Getting Over Your Self
(First published as the introduction to Sparks, an anthology of creative writing from Masters students at the University of Sydney, 2012)
I HARDLY MEET a person who doesn’t think they have a book in them—who doesn’t want, or think they ought to want, to write their life story, or someone’s life story, a novel, a poem or two, a film script.
The desire to write is close to universal.
And so I said on radio on the morning of the day in Newcastle, when I sat at last to write this foreword. ABC radio Newcastle had asked me on to talk about a writing workshop I had come to town to run and about a reading I was giving later. The interviewer and I talked on air a little about the numbers for the workshop, which were very strong. Which had kept growing and growing until the organizers had to call a halt.
Sometimes I think there can be no one left out there who never felt the urge, the itch at least, to write, and I said so. Jill was surprised. We writers and journalists like to think that we’re alone—the poet in the garret, the novelist in his shed, the memoirist writing by torchlight at the window down the hall, the children finally asleep. Alone at our work, maybe, but not in our ambition.
You really think so, she probed.
Why do you think it is so many people want to write, then?
And so it was I found myself wondering out loud, exploring my accidental thesis, about the universality of the writing urge (if not the writing gene; of which more soon). Maybe, I suggested, it’s an aspect of the hopeless hope each of us harbours—knowing, without ever quite accepting, that our time here will end—to outlive our lives; to make a mark that outstays us; to leave a trace, in particular, of our own voice, that ephemeral vessel that seems to float our very self into the world. A written work, one sometimes imagines, might leave me behind—a boat that still floats me, when I, myself, am sunk. If I wrote a story people remembered, if I wrote a bit of a book about that plane that crashed in the ranges in the eighties, if I put down some tales about my mother’s life or the trauma of my arrival by sinking boat out of trouble, if I turned a poem people recited to their lover or quoted at funerals, if I wrote a script that became a film, my voice would go on speaking, and speaking me, a long time after I myself am gone.
She looked skeptical.
Perhaps I was giving too much of myself away, too early in the morning.
I pulled on the reins. The urge to write isn’t all about posterity. Some people write for fame or, God help them, for fortune. Some people write to get laid. There are faster paths, cheaper. But still. In nobler moments I’ve been known to say that each of us, particularly those of us as fortunate as I am, have been given the world—life, the weather, the birds, art, children, love, language, the works—and writing is a way of giving it back, of returning the gift, of acknowledging it all. Not in order to live forever. Just to reciprocate. To say thanks. There are many things I can’t do, or don’t, many other ways I might return the gift, but don’t or don’t know how to; writing is a thing I love, a thing I’ve studied and practised (I would never say mastered). It is a way I know to live deliberately, as Thoreau put it—mindfully. A way to live large and go deep and not leave a hell of a mess behind. So I write. And there are other writers who share, I’m sure, this sense of writing as an offering, an offering back, and vote of thanks. Writing, for some, isn’t about immortality or celebrity; it’s what used to be known as a calling: an activity to which one feels not just compelled but commanded.
And there’s more, I said. Warming to this. Writing for me is a way of making sense: of me, of the world, of the absurd miracle of being on earth and trying to live well and do some good and know some peace and make some love in the few years each of us gets to live this dream rounded by a sleep. Writing is a kind of divination, a madness that makes, as Dickinson said, the divinest sense. Of the mysterious world of matter and mind and memory that surrounds us. Writing, wrote Wallace Stevens, another poet, is a “rage for order”, by way of language; a search for pattern, a patterning, amid the chaos. Writing, all art, is a stay against despair—though making it is the most maddening thing I know. Still, the days I write in are the days I most deeply and thoroughly, honestly live. Not orderly, not by any means, but shapely, chosen, real. One never orders the world; but sometimes one orders one’s head for a while; sometimes one makes a poem. A story. And it’s an unaccountably consoling, yogic, business—more than an experience; a long drawn out, arduous epiphany.
Poetry, writes Jane Hirshfield, makes through language what meditation makes through silence. Makes in language what yoga makes in silence.
Though it’s often, especially in prose, a process much less like prayer, much more like battle. Sometimes it’s like a party. Sometimes a good one. A rave.
