The Writer at Work: The Job

The Writer at Work: The Job

Writers are a particular genus, a species with their own reproductive drives, habitats, ecocycles, nesting habits and they can be subdivided into a diversity of groups with specific characteristics. But if I were you, gentle reader, I would avoid them like the fabled Black Plague. I know from bitter and relentless experience, I live with a writer in my head and she is a most demanding and contrary bitch. She is by nature nocturnal, the country of night is her domain whether working or dreaming and sometimes both. She has never demonstrated anything vaguely resembling the vestiges of reasonable behaviour, she’s constantly pregnant with language having failed to find any effective form of contraception and she has all the whims and moodiness of a virgin mother. She needs strange fruit, baths at 2 a.m. and appears and disappears without warning. You never know if she’ll come back, you never know when she’s likely to arrive. She lacks manners and grace. To say that we are deeply interwoven in a love-hate relationship as we navigate the serpentine way of art, life, love and creation is a genuine understatement. There is a substantial part of my head which never, ever stops observing and recording.

As Jean Cocteau wrote the ‘poet doesn’t dream, he counts’. He was right, he often was, it was a fault he suffered from. However even in the most devastating moments of tragedy in my life, in the throes of drunkenness or deep melancholia there remains a part of my head which continues to click over, like an antiquated computer, codifying information, analysing erroneous components, recombining constituents, accessing data bases from the past, aligning elements, dismissing the obvious surfaces, excavating interiors. This form of detachment within the maelstrom of human experience must be some kind of bio-genetic indicator of our alien ancestry. I am fatally attracted to human beings and their mutiplicitous interactions; I watch myself and others chart difficult waters and I postulate a range of outcomes obsessively. It is not that I am indifferent to the experience merely that I appear to be processing information and emotion on two entirely disparate levels. The first level is immediate, responsive and almost completely engrossing. The second level is a little more difficult to explicate: it has a diffuse, numinous quality to it. Its a little like watching a film in which you’re acting being projected onto some interior screen inside your head. The experience is happening to me, at the same time I’m watching it with an odd sense of detachment, a process of observation without necessarily any conscious input. That comes later, on the cutting floor, in the editing suite of Dante’s Inferno. To be both absolutely complicit in all the intricacies of human experience and to be explicitly placed outside and aware of the experience is to be permanently in an absurd situation.

We are speaking of a clinical condition here, a psychopathology which would bear further investigation, but few observers of the dragon will enter the actual lair. And it is most definitely within the dark, englamoured caverns of the dragon writer’s unconscious that the most interesting creatures live. Before we embark on this journey into the Royal Maze, as the original inhabitants of Crete described the palace of the Minotaur, let me caution you again, reader, that you enter it with me at your own risk. But perhaps we should divert ourselves a little before we begin this onerous task with some of the more obnoxious qualities of species writer.

My species are a cantankerous mob and they bear their perceived afflictions with varying degrees of decrepitude and vitriol. Most improve with age and the bearing of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Some decline into permanent moody adolescence, never to transcend it. However, it must be said, all writers are riddled with moral duplicity when it comes to their work. Despite frequent high jumps for primacy on the moral high ground of art, life, politics whatever it is a rare writer who can resist making a good story into a great one. In this we are not so far from our paparazzi cousins, though few writers would care to acknowledge any relationship. Literary history abounds in disgraceful examples. Members of Joseph Conrad’s family refused to speak to him after novels in which they recognised aspects of themselves or their experiences. Robert Lowell’s daughter is said to have despised her father’s public exposure of his family in his poetry, the Moslems still retain the right to assassinate Salman Rushdie for his Satanic Verses. Caitlin Thomas’ (wife to Dylan) remarkable novel Left Over Life to Live is an astonishing and almost endless feat of vehement cartharses in which she confronts her husband’s deadly literary inheritance.

