May 2010 archive

Love like Treacle, Hate like Quicksand.

I find myself feeling irritated by my experience within the blogosphere of late. Endless arguments about the nature of writing. It’s my own fault. I bring up a topic and then others come in with counter arguments. I do not object to counter arguments by and large but I find myself increasingly irritated by a tendency I detect within the blogosphere to emphasize the good and the lovely, to steer clear of the negative and for some to read my writing as though I write in absolutes.

I’m as bad as the next person. I try hard not to insult people and I write comments of praise here and there to all manner of people whose work I appreciate. It is not this to which I object, it is more the emphasis on writing that does not distress or surprise. This troubles me.

It probably hits on a raw nerve. I think of a paper Jane Adamson presented several years ago in which she talked about the poet, John Keats. She talked about the way Keats valued an openness of mind. It was Keats who coined the term ‘negative capability’, the notion that ideally we seek to approach our work without expectations or desires, that we keep an open mind.

Keats tried to practise this in his poetry but it was more difficult in his personal life. There was a chap by the name of Charles Dilke. Keats despised him. We know this through correspondence in which Keats berates Dilke for his closed mind, his rigidity of thinking. The paradox is that in his considerations of Dilke, Keats himself was doing the very thing he railed against.

I see this tendency within myself. I rail against the ‘sweetness and light’ I find throughout the blogosphere and yet I do it myself. I try to be friendly and sociable and I do not enjoy carping comments anywhere. I want appreciation and good will, too.

Given my interest in life writing and the desire for revenge there must be something of these impulses within me, and with which I must grapple. I own up to this. Millions I suspect would not.

I own up to wanting to see my enemies suffer, but it stops there. I do not spend my time in pursuit of my enemies, seeking to bring about their downfall. I make a point of avoiding the people I dislike. It seems the best way, the safest way and if the feelings are mutual and we stay clear of one another then all goes well.

At the Freud conference in Melbourne last week, Salman Akhtar talked about the way we invite certain people to our dinner parties. We invite those we love. We invite those we like and we also invite those we hate – those we hate are typically married to those we love. Akhtar meant this as a joke.

We invite those we hate, he said, because after they have left our dinner we can feel relieved and virtuous.
‘Phew, thank goodness, they’ve gone’. And then we can talk about the ones we hate behind their backs and we can feel good.

I think this is my struggle within the blogosphere – the effort to integrate all three aspects – the loving, the liking and the hating – both internally and externally given my suspicion that these elements live within me as much as I experience them outside of me.

If my world – internal and external – were populated by only one or another of these elements, if it were all love, or liking or hate, it would be a dreadful world indeed. Boring and/or destructive.

Too much love is like treacle – you get stuck in it. Too much hate is like quicksand – you drown, your mouth filled with dry gritty bits of earth. Too much liking and life becomes a sort of blancmange – all of the one sickly sweet consistency with nothing to get your teeth into.

This then becomes a sort of plea to allow for more robust and healthy ‘hating’ in our lives. Healthy in the sense that we can know about the feeling – even speak about it in our writing – without necessarily acting upon it.

One of my brothers once kicked me. His foot landed on my pubic bone. It landed with such force that I fell over. He was angry about something. I’m not sure that even he knew what he was angry about. Perhaps I had provoked him, little sister that I was. Perhaps he resented the circumstances of the moment. We were about to get into the car, all nine of us – the two oldest had left home by then – in any case the car would have been full.

One grey station wagon packed with nine bodies, adults and children alike. We four in the middle, aged between eight and twelve, squeezed into the back section of the car, the place where these days most people put their dogs or groceries.

There were no fixed seats. We sat legs out in front and leaned against the rear side windows, my sister and I on one side, my two brothers opposite. My brothers’ legs were longer than ours, and there was never room enough. They needed to bend them and hold onto their knees to fit. My sister and I irritated our brothers by stretching out from time to time. They did the same to us.

We knew to keep quiet about any disagreements about who took up too much space. My father in the driver’s seat did not tolerate noise. My brother kicked me before we climbed into the car and I forgot to keep quiet.

My brother’s punishment, my father’s sharp tongue, a slap across the face, was worse than any kick I had received.

Writers Beware

I have been thinking lately about the contract between readers and writers – if such a thing exists – and the ways in which it is upheld by different writers and readers, whether it is clear cut, whether it is sacrosanct, whether it can be broken and what happens when it is.

