On Not Being Able To Write

on not being able to paintAt the end of the 1940s, Marion Milner was a psychoanalyst who had been involved in a lengthy study of the ways in which children learn, and once the official report had been written up she decided to take time to consider a few private concerns of her own about the business of education. She decided to think about ‘one specific area in which I myself had failed to learn something that I wanted to learn’, and this was how to paint. Introspection was Milner’s preferred technique; she championed a state of ‘reverie’, or a kind of creative daydreaming, in which she let her mind off the reins to go where it pleased and made a careful note of the result. When she decided to tackle her inability to paint as she wished, she followed a similar sort of plan: ‘a way of letting hand and eye do exactly what pleased them without any conscious working to a preconceived intention.’ From these amateur sketches, she found she could deduce a great deal about the creative obstacles she was encountering, most of which seemed to indicate that we know very little indeed about ourselves – or at least the deep layer of the self from which creativity springs. And out of this experiment she wrote a fascinating book, On Not Being Able To Paint.

Marion Milner’s first discovery was that her stated intention to pursue what she found beautiful had nothing to do with the drawing she produced. Often the desire to capture an attractive woman on the underground or a beautiful, serene seascape, resulted in an odd caricature or an image of angry swirling clouds. Similarly she found that pictures drawn with correct perspective didn’t actually please her at all. There was, she realised, some upsurge of mood, some insistent and unknown desire at work infiltrating her creativity that would not be silenced, though she had no idea what to do with it.

Returning to her books about painting with these discoveries in mind, she chanced upon a highly significant phrase – that ‘painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space.’ Revelation ensued. Milner could see how ‘very intense feelings might be stirred’ when she stopped thinking about spatial relations in scientific terms and thought about what they meant for the way we organise both inner and outer worlds in our mind – how close or how separate things might be, how close or how separate we might want them to be: ‘the whole sensory foundation of the common sense world seemed to be threatened.’ As she looked at objects and their relation to one another with more honesty, she found that the outlines she had always considered the basic building block of her drawing were in fact false and overly simplistic. In reality, things were not so clear-cut. There were shadows and merging and blurring of edges, once ‘they were freed from this grimly practical business of enclosing an object and keeping it in its place.’

Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects; to cling to it was therefore surely to protect oneself against the other world, the world of imagination…. I wondered, perhaps this was one reason why new experiments in painting can arouse such fierce opposition and anger. People must surely be afraid, without knowing it, that their hold upon reason and sanity is precarious, else they would not so resent being asked to look at visual experience in a new way, they would not be so afraid of not seeing the world as they have always seen it and in the general publicly agreed way of seeing it.’

She came to the conclusion that: ‘genuine vision as an artist needed a kind of courage that was willing to face all kinds of spiritual dangers.’

I found myself translating Milner’s adventures in painting into the experience of writing. I tend to think of writing as an exercise in extreme vulnerability; there’s nothing like showing something one has written to another person to know what it is to wince and cringe. Always, humiliation threatens, more so than is reasonable. But if painting is concerned with the feelings conveyed by space, then writing must be concerned with feelings about understanding – both how we understand the world, and how we ourselves are understood within it. The telling of any story is based on those foundations, and it cannot be avoided.Those moods that rose up and troubled Milner’s pictures, turning them into something quite different, infuse every sentence that we write. Something very private, and something that we might not always have agreed to put on public view, becomes nakedly visible.

How tempting it must be, then, to cling to the solid outlines Milner talks about, the ones that common sense agrees upon, the ones that are currently validated and approved of. How tempting to create a clear cut world and fill it with block colour that gives nothing away, and which creates not a piece of art but something childish and almost ugly. Art is nothing if it is not paradoxical – beauty is never where we might expect to find it. What risks we have to take to let the madness of reality in – the shadows and the blurred lines, the colours that do not seem to be there when we look, but which make the image spring to life on the page. And most risky of all, to allow ourselves to be seen, in our full messy humanity in a way that is perhaps truthful but not sanctioned by our vanity.

Milner talks about the necessary illusion of perception – the belief that what we see is an objective world, when it is determined by our inner lives and the dreams that populate it. If we want to be able to paint or write or create art of any kind, then it seems to be important to embrace the more difficult truths of subjectivity rather than run away from them.

