Past Justification

Why is it a writer can go into a pub, and come out a drunk?

I opened my front door today and I found this sad and dejected thing sleeping on the porch: a fragile fiction.

You know what I’m talking about, right? These days (and they are adding up) there’s so much happening to reading, books, publishing. It’s all in turmoil and change and it’s so damn hard to keep track of who knows what and what knows who.

I feel like I’m in my foxhole, and so is every other writer out there. And it’s cold and wet in the hole. And each time I pop my head out, I’m afraid some crazy writer with a penchant for violence and guns is going to ask me what the hell is going on.

But I don’t have any answers. I just surface from my foxhole because I want to watch the sun rise, the sun set.

To change the metaphor; it’s a sea of shit out there in the publishing world, so be careful what you lunge for.

Which doesn’t mean I’m simply jaded and pessimistic. In fact, the opposite. Writing is how I engage with the world and I love all the bruises and the punches and the let-downs. Just makes me get up and go back for more. Because for me there is no other art that can contain as much human experience as writing. So I will write as the shit sea laps over my coracle.

You’ve got to fight back. You’ve got to start tossing your handbag (quaint English tradition of having a spat). And mostly with yourself. Because you have to keep reminding yourself: “I am going to keep doing this. I cannot be stopped.”

So, you know what I did with that fragile fiction that found its way to my door. I kicked it. I roughed it up. I sent it packing with its tail between its legs.

Rilke said that art can come only out of inner necessity.

To me that sounds like a rallying cry to write — because I must!

“Allowing space for change is allowing space for grace. That’s what I get from good writing.  I have nothing to say that will change anybody’s mind. Nothing. Being didactic is uninteresting. But allowing space for people to remake their minds about things, to change—or to get angry—is a viable literary purpose. That I fail at this over and over is my reason to continue. Failure is edifying. We break the lights.” Colum McCann

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On the Brink of the Last Squawk

Spring has brought me the frightening laugh of the idiot. Yes, that’s Rimbaud, from “A Season in Hell.”

But that idiot laugh has left Paris. It’s left Wales. It’s made a nest in Maine.

And what is this laugh that creeps from grass stem to grass stem? Is it afraid of the sun?

Sometimes I can even hear it in the mad taps of the first moth at night, incessantly striving to get into my home. But for what? What does this nighttime insect hope to find? Will it walk across my scalp the same way Neil Armstrong walked across the moon?

My adult life seems more and more a struggle for financial success. Why is that? If I lick the moth’s dust, will I hear moonbeams, or more frantic wings?

Look! There it is. Laughter in the golden forsythia. Is nothing sacred anymore? No. Not since humanity invented a god who created Adam, who in his crude and pathetic way fashioned woman from his rib. What the fuck is all that about? Like god or man knows anything about woman.

I live with three women (well, one is a girl of 6, the other is 15 months), but, if I was to pull a metaphor to explain their creation, I’d say my three women cupped the cosmos in their hands and sifted stars.

There it is again, that lonely and pitiful laughter, like a dirge on the wind, snapping dead stalks, caressing feathery leaves, and nattering some conservative, emasculated flatulence. But no, it’s not some hot wind out from the wilderness, it’s the hot air of men, yapping like hyenas, bouncing like geldings — ignorant of their loss — that a woman’s mind, a woman’s body, every aspect of a woman is up for auction to the highest political bidder in the land.

Sold! For a birth-control pill and a lovely home-made muffin!

There’s that laughter again. Its dry like dirt. And it’s mewling something about women must be made of high-fructose corn syrup and all things domestically nice and never get abortions because children are, well, all those wonderful impressionable minds that religion can pickle in its great big vat of lies.

God, be still, you wicked, wicked laughter, straight out of banality.

