This is the text of a lecture commissioned by The Stinging Fly, and delivered at Bray Literary Festival on October 1st, 2022.
I grew up in Rathcoole, a village in south-west Dublin that nobody has ever heard of. South of Rathcoole are the foothills of the Dublin mountains. North of Rathcoole is the N7, known throughout my childhood as the Naas Dual Carriageway. If you were so inclined, you could say that these bland geographical boundaries have the effect of making Rathcoole village feel like a trap.
Many of my Rathcoole experiences are numb spots in my memory, patches of zero feeling, as when the dentist freezes half your face to tinker with a molar. In my notebook recently, I found: Rathcoole. You wouldn’t go there unless you lived there, and you wouldn’t live there unless you had to. When I wrote these words, I was living in Rathcoole because I had to: we were staying with my mother for a month while our new house had its heating system fixed.
Installed, aged forty, in my childhood home, I promptly regressed to the age of fifteen. Feeling returned to all the numb places. There I was, writing snide things about Rathcoole in my notebook. Walking up Stony Lane towards Elm Walk—the old neighbourhood!—in a state of violent frustration and despair. Thinking: This is the town of the living dead. It’s a nothing-place, a purgatorial interzone. Nobody here understands me. Life is elsewhere!
When I lived in Rathcoole. I was often scared and often angry, though I didn’t fully grasp this then. I found the other kids in my school violent and unpredictable. I remember watching, one secondary school lunchtime, a cat navigating the high wall of the prefab building known to school administrators as ‘Phase Two’. Wordlessly my closest friend at the time threw the apple he was eating at the cat. The cat, struck, scrambled but did not fall, and streaked off. There was general laughter, general applause.
As a teenager, I had no real idea how to talk to people, or perhaps what I mean is that I had no idea how to talk to the people around me. I imagined that the people I could talk to were elsewhere. Behind the school, on a low rise, was a field on which we were doomed to play football during gym. I remember standing there, one grey winter afternoon, looking at the grey sky above the school buildings and wondering if I would ever get out of here—if the world around me would ever be anything other than grey and populated by people who were unpredictable and violent and who liked football.
Rumours reached me of a better world. Print was the medium they travelled by. Aged sixteen, I stayed up half the night to finish Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love. The next morning I carried with me into school the novel’s picture of a more civilised existence: an existence in which intelligent people asked each other intelligent questions, read books, wrote beautifully. Wherever this existence was, I couldn’t find it in Rathcoole. And this was my tragedy. Or so I felt.
Now I was back. The difference being: Now I was forty. Now I was pushing my kids in their OutnAbout Nipper double buggy. Now my hair was going grey. Now I never had to think about, much less play, football. Now I knew that the story about a better world in which my specialness might flourish is just that: a story.
I can be ironic about these things, in retrospect: about my teenage self, about my unredeemed old feelings. Irony being one of the magic spells that I have used to try to rescue myself from precisely that self, precisely those feelings. The concept of myself as someone who keeps a notebook being another such magic spell. The concept of myself as a writer being the most powerful magic spell of all.
Whenever we write, we negotiate with ourselves. It is often a bloody and intractable negotiation—more like a peace process than a trade deal. This is because we are not united, internally. We are many selves, and often these selves have rival needs. Some kind of truce must be established, if the work is to get written. Who’s in charge today? One of the familiar writing selves? Or must we forge a new one, for this new piece—this new story, this new essay, this new novel? Something like this happens every time we begin to write—or every time I begin to write, anyway. And the writing self thus negotiated—is it a new self, each time? Or is it always the same self? How could it be? The writing self is not a permanent fixture of my mind or soul but a contingent response to selves and circumstance.
