Whedon’s Dark Place

On Sunday, I attended a one and a half hour Q&A session with writer/director Joss Whedon at the Sydney Opera House. I’m not quite sure what I expected, being in a sort of fan-girly daze during the lead up to the event, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. Firstly, I expected – perhaps unrealistically – to at least be able to see his face and for him to pick me out of the crowd of thousands and¬†instantaneously¬†recognise my awesomeness and talent (kidding…I think).

In reality, I thought I might just get to sit and bask in the off-the-cuff glib, witty humour that Joss is famous for (among other things, there was some show I think? A western? With vampires? I don’t know, it couldn’t have been important) and there was certainly some of that. Instead, what I got more of was a serious Joss discussing his passion for writing, his life, and the way the two have shaped each other. He said he wanted to head off the usual batch of questions – why do you write, what’s with the strong female leads, etc – by telling us straight off the bat about his Dark Place.

Fittingly, I couldn’t see anything, having been placed in the Opera House’s upper tier (soon to be renamed ‘why bother even being in the same vicinity?) and Whedon paced on the distant stage against a backdrop of black as he talked about his Dark Place, from which his writing comes. In his Dark Place, Whedon is small and terrified of pretty much everything, which is why he always writes about “adolescent girls with superpowers” because, in his words, he needs them to save him. In telling us this, he explains that it’s only recently he’s been thinking about why he writes, what he writes about, and why he’s where he is now. In doing so, he explains his dissatisfaction with his previous answer to that eternal question.

“I write about adolescent girls with superpowers,” he quipped. “Sondenheim answered, ‘I write about yearning’ and I thought…fuck! That was such a cool answer.”

To cut the introspection a little short, I’ll say the answer Whedon finally came to was this – “I write about helplessness.” In his childhood, he often felt this way, and he finds himself drawn to situations revolving around this idea of something big and scary being overcome, of helplessness stared down and fought off by a kick-ass superpowered girl and in this way, finds himself saved by proxy. It’s a question and an answer of astounding importance for all writers and it’s something Whedon was at pains to express – it isn’t that simply spinning a yarn for a yarn’s sake is bad, or wrong, or ineffectual by any means, it’s just that it’s not for him.

Stories mean something. They come from a dark place in us all, they express something in a visible, in-depth fashion that eludes obvious articulation, that works on multiple levels and in so doing, they salve something within us – an ache, a need, a void.¬†For me, it answered a lingering unspoken unease – a sense that I was missing something, that while I was constructing stories well, while I could write with flair and ease, something still wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Whedon pretty much punched me in the face with it. “You shouldn’t be writing simply to pass the time.”

I wouldn’t say that’s what I’ve been doing because, like it or not, one way or another, I return to the blank page and start typing. It’s beyond me currently, but I mean to think on it some more and hopefully find an answer. Recently, however, I may have been guilty of writing because I felt I ought to, rather than had to. I think it’s time to start over fresh, to try something different and actively create something tangible, something more than words strung together in a pretty arc.

My question to you is – do you know your Dark Place?

Why do you write?

