Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 19 January 2009

Taking a thought for a walk


rubber-stamp-approved-thumb1391108 I've read that there are two types of literature: one that takes the reader away from the mundanities of everyday life on a journey of imagination; the other that probes the complexities of human psyche and experience in such a deep way that it makes the reader view his or her own life in a different way. I think there might be a more important reason: validation.

We all think we're alone, that no one understands us, and in many ways that is true, we are all one of those islands Donne talked about. In the film, Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins, who was playing author C S Lewis, explained to a student on a train, "We read so know we are not alone". I'm pretty sure Lewis said that, though perhaps not on a train, but if he didn’t then all credit to William Nicholson, the scriptwriter, for making sure those lines got incorporated in the film because they had quite an impact on me. Talking about impacts, here are a few more:

  • I had a man, a fellow poet as it happens, take one of my poems and pin it to the cork board beside his desk because I had found the words that explained why he wrote.
  • A girl I used to work with kept a copy of one of my poems which she referred to as "the Barry poem" from then on because it expressed exactly how she felt about this particular guy. I even think of it as "the Barry poem" nowadays. I'd have to look it up to find out its proper title.
  • Another girl I worked with (different job) wanted to leave one of my short stories in her loo so people could read it at their convenience (pun intended).
  • A woman I knew once – really I knew her daughters better – asked to read some of my poems. The collection came back with one missing. When I quizzed her all she would say was that it had put into words something she'd felt for years but she wouldn't tell me what. I have no idea which poem it was.
  • Charlie, a fellow I once worked with took a collection of my short stories on holiday and sat and read them out to his friends. One guy said to him: "How does this man know how I feel?" When I asked him which story it was he couldn't remember. Charlie himself had to wipe tears from his eyes when he read the poem I wrote about my mother.

Writing is a distillation of aspects of life into words. Words facilitate understanding. They stop us having to rely on feeling that something is right; words try and explain to us why it is. In all of the five instances cited, my writing somehow validated the feelings and actions of my readers; the world made a little more sense afterwards. It is okay to be the way I am, they could now say, because I am not alone, someone else understands and now I do too.

I have lived a quiet life. Mostly that's been by choice even though few opportunities for excitement have presented themselves to me. I write about the same thing over and over again: people. People fascinate me more than anything else. I don't much care about politics or ecology or the state of the economy. I could have been a scientist, the kind of guy who gets to watch another guy in an empty room for hours on end. Okay a girl in an empty room. Unless that room was the Big Brother house. And even then, with the sound down, I'm actually quite content to watch that too. And most of the time it's not what they're doing that interests me but what they might do: Man is a storehouse of potentiality.

Books are the same. What's going to happen next? It's what I enjoy so much about writing. It's all about filling up that white page. I saw someone interviewed recently – can't think who it was although I suspect it was Stephen Fry – who when asked which of the books he'd written was his favourite he said: "My next one." His flippancy aside I get it. No one is interested in jigsaw pieces that they've fitted together. All we care about is rooting through the pile to see what we can do to reduce that empty space in between. Every bit we add on makes the rest make more sense.

Reading is like that for me. I'm looking for the bits and pieces that other people have written that I can incorporate into my personal ethos, that enable me to make more sense out of me. The first one I recognised as such was contained in Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney'. I extracted its essence and it became mine. It's my poem now. But that's not so unusual. We all have poems and songs and films that we connect with in a special way.

One of the words I think I hate more than all the others is 'normal'. Normal is such a conditional thing. H2O is normally a liquid unless it's very hot or very cold whereupon it turns into steam or ice. There is no 'normal' state for H2O because 'normal' is not an absolute. And yet I'm desperately interested in what 'normal' might be. When I was growing up I did certain things, most of which were deemed 'normal'. I can remember my mother saying to my dad: "He's just a boy, Jimmy," – my dad was also called Jimmy – and she's talking about me; there were things, even bad things, that it was deemed 'normal' for me to get up to. They even accepted my writing and I can imagine my mother saying: "It's just a phase he's going through," only it wasn't. After a while I should have grown out of it. That would have been 'normal'. And yet online I have met so many people who, like me, have kept on writing since childhood. Of course that was 'normal' for us and I think I hate that expression more that I hate the word 'normal'. It's a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card. Ah, but you segetoutofjailcce, it's normal for me to spend 17 hours sitting in front of a PC every day. Of course. Yes, quite, quite normal.

Valid used to mean healthy a long time ago. Healthy is normal. It's not normal to have pains in my shoulder and wrist. Pain though is normal, a normal response to things not being right. I don't need a doctor to tell me why I have pains in my shoulder and wrist, it's too much time – and we're talking years here – in front of a computer or typewriter. But that's natural if you're a writer. So, what if I wasn't a writer? I guess I'd end up with different pains because it's natural I find for people to overdo things.

Excess is a historical phenomenon; drunks and overeaters were disparaged in Ancient Greece. More recently we have had the rise of the “modern” addictions: gambling, sex and computer gaming. Even reading Harry Potter books has been linked to addiction. There are those that argue that 'addiction' is too strong a word, many of these are merely habits, albeit bad habits.

