You may not always be able to say what confines you.
And the Prison is sometimes called mistrust.
If it were that easy
one wouldn’t have any pleasure of it.
That is all I seek:
always something other than heroism.
I try not to forget how to jest.
Based on the Selected Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The picture above is one of a series of pictorial prompts on the theme of ‘Arrangements’ from dVerse Poets Pub. The colours reminded me so much of Van Gogh’s palette. Plus, I tend to be a stickler for a tidy desk arranged just so before I can start writing…
This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).
First published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.
‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:
Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.
Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.
When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.
As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:
The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’
Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.
… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.
From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.
How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.
Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.
And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:
It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.
Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.
How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.
I was rummaging around on my blog and found the beginning of this post. For some reason I never finished it. It’s about two books that I got for myself as Christmas presents, that I read and loved throughout the winter holidays, and yet I never managed to review them. These two beautifully bound books (collectors’ items) are by and about one of my favourite writers, Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson, creator of my beloved Moomins.
These are semi-autobiographical pieces describing Tove’s childhood, her artistic parents and the great parties they gave, holidays at the seaside, being snowbound in a strange house, being ill with German measles. But in actual fact they are slightly surreal prose poems, exploring the big questions of life, death, beauty and truth, danger and safety, and the importance of art. And all is described through a child’s eyes, with limpid clarity, elegance and understatement. Jansson is a sophisticated stylist, leaving out so much in both her painting and her writing, implying more than saying outright.
Tuula Karjalainen: Tove Jansson: Work and Love (transl. David McDuff)
Although I had read somewhere that Moominpappa and Moominmamma were based on Jansson’s own parents, I hadn’t realised just how close she was to her family, nor how many personal difficulties and disappointments she had to face in her own life. She was very versatile: painter, illustrator, writer, stage designer, playwright, poet, political caricaturist, cartoonist – and although she occasionally complained of writer’s block (especially during the war), her output was prodigious. But her biographer can speak much more eloquently on her behalf:
‘Work and love were the things that mattered most to her throughout her life – and in that order. Tove’s life was fascinating. She challenged conventional ways of thinking and moral rules in a country where old prejudices … maintained a strict hold. She was a revolutionary, but never a preacher or a demaogogue. She influenced the values and attitudes of her time, but was no flag-bearer – instead, she was a quiet person who remained uncompromising in her own life choices…. When she was still a little girl she wrote that “freedom is the best thing”. It remained of utmost importance throughout her life.’
I cannot explain just how much this book meant to me. At times inspiring, at times sad and haunting, it is not only the biography of an exceptional woman and artist, but also a powerful meditation on the choices we constantly have to make as daughters, friends, lovers and creators. How to be human. She deserves to be better known for all of her work: above all, for her pared down prose and great sensitivity. But I’ll end with the inevitable: my favourite characters in her Moomin series.
Sarah Ruhl is a distinguished American playwright, nominated for many prizes, recipient of quite a few (including the MacArthur Fellowship). She is also a wife and mother and in this book of ‘mini-essays’ she talks about theatre and audiences, life, art and the challenge of combining the two. It’s a real book of ‘cabbages and kings’, with topics ranging from the most trivial to the most profound and I was tempted to underline some quote on nearly every page. One of my favourite essays (No. 60) is entitled ‘Is there an objective standard of taste?’ and consists of the single word ‘No.’
The opening essay ‘On Interruptions’ is longer, very funny, but will provoke a wry grimace as well in any parent struggling to be creative. It incorporates actual interruptions:
The child’s need, so pressing, so consuming, for the mother to be there, to be present, and the pressing need of the writer to be half-there, to be there but thinking of other things, caught me —
Sorry. In the act of writing that sentence, my son, William, who is now two, came running into my office crying and asking for a fake knife to cut his fake fruit.
She could be describing my life, even though my children are older now and therefore expressing higher-level demands and being quite vociferous about my ‘neglect’.
In the middle of that sentence my son came in and sat at my elbow and said tenderly, ‘Mom, can I poop here?’ I think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how it needs a practical addendum about locks and bolts and soundproofing.