August 31, 2010
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  1. Jack Still looking for my reason. But here's David Gemmell's: Ever wondered where an author like David Gemmell gets his ideas from? In October 2000, while a guest author at the World Fantasy Convention in Texas, he gave his fans the following insight into his source of inspiration...' There was this boy. He lived in fear. Not the tiny fears of manhood, but the awesomely powerful, living, breathing fear that only children can experience. He was different, this boy, from the other boys who lived in this bomb damaged London Street some few years after World War Two. He had no father. Some of the other children had no father, but their lack was honorable. Dad died in the war, you know. He was a hero. This boy's lack was the subject of sly whispers from the adults, and open jeering from his peers. This boy's mother was - the boy heard so many times - a whore. Happily the boy was only six, and had no real understanding of what the word meant. Anyway the word was less hurtful than the blows that would follow it. Most of the blows came from other children, but sometimes adults too would weigh in. It was all baffling to the child. What he knew was that, before venturing out into the narrow streets and alleys, he had to peer from the windows of the small apartment to see if there were other children about. Only he didn't think of them as children. They were enemies, and he was frightened. Fear was the ever present companion. Fear was grafted to him. The journey to school was fraught with peril. The dark of the night brought fearful dreams. His mother read him stories about heroes, and tried to encourage him to stand up for himself. But stories were just words, and words could not stop the punches, the pinches and the slaps. The boy never dreamed of heroes. Not until he met one. It was a bright, cold morning and he was sitting on a wall. One of the boys who made his life miserable ran up, shouting and gesticulating. The boy - more in panic than courage - finally struck out, punching his enemy in the face. The other child ran off screaming. His father came running from the house. 'You little bastard!' he shouted. The boy took off as fast as he could, but no six year old can outrun a grown man. Within moments he grabbed the boy by the collar, swinging him from his feet. Just then a huge shadow fell over the pair. The man - who had looked so threatening moments before - now looked small and insignificant against the looming newcomer. This colossus reached out and took hold of the man by the shirt, pushing him up against a wall. In a low voice, chilling for its lack of passion, he asked. 'Do you know who I am?' The man was trembling. Even the boy could feel the dreadful fear emanating from him. 'C.c.course I know who you are, Bill. Course I do.' 'Did you know I was walking out with this boy's mother?' 'Jesus Christ... I swear I didn't, Bill. On my mother's life.' 'Now you do.' The big man let the little man go. He slid part way down the wall, recovered and stumbled away. Then the giant leaned over the boy and held out a hand that seemed larger than a bunch of bananas. 'Better be getting home, son,' he said. The world changed that day. Men like Bill do change the world. They are the havens, the safe harbours of childhood. They are the watch hounds who keep the wolves at bay. They have an instinctive understanding of the child that is denied to the wise. Two years later, as my stepfather, he cured me of dreams of vampires coming to drink my blood. My mother had tried explaining to me they were just dreams. They weren't real. It didn't work. She took me to a child psychologist, who showed me pictures, told me stories, explained about the birth of myth and the way that fear created pictures in our night time thoughts. It was very interesting, but it did nothing for my nightmares. One night I woke up screaming - to find Bill sitting by my bedside. 'There's a vampire, dad. Its trying to get me.' 'I know, son,' he said, softly. 'I saw it.' 'You saw it?' 'Yeah. I broke its bloody neck. I won't have no vampires in my house' I never dreamt of vampires again. Years later, when I wrote my first novel, I used Bill as the model for a character. His name was Druss the Legend. Bill re-appeared in many novels thereafter, in many guises. Always flawed, but always heroic. Three years ago, at the age of 82, Bill was mugged on the streets of London. Three muggers broke his jaw, his nose and two of his ribs. He still managed to 'chin' one of them and knock him to the ground. That was Bill. Last April he died. And I wrote Ravenheart, and gave Bill centre stage. Jaim Grymauch, who strides the highlands like a giant, is my homage to Bill, and to all those world changing fathers who pass away without fanfare; who leave the world just a little brighter than it was. Men who know how to deal with vampires.'

    August 31, 2010 at 9:44 pm · Reply
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    Omar That's deadset beautiful. See, I'm not sure I'll ever have an answer like that. Maybe because I don't have people like Bill in my life. I adored Jaim..my next favourite character after Druss.
    September 1, 2010 at 12:50 am · Reply
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    beforeshedies I don't know if I'd call it a Dark Place. For Joss it definitely is. When he was vocalising all those fears and feelings I could see it reflected in the shows he creates. But for me... I think it's more a way of filling that lack. Everything I'm not - it's able to come out into whatever I'm writing. Inspiration for me is a strong emotion, and writing it how I deal with it. Therapy, I guess you could say. Unfortunately, that type of inspiration probably won't earn me hit TV shows and a cult following. But I'm cool with being a follower, as long as there are people out there who can, in some way, reflect what I want to be feeling.
    September 14, 2010 at 10:39 pm · Reply