This is the text of a lecture we commissioned and that Paul delivered as part of this year’s Bray Literary Festival. The festival took place online this year, which means you can also watch the lecture back here.
The ancient Greeks did not believe in the self as the source of inspiration. They saw creativity as something located outside oneself in the form of the daimon, an attendant spirit, part god and part human, that acted as a conduit between man and the divine fire. To be met with the spark of illumination, or to be in thrall to the creative spirit, was to be visited by your daimon, bringing you into direct communication with the gods.
All writers live for this visitation. To go into creative flow is a vanishing trick in which the self disappears only to be possessed by a higher mind that is not ordinarily given voice to speak. It is the act of writing that summons the daimon, and though we may think today of this daimon as inner voice, it is still not uncommon for the writer to believe that the source of their creativity is something that lies outside their control. Ask any writer about the superstitions, the fastidious preparation and morning rituals bordering on the religious that must be completed before the work can begin – the hot drink in the totemic cup; the piece of mood music that must be played; the specific font on-screen or snug pen that completes the ritual and primes the writer before the divination begins.
And yet there are the wintry days when the writer has completed the rites and come to the desk only for the daimon to desert them. The writer finds themselves in a derelict room staring at lifeless words and mechanical sentences. The spirit has not entered into the writing. On such days the writer may feel worthless and bereft.
Aristotle once said that “happiness is to live in harmony with one’s daimon”, and this idea of harmony between the self and one’s creativity, of learning to listen to the inner voice that speaks for the deepest self, is what I want to explore in this lecture. For to live in harmony with one’s daimon is no easy thing, and is perhaps the source of greatest frustration and obstacle to the writer.
This sense that art comes as a gift, that it has passed through you from the outside, that it has been received from without, and not from within, is a common perception. There have been times when the writing of a work has felt as though a storm has blown through you. A great wind howls and uproots trees and shakes things out of your spirit you did not know were there. And then, with a sudden, terrible quiet, the muddled air begins to clear and the work is written out of you. The writer, left in the elated calm of the finished work, may wonder if such a storm will ever blow through them again.
These, of course, are the good days, the very best days. But the daimon that will not be summoned is the source of greatest trouble for the writer. Writing is not therapy, but the act itself is a lightning rod to the subconscious, that unknown, unwatchable side of our minds. In my own practice as a writer, I have watched how the daimon grows turbulent when it cannot give voice to the promptings of the inner self. Life without access to the higher mind, that “inner oracle”, as Socrates once put it, can suddenly seem inadequate. And the daimon that is silenced is a daimon that grows restless and unruly. A shadow begins to shake itself free and chaos is invited in. The writer is no longer unified but a divided self and from there they may grow self- destructive, secretly despising themselves for the loss of their powers, further alienating themselves from their oracle. Flaubert’s injunction to “be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”, contains a potent truth. The writer who cannot be dangerous on the page becomes a danger to themselves and many promising careers are lost this way. The poète maudit sets alight their own feathers.
I am often asked for advice about writing by people who think they are writers but have yet to begin. My usual counsel is to try not-writing for a while and to see how that works out. If not-writing comes easy, if the not-writer tends towards excuse making and rationalisation, then an answer has been revealed to them. Perhaps it is so that the yearning is better expressed through imagery or music. Or perhaps that yearning is simply a call to go in search of oneself. The individual daimon has many guises and does not always tend to artistic expression.
But what about those who come to learn that they must write, who, when pressed on the matter, will admit that to be a creative writer is not a lifestyle choice but a necessity for the happy life? The shadow of expression moves inside the writer and must be exorcised or discord sets in. In the beginning, the younger writer may not even be conscious of this. A strange intensity is born within them and they are beset by a feeling that only writing can dispel.
I met such promptings from early on, dabbled as a teenager with over-wrought, dense, modernist poetry, and then I stopped writing for a decade and sought to deny the existence of my daimon. I would not give myself permission to write because I believed the world had more than enough bad writers and that I would be no better. I could sense the war inside me but I refused to listen. My spirit was growing sick and the daimon began to vent its fury.
