The Reading Vows

There are times when reading is absolutely necessary. There are times, here, when there is a great need just to read. It comes in cycles, I find: it tracks me for a while, behind me like a shadow; I don’t know it’s there. Then, quietly, it insists itself on the days of my life. In days like these I have every need to read widely. What can cause this? Do I not have enough words of my own to sift and assemble? It’s not this. I don’t know what it is. It’s a desire that can’t be pinned. It passes, though I also don’t know why this is; it passes, but when it’s here it’s like a thirst.

Yet there is just so much matter out there in the ‘worlds’ we live in (paper worlds and digital virtual places). It can be overwhelming trying to locate the matter that needs the reading. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, when I do look. I do know that when I find something that suggests it has a certain flavour to it, I must read it. I also know, however, that there is just so much wading to be done. Quadrillions of words in trillions of aggregations, perhaps, conspire to show repeated weaknesses. There is slurry, and maybe we’ve all contributed a little to this, alas.

There are gems amongst this though. Perhaps the knowledge that these do exist, must exist, maintains the will for the hunt. ‘Writing is a safari . . . it means going out there and spotting, nabbing and bringing home to the cage of the page the most marvellous living stuff of the world.’ Who was it who wrote this (which I left unattributed in my Germany-period notebook)? It doesn’t matter here for now. If writing is a safari, so too is the preparation for reading.

Finding is one thing, but giving oneself over to the find is quite another. I take a book by the hand and I know, before I open its cover, that I am about to commit to it. To have and to hold, to love and to finish . . . When I hold a paper book I can sense it: I can see and feel its weight and the potential time within it. I will read its covers and its author’s notes, its preface or its preamble: I will go straight to the last page — not to find out anything ahead of time, cheating — but to commit the page number to memory. I take extra care not to see the words there. This carving of the last number in me is not a way of trying to weigh myself down; rather, it’s a vow in the making (till death do us part, which I see to be page 210 . . .)

Taking an e-book by the hand is not so easy. It hides its secrets well and I sometimes find the e-book difficult. Let me see your pages whole, I think when I try to find it within the ink that isn’t ink at all, within the thin depths of the small plastic slab in my palm. I don’t care for the number limits of the chapters; I want to feel the weight of this whole book in time. Yet, even here, there are gems to be found: this I know; this I think.

This phase of the present need to read isn’t over yet. I still haven’t found, this time, what I’m looking for — exactly; though I have found moments in some stories, stories in themselves that linger, possible books to re-read, possible authors to try from new. There is slurry, and there are gems, and there is commitment called for.

The Sunlit Story-Dusting Above Our Heads

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? This isn’t with reference to the idea that there are only a few distinct plot lines; rather, this is to think on whether everything that could have been written has, in some form or another, already been written. Don’t take that as a negative: on the contrary, this is a celebration of the recurring power of the stories that we tell.

Is everything we construct already first constructed elsewhere? In the arts there are trails of homage and foundation: Classical architecture has been extensively drawn upon in later design, film often relies heavily on previous visual references, fashion cycles round in reinterpretations of what has gone before, and so on. All of the stories of our cultures are woven not just in words but in stone, in moving images, in fabric, and so forth.

Yet, everything must start somewhere, so where is the kernel of every story of us? We will never know. Stories are like dust: they swirl and then, when they’re light enough and lit by time, they appear to fall into the sky. Before the written word, stories were breathed and known as such. Then, somewhere along the line, stories became of the conscious realm only when read in words.

What we have now is a desire for the new, the seemingly inspired, the fresh or quirky. What we’ve forgotten is that the dust of all the stories ever told still swirls high and low above our heads. Every story we open up allows some of this dust to fall into its pages. We often don’t see this. We think: this is new, or inspired, fresh or quirky; this is something no-one has ever felt or seen or touched upon before. We’re wrong here because we all draw from the dust to glitter in the sunlight in the air.

