Tag Archives: creativity

Flesh Memory on Verity La

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Don’t forget to check out my latest story, Flesh Memory, a very brief piece on VERITY LA about illness, running, sweat, friendship breakup, embodiment, healing, learning, and all for FREE! I rarely write such drastically personal things, but this came from a place of Truth and Reconstructing the Truth in pursuit of making something I could display in a lit journal.

 

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The Luminaries

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Knotted into the signs of the zodiac, the gravity of the heavenly bodies, the waning of the moon. The opening is dense, elegant, pitch-perfect, the end is urgent, a slice of light. Numbers, prices, dates sink into the consciousness until, finally, the threads settle. Caught in the ruined beauty of 19th century New Zealand gold mines, opium dens, séances, prostitution, silk dresses, hotel rooms. The narrative voice is present and Victorian. Always beautiful, always on the cusp of confusion. The language holds me. So many pages I begin to miss them. Intricate, intelligent, ever-expanding as the late skies.

The School of Roots: Abominable, Rotting Birds and Women

          Hlne-CixousGr        I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”

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“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.

Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).

impureBut if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”

Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?

Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.

And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.

a-harpyAnd so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.

So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”

crowBirds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.

“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”

Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.

evilwomen“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”

This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?

“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”loudearth_full

Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.

“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”

Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?

“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”

She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.

Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”

For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.

“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”cmccarthy_impure

That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”

She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.

shoppingmall      footballstadium

That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.

“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”

I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.

It must be a reluctance to go into hell.

Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:

“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fosscavesils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”

I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.

So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?

buttressroots“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts cellarstairsdoubt on their own definition.”

Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.

For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

aliceinwonderlandCrossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.

That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”

When we areRotting_Fruit trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.

“There is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state, and so we move away from humankind; from the vegetal we descend into the earth, by the stem, by the root, until we reach what doesn’t concern us, although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”SW_Queen

Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?

Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”

forestwitchLet us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”

Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.

“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”

 

The School of Dreams: Writing, Darkness and the Uncanny

gothicblood“Whoever wants to write must be able to reach this lightening region that takes your breath away, where you instantaneously feel at sea and where the moorings are severed with the already-written, the already-known. This ‘blow on the head’ that Kafka describes is the blow on the head of the deadman/deadwoman we are. And that is the awakening from the dead.”

These are the words of Hélène Cixous, again, from her Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Dreams.”cixoushe

So, why is itcixousbook that only writing can do this to us, only reading? Because it makes this place into a place we don’t know. The way dreams do. It is Freud’s idea of the Uncanny.

Reading has a lot to do with practice. People who find no need to read have not been shown how. Maybe they think it is about pleasure. In which case there are many things far more pleasurable: TV, shopping, eating. Things that require less effort. But reading is not about the same kind of pleasure. It is about patience, curiosity, and pain.

Theorising why we read, what we get out of it, is hard. As Cixous says, “I can’t make a recipe of it, for as soon as we begin to inscribe signs, to attract attention, we destroy. So though you should hear everything I say, it should then be absorbed, pass through the blood, without your thinking about it, with your living it.” Exactly the opposite of writing. But there are eerie similarities with writing first drafts. When too much second-guessing can leave you with no way out.reading

With first drafts we are scared: “The book writes itself, and if by chance the person opposite should ask you what you are writing, you have nothing to say since you don’t know. Yet the book is written only if it has an engine. A book that writes itself and carries you on board must have an engine even if you don’t know how it works, otherwise it will break down.”

We should not know how it works. We are writing out of the unconscious, out of darkness. If we are lucky much of the darkness will remain, but thicker, more meaningfully patterned.

Thinking of reading and writing as “The School of Dreams” is useful. First drafts should come in a dreamlike state. Because “all great texts begin in this manner that breaks: they break with our thought habits, with the world around us, in an extreme violence that is due to rapidity. They hurl us off to foreign countries.” That’s why reading should be uncomfortable. It makes this world strange, hard to look at. We learn, in Jeanette Winterson’s words, that “to be ill-adjusted to a deranged world is not a breakdown.” But it should feel like one.

