Unknown – National Archives of Norway
In the first part of this mini-series I explored something of how reading can connect us into earlier writers, who may well be making their own contribution to a conversation that has been going on for a while. In this second and concluding part I want to consider how we can make use of that in our own writing or creative practice. (Again, I’m writing about writing, because that’s what I know: you can cross out ‘writing’ and put in ‘my practice”.)
One recent example I came across was W E Gordon’s collection of poems The Shining Path, which he read from at last year’s Catalyst Festival. The poem Taking Leave begins:
‘Less than halfway through
my tempestuous life I awoke
to find myself far off the beaten track…
I was all alone …
I quickly lost my bearings
and wandered into a
forest so strange and dark …’
Does that sound familiar? Yup, we have an echo of the opening stanza of Dante’s Divine Comedy (here in the Sean O’Brien translation):
‘Once, halfway through the journey of our life,
I found myself inside a shadowy wood,
Because the proper road had disappeared.’
When Bill Gordon wrote his poem was he just wanting to increase his quotation score, or wanting us to think he’s a brainy kind of guy because he’s read Dante? No, he’s using that phrasing to tell us something about what he is writing. Dante narrates a journey from earth, through Hell, up Mount Purgatory and then up into Heaven: a spiritual journey which confronts sin and redemption. As you read on in The Shining Path you find that this is also a spiritual journey: he is not simply bolting Dante on, but joining the conversation to speak of his own experience of spiritual crisis.
The power of a conversation of this sort is that just a few words can conjure a mood, an event or an entire story which we read alongside, with and under the actual words on the page. (If you are a particular sort of academic reader you will find all this talk of authorial intent either distressing, passé or hopelessly naive: do I care? I do not.)
Of course, like any artistic strategy, there’ll be people to object (some people wondered why Dante was writing in Italian, instead of using Latin, like all good poets before him). The main objection to this conversational approach to reading and writing is that your reader (viewer, audience) may not be familiar with the work you are referencing? Surely if you put all this clever clogs stuff in then you are just being elitist?
No, we are not being elitist (although we might be being a bit difficult – and why should everything in life be simple?) Do you really want every book to be at a Janet and John level? (That’s Biff, Chip and the magic key for younger generations.) Should every film be like Transformers or a rote recitation of Campbell’s hero’s journey? By no means.
Think of it like visiting a really good garden. If it’s done right you should be able to go in and enjoy it, without knowing the name of any of the plants, or their preferred habitats (the kids will enjoy balancing on the edge of the pond, and they know zero about gardening). But if you know a little bit about plants and garden design you’ll get a bit of a kick from identifying hostas (we’re reaching my limit here) and understanding how the gardener has selected and deployed plants to get a certain effect. Knowing a bit more enables you to get more out of it.
There is, though, a more hidden danger: you can stuff your work so full of allusions, hints and nudges that it becomes a rag-bag of fragments and no complete THING emerges. There are so many parts, shooting off in so many directions, that none of these conversation partners can get a word in (that for me is a subset of the writing problem labelled ‘too many ideas’: that is perhaps worth an explore in another post).
So what to do? It’s easy really: find out who are your conversation partners. Odds are, they will be the writers you read and respect. Writers who speak to you, who make you want to speak. The writer who stops you short with wonder, revelation and insight, who brings you joy (and also the sense of despair embedded in ‘I’ll never be able to write like that’). Also, don’t limit yourself to artists in your own discipline: there’s no reason a writer shouldn’t speak with a composer. (And don’t listen to the ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ crowd, they probably don’t understand dancing or architecture: trust me, dancing about architecture would be a brilliant thing to do.)
Once you’ve found out who your conversation partners are, talk to them.