If we’re conscious of what we allow in when we open up our stories — in the careful slicing of their first lines — we can build in layers of great depth. We can weave in and build on our local social geographies, the legends of our cultures, the archetypes of the world. We can manage our words instead of stumbling accidentally on some significance in its writing. Conscious comprehension of what has gone before is a layering in itself.

Stories are surely greatest when they’re conscious stirrings in their reading. Even the simplest, barest, most succinct of tales can be beautiful in its layers of possibility. It is the story that leaves us blank that is the story written without love of what has fallen into it. We’ve all read plenty of these, though we don’t recall them individually and specifically.

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? All stories are part of the greater whole; yet it is only those stories written with an inkling, or a depth comprehension, of what has fallen into them that shine greatly. Our words are of the sunlit dust, as are our stories of stone, of moving images, of fabric, and so on and on.
(In keeping with the theme above, words are written here building on — though not intentionally opposed to — the thinking in a recent piece: A World Seven Billion Stories Deep, at the Very Least).

Perspective Shifts: From Agency into the Magic of Reality

Following on from my previous writing (as linked to the recent magic realism blog hop), I find myself delving deeper into the magic of the real world. Lynne Cantwell wrote a thought-provoking piece titled Urban fantasy and magic realism: a matter of agency, and it prompts me to reply here as a post (my attempts at a direct reply were thwarted by the convergence of hardware, systems, the forces that be — all in the moment).

Despite her advocation that ‘alternative realism is a better descriptive name for the genre, mainly because it takes the ‘taint’ of magic out of play’, she goes on to write that ‘the magic in magic realism is woven into the fabric of society’ where ‘no magical creature’ need intervene. She adds that ‘the crucial difference between urban fantasy and magic realism [is that] urban fantasy requires an agent to deliberately effect the magical change’.

It’s not my intention here to quibble at length over the differences in definitional stances; I intend to look into the magic woven into the fabric of society. It’s interesting to read another writer’s perspective that some external agency might be the cause of magic, in certain written forms. That the fantasy construct is dependent on the magic inherent in an object (such as a ring), or a creature, or a person, or a creature-person, suggests that ‘grafting on’ process I wrote about recently: an almost superfluous layer, an oil-slick on what we usually see.

Lynne goes on to write that ‘one of the conceits of urban fantasy is that the fantastic is happening right under our noses — it’s just that most of us either aren’t equipped to spot it, or are more than willing to explain it away.’ Cue the creatures with the higher powers, greater knowledge, wisdom, call it what you will?

I’m not altogether comfortable with the term ‘alternative realism’. I was comfortable with a description coined as ‘alternate poetic reality’, in depicting some of what I’ve written, so why not the former? Perhaps it amounts to the thinking that in the former there’s the suggestion that what is ‘real’ (i.e. real magic in our actual reality) is somewhat devalued; in the latter, in the alternate poetic reality, it is that our own perspectives of the thing we see (reality) shift, rather than the reality itself.

We aren’t usually equipped to spot the magic. Yet we don’t need external agency to be able to affect that change in perspective: we need only internal belief. Belief is, after all, all powerful. What we believe is true. This I know. This is the power of stories, of story-tellers, of myth and magic. There’s no way to believe these words here unless what they aspire to transmit is also felt in you, the reader, by personal experience. Go into the garden, or look out over the hills or the sea, or up at the clouds: what is that you feel?

In haiku it is that very sense of ‘now’, of almost absolute comprehension, of a ‘feel’ for what ‘is’ that is the essence to be captured. What is that essence if not the magic of the world? This is not something I can, or should, try to convince you of here: I would almost be external agent and that would be counter to my point. You should go out into the world that seeps around you and feel for yourself what is there: the flavours and the ripplings, the shifts in light and the different densities in gravities, all the ways your slice of the place we all live on ‘is’, not just could be.

