“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
It’s been a while.
Though I’ve done this blogging thing for a decade +, seasons of quiet are par for the course. I’m not sure why: weariness, busyness, distraction, not much to say. Or all of the above. For whatever reason, the last four months have disappeared – wordless – without a trace.
It’s not just the blogging. Journaling, poetry, reading: it’s been zip on all fronts. The inkwell has been dry, and honestly, when arid sets in you begin to wonder why you do it at all. Except I know, deep down, that being wordless is not a state of health. Not for me.
“All those things for which we have no words are lost.” I’m not sure the sublime Annie Dillard had in mind my dearth of blogging when she penned this sentence, but it strikes a gentle blow no less. Words make flesh. Words remember. Words name and hold things secure. It’s a reminder, too, that when all is said and done, I write for me. Indulgent it might sound, but writing is how I find myself.
So, hear I am again. Blogging for year #12. In search of a word or two … or three.
After twenty-eight glorious days of writing leave, I’m back at work. Though it’s been a bumpy landing, I’m glad to come back to a good job, good colleagues and a terrific community, and all in Melbourne’s best neighbourhood. I’m grateful, too, for an employer who still believes writing is worth my time.
Just today I dropped by the regular Friday morning café for my weekly liturgical meal of eggs and mushrooms. Away for a month, it was nice to be missed.
‘Where did you go?’ my waiter asked as I took my seat.
‘What did you do there?’ He’s a pushy bloke; a Frenchman with not a skerrick of reserve.
‘Write?’ he asked, his eyebrows raised. ‘Really? Why would you do that?’
I laughed. ‘Because I can’t help myself.’
I can’t really. In fact, the older I get the more I need to write. I don’t know why. It’s not because I’m especially good at it. ‘Ok’ has to be good enough most of the time. There is nothing like the exceptional writing of others to keep aspirations modest. And it’s not the need to be read either. Truth be told, ninety-percent of what I write will never see the light of day. It has something to do with the way I’m built. If I’m not writing, I’m not doing well.
Before I went away, I read a piece by the English journalist Laurie Penny titled, ‘Why I Write.’ It was timely, a good dose of encouragement to take with me. In the midst of her writerly wisdom, there were two things I packed away.
First, the normalcy of this obsession. As with with all compulsions, I suppose, those who are struck with it are those who understand it. Like singers who sing or runners who run, those who write know the urge from the inside. ‘Most of today’s best never expected to be widely read but wrote anyway,’ Penny says. ‘They write not because they think that a writer is something somebody like them really ought to be, but because they can do nothing else without betraying their own spirit. They write because if they don’t get the words out, they would be eaten away from the inside. They write because they have no choice.’
So, I’m not completely odd.
Second, the permission to keep at it. Honestly, sometimes I feel guilty about writing. Surely, I think to myself, it’s only the precociously gifted who can justify the time it demands. Not so, Penny says. In this, the ‘golden age of writing’, never before have so many written so much and published so easily — from the inane to the sublime and everything in between. No longer do we inhabit the age of the Alexandrian library, a ‘finite and fragile’ collection all shelved within easy reach. ‘We are in a vaster, stranger place altogether,’ Penny writes, ‘and the number of stories yet to tell sends recalcitrants into a delicious panic.’ And then this: ‘The shelves are stacked with the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the obscene, slush and trash and death notes and love letters, and somewhere in the dark of the farthest stacks are volumes yet to be written. One of them is yours. Make it count.’
I’ll keep trying.
Decades ago, while ferreting away at a doctoral thesis, I came across the confession of a writer whose name I cannot remember. ‘I write best,’ she said, ‘when I am in places of low level human activity.’ While the profound metre will barely twitch for most, it was for me a kindred moment.
I have always written most easily in cafes. While I love a good library — the older and grander the better — and the book-lined study is a gift, there is something about the right cafe that ratchets up my creativity, even my concentration. Of course, the wrong cafe is just wrong — the one where the music is too loud, the tables crowded and spaced too greedily together. Or those where lingerers are clearly unwelcome. But the right space is as wonderful as it is rare.