To keep sane in an everyday world is to numb ourselves to dreams. “What we hope for at the School of Dreams is the strength both to deal and to receive the axe’s blow, to look straight at the face of God, which is none other than my own face, but seen naked, the face of my soul. The face of ‘God’ is the unveiling, the staggering vision of the construction we are, the tiny and great lies, the small nontruths we must have incessantly woven to be able to prepare our brothers’ dinner and cook for our children.”

Most people do not dare. Which is why I say it takes practice, patience, and a certain masochism, to feel that need to read great books. It is more a need than a choice. The axe’s blow can be addictive, but it starts with something dreamlike, something uncanny. We just know those pages are there for us. It is not a problem that most people don’t dare, I think. It’s just another way of being.

As dreams take us places without leaving this instant, this space, reading sweeps us to other times, other countries, other minds, other ghettoes, other languages, other brothers, other sisters, other wars. Probably this is why many people take to travel by plane as a substitute. Yes, physical travel is the substitute, but reading is the real thing: “I wonder what kind of poet doesn’t wear out their shoes, writes with their head. The true poet is a traveller. Poetry is about travelling on foot and all its substitutes, all forms of transportation.” Everything, not just your body in another city, clutching a suitcase.

TravelReadingAnd wholly different, and better: “In order to go to the School of Dreams, something must be displaced, starting with the bed. One has to get going. This is what writing is, starting off. It has to do with activity and passivity. This does not mean one will get there. Writing is not arriving; most of the time it’s not arriving. One must go on foot, with the body. One has to go away, leave the self. How far must one not arrive in order to write, how far must one wander and wear out and have pleasure? One must walk as far as the night. One’s own night. Walking through the self toward the dark.”

Freud’s idea of the uncanny is important for any understanding of how reading does this to us. He uses the word Unheimliche (roughly “unhomely”) to explain how something familiar iuncnanys made strange. It is even more frightening because it was once familiar, soothing. The evil doll is the most basic example. He explains, “this uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” Or, for those of us less sympathetic to psychoanalysis, through the creative force that is at once pleasure, curiosity, and pain.

In the initial writing stage, if we are to write anything worthwhile, we must fall into an experience of the uncanny. We must find this world strange, find that the way we are writing this everyday world makes it into something unfamiliar, even frightening.

The poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes: “The state of creation is this dream state where suddenly, obeying an unknown need, you burn the house down, you push a friend off the top of the mountain.”

If it has to be done, it has to be done. The same if it has to be read. To write you must have courage to do such things but you must also have the sense that is dreamlike, that is more like feeling, to let it happen. “The scene is that of the other world. There is no transition: you wake up in the dream in the other world, on the other side; there is no passport, no visa but this extreme familiarity with extreme strangeness.” So, of course the best kind of travel: “Foreignness becomes a fantastic nationality.”

This is why dreams, and stories, rely so much on signifiers – or symbols. An object, a person, a place, means something else, growing uncanny: “Crossing the frontiers to the other world without transition, at the stroke of a signifier, this is what dreams permit us to do and why, if we are dreamers, we love dreams so much. It’s the cancellation of opposition between inside and outside, there is no explanation: any explanation would destroy the magic.”

dreaming-1We can’t explain a story any more than we can explain a dream. What does that object symbolise? Why does it matter? But it is different for me, different for you. “We are already there by a multitude of signs. And yet we understand nothing. This is how we enter a book. We are blind and ignorant and gradually things become clearer.”

That is why it tadreamingcastlekes patience to be a reader. Even more to write. You must belong to a place you can’t explain. “We are in the world of secrets of all kinds. One calls up another, gives rise to another, so we don’t know if we are inside or outside, or if we are one or two.”

We desire answers, it is all about desiring, but they don’t exist. Cixous understands the ultimate darkness of all good texts: “I hope this sounds mysterious to you. We are immediately drawn into the centre where there is a secret. Do you want to know what the secret is? You can’t because it is a secret.”

And what all good readers, which is what all good writers must be first and foremost, understand: “It is the feeling of secret we become acquainted with when we dream, that is what makes us both enjoy and at the same time fear dreaming. When you are possessed by a dream, when you are the inhabitant of a dream, you are driven by this, by a kind of heart beating: and the dream says something that is never said, that will never be said by anyone else and which you unknow; you possess the unknown secret. It is this, not the possibility of knowing the secret, that makes you both dream and write: the beating presence of it, its feeling.”

