INSPIRATION Focus on the negative

The last of K. M. Lockwood's Inspiration pieces for this year ends on a downer - deliberately.
Let's start with a gloomy bit of poetry:
November - Poem by Thomas Hood

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! -
Misty Path  by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

In the northern hemisphere, this time of year can be pretty bleak. Our response to the absence of many things we regard as 'positive' can be revealing. How do we cope without much sunshine, much warmth, much outdoor prettiness? SAD is definitely a thing and a fair few writers and artists will do much to avoid it. It's not surprising that many cultures have festivals of light around the darkest time of the year. Fairy lights, oil lamps, fireworks - all see off the shadows.

But what if we accept and even welcome this time of long nights and short days?

We can use the imagery and bareness of winter in our work. It works well to amplify an emotion - if not too clichéd. The pathetic fallacy does have its place in the scheme of things - where would ghost stories be without chills? A journey through the darker months has much more hazard and adventure than a summery jaunt. Such seasonal physicality is a wonderful source of sensory detail, but also of sparseness. Think of the beauties of Japanese art using negative space (ma). I don't have the scholarship to explain it fully - but I think how eagerly it was seized upon by European artists in the late 19th century. Such an antidote to Victorian clutter - and the same goes for prose.

Irises by Ogata Korin, died 1716 - Nezu Gallery, Public Domain, 
The relationship of the external with internal 'negative' emotions has led to many wonderful books. I'm referring to some picture book classics for two reasons: you might have had chance to read these, and I know them from my own children/teaching experience:
  • Anger and frustration in Not Now Bernard written and illustrated by David McKee
  • Sorrow and loss in The Sad Book written by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Quentin Blake
  • Fear and anxiety in The Monster Bed written by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Susan Varley.
Feathers © Debi Gliori from Night Shift
Coming more up to date, consider Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot written by Horatio Clare, illustrated by Jane Matthews and recommended for 8-12 year olds, and Debi Gliori's Night Shift (for any age) which both deal with despair and depression in wonderfully creative ways. To see a character in a children's book negotiating these difficult feelings truly shows their character. (Well, what else can I call it?)

As creative people, writers and illustrators have to accept a good deal of uncertainty. We may need to go with intuitive responses rather than pure logic. Our best selves might show what John Keats famously called Negative Capability. With that encouraging thought in mind, I'd encourage you to hibernate a little. Snuggle down, keep warm and leave some space for mysteries and doubts.

Hazel Dormouse by Zoë Helene Kindermann - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Some suggestions for your work:

Subject your poor characters to lack, loss and deprivation:
  • What are the effects on them internally?  
  • What happens as a consequence of this?
Allow your characters to express negative emotions:
  • Does it make them more engaging or credible?
  • Don't worry too much about likeability!
Use mystery and doubt to draw the reader on.
Allow your most beautiful imagery to stand out among plainness.

Header Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

K. M. Lockwood writes and edits in The Garret.
Once downstairs, she runs a tiny writer-friendly B&B or wanders off  looking for sea-glass on the Sussex coast.
 Twitter: @lockwoodwriter

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