Wait, what the hell is that sound now? Sounds like the sweet rill of jester bells. It’s saying, listen up all you high courts of the land, if you want to implement real laws, how about you scrap the white, old-man gene from politics. Let’s fill the Senates and the Houses with 20 year olds — who at least know how to party and have a good time — and not philistines in their dotage and hooked on the drug of power but who don’t wish to change or do anything. With age does not come wisdom to politicians, just blinkers and piss pots under the bed. Or, let’s pass a bill to make sure every man sheaths his John Thomas before intercourse (why must it be left to the ladies to take the pill?). And to ensure this high decree, roving bands of lobbyists will break into your home and sheath you themselves if you fail to cooperate.

Listen, now it’s coming through the cracks in the wall. What, there are cracks in this wonderful old house called civilization? Damn, I thought those were veins of gold, symbols of the good life, reflections of purity, strength, our gains, our growth, our economic powerhouse.

Fool’s gold, caws the crow with the silver eye on the roofless house.

What, now you’re telling me the house has no roof?

Should I tell you there is no foundation, too, hisses the snake, sleepy still from winter’s hibernation, but free of his discarded skins.

Even the daffodils are laughing, bobbing back and forth their yellow trumpets. What’s that they say?

April is cruel because man is cruel, because he can’t stand to love.

God, even if I trample the flowers in all the gardens, I still can’t escape that foolish laughter. So is it me, or does everyone hear it?

Spring. What makes the lamb prance and jump and all I hear is snickering, like maggots in meaningless roadkill.

I must be an idiot to hear such things.

Social Mendicant

I can’t fall out of bed in the morning without hearing about the importance of social media if you want to be a writer — well one who is published and hopes to remain so in such a capricious publishing world.

I have no publishing deal (yet). And I have no editor or publishing house advising me to have a social media presence like Moses had his commandments. But I’ve heard the twitter through the grapevine and I’ve tumbled around the Web, and, well, I knew that having a social “platform” as an aspiring writer would probably serve me better than having that creepy echoing sound of silence all around me. It seems now that if you don’t cast a shadow as a writer, your chances of success and a healthy relationship with a publisher are dodgy. So I blog and I have a Facebook presence (disguised as a fox) and I also group blog with a collective of exceptionally talented writers (Groupgrok) who I got drunk one night and convinced to let me be a part of their social network.

And you know what, the whole social media thing just stinks. Is this really the brave new world for writers? Are writers to act like nothing more than mendicants, begging for alms from the publishing world and from readers?

We’re supposed to write books! So why are writers Tweeting about the news that Rowling has written an adult book with the Red Light-district title of Casual Vacancy? Or why are authors spending more time on a Facebook page than a book page? Or blogging words that will never end up in a book?

In the voice of George Emerson (E.M. Forster character): Why?

I just don’t believe in this malarkey. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that what readers really want from writers are more characters and stories and books from writers, not more Tweets and Facebook posts and blogs, these are all just virtual crumbs. Readers want feasts! Just look at the amount of eBooks that sold last year (I’ve read it is somewhere around $69 million). People are buying books and reading them. Plus readers are getting their digital fix with eBooks, so is more (in the form of social media) of the same thing better? And if writers write more, it’s not that hard to imagine that readers will buy more — unless you write a dud, which might happen if all the time you should be writing you are on Facebook and blogging and Tweeting.

Marketing tools are about as helpful as handles on a coffin.

And what really needs to asked is exactly how beneficial is all the social media trappings, all this begging for new readers? Is there any evidence? Real evidence, not just the mass evidence that so many writers are tooling with social media, therefore it works, as being proof. I mean, there are a mass of people who believe in God, and you don’t have to be an atheist, although it helps, to figure out the missing piece in this argument.

Plus, there are writers (many more than I think the publishing world will admit to) who sell lots of books and keep getting new readers who don’t do any kind of social media dance. Here’s just a few who come to mind: China Mieville, Jo Walton (Welsh writer just nominated for a Hugo!), Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Nick Hornby, Peter Ackroyd, Ruth Rendell… and I could go on, but all this is keeping me from my writing….

The truth is, nobody — not even Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen or Martin Amis or JK Rowling — knows whether social media is a boon or a bust. And if that is the case, then shouldn’t it be left up to each and every writer to decide whether to blog or Facebook or Tweet or not?

