On Writing

*I preface this week’s thoughts with a little note: in the month of November I’ve been undertaking a daily writing activity. This task was originally conceived as a novel, but somewhere along the path it morphed into a long-form deep-dive in to the act of writing. I’ve challenged myself with writing 1600 words a day… on writing. So far I’m almost 35,000 words in to it and still coming out with new thoughts, so there’s something to it. I’m not entirely sure if the whole thing will be published. Does the world want to read my 50,000 word musings on writing…? Maybe…? Probably not…? Any way, if you get any joy out of reading this, I would encourage you to sign up to my very sporadic email list and I guess I’ll figure out the next steps later!

Write for clarity. Write for calm. Today I’ll write for peace and stillness, dropping words one by one to the page.

Like a meditative stone skipping exercise, spinning ripples out across the lake, today I’ll try to write word by word, examining each word as I pull it from my mind. Twist them, turn them, flip them over, this word smooth and this word odd and these words excitingly prolonged, stretching out this human meaning with an expansive lexicon borrowed from this human internet. This human takes his words and puts them one after another. Some words fit and flow, speed out across the page, leave ripples in their way. Some stutter, drop below the surface on their first outing, lose meaning, lose shape, lose hope in their utterance.

Like a tap, drip-drip-dripping in the other room, the words fall. I catch them with a bucket, carry the bucket down the hall, through the kitchen, leaving a wet trail in my wake. I hoist the bucket head-height and pour these words across the garden, fuel and fire and freedom for the plants below to grow into strong buoyant greens that wilt in to tonight’s soup, tomorrow’s stirfry. Some days I forget this ever catching bucket exists and the words pile up and flow down the sides, down the drain, through pipes and cracks and sewer systems as they make their way to the sea to join the vast multitude of words that exist out there. I think of this wordy reservoir, somewhere out beyond the backyard and I long to find the stream, follow its wet wordy path down to the final frontier where words are collected and dip my dripping bucket straight in to the source. I’d pull laughing streaming buckets and throw them over myself, drink deep from the eternal creative reservoir, dunk myself into it and belong to the words forever more. Perhaps these words are tainted though: bitter and brackish from the journey, jaded by their misuse, angry that they never turned themselves into a Pulitzer or Booker. I raise my head from below the surface to find these words stinging my eyes as they drip-drip-drip back to join the sea.

I think of Don Delilo, my favourite of the great American authors. His work with words pulls hidden meaning and lofty prose from the mildest of plot-lines. A man travels across America, creating an autobiographical film and Don weaves delicate sub-text, critiques modernity, curates words that leave lasting impressions on youthful me. The late night radio jockey scene where improvised words spring forth in nonsense page after page has always stuck with me as the pinnacle of creating feeling. Somewhere on par with Moby Dick and Herman Melville’s description of the colour white.

I think of Zero K where the majestic arc of human history piles high upon themes of death and distress and you’re left wondering what exactly the point of life is.

I think of Murakami, translated piece-meal to English from Japanese but still maintaining the joy and essence of a Japanese world-view and art. There’s a brevity to his work, where each line thunks neatly in to the middle of the smallest of targets. He writes to convey emotion and each word is crafted to draw maximum meaning from minimal effort. Think sleek lines and subdued whispers and an arcing overview that always borrows somehow from the absurd, but references reality just enough that you can feel yourself within the story. Except possibly in the case of IQ84 which could have been cut down, condensed into a smaller tome, or indeed separated into three titles (which I believe is how he wrote it). Sure, there are tropes he returns to: delicate earlobes and cats, but that’s a sign post for life. If everything was always new we’d have no reference point, and like any good comedian circles back and circles back and circles back to the strong joke, finding ways to present it in ways just slightly different enough that you’re not aware it’s coming and then bang it hits you over the head, I’m left feeling that Murakami takes these points of reference to build his world. These are the words that interest him or excite him, the characters that dominate his mind, and in their presenting and re-presenting across numerous works he is showing us a tiny glimpse into his own inner workings.

There’s a beauty to drip-dropping words on to the page one at a time, elegance and simplicity, but of course it takes time. Much easier to bulk dump a thousand words at once and edit edit edit later to craft meaning and motive. Time is the hardest of all emotions to engage with, its much less a feeling and much more an undercurrent flow, a background hum that lasts throughout our life, dictates somehow everything we do. Even when we disengage from time, it has a habit of making itself known. I’ve noticed it this year in the lack of progression, with a global pandemic and an eight month period at home there has been little progression, but time still ticks away: shaving the leaves off the trees and piling the shadows up against the back fence and deepening the lines that surround my face. I notice these only occasionally, in moments of great calm when I give myself time to stare in to the mirror and find myself noticing aspects of myself that I’ve never noticed before. Strange how life works like this. I am more myself than I’ve ever been before, yet I’m continually noticing new features of myself: emotions I’ve never embraced before, these wrinkles around my face, the way my body rises and falls at night while I breathe, and the way I have endless time for some of the people in my life and a mere seconds attention for others.

There’s a beauty to absorbing words in the same way. I constantly make the mistake of sucking in large chunks of literature, inhaling whole paragraphs and pages in massive bites and digesting piecemeal as I go. The goal for me is plot points and developments and a vague understanding of the overarching themes. I love the big reveal, the Mission Impossible version of the story where you’re left with this satiated feeling that yes, you’ve been entertained, and yes you can sum up the story in one sentence or less ‘well Tom Cruise needs to stop the Russians from getting the nuclear codes, the end’. Turns out every Mission Impossible has basically the same plot, the same dialogue and the same stunts. I watched all six of them over a six week period during lockdown, one movie a week. They’re very good. But they’re also very easy to engage with.

The more I read, the more I find its in the tiny little spaces between the words that most stories take on the real interest. As much as I want the big fast hit of the Mission Impossible story, life is in the finer details: the dash of chilli, the use of butter as a frying agent instead of olive oil, the returning of half a cup of pasta water to the pasta sauce after you’ve strained it. If every meal is a toasted cheese sandwich, you eventually hit a point where you crave pickled capers or fresh basil or a blood-orange, and these are fine words, flavourful words, words that no-one would expect to appear in a treatise on writing.

Grasping the little words and the meaning between them is a much more intensive task than I first expected. There’s a reason the Mission Impossible franchise or the Fast and The Furious numbers one to seven exist. The public desires big bold themes and action and stuff to happen. No-one wants to read their way through an action theme. You want the action to unfold in fast-forward in front of you. You want a brief period of puzzlement and then the endorphin hit at the end. The meaning between words is taking a whole bowl of spaghetti and squeezing a dash of lemon on it, while the man in the flannel shirt next to you chows down on a chicken parmagiana with a side of chips and more sauce than you can shake a blue bottle at.

That’s where we want to be, but the pay off is reading word by word, gnawing each tiny morsel, finding meaning where the author wrote it and then taking a deeper step and creating your own meaning from their words. Imagine a world where you extol the finer points of an author’s work and they smile, shake their head and tell you they were just writing another Hollywood blockbuster designed to satiate the masses desire for fast action.

This week’s Fridays with Friends (Ep. 11) returns, as everything always does, to Bob Dylan. Is there more to it than this? Of course, but you’ll have to discover that yourself!

2 Comments

  1. Love your thoughts and words, but you are only young. You have plenty of time. I have wanted to produce a record of original songs. The first target was age 50. I am now approaching 63, still no original songs, by 70 it will be to late. If you can feel the clock ticking, think about me. It’s looking like an album of covers will have to do.

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