Writing Fiction

On Writing, The Sopranos, and Cricket.

Several things happened today.

Firstly, I was listening to the final minutes of Stephen King’s On Writing, as read by King on the audiobook. In those final minutes he is describing his road back from near death after being hit by a van, and how he – after much rehabilitation – came back to writing. And, more importantly, how he had to come back to it.

‘It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy…Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.’

And I’ve read this book many times, but today this hit me a lot more than it normally does.

The second thing that happened was that Otis Redding’s My Lover’s Prayer came on the radio on the way home from work – I’d finished my audiobook, remember? – and instantly I was back in Season 2 of The Sopranoswhen Christopher has been shot and all are waiting by his hospital bed, unsure if he’ll wake. This may seem trivial but it’s important to me for reasons I’ve tried to describe elsewhere before, but I’ll try again in a moment.

The third thing was that a cricketer died, and it was awfully tragic. I played cricket just about every day of my life for about thirteen years, stopping only when my body decided it was enough, and I felt I’d reached a level of incompatability with competitive sport. But this is sad, and many people are mourning. It’s quite hard to process.

I’m writing this because I had an urge to write something. Like I’d not had in a while. I’ve had to stop writing in recent months because of some fairly enormous life situations that have taken priority. And that’s how it goes. But all along I’ve been ticking my mind away, aware that at some point I have to get back to it. In a couple of weeks I’m planning on doing exactly that, because if I don’t I fear I never will.

But some part of me hesitates. Why do we do this? What is the point of it? How can one person justify something so self-serving as typing imagination away on a computer for hours on end while outside, and around, and everywhere else life is going on. On top of that, I’m entirely aware of the rarefied position I’d be putting myself in, something that is not afforded to many people. Who am I to justify prioritising my time and my pursuits ahead of others? Particularly others important to me?

(On a side note, this is one of the reasons why I have been quite happy to stop writing any kind of opinion or commentary pieces. I can’t quite live with myself being yet another middle class, white male voice in a cast of eternal thousands. There are plenty more who should be heard that justifies me keeping quiet.)

But look, don’t get me wrong. I’m trying to do this right.There is a place for writing in my life, as there is for art in everybody’s. As was so articulately said by Cate Blanchett at Gough Whitlam’s funeral: ‘Our other objectives are all a means to an end. The enjoyment of arts is an end in itself.’

I hold onto this. I have to. I think we all have to. What else do we have in life if we don’t add to it in some way? If we don’t finish and think well, that was grand but who’ll remember? Whether it’s writing, or photography, or painting, or acting, or just living your life in a way that its execution considers the manner and method of it to be of equal or greater importance than its monetary value.

And this brings me to The Sopranos. As I wrote around this time last year for Momentum, this is a special show for me. I saw it at an important time in my life, a time I think looking back now could clearly be defined as growing the fuck up.

I was reminded of this time recently in a conversation – in part prompted by this piece by Clementine Ford – where we were discussing the crap attitude men can have in the early 20s, until at a certain point they grow the fuck up and become proper humans. Hopefully. But what became apparent is that I couldn’t really find a parallel for women. I couldn’t look back on the early relationships I’d had in my early 20s and wish that the people I’d dated had been more mature, or more sensible, or whatever, not in the way that many women I know think back on the guys they dated in their early 20s.

And there’s something in this for men to ruminate on, and learn from, but that’s not my point. My point is that the people I responded to in a positive way at that age were people who I felt were conscious of themselves. Conscious of who they were in life and why they did what they did – good or bad – and were prepared to do something about it. And that’s what The Sopranos did for me.

(Yes I did some of this, if not a lot of it, all by myself, but much of that can be distilled in the period of time I was watching The Sopranos. I can vividly remember the amount of revelations, the moments of clarity that completely smacked me around the head while watching the show.)

To explain how this show did a number on me, I need to refer to something that I read much later, this particular post by Film Crit Hulk. In the post, he refers to the different levels we consume art on.

