When I meet your eyes
And I’m diving
Like a cloud
Darling, Is this love?
This lyric from the opening track, Starlings, of the Mercury prize winning Elbow album, The Seldom Seen Kid, is the perfect description of romantic love for me. Lyrics have always been the stand-out part of a song for me, perhaps because I am a writer. My musician partner hears the guitars before the lyrics.
Writing about relationships invariably means writing about things going astoundingly well, like in the Elbow lyrics, or love gone wrong. I don’t think there’s much of a market for stories where nothing happens! Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end and some conflict happens and is sometimes resolved by the end, sometimes not. The history of storytelling is ancient and a well trodden path in academia, from Greek legends to fairy stories, and much has been written about these enduring stories being a kind of moral backbone and a metaphorical blueprint for behaviour.
As a writer and psychologist, I have an insight into what brings conflict into people’s lives. My rationale for writing my series of novels was to situate the knowledge I had attained from a study I conducted into women’s life narratives into stories about lives. Each of my novels is based on a dialectical finding from the study.
Dirty Sparkle examines the love/sex dialectic. Finding Isaac explores the age/fertility dialectic and Life: Immaterial is about the reality/expectation dialectic around family roles.
In the study I found that most of the people I interviewed had a set expectation about love. You date – fall in love – get engaged – get married – have children – children grow – children leave home – grow old together. I also found that for most of the people I interviewed, these expectations had been shattered. One women told me “When I realised I was gay I sat in shock. I was ecstatic that I felt free, but sad that I would never get engaged, get married and walk my child in a park in a pushchair.” Another woman told me, “My mother drummed into my the order in which I should do things. She worked so hard at it that I made and still make, at the age of thirty six, a conscious effort to go against her ‘shoulds’. In some ways she has won, because this has still ruined my life. I will never marry because of her.” The expectation endured, and the conflict and indeed suffering was caused by a perceived deviation from what they thought they should be doing.
The steady path of expectation from one generation to another in generally focused on the love relationship and often causes conflict when expectations go unfulfilled. The narrow stereotypical expectations dictated by various institutions are even more restrictive. A strong theme that emerged from my study was that people felt that they were not allowed to be who they actually were for fear of breaking societal taboos. Going back to the Elbow lyrics, this description of romantic love was similar to that explained by the interviewees for the first six months of a relationship. Most of the people I interviewed felt a pressure to keep this ‘spark’ in their relationship even though they felt it had moved on to more of a settled stage. This pressure was more for outer appearance to others, rather than an inner deception. The fear and conflict was that if the relationship did not align with the ‘rules’ then it was seen to be failing. The non- appearance of social signposts such as engagement, marriage and children was still perceived as failures rather than valid life choices due to generational expectations.
So how does this relate to writing? The conflict in stories are quite often around a love or relationship interest. The expectations of the main character are laid out and then the protagonist places a barrier to these expectations. The resolution or transformation is usually in the form of the main character being steered back to the expectations. This traditional formula reinforces the social signposts which raise expectations.
I tried something different. I took the dialectics from my study and overlaid them onto characters who were already in conflict. Jinny, Rita and Juliet all have well-developed aversions to the rules for very different reasons. Instead of steering my main character back onto the path, the stories highlight their exploration of difference. The final transformation is not a happy ending, but an ending grounded in the realisation of alternative futures with touchstones of happiness that negated the traditional social signposts, very much in line with the finding s of my study based on the lives of real people.
The link between psychology and writing raises the question of how implicitly reflexive fiction is, but that’s another blog for another day!