In an essay on writing, the poet and novelist Jay Parini describes his own right places, diners mainly, where for the price of a coffee he has felt the hospitality to spend hours lost in words.
‘What I liked about Lou’s was the distant clatter of dishes, the purr of conversation, and the occasional interruption of a friend. Restaurants provide a kind of white noise, but — unlike real white noise — the sound is human. Noses are blown. People cough. You’re reminded of the world of phlegm and disgestion. And you feel connected. There is also a strange but unmistakable connection between cooking and writing — writing like cooking, is a bringing together of elemental substances for transmutation over a hot flame. It seems fitting that writing and cooking should be going on simultaneously under the same roof.’
‘As people are quick to point out, writing is a desperately lonely activity; although writing in restaurants doesn’t exactly solve that problem, it somewhat softens it. Surrounded by people you don’t necessarily have to interract with, you feel free to concentrate. Once I’m involved in the tactile process of writing — the pleasurable transference of emotions and ideas into language — I find that I don’t really have to worry about concentration. If I can’t concentrate, it means I’m working on the wrong thing or I probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason for not writing, I don’t blame the restaurant.’
Another kindred moment.
Jay Parini, ‘Writing in Restaurants’ in A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food, ed. Bonnie Marranca, New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2003, 57-61.
‘For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition.’
Marilynne Robinson, ‘Freedom of Thought’ in When I Was a Child I Read Books, London: Virago, 2012, 6.
Colin Nissan offers some sage advice for people who write, or perhaps better said, those who aspire to write but are too busy thinking about it to actually do it. Can’t say I endorse it all (blush), but it’s food for thought!
‘Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.’
‘Procrastination is an alluring siren taunting you to google the country where Balki from Perfect Strangers was from, and to arrange sticky notes on your dog in the shape of hilarious dog shorts. A wicked temptress beckoning you to watch your children, and take showers. Well, it’s time to look procrastination in the eye and tell that seafaring wench, “Sorry not today, today I write.”’
ASK FOR FEEDBACK
‘It’s so easy to hide in your little bubble, typing your little words with your little fingers on your little laptop from the comfort of your tiny chair in your miniature little house. I’m taking this tone to illustrate the importance of developing a thick skin. Remember, the only kind of criticism that doesn’t make you a better writer is dishonest criticism. That, and someone telling you that you have weird shoulders.’
KEEP IT TOGETHER
‘A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.’
I only went to make up the numbers. Though a member of Writers Victoria for a few years, I’ve never ventured into an AGM. I only did so this time because of a last-minute email plea for participants to make quorum. I felt obliged.
What I found was a small but passionate group of people practically committed to the life and work of local writers. An idiosyncratic crowd for sure, but inspiring no less. Addicted to this writing business myself, it was reassuring to meet a sample of this previously amorphous community ‘in the flesh’.
There are similar groups to this in every state and territory of Australia, but Victoria’s membership dwarfs them all (AGM attendance aside!). What is it about Victoria, and Melbourne in particular, and the written word? One of its writers Sonya Hartnett describes this city as uniquely and historically ‘bookish’, and another, Sophie Cunningham, ‘a city that lives in its head.’ According to historians, it has ever been so. Even in the early days of the colony, artists, writers and ‘bohemians’ were drawn here in significant numbers. Today, I am told, Melbourne is home to a third of Australia’s writers, a third of the nation’s bookstores, and accounts for over 40 per cent of national book sales.
With great fanfare, Melbourne was officially recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature back in 2008, only the second city to be designated as such after Edinburgh. Today we share the podium with six other cities around the world. In a recent essay in the journal Meanjin, the authors note the qualifications unique to each of these cities, Melbourne’s being tied less to its literary history and more to the bookish interests of its residents. They have us tagged!
I’m not sure any of this means much. As for the cache of ‘urban cool’ this bestows upon us, I suspect it’s more in our imagination than anywhere else. Indeed, the above essay makes the suggestion that the diversity of Melbourne’s current literary interests is as much a result of the city’s ‘less-than-lovely geography’, a factor that keeps us all indoors and reading, than anything more glamorous.
