My last blog started well but didn’t really touch on the issues I’ve been thinking about. How DO we understand people, as writers?
It’s an interesting problem for me, because in day to day and face to face interactions, I’m rubbish. There is generally too much going on for me to focus on the important points. I can have a conversation with someone and totally fail to notice the main thing they are saying or trying not to say. Perceptive, I am not – at least, not in the moment.
Afterwards, walking alone, driving home, cycling around, I mull it all over and start to see what the other person meant or felt or tried to communicate. This usually means I have to then send emails or texts to make the right responses, belatedly and rather awkwardly.
It’s probably pretty hurtful when I’m talking with someone and they want to tell me something but I don’t pick up on the undercurrents. I make a huge effort to focus on these things but it’s very difficult. I cannot do it at all on the phone, and I avoid telephone calls at all costs. I have no idea when I’m supposed to speak, or what to say. Our household phone bill is rather low!
And yet people frequently come to me for advice. Contradiction? No. At a distance, I seem to be able to unweave the threads of others’ problems and give a new insight into their situations. I have had to “learn” about people and how they get on together, so I can fake being “normal” in everyday life (I know – some people who know me would suggest I don’t do a good job at seeming “normal”). I’m not saying that people are reducible to simple action-reaction, nor do we fit into lovely neat “personality types”. You really can’t do a tick box questionnaire and find out “you scored mostly A! You are assertive!” But it’s easier to see the patterns of emotion and behaviour when you consider it from the outside, and god knows, I am certainly on the outside of it all.
“Is a loner but mixes well” was one of my early school reports and that sums me up. If I’m in the right frame of mind, I can “do” social like anyone else. But I would much prefer to be alone or with a handful of close friends. I think this is an asset, as a writer. I might have spent the last few days stamping around and howling about makeup – “why do people wear this stuff! My face is itching!” – but then I settle down and unpick it. I can work out why people wear it. I can conjure up all manner of different people and see why they wear different make up for different reasons. I can use it to spin out a new character in a new story.
It’s a useful starting point. Take something you don’t understand – why does someone vote BNP, beat a baby, leave their kids, buy a BMW, whatever – and then, rather than dismiss it “they’re mad”, actually unpick it. What would make YOU do those things? What’s your trigger to commit murder, for example? You have one. You might not think you could – but there IS a situation in which you would kill. You know this. Find it. There’s a story there….