Birds. Light. Water. Sky. – Iain Robinson

On Writing ‘Dazzle’

As is so often the case when I start out towards a story, I began ‘Dazzle’ not with a study of character, or of an event, but with a strong desire to write about a place. I had, throughout the late winter and early spring of 2015, been exploring the North Norfolk coast, falling in love with the vast emptiness of the sands and salt marshes at Brancaster Bay. Birds. Light. Water. Sky. In infinite combination and variety. The first lines of the story were a brief attempt to mesh my impressions into words, and to some extent these words survive in the opening paragraph.

Conventional Creative Writing doctrine, the sort hammered home in introductory evening classes, and the first chapters of handbooks, claims that character is everything, the life force of fiction, that ideally you should have at least two characters, a situation of some kind, a conflict (internal or external), and a complication that needs to be resolved. Setting is usually somewhat secondary to this, the background that you fill in around the dialogue and the actions of the characters, and, one is told, you should use it to reveal aspects of your character’s state of mind.

The problem I have with this doctrine is that it makes the error of perceiving a human being as somehow detached, or superior to his or her setting. Yes, humanity shapes environments, but environment also shapes humanity, and the individual, more so than most of us acknowledge, is grounded in place. We are just one more skin to be soaked through by rain and dried by the sun, one more belly to be filled or to be hungered. Our relationship with place is an animal one, survivalist, and therefore essential to who we are. For me it is invariably the place that is important when starting out with a fiction. From this I work out the character. We are all drawn to places for complex, and often unacknowledged reasons. These complexities, these secret drivers of the soul, can provide what Ricardo Piglia (2011) describes as “the hidden story”, the one narrated in an “elliptical and fragmentary manner” so that it surfaces above the events described, or “visible story”, to bring a story to a satisfactory moment of revelation. In my short story ‘The Last Man of Epecuén’, published online by The Missing Slate, an old man has returned to the shattered remains of his long submerged lakeside town. The visible story describes his lonely bicycle ride around the post-apocalyptic remains of his town. The hidden story, which haunts the visible one, is about the torture and murder of a young man. I mention this because, as with ‘Dazzle’, I started with the setting, and then I asked who, and why, and what is the secret, what is out of sight? Both stories also feature protagonists who are alone, communing only with their setting and with what haunts them.

Why this setting, this place, this landscape? What drew Lucien to it? What draws me? It is a certain kind of escape, and it struck me that for Lucien it would have to be an escape from a life of unhappy choices, and perhaps an escape towards another unhappy choice. He would be a birder, I decided, despite being nothing more than a rank amateur myself at bird identification. I had noticed that out of the tourist season bird watching was a popular pursuit along the salt marshes and reserves of North Norfolk. The coasts of East Anglia can feel lonely and remote, especially in the winter, beneath vast mercurial skies. The flatness of the landscape creates a false sort of perspective. A village a mile or so away seems to hover on the edge of oblivion, on the sharp edge of the world. This is a place to seek and to find oblivion, of a sort. A place to be alone with the senses, with the landscape. It is a place to lose the self temporarily.

J.A.Baker in The Peregrine (2015) describes his desire to exist in the landscape in such a way that  from the perspective of the falcon, his “predatory human shape no longer darkens in terror the shaken kaleidoscope of colour that stains the deep fovea of his brilliant eye” (48). He seeks to disappear so that his “pagan head shall sink into the winter land, and there be purified” (48). It is difficult to ignore in these statements a desire for oblivion to the point of death. It sits uneasily with Baker’s other ruminations on how the peregrine lives in movement, that stillness is to the peregrine akin to death. Baker’s beguiling wish to close the “unspannable” distance between his own frail body and the peregrine’s powerful frame proves to be impossible to achieve (112). You are either the quick or the dead. To cease being the man-terror you must become inanimate object.

Lucien has some similar drive, unacknowledged, that presses him into the water to the point of no return. The landscape I was describing, which was now no longer Brancaster, but rather an amalgam of the various estuaries and bays that comprise the coast from Essex up to the Wash, is one that can trick the eye, catch you out. What seems water can turn out to be wet sandflats, or vice versa. Dry sands drift over the wet, creating a sense of false movement. Firm ground sinks in. A high tide can suddenly turn, and surge in faster than a man can walk. The sun skitters and jabs and multiplies on the waves, like millions of eyes. Sound travels in strange ways. Time folds. The birds shimmer and dazzle in rising shrouds, in their thousands. It might all prove too much, I thought, for a man who can’t cope with life. He might, in trying to save himself, seek to lose himself completely in sea, and sky, and birds, in order to “be purified”. The initial experience of landscape, which might, for the nature writer, become something transcendental, or existential, can for the fiction writer, also be the raw material for the uncanny, for that hidden, latent substance that gives the short story its power to arrest, disturb, and move.

 

 

Iain Robinson is an academic and writer living in the East of England. He writes fiction, literary criticism, essays, and reviews. His short fiction has recently appeared in The Missing Slate, Litro, Wales Arts Review, and The Lonely Crowd, and has been anthologised in Being Dad (Tangent Books) and Hearing Voices (Litro). He is a prose editor with Lighthouse Journal.

© Iain Robinson, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.