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?