I was watching Nick Cave’s wonderful biopic, 20,000 Days on Earth recently and two points he made about songwriting really stuck in my mind, not least because the principles he discusses can be applied to the art of fiction too. His first anecdote was this: “Writing a song is all about counterpoint. You put two disparate things in a room and see what happens: say, a small child and a Mongolian psychopath – see what happens. Then send in a clown on a bicycle. And if nothing happens – shoot the clown.” Here, in an excerpt from his song Nature Boy, Cave demonstrates this counterpoint perfectly, juxtaposing the mundane and the grotesque in the opening lines:
‘I was just a boy when I sat down to watch the news on TV
I saw some ordinary slaughter, I saw some routine atrocity
My father said, don’t look away, you got to be strong, you got to be bold now
He said that in the end, it is beauty that is going to save the world now.’
I am in awe of Cave’s lyrical genius and the sheer artistry of his work floors me; and I knew he’d offered us mere mortals a pearl of wisdom with this statement. It occurred to me how useful this principle of counterpoint can be, particularly if you’ve come to a hiatus in your work and need a kickstart. It can be useful in non-fiction too, even for your blog! Yesterday we had a barbecue on the beach and my job was to scavenge for wood. As usual, this particular beach was strewn with driftwood and it didn’t take me long to get enough to cook our lunch. There is such beauty in driftwood: the way the salty water and action of the tides bleaches and smoothes the wood revealing hidden patterns and fascinating forms. The counterpoint between this beach and the one featured in The Plastic Age documentary I’d watched the night before, couldn’t have been more pronounced. The film showed how one of the most inaccessible and isolated beaches in the world is littered with plastic debris – toothbrushes, bottles, lego, packaging – washed in from Japan, Asia and India by the current and deposited like the driftwood equivalent on the beach. I wouldn’t be able to take pleasure in our local beach if it were littered with the detritus of human existence, but to Nick Cave and others, I’m sure it would have a certain beauty; the accumulated waste telling myriad stories. And the clown on the bicycle? Here, it is the tide that destroys and makes anew twice a day, transforming the pebble ridge and the eponymous black pool from a shallow pond into a deep ravine.
The second anecdote from the great man was this: When writing, “enter into the moment; allow yourself to get taken away. Then you can be almost God-like. The novel emerges from the spirit world and is immortal.” That is an incredibly powerful truth, because writers do manipulate their characters and storyline, bending them to their will; playing God. It’s a heady experience yet still the characters are wont to do as they please, and this too is a revelation. When working on my novel some time ago, one of the characters went and got trapped under the ice on a frozen lake. I panicked: this wasn’t in the synopsis; this character can’t die. Where did that impetus come from? As Cave says – the spirit world: it crept up on me and unexpectedly changed the course of the novel.
What comes from one’s subconscious is surprising and revealing – if you can switch off your rational mind and allow yourself to get taken away; the subconscious links the writer to the spirit world or at least the place where these characters reside, and in bringing them to life, they are immortalised. That’s an incredibly creative and motivating dynamic to incorporate in your writing.