Writing, for me, is like love, I went on: hard to find, harder to make, harder still to keep, but addictive and beautiful, and capable of asking better questions of myself and insisting on more honest answers than anything else I do or know. Writing for me, though it draws on and trades in all things, “is apart from all things”, as Jack Gilbert puts it. Like love.
Okay, she said. I’d ended up a long way from where we started.
So, what tips would you give someone who wanted to get some writing done?
What I wanted to say—but didn’t, since I had a course to pitch—was that, though everyone wants to write, most people probably shouldn’t. The gift for writing—not to mention the graft and the mad dedication entailed in learning and practising the craft of it—is not nearly so widely distributed as the desire to make it. Again, like love… Writing’s much harder than it looks. It hurts; it pays poorly; it takes time; it loses you friends; it’s bad for your posture. Unless you’re sure you’d feel you hadn’t lived the one life you were meant to, says Rilke to the young poet, if you didn’t get to write, if they didn’t put “poet” on your gravestone—don’t write. It’s hard work, and most of the hard work isn’t the syntax or the personal discipline—though those are hard enough. Most of it is the spiritual hard yards you have to keep putting in, long after the athletes have retired and stopped rising at dawn to run the track or swim the pool—the heavy lifting involved in getting out of your own way for long enough to hear whatever it is that wants to speak itself to and through you, and to get that down on paper.
I’m sure I heard the great novelist Jonathan Franzen say the other day (he was on radio this time) that what writing’s for is “becoming”, and I think he meant something like what I mean here: the larger part of the practice of writing is an endless getting over yourself, a peeling off of masks; it’s a stepping out of the disguises in which one lives, in which one has, to some extent, to lead, one’s daily lives. Writing entails working your way back to who you really are and how you really speak about whatever it is that counts for you in your very own original voice.
Which takes me back to the tip I offered on air.
No two of us are identical; none of us is a clone. The Greeks thought that each of us played host to a genius, a one-off intelligence, a singular way of seeing and being. A self. And that’s always seemed about right to me. It is, I think, one’s self, in its essential self, that each of us who aspires to write wants to voice and leave behind. The book you want to write, I think, is the book that only you can write—the one told in the voice that tells you (the unique ecosystem that is the life of your mind and memory, this unique intelligence, this unprecedented self) in every phrase, no matter what or whom it’s about. No matter what its subject, no matter if it’s memoir, essay, new journalism, lyric or heroic poem, or fiction. And it turns out that such a book, such a story—unique in its telling, if not in its tale—such a poem, touches a reader like no other kind of writing, maybe like no other kind of art—almost as though it was that reader’s very own book, written not only for her, but by her. Its singular voice becomes, by the alchemy of story, by an integrity of telling, the reader’s own singular voice; its self, her self.
Each original story is a proof of integrity, a proof against anonymity; each poem is a flame that refused to go out, a silence that would not be kept. That could almost be our own. Beyond good storylines and great sex and shock-horror and smart moves and wisecrackery and assorted cleverness, this is why we read: to know that we are not alone in our solitude. To know that each solitude counts. That each solitude counts uniquely. In particular, one’s own.
How I write, said Joan Didion somewhere, is who I am. Or it is who I think I am, or am pretending to be, or trying not to be. And the point is that one’s speaking voice, one’s way of talking on paper, gives one’s self away. And the stories and poems that reach us and last are those that ring true, those that go closest to escaping pretense. That say I am, and you are, too, in every phrase.
And if all this is even halfway true, we could all take Hemingway’s advice. And this was my tip. Never write anything that goes the way you’ve heard it put before. If it’s been said, it’s been said: those are no longer your words to utter, and if you utter them, they’ll have nothing new to say, and nothing to say, in particular, about you. Your writing will be secondhand; your voice will not be in it; your poem will stay stuck on the page; your story will roll over and go back to sleep, taking your reader with it. Resist all cliché: that was Hemingway’s tip, and it was the one I thought to say on air. Write everything fresh. Make every phrase new.
Jill seemed to think that might be worth trying.
You want another one? I asked.
