Friday ‘Fessing

This week was my son’s half term holiday, which makes for a more disrupted working pattern, but I have managed to get back into my academic work. I’m deep in dream territory, writing about the (to me at least) fascinating crucible of the dream in which emotion, memory and the zinging mental energy of drives and desires collide. Academic writing is hard work because it requires such precision of language and intent. It means I spend a lot of time rewriting sentences and then eventually deleting them. But on another level I appreciate the discipline this instills; I like being forced to give shape in language to abstract concepts, to carve an argument out of material whose complexity has to be respected, to listen deep down inside to the echoes of response that shimmer off the experience of captivating, bewildering stories. Once a day at least, I’m stumped, wordless in the face of something I know I want to say but which I can’t formulate out of my myriad, conflicting impressions. It’s maddening and addictive in equal measure, and I realize I won’t ever completely give up academic writing because it provides me with something I really need.

I was thinking about writing in general after reading a particularly intriguing piece of analysis. It came from a philosopher and psychoanalyst, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, who was describing the way that dreams offer us an unusual perspective on our identity. Who is the ‘I’ who acts in the dream, he wonders? That person who behaves in often surprising ways, who seeks out perplexing conflicts and who is prepared to bend under the weight of powerful emotions? Borch-Jacobsen suggests that in dreams we have access to a version of ourselves that’s a composite of our deepest fantasies, our most intimate desires, the fears we barely admit to having, and the impulses whose energy sometimes overwhelms us, pushing us into ill-considered action. It’s the self that lies at the bottom of the soul, the twin we were separated from at birth, the ghost in the machine. Now what I think is interesting about this, is that that figure of fantasies is also the person inside us who writes creative fiction. What else is fiction but the fantasy story that suggests itself to us out of our undeclared interests and which we load up with emotions and dearly-held moral beliefs? When I was writing fiction, many years ago now, I felt that this shadow self was too unresolved, too troubled. I felt that what I wrote was a way of battering innocent readers over the head with anxieties I hadn’t mastered myself. I felt that I couldn’t get out of my own way. Fiction is the place where readers explore all kinds of powerful dimensions of experience but they need to be held by the writer while they do so. There are lots of ways to hold the reader – the desire to know what happens next, the sheer beauty of an author’s prose, the clever use of metaphor to talk about difficult things in indirect ways, the promise of meaning and closure. But when it goes wrong, I think, it’s because something has bled out of the author’s mind that is raw in a threatening way, or depressing or a bit desperate. And after all, that’s why creative writing is so damn hard; it requires mastery and discipline way beyond the normal levels.

But academic writing was a delight for me in this respect – it was a space in which I could explore that inner self with all kinds of restraint and constraint already put in place. It was a safe zone where I could look at dangerous things. I love analyzing, and I feel that it’s my best self who’s engaged in that process. So for all the frustrations of academic writing, it offers me access to a way of writing about life where I feel I put that inner self to work in a productive and meaningful way. And for that, I’m very grateful.

Okay, just a quick word about authonomy, which is an internet writing site I was invited to join. It’s run by publishers HarperCollins and is intended to be a place where authors can upload their unpublished work for peer comment and support, although it’s been described (mostly by journalists) as a way for editors to displace their slush pile. The idea is that publishers looking for authors can visit and that the best authors will rise to the surface on a tsunami of peer praise. It’s in its early stages at the moment. I can see that it will provide a good community for people engaged in work-in-progress, but I’m not sure how anyone is going to identify the best books. With over two hundred participants there’s no way I’ll get around everyone’s books, and like any internet community there are the people who comment a lot and those who tend to lurk. Amongst the commenters there are those who always leave only positive remarks and others (like evil me) who always leave constructive criticism. Most people’s comments seem to indicate they please some of the people some of the time, so no surprises there. The proportions among the genres are also a bit skewed. There are only 15 or so non-fiction books but I’ve lost count of the number of fantasy novels out there; literally, every other novel I’ve looked at has had a fantasy element. I’ve had some useful comments (thanks, Charlotte!) but not one from another non-fiction writer, so we’re clearly the anti-social nerds. However I have a sinking feeling that all those fantasy enthusiasts are not going to be so keen on reading non-fiction. Well, perhaps it’s too early to judge, and of course it may be my title, my project, my synopsis or indeed my photo that discourages the masses 😉 I would dearly like to link to it so you can see what the set up is for yourselves (they are inviting other interested authors to leave their email addresses for a further round of invitations) but you know I’m having wordpress issues. Stick ‘authonomy’ into google and go to the homepage. I’m interested to know what you think of the concept.


