What Therapies Transpire

‘I don’t like to write, but I love to have written.’

Michael Kanin
 
This concept of time weighs on this writer’s mind. It always has done. Days when the sun finally shines, and the heat of the world descends like approximations of memories . . . arrive with quietness. These are days we should write, because sitting in the sun washes us through. I think: if I write of one particular you, I write of you and you and you. We’re all shot through with who made us.

So the sun comes and I find I’m sat and looking out on the world: the way the day drifts, the irregularities of ants, you. I write this to an unnamed love, but you could be any love of any of us. I want to find every angle of you, but you often just wait out of reach.

What is it we have a need to do when we have to put down the words of the stories that made us? Is this re-creation, or is this a purging, or a construction of who we are? I sit and I consider the day and wait for you to come. Perhaps I’ll be here for the afternoon, and you’ll stay in the clouds. I have a notebook, which I shall use as a net, just in case.

When you do come, you do it like you’re the long-lost sun itself. I don’t hear your footsteps. You have bare feet on the paving slabs and, when I look up, I find I’m squinting and the recollected you smiles at me. You’re backlit, as a memory is, and I can hardly see your features. You make soft shushing noises, take up your long light skirt to your knees, kneel down on your haunches, and fold the fabric at your thighs. You tap the page; I see your eyes and lips, and so I write.

I do like to write you. Others might find it a task as laborious as sawing logs or digging out the weeds. I like to write you because you’re at my knees, shushing, watching the way the words fall onto the page with studied concentration. When the last line of you is written, for now and this time, I feel a little loss: you press your finger to your lips and place it over my mouth. The day takes you back to the clouds.

I do like to have written, days like these when the sun finally shines. This re-creation, purging, construction process has helped the settling of the mind. This concept of time weighs on this writer’s mind. It always has done.
 
 

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Chalk Marks of the Mind

Listen.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.

He says.

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)
 
 
It’s 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts: I don’t remember for sure. Time has that way of just leaving chalk marks on the mind. I’m standing on a beach some way up the Danish coast. I’m here now, though I don’t know what this place is called. I’m looking out over the water and I can see the Swedish coastline. I’m thinking of the Latvian girl I’ve met here. That night, in the Copenhagen banqueting hall, she knew the games she played.

So I stand here, unstuck in time, and I’m thinking about how time doesn’t unravel in the ways we think it does. We can travel back and forth, but it all gets mixed up. It all stews and bubbles and, when it’s all strained through the holes, what’s left over is thick and slimy, lumpy, persisting in us. It is this to stain the inner skin. It won’t wipe clean.

I turn my face to the wind coming off the sea and here I am some four or five years later. I’m on a beach on the other side of the world, staring out over the Atlantic. I’m north of Salem, Massachusetts. I’m just empty of anything, except the strange idea of trying to peer out over the bend of the planet, three thousand miles eastwards, towards home. It feels odd and unreal being here. The world is small and huge.

A massive wave crashes against a massive rock and diverts my attention. It’s gone dark and then the string of blurry orange lights start to pock the immediate skyline. It’s been raining, I can smell it, and I see the rough lines of the old stone walls of Rhodes Town and the minaret out towards the edge of the harbour. It’s some year or so later. I’m standing on the stones at the lip of the island. There’s a Maltese liner docked nearby. I don’t know where it’s going and I don’t know how we’re going to get home.

Driving by the light of the moon, I’m overcome by tiredness, and I’m woken by the bark of a dog in 1993. It’s Celie, and it’s winter in Dangast, northern Germany. She’s hopping around on the wide empty grey beach, the stiff breeze cutting at my eyes. She must be young. We all must be young. What I still can’t express is what I never knew the first time round: how we would grow, how things would turn out for all of us. Celie’s still with us, and she’s happy in her youth.

I wipe my eyes with the flats of my fingers. It’s 2012 and I’m standing on the grass by the stony beach in Malmö, Sweden. I’m looking out at the long thin Øresund Bridge and at the coastline of Denmark in the distance. Somewhere out there, up the coast, I know I’m looking back at myself from 1995 or 1996, or thereabouts.

Time swills around me, stewing and bubbling, smoothing and blurring away precisions. I strain it through the holes of me, and it leaves just the chalk mark stories on my mind and on my inner skin.
 
