WRITING AND PATIENCE
I DON’T KNOW about yours, but my writing desk is a treacherous, superstitious, magical and humbling place. I don’t know about your writing, from the point view of your desk; I can tell you about the writing of Patience, from the point of view of mine.
I made the first note of an idea on March 5th 2007. (I can’t remember whether or not I was sitting at my desk.) I had recently seen a photography exhibition, a retrospective of work by Timm Rautert, in Leipzig. A couple of the photographs moved me a great deal. They were from a series, ‘The Children of Ward Block 5, 1974’.
One in particular showed a group of children, all very separate from one another, on a long corridor.
What I wrote was, at first, an entry into this space.
Kurt was staring through his wardrobe, making noises that meant ships were about to land on the shore of his land – which he and only he could see when staring through the blank wooden side of his wardrobe. That was Kurt and it was a good idea not to mock his obsession, for if you did he would try to bite through your neck until your head fell off and rolled down the corridor, because it was on a slight gradient, towards one of the punishers-who-waited. They waited and we waited too, but in a different way. Often some of us, the ones with spines to one side, were strapped to our favourite chairs all day long. Of course because of who we are we do-not-did-not get to choose our favourite chairs. It is lucky for us that the punishers-who-unexpectedly-descend know us better than we know ourselves. We have dreams of outside; exchanging reports on its peculiarities… The summer was hot without the windows open so our noises, which many would take for screams of escape, could not be heard by the decent. Often, we shat our pants and were left in it as a punishment not to shit our pants because, if we do, we will be left in it as a punishment for shitting our pants. This, we understand quite clearly. The feet of the punishers-who-are-kind can be heard arriving like panicked birds, which is the cry that goes up from us in response. We car-car-car-car, and are told stop. Always whatever we are doing we are told stop. If you are sitting strapped into a chair, your favourite, how can you stop doing that if that is all you are doing and all you have been doing since morning. So, we decided that together we would visit Kurt’s land for an adventure and because it would make Kurt go mad enough to shit himself and so be punished, which we wanted to see. At night, we lined up and told each other what grunted tales we could… We look from the higher windows towards the playground where, dependent on their handicaps, footballers try to arrange fair sides but always disagree because someone must lose.
This voice – much less cruel, much more in love with the world and the people in it – would become Elliott, the main character and narrator of the completed novel Patience. Elliott has cerebral palsy and can only move his right hand, very slightly.
I wrote these pages, then I put them aside. I only began writing the novel with something like full attention in December 2016. Before this, between 2007 and 2016, I’d had many failed goes. I had told myself, again and again, not to write it. That I couldn’t write it. That I shouldn’t write it. Even when it got moving, there were long gaps between drafts. I finished the novel in Spring 2017. I revised it in January 2018, during my Hawthornden Fellowship. I didn’t look at it again until I went back to the proofs in January 2019. That’s about twelve years between having the first idea and finishing the book.
This is as patient as I get.
A GREAT DEAL of industry goes into demystifying writing. Twitter is full of wordcounts and exhortations. Writing is called a ‘routine’ or a ‘process’.
I do a lot of demystification, when I’m teaching Creative Writing. And I’m not intending to undo this now, to re-mystify writing for mystification’s sake. But, when I think about it away from the workshop, away from being a tutor, I see there is vast amount of mystery around and within writing, and how writing happens, and how writing happens when it happens at its highest levels. (I believe there are levels.)
Most of the time, it wouldn’t do any good – wouldn’t do you any good – to speak of writing as a mystery or a magic. That might situate Writers, capital W, within an ivory tower within an inner circle, then give you no clue how to enter the circle, and no key to the slippery white building. And writing is absolutely not a high thing. It’s in no way about being above or removed, it’s about being within – as far within as you can go, travelling via language.
However, writing itself – the moment of writing – is mysterious. And when it starts to turn out better than ever seemed possible, there is something more than unlikely or surprising about that.
There is something for which the word magic – with all its embarrassing associations – seems to be the best fit. Because when the writing is going brilliantly, the writer alone at her desk isn’t alone at her desk. The writer is able to write with more than her own individual powers. What she can bring to bear on the point of her pencil or pen, or the pixels on her laptop, is a language (or more than one language), is a lineage (or more than one lineage), is a culture (or more than one culture). The writer can write with the help of the whole world.