Two DNFs

When you hate a book, it’s always personal, I think. By which I mean that the book cannot possibly be as bad as you think it is – the hatred and dislike arise from whichever personal nerve has been tweaked, and reading through the subsequent red mist is never going to be rewarding.

adam gopnik winterIt’s quite rare for me to hate a book, but when Adam Gopnik’s Winter; Five Windows on the Season came along, it very rapidly fell into that rare category. I did not even manage to make it to the very end of the first chapter. I had three attempts at reading that chapter and any number of refusals at picking it up. The book arose out of a series of lectures that Adam Gopnik gave. Knowing that publication would be simultaneous with the lectures, he actually prepared the material that formed the basis of the book well in advance, and delivered improvised speeches to friends and family in his living room. In the introduction he writes: ‘These chapters are meant to sound vocal, and I hope that some of the sound of a man who has boned up on a subject – in several cases, just boned up – and is sharing the afternoon’s enthusiasm with an evening’s friends is still in place.’

He really need not have worried: he meets his own criteria perfectly. But he would have done better to include a few enemies amongst his audience of friends. What follows is, to my mind, the exact replica of those 70s slide show evenings, when the neighbours would bore their hosts rigid with photos from trips abroad. It’s like Adam Gopnik came for a visit inside my head, saying ‘Hi, I’ve just taken a fabulous trip through the world of art and brought back a few pictures, poems and pieces of music I’d love to share with you.’ And then for what seems like forever, he witters on about each slide, roughly grouped together under a theme – in the case of the first chapter ‘Romantic Winter’ – though you learn nothing from this whistle-stop tour with an amateur tour guide. It’s such a lazy format, and the insights gleaned from skating lightly over the top of so much ground just aren’t worth it.

But let’s be fair here; on the grounds that it can’t possibly be as bad as I thought it was, I should state my personal investment. I’ve spent the past five years hearing from agents and editors that immense care must be taken when transferring academic-type writing on art and literature into the commercial arena. No one’s interested in the old school style any more, it’s got to be new, bright, fresh, different. Okay, fine – I quite agree. So why make me read through this kind of tedious McRomanticism which is, to my mind, gaspingly old and sterile? Oh but feel free to go ahead and read it – and enjoy it, too. The problem with ranting reviews is the same as for gushing ones – they’re written from extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, and it’s highly unlikely that subsequent readers will find themselves in the same place, particularly not if they’re expecting it. With my own thoughts on the book in mind, I picked it up and flicked through it, and it didn’t seem so bad. Though I do have a theory that it reads better backwards; that way you’re not waiting for an argument to be developed.

lessons in frenchThe next DNF was, thankfully, not dreadful, it was just a terminal case of the ‘meh’s’. Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a coming of age story about Kate, an American student who bags herself the holiday job of her dreams with ‘difficult’ photo journalist, Lydia Schell. The Berlin wall is coming down, Salman Rushdie’s in hot water, and Lydia is rushing about trying to make serious art out of these situations, leaving Kate in charge at her apartment in Paris. There Kate finds Lydia’s husband, Clarence, who is an academic with writer’s block, and Olivier, who is the boyfriend of Lydia’s troubled daughter, Portia. Kate immediately falls for Olivier (who is headed back to America) and then spends a lot of time angsting about what she may have ‘done’. And angsting about the difficult/inappropriate jobs Lydia asks her to do.

I picked this up thinking it would be a fun, jolly sort of read and it began that way. The main problem is that it suffers from too many ‘first novel’ issues. The writing is very patchy – there are a lot of nice sentences, but also far too much awkward, implausible dialogue, and the whole thing never really coheres into a compelling story. Then, there are all sorts of issues with character, most of which fall under the banner of ‘determined to make her characters “sympathetic” they become dull and incoherent.’ Oh this sympathetic character thing! Somehow the word ‘sympathetic’ had become unhitched from its mooring and taken on a demonic half-life of its own. I think it has come to mean: ‘characters who behave with the kind of integrity and moral courage that the vast majority of us could never access in the moment.’ But much worse than that, I think it’s taken the word ‘interesting’ hostage. What we really want is interesting characters, not sympathetic ones. In Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant novels there is always one character I loathe with a virulent passion. It means I cannot put the book down, because the idea that this character’s schemes might dominate the outcome and ruin the lives of those around him/her is quite intolerable. I have to read on to see that awful person (hopefully) defeated.

What’s a book without a decent villain? Or without a situation that poses a truly stark or upsetting ethical conflict? These things are incompatible with a bunch of characters for whom we are obliged to feel ‘sympathy’ all the time. Kate ends up beige bland, and Lydia is not the demon boss I had hoped she might be, just self-absorbed and pretentious. I would probably have limped to the end of this one if I hadn’t had quite so many books I needed to read. But about halfway through I began to feel that life was very short.

In all fairness, these books had the misfortune to arrive in my hands when I wanted something specific from them – I wanted delicious enlightenment from Winter, and I wanted entertaining comfort from Lessons in French. I did not read them in the spirit of ‘don’t know much about this, but let’s see where it goes,’ which is by far and away the most productive attitude for reading. So they already had high hurdles to clear, and they should be viewed more gently because they had to suffer my demands.

