What is writing for?

I recently had a very bruising experience when a piece I was passionately attached to was rejected. After forty-eight hours of debilitating grief and self-pity I forced myself to regroup by reconsidering why I write in the first place. The result is the essay ‘What is Writing For?’, first published in issue 9 of Page Seventeen and reproduced here in full.

 

What is Writing For?

 

I

 The author is dead, Barthes declared. The intentions and motivations of authors count for nothing save that which is refracted through the eyes of the reader. I wonder what Barthes would have made of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists slowly decomposing in the chocolate tin in which it was stored. Unpublished and orphaned after the death of its author, was the manuscript the literary equivalent of a tree falling in the woods? A soundless, meaningless event until its discovery and publication?

A cursory scan of books under the loose title of ‘reading and writing’ would suggest the answer is yes. Wonderful books like Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel or Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why exhort us to be better readers, to excavate novels with the thoroughness and urgency of the archaeologist. Countless how-to books claim insight into the mechanics of writing – structure, theme, style – and prod us into conjuring works worthy of our readers. But where are the books about the uses of writing? About what writing is for? Has Barthes so effectively killed off writers that they are no more than humble minions in the service of the Reader God?

Anyone who keeps a diary or scribbles gauche poetry on the back of shopping dockets knows that Barthes missed something vital. Writing has an existence and a purpose entirely divorced from readers. For every Woolf or Sackville-West writing a diary with one eye on future biographers there are thousands with no pretention to keeping a record of their times. But still they write, recording the stuff of which their lives are made and the fragments and images that populate their internal screens.

Why?

Because writing is psychological taxonomy. The way in which things are like and unlike other things becomes clear through the process of writing them down. Patterns emerge. Connections clarify. Blind spots suddenly get grid references on the behavioural map. Therapists know this. It’s why patients are pressed into journal writing. For most writers I know the process runs something like this: you sit down at the computer and the glare of the white screen hurts your eyes. All that blank space makes you seasick. You have an idea of what you want to say. You tap at the keys and the ideas start to take shape. And sometimes something strange happens. A character does something unexpected. You sit back. You give a wry smile. Then you nod. Of course, you think, of course that’s what they have to do.

Merely imagining or talking won’t get it done. You need the rhythmic sound of the keystrokes, the fear of the blank page, the way the black words look as they colonise the white space, the ‘push’ from the last things written. All of this is composted into what comes out. The relationship between the act of writing and the thing written is symbiotic. That’s why I’m always astonished by the Barbara Cartlands of the world who dictate their novels to other people. I’d love to see a study done on the wiring of writers’ brains. One control group would be those who dictate their work and the other would be those who write themselves. Instinct tells me that wildly different colours would show up on the thermal imaging.

There are writers who will tell you that they have a different process and it is less a symbiosis between the act of writing and the words written and more a form of celestial dictation. These writers say that it is as if a higher power is working through them and they are astonished to discover what they have transcribed. I have a word for this. I call it bullshit. There are good writing days and bad writing days but there are no days when it is effortless. The myth of the passive recipient of divinely ordered words was propagated by female writers to justify themselves to a hostile world (a viewpoint supported by Lucasta Miller in The Bronte Myth). Some writers perpetuate it to give us a quasi-religious mystique, and God knows we need it after what Barthes and his ilk have reduced us to.

Yet if it were that easy I doubt anyone would bother with it. Harold Bloom suggested that the lure of the classics is that they provide the reader a ‘difficult pleasure’. I suspect writers are driven by the pursuit of the difficult pleasure too. That moment when the words are sequenced with the surety of a planetary alignment; ahhh, that moment is ecstasy and getting there is bloody hard work. If writers were nothing more than mediums they’d find something else to do because it would be a crashing bore.

Writing is hard and it’s frustrating and even when it works it is an ephemeral, contingent victory. What looks Booker prize worthy one day makes poorly absorbent toilet paper the next. But the process of hewing out the meaning is revelatory and rewarding. It speaks to one of the most potent decrees in our culture: Know Thyself. Writers are emotional cartographers. ‘What is this thing? What is its nature?’ we ask as we grope at its prickly outlines and sweep our hands in its airy centres. Surely this is a moral and civic good, even with no reader in sight. It is an antidote to shock-jockery and narcissism and the kind of reasoning that is plausible, simple and wrong. Which is not to say that writers cannot be self-involved and insufferable (more on that later) but simply that their inclinations are most often towards curiosity, investigation and a remorseless prodding of received wisdom.

I love the acute physical pleasure of writing. The act of holding a pen, the curl of script on a smooth, silky page, the lull of tapping keys. These are sensory delights. I have a keen memory of my first typewriter, bought for me by my parents as a consolation for refusing the admission of a new imaginary friend into our household. (Fellow, the first arrived phantom companion, was fine but Mrs Tibbits had to go). How well I remember curling the fresh white page around the barrel and pecking carefully at the stubborn keys. This was no sleek, electric PC but a hulking machine whose weighty keys made my little fingers ache. I can still hear the incredibly satisfying ‘ping’ sound it made when I reached the end of a line and it tabbed back to the starting position. The experience has hard-wired me to the tactile pleasure of writing.