 

Notes for the Imaginary Biographer

If you could step out of yourself and write a biography of the skin and mind of the writer you’ve just left, what would it include? Someone who reads here told me in person recently that, of course, you can’t collect your own anthology of writings (I was exercising the same ‘out of skin’ thinking process at the time): so I’m not writing here about autobiographies; this is, instead, a question of the research perspective of someone looking in on you.

What are the ‘warts’ in the ‘all’ of your life in art? What are the highs and the life-changing moments? What are the accidental shifts in direction? I can’t write this all here because my autobiography would be selective: you get what I choose you to have.

What would be the research sources for your biographer who chooses to chronicle your life and work, say, one hundred years after your birth and a few years after you’ve gone? I have a stack of pale blue exercise books which have been hidden away in dark places since the age of about seven. They contain some equally dark tales. There are public records of my existence, of my tracing through time; there are photographs and a handful of newspaper clippings, perhaps; there are papers of ill-formed words and letters sent to far-flung friends and other loves; there’s this hard drive blinking away with all my writing secrets precariously contained.

What about the countless emails, and the trail of me left on an equally countless array of websites? I’m an electronic strand of spittle and DNA spread along an invisible imaginary web. What about the countless conversations, and the trail of me left on an equally countless array of other people’s minds? I’m a chemical strand of memory spread along an invisible imaginary neuro-web.

In fewer than a hundred years, my imagined biographer will have a task to unravel me from the anecdotes and memories — some of which may still be true — and from the notebooks, loose leaf papers, emails, websites, social media scraps, photographs, etc. that abound. How can he or she possibly write me accurately?

Yet, if I write ‘me’ myself, I won’t tell all because we only present what we want others to read (no matter how honest we’re claiming to be). ‘Baring all’ is only really baring one perspective, at any one time, of this skin that we’re in.

So, if we’re to be written, we’re written with inaccuracies (or, at least, not absolutely succinctly) or we’re written with selective self-preservation in the onwards projection of our names after we’re gone.

Perhaps I should publish some seven year old’s dark tales: it would help my imaginary biographer, after all.
 
 

On How to Write Poetry and Prose

At the risk of confusing the search bots out here on the wondrous wide web, there follows a duplication of two short articles I originally wrote for a beta blog site some months ago. Of course, I go against what I’ve been taught in reproducing them here (for the aforementioned reason of confusing the poor nano-trawlers), but I found that the words still spoke to me. So, here they are:
 
How to Write Poetry . . .?

Rhythm, meter, assonance, etc., might well form concrete components of a poem, but these portions won’t form the essence of the whole. Poetry is, of course, impossible to define. How do we write something that cannot be defined? How can we analyse such an abstract construct? We can only be objective about our subjectivity. In phenomenological terms, we seek the essence of the experience: others’ objectivity of their own subjectivity chimes here with mine . . .

Poetry is what gets lost in translation (Robert Frost). Or maybe language is surrounded by languages we don’t know how to speak. Too many words here may well pop the bubble. Language is surrounded by the space: ohne Wort. Write delicately, even when with harsh pen strokes.

In a poem the words should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind (Marianne Moore). In the cold harsh delicacy, clarity of sound will manifest. We should strip away all the mud and straw that muffles this. Write as you hear it, but do not be afraid to scratch out and re-write, re-write: it is the search of cold crystal quivering on your skin.

Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the colour of the wind (Maxwell Bodenheim). All the senses hasten: we’re human and bedevilled by these. We can’t escape this, so we should write embracing their constant pleading at us.

Literature is a state of culture; poetry is a state of grace (Juan Ramón Jiménez). We should serve our senses with words; we should not gripe or bemoan our ineffectiveness at finding perfection. Write with love or lament, but quietly so, knowing that words are greater than you.

I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words (Theodore Roethke). There is little as distasteful as spoiled words: write carefully, though from the well where ordered thoughts don’t often reach.

Writing poetry can only come from unseen places. They are places of quiet grace, despite the chattering and the pleading of our senses: make us cold by perfect words. They are places of potential and of utter clarity, where what is written is a shiver on the whole of you. What is ‘written’ may not be what is contained in actual letters: it may be in between the words, or it may be — in essence — elsewhere.
 
How to Write Prose . . .?

How do you write prose? How do you write prose? Listen to the way words susurrate. Listen. Why use simple stones of words — lumps — when there are so many better ones out there? Stop here. Pause for a moment with me. Others have listed their rules and techniques, commandments and reflections for writing: they write about writing in general, the life of the writer, and ways of thinking; here we’ll find a small selection, interpretations, on how to write prose.