I could go on and on but it is not very post-modern of me since the prevailing ethos is that writers are dead and don’t write from their own experience and creativity should be a misch-masch of something I don’t quite understand anymore. Perhaps I never did. Texts are no longer sacrosanct and the cut-up is all. Like most artists, writers don’t have much time for being told what they should or should not be doing, let alone how. Meanwhile post-modernism blows us one way and an older tradition decries the loss of literary privilege (if that is what it was) and here at the burgeoning of the third millennium we sit at computers and drink tea. Nothing, in my experience, is as terrifying or as irresistible as the blank page. The beginning. What monster shall I birth today?

What is hiding in the crevices of memory and has managed to percolate its devious substance onto the text before me? When I began this piece of flippancy it surely was not heading down this particular highway. This remark is pertinent to everything I have ever written, the words have a way of telling their own story, of shaping their own maps, of making their own decisions. And as for creating characters for theatre I can only assume that they come with their own agendas. I remember very clearly when I was planning the structure of The Wish Palace that it was critical that the two leading characters did not fall in love, I wanted them to be friends, an intimate and deeply powerful interplay between two oppositional psyches, but not in love and certainly not romantic love. Within the first ten pages they defied me absolutely and were obviously very much in love before I had even stepped onto their stage. Now The Wish Palace was a difficult play at the best of times for its thematic concerns revolved around the disenfranchisement of the young, the stigma of madness and the seething morass of conundrums which constitutes notions of identity. More than anything with its intense lyricism, its structural challenges and its subject material it was never going to be the stuff of Gone with the Wind and I was fairly certain its critical reception was likely to be stormy if not downright malevolent. Meanwhile I had to construct it under siege by the lead characters who knew exactly what they wanted to do but rarely chose to inform me. What does one do with these contrary creatures? Mostly they are best left alone.

So is the writer. If you befriend one take care, he or she will co-opt your life’s experiences almost unconsciously, will create you and re-create you in guises that you had never imagined. It can be a bitter experience. Or a liberating one. I have rarely found it flattering but I should confess now that my greatest delusion is that I have no delusions. I should confess I suppose to a multitude of sins, the least of which is my capacity for self-indulgence. I will claim it now as part of my artistic entitlement and you shall have to bear with me. I am also an inveterate voyeur, I cannot seem to forgo the vicarious and clandestine habit of eavesdropping on the most personal conversations of innocent persons in coffee shops, analysing them, reshaping and fabricating imaginary lives for perfect strangers.

Recently I heard a priest-like creature, obviously devoted to the Western Canon of literature, remark that biography is merely a formal cultural representation of the artist’s capacity for self-deception. Such a characteristic remark is a benchmark of an era pervaded by nihilism and self-fulfilling prophecies of doom when it comes to any creative endeavour at this junction in time. Nothing is really quite as boring as the pontification of the self-appointed critical elite and only those not actually working in the filth and grime at the coal face of their art can usually afford it. They don’t have time. Art’s a dirty business.

In any case I have never intended for this work to be a biography. No, unfortunately, I wanted to do something much more difficult than that. I also began this work with the very best intentions and that is nearly always fatal. I wanted to construct a kind of literary anthropology, a pseudo-scientific study of the writer at work across a broad spectrum of endeavours and an investigation of the murky interrelationship between life and art. This was utter madness but I am genetically prone to that, too.

In its widest sense anthropology is loosely defined as ‘the scientific study of mankind’. Scientists have always taken refuge in the idee fixee of scientific objectivity to give god-like credibility to their discoveries. (You will have to forgive me this wild generalisation.) Even with the emergence of heresies such as Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty there is still a notion that scientific knowledge is an absolute, that it represents unassailable truths. This privileging of truth has always deeply enraged me given its dubious basis. For truth is a strange and elusive concept at the best of times, it has shades, nuances, colours and seems to be particular to each human being. I cannot concede it the quality of objectivity. Artists have rarely bothered with lengthy philosophical investigations into the nature of truth, it is assumed it is inherent in the work, a piece of music bespeaks the heart, a poem shapes breath and tears, a sculpture cuts like a scalpel into the gristle of the soul, it is enough, it requires no further explication.

