My students are often afraid of darkness. Well no, that's not exactly all there is to it: several of them write about subjects that are the familiar fare of the young, ‘dark’ creative mind. Vampires. Sado-masochism. Serial killers. They think they’re being cutting edge and brave. I thought I was, too, when I was 20, sitting in Devon House park in Jamaica, writing about a girl vampire eating ginger ice cream (a Devon House speciality).
Not that there’s any shame in these subjects. They are perfectly good fun and when done well, tickle me in a place that is, well, probably still quite adolescent. And I embrace that part of me! The problem (groan...) is that unless you do it really, really, really, really, really well, vampirism and kinky sex (separate or together) is soooo fucking DULL and so predictable.
Bad writing really shows up in the darkness. I wonder why. I have all kinds of technical theories. That the most taboo subject in the world is sex, and that it’s hard to write sex well; that people come face to face with their own anxieties and try too hard (so the vampires are never just allowed to drink but have to slash, suckle, slurp, succor, stab and no-one can just kiss, they have to be pulsating, panting, preening). So it’s all of that. But I also think people say they want to get dark, but don’t.
What do I mean by getting dark? Well, in my opinion, dark writing is brave writing. I’m obsessed with this concept. I think that one of the best things about living with a novelist inside me is that I am forced, often against my best judgement, to write my truth. And that can be painful and inconvenient and scary. I mean, come on. The real truth? The fact that you hate your sister and fantasize about having sex with mermaids? That you really think that there are too many immigrants? That you are sick to death of white people? Of fat people? That your favourite song is Rhianna’s UMBER-fuckin-ELLA? Some of these things make me shudder. I won’t say which.
But you know what I mean. And if you don’t, and you’re a writer, I think you should. I like to find out stuff about myself and the world, almost despite myself. Taking a deep breath to look at what you really feel, think, desire - and then considering the specificity and the detail of that forbidden.
Once, in the middle of a weekend workshop, one of my students (a lovely, earnest, very quiet woman) asked me a fabulous question in the break. She said: “Leone, is it that you have no moral centre?” I am immensely proud that she asked it. For me, it was simply an acknowledgment of my openness. I like being open. Writers need to be wide open, even if it means you bruise like a peach and need an umberella (ok, I’ll stop now).
And by the end of the workshop, she was writing about characters fucking zoo animals. So I did my job, then.