As a child in love with my first typewriter it seemed magical to me that words – meaning – could emerge from the great white blank. That part of my compulsion to write was a drive to feel powerful only became apparent to me many years later when I first read Wuthering Heights. On that first reading I was stunned by a sense of something alive in the white margin of the text. Something I thought I could see moving out of the corner of my eye. Only my reason kept me from a certainty that I could hear a presence breathing close by, as Heathcliff does when he desecrates Catherine’s grave. I felt, and still do feel when I pick it up now, that there was a ghost in the book – a palpable presence that I could never quite see but equally couldn’t disprove. Virginia Woolf summed this up perfectly when she described Wuthering Heights as a dialogue between ‘we, the whole human race’ and ‘you, the eternal powers’. [1]

It was what Bronte could make me feel that astonished me. How could a book – a set of inanimate strokes on the page – make me feel this way? How could it give me an inkling of those cosmic powers which no amount of earnest prayer and intellectual inquiry could approach? More pressingly, how could I acquire some of this power? I wanted the ability to express what I felt precisely. I wanted the ability to make others feel what Emily Bronte could make me feel. That ability was the antithesis of the great white blank. It was substance, permanence, power.

From Bronte I discovered the crisp acerbity of Austen and then the ruminative, elegiac voice of Evelyn Waugh and from thence the stunning psychological insight of George Eliot. F. Scott Fitzgerald could make me feel as if my chest might implode from the terrible anxiety he wrought in me as I waited for the characters’ fatal flaws to trigger the tragedy. What power was this that could do such miraculous things with language?

I was led to look a little deeper at the purveyors of the glorious trick. Who were these writers, I wondered, and how had they learnt their craft? Were they shamans with mystical gifts or had they taught themselves to compost their material circumstances into something magical? I looked closer at Charlotte Bronte and turned up a veritable nugget. If the character of Jane Eyre taught me many valuable things, then the example of her creator suggested something just as vital: the uses to which writing can be put.

Charlotte Bronte was thirty years of age in 1846 when she put pen to paper in a boarding house in Manchester, where her father was recovering in a darkened room from eye surgery. When she looked up from her tiny scrawl and considered her life and prospects they must have seemed bleak. The only job available to her was the hateful drudgery of governessing. The family’s small means had been squandered on her drug addicted brother whose great promise had come to naught. Her great love was married and indifferent to her. All her attempts to break into a literary life had failed. Her father had lost his sight and hers was fading too. I can think of few things more terrifying than the idea that the nourishment of reading could be lost. That all the future holds is a remorseless black intellectual and spiritual nullity.

When Charlotte returned from Manchester and resumed the habit of writing in the evenings with her sisters, she had perhaps to chew the bitterest cud of all. While she continued with the manuscript of Jane Eyre begun in Manchester, Emily and Anne were correcting the proofs of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey respectively. These novels had been accepted for publication by TC Newby. To now find herself the only one of the three without a publication contract must have been wounding. Surveying her life from the vantage point of her shattered heart, uncertain prospects and stifled creativity, her very soul must have felt it was atrophying. And it was in this state of outraged pride and burning ambition that she poured out Jane Eyre.

How glorious, I thought. How encouraging. Jane Eyre came to be a comfort to me, not just because of my empathy with the story, but because Bronte had channelled a deeply challenging set of circumstances into art. She had transcended her own rage and indignation by giving them artistic form. My relationship to Jane Eyre then became two-fold: it gave comfort as narrative but also as allegory. Bronte herself became a model of the positive uses to which suffering can be put. I was miserable and frustrated in the way of many intellectually precocious children who find themselves unable to relate to their peers. But perhaps these things could be transformed. Being able to experience my circumstances as raw material for future stories allowed me to separate from them a little. To observe and interrogate my pain even as I was feeling it. It was at least, as Jane Eyre would have put it, a new kind of servitude.

It’s easy to cavil at this ‘writing as sustenance’ motif. Writers seem to be rather well represented in the ranks of suicides. Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Primo Levi and Virginia Woolf all killed themselves. Joseph Conrad tried to. The psychiatrist Kaye Radfield Jamieson has made a detailed study of the strong connection between bipolar depression and writing in Touched with Fire. Yet still I maintain that words are more the cure than the wound. I am willing to bet my house that if these writers had been refused access to pen and paper their misery would have amplified rather than spent itself.

 

II

 

For some writers the writing is not enough. If you were to ask them what writing is for they would say it is for readers. There is no shortage of writers that have succumbed to depression, drunkenness and suicide because their work failed to find a publisher and a readership. A Confederacy of Dunces, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and The Leopard emerged after the authors’ deaths – deaths brought on or hastened in part by their literary disappointments. It would be facile to discuss what writing is for without considering the role of the reader. Having a readership validates the writer. Just as the point of a sprinter is to be fast, the point of a writer is to be read. ‘There is a difference,’ a professor of English once told me ‘between people who write and people who are writers’. Literary awards and grants are habitually divided into ‘new’, ‘emerging’ and ‘established’ writers. Never mind that the ‘new’ writer might have been writing all their lives. They are only born at the point of publication. The reader births them, gives them light and oxygen.