Neil Gaiman’s first rule of writing is ‘write’. It is a simple instruction, but simplicity often needs spelling out. Words won’t write themselves. Beautiful prose (it is this that this article is concerned with) is not stitched by elves and pixies under candlelight. Write. Out of your gruel and grey slurry, you can pick the small shining jewels.

Treat ‘language as a found object’ (Susan Sontag). Wipe clean the jewels you find; let them settle on the windowsill, on the desk, or in the drawer. Once, when you return to them, look on them with wonder if they shine. Know that you have created these: they may not be worth a penny to another, but you have created these jewels. Look around for more.

Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied (Zadie Smith). If you treat your life as in ‘treat, sweet’ and as in ‘treatment, application’, regarding your looking, you still may never find the most beautiful of jewels. You should not let this stop you from looking. Writing is looking: feel it.

Something that you ‘feel’ will find its own form (Jack Kerouac). In the looking, sometimes we just cannot see. Sometimes we will find the things we have lost, or the things we didn’t know were there, right at our feet. When something is ready to be found, or formed, it will manifest itself. Be ready to let it flow from you.

Flow and rhythm can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material (John Steinbeck). Words are part of you: even the gruel and grey slurry.

So, how could you write prose? Embrace all that flows in you, because this is a part of you. Feel the flow of words in you, and they will find their own shape. Some shapes, however beautiful, will not be the shapes of absolute wonder. Be fine with this and keep searching: your already-found objects of language, in the meantime, will continue to settle as you continue your search. This search must be written out, in all its gruel and greyness, and your jewels may shine when wiped clean. Words can susurrate here. So, how do you write prose?
 
 

Imagine the Lost Love of a Letter

When was the last time you wrote a letter? That is, when was the last time you wrote to someone on crisp white paper, or on lilac or pale yellow, whatever attracts, or perfumed if you like, whatever takes your fancy . . .?

Imagine this: a pen that touches the tactile spirit, which is soothing to have and to hold; a sheet of paper with a little give underneath (laid on another sheet perhaps, or over card instead of laid barely on the wooden board of the desk). Imagine this: the wooden board of the desk itself; or, imagine invisible grease-marks of fingers on paper, causing ghost-scratched writing as the ink refuses to take.

In our computer dependencies, we forget about the minor significant trials of actual writing. The analogue writer crafts with cursive care: it’s written into the words. These words here, read as they are by you in the now, in their original form, are inked in a small blue notebook under a sudden light. Authenticity is of primary concern.

Notebooks are one thing, but letters are another. I have a stack of dusty envelopes on my bedside table. They’re variously coloured, variously impressed with love and other dreams. They’re twenty years old, or more. I forget. They sit and wait. They hold me and ‘us’ within their pages. They crackle at the edges: not just with the papery age but with the magic of a twenty-year-long breath held in. They wait. One day I’ll gently unfold them again.

When was the last time you wrote a letter to someone? I can’t remember myself. This is a shame. Perhaps you’re of a younger generation who has never written a physical letter to anyone at all.

Letters are more than just what the words actually say: they contain the knowledge that someone has taken time to think of you, to craft for you, to carefully put down what they want to say, knowing that it needs thought first (else the scribbling out and other corrections render it incomprehensible). Technology often takes this thought away.

Letters contain the possibility that the writer may have left the words on the desk, settling or waiting, just waiting, before the envelope is sealed. Letters mean a trip out of the house, to the box that swallows and saves the words for a while. Letters wait in the belly of the kindly beast, which protects them from the rain and wind, till someone comes to collect them (amongst the detritus of other modern mailings).

Letters soak up all the waiting and the waiting, all the travelling, wending their way to your hand. Letters are love on crisp white paper, lilac or pale yellow if you prefer; or, once, when letters flew, they were the thinnest airmail paper, lighter than the air, folded over to form their own protective skins.

Imagine this: receive an envelope that does not fill the mind with the dread of ‘what could this unforeseen, unasked-for object be?’ Letters from the bank, or from the offices of the tax collectors or the like, come in neatly styled fonts; they land with anonymous but ominous weight at your palm. Imagine that a letter has your name described in real uneven ink; that there is the trace of fingerprints on its envelope, the faintness of some perfume on its skin; the seal is partly lifted, and you know that someone has touched the tip of their tongue to the gum. There is a trace of someone real held in your palm.

