Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Constraints and Creativity ... Cecilia Busby

I was driving home yesterday and heard Jeanette Winterson talking on the radio about her new book, The Gap of Time, which is a reworking of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. She had obviously had a hugely fun time working with the ingredients of the play, going back to the original source, a play by that famous Elizabethan drunkard and womaniser Robert Greene, and finding creative ways in which she could explore the story and make it work for her own purposes.

It made me think a little about the nature of creativity, and what happens when you put constraints in it - suddenly instead of 'write anything!' you have the injunction to 'write this story and make it new', or 'use these characters and say something original about them'... It's interesting to think about how that process differs from the one of writing when your imagination is unbounded. Initially, it might be thought that putting those kinds of constraints on your writing is a handicap - it results in a bound creativity, one that's stifled, forced into only certain channels. It ought to result in less good writing. And of course, as with the rather pedestrian sequels that are sometimes tacked onto the end of series when the author has died (the later St Clare's books, anyone?), often that's exactly what happens. But sometimes, the constraints seem to give an energy and direction to a writer's creativity that results in something better than they could ever have imagined.

Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book is a case in point. For my money, it's the best book he's written for children (his best book for adults, I think, is Neverwhere, closely followed by American Gods). I don't know why it's his best, but I suspect it's the way he had to work his creativity, the way his imagination was forced and constrained into certain channels by the model he based it on: Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book.  Would the man Jack have had the same bite if he wasn't also, at some level, the tiger, Shere Khan? Would Silas have been the same silent yet powerful beast if he wasn't also Bagheera, the black panther? (Of course, it has to be said that Disney's Jungle Book had no part in the production of The Graveyard Book, which has all the brooding menace and powerful emotional tug of Kipling's original and none of the silliness...)

Another recent triumph of constrained imagination is Kate Saunders' Five Children on the Western Front, where E. Nesbit's original Five meet the psammead again, and are followed through the First World War. The book is heart-breaking, and all her own, but it's the work her imagination had to do, taking off from those original stories and bringing exactly those characters back to life in a new setting, that created the magic.

My first series for children was set in Arthurian Britain, and featured all the usual suspects - Arthur, Merlin, Sir Gawaine, Sir Lancelot - as well as my child characters. Bringing them to life as my own creations, yet still on some level connected to all the versions of them that were running around my head from previous stories, was exhilarating. But it was when I wrote the second book in the series, Cauldron Spells, that I got a real taste of how creative constraining your writing to a model can be.

Having written the first book as a stand-alone, I had been asked to turn it into a series of four, and thinking about how to do that led me to the four treasures of Celtic Britain - the sword, the cup/cauldron, the stone and the spear. I thought I could work with those, and so book 2 became the cauldron one, book 3 the stone and book 4 the sword. Having decided a cauldron would feature, it didn't take long to decide that would be the cauldron of Annwn.

There's a very strange and at times undecipherable poem from the book of Taliesin, called the Preiddeu Annwn, or the Lay of Annwn - and I decided that I would base the quest part of the book on this poem.

The full text is here, although there are various alternative translations and retellings, from some of which I got other ideas and images. However, it's from that poem that I got my cauldron - plain, black, with a rim of pearls. And from that poem I found my quest - Arthur and his companions had to go to Annwn, and 'only seven' would return.

This being a children's book, that meant only seven would be going - which became Arthur, Merlin, my two main characters with their pet dragon and pet rat and their father, the gruff, burly Sir Bertram. The poem gave me a 'challenge' for each of them - and amazingly, the dangers Arthur faced in the poem could be beautifully fitted to my characters. Sir Bertram - who always wins the competition for The Knight Who Can Quaff the Most Ale in a Single Swallow - was perfectly fitted to the Fortress of Mead Drunkenness, while Adolphus the hare-brained dragon had immense fun chasing all the Hounds of Hell around an enchanted forest. Ferocious the rat got to bite the ankles of the Nine Maidens, and Arthur himself tackled the silent sentinel guarding the Fortress of Glass.

Taking this obscure and odd little part of the Arthurian legends and remaking it for a whole new audience and context was a different kind of creativity from just 'making it up' - but it was one I had immense fun with, and Cauldron Spells has a special place in my heart as a result. There is something about the focus that gives you, and the extra resonances that come from ducking and weaving between texts, that is quite amazing - the constraints become in an odd way liberating.

So I am looking forward to reading The Gap of Time, and relishing its connection with A Winter's Tale. I'll be interested to see if the constraints worked to energise Jeanette Winterson's already formidable imagination.

Cecilia Busby writes fantasy adventures for children aged 7-12 as C.J. Busby.

Her first series was the Spell series, an Arthurian knockabout fantasy aimed at 7-9. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, was published in March by Templar.



"Great fun - made me chortle!" (Diana Wynne Jones on Frogspell)

"A rift-hoping romp with great wit, charm and pace" (Frances Hardinge on Deep Amber)


Emma Barnes said...

“Art thrives on constraints and dies on freedom.” Leonardo da Vinci, supposedly. He probably knew a thing or two.

I occasionally write things based on real events - notably a short story for Radio 4 where I had to find out quite a bit about the Prince Regent, Brighton and Jane Austen, and do a lot of juggling around with dates and timelines. A different set of challenges, but also strangely exciting to be building the body of the story on a skeleton of real events.

Nick Green said...

Knowing your sense of humour, Cecilia, I wonder if Arthur won't get past the sentinel by asking him if he knows the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow...

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks for the comments (great quote from da Vinci!). In fact, Arthur doesn't defeat the sentinal, Olivia chucks the cauldron of Annwn at the sentinal's head and thus saves the day. But I know what you mean - it made me think of Monty Python too!

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting post, Cecilia. Sounds as though it was a great fun to write around an existing skeleton.

Elen C said...

There's a great film called 'The Five Obstructions', a documentary in which Lars von Trier challenges Jorgen Leth to remake the same short film over and over, but with constraints on what he is allowed to do each time. Each iteration is distinct and captivating. Well worth a watch if you're thinking about creativity and constraint!

Ann Turnbull said...

It always helps to have constraints, even if its only length, age-range or genre. Nothing is more terrifying than to be faced with "write anything". Constraints help focus the mind - and they also help you to keep going when you get stuck, otherwise it can be too easy to think something isn't working and give up on it.

Leslie Wilson said...

Martin Buber talked about the necessary process of loss during creation, when one had to let go of the sparkling play of possibilities and buckle down to the constraints of the story one has chosen. That being so, using a story or characters which is already in existence is just another form of that necessary constraint. It has endless precedent; and also, when one writes a novel about existing historical characters, one finds onesself constrained in this way, yet no-one could say such a novel can't be creative..