narrators and writers

Re-reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, I was taken by the comments about objectivity in writing in this conversation between Lord Peter Wimsey and 15-year-old Miss Hilary Thorpe.

It’s just after Easter. Hilary’s mother died at New Year and now an unidentified corpse has been found in the grave which was being prepared for her father who has just died.

“[…] You and Dad would have got on splendidly. Oh, by the way – you know where Dad and Mother are buried, don’t you? I expect that was the first place you looked at.”
“Well, It was; but I’d rather like to look at it again. You see, I’m wondering just exactly how the- the–”
“How they got the body there? Yes, I thought you’d be wondering that. I’ve been wondering, too. Uncle doesn’t think it’s nice of me to wonder anything of the sort. But it really makes things easier to do a little wondering, I mean, if you’re once interested in a thing it makes it seem less real. That’s not the right word, though.”
“Less personal?”
“Yes; that’s what I mean. You begin to imagine how it all happened, and gradually it gets to feel more like something you’ve made up.”
“H’m!” said Wimsey. “If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day.”
“Do you think so? How funny! That’s what I want to be. But why?”
“Because you have the creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself. You’re lucky.”
“Do you really think so?” Hilary looked excited.
“Yes – but your luck will come more at the end of life than at the beginning, because the other sort of people won’t understand the way your mind works. They will start by thinking you dreamy and romantic, and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times – but they won’t ever know it, and you won’t know it at first, and it’ll worry you.”
“But that’s just what the girls say at school. How did you know? … Though they’re all idiots – mostly, that is.”
“Most people are,” said Wimsey, gravely, “but it isn’t kind to tell them so. I expect you do tell them so. Have a heart; they can’t help it. […]”

I think that this de-personalisation of reality, the stepping outside of your own experience and viewing it objectively as something that you have created, is exactly what I am getting at when I talk about not confusing the narrator with the writer.

Only this past week a fellow-poet spoke of how I “get poetry ideas from the real world.” I’d argue, though, that as soon as they are put into my poetry or other writing, these ideas “exist independently”, as Sayers expresses it through Lord Peter, and are fair game for any editing, manipulation or other changes required to serve artistic purposes.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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