Here, after a shortness of rain, the ghost of a cloud shreds in distant utter silence. It’s what I see and feel, and it’s the magic of the real: not tainted by the term but enhanced by it. It’s what I believe and what I know, here, now.

The Shape of Settled Words

Words can settle. They’re sand and silt and then the hardened sedimentary layerings of the person, once, who wrote them.

Words often should be left to settle: all the immediacy of somesuch lack of grace leaves them, written into them as it can be. Here, the layerings are of tea strainings sitting out the winter, drying in the warmth and depths of the compostings. In the spring, or the spring after, when they’re good and forgotten, we may come across them. What’s left is the brittle crumblings that can be reassembled because there’s no immediacy of flavour to them.

I mix all my metaphors to find the shape of settled words.

Some words, of course, need no such settling: quite the opposite manner of formation takes place. Kerouac wrote never to drink outside your own home, or words quite like these; though out there in the world words of the very now can have the weight and ‘correctness’ of slight light alcoholic colouring. Some words feel immediately fine. These are rare but they happen.

On the whole though, I believe in the settling process. I sometimes come upon a piece lost in some depths and I don’t remember the me who wrote these fragile things. This is good. This takes me out of them and leaves them to their own breaths: I can crack the hardened silt and sedimentary layers of the person formed around them and I can find the truth or core of the piece within. Then I can reassemble them, if the will takes me.

The trick to it all though is knowing when to crack open forgotten pieces, when to know they’ve settled long enough: perhaps we know it’s time when chance takes us to their sand- and silt-filled rooms again.

I mix my metaphors to find the shape of settled words.

The Writer and the Peer Review

The reader often has clearer eyes. It is these words (written as the final line of my previous post) that I come back to again. It’s quite by co-incidence that this line tallies with another writing experience of the week. I’ve been sitting on a bunch of short stories, which I’m gathering for my next collection, and I don’t usually sit on them in this way. I usually send them out for peer review. For some reason I’m not entirely certain of, I’ve been sitting on this batch. I’ve been brooding. The brooding has resulted in the stories pushing their backs more and more into the coop I keep them in.

The reader often has clearer eyes; though some writers and commentators more or less dismiss talking about- or letting others see- their writing before they consider it ready for public consumption:

Never talk about what you are going to do until after you have written it.

— Mario Puzo

I just think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.

— Norman Mailer

Don’t tell anybody what your book is about and don’t show it until it’s finished. It’s not that anybody will steal your idea but that all that energy that goes into the writing of your story will be dissipated.

— David Wallechinsky

I don’t care to talk about a novel I’m doing because if I communicate the magic spell, even in an abbreviated form, it loses its force for me. Once you have talked, the act of communication has been made.

— Angus Wilson

The thinking on the loss of the magic or the energy, the detrimental effect on the creative act, is appreciated. However, for this writer, something has been learned over the years by way of interaction with trusted others. My brooding storage of stories has no real root (perhaps there’s a little laziness in not sending them out to those trusted others, but perhaps there’s also a gathering lack of faith in what the words are). There’s always a point when situations change. So I sent forth one tester start of a story, which may become a piece in its own right.

What transpired was that it was read in an entirely different way to the intention in the writing. That a sinister interpretation was made of what was intended as something quite the opposite took me by surprise. The result is that the changing of just one word might well alleviate that issue. This is a small epiphany in a long week, yet one that’s worth writing about.

If we don’t trust others with our words whilst they’re in their green form, we won’t see their misinterpretations and so forth. Of course, there is an argument to suggest that misinterpretations aren’t amiss at all: that is, that all interpretations are valid, that beauty — or banality — is in the eye of the beholder, that interpretations make the work all the richer.

Whichever way the writer falls on this latter argument, peer reviews can be valuable stepping stones along the way. In choosing to ignore alternate interpretations in the editing, at least we’re aware of them beneath it all (something we wouldn’t have had the chance to see if we held our work to our chests until the moment of editor approval and final publishing).