I was a reader long before I became a writer, and I want more books! So you know what, social media, leave my bloody favourite writers alone and let them get back to doing what they do so well, and what I love to read.

Let the writers write! Let the readers read!

And let’s put social media out to pasture. Its stud days are over. There’s a new hotshot in town and he or she is called a writer who pens books. Jesus, that’s such a novel idea, I might just take it up. Because as I writer, I just don’t want to grow up to work on social media’s farm no more.

Still Digging for the New Breed

When I discovered the Angry Young Men movement of the fifties, I was in my thirties. And I certainly hadn’t had an angry young man stage of my own. I was mostly an idle thinker with bouts of vexation that I couldn’t write anything worth the disdain or love of the working or middle classes.

But how I loved the brazen ideas of working-class writers and intellectuals who were outspoken with their scorn and dissatisfaction and resentment and sardonic humour for society’s hypocrisy and mediocrity.

I devoured John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and then dunked biscuit after biscuit into my tea, glued to the movie starring Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter. In fact, at exactly the same time, my atoms and cells were in the throes of delirium as I also discovered Mike Leigh’s brilliant movie Naked, starring a young David Thewlis as the terrible angel Johnny, and Bruce Robinson’s mantic and totally corrupting Withnail and I, with a stellar performance by Richard E. Grant.

That raw anger and frustration still kicks a can around in my imagination and still stands strong as a metaphor for artistic inspiration. It’s good to know that I still have this electrical river, though it’s not my primary source when it comes to creating. But it’s thrown into the rattlebag I have as a writer and it’s a deeps source because I am at once frightened and attracted to my anger.

If it’s there, in the blood, I think, then why throw it away or shun it? Why not go “To the depths of the unknown,” as Baudelaire writes?

Anger is just another energy to plug into as a writer to get the sluggish beat of life going again. It’s not different from Lorca’s duende spirit of Rilker’s terrifying angels. Anger is just as chthonic and numinous and can arrest a writer to the “holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of imagination” But just as Keats is certain of nothing but these two wild creative forces, I’m also never certain that my feelings of anger and frustration towards a reality that I so often think fails our imagination is right, besides that it feels right to question and doubt, just as it feels right to love and want to be loved.

But it’s the uncertainty that drives my anger that also drives the force of imagination and, well, delivers something I never expected, which is what art does, makes a kind of logic out of chaos, out of the fleeting and chimerical, out of intense passions and the struggle to ride wild horses with flexible reins.

But don’t listen to me. I am uncertain of even my certainty. All I know is that I have to endure with love. So listen instead to Emerson:

“Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, “It is in me, and shall out.” Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage drew out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river to electricity.”

Swooping In

“Discontented with everyone and discontented with myself, I would gladly redeem myself and elate myself a little in silence and solitude of night. Souls of those I have loved, souls of those I have sung, strengthen me, support me, rid me of lies and the corrupting vapors of the world: and you, O Lord God, grant me the grace to produce a few good verses, which shall prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.” Charles Baudelaire, “At One O’clock in the Morning”

Love Among the Ruins

I was trying to think of something to blog about when out of the woodwork comes National Library Week. Now I have a topic!

I hated libraries as a kid. The one I was forced to wander, like an invading infection, was in Llanelli. My parents dropped me off at the imposing building so they could do their weekly shopping at the all-new buying experience called Tesco.

The library smelt old and was perpetually cold, the radiators coughed and wheezed, and the windows were always rain-smeared. There were many, many steps to climb to reach the children’s section. One time, I wandered by mistake into the adult area and in the holy hush and under the vaulted ceiling of some industrialist magnate’s magnanimous vision, I stared slackjaw at the stacks of books. Then I ran as if the devil himself were after me — it was too much to witness.