Not everyone has thought so. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), T.S. Eliot asserted that the poet (the writer) must get the self out of the way entirely in order to liberate and purify the writing. He said: ‘What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’
Whenever I read these words, I think, Which self? Which personality? Good for Eliot, if he only had one. The idea that there is a single indivisible self, which can be shoved out of the way so that what we write ends up correctly lapidary and impersonal, is alluring but fantastical. In her novel Democracy (1984), Joan Didion compares the self to a hill seen by a geologist: like the hill, the self is ‘a transitional accommodation to stress’. This is more like it. Which personality? Which self? Depends on context. Depends on the stressors of the moment. Depends on how old we are, how lost we are, how bang on track. Each self tells the other selves a different story about where they are, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. It tries to incorporate these other selves into its version of the facts, and it often fails. Perhaps always fails.
‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ We tell ourselves stories in order to write. These stories work, until they don’t.
One of my stories is about Rathcoole. It goes like this: I am not from Rathcoole. I am a different kind of person entirely.
For most of my life, my various writing selves have collectively understood Rathcoole as not so much a place as a trap—from which I needed to be rescued. And since nobody else has ever seemed likely to attempt this rescue, I have had to do it myself. I did it by trying to become a writer.
I did become a writer. But I have not rescued myself. Nobody ever does.
I dislike mystical generalities about writing. ‘How do you write?’ Answering this question, the writer becomes an octopus, spewing clouds of defensive ink. John Banville: ‘The artist, the writer, knows no more about the great matters of life and the spirit than anyone else—indeed, he probably knows less.’ Trying to write about writing, I guess. I grope my way in the dark. I have the funniest feeling that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Now that I am in my forties, I can see that, viewed from a certain angle, my life has the classic shape of a writer’s life. I grew up in a place that nobody has ever heard of. I got out, via the traditional escape route of university education. I half-killed myself learning to write. I began to publish. I made a niche for myself in the intellectual class. It took me a long time to stop thinking of the intellectual class as glamorous, because the intellectual class was, I unconsciously believed, the thing that had saved me from my origins.
Many other members of this class, having made the same journey, have also invested heavily in the idea that the intellectual class is glamorous. Writers, academics, intellectuals, artists, journalists: we are all in a sense self-made. We have all fashioned ourselves against the background of origins we perceived to be drab, provincial, moribund—or simply wrong. Hence there is a fevered quality to our activities. We rush around. We hustle. We are driven. What drives us? The nothingness we came from—or so we put it, consciously or unconsciously, to ourselves.
So this is the story I tell myself: I was born in the wrong place and had to find my way to the right place. The stories we tell ourselves tend not to fit the facts precisely. They tend to make use of the facts—not disinterestedly. The stories we tell ourselves operate in our favour. A more accurate account of my life would sound different. It might sound like this: I was born in a small town that was safe, quiet, obscure, and inhabited for the most part by decent people. I was a sensitive kid. (Aren’t we all?) I suffered from childhood asthma, so I spent a lot of time at home, in bed. I found refuge and distraction in books, and began, unconsciously, to conceive of books as a serious improvement on life.
Aged eight or nine, reading Roald Dahl’s Going Solo, it occurred to me for the first time that books were written, and that you could therefore be a writer—this sounded to me like an excellent job, and much better than the boring jobs that the actual adults I knew seemed to be doing. Aged twelve, I began to write stories. I began with a story about a haunted bed and breakfast. The story was called ‘The Thirteenth Floor’. That was some bed and breakfast. A larger story coalesced. I began to think of myself as destined to be a writer. I used this feeling of destiny to shield myself against the harsher aspects of growing up. I discounted Rathcoole, in toto, because, as far as I could tell, nobody else there read the books I read or wanted to be a writer. I muddled my way through school feeling lonely and bored. I soothed my loneliness and boredom with books and with the inner conviction that being a writer was the thing that would save me from my fears and follies. When I did become a writer, I found that it had not saved me from my fears and follies. The story was just that: a story. An Attempted Rescue. Now further crises beckoned. Further rescues were required.