So what's writing?

My dad told me that a habit was something that people did that if they were asked to do without it they would miss it. What he was implying was that one would go through withdrawal symptoms. So is a habit an addiction-lite? Our lives are made up of habits. Almost everything we do involves the use of habitual behaviour. Think about it. You get up in the morning and use habits to get ready to start the day. Otherwise, you would have to relearn everything you do – combing your hair, brushing your teeth, dressing, working the toaster, and even pouring a cup of coffee.

My dad was right though. A habit is an activity that is acquired, done frequently, done automatically, and difficult to stop. Nail biting would be a good example. It is an acquired habit. And it can be hard to quit. That's not the voice of experience talking here.

So, how long does it take for something to become a habit? As you would expect, since our 'normals' are all different, there's no simple answer but simple repetitive tasks require a timeframe of approximately 21 days to condition. Here is a familiar example: When you walk into your bedroom you "automatically" reach for the light switch on the left side as you enter. Then you move to a new home where the light switch is located on the right side as you enter. You'll find that it will take you about 21 days to stop reaching for that light switch on the left side. You will also find this 21 day "benchmark" to be the time your new house will start feeling "like home". Most studies tend to opt for a month to be on the safe side.

I've talked before about what writing is to me, a natural response to events going on around me, ergo a habit. If I don't write I feel there is something missing. And isn't that what a habit is? But I didn't always write. It was something I acquired on the way and now I wouldn't know what to do without it. Not that I would want to.

The figure that's floating around for breaking a habit is 6 weeks. And yet I've been unable to write for periods far in excess of that and returned to writing as naturally as a duck returns to water. This is where the difference is I suspect. A duck is designed to swim. It wouldn't die if it didn't and I suppose there are plenty of ducks who never go near a pond. I wonder if they miss it.

The interesting thing about writing is that, in common with any number of bad habits, there are side effects. After a few hours it hurts to write and, now that I've been doing it for thirty years, it doesn't even take a few hours anymore, I hurt before I even sit down to write and yet, like the habitué that I am I keep on anyway.

I started this ramble by talking about validation and I guess that's where we've ended up. If there's one thing habitués and addicts have in common is the need to try and try and vindicate (that's the dark side of 'validate') they way they are and so I associate with people who are like me who reassure me and occasionally pat me on the back.

I've always held the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that I am broken. I suspect that's what life does, takes a perfectly healthy psyche and breaks it over time. And we're led to believe that broken things are bad, unnatural. In my experience broken things can usually be adapted to become useful again and serve a different purpose from the one for which they were originally designed. A writer serves a useful purpose. It may not be something everyone does but if there weren't broken people writing then what would the broken people who like to read do?

I have no answers to any of this stuff. I just do what writers do. I took a thought for a walk and this is where I ended up.


Art Durkee said...

If life doesn't break your heart open, nothing will. Empathy is a harder road than being aloof.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi is about the beauty of imperfection, among other things. It shows up in the use of natural materials, unmachined imperfect uneven natural materials, even broken materials, in assembling everything from a garden to a poem.

In this aesthetic assymetry is more pleasing than perfect symmetry. Wabi-sabi acknowledges, and embraces, the truth that nothing in the world can ever be perfect, or not for long.

If you're broken, so's everyone else. The real test, then, is who admits to it, or not.

Jim Murdoch said...

My problem, Art, is that although I'm happy with some aspects of my imperfection I'm not with others. And, yes, there is beauty in imperfection and everything's relative at the end of the day. A sculptor will take a perfectly good lump of rock and hammers lumps off it to make a perfect sculpture but is it still a perfect rock? I'm being my usual facetious self when I ask that of course.

I don't believe I was born a poet but I was born with the potential just like a rock can contain many different sculptures but only one ever gets revealled - well that's me. Life chipped away at me and this is what he ended up with, not exactly Rodin's The Thinker but I've learned to live with it.

Bobby Revell said...

I've often wondered, what is validation . . . really? Is it having someone you respect say your writing is good? I once craved validation or acceptance, but now I don't care (for the most part). In college writing classes, my teachers and I didn't see eye to eye. They would often tell me what "good" is supposed to be and what is irrelevant drivel. They were trying to force feed me opinion. So I reject all precepts and eliminate normalcy (whatever that is).

In groups and communities of writers, I've never felt welcome, accepted and certainly not validated--mostly because of what I write about--it's not accepted as being popular or normal.

I write what I write because it's natural. I cannot force myself to write something unnaturally or that doesn't interest me. I accept myself and my own clichés. Validation is icing on the cake, sometimes too sweet and sometimes uplifting--but not a necessity.

One thing crossing my mind now. What I write reflects not what I enjoy reading. I write horror/transgressional fiction, but don't read much of it. I enjoy reading other genres instead.

Your articles tend to send me on tangents. Thanks:)

Anonymous said...