Her conclusion is beautiful, though painful to hear at times for stressed-out parents:
…tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life.
It’s not all about motherhood and the tortured artist, however. There are many astute observations here about the theatre, life and the stage, whether we’ve lost the ability to wait, the dangers of digesting too much ‘surface’ and not diving deeper, living in a culture where ‘the talk about the art often takes up more time than the experience of the art’?
I love blogging and Twitter, that’s no secret, but I do hate the mediation of experience through iPhones and the like, so this passage in particular spoke to me:
The age of experience is truly over, we are entering the age of commentary. Everyone at the event was busy texting everyone else… and a general lack of presence was the consequence… We are now supposed to have opinions before we have experiences. We are supposed to blog about our likes and dislikes before a piece of art is over. Will we evolve out of the ability to make art? Will events need to have more violence for audiences to enter them purely, to compete with the gaze of commentary?
This book will be one I dip into again and again, reminding me of that nervous tension and fragile balance between the known and the possibilities, reality and our ideals.
Two quick reviews today of poetry and poetic prose, by two very different but equally gifted young writers. One born in England but living in Ireland. The other is Swiss, but writes (in this book) about China.
Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink (transl. by Jamie Bulloch)
The author is clearly attracted by exotic (i.e. Eastern) art – he has also written about the Indian woman painter Amrita Sher-Gil. This slim book is also about a real historical figure, the Chinese painter Bada Shanren, descendant of the Ming dynasty. Little is known about his life, however, although his work has been very influential, hugely admired and extensively analysed. So Weihe is free to weave the meagre details of his life into a slow-burning meditation into the meaning of art, where creativity fits into politics and everyday life, and how to capture the essence of nature and reality. The biographical details are perhaps the least interesting elements of the story, although they provide a certain structure upon which the author hangs his narrative: finding refuge in a temple, feigning madness (or perhaps being really mad for a period) to avoid confrontation with the new political rulers, reluctantly achieving fame. His artistic progress is marked through little vignettes describing his thoughts, emotions and brushstrokes as he creates ten of his most famous paintings. It’s like looking over the artist’s shoulder, watching his attempts to capture the spirit of nature, render it on paper and make it look effortless.
A beautiful, hypnotic book, full of the apparent contradictions of Taoist philosophy (exhaustively researched by the author). A book to reread for inspiration, and not just for painters, full of very quotable pages:
When you paint, you do not speak. But when you have painted, your brush should have said everything.
When you dip your paintbrush into the ink, you are dipping it into your soul. And when you guide your paintbrush, it is your spirit guiding it.
When you paint, do not think about painting, but let your wrist dance.
Originality? I am as I am, I paint as I paint. I have no method… I am just me.
You cannot hang onto the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another.
How can it be that, from a dismal sky, this bitter world can suddenly show us that we love it, in spite of everything, and that in spite of everything it will be hard to take our leave of it?
He had set himself one final goal. He wanted to paint flowing water.
Adam Wyeth: Silent Music
A fine blend between English realism and Irish romanticism, Wyeth’s poetry starts with a small observation of daily life, which is then suddenly subverted and lets you take a deeper dive into something far more profound. Gathering and cooking globe artichokes becomes a moment of intimacy and exploration, a cinema trip with his mother becomes a heartbreaking revelation of a boy’s helplessness when face with the end of his parents’ marriage, a lost umbrella becomes the metaphor for bad memories of which we try to rid ourselves. Divorce, love, lost friendships, a father’s tumour, trips abroad, childhood pranks, child labour, pigs: there is no subject too big or too small for poetry, but there is no bathos here. Just clear-eyed and very precise recollection and wording.
There is plenty of humour and experimentation amidst more serious poems: this is the debut collection of a young, exuberant writer after all. ‘Bubbly’ is a poem designed to be read from bottom to top, rising like the bubbles in a glass of champagne – yet it works equally well when read from top to bottom. The poet makes of fun of fake intellectual pretensions (in the title poem ‘Silent Music’), wannabe poets who lament their lives provide them with nothing interesting to write about, naughty schoolchildren with their secret jargon, even the Danish language ‘that is why there are no famous Danish poets’.