Then one day while holidaying in Sicily, I found myself in a taxi travelling uphill to my hotel. The daimon does not care for choosing its moments and it was there it broke free and spoke in a voice I will always remember. I was told that my life was a lie, that I was to my core a novelist, and that if I did not begin now, I would do great damage to myself, that I would die without having lived. The voice was so pure and certain that I started writing in earnest that day. Six months later, when I found my first novel, the voice that emerged on those early pages left me startled. Who was this other self taking hold of me? And how did the daimon know, when it spoke to me in that taxi, that I was a novelist, when I had never written fiction before?
What took me so long to learn is true also for many others – that to be a writer is not a choice. To be a writer, or indeed, to be a genuinely creative person of any kind, is to carry a burden in which the spirit grows sick if not given the means to expression.
And who would choose to be a writer, anyhow? Modern life has it in for the writer and today’s writer has it in for themselves. To be a writer now is to live in a state of existential distress and ceaseless distraction, all of which silence the daimon; the writer’s day not a battle with the higher orders of language and artistry, but a struggle with the hydra of attention and willpower.
Sooner or later, every serious writer faces the question of how much they need to disconnect from the noise and tyranny of the present. To get any serious work done at all, I have to craft my working hours around a series of injunctions: thou shalt not turn on your phone until the writing is done; thou shalt not check your email; thou shalt not look up needless facts on Google; thou shalt not glance online at the Guardian. It used to be so that you could close your door to the world but now the world is live-streamed into your pocket. This effort of self- injunction gets so wearing that willpower stretched to a fine thread snaps by noon, and with just one click, the horde comes into the room and your ear is full of other voices. That unseen door through which the daimon conducts passage to the higher voice slams shut and becomes ever harder to open. If the spirit speaks it cannot be heard because you are no longer listening. The song of your work is silenced.
Until the the arrival of internet 2.0 and the smartphone, no generation of writers has had to face such a sneaking assault on thinking and attention. That impulse to check your phone and look online is now deep-rooted and affects the very structure of mind. The brain that gave to the youth the ability to read a book in one sitting has been rewired to do different work. In neurobiology, as in life, what you practice grows stronger, and the neurotransmitters that allow for deep reading, attention and contemplation, have been down-regulated in favour of those that do the opposite. The adult reader now finds their attention atomised, the bookworm reduced in rank to an incompetent reader incapable of paying attention for longer than it takes a kettle to boil, and hopeless before the task of reading just one book at a time. Today’s average reader has five books on the go and finishes none of them. The reading of fiction for the deepening of one’s sense of reality, and for the widening of perception by that magical act of seeing with another’s eyes, has been hijacked by a monkey mind seeking more and more information, facts and photos to like, the very definition of the post-literate age we find ourselves in.
Consider some of the ways in which this has affected today’s storyteller. The adage that one can only write what one reads reveals itself in the writer of shattered paragraphs and collage, of fiction strewn with facts and agenda, of slim prose without substantiality under the line. Non-fiction is passing for fiction and the essay travelling in disguise, (though in the hands of a few subtle practitioners, such approaches are justified). The fashionable thought is the recrudescent belief that the imaginarium has been exhausted. The be-cardiganed bore in the storyteller’s chair needs upgrading. That the forms of fiction have sought always to meet the moment is obvious, but today’s writer is in danger of paradox – the fiction that seeks to open the form to the freighting of fact and fractured attention is bolting the door to enchantment. When I turn to fiction, I am seeking not the mirror of that which I am trying to escape – the intrusion of the internet, the bellowing of fact, the blitzing of my already shattered attention. The bore in the corner is not the storyteller but the pedant.
Keats believed that the greatest writers were those suffused with “negative capability” – by which he meant writing that is willing to travel into doubt and to rest within our unknowing, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. When I read fiction I am no longer a citizen but seeking to escape the certainty, the cant, the coercion of public life. A space is being created for non-judgemental awareness and the deep thinking that follows. What does it mean to be alive within the dream of life? We read fiction because factual knowledge of the world casts only a small light. Fiction is necessary, it seems to me, because only fiction can accommodate the total strangeness that is life. Life is fundamentally mysterious and we should be in awe.