When I was younger and unpublished, I used to think that writers were special—that being a writer not just conferred but revealed a greater-than-ordinarily-human moral and spiritual importance; that writers, by virtue of being writers, were simply better people than everyone else. This is an idea that can survive contact with a lot of books but that tends not to survive contact with a lot of writers. There have always been writers who imagine that they are, in fact, of greater-than-ordinarily-human moral and spiritual importance. They tend not to be good writers or, incidentally, good people. (But if you expect writers to be good people, then you have not met a lot of people.) The moral-and-spiritual-importance idea tends to matter to writers—even to the most cynical and self-knowing writers. It is part of their Attempted Rescue.
The Attempted Rescue is the title of the first volume of Robert Aickman’s autobiography, published in 1966. The second volume is called The River Runs Uphill and it is, as a colleague of mine remarked recently, ‘mostly to do with inland waterways’. This is because Robert Aickman was a co-founder of the British Inland Waterways Association, an organisation dedicated to supporting and regenerating Britain’s canals and rivers. He was also, of course, a writer. He died in 1981, the year I was born, without ever becoming famous, though he never sank entirely into obscurity either. His genre was the ghost story—though he preferred to call the long fictions he wrote, ‘strange stories’.
Strange they are. In ‘The Swords,’ an Aickman story from his collection Cold Hand in Mine (1975), a young travelling salesman arrives in dreary provincial Wolverhampton and stumbles upon a bizarre circus act in which a woman is stabbed, bloodlessly, by swords wielded by volunteers from the audience; the swords leave no wounds behind. Later he runs into the woman and her manager in a café. It becomes clear that the manager is really a pimp, and that the woman is for sale. The necessary transaction having taken place, the woman—her name is Madonna, of course—arrives that evening at the seedy boarding house where the traveller is staying. The traveller is a virgin; Madonna undresses in the dark; they get into bed; the man finds himself holding Madonna’s hand—but it is separate from her body. ‘I had pulled her left hand and wrist right off.’ Whatever she is, she is not human. The traveller ejects her from his room. He tells us this story retrospectively, from old age, in tones of nostalgia and regret.
The sense of profound unease generated by this story is only partly to do with the enigma of the woman’s nature. It is also to do with the traveller’s untrustworthiness as a teller of his own tale. Did he really meet the woman and her pimp in the café by accident? Did he follow them there? Did he know, in some sense, from the very beginning what the woman was? His misogyny runs through the story like an ugly dark seam; also his brutish insensitivity (though he calls himself ‘a mother’s boy’): ‘After the first six women, say, or seven, or eight, the rest come much of a muchness.’ It is the sort of story told by a man who is justifying himself to himself—though he doesn’t know it. He imagines that he is merely relating a strange event from his youth. But really, he is trying to rescue the young man that he was, using devious means. And we are unsettled, as we always are when someone begins to tell us a story about themselves that we feel, or begin to feel, isn’t true, or that hides the truth, or that bends reality into a pattern of brittle, expedient shapes.
But we all tell such stories about ourselves, about our pasts. Speaking to ourselves about ourselves, we are the more deceived—willingly, needfully. Until we aren’t. If ‘becoming a writer’ has for many years meant to me something like ‘escape from mundanity and boredom into a special glamorous world,’ actually being a writer has been largely a matter of suffering periodic depressions, and struggling free of them only when I figured out what story I was telling myself and why it was no longer working—one of the most powerful stories being, Becoming a writer will help you escape into a special glamorous world! I am in the midst of another iteration of this process right now—another excavation, another act of literary criticism performed upon the self. What’s wrong with this story? That is why this lecture feels, to me—I admit it—like a mess, and why it is held together, if it is held together at all, largely by my hope that I am on to something—something useful to me, something useful to you.