The librarians back then in Wales (circa 1978) were wizened and mean and drank brackish tea and glared with icy contempt at my library card (chewed and inked). They also frowned and sneered at my choice of books and authors: Fungus the Bogeyman, the Adventures of Tintin, Asterix and Obelix, Evelyn Waugh, and Oscar Wilde. They fingered the books as if they were dead vermin. They checked them out with an hereditary scowl that could be traced back to zealots at a witch burning.

I loved the books I read. Loved them so much, I feared returning them to that bone-chilling prison. Which only made it worse for me when I did return the over-due books. Now the on-duty librarian had knives for hands and the condemning eyes of a priest. My teeth chattered as I approached with my small stash of Poe and Carroll and Dahl and the Dungeons and Dragons’ Monster Manual. I expected gargoyles to swoop down from the old stone and devour my liver. And I waited. Hoping for that grisly moment.

All that happened was that the librarian checked-out my books, stamping the cards with an end-of-the-world pronouncement and a the strong whiff of whiskey. (Note: Librarians drink no more or no less than ordinary folk.)

Ok, I know a lot of writers credit libraries as the birthing stool of their writing life, but I can never claim that a library nurtured my writing life. It was always the books, which just happened to come from a library. I was so much a happier sneaking into a library, getting my stash, and creeping out. Then I’d head to a graveyard or a park or a bus or the train or a friend’s house — any where but the solemn hush and the austerity of a library: I always wanted to read but hear the rush of life going by, I wanted to be near enough to that life that created those books I devoured like an orphan.

Actually my great dream as a child was to be saved from the library. I wished that some obscure relative, an aristocratic dowager with a big manor in Kent, would appear one day in our driveway in an old Morris Minor with two Mastiffs that growled at everyone but me, and she’d offer me to stay with her in the summer at her estate and she would have this huge library full of books. And I would sleep in the library on a fancy divan and have my meals there and be always surrounded by books and read them and not put them back, but litter the floor with them and place my empty plates and cups on the shelves and never be disturbed again until I was 18 and ready to write my first book….

My life with libraries has slowly gotten better, though, especially since my family moved to the States and my British aristocratic dreams have been replaced with the American reality of working for a living. In fact, I have now become a bona fide visitor of the Rockport Public Library in Maine, happy to go in and look up a favourite author or just randomly snag a spine from the shelf. And as I’ve aged, I have become just another regular, prudent, and levelheaded individual who loves the last bastion of democracy that a library represents. And now when I check out books, the librarian does it pleasantly with the occasional lifted brow as if communicating some shared imagination or else with a sagacious nod as if I am now a member of the lucky, happy few who knows a good book when they see one.

Fuck, how I miss that old Llanelli library!

Rhubarb

This country has reached an all time low. Last night I was at the grocery store and the check-out fellow didn’t know what rhubarb was!

What kind of system denies a young man the pleasure of rhubarb and custard? Or rhubarb crumble, cobbler, pie?

Did he never have the opportunity to recline beneath the plant’s big leaves and fantasize about married life with a wife who cooked rhubarb in his own special ramekin.

Or nights of stems cleaned and diced and a bubbling goulash on the burner, the aroma thick and inviting and his wife desperately trying to seduce him to a sordid rendezvous on the family couch.

Or his private stash suddenly gone from the fridge and the kids conveniently at a friend’s house, his wife complaining of a headache.

Or his coveted patch of wild rhubarb where he would go and try to put to music Blake’s “Songs Of Innocence” but end up humming a few bars of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

Or making a rudimentary shirt out of the leaves and being mistaken for a member of the Dock family.

Or tickling his wife with a French variety because he had read Anais Nin’s recipe for hot rhubarb sauce.

Or hiding luscious full-spread photos of the plant in all its bright red glory behind a copy of the latest bestseller on the train to work.

Or while making love to his mistress, dreaming of a bowl of steamed rhubarb dropping into the lap of his wife and she asking him to lick it out.

Or eating the bitter and tart young stems in the hopes of hallucinating and writing a fragmentary vision like Coleridge did with “Kubla Khan” after the poet had experimented with rhubarb peyote.

What kind of man is that young guy going to turn out to be?