8 thoughts on “Friday ‘Fessing

  1. Another interesting, insightful, thought-provoking blog – how do you do it? Thanks for the tip re Borsch-Jakobsen and your ideas on holding through language, metaphor etc. are really good. I’m seriously impressed with your output (academic writing, chapters, blogging etc.) I think this is a case of writing idealisation (or is that envy). Talking of idealisation, if you ever want more stuff on motherhood then I can email you a paper or two from a South African psychologist who is really good. Cheers, pete

  2. Pete – you are a sweetheart! Don’t be fooled, though, it’s only been the past five or six weeks that I’ve been quite productive and I will probably have to spend the best part of June lying in a darkened room to recover 🙂 I would LOVE to hear more about those motherhood papers. I’ll send you an email in the morning – thank you!

  3. I have taken such pleasure in your reading of the “classics,” alongside books I would not have thought to open but for you. And Imani’s wonderfully irreverent, independent takes on everything. Gives the lie to the claim that there’s nothing to say if you haven’t read everything that’s been written about a given work.

    Have you linked to “Clavdia Chachat’s” <a href=”” ?

    The best thing about literary blogs for me has been this willingness to open old books with new eyes, to read them as they were meant to be read–as news that stays news. We can’t be Adam in morning… to read well we have to be informed, but then, we also need to set our knowledge aside–or rather–the prejudice that it has instilled–so that our knowledge is not a filter, but a release, a freedom… the way we use knowledge of a another language… a good analogy, I think. What we claim to “know” is a straight jacket. Another language is a release into a new world of experience… why not use our literary knowledge in the same way?

  4. WordPress is playing some funny games with you, isn’t it? I’m in two minds about Authonomy, myself. I’ve put my chapters up there, but I’m wondering, since I’ve had no useful criticism apart from your wonderful insights, whether it’s a worthwhile exercise. I think I might give it a month, and if I don’t get any useful stuff, then remove my offering and take the standard route once my manuscript is finished.

  5. I love your take on academic writing — most often people chafe against its restraints, but I like the idea that those restraints can offer safety that allows you to explore dangerous areas. Your academic writing will be all the stronger because of how much of your self goes into it.

  6. I bet you are a better fiction writer than you let on 🙂 But, I totally get what you are saying about the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Even when writing nonfiction about yourself there are controls and constraints and a certain distance that is allowed but to write good fiction it all hangs out there on the page.

  7. It’s interesting what you say about fiction going wrong when there is too much bleeding of the subconscious, without sufficient artful and deliberate seduction of language, metaphor and closure. In that sense, academic as well as clinical writing can allow freedom from that subconscious bleed while also enjoying the play of ideas, observations, presentation and analysis, restrictions that are analogous to poetry written within predetermined formal specifications. Boundaries, in a sense.

  8. Jacob – what a wonderful thought from you, thank you! The idea of using knowledge as a release or a springboard is one I would wholeheartedly endorse. Literature is also perfect for exactly the kind of knowledge that is truthful and authentic but equally partial and temporal. It teaches us how to look at the things we think we ‘know’ with the grace of ambiguity. And thank you also for the link. I do love to find great new blogs. Charlotte – that seems like a very wise approach. I’m not finding authonomy as mutually helpful as the blogging world and well, it is a bit of a disappointment actually. But still, perhaps it will pick up. I keep reading around looking for novels I like and not getting far, when I should return to those like yours that I enjoyed and read on. Dorothy – I like very much what you say about the self that goes into academic writing. It’s sort of hidden in there, but unless it’s there, I don’t think it will work properly. Thank you. Stefanie – sometimes I wonder whether I should post a bit of my old fiction and then I think, ‘no, they like you at the moment. Best not to jeopardise that.’ 🙂 You say it exactly right – it’s that hanging it all out that’s essential but oh so scary! Mmmmmm, lovely constraints, so cozy, so warm. Writer Reading – I think you’ve managed to put your finger on the one word that sums it all up perfectly – boundaries. One of these days I will get around to thinking properly about how incredibly important boundaries are in all respects, but it’s such a profound topic that my head spins just contemplating it. You’re quite right that certain forms of writing have boundaries bound up with them, and they are often forms concerned with limit experiences one way or another, which is intriging and telling in equal measure.

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