Recently I had to submit a forty-word statement on “What Writing Means To Me” to a literary magazine, as a preface to one of my short stories. My toes curled in horror and I could feel my computer keyboard bracing itself for some recalcitrant bashing and prodding. I just hate that sort of thing. It feels fake and forced and I know, even as I reluctantly string the words together, that their inadequacy, their failure to capture exactly what I mean, will be back to haunt me.
To be honest, a big part of it is that I didn’t want to come across as a pretentious git. You know the type:
My ethos is to penetrate deep inside the hearts and minds and other gasping orifices of my supine readers with my unsheathed, thrusting literary tumescence, every word a gasp, every full stop a climax as I humbly yet brilliantly grapple with the paradoxical nature of solitude and my violent need for self-expression blah blah wanky blah…
Somebody kill me now. (Or better yet, them.)
So. The first task was to write the statement in such a way that I came across as knowledgeable (but not overly), likeable (but not desperate), intelligent (but not unattainably distant) and of course, as a writer worth reading (no qualification needed on that one).
The next and by far more difficult task was to come up with something genuine – and something that actually said what I meant. This is by no means (hah!) an easy feat. Let’s revisit Prufrock’s weary bewilderment:
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
– The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot
In a previous post, “I-Land”, I talked about the complex nature of self-expression and the inadequacy of language to “capture” meaning and to communicate that meaning to others. But we writers could blissfully bang on about these matters until the end of time. At some point we have to pull our inky fingers out of our overly analytical arses and just get on with the bloody writing.
So I tried. And I tried. And I tried again. And eventually I came up with something that was probably as “good” as it was ever going to get:
For me, writing is both an escape and an opportunity to be fully present – to myself, to the story and to the music of language. I try to write bravely and simply. The power lies in what is unsaid.
To elaborate: when I sit down to write, I close out the world and everything in it – my dirty house, my daughter’s laughter and embraces, the dinner dishes, the vaguely nostalgic scent of my partner’s aftershave, my “real job” and its deadlines, my aching knees and my forgotten hair appointment – and I am left, absolutely and blessedly alone, to create another universe.
But even in this act of escape, I am running furiously towards myself. When I sit down to write, I am, in a sense, stripped down to the stark essentials. I am eye-wateringly present to me: my feelings (often muted by the everyday, they make themselves loudly known in the silence), my memories (both conscious and unconscious), the whispering influence of my personal history. And I am present to the in-the-moment nature of getting the story onto the page: the words on my computer screen and the music they make as I speak them into being, the passing of time as I struggle with a phrase, the elation when I get it right, the frustration as I rework a sentence over and over.
E.B.White said it much better than me: “Writing is both mask and unveiling.” Bugger. Why didn’t I see that and quietly plagiarise it before embarking on my 40-word uphill blunder?
The last sentence of my statement, I believe, is the most truthful. I will leave you to ponder on it.
Tune in next time when I’ll tell you a little more about my birthplace – Northern Ireland – and my family background, and share some tentative thoughts on how these things inform my writing.