Here’s a short poem in its entirety – the title is longer than the poem, almost, yet so much irony and ambiguity is condensed into those three lines. It’s based on the miracle observed in the summer of 1985 at Ballinspittle Grotto, when the statue of the Virgin Mary moved spontaneously, receiving much national and international publicity.
Waiting for the Miracle at Ballinspittle Grotto
Nothing moves but cars.
First one passes, then I see
a second coming.
By way of contrast, however, these romantic, inspirational lines at sunrise:
This essay was written a while back for an online journal written by and for mothers. I think it was probably not quite upbeat enough about combining motherhood and creativity. Suffice it to say, it was not published, so I thought I might as well make it available here. Although, in the meantime, as I am reading Andrew Solomon’s ‘Far from the Tree’ about families who have faced real challenges in raising their (deaf, autistic, schizophrenic, transgender etc.) children, I feel terrible guilt about being a whiney spoilt brat who has never encountered real hardship. And that’s why I’m not really made to write creative non-fiction or memoirs. Fiction is much more fun (and less painful).
A few years ago, through no effort of my own, I became a ‘lady of leisure’. I’d resigned my job to follow my husband abroad and when we returned to Britain 18 months later in the summer of 2008, the job market was unrecognizable. I became a ravenous hunter, with 50+ versions of my CV to fit all occasions. In-between the rejections and the fortnightly humiliation of signing on at the Job Centre, I strove to become the best possible mother to my two sons. I may not previously have had time for toddler-aided bake-offs or 100 creative uses for wrapping paper, but now was the time to build all those cherished memories. For which I lacked talent, but made up through sheer force of will. In my remaining leisure time, I would also pick up and dust down that long-neglected passion of mine: writing.
Our minds play tricks on us: allowing us to pile so much upon ourselves, yet fiddling with the knobs on our measuring capacities. So we say: ‘More, more! It is too light still, not enough!’ even as we sink into the morass of multiple roles, none of which we fully own, none of which we play to perfection.
So full-time and full-on was my life, that I used to do the weekly shop late at night at the 24 hour supermarket, once the children were tucked in bed. I would toss things into the trolley on autopilot, load the car and speed off home. One night, instead of turning right at the motorway junction, I paused. On the left, a sign beckoned.
‘London’, it said.
‘Freedom’, I read through tear-soaked eyes. ‘Creativity. Endless possibility.’
The urge to turn left and never look back was so great, it frightened me. Who can resist the siren call of simplifying your life, of escaping the chaos, of devoting yourself to a single pursuit far greater than yourself?
How had my life got so messy and overwhelming? You see, at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot… In my case, this manifests itself as the deep-throated relentless chime of a grandfather clock in the darkened hall of my conscience. One lifespan is not enough for all the beings I am, for all that I could be. I want to accumulate blindly, wildly: experiences, skins, memories, loved ones. Never possessions.
The problem is not the trying everything, it’s the hoarding thereafter. I can never let go. Imperfection hurts me like a blunt saw. One of my skins dropped by the wayside is a tragedy. I not only want to be, I also want to be good at it. It overwhelms me at times, the cacophony of demands. It threatens all that is good, kind or creative in me. So you can understand why I sat mesmerized at that junction.
I turned right. And I’ve never, ever allowed myself to question that decision.
I am far from that place now. Physically and mentally. Yet it frightens me still. How there is always a disconnect between the life we feel we were meant to live and the one we actually have. How easy it is to err on the side of discontent. How the sinuous murmurs of temptation can slither its way into our hearts and convince us that single-minded perfection is attainable and that its costs are bearable, ‘if only’ and ‘when this is over’.
