In 1940 a French soldier, Olivier Messian – was captured during the German invasion and marched to a prisoner of war camp. Over several days of enforced marching, he began composing, first in his head, and then later with a borrowed pencil. In the POW camp he found, miraculously, a piano, and so he completed his composition which was first performed in 1941 to an audience of prisoners and guards. Unexpectedly, Quartet for the End of Time, is a stunningly beautiful piece of music, celebratory, elegiac, joyous. Listening to it, I am forced to ask:
What do we do, as humans, when faced with our own destruction?
At our best, the answer to that is this: we make life, we make art. It is the most subversive, dangerous thing we can do. It is the most courageous, the most human. The desire to create is a perfect response to brutality. Messian’s desire changed not just his own story, but the story of everyone in that camp. Of course, what he wanted was freedom. But there was one place he could find it: in composition. For Messain, the creation of his work became a concrete, dominating desire.
Desire is the driving force of narrative. It is the driving force of art, and of life. Yet all desire will involve some wrestling, some obstacles. This is narrative structure 101: someone wants something, someone stands in their way.
I believe that the narrative structure of story is echoed in the structure of writing. In writing, we are often looking for certainty – if I do X, then the result will be Y. But it is not always that certain. Writing is not algebra. It is in the wrestling with uncertainty that we find truth. This is where we find life, where we find art.
We think of the protagonist of the story as ‘the one who leads the story’ or perhaps ‘the one at the centre of the action’. The star. The centre. In fact, the word protagonist is from the Ancient Greek and it literarily translates as: the first to struggle. In other words, the struggle is the point. The struggle is the thing that makes the character transform. Even Miley Cyrus knew that, back when she sang ‘The Climb’.
And here’s the thing: you are the protagonist of your story. You are the protagonist of your creation. So it is your drive and your desire that will make the work happen. But it’s the struggle in the writing, those moments of challenge and difficulty, that will transform you into the writer you can be.
To use a religious metaphor, in the long dark night of the soul, the moment when you are utterly lost – and if you are writing a novel, there will be one – is the moment of greatest transformation, greatest hope. Think of all those stories which hinge on the moment where all is lost, which turn out to be the moment of the protagonist finding their greatest strength. This moment is necessary not merely for the protagonist, but also for the creator. How much pressure is needed to create diamonds? How much grit for pearls?
The jewel is created through the pressure of your own conflict; through the grit of your own doubt, your own uncertainty.
We find our Quartet for the End of Time, our own compulsion to create, by listening not just to our desires, but by responding to our own doubts and weaknesses. In them, there is, paradoxically, great strength.
The process of writing – of getting lost, of wrestling with desire and weakness – mirrors the process of character transformation.
Do you see? You are being transformed, by art, as art is transforming the reader, the culture, and the characters you have breathed into life.
Today, embrace the struggle, embrace the failure, the mistakes, the difficulties. Celebrate them. Because this is where the transformation is.
Regardless of how the news cycle might feel – we are not at the end of time. But we are in a period when our courage and our decency is required. And it seems to me that one of the most violently hopeful, determinedly subversive, wildly radical things that we can do is to tell our stories. All you need is a pencil, a desire, and the courage to struggle.