The Landscape of Colette

Colette's FranceI have been a very bad blogger of reviews lately, choosing far too often to witter on about life (because it is shamefully easy to do) rather than make the small amount of effort it takes to write something coherent about a book. For this reason, I finished Colette’s France; her lives, her loves by Jane Gilmour several days before Christmas and am only just now getting around to assessing it.

This is a sumptuously beautiful book. A hardback with a floral border on all its pages, it is packed full of glorious photos of Colette and the places she lived, some from the time she lived in them, some from the present day when the author undertook her pilgrimage around the sites of Colette’s life. Really, it’s gorgeous, and the idea of illustrating the life of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted writers on nature and landscape is an excellent one. One of the great pleasures of Colette’s prose is her ability to conjure up places, sensations and vistas; she was a very visual and sensual writer who openly gorged herself on beauty. The way this book has been designed does great justice, I think, to that side of her work.

Author, Jane Gilmour, was a Colette scholar in her youth. But having finished her dissertation on Colette at the Sorbonne in Paris – in the late 60s, early 70s when the Left Bank was the pulsing hub of intellectualism – she left for Australia with her husband and a very different sort of life. The years passed and that first marriage ended. But gradually the idea returned to her to journey in the footsteps of Colette, and as she undertook a series of trips to France with a new partner, sharing her Francophile enthusiasms with him and revisiting the salient locations in Colette’s life, so the idea of a book became a reality.

I began to see Colette’s life emerging through the prism of the different places in which she had lived – the places of her heart – each representing a particular period in her life and particular relationships, each profoundly influencing her writing, and each so vividly evoked in the shapes, colours, perfumes and sounds of her prose.’

What follows is a memoir shaped by the houses of Colette’s life, which do seem naturally to mark out quite different eras. From the Burgundy of her childhood, steeped in vineyards and the crippling demands of respectability (demands which her family singularly failed to meet), Colette moved with first husband, Willy, to the centre of artistic Belle-Époque Paris. Whilst a great deal of her career would necessarily take place here, Colette was essentially a country woman who needed her rural retreats. Husbands and lovers were more than willing to provide them for her. Willy bought her a little house (not so little by today’s standards) in the Franche-Comté region east of Paris, a lushly forested area bordered by mountains. Missy, the lesbian lover she left him for, built her a seaside house in Brittany, which Colette refused to give back when they eventually split. Her next husband, the wealthy and aristocratic Henry de Jouvenel opened the doors of Castel-Novel to her, his family seat – complete with ivy-covered turrets and rows of ornate balconies – in the lush heat of the Limousin. Her third husband introduced her to the pleasures of Province, where she bought for herself La Treille Muscat, a pretty gorgeous villa in the shade of pine forests that overlook the Mediterranean. Old age and the second world war found her fixed in Paris, refusing to move away from the source of her work and finding comfort in the community of apartment dwellers in the Palais Royale.

The first thing that struck me was what a lucky woman Colette was to live is a series of amazing houses in lovely locations. The second was how many different lives Colette had managed to cram into her eighty-odd years. I confess I knew that about Colette already; what I hadn’t realised was how she changed the theatrical backdrop to her life with each reincarnation of herself, and how that must have helped her with the chameleon grace that she felt was so essential to female survival in the world. Colette was proud of her pragmatic peasant mentality, as she called it, and fascinated by the immediate. You might describe her as living in the moment, which undoubtedly facilitated her abilty to slip out from under the guilt she really ought to have felt about the way she treated people. Like most memoirs, this is a sympathetic portrait of Colette, but Jane Gilmour does admit in her conclusion that Colette surprises the avid reader of her work by turning out to be, at her worst, hard-headed, grasping and selfish. But stubbornly following her own star certainly gave Colette the best life she could have dreamed of, and by graft and determination, she certainly had plenty of rooms of her own to write in – while poor old Virginia Woolf pondered how difficult that was for a woman in polite and convention-bound England.

The biographical part of the book is a good, accurate and satisfying account of Colette’s complex and varied life. I have to admit that the prose is a bit pedestrian and the writer doesn’t always delve as deeply as I might have liked into the links between writing and life. The translations of Colette seem a tad stilted, too. But this is a book that sort of hovers around the coffee-table genre, and as such you get plenty of fascinating information to go with its gloriously decorative function. For an easy and enjoyable introduction to Colette’s life, and plenty of location-lust, you couldn’t do better.

