Partly about Donalds and zombies

Last year, due to a series of personal catastrophes and unheralded disasters, all unrelated and all of which happened at once, I was able to take a year off. What I wanted to do with that year was – well, a whole lot of things, none of which would be interesting to hard-headed Overland readers. The most relevant one, to this discussion, was to write.

Anyhow, as part of the endless stream of consequences of the aforementioned disasters etc etc, I bought an eight-acre share with house on a 100-acre commune with three friends, who were accompanied by a small dog and a three-legged cat. It’s the second commune I’ve lived on, and generally not being concerned with property as personal investment, they can be conducive to all sorts of things, ways of living and thinking.

I had written for a long time I should add, since I was a child, a not uncommon trait of writers. And given that there are not many activities we engage in as adults that we also did as children, a lot of questions could be begged as to what on earth we think we’re doing when we’re writing. The Scottish poet Don Paterson recently said that as an experiment he wrote his commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets ‘while awake, bored, half-asleep, full of cold, drunk, exhausted, serene, smart, befuddled and stupid …. on the train, in bed, in the bath and in my lunch-break … while I was fed up marking papers, or stuck on Bioshock on the Playstation.’

I was a bit nonplussed by this, as I wasn’t too sure there was any other way to write. I felt like I’d missed something and perhaps hadn’t been doing writing properly. Perhaps I was missing a muse.

Anyway, where was I? Yes, I bought a share on a commune and started writing, most of the day, every day. The writer, said Donald Barthelme, is the person who when he or she begins doesn’t know what they are doing. I discussed this statement with another writer once who seemed to be under the impression that what Barthelme meant was that he didn’t know what to write next.

So while it may not be obvious to anyone reading this or anything else I’ve written, I’m very attached to ambiguity. Blogs, by their nature are not made to welcome ambiguity. They are like lollies. You toss them down, and think, Oooh tasty. Must have another one.

The English songwriters Michael Flanders and another Donald, Donald Swann, had the following joke as part of their stage patter:

DS (sitting behind piano): What’s that you’re holding?
MF (in wheelchair): It’s for you. It’s a sweet. Eat it now.
DS: Thank you … I say, it’s a lovely GREEN colour isn’t it?
MF: Yes, it is a beautiful GREEN colour isn’t it? Almost translucent. I’m glad you like it … … It was pink when I bought it.

I’d like to write blogs like that, I think. Blogs as green lollies that you realise may well have originally been another colour just as you gulp them down.

It can be very easy to get discouraged about writing, whether you’re picking away at it occasionally or it’s the first thing you do after breakfast. Personally, I’ve found that when I’m working on something, which I usually am, it sometimes happens that someone says, ‘I’d love to read what you’ve written’. A request that I then scramble to find courteous ways to say, ‘No, go away’ to. And as I am, to say the least, not a naturally socially skilled person, I tend to get myself in all sorts of bother. Though I admit that after being repeatedly asked, I did once give a 30 000-word manuscript to one of my communal housemates and shareowners. After about a month, during which I wondered if she’d decided to rewrite it herself, I found the manuscript back on my desk one day with a note on top that said ‘ That was FUCKING FULL ON.’ We then seemed to agree, by some kind of invisible consensus, never to speak of it again.

There could be many reasons to write the thing generally called ‘fiction’. Personally, I wonder if we write fiction because we’re out of our minds and are attempting some form of self-cure. I think there’s copious evidence for this. Yet another Donald – Winnicott – said, in his usual gnomic way, that the writer is the person who simultaneously wants to hide and wants to be found. That sounds very much like the child playing hide and seek, who is terrified of being forgotten and also has great anxiety at being discovered.

From my tiny perspective, the novel looks pretty much stuffed I think, and has been for some time. Just because many people write novels, and many read them doesn’t mean they’re alive, just as a city full of zombies, isn’t by any stretch a city full of people.

In Elif Batuman’s LRB essay on fiction and the whole university creative writing thing – an essay that keeps popping up everywhere, which perhaps shows how little fiction writers question what they are doing – she makes the point that most graduates of university creative writing programs could write a better sentence than Stendhal, but Stendhal actually wrote something worth reading. Oddly, I had just been thinking along the same lines in relation to Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, a copy of which I got for 20 cents at a sale in Nimbin last week. If it was Lowry’s assignment for Creative Writing, I suspect that it would have a lot of red ink on it and a ‘See me after class’. To put it another way, one can’t imagine Under the Volcano emerging unscathed from editorial mutilation if it were submitted to a publisher today. All Lowry’s darlings would have been dutifully murdered for starters. As a piece of ‘creative writing’, Under the Volcano is all over the place. It reads like a novel written by a hallucinating drunk, which it was, and bits of it are very, very interesting.

So why write at all? When I read writers on writing, they’re very often extremely lame, inexcusably platitudinous and about as convincing as BP’s spin doctors. It’s not unusual, too, for writers to talk about writing as either ‘self-expression’ or as ‘communication’. My immediate response is, is that it? Are they the only two alternatives on offer? Could we get a bit ironic about what these things might be? Could we generate a bit of incredulity about these two narratives? Could writing just possibly be a political act, could it possibly always have been, in one shape or another? When we write, could we possibly think about acknowledging that? Does ‘literature’ actually really suck?

I’m not sure there’s actually a worthwhile debate to be had about this though, to be honest. Rjurik Davidson had a go at the commodification of creative writing courses in the 200th issue of Overland, and while he was comprehensive and even-handed in his investigations, I found myself thinking he might have pulled his punches a bit. A few humorous swings in the direction of the deranged academics and publishers represented in his essay may not have been a bad thing. On the other hand, Rjurik may have more nous and shown more common sense than I.

Those defending the novel and defending fiction have a very different set of values than those who don’t. To the fiction writer, the novel is almost a sacred object, and messing with people’s sense of the sacred, no matter how absurd their experience or their object may seem, is always an unwise act. If someone is really determined to make a fetish out of zombie culture, then by all means they should be left to it.

Of course, this brings me back to why I myself would want to write. In short, it’s because I want to know what I think. ‘Think’ in this case, probably covers a lot of ground. Like Winnicott, I’m interested in capacities. One of Winnicott’s memorable phrases is ‘the capacity to be alone’. I’m interested too in the capacity of reverie to subvert the politics of my thinking, and writing helps with that. Writing also has the capacity to be a private delirium in many ways, a private pleasure, a guilty one, as so many pleasures are. But there are always a few odds and sods that might be made public, sods like this, a mouldering lolly in the bottom of the jar that once upon a time may well have been a shinier and more attractive colour.

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