And we buy into it. I know writers who crave publication. It’s an itching, insatiable need and it can make them quite mad. One author of children’s literature I met at a festival told me how her scheduled workshop had gone awry when a participant insisted on haranguing her about how she had secured publication, insinuating that his failure to do so was the result of some nefarious conspiracy which all the published were in on. I understand this. Those very compulsions that make us write – driving and primal as they are – make it hard for us to believe that there is no reader out there gored with a hole that only we can fill. The world’s indifference is only explicable by envy or cruelty or madness

There are writers who settle for proximity to readers and become publishers, editors, manuscript assessors, reviewers and festival goers. Some of them are fabulous; so erudite and brimful of energy and ideas that they are a joy to be around. And some of them are so twisted by their nearness to what it is they crave that the most basic professional courtesy is beyond them. The danger in publication is the extent to which we hand over enormous power to other people to validate us. Moreover, we give that power to precisely the people who are likely suffering from the same addiction to publication that we are.

Once we have scrambled our way into publication we are capable of dastardly tricks to lure readers to our wares and shoo them away from other people’s. Take Orlando Figes, for example. Figes, Professor of Russian history at Birkbeck College in London, is as tweedy and bespectacled a writer as you could hope for. The very last sort of person you would suspect of literary skulduggery. Yet he was recently outed as the vitriolic anonymous reviewer of his fellow historians’ work. Calling himself ‘Historian’ on Amazon.com he described fellow Russianist Rachel Polonsky’s book Molotov’s Magic Lantern as ‘the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published’.[2] Polonsky, it turns out, had previously written an unfavourable review of Figes’ Natasha’s Dance but at least had the courage to put her name to the review. Not only did Figes trash other writers’ work from behind his avatar, he wrote gushing reviews of his own books, describing The Whisperers as ‘beautiful and necessary’ with ‘superb storytelling skills’.[3]

Foolish and vain as Figes was I have some sympathy for him. Getting ourselves read, and read well, is damnably hard. We’re all competing for a gulp of the thin, rarefied air of literary success. When my first novel was published one reviewer described my book as ‘the sort of novel best read with a glass of red wine and a box of chocolates’. Now, this insinuation that my book is ‘light fiction’ is barely an insult but it was enough to send me into a rage at so called critics armed with nothing more than a library card and a web address. My response was disproportionate but it is a by-product of a world in which writers are exhorted to ever greater acts of effacement. Consider this comment from a recent Calibre prize winning essay:

 

Those who write are likely to do so in the face of an unstable amalgam of self-belief and despair. Though it is always possible to descend irrevocably into the latter, when writing one should only ever have a passing acquaintance with the former. That is because to write with full confidence in one’s own ability and purpose is to submit to a hubris antithetical to the exploratory nature of the process. Rather the best writing is likely to occur in defiance of anguish, an anguish born of a perpetual questioning as to whether each word fashioned on the page is worthy of existing in the face of the standards set by antecedents such as Conrad.[4]

 

The author of this caution against writerly self-esteem goes on to say that ‘I want to argue that for writing to properly occur, it is necessary for us urgently to pursue the death of the writer’.I would like to argue just as urgently for the opposite. Anyone driven to the kind of emotional cartography I have described has little need of further self-effacement. If such people had certainty about how things are they wouldn’t need to put pen to paper. Writers write precisely because they are curious and because things are murky and impenetrable and they want to bring some order to the chaos. I would like to argue for some reclamation of the word ‘writer’. It’s a word I’ve always hesitated to use in relation to myself because it sounds so lofty and I dare not place myself in a lineage that includes Austen, Bronte, Atwood, Orwell and McEwan. But Goddammit I’m going to start. Right now.

My name is S.A. Jones and I am a writer.

The fact that I write serves a purpose. It makes me more self-aware and more observant than I would otherwise be. It makes me desperately curious about the people around me. I reify their humanity as a unique amalgam of heredity and chance and want to know what it is like to be them. I write because it is fun. I write because it satisfies a need that nothing else can. Yes, I would love a readership. The idea of being able to sustain myself as a writer is paradise. But I must hold these thoughts in abeyance because they are only part of the story and quite possibly a corrupting part of the story. The writer should pursue not the death of the author but the death of the reader.

 

 

 


[1] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, chapter 14

[2] Laura Roberts, ‘Orlando Figes: Historian admits to writing anonymous reviews on Amazon’, The Telegraph, 24/4/10

[3] Profile: Orlando Figes, Times Online, 25/4/10

[4] Dean Biron ‘The Death of the Writer’, Australian Book Review, May 2011, p. 37

 



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