On being in someone else’s skin

I’m sitting at a verandah cafe outside Nimbin, tired and almost at the end of my tether, and I’m talking to myself. Heather brings me tea in the big blue and white china pot she keeps for me, the one with the dodgy handle. I may well sit here all day: writing, looking out towards the mist floating off the ridge of the mountain, trying to describe the weather. Rags of cloud rise out of the valley, drifting like sails, their tattered edges catching on the canopy of the forest.

I was up late reading Kathy Acker – the dead, unredeemable, beautiful Kathy Acker, the only writer who makes me feel that writing is the most important thing in the world, the most savagely political thing there is. Reading Acker makes my hands shake; I feel sick with vertigo and want to burn everything I’ve ever written. Reading Acker is like being gutted, like having my intestines emptied out like a fish and then re-stitched after being filled with broken glass and semi-precious stones.

On my DVD of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle there is an interview with Diana Wynne Jones, the writer of the novel on which the film is based, in which she speaks movingly of her meeting with Miyazaki just before the film was released.

‘We spoke through an interpreter,’ says Jones, ‘but he seemed to understand my work in the way that no-one else has.’

Jones radiates a kind of warm sadness, a sadness that comes from somewhere a long way off but that seems to have lost none of its force over the distance it has travelled. Jones died of lung cancer in 2011, which is why I feel free to speak of her like this, speculating on her inner state – perhaps because the dead free us to reveal something in ourselves, something we had previously kept imperfectly contained.

What is my intention when I’m trying to write? What do I think I’m doing? I’m starting to believe it is like trying to plot the dark side of the moon.

Maybe a writer writes to give himself or herself a skin, to stop the interior universe – about which he or she knows either too much or too little – from bleeding into the quotidian passing of time and vanishing forever, as well as to provide a membrane through which the catastrophic nature of experience can be filtered and made dimly recognisable. The book being written is one that the writer has sought for and never found, as if the writer could channel something of the burning world, turn it into a piece of their mind or body, as if their body could become a book: the writer contained by the skin of words and pages.

The writer engages in the making of his or her own mind, which is why it is sometimes so painful, building a way of thinking out of debris and found objects; why every work of fiction verges on collapse. Stories or essays are the humiliating ruins of someone’s imagination: flotsam, bones, animal sounds, stuck together as though they could make sense, like a house that has grown out of a rubbish heap.

As I get older, writing is fostering in me the strangest sense of the world. I can’t get any sense of time passing and it worries me. Birthdays come and go, weeks and months get sliced off the year, but I always seem to be floating outside of time, as though I will drift forever, as though my understanding of myself could be endless. And when I die of whatever savage disease or bloody accident that eventually stops my thought, I fear that my last fading perception will be that of an unlooked-for grief, and I will pass into the bardo grieving.

In writing, always writing, I am trying to know the nature of my mind, watching how it creates its own shape even as I write, trying to speak of the things I see every day, things that appear to me to be almost unbelievable and that when described seem like dreams.

Thinking would be exhausting if I couldn’t write. Acker wrote that ‘to be a poet is to be inside someone else’s skin’. It was only when I discovered her books, in a time of turmoil and confusion, that all of a sudden I felt able to fall through space, felt I could fall forever. All my clumsy sentences began to come apart as they were written and I was pitched into nights of vivid dreams and days that flashed like sparks leaving only an after-image of nausea, the nausea of someone who has been spinning and spinning and then stops, his balance dissolving as the world disappears.


Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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