The feeling of secret. That’s why we must feel dreams, if we want to write truthfully. “Dreams remind us that there is a treasure locked away somewhere, and writing is the means to try and approach the treasure. And as we know, the treasure is in the searching, not the finding.”

Of course, this is fear above all. But Cixous reassures: “My authors are dreamers: they have understood what Tsvetaeva develops magnificently in ‘Pushkin and Pugachev’: that the unconscious is at the source. I am not speaking in Freudian terms: it has to do with the source of instincts that will be the motors of writing, what Tsvetaeva calls, when she tells the story of the ‘pathfinder,’ ‘the pure element of fear.’”

fearWhy? Because the Other is ultimately unknowable. Sometimes this is about respect: true knowing is unknowing. I cannot know you, so I cannot possess you. But that does not stop me feeling betrayal. The gap, the unknowability, is the source of the greatest kindness and closeness but also the greatest cruelties. “Love and the axe are inseparable. Only the ones who love us can kill us. Those who love us kill us. And we kill those we love. This is what we cannot live. Only the dream tells us this.”

Because it lets us move out of familiarity, into strangeness. Cixous reassures us, again, though not wholly convincingly: “we can enjoy all these axe blows, since we are in the dream’s sacred space where all the rules that ordinarily make us excuse ourselves for the dream are waived. A space that is both totally free and totally limited.”

dreamingwaterSo betrayal becomes meaningful. A lack of reciprocity is symbolic. Her silence is a pattern. His refusal is gothic. But it must be just as cruel as real life.

I had not understood why I adored incomplete endings so much until I read “The School of Dreams.” This is why the short story is so satisfying, ending without end. No neat “wrapping up” of a crime drama. Nothing I write ends neatly. For some, this makes no sense. People want to know “the answer.” Especially for The Loud Earth, the thing that I enjoy most is people’s wondering. A sign of intelligence. Don’t ask me to sum it up for you. I do not know. We both possess the unknown secret, after all.

“As an author I can say that if we are accidentally seized with worry about a text’s ending then this is a totally peculiar experience, one that is disturbing and not necessarily agreeable. If we are completely lost we ask ourselves: How will this end? Will it end? And what if it doesn’t end? This question can take hold of you. It’s far more upsetting than the question of beginning. For one thing a text can have begun before us, which is the best way. For another, getting stuck with the beginning – an experience I have never had – is not so serious since we only have to wait. The text will end up by beginning. A text that presents itself but doesn’t end questions the identity of what we are doing. But does a dream end? Perhaps we don’t think about it much since it’s a difficult moment. The fact that the end might escape us is perhaps the sensation we find most difficult to reconcile with. If the end escapes us where are we? A feeling similar to that of abandonment or the uprootedness we feel when we wake up badly looms. If the dream has stolen away we are inflicted with a more or less intense sensation of mourning. Books that don’t want to end question the entire economy of our relationship to writing and to life. There are books that end all of a sudden. We were writing and suddenly it’s over.”

How can I ever thank Cixous for putting it like that? Not ending is uncanny. We must be lost in fog and accept it, still desiring.

lakenightI suppose this is why I am not a fan of realism. Cixous says Clarice Lispector’s work “appears to be realist, but it has roots of meaning and revelation that go well beyond realism. It plunges into the profoundest depths of our secrets; we could find the signifiers of this scene in a dream.”

And Winterson, who understands the revelation beyond realism: “The continuous narrative of existence is a lie. There is no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”

That is why I believe realism is, ironically, a genre of lies.

Because we should seize on this darkness, possessing the unknown secret. “I have always adored these unknown ones who walk along the quay. You can’t write anything more magnificent than this loss which is the subject’s severance, the nonrecognition that, far from remaining abstract, will be materialised to the point of the grass growing on the graves and, then, followed by the arrival of dreams.”

It’s these signifiers, the flesh of detail, that make the world uncanny. All of a sudden we are caught in a place that looked familiar in another light but now, somehow, everything is gone. It is new and old. And we desire to know why, but we can’t. Possessing the unknown secret.