But to return to my ‘anthropology’. I have consciously, and possibly unconsciously, shaped both its truths and its lies of omission for a variety of reasons; sometimes I did not wish to reveal myself, the concerns of other people in my life placed their own constraints, threats of libel and slander did not particularly concern me but a quality of respect for privacy often occluded the journey I wished to pursue. I found that I could not plunder the dead or the living beings who constellated such powerful energies in my life with the rapacity that I had initially intended. For between the intention and the act fell the shadow that T.S Elliot knew so well, the infinite gap, the place that old cartographers marked on maps as Here Be Dragons. For there are some things that just cannot be framed in language no matter how one plumbs the void seeking to call the nameless into form, to give concrete existence to the powers of the amorphous and yet such elements of experience wield other forms of energy. This shadowland can be dangerous country, it is a landscape fraught with echoes of madness and unnameable perils. Best left alone.

At heart I am an explorer, I cannot resist the mapless interior, it is endlessly intriguing to me whether it resides within myself or other people. I wanted to travel to that far-flung borderland country in the psyche and the imagination where art and life exchange some incremental energy. This is a place of ambivalence, the citadel between night and day, sleeping and waking, there is nothing here that needs to be affirmed or denied, merely observed. More than anything it is a land of alchemy. I had a need to excavate the threads and strands of experience that shaped the form and texture of my artistic work. It was a Grail quest and like most querants I met both success and failure and far stranger creatures. Ultimately it was the journey that mattered.

Consequently Leaves is an eclectic work and the first section is very different to the second, perhaps they belong to two entirely different lives lived by the same person. I don’t think I am unduly schizophrenic but I do consider it unwise to aspire to sanity in the vicious world in which we live. The truth is actually much more brutal for the first section of Leaves has been excavated from a time in my life which was pervaded by the untimely death of my oldest son and the second section belongs to the time after the birth of my youngest son. It interests me that in a time of almost unimaginable grief that I could produce such a wealth of material, it was as if I had to create something in the face of such a gaping abyss of negation. At that time I felt almost transparent as if birds could fly through me so insubstantial was my relationship to the living and yet a kind of unforgiving energy drove my creative process. Resistance was futile. The second section of Leaves has a quality of exteriority, an emergence into light and the work is less obsessively driven. I have chosen to explore artistic and intellectual concerns, ideas and the passion that drives them. Looking at the work in its entirety it seems to me more like a map than anything else, but of what I could not actually tell you. Do I know more now than I did before I began and does that matter. Perhaps. Soon we’ll all be dust and ashes anyway. Racing away to the grave. More than anything the work is like a piece of music to me, it has melodies, musical motifs that are transposed from experience, rhythms and patterns of sound that echo back and forth beteewn the artistic work and experiences I have assimilated. I remember once the Afro-American writer, Toni Cade Bambara saying to me that to understand literature you had to be able to hear the beat that lived beneath the words, to dance in the imagination to its music. Wise words. Shakespeare will endure forever for he was such a prodigious composer.

In an early play I wrote entitled The Rule of Zip one of the characters, Kingkong Torule continues to voice the dilemma peculiar to sentient beings who strive for something like knowledge. On a dark stage, in a post-holocaustian world and beset by madman and egomaniacs determined to destroy, Kingkong repudiates his tribal alliance to power and tries to make a peace with himself. He says:

Who moves behind my eyes?

Where is the self from whom no secret hides?

My thick blood charts mysteries,

I sleep with panoramic dreams,

a sea takes life, the white

of foam cutting lines of vision, a savage bird.

Light behind the camouflage.

I wake and huddle.

I think KingKong had the right of it

On the Failure of Oracles

In love and

on the loose, he is

safe to inspect

for the purposes of


the predator’s fortress

is no longer absolute

distance is necessary

the weight of omens

it is essential

to ask at the right altar

futures blur and fly

nothing is certain

watching his bleak

would-be alien wife

play hard to get

with some cunning

I make an exit

breathe air, breathe again.

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