May Sarton did her best to become a household name. At her death in 1995, she had written 53 books: 19 novels, 17 books of poetry, 15 nonfiction works including her acclaimed journals, 2 children’s books, a play, and some screenplays. She ran away to join the theatre aged seventeen, went bankrupt and switched to writing, was friends with Elizabeth Bowen, had tea regularly with Virginia Woolf, translated from the French with Louise Bogan. Her early work was highly acclaimed, then she fell out of fashion, though never quite out of print. Her reputation spread more through word of mouth, on college campuses and amongst feminists (especially after she came out as a lesbian in 1965). Towards the end of her life, she became better known for her frank discussion of loneliness and aging in her non-fiction.
And yet she is relatively little-known outside the world of poets and feminists. Gertrude Stein, with her meagre output and difficult style, is better-known as a grande dame of literature than May Sarton. Sarton herself blamed this on her refusal to ‘play ball’, because she did not buy into the academic world of teaching poetry or do the rounds at writers’ conferences. However, as I read her collected poems, I also thought that maybe her poetic style has something to do with it.
Her style is too simple (deceptively so), for those who like their feelings to be raw and overpowering, or else carefully hidden in layers of metaphor. She is not experimental or loud. In fact, she reminds me of a favourite middle-aged aunt: at one with nature, supremely cultured and civilised, a delightful conversationalist, but a bit old-fashioned and unadventurous in poetic form. Yet a multitude of emotions – all human emotion – is contained within the seemingly tame confines of her verse. All of the big themes of life: truth, beauty, love, loneliness, fear, ageing, illness are treated here. They are just not paraded about on a baroque stage, carrying out elaborate theatrical gestures.
There is pure joy at loving and being loved, careful observations of nature:
And then suddenly in the silence someone said,
“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:
I shall remember that long after I am dead.”
Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,
How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,
And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look
Might warm us each someday when we were cold.
And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,
Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,
So one seeing it marveled the other night,
Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”
Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular
Reflection of your grace like fire on snow –
And loved you there.
Many of her poems are love poems, and also suffused with prayer and spirituality, which perhaps are topic which have fallen slightly out of fashion. Her emotions are carefully restrained and calibrated, rather than given free rein: the ‘stiff upper lip’ is perhaps not perceived as an asset in poetry. And of course, she loved classical poetic forms, although she was able to (and did, on occasion) write exhilarated bursts of free verse. In an interview, she talks about the power of metre and beat in poetry: ‘The advantage of form, far from being “formal” and sort of off-putting and intellectual, is that through form you reach the reader on this subliminal level. I love form. It makes you cut down. Many free verse poems seem to me too wordy. They sound prose-y, let’s face it…. Very few free verse poems are memorable.’
There is indeed great musicality in her poetry, as well as references to music throughout:
We enter this evening as we enter a quartet
Listening again for its particular note
The interval where all seems possible,
Order within time when action is suspended
And we are pure in heart, perfect in will.
Some poems (especially later ones) seem little more than jotted down observations, and she does not always resist the temptation of a lazy cliché or facile rhyme. At times, she even has a tendency to preach (in her poems written at the time of the Vietnam War for instance). Yet there is no doubting the sincerity of her introspection, her powers of observation of nature, or how seriously she does take her poetry. Some of her descriptions of the essence of poetry will make any poet shiver in recognition:
It is not so much trying to keep alive
As trying to keep from blowing apart
From inner explosions every day. […]
Prisoner at a desk? No, universe of feeling
Where everything is seen, and nothing mine
To plead with or possess, only partake of,
As if at times I could put out a hand
And touch the lion head, the unicorn.
Not showy, not immediately life-changing, but the kind of poetry that seeps through your pores gradually. I’m glad that Open Road Media are reissuing her Collected Poems. I’m also curious to read her journals now and hope they are still in print. The kind of writing to savour, to dip in and out of, like going to have tea every week with your favourite aunt.
One interesting final point about the difficulty of reading poetry ebooks.The publisher comments on this in the introduction: how, because of the shape-shifting qualities of electronic type, it is hard to see the exact visual layout of lines as the poet imagined them. I also find it much harder to remember certain poems or find them again to quote from them. I think I will stick to print copies for poetry collections of more than 1-2 poems in the future.