THE DESERT ISLAND QUESTION (3)

Montaigne also wrote:

I hear some people apologise for their inability to express themselves, and pretend to have their heads full of good things which they cannot bring out through lack of eloquence. This is a delusion…these are shadows cast upon their mind by some half-shaped ideas which they cannot disentangle and clear up inwardly, and therefore are unable to express outwardly; they do not yet understand themselves.

Best keep your mouth firmly closed until you know what you are talking about, then. But it’s not always that easy.

I always seem to be three steps behind in conversation. Even if I have a bright idea, by the time I’ve found a gap everyone’s moved on and my solitary insight is greeted more often than not by an irritable silence. And then everyone starts talking at once, as if they may just have heard Tinkerbell tinkling – or was it a gnat? Writing is better for me. No need to keep up, no need to compete. Once I have written something down its flaws jump up at me from the page. I can then rewrite it and no one will know whether it took one draft to get it right, or fifteen.

Many, maybe all, writers write because they are damaged. Some deep wound in the centre of them, the psychic equivalent of our Desert Island’s hypothetical ravine, is in the process of growing its own bridges; patiently, laboriously, stitching itself back together with words. Papermice, I call them, and imagine them, way past the witching hour, dipping their little feet into poisoned ink and, in agony, dancing upon the paper. Papermice do not so much need readers as time, and to be left in peace.

And then there are the rest of us: confused, mediocre, neither craftsmen nor artists but unholy hybrids flip-flopping between wanting money and adulation and needing to express ourselves. We love words, but the bills needs paying. We would rather like to be published but just can’t quite bring ourselves to switch to soft porn, How To manuals and romances set on ranches in Texas.

By the way, if you haven’t yet read Stephen King’s On Writing there’s a lovely passage in which he describes a time when he and his wife were out with their baby daughter, who had an ear infection and was feverish. They knew what would cure it, liquid amoxycillin or The Pink Stuff, but at the time they had no money to buy it. By the time they got home the child was burning up against his chest. Stuck through the door of their apartment they found an envelope containing a cheque for $500 for a story he had written, which meant they were able to pay for a doctor’s visit, a bottle of The Pink Stuff and one decent meal.

It’s no use pretending that money isn’t important. Unless you are lucky enough to have private means or live on a desert island you must earn money, if not from your ‘art’ in its pure form then by prostituting and diluting it; or in some completely unrelated profession which means having little time or energy to spare. In an ideal society the Government would pay poets, writers, musicians and artists some kind of grant, but no point holding your breath. The idea of some glorious El Dorado to be attained through writing still haunts me at times. It’s hard to rid myself of the illusion that my scribbles are destined to be my salvation. I cling to this with some tenacity, having no other talents, bankable or otherwise, and no other inclinations either.

All my working life I’ve taken any job anyone was misguided enough give me and honestly did my best to live up to everyone’s expectations, if only because it was so humiliating when I couldn’t. But writing always tripped me up sooner or later. Either the job suppressed completely my ability to write, or it left me no time to write, or writing – having that sadly specialised kind of personality – interfered with my ability to do the work. Daydreaming/ wool-gathering/ creative visualisation – whatever you like to call it – doesn’t get you through a pile of word-processing or equip you to deal with a call from a stroppy client, and it positively disadvantages you when it comes to negotiating the white-water rapids of office politics.

Writing is possession – maybe demonic, maybe angelic – and when your angel or demon feels thwarted he either strikes you dumb or spills out of your mouth a stream of weird words, wild imagery and confabulation, neatly bypassing all those translation protocols it took you a lifetime to construct. Writing isn’t something you do, or even something you are, it’s something that is you. It’s a disability, in this particular version of reality, but there are other worlds. You already know your way around them, and in them you have wings.

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