Remember Ali Baba?
He’s the hero of a famous story from The Arabian Nights, the one in which a poor woodcutter (that’s Ali) finds his way into a treasure cave having overheard its keepers (that’s the Forty Thieves) using the password. After taking a little of the loot for himself, Baba shares the command with his brother (that’s Cassim), who utters it himself, drawing back the door and connecting the cave with the world.
I’ve just had a similar experience myself, as it happens, but I got my password from a Baba of a different kind.
I’ve been sick, you see. Not as sick as some, that’s for sure, and yet sick enough to be room-ridden for a month. Normally I’d have been a mess, mentally as well as physically, and my virtual isolation would have hit me hard. I would have seen it as time out of life, as a state of being at odds with my everyday existence.
You know the mentality I mean. It’s the kind of thinking that puts things in opposing camps, compulsively conjuring up dichotomies. Well or unwell. Happy or sad. Hermit or socialite. Loser or legend. It’s like being the ‘living double of a single fiction’, as the more eloquent Elvis (Costello, that is) aptly puts it.
Normally, then, I’d have seen my illness as sign and put an end to my activities. I’m a bipolar being, after all, and opposites attract. And yet I didn’t – thanks, oddly enough, to a literary critic called Homi K. Bhabha.
I met my Baba early in the university year, when I borrowed a book of his essays. I was trying (and failing) to flesh out my skeletal understanding of postcolonial studies, a field that Bhabha, along with two other luminaries, is credited with creating.
In his book, The Location of Culture, Bhabha takes issue with ‘binary logic’, the mode of thought usually associated with the colonial mindset (and with me). He offers, instead, a different interpretation of the imperial past and present.
The colonial realm, Bhabha argues, does not simply give rise to and reinforce ‘parochial polarities’, as many believe. By acting as an in-between place where back-and-forth movement causes ‘domains of difference’ to overlap, the subjugated space ‘opens up the possibility of a cultural hybridity’.
Bhabha’s words came back to me as I lay sick and despairing. Although I wasn’t quite sure what they meant, I said them nonetheless, drawing back the door and connecting my cave with the world.
In doing so I escaped my bipolar mindset. It’s possible, I realised, to be both happy and sad, hermit and socialite, loser and legend. And, yes, I could even be well and unwell at the same time and thus keep my dreams alive. Knowing this, I started studying from my sickbed, ultimately acing my essays and making a success of the semester.
I uttered the password and it opened my mind.
Ali Baba’s brother, Cassim, isn’t so lucky. He forgets the command that would free him from the cave. Unable to escape, he is captured by the robbers, who cut his body into four quarters, ‘to hang two on one side, and two on the other, inside the door of the cave, to terrify any person who might attempt the same thing’.
Without the password Cassim is a man divided. His is a state – and a fate – I hereafter hope to avoid, in sickness and in health.
[Drawing by Joan Kiddell-Monroe]
So, I’m a student again.
How the hell did that happen?
The usual way. I applied, somewhat blindly, to study Honours at a local university, unsure about my thesis topic and even about my discipline. I mean, how could I choose between literature, creative writing and history?
In the end I didn’t have to. I managed to nab myself a scholarship, one that came with a project attached. Over the next couple of years I’ll be studying the papers of two of Tasmania’s most prolific and unheralded authors (who happen to be siblings).
Fortuitously, the project encompasses my three loves. Coursework aside, I’ll have to produce a thesis (creative writing), exegesis (mostly literary criticism) and some kind of public program (history).
Somehow I chanced upon my holy grail.
What does it mean, being a student again?
That I can’t redraft this blog post to death, for a start. (Not such a bad thing.) I just don’t have the time.
What it really means is that I can live a richer life again – which is ironic because study is costly, scholarship or no scholarship.
Remember the discredited diagram that purports to depict the teaching/learning process? The one that shows a teacher tipping information into a student’s open head?
Well, that’s how I feel, as silly as it sounds. I feel full again – full of ideas and excitement. Full of life.
Take the past week. I’ve had seminars on research and on writing an exegesis. I’ve been reading about and reflecting on literature and history; travel writing, colonialism and displacement.
I’ve been mixing with writers too, having been to workshops led by an acclaimed local author. It’s been immensely inspiring, all the thought and talk about books and writing. It’s brought me back to life.
Returning to study has reopened my mind, and the ideas are already flooding in. Like the kid in the picture, I’m an empty vessel no more.
