Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 23.
So you’ve been translating the work of a great – or perhaps largely undiscovered – author, and, like all translators, your relationship to them and feelings about them and their output may be… complicated. I imagine they’re not quite like you, and that must feel… interesting. But it’s an odd feeling, translating, you know, stepping out the way so their voice can come through.
Today I’m going to ask you to do one final piece of writing in relation to this author’s work. Now depending on how you wrote the biography, how much they wrote, what possibilities you did or didn’t exclude this may require some lateral thinking on your part, but what I’d like you to translate an extract from now, is the final piece of work they wrote before they died.
Maybe they knew they were going to die. Maybe they had no idea. Maybe the work came years before their demise. Maybe it came hours. I don’t know. Was it in their usual style? Did it speak to their earlier themes in some way? What does their last creation sound like? They’ve got the floor. What did they say?
You can start in the middle, at the very end, drop into a climactic scene, or write the opening. If it’s a poem or a piece of microfiction you might well get the whole thing. Maybe they wrote an essay or a piece of nonfiction. Again, I don’t know. You’re the authority. I trust you.
Take your time. I’m going to give you ten minutes. Try to capture the essence of their voice in your translation. Their rhythms, word choices. I know you can.
Right. Ten minutes. Something translated from the last thing your author wrote.
Are you ready? Go.
And there we have it. I wonder how that came out for you. And how was it to write?
Sometimes when people do this exercise they go for quite wacky biographies or create quite out there eccentric authors who wrote frankly impossible novels. You know, they lived in a hut on the Shetlands and they created one three million word book about stilton where every second sentence is an anagram of the previous one. And then we get to the translation part and they’ve got a really hard challenge on their hands.
And that’s ok, that doesn’t mean they’ve gone wrong. Humour and quirkiness are never, ever things I want to stamp on or place in some lower order of creation. Wit brings humans joy. I think that’s an incontestable argument for its value.
But most often, when I run this exercise, I notice an odd thing. Writers very often end up creating an author to translate who isn’t very much like them. And the work that the author produces is often starkly different in tone to what that person has been producing in all the workshops we’ve done before. So someone writing very cynical political satire will suddenly find themselves channelling a nature poet. Young men come out with scenes of sentimental romance. Introverts write gobby monologues from misanthropic anti-establishment firebrands.
I don’t think that’s an accident. There’s something about adopting a persona, an alter ego, that is – and I know this word is frowned upon in serious creative writing pedagogy, because we’re capital A artists – but adopting this alter ego can be liberating. Profoundly so. We get someone we can blame.
Again, this is a sneaky way of inducing the dissociative state I’ve been sort of going out to bat for over the past week. And I must be absolutely clear at this point – it’s by no means the only game in town. You can create characters through conscious, rational decisions, you can plan stuff out, I don’t mean to suggest that the One True Way of writing a book is to sway and pass into a trance. It’s not.
But, as human beings, we have subtle and not so subtle inhibitory mechanisms governing most of our behaviours, conscious and automatic. Because historically, we evolved as a social species. We relied – and still do rely – on each other for food, shelter, clean water, protection from other humans. Ostracization meant almost certain death.
So damn right there’s a part of your brain – or rather multiple parts of your brain working in concert – once you reach adulthood, filtering all your behaviours to check ‘is this culturally appropriate?’, ‘is this going to make people think I’m weird or bad or not good to hang around with?’, ‘is this going to lower my status?’ You know we haven’t even got into concepts of status yet, because of course the real kink in this pretzel is you are a human, writing about humans, for humans. The very neuroses that inhibit your writing are vulnerabilities shared in different forms by your characters and your readers. You need your vulnerabilities, because they’re what’s going to connect with the people who read your books.
What we have to do sometimes, as writers, is find ways of slipping stuff past the guards. Not because self-awareness and social intelligence are intrinsically bad – trying to talk yourself into not caring what anyone thinks is a non-starter, we have deep-rooted fears about that and you can’t just reason your way out of them – but because they’re not always useful, and sometimes they stop our doing stuff where the risks to our wellbeing, our status, or social standing are somewhere between tiny and nil.
The terrible morning where you wake up to find all your worst first drafts pinned to the parish noticeboard with the entire village gathered round, howling with gales of mocking laughter will never come. Real talk: no one gives a shit that sometimes your writing isn’t everything you’d like it to be. No one’s watching.
Exercises like this help us to get in touch with aspects of ourselves we might otherwise squash down out of embarrassment. And those voices can be a wellspring of cool stuff. In fact, that gives me an idea. I’ve just remembered something that’s really fun and low risk and might help draw some more of those voices up out of the well.
Want to try it? Come back tomorrow and I’ll clue you in.