At Vida, writer Dallas Athent confronts one of the thorniest issues plaguing the literary scene: the unspoken nepotism-fueled culture of connections and reciprocal favors that determines who gets published where.
In her novel, The strange letter z, Debra Daley puts into the mouth of one of her characters an apt insight into what readers require from writers: “If you insist that the world is complicated you could at least offer an explanation or some dumb comfort.” Because it is, isn’t it? Complicated, I mean.
A precocious and mouthy boy, I quickly learned that the answer to certain questions was “Yes and no.” More perplexing, however, were those conundrums for which no meaningful explanation could be formulated. Memories of the prickling of childish truculence return to me now as I write.
Roland Barthes (see note below) asserts that language is neither an instrument nor a vehicle: it is a structure. “[Language] can never explain the world,” he writes, “or at least, when it claims to explain the world, it does so only the better to conceal its ambiguity” Does that perhaps count as “dumb comfort”? reassurance? inspiration? Or is it deception and treachery?
Susan Sontag, reminding us of Barthes’s assertion that the aim of literature is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’, also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric – often utopian – discourse.”
The rhetorician Quintilian (c 35–100 AD) famously asserted that we should not write so that it is possible for our readers to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us. That’s okay, as far as it goes; as Dada poet Tristan Tzara scornfully declares, “Any work of art that can be understood is the product of journalism.” Not all writing is intended as art, of course. But Tzara is pointing to something else: rather than telling readers what to think, literature must give them something to think about.
“Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” John Cage captures something of this when he writes: “There is nothing we need to do that isn’t dangerous.” Jesus, at his last supper with his disciples, said something similar: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:31, NRSV).
In the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies,
………. … For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
So writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (ibid). One might ask, at this point, whether it’s the world itself that scares us, or our interpretations. For me, some of the most satisfactory answers to such questions come from Zen, which teaches that “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise” (from the Lankavatara Sutra). Alan Watts puts it another way: “Whose mouth could possibly be big enough to describe things as they are? (cited by Timothy Freke – see note below)
“Nothing but lies come out of my mouth,” said the master. “There – see! I’ve just done it again.” (ibid)
American writer, reporter, and political commentator, Walter Lippmann considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads. In his view, we’re all caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.” Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R Powers, writing about what they dubbed “the global village”, braid threads from Lippmann’s thesis together with the ancient Buddhist teachings when they assert, “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality.” Which is a neat fit with words from the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”
For Carlos Fuentes, “Writing is a struggle against silence.” But I think he’s referring to something other than the silence Ludwig Wittgenstein meant when he wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7). The struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (Sylvia Plath)
The image “Z grand rouge” comes from a web site calling itself New Z Testament. It’s a web-based game of some sort, but seems to be updating its server at present.
Daley, D. 1995 [“Copyright © 1995 by Debra Daley”]. The strange letter z. Auckland: Penguin Books. [p54]
Roland Barthes’s essay, ‘Authors and Writers’ dates from 1960. Published in Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil. In 1982, it was included in A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Susan Sontag’s words are cited from her Introduction to A Barthes Reader [pp x-xi].
Freke, Timothy. 1977. Zen wisdom : Daily teachings from the Zen Masters. New York: Sterling Publishing Company Inc.
McLuhan & Powers. 1992. The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers from Oxford University Press Canada.
There are times – yes, you know them, you have them, too – when the world clicks into a new position and nothing can ever be quite the same again. Or maybe it isn’t the world that goes ‘click’. Maybe it’s something that happens in the mind, as a response to or a consequence of one’s experiences. Okay, I need to be specific.
For more than three years I have been professing that I’m writing a novel. It’s not the first I’ve attempted – my personal history is littered with the wreckage of those failed projects. My previous major writing effort – ‘clinically obese’ might be an appropriate diagnosis – boasted double the planned word-count, and it was only halfway through when eventually abandoned.
In recent days I’ve been looking back over the text which purports to be the stuff of the ‘new’ novel (working title: You Wouldn’t Dare). The opening scene I wrote on ‘day one’ is delicious, delectable. I’m really keen to continue. But aside from a few promising scenes, very little of the rest of it will find itself in the final draft.
So what’s clicked? what’s shifted? It’s something I’m still fathoming. In the meantime Vincent van Gogh’s advice is pertinent:
“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint … and that voice will be silenced.”
It was the old-school typewriter that made me look. It was the headline that made me look twice.
Michelle at The Green Study writes: “There are many people who write/blog/create memes about writing. I know – I’ve read or seen many of them, because it was something that I could do instead of write. I don’t experience muses or inspiration or manic writing. I lost the poetry of my adolescent years and the sentimentality of my twenties. My thirties were dominated by marriage and child-rearing. And here I am, wrapping up my forties in a clusterfuck of unresolved personal issues and middle-aged angst.”
Over the last few years, I’ve written blog post after blog post about making changes with a mind towards writing. I quit paid work. I quit volunteering. I set up my study, surrounded by books, many of them about writing. I am supported by the people in my life. I talk about writing. I read about writing. I write about writing. On occasion, I even write things that aren’t about writing.
The only person in my life who doesn’t take me seriously as a writer is me.
The door is open wide and I look desperately out of windows, jumping at anything that is not writing. It’s an odd compulsion that I’m at a loss to explain. I read somewhere that writing is hardest for writers. This makes no sense to me. When I’m in my writing groove, I’m so damned happy. But I’m a dilettante, without rigor or…
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Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of another.
– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
“Nobody understands you because you are Alan Turing reborn. Haruki Murakami with extra wasabi. Yoko Ono on steroids and the beating heart of Jaden Smith’s Twitter account. Plants vilify you in the chasm between the primate amygdala and reptilian metacarpals. Buttermilk splash in your eyes when the red dawn of the event horizon explodes like a gokkun glass on the floor. Space pizzas and gorilla tits. Pimple soup. Keanu Reeves. Exactly.”
Read the full item here: 9 Sure-fire Tips to Expand Your Mind!
“You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. “
1. You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. Be honest in creation: allow yourself to bleed into the work, but also allow it to work on you. Your work can show you things: illuminate and clarify your own thoughts, motivations, actions. If you do it right, you will find the work changing you, too.
2. Thinking is process. Laying on the floor. Sitting on park benches. Getting lost on purpose. These are all working. Learn the difference between mindless distraction and mindful wandering.
3. Go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes the work isn’t about what you think it is. Allow yourself to get lost down alleyways, to follow a train of thought around a corner. Don’t feel you need to reign yourself in. Too much focus squeezes all the possibility for revelation out of the work.
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After a simple lunch of donburi chicken from Wasabi Sushi in the James Cook Arcade, I returned to Lambton Quay and found myself standing under a canopy of gingko gold.
The photograph below – taken a little further down the street – is exactly thirteen months old. Click on it for a look at the piece I posted on 08 May 2014.
The round moon rises,
rises above the high black
hill. Clouds await her.
(Monday 04 May 2015)