Imagine this: you unfold a sheet of paper, several maybe, and someone who loves you dearly tells you this in words, which don’t always sit neatly shelved on the lines; they offer you themselves in little inked-in illustrations or pencil-coloured pictures; they whisper in the gaps between the written words; there’s more than a trace of them on the paper they’ve touched when leaned upon, written on, folded. Imagine this.

When was the last time you wrote a letter . . .?
 
 

Of the Destruction of a Writer’s Words: an Analysis

In a recent interview by Nick Higham, of the BBC’s Meet the Author slot, Rick Gekoski asks why some writers don’t just destroy their own work themselves, rather than rely on the actions of trusted others after their own deaths. It’s a question he repeats in reference to different writers, and it leaves me wondering on certain aspects of the writer’s psyche.

In talking about the release of his book, Lost, Stolen, or Shredded, Gekoski refers to both Franz Kafka and the diarist Philip Larkin in this way. The book, as I understand it, is concerned with various works of art which have or may have fallen to the titular outcome. Gekoski cites Kafka’s request to his friend, Max Brod, asking that his writings be destroyed after his death. Brod didn’t adhere to this request, evidently concluding that the literary worth of Kafka’s writings should supersede the writer’s own desires. Gekoski also tells the story of Larkin’s request to have his extensive, and potentially damning, diaries destroyed after his death.

Kafka and Larkin could both have destroyed their own work themselves, but they didn’t, Gekoski says. He wonders why this could be.

The following is purely speculative. In the first instance, a writer may fall into the camp of having been so immersed in his writing, so touched by it, so affected in any given way, that to destroy his own words is tantamount to heresy. It is the cardinal sin because it is the destruction of creation. There are writers who don’t fall into this camp, of course. These are the writers who see little worth in their scribblings, rough drafts, musings, and on towards their final polished pieces. These writers might see their works as a means to an end: that they keep the rent paid, food on the table, etc., is a mindset that can be found if delving into the body of literature at our disposal.

That a writer is unable to destroy his own work is, of course, more complex than this though. If Freudian models of the human psyche are to believed, varying degrees of impurity can be poured into the general mix (this mix, up till now, being the altruistic purity that’s about ‘the creation and giving of words’): the ego becomes embroiled in the process, the super-ego niggles away, the id is let loose amongst it all.

The ego is the mask that we wear. If Kafka and Larkin asked that their writings be destroyed (when they could have done this themselves), what masks after death are they asking to be fitted with? I wish to be presented as noble? I wish to be seen, despite face value, as a great writer after all (knowing the double bluff is in operation and my work won’t be destroyed)?

The super-ego is the referee. If we wish our work to be destroyed, though our egos say otherwise, what fights are going on internally? That we can genuinely see if our writing is less than fit is a reflective skill; yet the ego is a powerful demon in us (if we believe in ego at all, that is; though that’s another story). Perhaps we all fall foul of this internal struggle in which the demon mask so often trumps the little accountant of our writerly soul: it may be weak writing, but publish anyway because there is a need to be read.

The id is the impulsive instinctive. Perhaps Kafka and Larkin, as with all of us who write, genuinely did feel that their words should be returned to their constituent parts. Larkin, perhaps, had different motivations: his diaries were, by Gekoski’s account, not likely to present the author in a terribly good light. Kafka may have felt similarly, but with other emphasis. Either way, the writer’s fight or flight mechanism may have a strong part to play here. Run away from potential writerly immortality: let it all go. Maybe, even after death, the writer’s ego pervades: let it all go and the disembodied ego is not so bruised.

Of course, when all is said and done, it’s not so simple to place the reasons why a writer doesn’t destroy his own work and then requests another to do this for him. If there are concerns at the heresy of destroying a creation, the egotistical desire to remain after death, the desire to flee the possibility of being an intrinsic part of the body of literature, then there are also internal squabblings and spiteful self-deceits at play.

We can’t always help the dynamics of these internal actions: we can only be aware that they are there. The writer who does not wish to destroy his own words, but then asks that another does this for him after his death, should perhaps have some honest conversation with himself as to the reasons why he requests what he does. It may be prudent for him to write these reasons down. At least his followers will then know; though what he writes could, of course, cause further questioning of his noble self, or otherwise, his ego and other manifestations of his psyche.