The jazz trumpeter and sonic explorer Don Cherry believed there were three ways of playing music: “A mystical fashion, a popular fashion, and a classical way”. Is not the mind of the fiction writer a fusion of these three things? Consider this another way of describing voice, appeal and continuity. All art holds these three things in an infinite variety of tension.
The young writer who declares no interest in the past is not empty of the past but not yet conscious of the dead writers who still move through the language and culture. The popular fashion is problematic for the writer. The public in its need to forget itself does not want to be drawn to regard its own navel. The writer who seeks broad appeal by giving the public what it thinks it wants runs the risk of writing work that does not endure because the quality of its voice, the uniquely personal, what Cherry called the mystical fashion, must be diluted or risk incomprehension. The popular fashion is too often an echo of what has already been said.
Greatness in art, it seems to me, lies in original perception, the revelation of what has not yet been seen or known. Too often the public learns to measure too late the greatness of a writer only after it has come to understand such meanings for itself. This is why visionaries in art are often misunderstood. The present has to catch up with the prophet, or what Flannery O’Connor called, the writer as “a realist of distances”. She had to wait for the public to catch up with her and did not live to see it. And there are academics today who still haven’t caught up with Conrad.
The writer keeps both the contemporary scene and literary tradition in mind, but it is the mystic that leads to the daimon, to what is uniquely personal. I want to explore the mystical fashion for a moment and invite you to travel down the rabbit hole. How are we to get a handle on the mystic without mystification?
Perhaps it can be understood as our sense of the spiritual or the absolute, of that which lies beyond the intellect. My own belief is that the mystic is the feeling or intuition of our own incomprehension, our inarticulation. The subconscious has sensed the mysterious nature of something in the outness, something beyond understanding, and articulated that to the thinking mind as feeling. The mystic rests in this gap of the mind – between the promptings of our subconscious and the grasping hold of conscious rationality. Religious revelation is only an interpretation of this feeling and belief is not necessary to experience it.
The mystic is what is unique in the artist’s perception of life. It is their deepest sense of existence, whatever awes or humbles them. The writer who seeks to be original must pay attention to such promptings. For it is original perception, that which is utterly unique to the writer, that leads them on the path to true originality and voice. The mystic infuses the language and generates the form that gives to the new structure that breaks with tradition, and sometimes even the contemporary.
Jung said that “until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate”. I consider this the writer’s task and have built my writing around the practice of listening. To hear the inner voice that speaks from the deepest self one must cultivate receptivity. The subconscious is seeking always to grab our attention and it speaks most clearly in meditation and dreams.
I have been practicing meditation for longer than I have been writing novels and on most days I consider myself a novice. Of meditation there are many kinds, but the technique that works best for me is Dzogchen. You learn to watch your mind, to recognise what appears and let it go. The intention is non-identification with self. You are not your thoughts, your emotions, your desires. The thought that cannot take hold vanishes like a wave upon the ocean. The wandering mind, strewn with mud and detritus, takes the form of clear water. One enters into a state of wakefulness that is pure awareness, a liberation from the chattering self.
With sustained practice, the meditator develops what’s called metacognition – in other words, you develop the ability to watch your mind throughout the day. That endless surge of automatic thinking and the anxious simulation of future events becomes something that can be recognised and silenced. Self-awareness makes you more receptive, more alert to the promptings of the subconscious, to the inner oracle when it wants to speak.
When the mind is a clear, all sorts of strange things come bubbling up into awareness. Sometimes what you meet and wave on are obsessive thoughts and trapped emotions. But sustained attention can bring you deeper until one begins to approach the secret gates of the subconscious. I have been met with insights and visions, unshakeable images that contain within them the layered complexity of a dream.
Sometimes one is handed an entire novel, thank you very much. My last book came to me that way, beheld in its breadth and depth in a wordless, resonating image. I understood the entire novel in an instant, long before I learned how to write it.
The subconscious likes to do its work this way. Language arrived in human beings perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, but the subconscious as a system of mind is much older than that. It does not communicate in language because it pre-dates language and it does not converse through the obvious channels of wakefulness. But why would the subconscious go to the bother of fashioning impressions that are asking to be unpacked and puzzled out into stories? Therein lies the mystery that gives birth to the writer. Perhaps it is so that the artist is somebody more alert, more finely tuned, to the promptings of the subconscious, and for the writer, language and stories are their best tools of examination. I have often wondered why I am haunted by certain, recurring images. Why do they resonate so intensely? What is the secret meaning? This is the beginning of theme for a writer.