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A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

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This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

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Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

screamingwoman

The School of the Dead: The Radical Danger of Readers and Writers

cixous Reading about writing can be something like reading about music. Too meta, too not-quite, too useless. But reading Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing was an experience I’ve never had before. It’s not a how-to, a craft book, but a philosophy of writing and reading and language, how the three are combined so intimately that we feel it more than know it.

cixousbookReading the first chapter, which is actually a lecture, “The School of the Dead,” I felt as if somebody was writing my own unconscious, my own impulse towards writing. She was pulling it out of me. I want to think about how Cixous’ ideas make clear my experience writing my book The Loud Earth and my experiences afterwards, having written it, having others read it. Both were equally strange experiences. “The School of the Dead” took me back to writing the book as if Cixous was transcribing my hours at my desk, which were dreamlike and fast, taken hold of by this story. I felt as if I’d already read this lecture, or heard her speak it, because surely I could not have written something that so perfectly aligns with her thoughts? But I did.

loudearth_full“The writers I love are descenders, explorers of the lowest and deepest. Descending is deceptive. Carried out by those I love the descent is sometimes intolerable, the descenders descend with difficulty; sometimes they stop descending.” She tells us here that literature is meant to be hard. It should not take the easy way out. It should not be pleasant to read, pleasurable perhaps, but not lazy. Sometimes writing flows, I know my pen just moves across the page, I am trying to keep up with the unravelling in my head, but it is never easy.

Cixous tells us that writing is physical. Descending is a physical motion, you cannot stay where you started. For this reason it’s not just paper and ink. It’s nature, dirt, ocean. “The element (and I would like to have you hear this word said by Tsvetaeva, in Russian: stikhia, she means both the element – matter – and the element – poetic verse – the word element signifies both things in Russian), the element resists: the earth and the sea offer resistance, as does language or thought.” I am interested in the descent literally, I’m interested in the dark places in the earth, the loud earth, that we try to ignore though its calls are sometimes deafening. And I’m interested in the places in our heads and in other people’s heads that are secret, hidden, but important. You can go your whole life ignoring these things. But writers – and readers, how can we separate the two? – must seek these places compulsively. Descend, though it breaks the heart and pushes against you.

This is the ladder she is talking about. Sometimes the ladder is invisible. Which is why writing is like scraping through the darkness thinking you see a flicker of light, then another, and if you’re lucky your path will grow visible, though it’s not a path that was always already there, it’s a path you made, out of the darkness, so you have to turn back to see where you went, where you came from, and then retrace your stumbling. Cixous says, “Giving oneself to writing means being in a position to do this work of digging, of unburying, and this entails a long period of apprenticeship.”

And why is this apprenticeship the “School of the Dead”? Because writing always starts with death. “The [death] that comes right up to us so suddenly we don’t have time to avoid it, I mean to avoid feeling its breath touching us. Ha!” For Cixous all writing is about death. Read a book and think it’s not about death? It’s probably lazy, it probably doesn’t want to dig or unbury. We should be uncomfortable when we are reading. Writing should twist our bodies on the edge of pain. Otherwise we are only avoiding.

darkness“I said that the first dead are our first masters, those who unlock the door for us that opens onto the other side, if we are only willing to bear it. Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.”

I have been told time and again, “Your book scared me.” “You scare me with your writing.” “Please tell me everything is okay in the end.”

They say it like it’s a bad thing. But why would I write if I wasn’t going to try to dig something out that made you uncomfortable? Why would I skim the surface, then brush the dirt from my palms? If you sit with the discomfort you learn that reading is like witnessing the scene of a crime. “We are witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side. We are not the ones who have the secret. It’s a pictorial scene.”

We know that art isn’t decoration. It’s not an ornament or gardenscaping. It’s a crime scene. “The duel – death – and the picture form a door, a window, an opening.” Art, in making us afraid, lets us go to places we can never go in reality. But it should be just as petrifying, just as soul-altering, just as physical. Yes, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.”

I write about dead people, ghosts, murder, blood, dark places, deathlust, bloodlust, bodies and secrets. Because “we need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is. Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality we carry. We don’t know we’re alive as long as we haven’t encountered death: these are banalities that have been erased. And it is an act of grace.”

