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.

Day 1

Strolling down the monumental leafy boulevard that is Paseo de la Reforma I come across an Occupy-style camp dedicated to the 43 students who were presumably murdered by people connected to state power last September. Among the photos of the missing students there are exhortations not to vote in the upcoming elections as a protest against corruption and abuses of power, and as I stand there looking in vain for someone from the camp to talk to a cyclist goes blasting out mariachi music in support of one of the candidates. The question of whether or not to vote inevitably brings to mind Russell Brand’s about-turn in the recent UK elections. Back in London there is no equivalent of Ayotzinapa (a word it took me a few days to learn), no mass graves of missing students, and therefore, in a way, less at stake, although admittedly Ian Duncan Smith is doing his little bald best to boost, and cover up, the tally of state-sponsored deaths.

Two minutes further down the road two blue buses suddenly pull out, packed with heavily armed police on their way somewhere, while other police stand at the side of the buses bossing people around. It’s hard to tell whether the people around me are nonplussed, cowed or resigned. There are a lot of guns around in Mexico — yesterday’s edition of La Jornada reported the deaths of ten people in two days in Acapulco, and not to be outdone, in today’s paper you can read about the 30 who have been killed in five days in Chilapa, Guerrero State, the same state as Ayotzinapa. FARC rebels from Colombia are reported to be training narcotrafico gangs in the north of Mexico. Adding all this up, a new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies puts Mexico in third place for violent deaths, behind only Syria and Iraq. If there is a Mexican equivalent of Russell Brand out there he or she is risking somewhat more than mere credibility.

As I walk on down the avenue a small procession passes by, people carrying placards for PAN, the party that governed Mexico between 2000–2012 before being replaced by the Instutional Party of the Revolution, PRI. The PRI has often been compared to the Irish political party Fianna Fail in that it is the official party of the revolution and has been the main font of corruption for almost 100 years. People still seem to be in shock that it could ever return to power. The precise details of the political panorama of this country defy my understanding but I have heard that the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is, in addition to allegedly being enormously corrupt, a profound idiot — there is even a website dedicated to his pendejadas.

This is a complex, beautiful, and dangerous place. Not so dangerous for me, of course — I’m trying to make sense of these things from an extremely privileged and partial position. Where to begin? Who can tell me what’s going on? I have my guide book and the odd bits of information I’ve picked up here and there from conversations and newspaper articles. I’ll always be little more than a tourist here, and I’m aware of my tendency to make snap judgments and facile connections about and between things I have no or next to no understanding of. My duty is to be polite, to recognise when it’s a good idea when to get involved and when to stay out of the way and to try, humbly, to learn.

This reality is new to me but it’s also ancient, and I have to keep reminding myself not to make assumptions. Even in the UK, a country I grew up in and have been living in for the last ten years, I fail to understand the dynamics of the society in which I’m living. So this blog is not an attempt to explain what is going on in Mexico but a series of hopefully interesting reflections and not completely inaccurate observations by someone with a very limited and privileged perspective and a tendency to make unsubstantiated judgments. It will hopefully make connections between what is happening here and the gathering shitstorm elsewhere. And it will also attempt to explain the experience of being here in this seemingly infinite, and infinitely delightful, city, with its tamarind juice and Iron Maiden t-shirts , its cordiality and variety. In addition to being mostly inaccurate, it will contain far too many links, be clumsily written, insifficeienly prrofread, peripatetic and, in many ways, like all blogs, including the one I did when I was in China, almost entirely irrelevant. In any case, aquí lo tienes.

In which I start blogging again

My perfectionist instinct should inhibit me from thinking; it should inhibit me from even beginning. But I get distracted and start doing something‘. Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet

Eleven years ago I moved from Ireland to Portugal. From time to time people ask me why I chose Portugal of all places.

I’m always a bit flummoxed when I’m asked this. Recently however I worked out the answer. The reason why I went to live in Portugal is that I wanted to go and live in Spain.

