more sentences. And if I am very lucky, eventually I finish a book.