The Attempted Rescue is an extraordinary book, not just for the density and polish of its prose but for the remarkable clarity of its author’s self-presentation. By his own account, Robert Aickman had much to be rescued from. His father, an architect, was one of those monsters of eccentricity who warp the lives of their spouses and children by being, as Aickman puts it, ‘impossible to live with, to be married to, to be dependent upon’. Aickman’s account of his shabby-genteel interwar English childhood in The Attempted Rescue is shot through with words like horror, terror, frenzy, anxiety, dread, stress. His father would summon him to a bedside inquisition in the morning by banging on the floor with a piece of wood that he, the father, had had specially made for the purpose. ‘[T]o be at home with my Father in the house was hell,’ Aickman writes. Thanks to his father, he tells us, ‘I have never been able to develop any capacity at all for a close personal relationship—only a capacity for anguish at the lack or failure of one.’ (Another story, of course: it’s all my parents’ fault.) Aickman’s mother, prone to illness, highly strung, sought in the young Robert the love that she did not get from her much older husband. ‘I became the final disappointment in her life. She fell ill and never recovered. Nor, in a different way, have I.’
With the utmost tact, Aickman suggests that the marriage foundered at least in part because his father did not love women and his mother did not love men. From this catastrophe, Aickman attempted to rescue himself. The Attempted Rescue constitutes a kind of proof that he failed,
I first encountered the title of Aickman’s autobiography in a book called The Darkening Garden (2006) by the great genre critic and encyclopaedist John Clute. The Darkening Garden is a book about horror—the genre, not the affect, though of course they are indissoluble. Clute attempts to codify horror according to a series of story-shapes or story-moves (Clute is Canadian and draws on the work of that other great Canadian critical codifier Northrop Frye).
For instance: according to Clute, every horror tale can be mapped according to a four-part model—Sighting, Thickening, Revel, and Aftermath. Sighting describes the moment early in a horror tale when the rind of the ordinary first peels away, to reveal a glimpse of the pith of the world, which is malice, or horror. The figure in the window who shouldn’t be there. The cellar door that should not be open. To catch Sight of something is to be warned that the story you have been telling yourself about the world is a lie; it is ‘the first sign that we are going to be unmapped or unhouseled from the normal world’. I won’t go into definitions of Clute’s other terms; I recommend The Darkening Garden to interested parties.
The Darkening Garden is subtitled ‘A Short Lexicon of Horror’ and it consists of a series of brief essays defining Clute’s key critical terms. One of these entries is headed ‘Attempted Rescue’ and begins thusly:
The first volume of Robert Aickman’s autobiography is entitled The Attempted Rescue (1966). As he describes its formative years in this volume, the course of his life, and by extension the course of human life in general, could be described as an attempt to rescue oneself from the iron cage of circumstance and destiny and gene: from family, disabling inheritance, accident, destiny, mortality: to make one’s adult self into a kind of vessel capable of floating free of these iron circumstances. Attempted Rescue is a shorthand for any understanding of the personality structure of the mature human being which conceives of that structure as being guardedly recuperative of past stages of the self and of the unconscious. […] Even the most successful self is only an Attempted Rescue. Throughout Aickman’s fiction, these escape attempts are futile.
Clute’s example of a classic Attempted Rescue tale is not one of Aickman’s. It is instead the story of the Appointment in Samarra, which comes down to us through the Babylonian Talmud. Here it is, as retold in a 1933 play called Sheppey by Somerset Maugham (the speaker here is Death, in this instance appearing as a woman):
There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
The story tells us that the things we use to rescue ourselves from ‘the iron cage of circumstance and destiny and gene’ tends themselves to become the lineaments of a trap; that, in telling a powerful story that saves us from our origins, we sooner or later find ourselves imprisoned in the new story. And from this we need to liberate ourselves in turn. It’s a dialectic that would appear to pursue us unto death—hence, the moral of the Appointment in Sammara tale. But until we die, the possibility of growth persists.
With care, we can examine our past selves—that teeming multitude. Some of them may still have messages to give us. Some of them may still be us. But handle them with care, those importunate, frightened, wounded, vulnerable former selves. You were not necessarily wrong to think that they needed rescue; or that the things they needed to be rescued from had real teeth, real claws.
