Why I Write II
28 March 2018
Joan Didion’s autobiographical note did not appeal to me in the same way that George Orwell’s did, but then, I was born on the same side of the Atlantic as Orwell, and yes, that does make a difference. So much in Orwell is familiar, so much in Didion is alien.
For Didion, Why I Write (borrowed from George Orwell) is composed of three short words, each of them emphasizing the first person singular I + I + I. She sees writing as an ‘aggressive, even a hostile act’ in which she, as writer, imposes herself on other people (her readers) saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’. From this idea of imposition springs the second idea of the ‘aggressive, hostile act’. This, in some ways, can be seen as a sort of combination of Orwell’s first, third, and fourth points (1) sheer egoism; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose with possibly the first dominating.
That said, I like the idea Didion presents of ‘pictures in the mind’. She carries these pictures with her and then writes from them. She writes from the physical, the tangible, the ‘taste of rancid butter’, the ‘tinted windows on the bus’, the concrete nature of these things and her desire to describe them as accurately as possible, led her to discover herself as a writer.
When I apply her descriptions to my own writing, I gaze at my own memories of my childhood. They are like photographs, still, black-and-white photographs, like those we used to see when I was a child at the entrance to movie theaters. The skill for me in writing is to allow these pictures to spring back into life. Much of my writing, especially my stories about Spain, Mexico, or Wales, is autobiographical in its beginnings. However, as the pictures move and speak they tell me things and I write them down. What starts out as a story is very rarely the story that ends up on the page. A metamorphosis takes place. Words slip and shift and change their shapes and meanings according to the whims of characters and the situations in which they find themselves. In the beginning was the picture: that, I guess, is what Didion and I hold in common. But my writing is not her writing, and her pictures are not my photos, how could they be?
Interesting in my own original photos is the lack of sound, the lack of movement, the lack of taste and touch. First the figures are stiff and stolid. When I study them, they shift and move, and next they begin to speak. Alas, what they tell me when they speak to me in the shiftless shadows of my dreams at night is not necessarily what they lazily lisp in the full sun of my waking mind. A long time ago, I struggled to recall the exactness of that dream world and I tried to pummel the words and thoughts on my mind’s anvil and to hammer them into shape aided by the heat of my seemingly inexhaustible creative energy. Now I am more relaxed: I just listen to the daylight voices and allow them to shape themselves and their situations in their own way.
When I do this, background sounds and the tell-tale smells of time and place slip slowly in. Boarding school: the unforgettable stench of burned porridge. My auntie’s house: the whir of the cuckoo clock as it coiled itself up in preparation for the little bird to whip out and enchant the hours. My grandfather’s grandfather clock: the metallic lightness of the clock hands as I adjusted the minutes and the hours when the clock ran down and I sensed the tautness in the piano wires as I turned the key and wound the heavy brass pendulums back into their starting positions. My grandmother’s house: the bubble of water boiling on the hob, the warmth of constantly brewed tea, strong as a farrier’s horse and quite undrinkable without the second, third, or fourth watering and, of course, always the smell of boiled white fish cooling for the cats’ supper.
My best writing comes from deep inside myself. I find it in the midnight coal mine of my mind where ghost-like figures drift and roam as they seek that special person, the one who will drag them to the surface and bring them back to life. Poor, pale, thin imitations of a reality that never was, I do my best to revive them. Often, my best is just not good enough and I must cast them away and drop them back into the depths to ghost away and prepare themselves for another day when perhaps, they and I will each be ready to deceive each other.