“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Virginia Woolf.
When I was a nightclub entertainer in the 1970s (yes, another of my less than healthy occupations) we organised “spot prizes” and handed out bottles of liquor or boxes of chocolates to anyone who could answer prank questions, similar to riddles.
One of my best and most successful “jokes” (in inverted commas) was: what do women do sitting down, men do standing up and using one hand, and dogs do on three legs?
Several members of the crowd would yell words such as “urinate” “make water,” or “pee” but of course, no one took the award, because the answer is: “shake hands.”
Insert laughter here 😊
Another was this: I would offer a bottle of whiskey to the first man who could bring me the bust of another man’s wife (please forgive me, this was in the 1970s and things were not politically correct back then), so several men in the audience would drag a friend or neighbour’s wife in front of me and push her forward saying something tacky & puerile about “knockers” or “boobies.”
But I would declare I was not talking about “that type of bust” but in fact I had meant the “upper part of the human figure, depicting a female’s head and neck.” I would then produce a large coin-of-the-realm (usually a fifty pence piece, like the one above, which boasted the bust of Queen Elizabeth) and I would say: “It was easy, that one. I’m surprised no one got it…” to much applause.
The success of these distasteful & I admit it embarrassing jokes depends on an audience’s propensity and willingness to prejudge a situation or stereotype an idea. All comedians will tell you that the mind of an audience is dirty!
Our prejudices run deep! So deep that sometimes we can’t see them. Our biases are well-hidden and don’t come to light until someone tells a cheesy joke about busts or hand-shakes and then they spill out!
Judging from my posts and comments, many of my listeners, the authors out there, are women. But here’s a thought: words are man-tools.
Think about this: the Holy Bible says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The deity is a male character in this story, right? The first human-creature this deity creates is another male, right?
The Greek word Logos is also the name or title of Jesus Christ, son of God. Logos means (you guessed it) “word.” Indeed, St John described Christ as “the Word became flesh.” So, according to that logic, God, Christ and Men are words, made flesh.
This isn’t a religious discourse, so I don’t want to get bogged down in religious details, but the history of man’s word, the history of words on paper, is bundled up with Christian teaching…
Christ only “allowed” men to preach the Gospel (there’s a disputed Gospel of Mary, but they degraded it. Powerful men decreed it to be a non-canonical text) and the first (and all other Popes) were men. In fact, clergyman is another word for “scribe”, a cleric is simply a clerk in holy orders, in other words a male person entrusted to read and write. This is how, for centuries, society described priests. Why? Because we consider only men authoritative and trustworthy enough to “preach the word.” We return to the word… the word as a man-tool.
It is presumed (wrongly) that William Caxton was the person who invented the printing press (he introduced it to England in 1476). But Johannes Gutenberg (1400-1468 and shown above) had already printed the first Bible (around 1454). Both printers were, of course, male.
When the world’s first feminist author, Virginia Woolf (shown below) began writing her loose interior monologues, she was aware of the uphill battle she faced, trying to write women’s fiction using man-tools: “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman…” She knew her innovative thoughts & ideas would be diminished by the “man tools” she was required, by convention, to use.
So today I want you to be fiercely radical. I don’t want you to think of writing as creating images with words. No! I want you to think of writing as creating images with thoughts!
It is the power of thought that matters most when writing. Those man-tools are an excuse. Ignore them!
Writing is creating images with thoughts…— Neil Mach
For example, you will never run out of words! There are about 170,000 words in the English Language. There are at least 6,500 other languages that are spoken (and read) today. There are a billion words for you to use before you even start to work with all the permutations. There are infinite words. So when you succumb to the condition called (wrongly) writer’s block, you are not at a loss for words… you are at a loss for original thoughts!
We assume that writer’s block is a temporary failure to put the words on paper… but it has nothing to do with the words (man-tools) at all, no, it is a temporary failure to get fresh ideas out of your brain or (as I prefer to say) it’s a failure to play with concepts.
Imagine a book without words. Can you imagine such a thing? You ought to, because we buy them often enough on our weekly shopping trips (fashion and gossip magazines are very modest in their literary ambitions, but are compulsive in their use of sensational images. Those celebrity ones with glossy double-page spreads have hardly any writing in them at all!) Cartoon and comic-books don’t need words to convey amazing ideas. Some of the most memorable D.C. comics were the ones without much written material, but amazing pictures. Children’s early learning rag books are frequently just a series of bold pictures, yet the child becomes engrossed, and reads the book repeatedly.
So, it’s a fact, books don’t need words. Chew on that idea over for a moment… books don’t need words: they need ideas, they need viewpoints, they need moods… but they don’t actually need words!
And, anyway, words are restrictive. I don’t want to get into coding right now (it’s an important topic but too big for this little discourse) but just to remind you (as if you didn’t already know) that writing has to adhere to certain rules and conventions (set down by men.) Even the writing process (itself) is determined by rules and practices and is accomplished according to a system or plan. All this rigmarole and bureaucracy sucks the life out of your conceptual/multidimensional thought-power. I’m sorry, but it does!
And that’s where we get stuck. We obey the rules, we abide by the conventions, and we settle for what “society” or “the readers” or publishers or even our “inner selves” expect. And by complying with all those obligations we produce hackneyed, formulaic and stereotypical material. Because that’s what they expect from us. And we don’t want to disappoint them do we? We don’t want to embarrass ourselves. So we comply with the expectations of society, but we lose connection with our artistic brilliance. This is how we start to forget what it’s like to be enterprising and virtuosic. It’s how we forget to be creative artists!
As artist-creators we must take charge of our talent. But how to do this?
As artist-creators, we must break the creative yoke (I use the word yoke as a symbol of oppression and coercion): we must take charge of our talent. But how to do this?
First, we must recognise that writing is not creating images with words. Writing is creating images with thoughts. Thoughts always come first. Without new thoughts, we don’t have a prayer, we don’t have a rhyme, we don’t have a chapter, and we certainly don’t have a book.
If you’ve ever reached the middle of a project and got stuck, you’re not at a loss for words. You’ve merely run out of ideas!
In art, ideas matter. In art, ideas are everything. Let’s take Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings as a good example. He loaded that epic story with great ideas. First, the author devised a magic ring. But that was too easy! So he introduced a lost set of rings. A set of rings that were created by a dark and menacing force and given to historic enemies. Then he created a protagonist who is neither strong nor magnificent, but is insignificant and ineffective. And his great hero (Frodo) encounters a reflection of himself: the unpleasant side of his nature, a side that he has to overcome. And then there is a mentor (Gandalf) who might be an angel (or even a god) who, as prophet, priest and king, could be an allegory of Christ, etc. Tolkein built this epic fantasy on ideas, not words. Yes, the words are wonderful, but it’s the thoughts behind those words that makes this great.
You can take part in various courses online (and in real life) that will teach you how to put words together to form coherent sentences. They will even teach you how to develop character and build a plot. But there are few courses that teach you how to develop ideas. And that’s a shame, because, as I say (repeatedly), what matters most when writing is the power of original thought.
During the next few weeks, I will share some creativity exercises and techniques on my social networks and you can join me and have some fun. You can break the creative yokes and take charge of your talent. Or you can just peg away with those man-tools! But if writing ever becomes a chore, or you hit a mental block, you know where to come!
Hope to see you all (soon) on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/author.neilmach
@neilmach 2021 ©
Neil Mach is the host of the Myth & Magic podcast
Available on all podcast services
Inteview with P. Grace Lawson – Myth and Magic