1. People who experience art with childlike naivety.

2. People who have seen a lot of stuff, and so become familiar with it, but still long for that immediate, naïve response.

3. People who transcend the first and second responses by being aware of art as a process, and can contextualise it to some form of derived meaning.

4. People who understand how art is made, and can therefore respond in a way that is informed not just of meaning to the art, but also to its mechanism as a functioning process.

To examine this further: there are those who watch The Sopranos for the mafia stuff, for the hits and the power struggles and the vicarious nature of being subjective to a violent antihero. But those people will end up disappointed with the show, and likely saw the ending as awful.

There are those that watched the show were aware of its impact on longform storytelling on television, and how it fits into the tradition of – particularly HBO-styled – viewship of TV drama. There are also those which took from the show an enormous amount of personal meaning, and I count myself among those. Where Tony was not a mobster, but a father, and a son, and a brother. And his family struggles had a point of identification and meaning and applicability that spoke volumes to my own understanding of my own life, particularly in terms of understanding my own family.

But that’s not all the show was. Because the one thing the show did, the one thing it has over almost any other story I’ve seen or read: it tried to make the audience conscious of themselves.

This is important, as I mentioned before, because it came at a time where I needed that. I needed to see who I was, what I was doing, where I was going wrong and where I could go right. As Tony says when he wakes – briefly – from a coma in Season 6: ‘Who am I? Where am I going?’

The show spent a great deal of its time playing into audience’s expectations that something would happen, something based in story, and then subverting that. Deaths would occur randomly, badly, and clumsily. People would act with the wrong motivations, not because of some predefined character arc. And ultimately if offered the final statement that people don’t really change, or if they do it’s only slight. There is no false revelation in life, and that in istelf is a revelation. It’s a catharsis.

(It’s little wonder that the shows I enjoyed most after watching The Sopranos – Lost, Hannibal, and recently The Leftovers, invite the audience to experience them on an emotional level, not on a narrative logic level. Go into those shows expecting narrative logic, and you’ll be disappointed. But go into them aware that they are speaking not to you solely for entertainment, but as stories that want to point an arrow at some emotional truth in your own life, and you’ll be infinitely rewarded. Truth is everything. And what is truth, except that there’s no easy answers? Witness how many people were upset in that realisation in Seasons 6 of both Lost and The Sopranos.)

But most importantly, The Sopranos did this by having Tony attend therapy. From the beginning, from the very first episode, the show said to its audience that this is a character who is trying to become conscious of themselves, trying to undestanding themselves. And it stuck to that format, all the way. And to watch this show is to become conscious of why we watch shows, why we consume narratives – particularly those that are violent and negative – and as a result come to understand something about ourselves. The show is literally therapy.

But yes, it’s just a show. It’s a story. It’s a thing made up by people who then play make believe. We don’t need it, in the same way we need food and water and shelter and other people.

But we do need stories. We do need art. We need them because what else have we got to show for ourselves? When I heard that Phil Hughes had died, I didn’t quite understand how to process this. Even now, staring at the headlines, it all seems beyond normal. This is sport, and that is death. The two don’t meet, shouldn’t meet. And I’m saying this as someone who has largely lost most of their interest in professional sport, given that people seem to forget it’s a game; it’s meant to be play. Fun. As soon as money is involved, we ruin everything.

And while the outpouring of national grief is logical, and warranted, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t do this with other deaths. How our Prime Minister can speak so directly and immediately on this death but say so little on another. Why do we see death as shocking in one context, yet justify it in another?

Part of me suspects it’s because of how the stories are controlled. The story of sport doesn’t bend this way. The story of an asylum seeker too often does. What we say and how we say it matters. The stories we allow some people and not others matter.

And so I had to write. I had to get home and write things. I had to hold my child and my wife and write some words, because it makes things better. Sometimes life is long, sometimes it is short. At all times it is unexpected, and unconforming to a grand design. We have to be conscious of ourselves and others, to understand our own stories and our places within them not just as passive recipients, but as completely aware creators. Life is creating, isn’t it? So let’s create something, whatever it may be.

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