 

So, The Writing Course

For all the uncertainties I had at the start, I am very glad that I did the writing course. There is nothing like being forced outside of your comfort zone to make you pay attention and learn new things. Plus, for fatally curious people like me, there’s always an intriguing narrative to be uncovered when a bunch of strangers get together. On this occasion, what made the course a pleasant experience – a group of quiet, polite and well-mannered participants – reduced the potential for good anecdotes afterwards. Out of a group of 12 there was only one person by the end who I really didn’t like and only one person who semi-dropped out. I thought that was pretty good going.

We were trying our hands at three different techniques. The first was braiding two or more lines of narrative. This was by far and away the technique I found most difficult and my first attempt at it was frankly a mess. I had a look around the internet and came across an extremely useful piece of advice. Take each line of narrative separately, this author suggests, write each story out individually and only then combine the two and tweak from there to make them speak to each other. This made all the difference to me. I rewrote the piece almost entirely, and found it worked much better. Call me sick, but I really enjoyed the process of getting this wrong and then figuring out how to make it right. It reminded me how inordinately satisfying it is to learn, if you can give yourself plenty of licence to make mistakes. Plus I’d gone into the course uncertain whether I’d be able to write anything at all, so the sheer relief of completing an assignment gave me a boost.

The second technique was incorporating research. I felt that this one ought to be a doddle for me as it’s generally what I do. So I thought it might be the moment to pick more challenging content and decided to write about the experience of chronic fatigue. Well, by the time I’d reached the end of the first draft, I realised that fifteen years of experience could not be fitted into 3,500 words. You might think I’d have figured this out beforehand, right? Well, I already knew that writing is like taking a pencil torch into a windowless cellar. The thin beam illuminates a contour here, a detail there, the shadowy mass of an object in the far corner, but a full picture of the entire room is out of the question. The first draft is like putting a burning torch in a wall bracket, but you never really get to see everything. I never expected to write the entire cellar, but I’d believed I could pack in more than I could. To swap metaphors a moment, I thought I might be able to write the piece like skimming a stone, glancing off the biggest ripples across that sea of time. But no. Once again I had a 3,500 word mess on my hands.

The answer was to go smaller and more detailed. I figured I’d only be able to write half of an essay at best with so few words at my disposal. So I spent a lot of time trawling the past in my mind, trying to find the scenes where the material was full of the ineffable. I’d been a bit unsure about tackling this subject in the first place, but my fellow participants and the instructor had assured me that writing lends distance and emotional liberation, and putting it down in words is a way of saying goodbye. I sort of agree, but it works best when an episode in life is over and finished. And whilst I am sure I’m in the end game of chronic fatigue here, I don’t think it’s exactly the end. Writing the theoretical parts was, by contrast, a delight. Unfortunately, I did them too quickly. I finished the assignment, and it was okay, and I submitted it. But was it a coincidence that shortly afterwards, I must have trapped the nerve in my neck that led to my bruised nerve in my gum and my sore arm? ‘Those nerves must be really irritated,’ the osteopath said to me (and they still are troublesome). And what was the feedback? Less theory and more you! my readers cried. I gulped and decided not to finish the essay during the course, on the grounds that so much emotional liberation might kill me.

By the time I was in any sort of state to write my third and final essay, I had five days left before the deadline and still had a jangling tooth, a sore arm and no idea what to write. The course participant I did not care for had annoyed me by leaving a highly critical comment of the reading we’d been assigned. It had not been to her taste, and so therefore she declared it bad, and demanded to know why we had been given it to read at all. My nerves were already irritated and so I was not impressed by such an attack of solipcism. Around that time I read a phrase on a blog that really struck me: empathy is the job of the reader. How I wish I remember where I read it! That phrase saved me. The assignment was to write an essay that moved about freely in time and I decided to write about the experience of extreme empathy, both as a reader and as a mother. I knew I had one shot at getting it right, wrote a steady 700 words a day and produced my best essay of the course. Isn’t that ironic? I thought that if, as I had often suspected, I did my best work up a corner with everything stacked against me, it was time to retrain as a plumber. That was not a deal with destiny I was willing to make.

So what did I learn? Well, I learned that you can say a great deal less in 3,500 words than you think you can, thus the skill is in knowing what to leave out. I learned that a good scene can do an immense amount of work for you. I learned that the past is stored in more detail and intensity than we think, but that looking back over it is never easy. I learned that I can write more to order than I feared I could (I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it at all). And I learned that other people’s problems are far more entertaining to me to write about than my own. The best part of the course was an experience that I wasn’t expecting. The emphasis throughout was on slowing down and taking the time to figure out what we really wanted to write about. The story we think we want to tell often turns out to be a screen or a veil over the story that actually needs to come forth. Like all the best art, that concept has a lot to say about life. And that’s why art is not some frippery or foible, but deeply worthwhile.