Sebastian Barry, the current Laureate for Irish Fiction, has spearheaded an initiative where he hosts a series of conversations with fellow Irish writers in which they attempt to answer one simple question: ‘What is writing?’
He was at this year’s West Cork Literary Festival and I was honoured to be invited to Bantry House to take part in the project.
Having met him before, I know that Sebastian’s kindness and generosity of spirit matches his considerable genius, but I was quite anxious driving to Bantry that morning.
The question — ‘what is writing?’ —seemed altogether too cerebral for my feeble brain; I was sure that all of the other authors interviewed would be far more erudite and eloquent than I.
If Christopher Booker is correct and we’re all rehashing the same seven basic plots (overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy, and rebirth), telling and re-telling the same stories while desperately trying to come up with a fresh coat of paint to lacquer on top, then what on earth could I add to the discussion?
I will also admit that a part of me was reluctant to delve too deep into the idea of writing as a concept. The act of writing can feel almost mystical at times; when it’s going well, it’s akin to channelling from a divine source, the words are flowing through me rather than coming from me.
If I start to think too much about this, there’s a fear that I might block that flow of energy. In an attempt to intellectualise creativity (something that should be seen as play, or a form of magic, in my, admittedly rather pretentious view), I might render myself mute.
The blank page, that most dreaded of things, might remain blank.
But it’s an interesting question, all the same. Writing, like all forms of art, is the act of telling a story. But what is story?
In my column last week, I mentioned a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
I’m not a historian, nor an anthropologist so I won’t go into too much detail but Harari in which the author outlines a theory that I found incredibly striking. He believes approximately 70,000 years ago, the cognitive abilities of Sapiens were completely revolutionised.
They drove the Neanderthals to extinction, they managed to cross the ocean and settle in Australia, and the first examples of what we would recognise as art came from this era with the carvings of the Lion Man in the Stadel cave.
This Cognitive Revolution, Harari argues, wasn’t necessarily connected to language — more primitive iterations of humans had language; bees and whales have their methods of communicating, etc — but it was, instead, centred around the idea of fiction.
Sapiens were able to gossip, they told each other stories, creating new myths and legends to explain the world around them. In the 70,000 years since the Cognitive Revolution, stories have remained central to the way in which we create our identities, both as individuals and as nations.
Stories were part of the ancient Greek tradition and in ancient Egypt, as well as playing a central role in Chinese and Indian cultures and their mythologies.
Owen Flanagan, a consciousness researcher at Duke University, believes that “we are inveterate storytellers” and that narrative can aid psychological processes in memory and self-identity.
The reasons why we tell stories are complex and multi-faceted.
Often, it is as a form of entertainment. We have seen a noticeable shift over the last couple of years where people want their art with a side of escapism — there has been a trend for what the publishing industry has termed ‘up-lit’, or uplifting literature.
The world has seemed a frightening place — economic uncertainty, political unrest, a looming environmental crisis of catastrophic levels — and people have wanted stories that gave them respite from these horrors for a couple of hours.
Other stories have acted as parables, like a ‘how-to’ guide in ethical or moral behaviour; they have held a mirror up to the less savoury aspects of our society, showing us the truth of who we are, refusing to allow us to look away because we are uncomfortable with what we have seen. Other times, we look to story for comfort.
As a teenager, it was in the pages of Judy Blume’s Deenie and Summer Sisters that I learned that girls did masturbate, despite what my classmates in school said. It was through Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that I came to understand the ways in which a patriarchal society can hurt women. I had a library card and parents who gave me a generous book allowance, and because of that, I felt less alone.
When we tell and listen to stories, there are certain things that are asked of us. We must have empathy.
We must show compassion. We must try and understand the perspective of another person, understand their behaviour and their motivation, even if they are entirely different to our own.
In doing so, we forge a moment of connection. I believe there’s power in that because the crux of the human condition is that we want to feel connected to the people around us and so often, that feels incredibly difficult.
We struggle to make ourselves understood. Stories can make us feel seen in a way that is deeply healing.
READ: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. The author of this non-fiction book spent eight years interviewing three women about their sex lives, needs, and desires, and the result is extraordinary.
If you’re looking for your next Book Club choice, this should be it. A masterpiece.
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