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Hidden City: The Creative Possibilities of Writing Stuff Down

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Karl Whitney © 6 April 2015.
Posted in the Magazine ( · General Interest · Interviews · Non-Fiction ).

If you were to ask me what the inspiration behind my book, Hidden City, was – it’s obvious: Dublin. It was the city where I grew up and where I lived most of my life. Of course I was going to write about it – it seems obvious. Or, at least, it does now.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t really believe in inspiration. You know, the kind of inspiration one might imagine artists – real artists, like writers of fiction and Picasso – might have. The artist sits in a sunny room sipping coffee, perhaps tapping away on the latest Apple laptop. Suddenly a vision grips them. They spring into action and compose a masterpiece. Seems a little religious for me, this belief in inspiration, and, speaking personally, God’s been pretty quiet lately.

I don’t buy it, this emphasis on inspiration – at least, that’s not the way I work. But I work exclusively in non-fiction, which is pretty much seen as ‘writing stuff down’ – a lesser art than imaginative writing like fiction and poetry, if it is an art at all. Some broad examples of non-fiction: cookbooks or books on how to maintain your dishwasher.

karl_whitney140x210But I’ve got to admit: writing stuff down is a key part of what I do. I carry a notebook with me at all times – a simple reporter’s notebook that you can get from any stationers. I keep it in my satchel or backpack or pocket, just in case I need to scribble something down. Often this will simply be a transcription of where I walk, who I talk to and what I see. Occasionally, I’ll note down an idea for a subject I want to write about, whether it’s connected to the project I’m working on or something I’ll do in the future.

Is this inspiration? It’s possible, but it rarely comes fully formed, and instead can often be a general idea – typically a one-sentence description – that I’ll keep in mind for weeks or months or even years before I start to write about it. I have a file on my computer where I list these ideas. Some of them are terrible and may never be used, but I like to have the option of looking at them again at some time in the future, just in case they’re better than I thought.

I like to think that nothing is wasted, but in fact plenty is – at all stages of the process you generate material and sculpt it down, all the time reminding yourself to be true to the scene you’ve witnessed or what the person you’ve interviewed has told you.

When deciding on how to go about writing the book, I read as much as I could about the methods of non-fiction writers – typically American writers, and often those who write, or wrote, for the New Yorker. One of the things that interested me was how they captured dialogue.

A key part of turning non-fiction writing into narrative – one of the things that separates something like Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk from, let’s say, Philip Golding’s Falconry & Hawking: The Essential Handbook – Including Equipment, Training and Health – is the creation of character. And character in non-fiction helps to drive narrative. You can glean practical details about training your hawk from Macdonald’s book, but you also get something more: real people living out a narrative in a compelling way.

Character is created through description – what the person’s wearing, how they carry themselves, how they appear to you, what actions they perform – but also through dialogue. There’s a tendency, in some narrative non-fiction that’s often historical and about people who are now dead and can’t engage in snappy repartee, to recreate dialogue. You’ll get a strong no from me on this one, not least because the dialogue it creates often doesn’t ring true – it’s phoney. If it reads as if the writer has invented dialogue to push the narrative along smoothly, it’s often because they have. What I’m saying here is that sometimes the imagination is not good enough.

For my purposes, good dialogue is unexpected – it pushes against the narrative, provides texture and grit, and gives the writer something he or she might never have thought up themselves.

An example – and please forgive me for quoting from my own book, but I’ll only do it briefly. I was investigating Dublin’s underground rivers for one of my book’s chapters and one morning I met Robert Buckle and Dave Greene of Dublin City Council’s drainage division, who take care of sewers and rivers in the city. We climbed down a ladder into the river Poddle, the small river that once provided Dublin with its first water supply and is now culverted beneath the city’s streets. I carried a digital camera in one hand and, hanging from a lanyard around my neck, was a Dictaphone that recorded everything we said. (In the finished chapter, the dialogue is minimal, but the transcript I made of the audio was a few thousand words long – there’s plenty of waste in this kind of writing, as I’ve said.)

As we walked through the tunnel, our flashlights illuminated the darkness. Then:

Robert stopped dead in his tracks and turned to Dave.

‘Who’s Noel Ryan?’ Robert said.

Dave said: ‘Who’s who? Noel Ryan?’

‘Did you ever hear of him? He came in here one night and sprayed his name on the wall.’

Robert turned his torch towards the wall, where Noel Ryan’s name was written in yellow paint.

(Hidden City, p.40)

I quote this not merely because all writers, including myself, are opportunistic solipsists who want to turn everything into an advertisement for themselves, but also because it strikes me I couldn’t have predicted, invented or imagined this dialogue. I didn’t even prompt it by asking Robert and Dave what they thought of that bright yellow graffiti in that dark place – they sprung into this quick-fire exchange that still amuses me, not least because of the oddly comic repetition of Noel Ryan’s name.

It might seem a small moment, and it doesn’t exactly drive the action on, but it communicates something I felt to be true about the people I had spent a couple of hours with: a playful humour that’s difficult to portray without giving the reader that moment.

Not all dialogue has this spark, but that’s why I record it, transcribe it and pick out what’s useful, what shines. The process of composition and editing can smooth a lot of edges and tidy things up, but hopefully still allows such moments of life to jump from the page. Writing stuff down has its own rewards, eventually.

(c) Karl Whitney

A native of Dublin, Karl Whitney has published essays in the Dublin Review, the White Review, and journalism in the Guardian, Belfast Telegraph and Irish Times. He is a research associate at the UCD Humanities Institute.  Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin is out now in paperback from Penguin, or pick up your copy online here.

About Hidden City

Dublin is a city much visited and deeply mythologized. In Hidden City, Karl Whitney – who has been described by Gorse as ‘Dublin’s best psychogeographer since James Joyce’ – explores the places the city’s denizens and tourists easily overlook.

Whitney finds hidden places and untold stories in underground rivers of the Liberties, on the derelict sites once earmarked for skyscrapers in Ballsbridge, in the twenty Dublin homes once inhabited by Joyce, and on the beach at Loughshinny, where he watches raw sewage being pumped into the shallows of the Irish Sea.

Hidden City shows us a Dublin – or a collection of Dublins – that we’ve never seen before, a city hiding in plain sight.

‘Ingenious and affectionate … It would be great then if the Americans and the Germans who come to Dublin in large numbers, and claim to love the city, had Whitney’s book in hand rather than, say, Ulysses, or some official guide book’ Colm Tóibín, Guardian

‘Marvellous … The author’s eye for observation is second to none … Hidden City is a necessary corrective to a heritage-influenced view of the past and present: for Whitney reminds us that all our environments are human – created for and maintained by us, for good and ill’ Daily Telegraph

‘This captivating urban tale has soul, scholarship and insights aplenty’ Sunday Times


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