I developed a theory when I was younger about dreams. I began to wonder if, rather than mental events which occurred while we slept, dreams were actually a phenomenon which happens to us all the time — but at nighttime, free from distractions, the mind sees the images and narratives which have been going on all the time through the day, projected clearly against its own screen. It would be as though we had a film playing all the time but its colours and sounds were completely drowned out by the day’s actions, the bright lights, the demands around us, the distractions and engagements. As we lie down in bed and close our eyes, the ‘lights go off’ and we see what has been there all along, ‘in the back of our minds’.
It’s possible to get some kind of subjective reality on this by closing one’s eyes at any time and observing for oneself what is ‘going on’ in one’s mind. There you’ll probably find random images, snippets of stories, incidents playing themselves out. Often these things are completely unrelated to anything that is happening in the outer world, and are as short-lived as mayflies, carrying no consequence or undertone whatsoever; sometimes, we catch glimpses of things which carry a little more weight or feature recognisable faces. ‘Day-dreaming’ is aptly named: the process of the mind wandering away from tangible and shared events to participate momentarily in the subjective reality within.
This gives us a flavour of what I mean when I say that we create our own fictions constantly. I don’t mean just that we daydream or dream all the time: I mean that, on another level still, some kind of creation is occurring constantly in a perpetual effort to ‘make sense’ of what is happening around us. Partly as a result of our own inherent personalities, and partly stemming from the way in which Life has treated us, we learn as young children to put together a kind of ‘life narrative’.
This narrative can be described in broad terms and then more and more in detail. We are accustomed to dividing the world, for example, into ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’, those who see outcomes brightly or darkly. In terms of life narratives, these categories could be re-described as ‘those with expectations of happy endings’ and ‘those who expect things to end badly’. Within that simplistic division we then find shadings: some people believe that things will turn out badly for themselves, but that the world itself will move on more or less constructively; others think that the ‘badness’ is part of the fabric of the universe and that their portion is merely an extension of that. On the brighter side, some think that they are particularly blessed, while others think that they are participating in a world which itself is generally positive.
Four positions then, which put very simplistically boil down to: ‘I’m happy in a happy world’; ‘I’m happy in a neutral world’; ‘I’m sad in a neutral world’; and ‘I’m sad in a sad world’.
What does this have to do with writers?
Well, I have read and edited millions of words over the years, and I’ve observed a tendency in pieces of fiction that I have studied: authors tend to write stories which reflect one of these four positions. There does seem to be a correlation — as far as I am able to tell — between an individual author’s fiction and his or her ‘predisposition’ to one of the above positions.
It’s not always the case, of course: writers who are generally pessimistic can write gloriously uplifting stuff sometimes. Similarly, insightful and cheerful writers can occasionally produce work which is very dark. But as a set of phenomena, the whole thing is quite interesting and revealing.
Astute readers may have spotted a further correlation between these four positions and the four basic genres of fiction as described in How Stories Really Work:
‘I’m happy in a happy world’ = Epic
‘I’m happy in a neutral world’ = Comedy
‘I’m sad in a neutral world’ = Tragedy
‘I’m sad in a sad world’ = Irony
Epic, by definition, produces endings in which the positive is always triumphant; Comedy has endings in which particular individuals are restored or welcomed into a broader stability; Tragedy has single characters perish while societies and worlds survive; whereas in Irony, everything falls apart.
Some writers can shift pretty easily between these four genres, but for the most part a single writer’s outlook is determined by whatever ‘life narrative’ they have adopted. That adoption takes place usually over a long period of time and on a barely conscious level, but most people, by the time they reach adulthood, have settled into one of the four positions outlined above, and if they are writers, the shape of their fiction has thus been largely predetermined.
You may be reading this and protesting — or you may be thinking ‘That’s right!’ and spotting which position has affected your writing the most.
There’s more to come.