Why I write (but won’t be doing so much of it in the near future)

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall” – Cyril Connolly

One of the main things you’ll find on this site is a collection of pieces inspired by visits to cities and other places I visited during our year in Mexico. They consist mostly of observations and reflections which I hadn’t seen written down elsewhere, and which I therefore take to have something original about them. Some of them I’m very pleased with, others are a bit silly, and most have very little to do with the city in question. I hope they will not be taken as failed pieces of travel journalism, as that wasn’t my intention in writing them.

I’ve always found the thought of writing somewhat daunting, because I used to have difficulty rationalising my reasons for doing it. For most of my life presenting what I write to others has seemed like the height of arrogance and presumption. Now I understand that all writers to some extent fear that they will come across as callow, naive, incoherent, pompous, ignorant, friendless or depressed etc etc etc. Many write against all that. Inevitably it’s partly a question of getting better, at working hard at producing things that are more enjoyable and/or insightful than I did before. Although there may be people out there who would prefer me to shut up, the voice in my own head telling me not to write is louder. Nevertheless I find it pleasurable to write as I do, and doing so helps me and maybe others make sense of life and the world.

I started my first blog when I was in China, and within the smallish world of foreign bloggers in and on China it was gratifyingly successful. I used to enjoy getting comments and starting debates. Over time, as is the pattern with blogs, my interest dwindled. In the meantime I have tried sending things for publication but I’ve come to understand that my style is too particular, personal, and digressive, often based on guesswork, sometimes deliberately obtuse. I had the vague idea of turning the Mexican pieces them into a book, but then got carried away with a novel which I didn’t finish. Which is not to say it won’t come back. I don’t really know the first thing about novel-writing but I do know that the second thing is that it’s messy and it takes a long time.

One insight into writing that’s always stayed with me is Raymond Carver’s remark that he became a short story writer because he had young kids so couldn’t focus enough to write novels. Although when I first came across that I’d never even thought about being a parent, we now, twenty five or so years later, have an actual pram in the hall. Maybe what I’m trying to do here is get myself into a position where I can write short stories. ‘They’ do say you should write about what you know. A friend recently sent me a Bukowski poem that makes much the same point*. Some writers write down everything all the time, and that’s the raw material for their work. I noticed in Guanajuato that that’s what Thomas Pynchon seems to do. In my case I believe that becoming a parent will teach me to write less but better**.

Personal experiences are extremely easy to write about. Writing something like this was an exercise in memory. Hence the difficulty of writing a novel. The fact that I had a topic and a vague plot made it feel a bit like trying to climb a mountain starting from the peak when the mountain didn’t even exist yet. I learnt that instead you have to build the mountain yourself and then climb up it, paying particular attention to minute crevices and potential pitfalls. I don’t think I’m good at that. I tend to miss nuances and subtleties. At the same time, writing can help me improve. It also makes me a better reader. I like what Geoff Dyer said about photography, that it teaches you to pay attention when you’re not taking pictures. Right now, at this time in my life, I need to start paying better attention to details. I also need to get better at inventing and telling stories. Writing is a way of learning to write, and also about learning to live. (I apologise if that previous sentence reminded anyone of Alan de bloody Botton.)

I know I have some bad habits, some tricks I overemploy, like sarcastic asides and wacky digressions. I’m come to accept that they are part of my ‘voice’. (Martin Amis argued that voice and style are the same thing. Don’t bother reading ‘Yellow Dog’.) The nicest thing anyone ever said about my writing is that I have a ‘fascinating voice’. The most demoralising was in a writing class at university, when the tutor called a short story of mine ‘sub-Douglas Adams’. I know that these tropes, quirks and divagations can be irritating and off-putting. Like in John Lanchester’s description of a young but ill-fated superstar footballer in ‘Capital’, people quickly learn your tricks and anticipate them. They lose their effect. I need to work hard on developing a wider range of voices. Extremely skillful writers like Thomas Pynchon have a huge array of styles at their disposal***. Apparently in person Pynchon is a brilliant verbal mimic. That’s another skill I need to develop if I’m going to be the kind of parent I want to be.

One means of becoming a more attentive writer and human being is to immerse myself in poetry, which is language at its most alert and charged. I find poetry to be a constant struggle, but one with immense and intense rewards of concentrated wisdom, not always at a level that can be articulated even in conscious thought. The poems that I’ve read and studied have definitely made me a better writer, even if I still don’t really know how to go about writing one myself. The novelist José Saramago said that he wrote novels because he didn’t know how to write essays; in the same way, I see whatever it is that I post here as the raw material for poems I don’t know how to write.

I believe that if I can write differently it will help me see and act differently, particularly to escape the prison of my own thought and enter more deeply in the lives of my fellow beings. It can help me develop patience, guile and subtlety, to use more refined tools than irony, hyperbole and pathos/bathos****. I’d like to write in a way that’s not zany and glib, but earnest though entertaining. (In the words of Pynchon: ‘Be cool, but care’.) Writing is an extremely powerful tool for transforming all aspects of consciousness and reality. As my former neighbour Iain Sinclair says, there is something magic about the act itself and the effect it produces.

I believe in books. I believe in the wisdom of writers. Although I have friends who believe in the power of the Good Book, I tend to think there are many more than one. I think writing stories encodes a very deep human wisdom far beyond the control or comprehension of any single human being. Without wanting to sound too much like Salman Rushdie, we are made up of an infinite number of stories. Our DNA is a cosmological narrative. (Next week or so I will witness the birth of a whole new universe.) As Proust exemplified, a single second, a momentary sensation contains several books. Writing can be a form of meditation (another way of explaining why you won’t hear from me very much over the next few months).

In any case, what do I do with all the things my life and my privileged education have taught me? How do I share what I’ve experienced, noticed and imagined? Writing for me is about remembering what I’ve learnt while simultaneously learning new things about myself and about the world. It’s a means of remembering and of thinking. Both David Harvey and Geoff Dyer have said that they write books to learn about new subjects. Writing is also a way of paying attention to language, particularly to metaphors, to ways of thinking that we don’t even know are there, and creating new ones. All these questions, of learning, language, memory and identity are about to take on a new depth and a fresh intensity. I hope to have the time to write what some of it is like, but for all that I’ve said here our baby will have more priority than my blog.

*Maybe Bukowski was one of ‘them’!

**It would obviously be pretty dang evil of me to blame an as-yet-unborn child for nipping my writing career in the bud. Notably, it was a man who came up with that thing about the pram in the hall. Speaking of which, whether you have kids or not this is a lovely read. Incidentally, although I’m sure Trump has never heard the Cyril Connolly quote, I’m sure he’d identify with it, and who can help but pity Barron Trump right now? And speaking of Trump’s family, this is priceless.

*** One impulse for writing longer-form things comes from wanting to know how the works of my favourite novelists work, to investigate what a novel really is.

**** …and also footnotes.

6 thoughts on “Why I write (but won’t be doing so much of it in the near future)

  1. Hi Richard, have you heard of Prolifiko? It’s an app for writers that is being developed. They have a Kickstarter campaign, which closes at the end of this month. I’ve been using the beta version for a couple of weeks and it is really helping me to keep writing in tiny chunks even when I’m snowed under with work. Might be worth a try once the little one comes along. You can make your goals really teeny-tiny, to help you make sure you don’t neglect it altogether. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/prolifiko/prolifiko-kickstart-and-continue-your-writing


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