Friday, June 13, 2008

Writing bodies

One of the odd problems I've had with the B. F. Book is writing about bodies without impairments. The problem arises in unexpected places. For example, I have no problem writing about people running about, dancing or fighting. But I really struggle if two characters have a conversation standing up.

Of course, I don't need to describe what it is to stand up, what it looks like or what it feels like, but it makes me uncomfortable just writing scenes where this is going on; I'm inside the characters, you see, it doesn't matter what details of a scenario I actually need write about.

In real life, people have standing conversations all the time. I do that sometimes, like when I go to the door, someone's trying to sell me something and I'm too polite to interrupt. But my standing conversations are a bit like when Lara Croft is swimming underwater; as she steadily runs out of oxygen, so do my legs, and I can almost see the side bar filling with red (it's a very long time since I played Tombraider, so my memory may be wrong about what that gauge looked like). If I'm stood up when you're talking to me, I'm probably not listening.

And queuing. I find it distressing to even think about people standing in line and waiting for an indefinite period. Standing is generally a bad idea – when The Weakest Link first came on the telly I thought it a horrible quiz simply because everyone had to stand up – what a relief it must be if you were voted out.! Human beings evolved to walk on their hind legs, but I reckon we're simply not built for standing still. Personally, I wasn't even particularly good at standing still before I was ill; I could walk or swim, even run for miles (well, jog), but in the St. John's Ambulance Cadets we once had to stand to attention for about an hour for inspection and after about twenty-five minutes, I fainted (could have fainted in worse places; further injuries were sustained in the crush to put me into the recovery position).

As I've said, drawing attention to pain makes pain worse and on bad days, thus thinking about characters standing up for a long time makes things worse. But otherwise, I find that I make characters sit down sooner and for much longer than they really would. This isn't a big deal, but it has surprised me; I thought I was immune to this particular problem.

Authors don't do too badly writing about bodies that are different from their own, so long as they don't feel too different. The most recent example I came across was in a thriller where the hero had arthritis in his spine. From the acknowledgments, it became clear that the author's best friend had this condition (and was himself praised a hero of suffering so bravely) and the author had done a fair amount of research.

So, for example, there were worthy attempts at writing scenes of sexual tension whilst the hero has frozen vegetables stuffed down his trousers (inexplicably, this was the only relief the hero could obtain; nobody had suggested a cooling pack or gel; every night it was the frozen vegetables). And whilst I've known people with arthritis whose conditions vary significantly, well I've never know anyone who was curled up in pain one minute, then carrying a grown woman about in his arms, then writhing on the floor in agony, then having athletic sex with aforementioned damsel – the sort of sex which would be bad news for anyone's spine.

All this was happening from moment to moment and he spent a great deal of time in between moaning about how very miserable his life was – a mindless cycle of casual sex and frozen peas – with lots of statistics about arthritis that happened to come to the hero's mind:
The murdered man was said to have been worth twenty-one million dollars. Smith noticed that this number of dollars happened to coincide with the number of Americans living with osteoarthritis.
(I exaggerate somewhat but it was quite bad).

It was an American novel, and of course this chap had missed out on a great sporting career when he started getting twinges in his back. There are lots of American heros in books and films who tragically missed out on a great sporting career; I guess it must be character-forming.


Jess said...

I think they actually passed it into law during the Reagan years: if you do not attain, or at least aspire to, a Great Sporting Career within twenty years of your high schoool graduation, they fine you $500 dollars and make you take badminton lessons for a year. After that you're free to be as unsporting as you please, but you're not allowed outside after 9:00 pm (unless you're attending a sporting event). It's a small price to pay, really. ;)

But seriously. I don't think it's necessarily a good idea to go as far as the writer you've quoted-- that's going a little over the edge of self-conscious (or best-friend-conscious) writing. But I think your awareness of pain can still inform the way you write those scenes; it's not a bad idea to make use of it. If it seems that characters are standing, or sitting, for far too long in a scene, and your instinct tells you that one of them ought to be getting tired, or at least feeling something, it's fine to inject some of that pain-sense into your narration. In the same way, sometimes planting the idea of physical pain at the right moment can relate in a significant way to a character's emotional state, or to some change within that character. As long as it's true to the character or the situation in some way, I don't think you have to shy away from it. The very worst that can happen if you try it is that it won't quite work, and you'll have to take it out. :) But something tells me that it's a good idea to trust your instinct in this case.

Anonymous said...

I too feel uncomfortable about people standing -- I always think that about The Weakest Link. In my case it's because I'm a bit agoraphobic and can't stand around for long, especially not in a formal group. I size up shop queues and only join them if I think my turn will come reasonably quickly.