Never write to please anyone else. Write to please yourself, as William Faulkner put it (another dead white American male, admittedly)—but make yourself very hard to please. The question is not who’s listening; what counts, as Francine Prose puts it, is who’s talking. Are you writing like yourself, or as someone like yourself; as someone more likeable, perhaps? Cooler? More bankable?
IN HIS ESSAY “Pain Won’t Kill You”—a commencement address he made at Kenyon College in May 2011—Jonathan Franzen has some hard words to say about the manufactured selves we parade in the fast and narcissistic commerce of Facebook, the “liking” that realm trades in, and the superficial, self-serving banter one uses there to engender that “liking” and to write the movie, in which one stars. “I may be overstating the case, a little bit,” he concedes. “Very probably,” he goes on, “you’re sick to death of hearing social media dissed by cranky fifty-one-year olds.” (Subtract a year, and this might be me talking.) But he doesn’t come to trash, he says; he comes to speak a word for literature and love. “My aim here,” he says, “is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love.”
To love someone or something is to be thrown back against who you really are; it is to get over the addiction to being liked; it is to find out that you are not, or not always, the likeable, cool dude you would like the world to think you are. To love is to dedicate yourself to someone or something not, in truth, capable of being liked all the time. To love, in the actual world, is to become real; it is to engage with the real, paradoxical, multiple, contradictory world. And so it is with writing—which for Franzen, as for me, is like love in what it costs and what it yields; in its practice and its texture. “If you’re moved to return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you,” Franzen goes on, alluding to another reason many people write (joining the conversation other books start us on), “you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or secondhand in your pages.”
To write, as to love, is not to consume the world from a safe distance, or to package yourself and sell it to the world. It is not to like the world or to ask it to like you back. To write is to become who you really are, by stages; it is to let the world be what the world is. To write is an act of love, and like love it hurts, and like love it heals. It’s not about you, but it does remake you; and in every word you speak—the poem you make, the story you tell, the landscape you lovingly draw—you speak who you are, or who you are becoming.
How does writing hurt, and how does it hurt like love? There’s the risk of rejection. There’s rejection, itself. There are all the ways you suddenly discover you know how not to say what you see and how you feel and to sound like who you are; all the ways you try, and inevitably fail, to please. All the ways the position you find yourself in—this place, this plot, this paragraph—doesn’t fit the story you had told yourself you were.
Writing is love, then, and like love it hurts. But, as Franzen concludes: “pain hurts, but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative—an anaesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology—pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in the world.” Love is the real life Facebook keeps at bay; literature writes the real world the Twittersphere keeps behind glass.
Writing, for the writer, is a way of coming true. It’s a way of “being alive in the world”. And I think I’d add: of coming alive to the world.
Writing can become a means of leading what Jane Hirshfield calls a thoroughly lived life—the kind of life, in fact, any writer is going to need to lead if they’re going to write a poem or a story worth reading—a work that be rings true.
WHICH IS A WAY of edging up on what literature does for readers, too—what writing, beyond saving the life of the writer, does for the rest of us. There are many answers to that question, too, but they come down, I reckon, to these two.
1. Literature saves language from ourselves. It steals language back from the market and returns it in its fullness to us.
Good stories and poems redeem language from the chatter of everyday discourse, from the banalities of the marketplace and the parliament, the Ethernet and the small screen; from the clichés and sentimentality we trade in at home and on the sidelines and in the boardroom, and on commercial radio; from the moral absolutism of discourse of church and state and corner store; from the grand and obtuse abstractions of theory, policy and the various professions. Which is to say literature gives language back to itself. And to us. It resists.
It uses language with rigour and affection; it makes language new; it remembers its rhythms and the vernacular music it makes in our mouths. Literature remembers, and lets us remember, that language is a speech act, an enactment profoundly human. It puts words back in their bodies. And in our bodies. Literature recharges language. It conserves it. It reminds us how good the right words in the right order can be, and how much bigger and realer they can make the world seem.
A little while ago, Judith Beveridge, who knows my affection for the writing of the American poet Charles Wright, and who shares it, sent me these words of his, which speak, the way that literature speaks, for what it is that literature does for language and, therefore, for us all:
without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What’sToCome.