I might as well be honest with you now. In negotiating a self with which to write this lecture, I have mostly failed. This nonsequential form—skipping around—is one accommodation with that failure. Digging up personal material, speaking about my own attempted rescues, I found that I did not know how to put them on the page. I began to suffer from stomach cramps, insomnia, free-floating anxiety. What was I doing? I was dismantling one of my necessary stories—and in public, no less. Madness! But here I was. I had agreed to write the lecture. Some kind of writing self would need to be fashioned. Out of which inner materials might this new writing self be scavenged? Whom do I ventriloquise? Am I the lonely bewildered Kevin who grew up in Rathcoole? Or am I the sophisticated cosmopolitan urban intellectual I built to replace him? Some equipoisal compromise?
Both of those selves are fakes, or are, at the very least, incomplete portraits. What about that cosmopolitan intellectual, anyway? That built self: this is the guy who usually writes my essays for me. But as soon as I began to write about Rathcoole it seemed to me that that built self was patched together with duct tape and paperclips. Being clever, being informed; or seeming clever, seeming informed. A confidence trick, played on myself. So who’s writing this essay? I don’t know. Hence: fragments. Repeated attempts. I know fragments are cool right now, or were cool a couple of years ago, but there’s nothing I can do iabout that.
Of course, I might easily have written a different lecture—left my necessary stories undisturbed. Why didn’t I? Perhaps because all I have are two vague intuitions: that it is time for me to discard these aging stories, and that whatever the next story is, it will be found in the material that those stories rejected and concealed.
As soon as I began to write about Rathcoole… I have sometimes wondered why my first published novel isn’t ‘an autobiographical first novel’. Bad Day in Blackrock describes a world that I did not grow up in and recounts experiences that were not my own. To the extent that it does describe my own experiences, these have been disguised, attributed to characters who are not especially like me. In my twenties, I seem to have found it psychologically necessary not to write about Rathcoole. Although, now that I say this, I remember that it isn’t strictly true. I did, in my early twenties, write 100,000 words of a chaotic ‘novel,’ set in a small town, encoding some events that had happened to me. But in this manuscript I relocated Rathcoole. I changed its nature to make it more dramatic, more romantic. I gave it a lake, a mysterious pine forest, a secondary school located in an ancient abbey. I gave it mysteries, murders, a hint of the supernatural.
And again: before I wrote Bad Day in Blackrock, I wrote a more realistic novel that lightly fictionalised some of my own experiences—but again, I changed the setting to South Dublin, and I added a political conspiracy, a marital affair, more romance, more glamour… Three novels, none of them about Rathcoole. This is because I was undertaking an attempted rescue. If I was to be a writer, I would not be a writer who wrote about Rathcoole: so determined was I not to be trapped by that ordinary place.
What I became instead was a writer trapped into a significant silence: about the people and places that shaped me in my earliest years.
Then again, it strikes me as important that after publishing my first novel in October 2008, I immediately moved back in with my parents—that is, I moved back to Rathcoole. The proximate reason for this move was that I was broke. But the actual reason had to do with shock. My rescue attempt had worked, or so it seemed: I was a writer. But now what? Years ago, the playwright Frank McGuinness remarked to me that staging a first play at a major theatre was, for a young playwright, ‘the shock of your life’. Publishing a first novel was the shock of my life. When we’re in shock, we look for safety. Hence: Rathcoole. Perhaps the old neighbourhood hadn’t been so bad. I knew it, after all. It was mine. How difficult I have always found it, to acknowledge that fact. But it haunts the margins of every story I have ever told myself, and every story I have ever told.
In her excellent short study of the critical afterlives of Willa Cather, Joan Acocella writes about Cather’s prolonged apprenticeship. ‘She had to pare down, the hardest thing for a young artist to do. She also had to figure out what she was paring down to.’ I made a note of these lines when I read them recently because they seemed precisely to describe my own immediate problem, as a writer. Paring down to what? After two novels, I am still figuring that one out. I must lie down where all the ladders start… Isn’t that it? Lately my daughter has been watching the Australian kids’ TV show Bluey. She has become enamoured of a specific line of dialogue, delivered by one of the child characters on the show. She walks around the house shouting, ‘DAD! KNOWS! NOTHING! DAD! KNOWS! NOTHING!’ She’s right. I know nothing. Or perhaps I know one thing, which is that what I need to do now is rescue myself from all my old attempts at rescue.
