In a White Room with Black Curtains Near the Station -- Dianne Pearce

This fabulous song by Cream has been in my mind this week, primarily because of the first line of the lyrics, which is the title of this post.

I work as an editor, and over the past week have edited a mystery novel, one collection of short stories that are acting as a novel when put together, and five mini pieces from five different authors as part of a small workshop I held, and they were one mystery, two sci-fi/speculative, two memoir/non-fiction. And as part of this week's editing I have encountered a few times what I have come to think of as "the white room," and with that, because that is just how my mind works, the Cream song quickly follows (I do love that song, so maybe any excuse? I mean, those lyrics are great!) Other than containing the white room, the Cream song doesn't actually apply here, but maybe it will help us remember the concept.

And perhaps a famous author we have all heard of was also inspired by the Cream song, because she is the correct age to be so influenced, and because look at this director's rendering of her vision:

There's no black curtains, but it is a white room, not near, but in the station. Kings Cross?

So, in the above photo, for the characters in that story, being in the white room is not a bad thing, but, even at that, they cannot stay there forever. Some of the pieces I worked with this week were attempting to do that; they arrived, for reading, in the white room, and they never left.

I think, to understand where I'm heading, I would like you to remember a conversation you might have with a friend at a coffee shop, in your living room, walking through a store. You probably were not in a white room, and you probably did not get to say what you wanted to say without being interrupted by the person listening, or by ambient noises or smells or sights around you, that sort of thing.

The best way I can think of to have that same conversation you are remembering in the white room is to get on a call, preferably on a landline, and to begin to tell your friend a story. Here is how to do it: Your friend must answer the phone without speaking, so there are no words, but also no phone ringing. Just quiet, but you assume someone is there. You may stop for breath, but not long enough for your friend to comment. You must just start telling a story, "Well, I went to get my hair cut last week," and keep going for an uncomfortable amount of minutes. And when you finish, you say, "Goodbye," and hang up before your friend can respond.

I was brilliant on the kitchen phone when I was fifteen, long spiral cord wrapped around the turn from our kitchen to our dining room and again from our dining room into my mother's beloved formal living room. I could do the dance of conversation with my friends lightly, and never step on a toe because I knew it was Renee's turn to talk, then mine, then Renee tells me something else, and we laugh, but not too much because then I need to be able to speak, and we go back and forth, just as these girls are doing:

and Renee has seen my mother's living room, and I have seen her mother's, so we each know where the other is, and what is likely to be going on: both loading the dinner dishes into the dishwasher because it is our chore, and we do it on the phone together every night, retreating back and forth into our respective living rooms when the conversation requires more privacy. But, being on a phone call like that, working like a well-oiled conversation machine, is rare, and requires a deep connection so that you don't step on each other's toes.

The white room is like a phone call, but Harry, Dumbledore, Renee, or Jack Bruce (vocalist of Cream) are not on the other end of the line, and there is no way to tell if anyone is there, or where the message is being received, or if it even is. And that is what I saw a lot in the pieces I worked on editing this week, stories that existed in the white room.

Stories in the white room means that a narrator, first person or otherwise, is narrating, and no one else is doing much of anything. Someone begins a non-fiction piece describing trees, goes on to write about human activity, continues with thoughts on the natural world, but never once says, "Oh, dear reader, I am here, in this place, and the reason I am saying this is, and the people I am saying this to are...." In another piece a character, a first-person narrator, starts discussing his childhood, describing it in great detail, then goes on to tell about his relationship with his father, and keeps going to describe a particularly unpleasant date, which is where the story ends. In no sentence does the author give a scene, a reason for the stories being told in the first place, a setting, any dialogue, or any indication of an observer or listener. 

Kids of a certain age (ten and under?) do this to their parents. They come out of school bursting to tell some story, and they proceed to tell it, laughing uproariously the whole time, and parents understand that the story will mean nothing to them, but the telling of it is the child re-experiencing some good time, and is really a one-person event.

In writing, though, we need more. We really cannot tell a good story, do a good muse on nature, even write a good poem, IMHO, without putting it into a context of some sort. There have to be surroundings; there may need to be a listener to the story if it is being told. Often we can help our readers if we give a reason for the story to be told in the first place. 

So if you should not try to tell with no scene, no observer, how did this guy get away with it?

Many of the images I see for that soliloquy look like this:

But this guy says there isn't a skull in the original, and that perhaps actors kept forgetting to put the skull down, and it ended up being a thing. 

It's a funny idea, but why would actors have wanted to keep the skull? Because it's not great being in the white room. Luckily for Hamlet, he is an actor, and his soliloquy is designed to be performed, not read silently to oneself, and so he is not really in a white room when he does it, and he may hold a skull, or walk around, or do other things to enliven a fairly good-sized speech.

But in general, a story cannot be fictional character Margaret retelling what her wedding was like, or memoir Ben musing about the first time he was stung by a bee, or omniscient Ollie telling a tale of a bank heist, without some context. We need a scene, not an empty stage; we need a listener or observer, even if it is only a skull that the narrator holds in his/her/their hands. We need movement, or, if the narrator is immobile, we need some remarks on that, the discomfort in the glutes, maybe. I'm having that right now. The author can, but perhaps should think better of, simply saying, "Once upon a time I had a splinter in my foot. So I went to the drugstore and bought some tweezers, and once I had limped back home, I sat on the sofa and removed my shoe. And, from there, it was rather easy to pull out the wood. And it was very small, and sharp, and I am glad I was able to retrieve it before it worked its way deep into my foot. The end."

What? Who are you? Why are you telling this story? Who are you telling it to? What do I need to know about you? Why do I care? And so many more questions I could ask....

There's a reason no Disney princesses have viable parents: it's easier on the story not to have to deal with them, but it makes the story less good.

You cannot treat your story, fiction or non-fiction, like a Disney princess. It needs... perhaps an origin, or a context, a time and place, maybe a character beyond the narrator, possibly that last one even if it is non-fiction and the narrator is you. I know that often getting a whole story down can be tough, and we may begin by just telling: this happened and then this and then this and then this and then the end. Fair enough. But then we have to go back in and bring it to life. Nothing can exist in the white room for long. Even though we're intrigued by Harry and Dumbledore being in a misty and ethereal Kings Cross it only works because they are there together, and they do not stay long.

Don't you stay there either. ;)


Peter Leyland said…
Thank you for this Dianne which I much enjoyed reading. The concept of the white room as a creative space which we can fill with our fictional or non-fictional ideas came home to me after some reading and reflection. I remember well Jack Bruce, the child musical genius whose teacher didn't like his compositions. I once published an article on this. His co-lyricist Pete Brown of whom a few poems I have in the anthology, Love, Love, Love (1967) was part responsible for the fantastic lines - 'You said no strings would secure you at the station...' which is a story in itself. That was the year I saw Cream play at Southport Floral Hall (UK) with a never to be forgotten set.

Will look later at the music from The Vietnam War. Vietnam, where I was a wedding guest and visited The War Remnants Museum as mentioned on these pages in September.

Great post
Dianne Pearce said…
Peter, thank you so much for your very interesting and kind response! You have seen most of the bands I love! You are a lucky man.

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