“A man who says, ‘I want to change, tell me how to’, seems very earnest, very serious, but he is not. He wants an authority who he hopes will bring about order in himself. But can authority ever bring about inward order? Order imposed from without must always breed disorder.”
We are fascinated by what it is impossible for us to become. Eco was a celebrated professor of semiotics, the possessor of vast wit and erudition, an indefatigable student, and a craftsman of multiple remarkably compelling narratives. I could be one or two of those things, but not all.
Here’s another pillar that supports my admiration of Umberto Eco: as a writer, he had skin in the game; he took risks and made sacrifices for what he believed in. I recall reading about a moment from one of his books during which a character stood at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower and looked up. To faithfully recreate that scene, Umberto travelled to Paris and stood where his character was going to stand. Other examples come from an interview I watched on the Louisiana Channel. In one scene, a character steps off a train in Lyon. So Eco did the same; he wanted to know what the character saw immediately after disembarking. For example, how many steps there were on the staircase leading to the platform. I also learnt that, in order to write The Island of the Day Before, he spent a month on some island in the Southern Hemisphere. As Eco put it, “Else, how could I describe the colours?” This sacrifice in the name of craft is the type of commitment I aspire to in my own work, and in the stories I wish to write in the future.
On a related not, in the past I’ve posited that the writing process can be split into a small number of component parts that bleed into one another:
- Ideation and Research: the conception of a story or angle, and the accumulation of material to support it. This can take anywhere from a few months to the majority of a lifetime.
- Outlining: the arranging and manipulation of fragments and patterns derived from the first stage in the process. This, generally, takes a lot less longer than ideation and research.
- Drafting: the incarceration of ideas in a prison of ink. If ideation, research and outlining have been undertaken thoroughly, this stage is completed with haste.
- Macro-Editing: the stage in which the draft is expanded, shrunk, twisted, dissolved and distorted. This process, which concerns major structural and content changes, can be over quickly, or take years.
- Macro-Editing: the obsessive consideration of word choice, sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, rhythm, stylistic affectations, and all the other subtle-but-significant minutiae of the writing craft. Again, this can take days or years.
I’ve also put forward the idea that there are only four elements of a story: the characters involved, the world they manoeuvre in, the events that occur in that world concerning those characters, and way in which the previous three things are narrated.
With the writing process and the elements of a story in mind, and after reading and listening to Umberto Eco, I’ve gleaned two things which are of relevance here.
First, for Eco, like many other writers, the characters and the world they exist in are the elements of a story that take precedence over everything else. They matter more than plot and more than narrative styling. For example, in the interview linked above, Eco describes many of his novels as starting with a powerful or interesting image; The Name of the Rose, for instance, began with the image of a monk who was poisoned whilst reading a book in a library. Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s conception of the Potter universe began with the image of a young boy with a lightning-bolt-shaped scar on his forehead. Such stories abound when storytellers describe the conception of their works.
Second, there is a right order and a wrong order to approach a story. The wrong order is to focus on style before substance, to obsess over tense and voice before the things you seek to describe have been figured out. Stories created in this way are fragile, yielding easily to the passage of time and the critical mind of the average reader. The right order is the opposite; spend an age crafting characters and building a world. If you can do that, the events that occur and the way in which they are best narrated will reveal itself to you. You shall not have to quest and dig, for the answers to the questions you ask of the world and its people will be obvious and immediate, due mainly to the virtues of the time and energy spent conceiving them.
I began this piece by transcribing Jiddu Krishnamurti’s plea to us all to be our own authority, transitioned into describing my admiration of Italian philosopher, scholar and writer, Umberto Eco, and ended with a discussion of the writing process and the hierarchy of the elements of a story. So it seems only fitting that, in line with Krishnamurti’s call for us to be our own authority, I say to you, “Draw your own conclusions from the above.” But unlike Krishnamurti, my call does not originate from a position of insight and a past of contemplation. Rather, it comes from the fact that I myself am unable to find a conclusion, a bow that wraps all these things together. I’m convinced there is one, by the way, but I cannot see and paint it with words. Can you?