Making Monsters

Posted by Naomi Richards on July 02, 2015 in Blog tagged with , , ,

Making Monsters

By Naomi Richards


Margaret Atwood wrote that ‘making poison is as much fun as making a cake.’ Traditional ideas about the sources of creativity – obsession, struggle, creative wounds and all sorts of neuroses often revolve around the idea of there being Dark Materials that we are instinctively drawn to re-create. Neil Gaiman says as much in his Introduction to his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors that writing is about ‘releasing demons.’ He admits to finding stories lurking at the back of his head. For Gaiman these monsters are ideas and images he pins down on paper. On the other hand do realistic writers create monsters as Joanne Harris suggests out of ‘illness, unemployment, failure, crime,’ these things that tap into things that we also feel uncomfortable about? (The Guardian, March 26th 2005)

The idea of Dark Materials only being rooted in our heads needs to be questioned. Although it is true that some writers often work through the same ideas again and again as if possessed, it is equally true that writers transform and transcend their obsessions. Not all art is dark. However, this idea is rarely echoed in the popular press, which tends to focus on the supposed link between madness and creativity.

Freud believed that the artist had ‘turned away from reality’ and was ‘not far removed from neurosis’ (from his lecture The Paths to the Formation of Symptoms). According to Freud not only do artists substitute sensual pleasure for writing, they are full of angst and lack fulfillment which produces fantasy, as basically he thinks only unhappy people fantasize. (Creative Writer’s and Day-Dreaming.) At least Freud grants the artist some ‘mysterious power’ to make his or her obsessions of interest to someone else.

Dark day dreaming can produce art, but as David Lynch pointed out although anger, anxiety and depression in art are ‘beautiful things’ in real life they are ‘poisonous to creativity.’ Art can grow from any strong emotion. It can take any form, it is an emotion that moves us and compels us to create. As a writer you are always living in the mystery of things.

If writers are using Dark Materials they are surely called up in a state of tranquility. There is a silent study room in the university where I work which has a time to read clock with a soundless tic and it reminds me each day that creativity grows from emptiness. Soft stirrings. Creative energy seems to be similar to a shape moving under the leaves, it is something you can’t quite see, experience or know, but you sense it struggling to find form. As Ian McEwan said in an interview: You have to write it to find out what it is. 

Writers often talk about uncertainty as being the driving force for art, such as Keats idea of negative capability. I am also reminded of David Jauss’ fascinating book about writing, Alone with All that Could Happen, whose title encapsulates this idea. Artists are looking as much outward as inward for sources of their creativity, as Rilke put it: ‘Everything that is truly seen must become a poem.’ This is the struggle with the outward/inward eye.

What an artist experiences is filtered through their own awareness, but then factors such as a writer’s technical control take over as the material is changed, whether through the use of a certain POV or to fit the demands of genre. The Gothic is dark. It sometimes reminds me of a high speed ride at a fun fair, it is controlled fear. There is a longing for horror ( an instinctive reaction) in the human psyche maybe because the world is full of misery and not to express it in some way is to deny the experience of being human. In the Gothic this netherworld is as controlled as any other fictional world. It gives pleasure. It may locate the horrors in side of us, as in Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black or externally as in corpses being exhumed in Andrew Miller’s Pure, but in each case the writer makes it enjoyable to remain in such a fictive space, through language, surprise and skilful characterization.

Dark Materials are made to delight. Marina Warner thinks that ‘magnifying horrors, diminishes terror (by) substituting pleasure’. (No Go the Bogeyman) Perhaps Dark Materials even have a life of their own as they fragment within the mind of a writer, so that elements of the Gothic or part of a fairy tale pop up in a story.

It seems that’s how these monsters are made by looking internally and externally, then playing with form and also understanding what the reader wants – Universals. Artists can cross all sorts of boundaries in doing that like Gaiman, and can add splashes of humour and realistic touches into the horror, but the end goal is always the same to produce a beautiful monster –  a work of art. Perhaps the attraction of working with Dark Materials is the sense of danger. As Nietzsche put it, ‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.’




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