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Writer's Respite

Advice, tips and helpful hints to help you on your publishing journey.


As the nineteenth century progressed, a spotlight was shone on modern autobiography and biography. In the previous century, confessional and spiritual autobiographies had been the dominant genre and were primarily concerned with moral or spiritual transformation. However, the 19th century saw a greater shift towards more secular life stories.

Biographies, too, gained in popularity. One of the significant transformations was the shift from hagiographical biography, that is, one that treats its subject with undue reverence with depictions of the 'Great Man', to more realistic and detailed accounts of a subject's life, including their flaws and complexities. Forms and styles were experimented with as were various mediums even involving gossip and satire. In addition, authors played with narrative structure, often employing non-linear chronologies and fragmented narratives. The innovation offered more nuanced ways of understanding life, acknowledging that human experience isn't always linear or neatly categorized and that often, the flaws or early life traumas are what built the ‘Great Man’ in the first instance.

The 19th century, therefore, marked an increase in life-writing from groups historically marginalised, such as former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who published narratives detailing their inhumane experiences, thereby providing a powerful counter-narrative to prevailing racial biases of the time. Women's life-writing, too, was on the rise, with authors like Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Gaskell portraying their personal experiences and perspectives, challenging traditional gender roles and offering insights into women's, more often than not, challenging lives.

It could be said that life-writing in the 19th century developed within the broader socio-cultural context, demonstrating a shift in understanding the self and individuality, marked by introspection, reflexivity, and an increased emphasis on personal experience. This period witnessed a surge in autobiographical and biographical narratives, with numerous notable authors contributing to this genre, including William Hazlitt, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Their works provide a rich tapestry of individual and social insights, pioneering various forms and styles of life writing that remain influential today.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although active in the 18th century, cast a long shadow over the 19th century with his ground-breaking autobiographical work, ‘Confessions’. This was one of the first works to focus on the author's subjective experience, exploring not just events of his life, but also his thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It served as a prototype for many subsequent autobiographies and inspired writers to delve deeper into personal introspection and the exploration of the self. Rousseau’s honesty in detailing personal highs and lows, his virtues and vices, set a new standard for autobiographical candour and greatly influenced the genre's development in the 19th century.

Likewise, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the most important figures of German literature, wrote ‘Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit’ (‘From my Life: Poetry and Truth’), his autobiography, releasing it in four parts between 1811 and 1833. It became an influential work of life-writing in the 19th century because it blended factual biography with artistic invention. Goethe managed to map his evolution as a poet and a human being. His focus on individual experiences and the shaping of his artistic consciousness made his work a significant contribution to the Romantic autobiographical tradition.

William Hazlitt was a prolific English writer known for his essays, but his work ‘Liber Amoris’ (1823) stands as a remarkable example of life-writing. It is a detailed account of his passionate yet unreciprocated love for a maid in his lodging house. This work is distinctive because Hazlitt lays bare his soul and presents his unvarnished emotions to the reader, which was quite bold and unconventional for its time.

Across the pond, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a central figure in American Transcendentalism, used life-writing in a somewhat different way. Rather than focusing on recounting life events, Emerson's essays often contain autobiographical elements that serve his philosophical and spiritual ideas. Works like, ‘Self-Reliance’ and ‘Experience’ use personal anecdotes and reflections to elaborate on his concepts of individuality, non-conformity, and the human connection to nature.

All in all, the 19th century was a pivotal period in the development of life writing, and a time of both reflection and revolution. It saw life-writing evolve from focusing on public achievements and moral lessons to a more intimate exploration of personal experience and values, directly addressing human complexity. And most importantly, it set the stage for the diverse and vibrant tradition of life-writing that we see in the 21st century. Gone were the old didactic, chronological, and impersonal accounts and what arose were more introspective, subjective, and personal narratives. It became a means to chronicle the author's life and explore and construct the self with a sense of playfulness within the narrative structure and opportunity give to the rise of voices from the margins.

In storytelling, be it fact or fiction, one of the most potent yet often overlooked tools is psychic distance. This subtle, transformative concept is not about telepathy or paranormal phenomena but refers to the narrative distance between a reader and a story's characters or events. It's the invisible thread that connects or separates us from the consciousness of the characters we read about. Understanding and manipulating psychic distance can profoundly shape the reader's experience and immersion in the story.

What is Psychic Distance? Coined by author John Gardner, psychic distance is a literary device that manipulates the closeness or distance between the reader and the character's thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This can range from a broad, distant viewpoint (like an omniscient narrator) to a close, intimate view (like a first-person narrative).

Imagine a camera lens focusing on a scene. From a wide-angle view, you capture the grand landscape, the big picture, but individual details are lost. As you zoom in, you start to see the trees, then the leaves, and finally, the veins on a single leaf. That’s psychic distance.

Why is Psychic Distance Important? Psychic distance is a crucial tool because it directly influences the reader's emotional engagement with the story. At a great distance, we offer readers a panoramic view of the events, a calm and objective perspective, but at the cost of emotional investment. As we zoom in, we sacrifice that broad perspective, but we gain a deeper emotional connection.

Varying psychic distances can serve as a rhythm in your writing, creating moments of intensity and moments of rest, making your narrative more dynamic and engaging.

