Writing Tip 12: Writing as Immersion. On Keats’ Negative Capability and Related Matters

BY MIKE JOHNSON

Why do I write fiction? I don’t know. It may be because identity itself is a fiction, and so fiction becomes and endless exploration of identity, or even creation of that identity.

Consider this quote:

Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves. Like magic.
— Ted Hughes
 John Keats

John Keats

Ted Hughes is suggesting that we have to leave behind who we are, or think we are, to become that which we create. Keats called this the ‘negative capability’, that ability of a writer to efface themselves in the creation of their characters and their worlds. Keats cited Shakespeare as a prime example. Famously, Shakespeare cannot be located in any particular character; Shakespeare is everywhere and nowhere in the text. It all breaks down to multiple and contending points of view.

Our identities are far less fixed, and much more malleable than we ever suspected. Particularly fluid is the relationship between memory and the imagination. ‘Memory is Mother of the Imagination,’ says Coleridge, but it may go deeper than that. They may be so inextricably intertwined that there’s no telling one from the other.

 Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes

When I write, I can release the fiction of myself and be many people at once, from one passage to the next, and, in the case of poetry, one line from the next. Is the person finishing a poem the same one that started it? It doesn’t matter; the joy is in the movement, not the fixing.

So, to return to the Ted Hughes quote, the practical advice that arises from this is to write by intensely visualising whatever happening on the page. See it and hear it and smell it and taste it. Then the ‘words look after themselves.’ Sound wonderful doesn’t it?

Like Magic...

For related posts see:

Having fun with parataxis

Tangled up in Blue

And here is a great interview (with the Arab Poet Adonis) which touches in on the above, and much more.