The next question is: will I drown in the deluge?
Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
That’s what I told a suicidal kid in the park today.
I was there with family and friends. The boy was there alone, earbuds in, bike at his feet.
I saw him watching so I wandered over, offering him sushi and a sympathetic ear.
Passing on the first, he asked shyly if he could tell me something – something he hadn’t told anyone else.
Of course, I said.
And that’s when he told me that he didn’t want to be around anymore, that he was scared because he’d been making threats to people online, people who’d been making him feel bad.
Taken aback, I trotted out the usual clichés. He nodded like he’d heard it all before.
We talked until he said he had to go, to meet his dad, by the bridge.
As we shook hands I blurted it out: Stick around – the world needs sensitive people like you.
Even as I said it I had my doubts. And yet I could see I’d finally given him something to think about.
Only later, after the boy had gone, did it occur to me that maybe I was right. The world, it seems, does need sensitive people – if only to comfort each other in the park.
November is traditionally the month when writers everywhere set about penning a novel from scratch. Not me though; I’m neither daring nor desperate enough to attempt that sort of stunt. Besides, I’ve been too busy writing other things: lots of bits and pieces that don’t amount to very much.
Or do they?
Here’s the thing: the novel is an ultra-accommodating art-form, the literary equivalent of an open house. ‘Wonderfully omnivorous, capable of assimilating all kinds of nonfictional discourses’ is how the novelist and critic, David Lodge, once described it.
In its time the novel has taken in all sorts of strays. Whole works are based on fictitious letters and diaries – Pamela and I Capture the Castle spring to my mind – and any number of novels feature other types of texts, everything from shopping lists to court reports.
Looking back at the tail-end of 2020 again, I reckon I might have written a novel without even knowing it…
The story is told through the scribblings of its protagonist, a wannabe writer like me. (I’ll call him Will even if you won’t.) It starts with a poem.
I’m not dying
I feel close to death.
my body lives on
while so weak
my spirit seeks release
from a straitjacket
of self-hood borne
Will, it seems, is sad. And why not? It’s mid-winter and the pandemic is in full swing.
With the walls closing in Will tries to reach out. He starts penning blog posts, one about identity…
It’s one of the biggest decisions of our lives and we make it every day: who to be (or not to be).
… and one about illness.
So, I’m writing a novel – not because the world needs another one or because I’ve got something special to say, but simply because I’ve got a bad case of novelitis. I’ve had it for years and the condition is all but incurable.
But his thoughts turn to other things and he shelves the posts. Owing to Covid, the nature of his work has changed. He explains the situation in an email:
For now I remain in ‘redeployment’, my office having taken over the national helpline when demand for passports plummeted and call centre staff were sent to the Eastern Front (Human Services). Thus I spend all day on the phone, answering silly questions and being called the wrong name (Stuart, Kieran, Stan…)
Before long, though, the novelty of the situation has worn thin and boredom begins to set in. Will dreams about starting a business. Write to Life it’s called, and he drafts a proposal.
Creative writing brings us more than pleasure and publication: it can help us find ourselves and our place in the world. Write to Life is a program designed to help people of all ages achieve greater self-fulfilment through storytelling.
Will loves the idea – it’s a product of his own experience, after all. But he knows he’s not bold enough to give it a go.
His thoughts turn instead to university and to studying honours, something he’s long wanted to do. After weeks of preparation he applies for a scholarship, submitting an outline of a thesis topic.
Roy Bridges (1885-1952) is Tasmania’s most prolific novelist, having published thirty-six novels. He lived with his sister, Hilda (1881-1971), who wrote thirteen novels herself while acting as Roy’s amanuensis. Both were born in Hobart and formed a deep attachment to Woods’, the family farm near Sorell.
In 1933, after working on the mainland as a journalist, Roy returned, somewhat unwillingly, to Tasmania, thereby keeping a promise he had made to his family. He remained at Woods’ until his death, battling anxiety and loneliness as he and Hilda tried to restore and protect the property.
Will hopes to study the Bridges’ letters and manuscripts, many of which have been preserved. Displacement is to be his theme.
It’ll be months before he’ll learn if he’s been successful. In the meantime, though, Will wants to stay busy. He knows that boredom might bring on a breakdown.