Rathcoole. The place I mean when I use that word does not exist. Or, no: it does exist, but it is a condition of the soul, transhistorical, transgeographical. I can find it anywhere, or it can find me anywhere. It is the place I have been running from. But you can’t run forever.
I’m supposed, in this lecture, to be talking about craft, and so far I haven’t, really; or not directly, anyway. Craft: the word, in the present context, can only be a pun. You learn to write—you master the craft—to build, says John Clute, a ‘vessel capable of floating free of […] iron circumstances’. To build a craft. Craft rules—rules of thumb, really—are lifelines, flotation devices. Without which no ship can sail. But you only use them when you need them.
Here are some of my lifelines: rules of thumb that I’ve found useful over the years. Writing lore; guidelines for survival in the literary world. They’re not all useful all the time. You can pick and choose. Building your vessel, you use what’s to hand. The point is to sail, not to follow the rules of construction. So:
Think about what you’re writing before you start writing it.
The first duty of prose, said Robert Louis Stevenson, is ‘to please the supersensual ear’. So: careful attention must be paid to assonance, rhyme, half-rhyme, echo. The paragraph is an exclusive club. Words of more than one syllable get in once only. Sounds get in once only. You can’t have wondering if you’ve already got wandering. If you’ve already got spiteful, you are prohibited from using full until at least the following paragraph.
I ignore all these prose rules half the time. I say, why does it matter? Who cares? I care; reading it back later, when it’s too late.
The writer is morally obliged to see things clearly. Whence does this moral imperative derive? From the knowledge that error and illusion impede clarity, and therefore jam the transmission of emotional truth.
Most people are operating, most of the time, with substandard equipment—intellectual, perceptual, emotional, moral. The novelist is often no different—why should the novelist escape the common fate? But the true novelist is the person who, while they are writing, strives to work with the best equipment possible.
By ‘the best equipment possible’, I mean not just vision but revision.
Peter Jackson: ‘The longer you work on something, the better it gets.’
Claire Keegan: ‘If a manuscript could talk, it would say, You left me when I needed you most.’
You will look back at your old work and see only the flaws. This is because you have since bought better equipment. How have you paid for this better equipment? With work. Usually, the work of revision. But also the work of reading.
The artist, says John Gardner in On Moral Fiction, has ‘special machinery for seeing and feeling: the tradition of his [or her] art’. You must therefore know the tradition, or as much of it as you can absorb—and you never stop absorbing it. But ‘tradition’ is an elastic notion. You make your own.
Goethe: ‘Do not hurry. Do not rest.’
Rilke: ‘Il faut travailler, rien que travailler.’ Or, as the composer Janáček puts it in Brian Friel’s late play Performances (2003): ‘Everything has got to be ancillary to the work.’
‘The first condition for more than mediocre achievement in any field, including the art of living, is to will one thing’ (Erich Fromm).
But will is workshy, easily discouraged. Depression vanquishes will. Exhaustion curbs it. Crisis corrals its energies. On certain mornings, to will one thing might take you as far as the first cup of coffee. So you trick yourself. You open your Word document and say, ‘I’m going to change that comma into a semicolon and that’s all I’m going to do today.’ You change the comma into a semicolon. But the sentence needs some further tinkering; the rhythm is askew. So you tinker. You tinker some more. Sooner or later, you’ll write a new sentence. The will wakes up.
Making something is the point. Being successful should not be the point. But we’re only human.
The publishing industry is mostly run by honourable people who love books and want your book to do well. The film industry has some honourable people in it but the thing to remember about film people is that they don’t have any ideas and are obsessed with people who do. Be careful what you sign.
Get an accountant.
Learn how to file a tax return.
There is no way to avoid measuring yourself against your contemporaries. Some of them will be much more successful than you are. Some of them will write better than you do. The thing to ask about these contemporaries is: Yes, but are they happy?
