Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Doing the work

Nicola Griffith

Even though I can list in my sleep the questions I'll get when this book comes out, I'll still be struck dumb when they're asked because the answers are all connected and about as easy to explain as why being alive is a good thing. People will ask, Where do your ideas come from? Why do you write what you write? Why do you write about the kind of people you write about? Why did you choose to work in the noir genre? Why make your main character a woman? but what they'll really want to know—and will be too polite to ask—is, Don't you think Aud, her personality and attitude to violence, is a bit, you know, unrealistic and over the top? As far as I'm concerned, life's too short to sidestep around anything so I'll just cut to the chase, and begin with this matter of Aud.

Aud is my commitment to excellence made flesh and walking around; she uses whatever it takes to get the job done. She is the tension between the joy and discipline that is my art (or craft or life or bane, depending) filed to a point and stabbed into the tabletop. She is a public challenge—to me and from me—because there's no way to disguise the meaning of a naked blade quivering in the wood: the game is serious, the personal stakes high.

Before I wrote, I sang, and before that I played various sports, studied martial arts and other things, but no one ever asked me why I sang (or loved using my body) because the answer is self-evident: it feels good. Singing is a visceral act: vocal cords thrum in the throat and set up a resonating hum in the diaphragm, muscles squeeze and air flows from lungs to throat to mouth to atmosphere. Get it right and you can feel the vibration in your bones—a sort of internal massage. Lovely. When I studied martial arts it was the sheer physical thrill—adrenalin, sweat, speed, balance—that made me want to throw back my head and laugh. Writing is no different. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I fizz and itch with my eagerness to write. I get to that keyboard and zzzsst, it's like sliding down a greased ramp into white water. There's nothing but light and liquid and weightlessness. If something hurts I no longer feel it; my music playlist ends but I don't notice. I'm riding the turbulence, bringing to bear every mind muscle I possess, flexing, leaping, diving, cleaving the water like an Olympic swimmer. It's a rush, an absolute joy.

Joy can take a swimmer, or singer or writer or karateka, a long way but at some point, if you're serious, you have to accept the discipline of work—which is of a different order than mere effort. An Olympic swimmer doesn't win gold by just swimming a long way every morning. He spends a mind-numbing number of hours setting his toes just-so on the starting block, bending, diving, taking two strokes, pulling himself out of the pool and back onto the block, bending at a very slightly different angle, and diving again. And again. Over and over. And if the angle thing doesn't work, he'll swear, and shrug, and start messing with the toe placement, then the arm angle, and the hand shape, all in the quest to shave another two hundredths of a second from his time. This kind of work is unglamourous, frustrating, repetitive and occasionally heartbreaking. It requires a discipline and commitment that, until I accepted that I'm a novelist, I'd never needed...


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