You do have an editorial input other than yourself, don’t you? If not, then you should have this. Even if you’re self-publishing (especially if you’re self-publishing), editorial input at the latter stages of the work will complement the peer reviewing process. It helps if that editorial input is also a writer (though many aren’t). I’m fortunate to say that I have the editorial eye of an accomplished writer and poet in her own right.

Perhaps there is argument to say that the loss of magic or energy is possible in seeking peer review support — I’d prefer to look on it all in the positive though: it’s all a matter of timing. Keep that magic close and don’t let it go in the initial writing process; brood if need be; know when other readers’ eyes need to see the green formations; amend your work if you see fit. You’ll be a stronger writer for it all.

Philosophical Asides on Themes

In laying down the bare molecules of a book that’s forming, I found myself immersed in the idea of ‘theme’. That is to say, in the first instance this ‘laying down’ isn’t a physical act of writing at all (rather, it’s a coercion of various strands of thoughts into something that might later become more coherent); in the latter instance, the theme is the continuing saga of what runs through this writer (rather than, necessarily, the development of the theme of the book).

The more we write the more we can come to be aware of that which pulls at us (by way of what others write about what they’ve read in our work). It’s a sort of ‘making visible’ process of what once was completely invisible, or at least translucent to us. It’s a ‘presence-at-hand’, of which I find myself reminded of a paper I wrote a few years back on philosophical matters of being (here).

By way of a quick preamble, regarding the word ‘stage’ from two angles ‘[i] as in movement, as in a step, progression of sorts; [ii] stage as in a platform, dais, where we present’, I added the following:

In this discerning of the stage we inhabit, I reflect on Barton’s (2011) review of Heidegger’s (1927, 1962) tool analysis. To paraphrase, when an object/tool is operating normally (readiness-to-hand) it essentially recedes into the background, is taken for granted; when in disrepair (presence-at-hand) we notice it, and it becomes present to us.

It is towards this idea of presence-at-hand that I now gravitate with regards to the developing theme that is any given writer, i.e. all that coalesces into who that writer is. In being made aware of the things I write about, having those things made more visible, are they — in effect — in disrepair? That is, recurrences and recurrences are wooden wheels on a bumpy track, and the more they go round the more the sound suggests that all is not well.

Some writers take years to develop their themes and thus the theme of themselves. The question asked is ‘at which point should we jump tracks in order for that overall ‘theme’ to be all the richer?’

Perhaps I’m confusing matters with my two uses of the word ‘theme’. Just as the word ‘stage’ can be seen in different lights, and to clarify, ‘theme’ here is in terms of ‘individual strand’ and ‘overall rope’ of that which is written and of he or she who writes it. If what we write continues to follow the same idea explorations, are we broken, in disrepair as writers?

There may be some relief in the following (ibid):

Barton presents that objects oscillate between these two modes [operating normally, readiness-at-hand; disrepair, presence-at-hand] and further refers to Latour’s notions of space as a network of objects in relation. Space is something experienced and lived, rather than something we merely move through.

That is, in the analogy, this space of the writer’s inner realm is a network of objects (themes) in relation. Our visible themes and those that vibrate invisibly in the background have sinewed connection with one another. That others may discern the repetitions of our current themes doesn’t therefore suggest that other themes aren’t possible. At which point should we jump tracks? Perhaps we have less choice in the matter than we think. Perhaps our invisible themes, vibrating gently in the background, manifest in us when they need to. They are written, and it sometimes takes readers’ perspectives to make us more aware of them.

Of course, as writers, we know what we write and why we do this, but we’re immersed in that writer’s realm, experiencing the space which has its own internal logic. The reader often has clearer eyes.

Barton, F. (2011), A twist on Heidegger: the ambiguous ontology of playspace. Cheltenham: Philosophy at Play Conference.

Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and time (English translation). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

In Appreciation of the Writing of Iain Banks

We should write more about the authors we like when they’re alive. Bothering to write about them and their books only once they’ve died is perhaps a little disingenuous. Why we can’t raise ourselves to praise reflects our blinkered selves; or perhaps we just don’t appreciate those writers out there until we suddenly realise that there’ll be no more offerings from them at all. Iain Banks has died, and I feel a need to add my voice to the posthumous account of his work.

I’ve just read Neil Gaiman’s recent blog post about his relationship with Iain Banks. It reads as honest, but I wonder if Gaiman also wishes he’d written more about Banks’ writing and about him as a person when he was alive. This is an aside. What I’m most wary of here and now, as I write, is that Banks’ back catalogue won’t be getting any larger. Of course, he has his soon-to-be published last book out imminently (The Quarry, June 2013) but, barring any long-lost manuscripts, that’s it.

I certainly haven’t read as much of Banks’ work as I should and could have done. One day I’ll catch up on all of that (like I should be catching up on Kundera, Márquez, and all the other writers I’ve not become fully, fully acquainted with yet). However, what I have read of Banks has — for the most part — left me feeling extremely jealous, with certain memories, and occasionally astounded. This passage, from Descendant in his collection titled The State of the Art (1991) has remained at some level of my consciousness for many, many years:

This is our home town from before we felt the itch of wanderlust, the sticks we inhabited before we ran away from home, the cradle where we were infected with the crazy breath of the place’s vastness like a metal wind inside our love-struck heads; just stumbled on the scale of what’s around and tripped out drunk on starlike possibilities . . .

It was passages like these from Banks, and other authors who amazed me when I first found them, to inspire me to keep such treasures in notebooks specifically bought for the purpose.

For my money, and for that of many others I suspect, one of Banks’ finest works was The Crow Road (1992). That a novel can be started ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded’ was a young writer’s lesson in opening lines in one fell swoop (not to mention dispelling the myth held by some critics that opening with such a ‘vague pronoun’ as ‘it’ is ‘unliterary’). Crow Road impressed me with its characterisation, family bonds, and geography. The other most cited Banks offering has to be The Wasp Factory (1984). I read this, I remember, way back but it was so way back that I need to read it again. It had an affect on me, but maybe I wasn’t sufficiently developed as a reader or as a writer then to appreciate it. As is the case with praising the recently deceased, we often find we need to read such books as The Wasp Factory again and for similar reasons.

Banks’ writing, for me, wasn’t all worthy of high praise. I suppose it’s inevitable that in any body of work there are some offerings that just don’t come up to the mark. The most notable of these, in my reading of it, was A Song of Stone (1997). It just didn’t feel like Banks writing this: I laboured with it for a while, maybe half way or so, maybe a little more, but it felt like he was trying too hard. That is, maybe he was trying to show us a new Banks, a new voice, or a tangential one at least. The writing attempted the poetic but fell short.

For different reasons I also came to a bookmarked year-long pause on Transition (2009). The writing in this isn’t so stilted, but it did take a few re-starts to try to get the hang of the various chopping and changing of characters and, indeed, places in time and geography. I’m sure I’ll pick up Transition again one day and give it a couple of days of dedicated attention.

It was at some point in the mid-nineties that I dedicated attention to Walking on Glass (1985). I know this because I remember sitting in a chair reading the entire book to my then partner, whose first language was not English. If I think hard enough I can narrow this down to a more or less exact point in time. There aren’t many authors who dovetail with such personal recollections. The Bridge (1986) was another Banks book to have left its mark: the strange liminal world depicted won’t be for all readers, but it found me at the right time, I suppose.

We all have writers in our reading histories who affect us enough (through their good work and despite their not so good offerings) for us to go back to them again and again. Iain Banks was undoubtedly one of those writers for me. In appreciation of words, I shouldn’t have left it till now to say this. I should also consider all the other writers I enjoy reading too, and I should consider them and their words here and now.