Which is why I don’t understand “reading is escapism” or “reading is entertainment.” I wouldn’t be alive without language. It’s not exactly a running away. I actually had someone say to me, in response to reading my book, “Well, you know, I don’t really like heavy stuff, I like happy books.”

The point just flew away, unseen, I guess.

Is it about being depressing? Is it about wallowing in sad feelings? For me it’s the exact opposite. Only by reading those writers who don’t turn away, who don’t avoid, who go to the edge and look down that ladder, reach as far as they can, am I able to see what it is to be alive. We need to examine our relationship to the dead. Constantly. And it’s not that by contrast that we’ll know what being alive means to us. It’s because being alive includes death. It includes the dead. As Cixous says, be brave: “Individually, it constitutes part of our work, our work of love, not of hate or destruction; we must think through each relationship. We can think this with the help of writing, if we know how to write, if we dare write.”

Daring to write, to read books that make us lose our worlds, means stumbling through a darkness that is dangerous. Cixous’ concept of the writing process is as perfect as anything I’ve read: “Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where blindness and light meet. Kafka says – one very small line lost in his writing – ‘to the depths, to the depths.’” That’s why we know that literature and experience cannot be diametrically opposed, as most people imagine. Have you ever been told you read too much, don’t experience enough of life? Well, quote Cixous next time.

But it won’t be easy. You can’t do it smiling. “Try to write the worst and you will see that the worst will turn against you and, treacherously, will try to veil the worst. For we cannot bear the worst. Writing the worst is an exercise that requires us to be stronger than ourselves. My authors have killed.”

Those of us who are willing to break ourselves at our desks may get close, but it takes strength most of us don’t possess.

“In what is often inadmissible, contrary, terribly dangerous, and risks turning into complacency – which is the worst of all crimes: it originates here. We are the ones who make of death something mortal and negative. Yes, it is mortal, it is bad, but it is also good; this depends on us. We can be the killers of the dead, that’s the worst of all, because when we kill a dead person, we kill ourselves. But we can also, on the contrary, be the guardian, the friend, the regenerator of the dead.”

handgraveComplacency may be the worst of all crimes, but it also the most common. Try to talk to anyone about something that runs against the status quo. If you are a feminist you already know this. Most people just don’t want to hear it. But that’s okay. Writing is dangerous. Reading is dangerous. Not the bestsellers, the ones with the masses-approved raised lettering on the cover, but the books that take on this task of befriending the dead.

This is why women writers are not as palatable as men. Black writers are not as market-friendly as white writers. Queer writers may as well bank on a niche readership compared to heteronormative ones.

Perhaps the response to your writing is even more educative than the writing itself. When you are at your desk you will know this is hard, you will know it is dangerous, you will know it makes you cry when you discover that you can turn into language something that crushes your body. But the reaction from people you know once your writing is in print will tell you that you are pushing against the grain every step of the way.

Cixous reveres Kafka.

Kafka22When she writes about his philosophy of language and literature it’s obvious why, and why he is such a rare writer. He writes about books the way true readers experience them:

I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

If the stakes are as high as this for writing and reading, then as Cixous puts it we must recognise that there is “always the same violent relationship: the book first, then you.”

If you experience books like you experience life, sometimes more forcefully, then you will understand this. If someone has ever told you you read too much, that you must experience more of life, as if reading and experience were dichotomous. If you don’t wish to numb that frozen sea inside you, or ignore it.

It is useless to describe a book as happy because it is stupid, because it turns away from that frozen sea, because it doesn’t wound us. As Cixous says, “Those books that do break the frozen sea and kill us are the books that give us joy. Why are such books so rare? Because those who write the books that hurt us also suffer, also undergo a sort of suicide, also get lost in forests – and this is frightening.” But it’s only through this intelligent suffering that we will get true joy, rather than the quick, numbing, fast-food joy of bestsellers or “happy” books, forgotten as soon as you disembark from the plane.

This is why writing begins with death, why it is risky. “The writers I feel close to are those who play with fire, those who play seriously with their own mortality, go further, go too far, sometimes go as far as catching fire, as far as being seized by fire.”