He and his wife have talked for years about home improvements. Now, though, the situation is more serious, the family having outgrown its digs. Will decides to get the ball rolling. He contacts a designer who sends him a questionnaire. It’s important, the designer explains, to see if their values align.
We value modesty and simplicity, durability and functionality [Will writes]. Ideally, our new space will reflect and support these values . . . The history, personality and environmental impact of our house is as important to us as its monetary value and appearance.
They arrange to meet in the new year.
But Will is not done yet. He’s suddenly smitten by the prospect of a new job, in a different part of his department, a job that would require him to ‘think creatively and critically’ and would encourage him to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’.
Will decides to show his suitability by writing his pitch for the position as a story. He calls it ‘Will Meets His Match: A Fairy Tale’.
Once upon a time there was a passport officer called Will. Although Will was good at his job – he foiled a serious fraudster in late 2020 while assessing applications – he knew he’d be better suited to some other work. To something involving ideas.
It’s a gamble that pays off. Will wins himself an interview, which goes well. (The interviewer even claims to love Will’s blog.) Although he won’t know for weeks if he’s got the job, Will’s not worried. He’s living in a fairy tale, after all.
And that’s where we return to reality.
Okay, so I didn’t knock off a novel in November. I did, though, add a chapter to my life story, potentially adding a twist to the tale.
Thanks to the writing I did at the end of last year – some ‘creative’, some not – 2021 promises plenty.
Writing a novel is a lot like making stone soup.
Remember that story?
A hungry wayfarer meets a tramp who offers to make stone soup. Into the pot goes a stone and, while the water is warming, the tramp idly mentions that an onion might help. Tempted, the wayfarer takes one from his pack. ‘A carrot,’ the wily tramp says. ‘If only…’ And out comes a carrot.
This goes on until a rich minestrone has been made from the purloined provisions. The wayfarer is amazed. ‘This,’ he asks, ‘is stone soup?’
The first draft of a novel is a pot of stone soup: the seed of an idea swimming in a sea of words. Only by convincing ourselves that our book-to-be is a delicacy can we make it minestrone, adding ingredients until we too end up asking the wayfarer’s question.
This is stone soup?
Who do you wake up with in the morning? Someone you love or someone you loathe?
I don’t mean to pry but rather to posit a proposition: that the company you keep in your first waking hour sets your self for the rest of the day.
And I’m not talking about your bed buddy here – I’m referring to the version of yourself you choose to wake up with.
Stop looking at me like that!
Say you want to be a writer. Be your writing self in your first hour of wakefulness and you’ll feel like a writer for the rest of the day – that’s my assertion.
It’s nothing new. Back in 1886, the English preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote: ‘Begin as you mean to go on.’
I’ve been doing so for weeks and it works.
So why not wake up to yourself and seize the hour?
Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.
Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.
Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.
Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.
It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’
But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’
Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.
Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.
The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.
Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.
At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.
Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.
Image courtesy of PxHere
Seen the road to hell lately?
It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.
Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…
Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.
Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.
Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.
What went wrong?
It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.
And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.
Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.
Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)
Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?
Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.
Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.
It’s happened to anyone who’s ever had a blog.
You get an idea for a post. The phrases are flowing and you’ve got time on your hands, so you decide to dash it off in one go. What, you tell yourself, can possibly go wrong? You’ll just whack out the words then polish, publish and preen.
So you sit down to get the job done.
You’re still at it days later, of course, your idea now a literary iceberg whose hidden depths keep surfacing.
What went wrong?
Nothing, actually. Writing is almost always a grind, even if we like to think otherwise. None of us is a lesser writer for finding it hard.
As Thomas Mann famously (and fortunately) observed: ‘A writer is a person who finds it particularly difficult to write!’
That’s me all over. I thought I’d finish this post hours ago.
I had an upsetting experience at work today – doubly upsetting because I was at fault – and I need to write it out.
Yes, write not ride.
Some people let their emotional storms blow themselves out. Alas, I’m not so stoic. When troubled I have an urge to put pen to paper, and I wonder why.
Does writing help me learn my lesson, like copying out lines does at school?
Is it a self-imposed punishment, the page being a paper voodoo doll I prick with my pen to inflict pain on myself?
Or do I write to purge myself of evil emotions, in a kind of ritualistic ink-letting?
Your guess is as good as mine. One thing is true: when the turbulent toss of my handwriting has subsided, the cool calm clear blue lines of the page will remain, and the storm will have passed.