(Even more than) 99 red balloons

I was sat in the Red Lion on Kingly Street the other day – excellent pub, it’s a Samuel Smiths house so the beer is both good and cheap, and there’s no music, so instead there’s just the wonderful susurrus of people just chatting – and I overheard someone say ‘I’ve spent four hours making over two hundred fucking balloon animals’.

That struck me as being quite an unusual comment, so I made a note of it. I then totally forgot I’d written it down, so coming on it just now I was surprised again. I can’t help wondering who this guy was, why he’d just spent so much time making balloon animals, and – come to think of it – who needs two hundred balloon animals anyway? A mystery…

Which set me thinking about the process of writing. The balloon animal comment was a piece of disrupted information, torn from its context. If I want to include it in a story, I’m going to have to give it back a context of some description. I could drop it into a broader narrative:

‘Dave had drifted into the balloon animal making world after college, and felt that he was wasting his talents – but he didn’t realise that one day, his skills would bring him fame and fortune…’

Or, I could use it to illustrate a character’s mood:

‘Waiting at the bar, Dave heard someone ranting. ‘I’ve just spent four hours making over two hundred fucking balloon animals’. The comment touched a nerve. The people around him seemed to be equally decorative, equally over-inflated, equally useless.’

And so on. The point is that I’m smoothing out. The comment caught my attention because it stood out from normal discourse. By dropping it into a fiction, I’m removing that quality, turning it into an absorbed part of a wider narrative / thematic whole.

It’s the story as a whole that I want to catch peoples’ attention, not its component parts – they should disappear into its overall impact, contributing to it without drawing too much awareness to themselves.

For me, that gives an interesting insight into the process of writing. Writing fiction is essentially a process of integration, taking a series of disparate elements and fusing them into a single, coherent whole. Each element only has use insomuch as it adds to that whole – if it distracts from it or jars against it, it should be excised.

And I wonder if there’s a broader comment about how we define ourselves lurking in there, too? My suspicion is that, in editing memory to create a working definition of the self, we function as narrative integrators in exactly the same way. We manipulate some experiences to support our own self definitions; we excise others that disagree with them.

Read thus, our selves themselves can be seen as entirely fictional constructs; carefully edited reality sets that support a very clearly defined sense of what we are or want to be. If that’s the case, does that make us less real? Or does it force us to look again at what we understand by fiction, realising that in fact it’s a lot more ‘real’ than it’s usually given credit for?

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