Some people simply don’t experience reading in this way. It is a way of passing time. I don’t know what else. Cixous acknowledges this, though she cannot understand it: “Not everyone carries out the act of reading in the same way, but there is a manner of reading comparable to the act of writing – it’s an act that suppresses the world. We annihilate the world with a book.” Those of us for whom reading is a matter of life and death, sanity and insanity.

bloodWe know books are dangerous because we are told so by others every time we pick one up. As Thomas Bernhard wrote:

And they call reading a sin, and writing is a crime.

And no doubt this is not entirely false.

They will never forgive us for this Somewhere Else.

This risk means going to crazy places that seem to draw us though we don’t know why. “And for this home, this foreign home, about which we know nothing and which looks like a black thing moving, for this we give up all our family homes.”

On the other hand, if we wish our reading to be numbing, happy-pill, quickly forgotten, we are not like Cixous. She avows: “I have the inclination for avowal. What would the opposite of need for avowal be? The need to remain silent. Does that exist? Do we really want secrets? Real need is on the side of avowal. The true secret causes the most suffering, because it is the exact figure of death. If we have a secret we don’t tell then we truly are a tomb.”

Some days it’s easier to be a tomb. Not to write a lie, exactly, but to not quite write the truth. It’s easy to write out of a tomb, read out of a tomb, the ultimate laziness. But the next day, when we feel some strength or even such weakness that we are newly grotesque and even masochistic, we can cross all of this out and move closer to avowal. Perhaps avowal cannot be done every day, it’s too exhausting. But it’s okay if it’s slow, as long as it’s painful.

Cixous teaches us that while writing is about crossing borders, transcending limits, it’s also about respecting difference. Respecting the things you cannot know. “In life, as soon as I say my, as soon as I say my daughter, my brother, I am verging on a form of murder, as soon as I forget to unceasingly recognise the other’s difference. You may come to know your son, your sister, your daughter well after thirty, forty, or fifty years of life, and yet during those thirty or forty years you haven’t known this person who was so close. You kept him or her in the realm of the dead. And the other way around. Then the one who dies kills and the one who doesn’t die when the other dies kills as well.”

Maybe part of what she is telling us is that there are some things you cannot write. Leave space in your writing. That’s a hard thing to accept. We want to write everything, we want our characters to know each other deeply, we want to know our characters deeply, we want to put our sons, our sisters, our daughters into our writing as if we have a hold of them. I think here of Levinas’ notion that the other is always unknowable.

levinasThough his writing his utterly sexist, positioning the feminine as the mysterious other, denying any form of feminine subjectivity, and giving a whole new meaning to the male gaze, difference is important to consider from an ethical perspective. In my book the narrator wants to collapse all difference between herself and Hannah, because it is too painful to accept her borders, which explains her deathlust and how ultimately destructive it is to be possessive of another person without really seeing them. Cixous knows that if you don’t see the other person, only yourself through them, you are verging on a form of murder. The narrator takes this literally.

My narrator is haunted by the crime scene of her murdered father and stepmother. Did she do it? She cannot think it to herself, so we have to think about it ourselves, as the reader. Cixous offers an explanation: “the loved one remained inside her, a dead man inexplicably without his death.” When we write, when we call up the dead like this, we are calling up a whole set of confusing feelings that are difficult to separate: what is his? What is mine? “She is staging an unenvisionable crime. What she lives out, and what she rejects with all her strength, is the fact that the deadman reproaches her for being alive. This is something she cannot come to terms with since she is both characters at once, herself and her-him. She is guilty of being a survivor. She didn’t follow him. She isn’t him.”

This works if she was the murderer and it works if she is. I don’t know why I am drawn to texts with this “unenvisionable crime,” these unresolved crimes. Perhaps because as Cixous claims “all great texts are prey to the question: who is killing me? Whom am I giving myself to kill?”

This is why great texts are like crime scenes, so much is at stake. “What finally emerges from the earth of the narrative is that we need the scene of the crime in order to come to terms with ourselves: we need the theatre of the crime. We need to be able to expose the crime and at the same time to somehow keep it alive.”

