In "Magic Carpets," an essay on writing fiction for children, Philip Pullman discusses "the various sorts of responsibility incumbent on an author: to himself and his family, to language, to his audience, to truth, and to his story itself." He has good things to say about about all of these aspects of storytelling, but I'm particularly intrigued by the last responsibility:
"It's one that every storyteller has to acknowledge, and it's a responsibility that trumps every other. It's a responsibility to the story itself. I first became conscious of this when I noticed that I'd developed the habit of hunching my shoulders to protect my work from prying eyes. There are various equivalents of the hunched shoulder and encircling arm: if we're working on the computer, for example, we tend to keep a lot of empty space at the foot of the piece, so that if anyone comes into the room we can immediately press that key that takes us to the end of the file, and show nothing but a blank screen. We're protecting it. There's something fragile there, something fugitive, which shows itself only to us, because it trusts us to maintain it in this half-resolved, half-unformed condition without exposing it to the harsh light of someone else's scrutiny, because a stranger's gaze would either make it flee altogether or fix it for good in a state that might not be what it wanted to become.
"So we have a protective responsibility: the role of a guardian, almost a parent. It feels as if the story -- before it's even taken the form of words, before it has any characters or incidents clearly revealed, when it's just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing -- as if it's just come to us and knocked at our door, or just been left on our doorstep. If course we have to look after it. What else can we do?"
I was struck by this because it precisely describes the writing process for me. I can't bear to talk too much about what I am writing while the story is forming, or to have others read the manuscript until a late stage in the drafting process. In this, I am unusual among many of my writing colleagues and friends, who companionably share manuscripts back and forth, who form writing groups for support and critique, and who love nothing better then to chew over troublesome plot points, characters, and details of craft together.
"What kind of special snowflake am I," I have wondered, "that the very idea of such kind, collegial attention makes me shudder to my bones?" Reading Pullman, I am reassured I am not alone in my solitary habits. It's not me, as a writer, who is timid and fragile, but the stories themselves: the ones who knock at my door are shy little things, and must be coaxed onto the page gently, gently.
"What I seem to be saying here, rather against my will, is that stories come from somewhere else. It's hard to rationalise this, because I don't believe in a somewhere else; there ain't no elsewhere, is what I believe. Here is all there is. It certainly feels as if the story comes to me, but perhaps it comes from me, from my unconscious mind -- I just don't know; and it wouldn't make any difference to the responsibility either way. I still have to look after it. I still have to protect it from interference while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.
"Yes, it wants. It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn't very articulate yet. It will go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won't know why; I just have to shrug and say, "OK -- you're the boss.' And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride.
"And as servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier -- by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out. I have to keep myself sober during working hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many other engagements: no man can serve two masters. I have to keep the story's counsel: there are secrets between us, and it would be the grossest breach of confidence to give them away....And I have to prepared for a certain wilfulness and eccentricity in my employer -- all the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who's blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I have too much regard for the classic stories to go against a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story.
" 'No, master! Those are windmills, not giants!'
" 'Windmills? Nonsense -- they're giants, I tell you! But don't worry -- I'll deal with them.'
" 'As you say, master -- giants they are, by all means.'
"No matter how foolish it seems, the story knows best."
Then Pullman makes an important point:
"And finally, as the faithful servant, I have to know when to let the story out of my hands; but I have to be very careful about the other hands I put it into. My stories have always been lucky in their editors -- or perhaps, since I'm claiming responsibility here, they've been lucky they had me to guide them to the right ones. I suppose one's last and most responsible act as the servant of the story is to know when one can do no more, and when it's time to admit someone else's eyes might see it more clearly. To become so grand that you refuse to let your work be edited -- and we can all think of a few writers who got to that point -- is to be a bad servant and not a good one."
Passing our stories on to an editor is part of the job of being a writer -- but for me, this is at a late stage in the process, once my shivering little waif of a tale has been warmed and fed; once I've cleaned the mud and muck from its face, combed the leaves and moss from its hair, buttoned its jacket and tied its shoes. Only then is it ready to face the wide world outside my studio door.
Pullman concludes his list of authorial responsibilities by adding:
"...I don't want anyone to think that that responsibility is all there is to it. It would be a burdensome life, if the only relationship we had with our work was one of duty and care. The fact is that I love my work. The is no joy comparable to the thrill that accompanies a new idea, one that we know is full of promise and possibility -- unless it's the joy that comes when, after a long period of reflection and bafflement, of frustration and difficulty, we suddenly see the way through to the solution; or the delight when one of our characters says something far too witty for us to have thought of ourselves; or the slow, steady pleasure that comes from the regular accumulation of pages written; or the honest satisfaction that rewards work well done -- a turn in the story deftly handled, a passage of dialogue that reveals character as well as advancing the story, a pattern of imagery that unobtrusively echoes and clarifies the theme of the whole book.
"These joys are profound and long-lasting. And there is joy too in responsibility itself -- in the knowledge that what we're doing on earth, while we live, is being done to the best of our ability, and in the light of everything we know about what is good and true. Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the 'sound and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.' To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have, and I ask nothing more than the chance to go on being responsible for it till the end of my days."
Words: The passages above are from "Magic Carpets: A Writer's Responsibilies" by Philip Pullman, presented as a talk at The Society of Authors' Childens's Writers & Illustrators Conference (2002), and reprinted in Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling (David Fickling Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: The drawings and paintings of shy and whimsical creatures of the green Devon hills are mine. All rights reserved.