Editors are usually right. Subeditors are always wrong. Copyeditors are somewhere in between.
Sometimes people will email you to say how much they liked your book. Always reply to these emails. Sometimes people will write bad reviews of your book on Amazon or Goodreads. These people are, without exception, too stupid to have understood what you were doing. This, at least, is a comforting story to tell yourself.
It’s a good idea to try reviewing some books yourself. You might discover a taste for it. At the very least, it will teach you how seriously you should take reviews of your own books.
If you review enough books, the exercise will sooner or later teach you that a critic’s taste is partly learned and partly a function of personal pathology. Style, too, may be the outward dress of inner pain. The critic also is attempting self-rescue.
Writers sometimes claim that they don’t read reviews of their books. Anyone who says this is lying.
As you get older, you change. I used to be obsessed with style as performance—flash and dazzle. Young writers—particularly young male writers—often put on style like a suit of armour. The writer as knight. The maiden he is rescuing is, of course, himself. Now I try to think of style as the utterances of a clarified mind. These changes have to do, I hope, with a degree of self-acceptance—of guarded recuperation, as Clute has it. But that might be merely another expedient story.
Success is a trap. You will need to rescue yourself from it. Failure is a trap, too. Your rescue attempts will fail. They will be partial. The place you want to occupy for as long as you can is what Homer Simpson called ‘the creamy middle’. This is the place that affords you the greatest freedom, as an artist if not as a human being. It is the place from which you least urgently require rescue.
Seeing things as they are is the work of a lifetime. The tragedy is that we once did this undistorted seeing all the time. In Saul Bellow’s short story ‘The Old System,’ the protagonist, Dr. Braun, opens a fresh can of coffee in the morning. Bellow tells us that Dr. Braun ‘much enjoyed the fragrance from the punctured can. Only an instant, but not to be missed’. We all knew things like this as children. The artist tries to know them again, and know them truly.
All art aims at emotional truth. Therefore….
…all craft rules can be discarded in the name of emotional truth. Your job is not to follow the rules. Your job is to make something that works.
You will get stuck. When this happens, ask not just: What story am I telling? but: What story brought me to this sentence, this paragraph, this page? Am I stuck, not because my manuscript is faulty, but because I’m telling the wrong story about why I’m writing in the first place? From what, or whom, do I need to be rescued?
Of course, you might not think you stand in need of rescue. To which I say: That’s a nice story you’re telling yourself. Here, listen to mine.
I must lie down where all the ladders start… I reread ‘The Circus Animal’s Desertion’ recently and saw for the first time that it is a poem about impotence. Now that my ladder’s gone… Poor old Yeats. But the poem’s point about art and origins stands up, if you’ll pardon the pun. If maturity involves a guarded recuperation of past stages of the self, this, surely, is why maturity is so difficult, so painful. I am not just my built selves. I am also my given selves. And I am not ‘a writer’. I am someone who writes; also, many other someones. The writer is made afresh, anyway, with every sentence.
When we write, we are reading a map, in half-darkness, in a foreign language; we cannot find our way, except by patience and guesswork and luck. Where are we going? The rag and bone shop, of course. Where else?
Maybe the point is, I need to somehow learn how to write about Rathcoole. (Rathcoole, the place. Rathcoole, the state of mind.) To break the brittle shells of the cosmopolitan litterateur and his allies, and sift carefully through the fragments—recuperate, guardedly, what the shells protected. Maybe I can start right now, here, on this page, in this paragraph. Don’t start with the macro view. Start with the small thing, the incidental. Every attempted rescue starts small. Say, start with the great jubilant bedraggled fuchsia bush that grows in the back garden of my parents’ house. When we visit, now, my daughter picks the blossoms—intricate vulgar beautiful purple flowers—and stirs them in a bucket with water to make perfume. I used to pick them as a child myself—bursting the unripened pods to see the little antennae within. This fuchsia bush was planted the year I was born. And it has been there, growing, thriving, waiting for my attention, in the exact same spot, in my parents’ garden in Rathcoole, ever since.