But this ain’t crime fiction. Because it is unresolved. The social order is ultimately left in the mess we began with. The lack of a resolution is the same as what is in the mind of the narrator. Full of illusions, delusions. “This is how we regulate our way of not seeing, or seeing what we don’t want to see. Seeing, not seeing, making visible, hiding/exposing, what? What is there in that heavy bag he is carrying?” I think this is one of the things people resist. But this is where intelligence resides: to accept the mystery, but to want to know. Desire and murder at once. A few people have asked me “What happened? Did she do it? Did she kill her parents? Did she kill Hannah at the end?” I do not want to answer. For one thing I don’t know. But my favourite thing is when people discuss the possibilities, and are not afraid.

A resolution is tempting, but it isn’t possible. “The inclination for avowal, the desire for avowal, the yearning to taste the taste of avowal, is what compels us to write: both the need to avow and its impossibility. Because most of the time the moment we avow we fall into the snare of atonement: confession – and forgetfulness. Confession is the worst thing: it disavows what it avows.”

But in one sense don’t we have to be afraid? Because reading isn’t “over there.” It is also inside me. Cixous sums up this conundrum: “Dostoyevsky was prey to this character’s mystery: what causes a young woman to bloody the entire house. She is a monster who isn’t a monster. I could be her. I am also you.”

We want to keep intact the other’s difference but we know it is not always possible. In the end Levinas’ idea of radical alterity is not satisfying. Irigaray does a better job, explaining that difference isn’t an opposition, it’s a possibility for creativity.

irigarayImagine a Western concept of the body in comparison to the Eastern concept. The body is bounded in Western thought, in opposition to other bodies, whereas in Eastern thought it is subtle, the bounds of the self aren’t so easily defined, relationality becomes more complex.

subtle-body Writers know that our bodies are subtle even if it’s only an unconscious knowing. Because books have subtle bodies. One person wrote them, quite another person reads them. “The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family. We don’t know the authors, we read books and we take them for the authors. We think there must be an analogy or identification between the book and the author. But you can be sure there is an immense difference between the author and the person who writes; and if you were to meet that person, it would be someone else. The foreign origin of the book makes the scene of writing a scene of immeasurable separation.”

And if the book is out there, mine, written by me, it is also inside you, read by you. “This turbulent landscape is our inner storm, it’s the curtain-raising of the unconscious. The world is white, we are lost, a great wind blows, and there in the background is a small black spot. We wonder what it is.”

Writing, and reading, are ways to communicate with the other, to experience the ways that our bodies are in fact subtle. Because literature is also physical. “These people have taken us through the storm ‘toward the depths’ where we can’t see clearly what we see, to discover ‘the most known unknown thing.’”

So it’s strange when somebody tells me “You scared me with your book.” Did I? I am not quite the person who wrote that book. Writing is another mode of communication altogether. We simply do not communicate with people in the same way as we write literature. That is why we need it so badly. And those who ask me for “the answer” to the book, as if there is one? I did not write the same book that you read.

If you love writing, if you love reading, if you find literature is the only way you can make sense of the world – and even more than that, the best way to make sense of the world – you must read Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Cixous has written this book with your blood.

Arrows and crossings-out: The fun of rewriting

“I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” — Susan Sontag

editingI think I prefer editing to writing. But then, how can we separate them? As Robert Graves said, “There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.”

If some cruel person was to rifle through my papers (good luck) and read my first drafts, I would be caught out at once. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a bad writer when I’m actually writing the first draft, because usually I’m deluded by the flow of the story, but if I judged myself by those initial attempts I would not be mad enough to call myself a writer.

Of course, there are those first drafts I have to know to abandon entirely. I have to recognise when something is just way too rough to stand a chance of being turned into anything that will shine.

All of this is part of the fun of first drafts. You can let yourself be bad, get things down quickly, think “I’ll fix that later,” put dashes in for words you need to find or facts you need to check, but this only works if you have faith in the rewriting.

I always write the first and second drafts longhand in full. Typing is too seductive. The words come too quickly. You put five where you need one. Typing is a lot less thoughtful, it has all the wrong flow. So after I have my sheets of lined paper filled I leave them for a couple of days and then get out some more, have the first lot on my desk for reference and rewrite the whole thing. The second draft is never much better than the first. But I begin to know the story better, it’s less about a crazy flow of a story and word association and starts to get a structure. I still don’t know what I want to say though.