Certainly very interesting post Jim, and well written too. I do not know why but I have always enjoyed writers talking about why they wrote, your post tends to belong into that category. I have enjoyed Auster's or Orwell's essays on the subject as well as this post. Like somebody likes chocolate I like to read such a stuff. Cheers!

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting comment, Bobby. It brings to mind something about writing that I don't express very often because it sounds egotistical but one of the benefits of writing is that I can get to read something I know will interest me. This is especially true when it comes to my poetry because there is so much poetry out there that I don't like. It's not that it's not well done and all that but so many poets are simply writing about things that don't much interest me. You have no idea how overjoyed I get when I find a poet who hits the nail on the head.

Glad I made you think. It means I'm doing my job right.

And, Jasko, yes, I also like to listen to other writers talk about their processes. It's not that I think I'm doing anything wrong as such, nor am I looking for validation, but there's more than one way to skin a cat and I do acknowledge that I've turned into a bit of a one trick pony (okay, maybe three or four tricks). That said, and since we're on animal metaphors today, I'm a bit of an old dog and you know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.

McGuire said...

Love this essay Jim. I'll be back to comment an reread, one of the best yet. Though tough competition.

Few things caught my attention, firstly, the writing and reading, is partly about 'not being alone' about 'reading someone else' all their life philosophy, life speculation, their judgements. Other people are like mirrors, but they are also, other worlds, we want to understand. The affinity I feel for certian writers simply because they write on themes, that my life also seems to follow, is quite amazing, reassuring, and beautiful.

I was a bit disturbed by this statement: 'I don't much care about politics or ecology or the state of the economy.' I think this is the worst evil ever. I understand why people are indifferent to politics, largely because politics IS the problem, economics IS the problem. But, if we remain indifferent without an alternative, then we leave the politicians, to dominate our lives, to make us enslaved. In this day and age, we live in a global infrastructure that really could enslave us even more. If we continue to be sheeple, we will be enslaved. I think their will be serious civil crisis in the next few years as we move toward world government.

That aside, I love this essay, and that you are broken. I too am broken. Life is about being broken and mending yourself or enduring the madness. Overcoming the breakages. As L. Cohen said: 'There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.'

I'll be back.
Speak soon.

Anonymous said...

"No one is interested in jigsaw pieces that they've fitted together."

I like that as well as much else in this little 'walk'.

You are an egg. Thank heavens you are broken. We couldn't have done bugger-all with you if you weren't.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, McGuire. Sorry if I disturbed you. Really that I was talking about here are politics, economics and ecology as subjects for poetry. I've never written a green poem in my puff and I'm not sure I'd know what to put in one. The fact is my wife and I do lead a reasonably green life. I have no doubt we could do better but we're not lackadaisical about it. As for politics and economics I don't understand either of them – and we're talking basic principals here – so I really don't have anything constructive to say about the state of the country or the state of the economy. Beckett was once asked why his writing wasn't more political and his answer was quite simply that his writing didn't take him in that direction. And my answer is the same. It was a great surprise to me when I wrote that little anti-war poem a few weeks back. You made the point well in your comment: "if we remain indifferent without an alternative" – I don't have an alternative and I think moaning for the sake of it isn't the best use of what talent I have. I've started off a blog about political poetry but I'm only two paragraphs into it and I'm struggling already. I'll do something with it one day when my head's a bit clearer.

McGuire said...

As ever my replies are littered with erroe. I reply in the same manner I speak. Like a child.

Don't get me started on politics. I'm infatuated by it. I'm not overtly a political poet in fact I avoid it. I have a degre in political sciene. Dull, I know. But, in present times, each of us living within a highly sophisticated global infrastructure. I genuonely believe (writng about it or not) we will see some of the most tumultuous conflicts over the next decade the world has seen. I could go on...

Back to the writing; words are amazing in the sense of articulating what we think. They are the couriers of our existence. From the most 'inteligent' to the most 'sincere' (my good self) they have a currency which only time can pass on. All it requires is a stranger to read and think/feel, my god, this is the closest thing to the turth I have found!

Again, I'll be back, to focus more on the essay.

Jim Murdoch said...

You're a good egg too, Ken, you know that.

And, McGuire, most people know what they feel about things but communicating that is another ballgame entirely. I am taken aback sometimes when I read a few simple words strung together and they make the world a little clearer. I'm even more gobsmacked when I write them.

asimov said...

21 days cycle is what my yoga master follows. His pacakage is always for 21 days.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Asimov. As I suggested in the article there are a few ideas floating around and I guess at the end of the day everyone is a little different. 21 days sounds reasonable though.

Marcy said...

Ah, validation ...

“I've always held the opinion, rightly or wrongly, that I am broken. I suspect that's what life does, takes a perfectly healthy psyche and breaks it over time. And we're led to believe that broken things are bad, unnatural. In my experience broken things can usually be adapted to become useful again and serve a different purpose from the one for which they were originally designed. A writer serves a useful purpose. It may not be something everyone does but if there weren't broken people writing then what would the broken people who like to read do?”

Thank you, for that.

Thoroughly enjoyed this post and look forward to reading more.

Jim Murdoch said...

Marcy, glad to be of service.

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