2. And the second thing literature does—telling its stories, making its poems, singing its songs, bearing its witness?
Literature gives us back to ourselves. It gives us back to our lives.
Literature writes lives and places in their everyday complexity, their contradiction and their beautiful—not always likeable, but truthful and therefore lovable—actuality. Literature, says Alice Munro, writes “the things within things.” Literature writes the texture of existence; it tells the inner life of actual life—of moments, of dramas, of places, of episodes, of lives and deaths. Depicting life as it runs beyond the reach of marketing categories and demographic segments, literature unsettles settled morality and conventional wisdom; it pricks pomposity; it unseats cliché; it disassembles fundamentalisms; it reminds us who we really are when we’re not pretending; it forgives us for being human. As Mark Strand says of poetry, literature “allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living” inside the tropes of family, society, fashion, commerce and convention. In other words, it gives us back the fullness of our lives. It makes us think twice. It reminds us that what one sees is far less than all there is to get; that how things look is rarely what they are; that how we position ourselves is rarely who—and never all—we are.
AND SOMETHING LIKE all this—this looking into the inner life of actuality, this resuscitation of language, this becoming through syntax, this bringing of the world to life, this resistance, this falling into stories as if into love—you’ll find attempted—sometimes with astonishing craft; everywhere earnestly—in the pieces in this anthology, a selection of the work of the creative writing students at the University of Sydney, class of 2012. It would be asking too much of these young works to have them bear the weight of my aspirations for literature into this slick, often glib and ever more narcissistic digital world; it would be wrong to expect them all to do everything Charles Wright hopes for from a poem, to practise the kind of love Jonathan Franzen looks for in story, to pull off the deep integrity Joan Didion listens for in memoir, to observe the ferocious originality Hemingway demanded of every phrase of everything. I’m pretty sure some of these writers have other ambitions in mind, and so they should. But there’s very good work here in all manner of different voices and forms, from erotica via noir and new journalism to Sci-fi and North Coast Raymond Carver—shorts and riffs and imaginings and plaints, an unruly choir of attitude, affection, addiction and affliction. There are three or four brilliant pieces (I’ll let you decide which I mean), and many memorable passages, enough to give one hope that literature, which has such urgent, slow work to do for language and for all of us in the years ahead, has fallen into some good new hands.
Congratulations to everyone who made the cut, and to the editors for pulling together such a lively, edgy ensemble.
I should probably tell you something about the stand-out pieces here, but I’d rather let you find your own way through. That’s what literature asks us to do, readers and writers.
Instead, let these samples, like stray birds, fly some of the wood to you from the trees; let them suggest the vivacity, the verve and spunk, not to mention the caroling multiplicity, of thought and voice this anthology is alive with.
If he fled the scene of a crime, he would be described as brown-haired, of medium build. Surely he has some reserve of luck that he’s never had to touch before. Are you saying you want to have sex with my wife? “An abandoned future,” Clotho said. She rarely called her friends in China; there was nothing to tell them. In the blue scent of forgotten boughs. It was just as pretty a story as you were. You wondered what answers he was looking for. I must inform you that it’s me you love, not him. What beauty it dons and its body so bronze. I’m as predictable as their minimum wages. Suddenly there’s a mushroom and then another. Past scenes stitched like patchwork scraps onto the present. Study me with your brittle smile. Miras saw a flock of birds, doves perhaps, scatter as a loud BANG reverberated. Phone held tight to his ear jabbering away but away but always looking around…like he was looking for someone looking for him. As sunlight through our green ceiling fades. He tugged an absent smile across is lips. The town hall was reborn to us that evening. Pissing’s become a gauntlet. You’ll eat well at my place, Fabullus, if you’re lucky, and you bring plenty of pizza and a hot babe and some goon and a good mood. “Vegetarian nearly killed by a little chicken.” I’ll meet you where your spine ends. This isn’t really how it happened. When she closed her eyes I felt as if I was alone in the room. Illicit footprints, the words of the dead. I got on a bus, taking it all the way to Oxford Street, where I got off outside an underwear shop.