Travel too deeply in a meditation sitting and you will find yourself at the doorstep of dream. Perhaps at this level they are the same thing. Both are states of mind in which rational thought is dormant and the subconscious can freely speak. Sometimes that REM dream is a phooey cartoon, the stuff and nonsense of the prior day. But other times the oracle has something to say. The German organic chemist August Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after seeing it in a dream that came to him in the form of the ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Consider the dream that wakes you up as a prod for your attention.
I had one such dream during a recent period of stress. My novel-in-progress had been driven into stubborn rock and I had been commissioned to write an essay I was too tired to write. I found myself in an anxiety dream quickly taking on the surreal antics of a Charlie Kaufman third act. I was returned to my symbolic place of stress – the newspaper in which I worked for many years.
I had agreed to produce a sports supplement and write a large feature about cycling in Ireland, though I never worked in sports, and most certainly did not write sports features. I also had no time in which to do it. But then a colleague showed me the pages coming out of the printer and mysteriously they were filled with content. Relieved, I went back to my desk and before me was a fish hook with two lead weights. I tried to pick it up but the weights were too heavy and of a sudden the fishhook was caught in my finger. A colleague appeared and helped yank it out, pulling it free with an inch of my flesh. When I looked down again I saw my finger hanging off my hand. Then it fell onto the floor slippy with blood and seemed to be pointing to the exit.
The finger was now the size of my hand. What could I do but pick it up and put it in my coat pocket? I left in search of a hospital but when I went out onto the street I grew disoriented and couldn’t remember my way. My phone, of course, wasn’t working. I typed in the words hospital, ER and doctor, but nothing would work and I couldn’t read the screen. I began to wander in a confused state until a woman and her children came over to help. The woman took my phone but couldn’t get it to work and then she saw the severed finger poking out of my pocket and fell down overcome on the street. I walked off and met some nurses who stepped into the dream at just the right time and led me to a hospital that appeared out of nowhere. It was then I awoke to great relief and lay very still. I touched my hand to make sure I still had a finger. The dream would not leave me be. It seemed too meaningful to be nonsense.
The things that you meet in a dream are rarely correlates for the real, but for something inside you. Like the elves in the shoemaker’s shop who do their work at night, the newspaper that wrote itself was a reminder that the subconscious does its best work out of sight of the conscious mind. (The dream was signposting to itself, creating a symbol for itself, while also revealing a truth.) The fishhook was the symbol for my creativity, and stuck in my finger, caught in the self, it was no longer doing its job of fishing the depths but tearing the self to pieces. The enormous bloody finger on the floor was pointing down the corridor towards the exit, showing me a way out of the place of stress. And the woman and her children on the street were the characters in the novel I am writing. The structure of the dream was the very plot I needed for my next sequence. The dreaming mind had just fashioned for me the next section of the book, wrapped in a warning about stress and a lesson in creativity. It also gave me the coordinates for this essay.
It is a wonder that a dream can say so much that is meaningful if one takes a moment to examine it. What if I had not been paying attention? What if I had dismissed it as nonsense? Each night I go to sleep with a net. The daimon is looking for ways to speak and the writer who learns to listen keeps open the door into the dark of their creativity.
The writer whose fiction comes from the place of dream creates the possibility of new forms. They can escape the thought categories of the present and invent categories of thought for the future. (This was Kafka’s achievement. It is also the makings of every David Lynch film). It is dream and the daimon that frees us from our conceptual prisons, from the relativist self that is social identity, the self that identifies with labels and beliefs, from the closed and rigid mind caught up with daily grievance. For the real work of the serious writer is not grievance but grief – for what we are and what we cannot change, for what we cannot know and what we cannot escape. The daimon opens us to qualities of mind that are vast beyond the ordinary self and point the way towards higher ground. Fiction is the dream that shows us who and what we really are at a larger level of reality. It is the dream that wakes you up.