Behind the scenes there are those who accuse me of violating some unspoken contract with my readers. In my previous post for instance. I began with a few general thoughts on the nature of the term autobiographical and its contrast with the confessional. Then I launched into an example of the autobiographical, first with my experience of going to confession as a child, and my struggle to understand the nature of sin. Then I outlined what some might consider a traumatic experience that I wound up taking to confession.

My adult self looks back and sees the incident as potentially traumatic but my memory of the event is one of bemusement. It is tricky because I cannot remember the events from my childhood as accurately as I might like. I have written about these experiences before and never once have I felt satisfied with my writing. Somehow the telling of this story defies me.

Could this be one reason why it slipped into my previous post the way it did last week, unbidden? I had not intended to include it in the post when I first began my argument about autobiography and confession.

It popped into my mind as I wrote, in the way thoughts often do. I did not plan for it. It lodged itself there and it seems to me that it had a right to be there as it had insisted itself upon me.

Then I wrote the post. I edited for typos and grammar before finally posting it on line. I had thought about it over the course of the afternoon on the day in which I wrote it and then I posted it.

Is this wrong? Should I have sat with it longer? Should I have left out the disturbing vignette. If I had sat with it longer would certain of my readers then not be offended as I understand some have been, that I have perhaps breached the writer’s contract with my reader, that I have foisted an experience onto them into their minds that they did not invite, and that they did not welcome?

Philippe LeJeune wrote about the autobiographical pact years ago. He argued that in autobiography the writer whose name appears on the cover of the book must be the same person whose life is described in the text and that the account of the life so described must be basically truthful.

There have been countless examples wherein writers have played around with this notion before and since. Some have led to significant reprisals for the author. But the autobiographical pact so called is no longer held to be gospel.

Fiction writers also enter unspoken pacts with their readers. This might in some ways account for the obsession we have in seeking to classify a book’s genre before it hits the bookshelves. This desire to identify genre may not simply be in order to place the book into its correct category in the library and book shop, it may be because people in the main like to have some degree of confidence in what they imagine they will encounter along the way.

Taken in its extreme, we come to formulaic writing, the likes of Mills and Boon where we can know before hand how the book will end without reading the last page to check it out.

Even as an autobiographer I prefer not to know where my writing will take me. I prefer to be surprised at what will come up for me. But in the process of surprising myself I might sometimes surprise my readers even more.

Is this because, although the thoughts that rise to the surface of my mind can sometimes surprise me, they are thoughts that have rested within me and although I may not have been consciously aware of them, they are still my thoughts. Others who later read about them might well be troubled by the arrival of such thoughts when they had least expected them.

To me the element of surprise is important in performances of all kinds, in art, in theatre, and in writing.

But how can I talk? I make unspoken demands on other writers, too.

Years ago I read A S Byatt’s Still Life. I won’t outline the story other than to say there is one central character in it, Stephanie Potter whose unfolding life I followed with pleasure. Shortly after the birth of her first baby, Stephanie described in poignant detail her baby’s accidental scratch as ‘the first wound on new skin’.

Perhaps Byatt here was attempting to warn her readers.

At the beginning of a chapter, three quarters of the way through the book, in the most glorious writing, Byatt kills Stephanie off.

I read this section over and over. I refused to believe it at first. Byatt must have had it wrong. I howled and howled. How could she have done it? How could she have killed off one of her main characters?

I was in analysis at the time and talked it over with my analyst who interpreted what now seems predictable to me, a reliving of my devastation as a twenty-one month old child at what must have felt like the loss of my beloved mother when my younger sister was born.

At the time of reading Still Life I considered Byatt had broken an unspoken writer’s pact. But I realise now, she had made no such pact with me, nor with anyone. The pact was of my making, and it was one sided.

I am a creature of the happy ending. I want happy endings. I know they do not exist. The only thing that exists for all of us in the end is death. I know this, but as Salman Akhtar said at a conference I attended yesterday, we all have to realize that ‘not one of us can get out of this life alive’.

Perhaps this is a good point at which to end this discussion in the knowledge that I cannot get out of writing and being read in tact and alive. There will always be a part of me as a writer that is challenged by readers disappointed in my take on things, as if I have killed off one of their beloved beliefs. I have transgressed the reader/writer’s pact.

And so I end by saying: Writers beware. It is a dangerous and demanding world out there.

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