1. Getting Over Your 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 one’s own.
So I found myself saying in the middle of an essay, “Getting Over Your Self”, which I wrote mid-year as a foreword to this year’s University of Sydney anthology of creative writing. The anthology is called Sparks—in part for that obdurate flame of self I had in mind—and it was launched in November at the university. It’s beautifully designed, and it includes some pretty interesting and beautiful work, “from erotica 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.”
I was please to write the foreword because the youthful pieces in it reassured me that the increasingly urgent work literature performs is in good hands. I was also grateful for the chance to think a little deeper and write a little more about integrity and the craft of originality, and about the hard work and healing power of love, which writing, in its plunge into and beyond one’s deep down self, resembles.
The hardest of the hard work involved in writing, I suggest in my essay, is the spiritual labour entailed in getting out of your own way and letting your own voice well up—singing, telling, ranting, praising, appraising, apostrophising, decrying, recognising, grieving. Writing can be a practice of dwelling truthfully in the world, of selfhood; it can be, like love, a way of transcending the pretensions in which Facebook and twitter and commercial television and so much daily discourse trade.
Here’s what I mean—a couple of pars, playing with some fine ideas I found in an essay by Jonathan Franzen’s latest collection:
“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.”
So, writing can redeem a writer from the superficiality toward which everything else pulls us. But what can original writing do for a reader—and the rest of us? What is literature for? Two things, I say in the essay.
1. Literature saves language from ourselves; it steals language back from the market and returns it in its fullness and multiplicity and music to us.
2. Literature returns us to our real lives—the lives inside our heads and hearts and out there in the world of weather and forms, the life we are too busy surviving to notice.
2. Writing is Only Reading Turned Inside Out (John Updike)
I had another crack at all this—the value of reading, the work of literature in our hearts and in the world—in a foreword I wrote to this year’s Award-Winning Australian Writing. AWAW 2012 is just out (November 2012, and it is a wonderful collection of poetry and prose.
Here’s a nice review of it: http://au.artshub.com/au/news-article/-/s/-/award-winning-australian-writing-2012-192790
And here’s a little of what I wrote in my introductory essay, “Praise Life, Prize Life”:
“Not speaking now of myself—for I am eccentrically, rather than well, read: a well-read life is larger, lived as it is in a habitat of so many thousand other voices and lives and stories. It is slower and deeper, because reading takes time and trouble and engages nearly every part of one’s mind—waking and training aspects of our awareness we may not have know we had, and which we can then use not just on books but on ourselves and the world. Reading lets you read your life, not merely lead it. It teaches you to find the thread, to fathom the significance and remember the complexity, to discover the otherness, to intuit the music that orchestrates and loosely binds the episodes and fragments of which a story, like a life, is made…
“We can begin, through reading, to make some divine sense of the senselessness of everyday life, of one’s own pain and uncertainty, of the absurd miracle of existence, of the injustice too many people everywhere live within, of the wreck we are making of the rest of creation, of the brokenness of post-modern lives and of the ecosystems and weather regimes in which we live them. Each step you take, if you read (or write), each phrase you make, each thought you think, you perform in the company, you sing in the choir, of the poets and storytellers and their poems and stories, their images and metaphors and voicings, their personae and heroes and villains.
“This doesn’t always make living easier; but it makes it resonant; it makes a life multi-storied. You get to share your troubles and desires and despair. Your solitude becomes plural, as Rumi once put it. You get to be at once very deeply alone but never abandoned. You live with the voices of the best writing you have read; though your life is your own, even more your own because of your reading, there is not a sadness you will feel, a mistake you will make, a prize you will win, a heart you will break that has not been felt, made, won, and broken in poetry and story a thousand times. Poetry, someone said, and we could stretch this to story, says what all of us feel but few of us know how to say. Said well, pain and joy have meaning, even beauty; said well, in a poem or a story or an essay, your pain and joy have company.”
AWAW, the brainchild of Adolfo Aranjuez; each year, he gathers aselection of Australian essays, stories and poems that have won a prize of one sort or another. There’s no guarantee you’ll like everything in here equally, but you can be sure every piece is fine.
Because he is my friend, but also because his work is fine, I’d like to mention Dave Blissett, whose taut and tender story “A Man. His Girl. That Tent” appears in the anthology, and whose story “Makers of Words” has just won the Rolf Boldrewood Short Literary Award. His is a name to watch; his are stories to read and love. And I wanted also to mention Sarah Rice, a student of mine and a fine young poet, whose Gwen Harwood Prize poem “Against the Grain” is included in the anthology, too.