Portrait of the Author as a Cannibal

Anyone who pretends to authorial ambition, will at some point be posed the question “where do you get your ideas from?” and the related but separate question “do you ever use people you know [for inspiration]?” The answers (“Everywhere” and “Not really”) that I give are usually politely received but, I get the impression, found faintly unsatisfactory. An idea, a conceptual reference really, has struck me that might prove useful in future discussions.

In previous posts I have mentioned that I tend to think of culture – as in the material and intellectual artefacts attached to and representing our society – as an ongoing reproduction of itself. That is to say that anything we make is caused by the things that others have made before us, and our makings will go on to spur the production of others. This is pretty common thinking, though less pervasive than the idea of the inspired creative genius which retains a dominant position when people thing of ‘the artist.’ It (writer as manifestation/nexus of cultural events) is developed of a materialistic understanding of the universe, that nothing exists outside of it and all things come from within it, and a Wittgensteinian idea of how we engage with objects in language. Inspiration is a natural outgrowth of the interplay of cultural and linguistic forces that just happen to locate themselves in the nodality of ‘the artist.’

This whole process is so massively complex it beggars ready comprehension; the explanation I have given above is heavily slanted in a Marxist interpretation that even Marx backed away from. Whither true inspiration in this model? As with Marx, I will throw up my hands and say “don’t know.” Creation is not an unconscious or passive process though; even ‘bolts from the blue’ are changed in the very act of definition, and these changes are environmentally determined as part of the cultural continuum. Iterations are not simply one-way; it does not describe progress, there is no linear manifestation of up and onward to a bolder future where what came before is better (or worse) than what preceded it. The most useful image I can think of to describe this is cell division and mutation. One cell, two cell, four cell and on and on. And that is still a bad example because cells don’t ‘talk’ to each other in the way that culture does; imagine if cell sixty-two could communicate with cell four and cause it to change all duplications it iterates out in future, so it creates cells 5b, 6b and so on and so on.

The particular node that is the author, that is me, must then recognise that ideas that emerge are spurred from somewhere in the world around him. Even things that seem unreal (weird underworld immortalists) come from somewhere else; it’s often only the easy stuff (Paris catacombs!) that one can put their finger on as direct inspiration. Underpinning everything I write (and you, even if you don’t consider what you write to be writing) is all the experience and events in your life filtered through each experience and event, as well as every bit of information and rumour, that has ever nestled in your mind. It’s perhaps less romantic than wondering in the wind with my cravat a fluttering, but it is more interesting to think about both for me and for others. It also means that there could, and probably is, more going on in any artistic production than even the creator can give credit for.

As for using people in fiction, that’s where the cannibalism comes in to it. The author, or the fiction writer, has been described of as ‘a voyeur’ someone who watches humans in order to reproduce it. I prefer (for certain values of preference) cannibal because the author is interested in human experience, but not just in serving as a lens for it. An author cannot chose a reader’s response to a text, but they do control what is experienced. Words they use, things they show and do not, subject matter, characters etc. etc.

Cannibalising (figurative) parts of people is what I think of when I consider the second question, do I use people I know in my writing. As I wrote above, the answer is mostly no. However, to write about humans, one needs know humans to create a believable facsimile thereof. It is not to say that I use a whole person, just parts of them. It can be big, like someone’s description of a belief system. More often it is small, the way of laughing, memories of moments that crystallise around an expression; hurt and happiness that an author feels but more importantly sees in others.

I think it is important to understand these things in one’s self to see where the ideas come from and have a necessary critical reflex to them. It isn’t enough that I just regurgitate what has come before, but that I am able to examine and refine it. To risk malapropism, my writing is what I eat. When I am writing, I draw from first- and second-hand experiences that I have had and reapply them. This isn’t an immediate action; I can only use things I have already processed and broken down within my mind; cognitively digesting and breaking them down.

The writer, then, exists at a confluence between the over-arching cultural narratives and logics in which they exist, and the complementing and contradicting parts of their own experience that illustrate or challenge or otherwise interface with that culture to create more of it. The reader becomes a second-party to the psychic cannibalisation (as they consume the author’s production but do not take part in the choosing of the parts, so to speak). It isn’t merely desperation and mad hunger but instead a cannibal taking in things as a continuation, part of an unbroken chain connecting to a sometimes messy web stretching out in infinite directions.

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