A Voice Analysis of a Body (of Fictional Work)

In a continual analysis of the way I’m writing, in building a new collection of fictions, I find there’s a need to be aware of the way of writing that is taking place ‘now’. That is, it keeps changing: what is it now? I’m of the opinion that a writer needs to be in touch with the idea that analysis of their own writing is important. Even in streams of consciousness writing, we can analyse the process. Being able to deconstruct certain elements in the writing or reading process (if not necessarily in writing that all down, then at least in thought), contributes towards a fuller whole. A body of work can be read in various ways: simple chronology of works created forms a basic frame of reference; maybe that body of work can also be read by way of deflections in and out of themes, motifs, structural arrangements, influences, ways of representing concepts and characters, etc.; maybe the body of work can be read by way of individual voices, or tones of the same voice, within the whole.

The trouble with writing a collection that follows a broad theme, but yet is intended as an array of situations and characters, and which allows for deflections in and out of all the above in the previous paragraph, is that one strong piece written in a certain manner becomes the unintended benchmark. This is an aside, yet something discovered in the process of analysis. That a piece can be strong in its own right, without a need for it to have to correlate with the strengths of the other piece, is something that might need embracing. Matching fictions within a collection against each other might well end up converging on the same way of writing: the same first or third person point of view, the same archetypal characters, crucibles or conflicts, resolutions, and/or patterns in twists in the tales.

In analysis of the individuality of fictions found in various notebooks, as the weeks go by, I’m left wondering about the individual voices contained within each, and whether they’re on the path towards aggregating into some coherent whole. That is, the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive (maybe), the unreliable, might converge into something substantial; yet the ‘now’ being such as it is, we’re not to know. Can we leave it to trust, or should we hone in on one strand (because at least then we know what the end result will have the feel of)?

A recent TV documentary about psychological studies into preferred human states concluded that we tend towards people who present as authoritative. Similarly, in our reading we prefer a strong hand, someone to lead the way in the writing, telling us that this is the way things are. We don’t want someone to be evasive or unsure. We want to be taken somewhere and they can steer. We’ll just enjoy the ride. This is true.

Is this true? I’m often drawn to writers who offer me a chance to think for myself, by way of their reflection, or their device of reflecting so as to draw me into what they want to say. In Dark Back of Time, Javier Marías writes in the very first line: ‘I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once.’ Similarly, in Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, her first line offers a thought: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’

My next logical step from reflection is the possible defensive. The tone that is ‘I write this because I have to’, as I read it, often opens windows into the writer’s body of work. ‘Having to’ being an implication of the dark draw or gravitational pull of words that will out, no matter what. Franz Kafka wrote a series of meditations that he, perhaps, would have preferred not to be published. In The Men Running Past, he writes: ‘If one is walking along a street at night and a man who can be seen a long way off . . . comes running towards us, then we shan’t lay hands on him . . . after all, haven’t we a right to be tired, haven’t we drunk so much wine?’ Writing because the writing needs to be laid down can be less dour than this. An injection of energy, because the energy of the moment requires it, will run through the whole. In this way it’s real.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita could be the epitome of unreliable narration. Within this strand of thinking — that we can fuse reality and fiction as writers and leave the reader wondering which is which — is a constant fascination for this writer: it’s akin to trying to differentiate the blurred line between indoor and outdoor space (when there are no doors, no marks, just some indication of a possible roof overhead). Or it links to cartography and the way that maps of the edges of islands are never correct: if the map marks the high tide line, or the average tide, this is still never the exact shape of the island at any given moment. What is the exact definition of inside/outside, outline of island, reality/fiction in a piece of writing? This individual way of writing is a strong pull.

Can we leave the potential aggregation of voices (tones of the same voice) to trust (the authoritative, the reflective, the defensive, the fusion of reality/fiction or unreliably natured)? Will trust result in a coherent voice in the whole? Analysis and deconstruction, at least, help this writer to understand the writing of the ‘now’.

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.