Still, however we got this way, I like it. A bookish city. That’ll do me.
Sonya Hartnett, Life in Ten Houses: A Memoir, Melbourne: Penguin, 2012, 9.
Sophie Cunningham, Melbourne, Sydney: New South, 2011, 7.
Caroline Hamilton & Kirsten Searle, ‘Great Expectations–Making a City of Literature’ in Meanjin (1/2014), 142-151.
To coincide with the Melbourne Writers Festival and our own season of films and books, we’ve invited the poet Cameron Semmens to be our writer-in-residence at Collins Street. As part of his residency, Cameron has offered two writing workshops, one last weekend called micro-memoirs and another this Sunday, creativity and spirituality.
As a writer of prose, I’ve always thought of what I do with words as the art of fleshing things out, describing, explaining, painting pictures with a volume of colour. It’s expansive. As a poet, Cameron is about an economy of words, reducing things down to their simplest form, the most careful selection of words, but those that get to the very heart of things. And he does it beautifully. Not only so, but as he worked with a group less experienced in such things, what he drew out of us was powerful.
Listening to Cameron and watching his passion for words reminded me of a short essay I read a few months back by the English novelist Mark Haddon. It’s in a quirky collection of pieces called Stop What You’re Doing and Read This. Haddon recalls his early infatuation with words that could transport him to another world and his subsequent passion as a writer with the arrangement of words that will transport others.
“It was not simply the way these writers lit up inside my head, but the fact that they did so by selecting and rearranging words you could hear at the bus stop. Thirty four years later and I have to keep reminding myself how extraordinary this is. No rabbit, no hat, no camera, no canvas. Select the right words and put them in the write order and you can run a cable into the hearts of strangers.”
This really is the miracle of writing: a simple act of arrangement and those ‘words that you could hear at the bus stop’ become those that burrow into the heart and change things.
OK, so it was on the clearance table for $6. For the title alone I thought it was worth the money. The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art is a collection of essays by the North American author Joyce Carol Oates, each one previously published in other places. Most of it I happily read, though some parts with more care than others.
In the essay To a Young Writer, Oats offers the following:
“Never be ashamed of your subject, and of your passion for your subject.”
“Your ‘forbidden’ passions are likely to be the fuel for your writing.”
“Your struggle with your buried self, or selves, yields your art; … Without these ill-understood drives you might be a superficially happier person, and a more involved citizen of your community, but it isn’t likely that you will create anything of substance.”
“Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances, and compare yourself to others among your peers! Writing is not a race. No one really ‘wins.’ The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.”
“Read widely, and without apology. Read what you want to read, not what someone tells you you should read.”
In Inspiration!, Oates quotes writer James Joyce from a letter to his brother Stanislaus:
“There is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do … to give people a kind of intellectual or spiritual pleasure by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own … for the mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.”
And this rather too convicting aside from her essay The Enigmatic Art of Self-Criticism:
“The strain of trying always to write beautifully, with originality, with ‘exultant’ force can be self damning, paralyzing. There is both vanity and humility in the despair of the perfectionist …”
To write about writing is an odd business. As with George Orwell’s essay Why I Write (one I commented on a few days back), to do it profitably requires a level of self-awareness, even vulnerability, that few are prepared to risk. What’s more, to write about one’s own writing can end up being more self-indulgent than anything genuinely empowering of others. That said, the few who do it well do it very well. The North American writer Anne Lamott is one of those.
Lamott is a gifted writer … disarmingly honest, often funny and always real. The giveaway is just how easy she makes it look. Which, of course, it’s not. Her popular autobiographical Travelling Mercies is one the most captivating spiritual memoirs I’ve read.
This book, Bird by Bird, is her reflection on writing. There so much that’s good in what she says. If you are at all interested in writing, either as observer or participant, it’s well worth your time.
Some quotes out of context:
On the value of writing:
‘ … publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed to tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.’
On the spirituality of books:
‘ … for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that our of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us to understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift.’
On the blight of perfectionism:
‘ … perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force … Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground–you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.’
On the vulnerability that good writing requires:
‘ … you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not to go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in–then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.’