I suffer from a certain indecisiveness. Bearing this in mind makes it much easier to decipher my own actions.

Often I do things because I don’t want to, and often I don’t do things because I want to do them.

Sometimes the things I wanted to do resemble the things I end up doing.

Sometimes I end up liking the thing I do, but this is always conditioned by the feeling that there are things which I would rather have done, although I often still don’t know what these things are or were.

Very often I do something because it is the exact opposite of what I actually wanted to do, even when I know very clearly what that thing is. This could be something as simple as not asking for someone’s phone number when I know that I want to do so.

After I left Portugal I wanted to go to Brazil or Spain, or maybe Japan. So I went to live in China.

Adam Phillips poses the question, what would you do if you were cured. This is inevitably a very complicated question.

Sometimes I feel that if I could only look people in the eye when I’m talking to them about things that actually matter, this would be a measure of success.

Acting changes things, radically transforms one’s situation. Hesitating, failing to act, indeciding, to coin a word, does not.

Hesitating is a clear sign that I’m censoring myself.

However when I notice that I’m hesitating it’s too late to act. Sometimes I half-act, I act without fully committing myself to the action. This is not the same as acting. I can’t quite decide whether or not to wait and hold the door open for someone, so I hold the door half-open, and get in their way.

The objective is to act decisively, to overcome the abyss between deciding and acting in one fatal leap. To launch myself over the chasm, and in so doing to make that space of indecision retroactively disappear, not to bridge a gap but to close the breach.

To say something, to declare something to be true is an act. To write is an act.

I enjoy writing. I only bring myself to write rarely. Most of the time I spend suspended in midair somewhere between these two points. I’m scared that I won’t reach the other side, that I’ll plunge into the shameful depths below. In the words of Bernardo Soares again, I plumb myself and drop the plumb; I spend my life wondering if I’m deep or not. I’m terribly scared of exposing my depths of shame and of opening myself up to a toxic mix of indifference and ridicule. My natural style is to demolish what I’m saying in the act of saying it. I almost certainly do this when I speak. It might be something I have to address and to change. It might not.

There is a time and a place for not censoring myself when I speak.

One of the things I most admire about Fernando Pessoa is encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of the article? essay? reflection? I’ll come back to this.

All of the people I most admire are prolific in some way. They trust in what happens when they start to speak and to write.

Many people’s lives are made up of hesitations, pauses.

Others’ lives are made up of one long statement that encompasses many many other statements, some of which interrogate or explain earlier statements, and some of which contradict one another.

Then there is the question of dialogue; if one never speaks, never actually arrives at the point of articulating what appears at that moment to have the status of a truth, then one can never enter into a dialogue. This is self-evident.

Perhaps I have nothing whatsoever of depth or originality to offer, or, more likely, very little. Maybe my insights and reflections merely replicate those of others, but at a much less informed and thought-out level.

There is however a very strong argument for trying to articulate some sort of truth, and it comes from Paulo Freire:

‘Hopelessness and despair are both the consequence and the cause of inertia and immobilism’.

Here is another favourite quote, this time from Franz Kafka:

‘You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world; you are free to do so, and it accords with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.’

I love that dizzying rush of ideas, when I think I’m onto something. My instinct these days is  go online and to track down someone who’s already thought of the same thing, so as to evade my own responsibility to articulate whatever it is that’s occurred to me. This can be a frustrating experience, and it is always self-defeating in the fullest sense.

I used to link a great deal. Blogging taught me how very easy it is in the space of a few short minutes to sound like and expert on things you know very little about. Bombard people with links and their resistance to the sometimes suspect logic of your argument soon breaks down. I know that when I speak I have the bad habit of using too many names.

There’s a particular word I came across a few years ago, a name for a kind of essay that starts off on one topic and ends up via a series of diversions talking about something entirely different. It may be called a vagrant essay, or something like that. It was a popular form in the eighteenth century I believe. Anyway. That’s the kind of thing that I kind of sort of quite like to write. Enough of censoring myself. More soon.