I don't like TV shows with uncomfortable-looking bar stools and no back rest... sofas are a much better idea. I also feel sorry for news readers who have to stand... I think they get a little shaky, and it seems so unnecessary.

About writing hang-ups... just delivering a smooth, spoken dialogue between characters is something that makes me feel a humbug. Here I am, writing about people living a 'normal' life, as though I do all the things others do: calling across the road; phoning people up; not saying "what?" every 30 seconds. Shouldn't I, at least, be writing something from a different perspective? But then it would become a different kind of book.

It's a dilemma.

Anonymous said...

You made me look a right weirdo on the train - I burst out laughing when I got to the bit about 21 million Americans with osteoarthritis :)

I agree with you that human beings aren't meant to stand; I don't think I've ever known a Palm Sunday when someone hasn't passed out whilst standing for the excessively long gospel, and it's not always the frail ones.

I have a blind friend who always gets very dizzy while standing still. One summer she was visiting religious relatives in Russia, and was made to stand through a 2 hour Orthodox service. Within 30 minutes she had passed out. Her aunt concluded this was not a result of the hot central European summer, nor the strong incense being burned, but rather the fact that as an atheist she was possessed by a demon which was reacting badly to being in such a holy place!!!

Diane J Standiford said...

I feel weird. I loved to stand. job as security guard--tood a with MS, can't stand more than a minute. You raise some interestin points about writing/creating able bodied people...

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone,

Jess, I guess there must be a similar grant system for young men who have heroic but dead fathers whose memory they struggle to live up to. There are lots of books about them too and almost every movie that Tom Cruise starred in for the first twenty years of his career...

You may be right about my instincts. When I pay too much attention, I do find myself constantly balancing between the idea that everyone is like me and the idea that people who don't have chronic pain or fatigue are superhuman, can stay awake for days on end and have no limits on physical fitness. You have given me some food for though here.

Diddums - It is somewhat tricky to work out where one's imaginative limitations lie - I guess there must be limitations somewhere. I suppose I imagine that when you write about dialogue, you do have lots of information about the sort of conversations you don't have, because you're reading "smooth" dialogue all the time in books and on subtitles. But I'm not sure whether there is any obligation to write from a completely different perspective. I think it was Stephen King who said that this "write what you know" is very true but can be stretched - if you're a plumber, for example, then that's a good job to write about, but it doesn't mean you couldn't write about being a plumber on a spaceship two thousand years in the future...

Clare - I'm afraid I grew up with the impression that fainting was essential to Catholicism - not just all the standing (much more than in C of E - and more kneeling, an altogether more strenuous religion), but the fasting; every year my friend would fast all day on Ash Wednesday and every year (usually during double biology class) she'd pass out. That particular friend was particularly pious however and is now a nun.

I love the story of your friend in the Russian Orthodox church. :-)

Diane - thank you. :-)

Diane J Standiford said...

There is an award for you at my blog on Monday.

irasocol said...

Standing is the most difficult thing for me. I think my standing conversations always make me appear "weird" to the other conversant. I am at my most 'fidgety,' and I'm sure my body language suggests that I long to run away.

But this suggests a bigger literary issue - what do we really know about people not like us? And how do we write that? I am not a believer in requiring "authenticity." I do not think, for example, that it was in any way wrong for Mark Haddon to write a book from as ASD perspective or Peter Hoeg to write a female narrator (among many examples), but it does stretch our empathy capabilities. It makes us work. From the point of view of those of us "with disabilities" it also seems unfair. We're working to understand those who claim "normality" yet those who claim "normality" are rarely working very hard to understand us.

The Goldfish said...

Narrator - I agree with you about authenticity, at least I think fiction would be a pretty hopeless pursuit if we couldn't imagine lives other than our own, including with different gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion, age and everything else.

I think the trouble with disability and non-disabled writers is that they are too often informed by cultural ideas as opposed to imaginative empathy...

Anonymous said...

I realised while watching people at glastonbury fest on tv that i had really forgotten what it felt like to be able to stand for any length of time, without really thinking about it. It is really hard to remember what it felt like not to have a condition even if you have not always had it. Doctors ask what perentage of energy/health do i have compared to "before"... how would i know?That was ten years ago!

I can see that it must be really hard to write non-disabled characters, but also i think that only as small percentage of them really feel that great all the time. I have so many friends who are supposedly healthy who are continuously knackered for one reason or another so maybe it makes the characters more complex/real not to be "superhuman"!