David Mitchell on the Art of Listening
The first thing that strikes you about David Mitchell is that he is so darn nice. Notwithstanding a three-tiered auditorium packed to the rafters with eager fans and their never ending questions on Mitchell’s formidable writing, and the subsequent book-signing queue that snakes around the corner and up the stairs, the man continues to smile, be nice, look interested in what readers have to say, and above all, does so in a most excellent “please and thank you” manner.
The second thing that strikes you about David Mitchell is that he is bloody funny – a self-deprecating kind of funny, that is unexpected from a writer who has published six very successful novels (one of which, Cloud Atlas, was made into a movie by the same Wachowski brothers responsible for The Matrix), and who has been called “a wizard of language”, and “possibly possessed of genius” – with all those accolades one would expect a certain smugness, or confident swagger, but not for this author, who confesses that he never reads any of his reviews, and cringes awkwardly in his seat when he is told that his literary idol Ursula Le Guin called his latest novel The Bone Clocks “a whopper of a story”.
Openly calling himself a “language nerd” Mitchell is much less interested in listening to his own accolades, as he is in listening to people – really listening to people, noting the cadences and idiosyncrasies of language, listening for the sentence that will become “a printed musical phrase that the eyeball can hear”. During a much coveted writing workshop (which sold out within hours of being put on the website as part of the Auckland Writers festival) Mitchell reiterates that to be a writer you firstly have to be a listener. A listener that can appreciate the compelling nature of language, and a listener who can hear the gaps, where people “don’t say things” – the important silences or omissions.
“Everything is potentially a story, often what you can see and hear is just the tip of the iceberg”, Mitchell states, presumably feeling like a kid in a candy shop as he listens to daily life around him to discover “the connections between things that are not obviously connected”. Always humble and encouraging, Mitchell makes a great teacher, despite (or maybe because) of the fact that he never participated in any writing courses himself, he manages to deliver small gems of insight into the writing process – with the frequent disclaimer to the room filled with would-be-writers that this is “not gospel” but simply the way it works for him.
The idea of using a Herringbone shard as a structural frame for plot development is possibly not that new or exciting, but it is when Mitchell brings it to life. He uses the scenario of himself teaching the writing class as starting point to explain how plot is both linear as well as three-dimensional, as he adds tentacles of unexpected scenarios snaking outwards, and talks about the “palimpsest principal”, where “each scene does not instantly fade once it is over – every scene leaves and after-image on the retina.”
Mitchell talks about the “four ingredients to the cake” in fiction writing: plot, characterisation, style/structure, ideas/themes, and the aptly named place for miscellaneous stuff, the “cupboard under the stairs”. He also talks about the fact that writing is just simply, unavoidably and inevitably a lot of hard work. “You should struggle,” he emphasises, “you need to bleed for the blues.” And when after six months of writing you find yourself not actually writing the novel you had meant to write, and you start all over again, then that too is a good – and normal – thing.
An advocate of the concept that writers must have a kind of “multiple personality disorder”, Mitchell’s polyvocal narratives bear witness to the fact that if you just listen to the various different voices in your head long enough, and the “selves that one is made up of are given time and space and respect”, then eventually “the chained poet inside your mind will deliver a moment – or maybe two – of transcendent beauty that will make it into your writing in the most surprising way.”
No stranger to playing with metaphors himself, Mitchell talks of the use of metaphor in fiction as a vital, yet heavily vetted ingredient, which is again about making connections. It is the writer’s job to ensure only the best metaphors make it into the text, and to “keep open your perception so that the blue bird of metaphor comes flying in.”
Mitchell uses the image of the “cupboard under the stairs” as his own metaphoric storehouse of the place that contains a writer’s innermost fears, such as the shock-horror of writer’s block, or the scenario where you find yourself stuck in a labyrinth of brain-fog. The cause of writer’s block, according to Mitchell, is that a: You are not that fired up about what you are writing; b. you are insisting on keeping an idea that doesn’t belong; or c. you don’t know your characters well enough. Mitchell – who uses an extensive process of getting to know his characters by constructing letters from characters to himself as the plot thickens – is a big advocate of letting go of the things that don’t work, those very same pieces of writing you might think of as intrinsically important, but which are probably just stifling the narrative.
“If you get stuck in a scene bypass it, reserve the right to make mistakes, and don’t write the same book over and over,” he advises. Gaining new insight or perspective can be achieved by something that Mitchell has coined “omniverousity”, which is to read the kind of books you wouldn’t normally read, in order to get out of that comfort zone. When asked about how to avoid the stresses and demands of daily life interfering with your ability to write, Mitchell offers pragmatic and liberating advice: “Do not view those experiences as obstacles to your work, but as a source of inspiration.”
And if inspiration is what Mitchell’s workshop participants came for then few would have left disappointed, as Mitchell spends two hours weaving a very Mitchell-esque story about the process of writing – a story that hints at the possible genius of this writer, but also a story that has the hallmarks of reassurance and inclusivity. To be a writer you have to listen to what goes on around you, and what goes on in your head – even if you would rather not hear. And, most importantly, you have to move from thinking about writing to actually doing it, which is Mitchell’s final parting shot to the class: “The vacuum is the enemy. If you write something and its rubbish, it doesn’t matter – you can do something about rubbish but you can’t do something about nothing”.