Psychic Distance in Fiction In fiction, mastering psychic distance can create a profound sense of character and plot development. A character seen from a distance at the beginning of a story can be gradually brought closer, allowing readers to understand their inner workings and motivations slowly. For example, consider a detective novel. Initially, we might see the detective as an almost mythical figure, solving cases with incredible intuition. But as we zoom in, we start to see their doubts, their painstaking analysis of evidence, and the toll their work takes on their personal life. This deepens our understanding and empathy for the character, making the story more engaging.

Psychic Distance in Non-fiction In non-fiction, psychic distance plays an equally pivotal role. Here, it can be a tool to guide the reader's understanding and opinion. For example, in a historical account, a distant perspective might provide an overview of the events, allowing the reader to grasp the bigger picture. Then, by zooming in on individual experiences, the author can make the reader feel the human impact of these events, making the account more powerful and memorable.

Manipulating Psychic Distance Modulating psychic distance is primarily done through narrative perspective and choice of details. For example, 'She was upset' places us at a distance. We are told about her emotions. On the other hand, 'Her hands trembled as she fought back tears' brings us closer, showing us her emotions.

Playing with psychic distance can also be done through dialogue. Direct internal dialogue ('Why can’t I get this right?') is more intimate than indirect dialogue ('She wondered why she couldn’t get it right.').

Final Thoughts Understanding and utilizing psychic distance is a powerful tool in a writer's toolbox, often distinguishing between a good story and a great one. By mindfully zooming in and out of your narrative, you can guide your reader's engagement and emotional journey, making your story an unforgettable experience, whether it's a work of fiction or a factual account. So,

If anyone is familiar with Ekhart Tolle, you will have heard about the theme of presence. Presence is the arising of a dimension of consciousness from which you can become aware that there is a voice in your head. This awareness is beyond thinking. It's a space of consciousness from where you can become the observer of your own mind - the awareness behind the thought processes. As writers, I believe this is the space we need to aim for continually, for it is here that the idea of Tolle and the psychoanalyst Carl Jung can intimately interact. Jung believed that human beings are connected to each other and their ancestors through a shared set of experiences and that we use this collective consciousness to give meaning to the world. The sweet spot for a writer must therefore be to access a state of presence to better tap into the collective consciousness. It is only then that the writer will gain a good grasp of the human experience.

So how might one do this? First of all, and this is not too tall an order for most writers, there is a need to slow down, practice mindfulness, to become intimate with the present moment. For it is only in the present moment that life truly comes alive. Not only does slowing down help the brain become better placed for observation, but it is also through mindfulness that the mind becomes more attuned to detail. As every writer knows, God - and therefore the very heart of your novel - lies within such detail. To enhance the practice of mindfulness, which is a practice of continually bringing yourself back to the here and now every time your mind begins to wander, meditation provides a means.

Meditation changes the brain by leading to an increase in Theta and Alpha waves which in turn promote learning, relaxation and a sense of well-being. The faster Alpha waves - generated at around 10 per second, are also associated with daydreaming and creativity. People report that meditation has helped them find their mojo and purpose, deepened their sense of awareness and that there emerges a sense of spaciousness within the body in which new seeds can be germinated and watered. Patience improves as well as a general acceptance of the self, of where you are in life and of your creative endeavours. But more than this...

With meditation, the voice of presence becomes more distinct. It is, to my mind, the voice described well in the hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind: the still, small voice of calm. It is this voice, beyond all others that our frenzied brains might generate that seems to be the closest to the soul. This voice is our wisest part. Our unchanging part. The part that knows, within the present moment, more than we do. Listen to this voice. It is your intuition. Your higher self. It will guide but only if you listen patiently. So how do you know which voice that is? How does one separate the ego - more often than not the negative, nagging voice in our brain, from something more profound? Practising meditation over time will increase your awareness so that eventually this will be the part you come to recognise with a deep sense of simply knowing. Its guidance will elevate your life; help to carry you in the best direction of travel, which means as a writer you can begin to write more intuitively, with less self-doubt and restriction.

There will be other pay-offs to tapping into your essence, into your soul. You will be able to prioritise what's more important to you. A day of writing can't so easily be pushed aside in favour of social media trivia or general procrastination. The groundedness that you feel will empower you to make wiser decisions both to encourage you to write and in turn follow the true heart of your story. If all stories have already been told before, effectively all that you are doing is tapping into the collective unconscious to download the archetypes and the structure that best suits your characters and your story's theme, and you will be doing so with a greater connection to your true essence, in other words, your uniqueness. Unique you, unique story.

Another way meditation can be of benefit to writers is when there is a block or an unsureness as to where your story is to go. Enter your morning meditation practice, which should be at least fifteen minutes, with a question about your writing. Leave this aside as you enter the realm of no mind and following see if a vision begins to emerge. Also, pay closer attention to your dreams. These can become more cryptic when meditation commences and can shed light on the deeper themes within your novel. Essentially, as a novelist, we are aiming for this depth consistently. Dig as deep as you can, and you might just be surprised what your soul manages to retrieve from the very depths of your being and thus the very depths of what it means to be human.

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