How the Japanese penal system can help writers

In Japan, confession is king, claims the book People who Eat Darkness. It’s the fascinating and traumatic story of Lucie Blackman’s murder in Tokyo about fifteen years ago. The book is also about lots of other things: hostessing, sadomasochistic hobby clubs, the Japanese penal system. japanese animeUnfortunately (for you), I’m planning to write about the Japanese penal system, and not the S&M hobby clubs or the hostessing. You’ll have to read the book for that, or look at this link about ‘exotic’ nightspots in Tokyo.

Supposedly, physical evidence is secondary to motive or confession in Japan. Richard Lloyd Parry, the author of this true crime book, says: “The who, what, where, and when are not enough: a Japanese judge demands to know why. A detective, then, is obliged to get inside his suspect’s skull. If he fails to do that, he is not considered to have done his job.” (Interestingly, most suspects in Japan, whether guilty or innocent, eventually confess.)

The emphasis on confession intrigued me because there’s a lesson there for writers. One can spend so much time mulling over the nuts and bolts of the plot, moving a character from point A to point B, deciding what happens in a scene, that one sometimes forgets about the overriding motives of the characters.

Motives are more difficult than one thinks, because most of the time people do things that make little sense either to themselves or to others. One thing I found useful about psychology (beyond the parties, alcohol and drugs: yeah, yeah, I wish) was how to write a psychodyanmic formulation: why a person has a particular problem at a particular time. You would try and link the current behaviour to the person’s history (defences, traumas, early attachments). It was like doing a massive person puzzle.

The bottom line is that we need to get more confessions from our characters before we write about them. Full confessions. Or we’ll lock them in a dungeon until they talk.

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Envy and loss

This piece (Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One) has caused a lot of controversy about whether writers are born or made. I don’t have an answer to that question. Is a plumber born or made? It could be that no one is born with a predetermined talent for plumbing, but then why would it be different for writers?

If I don’t know what makes a person a writer, I do know what made me a reader. I remember my best friend, aged four, climbing on her dad’s lap with a book and reading it to him. The idea that one could read a book had never occurred to me before! This is a worrying thought, because it must have meant that nobody ever read to me. I went home that day, driven by envy, opened a book and tried to read it.

Naturally I couldn’t, so my brother, aged about 12, taught me. His methods were simple, if brutal. He showed me the letters and their corresponding sounds before presenting words to me. If I couldn’t read a word, he hit me.  More precisely, he boxed me on the shoulder joint. Luckily, I learnt fairly quickly. letterland

A little while after that, my parents decided they needed a holiday and so off they went to Italy or Greece or the UK (in the terminology of 1980s South Africa: ‘overseas’). I was dumped with my best friend for three weeks – an eternity when you’re six – and I cried each night. Every few days my mother would phone me; she sounded like she was very far away, and possibly underwater. My friend gave me a book to read. I have no recollection of the story or the characters, but I remember that the book looked impressive with its hardback cover, its many pages. I’d carry it around with me, tenderly placing a bookmark in the last spot read.

So I’d say envy and loss were the spurs to my reading. I can’t say I’m sorry it happened that way, because those are very powerful stimulants, and I still love reading.