Category Archives: Writing

Magnetized moments

In Peter Shaffer’s play, Equus, a psychiatrist tries to piece together the reasons why his patient, a teenage boy, has stabbed out the eyes of six horses with a hoof pick. The play is Freudian in what seems now an old-fashioned way, but it still asks interesting questions about what makes us what we are. The boy, Alan, has constructed a secret god – Equus – that he worships in his own private way and who brings meaning to a life he finds drab, limiting and devoid of passion. The first act shows the psychiatrist gradually unpicking the features that have led Alan to his mode of worship and to carry out the horrific deed.

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Daniel Radcliffe in the recent production of Equus

Dysart (the psychiatrist) reflects in act two that he can identify the moments in Alan’s life that have contributed to the construction of Equus, but that he can never explain why it was those moments and not others that have had such a particular impact on the boy’s ‘psyche’:

“A child is born into a world of phenomena all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs – it sucks – it strokes its eyes over the whole uncomfortable range. Suddenly one strikes. Why? Moments snap together like magnets, forging a chain of shackles. Why? I can trace them. I can even, with time, pull them apart again. But why at the start they were ever magnetized at all – just those particular moments of experience and no others – I don’t know. And nor does anyone else.”

Although the moments Dysart describes are not positive – they are a series of minor tragedies, embarrassments and disappointments that all build up to form his inner life – I was struck by the idea that everyone’s life contains such magnetized moments – whether positive or negative. ‘Magnetized moments’ seems an excellent way to describe those memory fragments that stay with you forever – the ones that seem more vivid and precise than the swirl of vague impressions that make up most people’s memory soup.

Humans seem to me to be, above all else, narrative weaving machines. We create stories for ourselves, for our families and our cultures to explain the world. The need for explanatory narratives is, of course, what drives both religion and science, and pretty much everything else we do. My friend H would say that we also create these narratives as part of terror management – to impose order on a world where there’s so much we don’t know, and to control our fear of mortality. As a reader and English teacher, I find this a convincing way to view human existence, and it also explains the universality of stories in all cultures and all historical eras. We connect with other people’s stories not only for excitement and emotional stimulation, but because we learn about ourselves from them; and then we in turn draw on our own magnetized moments to weave narratives to explain our lives. We explain ourselves to ourselves with our stories.

You’re probably all saying “yeah, yeah… we know all that already. So what?” The answer is, “Oh, I dunno. It just seemed sort of interesting.” That weaving together of a narrative to explain my life and identity is what I’m doing with this blog, and probably what other bloggers are doing too. And it doesn’t matter at all that our narratives are not quantifiable truth, does it?

Thought not.

Life is a five act play

I’m at the beginning of Act 4, I realised this morning on the train. That’s what’s brought on all this memory purging I’ve been doing: collating (and crooning over) photos of the sons when they were small and writing down all the stuff I need to leave behind now.

I’ve been teaching Othello for a few years, and always get the students to summarise the structure of the play – how the plot develops through the 5 acts.

Some of my students in their Emilia, Desdemona and Iago masks.Image

Othello’s trajectory in some ways fits with mine. And probably yours too. Here’s how:

Act 1: Shakespeare sets up the conflicts Othello’s going to encounter and the backdrop in which it’s all going to take place. For me, Act 1 is childhood and (if you’re a Sociologist) socialisation.

Act 2: Othello moves from the comfortable (with hints of conflict) life he has in Venice through a turbulent journey to a less civilised and more chaotic world in Cyprus. This act is what leads up to the pivotal third act where he undergoes his biggest transformation. My Act 2 is the bit where I leave home and begin a life of squatting and ‘travelling’, and it’s this that sets the foundations of the journey I have to make in my third act.

Act 3: This is the part of Othello’s story where he falls prey to his own vulnerabilities and a malign influence and goes from being desperately in love with Desdemona at the beginning to plotting to kill her by the end. It’s the biggest shift in the play, just as it is in mine. My third act begins when son 1 is conceived on a traveller’s site, follows my transformation from down-and-out to teacher and ends with my boys leaving home.

Act 4: For Othello, this is where we begin to see how he deals with the effects of Act 3 – how he responds to his changes. Othello has a fit and plots murders, but my Act 4? I don’t know yet. This is where I negotiate everything I have learned from my transformative Act 3. It’s down to the choices I make right now.

Act 5: We see the consequences of Othello’s decisions in Act 4. All, for him, ends in tragedy. It’s a good job I realised this plot structure in time to make sure I make better choices than he does.

Does this structure work in your life? I’d be dead interested to find out.