I will then type up the second draft, print it out and leave it for a while. A while can mean a few days or a few weeks. I have lots of other things to work on. I rotate drafts like a production line. Hoping they will come out a little better at each step.

Leaving drafts for a while is sometimes enough for me to be confused by some things a reader would be confused by, things I haven’t made clear enough, and to let go of some of the bits I find charming but are useless. To be less self-indulgent. To kill a few of my darlings.

The first thing I find myself scratching out (using pen on the printed copy) is explication. Things I needed explaining to myself when I was figuring out the story while I wrote, but that really don’t need explaining to a reader. It’s better to imagine your reader as more intelligent than they really are, rather than stupider. I know I’m reading bad writing when the writer feels the need to tell me every thought a character has, to give me the reasons for a character eating toast or lighting a fire. That’s something all bad writers have in common and it’s the main reason I throw books against the wall. One example from a couple of my drafts:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke, only a clean dark.

This should become:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights that were faint against the riotous sky. She stepped back and I went inside. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Obviously the woman has let the narrator inside, because the rest of the story continues in the house. The reader would roll their eyes at me pointing it out.

In the fourth draft this became:

Her face looked kind in the streetlights. There was no smoke inside, only a clean dark.

Yes, those adjectives were beautiful, but they weren’t doing anything. In fact, they detracted from the mindset the narrator is in, in shock and sort of detached. She notices a lot, but she doesn’t have space in her head for those kind of flowery thoughts.

After I have got rid of a lot of the “fat” of a story – unnecessarily explication, description and pure wordage – I need to figure out what I’m trying to say.

My first draft flows from a single image, place or relationship. I don’t know anything about the plot, so I discover it as I go along. But this means that even by the third draft I don’t have a concrete sense of what the story is trying to say. So I read it a few times. Think about all the images and people that have come onto the page without much interference from me. In other words, I need to bring the story out of my unconscious and into my conscious mind. I have to analyse my own work, as I’d do in an English essay.

Once I half understand what is going on, I can see if the structure works fine or needs fixing. Sometimes a lot of the story simply needs to be excised, because it is overkill or just a distraction. Sometimes a character has to be taken out or one put in. Things I don’t ever remember having to change are the point of view or the ending. For some reason those things come in the right way, or they are just so attached to the story I’ve got on the page that I couldn’t change them without writing something completely different.

The beginning is another matter. This is the start of the first draft of the story I quoted from above:

The branches were ochre-painted against the sky. The debris of clay, watery, soft. The sky all grey and red. As the trees blew over the leaves pressed one way like hands, they were spread with stuff of clay. The sky was a fire itself, orange in the middle, ash-coloured outside. Everything was caught in the gust and smoke, the drying, firing, and might later be glazed.

I have already admitted my first drafts wouldn’t let anyone guess I call myself a writer. That came out of a real smoky afternoon when I was just looking out my window describing what I was seeing. Too dull for an opening. Too much. The reader doesn’t yet care. It’s just a collection of phrases, trying to grasp something visually and symbolically powerful. By the fourth draft, the beginning of the story became:

A pair of lorikeets streaked across the sky, greener than the greenery. All the plants were drained in the smoke. Only things with heartbeats kept their colour. I looked at my skin. It seemed all right, but the pores were no doubt gaping in the smoke.

In the first draft, those ideas were there, but they needed to be condensed. That image of the lorikeets returns at the end, so I wondered what it would look like at the beginning of the story too. Something is happening, some movement, and something that might make the reader wonder, though that story has quite a few more drafts to endure before it becomes respectable.

It is only through rewriting that my ideas become plain to me, or as plain as they’ll ever be. It is the most enjoyable part of the writing process. I need to pare back so the good things can show themselves. I need to cross out, make additions in the margins, explain what should be explained and take out what the reader would roll her eyes at. I find ideas I didn’t know I had. I find connections I didn’t know were there, buried in unexpected places. It’s my job to unearth them for the reader so that she can discover them for herself. And probably a whole lot more I never realised was there.

“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman

“Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in the edit.” — Will Self