The lock-down, the weather, the lack of opportunity to meet with friends’ and uncertainty about future finances have all had a dampening effect on my creativity. I claim to exist in a bit of a vacuum, happy with my own company and with such an overblown and vivid imagination that I never run out of ideas for stories.
In comparison with many of my friends, that is true. I guess, I’m finding out now that we all have our limits of being alone and going nowhere. For the last few weeks, the Internet and random TV shows I would never normally watch, have distracted me.
It was when I was randomly surfing the net that I came upon a brief article about Charles Dickens and his relationship with Great Ormond Street Hospital. He was one of its first and greatest benefactors, but that is another story.
We learnt about Charles Dickens at school; I expect most of you did too. We read parts of his novels and the teacher gave us a rather bare biography. It was enough to put most of my friends off completely.
I wish we had learnt about his social politics, or even his affairs, or that someone had set his stories in context.
For those of us not put off, it was probably either subsequent films (who can forget Oliver Twist asking for more?) or some of his more eloquent quotes.
For me it was the unforgettable nature of his first lines
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Tale of two cities.
Marley was dead, to begin with. The Christmas Carol.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. David Copperfield.
I realised as I was flicking through various biographies, that as a for me as a writer there was a lot in Dickens’ life to inspire me.
Not least that my grammar corrector dislikes his writing intensely.
He lacked much in the way of formal education, largely because when Dickens was a teenager they sent his father to debtor’s prison and Charles had to leave school to work in a factory. Even then, though, he was aware of the social injustice of the time. He knew they would free his father if the family could pay off his debts. For many of his contemporaries, there was no escaping their poverty.
All of his work was about social injustice, either as essays, journalistic pieces or novels. He studied writing and other writers not to perfect his writing as an art form, but in order to get his political point across.
Two of the things he learnt from Shakespeare’s plays were of particular relevance for this. Comic caricature and the use of emotion and sentimentality, from that point on only the primary characters in his stories were rounded or realistic. The others were there to make a point. He learnt to use words to manipulate his reader. Many writers achieve this occasionally, very few can do it at will. Dickens studied this art and then exploited it. There was no effortless artistry about his writing, everything in there was deliberate.
He split the opinion of the literary world on this point, his work was too comic, too sentimental, and he borrowed ideas and concepts and used them and worse he was popular. Art for the sake of art, and effortless talent without study or marketing, was preferable.
In much the same way, years later, Harold Abrahams would split the opinion of the Athletic world when he used a professional trainer, removing the fairy tale for good that you only need talent and breeding. Those two things help, but hard work makes you stand out from the rest.
That he almost became an actor, auditioning for parts in well know plays, might explain some of this. Much of his popularity and indeed his wealth came from his public and dramatic reading of his stories, not the stories themselves.
His books were almost all published in episode form, and he studied the art of the cliffhanger because of that, knowing that he wanted his stories to sell. The result of this is that whatever the opinion of literary critics, he was extremely popular with the public.
Much less in his favour was his tendency to be verbose. But then he was paid by the word, why use one word when you can easily use three.
I have to wonder also how someone with ten children, who’s marriage ended because of his many affairs, had time and energy to write at all. Perhaps that’s what sparked his creativity.
Sadly, this is not something that I can test for myself. But may some of you younger writers might take note.
In the meantime, I am going away to work on creating amazing first lines and to learn the art of emotional manipulation.