But this help is extremely fitful for a writer who hasn’t written a great deal beforehand. By fitful, I mean, this magic assistance may happen to her for a couple of sentences per season – a paragraph a year. Almost, but not quite, by accident.
The way I developed, during the years I was trying to get good as a writer (or, to stop being actively bad as a writer) was something like this: I would write lots of poems or paragraphs that had nothing about them, and then something would come along that was on a different level.
I could give you details of these mini-epochs or uplifts in my own writing history, quote a poem or some lines, but it wouldn’t mean anything to you. They were private breakthroughs. What I want to talk about is what happened after them, each time – which is that I wasn’t immediately a better writer who always wrote on that higher level. (I hope this is reassuring to you.) I wasn’t generally better, I was, instead, a confused and disappointed writer who didn’t understand why I couldn’t just continue writing on that higher level. Instead of being immediately better, I was frequently worse – because I overstrained to get back to where I’d reached. It would usually take me a couple of years to catch up with myself. This seems to be the rhythm of my development: struggle, outdo, struggle, outdo, struggle, outdo. But for every single time I say outdo, I should say struggle many more times.
When I am starting to run a new writing workshop, I say two things:
There are no short cuts and There are no wasted hours.
There are no short cuts because you have to go through everything you have to go through, in order to get better. You cannot bring the moments of outdoing yourself on any faster by trying to cut out stages in-between. You have to walk every step. You can’t fly. You can’t get an uber. You have to walk. And it’s up-hill all the way.
There are no wasted hours because when you put in the effort of reading, re-reading, writing and rewriting, it benefits you eventually. What’s confusing is, it may not benefit you immediately or in a way that you ever understand. If you struggle and struggle, and fail and fail, trying to write this particular thing over here, again and again, you will – one day – be able to write that thing over there if not easily then with a certain authority. And sometimes the new story will come so easily it’s as if it had already been written, and all you had to do is transcribe it. Don’t ask me why. It’s a mystery.
I’m Not There
One thing is certain. Watching yourself writing is not the way to write well. Being present yourself – as the socially aspirant you who is reading the socially aspirant me – being present in the moment of writing as your social self will harm the writing. The best writing happens when you are self-absent.
And yes, it is a paradox that the most personal expression happens when your attempt is not to express what you want to express but when you get yourself out of the way and let the writing say what the writing itself seems to want to say.
This may be simply a way of expressing how you deal with your unconscious. Your unconscious, remember, is not your subconscious – with which you have some parley. Your unconscious is uncontactable. It exists incommunicado.
Your unconscious doesn’t speak to you, although it acts through you. It never speaks directly, but it does sometimes, I think, let the subconscious overhear it speaking to itself.
Things – words, experiences – need to have gone deeply in to you for them to come out in a way that is resonant. For this, there are no short cuts. You can fake it, but it will remain fake – detectable in a moment. There’s no hurrying this introduction of stuff to the deep. And there’s no controlling it. You can’t say to yourself, ‘I’d like to have this obsession.’ You can affect it. You can magically think it. But your obsessions were formed before you were an adult.
I will tell you about one of my obsessions, because it is relevant to Patience, and because it may help you think about your own obsessions. This is not the origin of the obsession, but it’s what I look back on as an originary moment. I was at a wedding. The first wedding I’d ever attended. I was eight or nine years old. A church wedding. In the churchyard was a high stone wall. It went up and over a doorway. After drinking as many Britvik miniatures as I could, during the wedding reception, I escaped outside into the sun, and set myself the task of getting up onto the wall and climbing over the little humped bridge of it, and I fell off. I fell on my back. I snapped my spine. For minutes, I couldn’t move, and for hours, I couldn’t breathe. I looked up through the branches of the tree at the white sky and waited to die. Because I knew I was dead. But I didn’t die. I took a difficult breath. I was winded. It turned out I’d been something called ‘winded’. But I didn’t know at the time that’s what was happening. Instead I knew, for certain, that I would never take another breath. My body could no longer fight its way through to the air all around me. And after I breathed, I moved. I succeeded in moving my hands in a controlled way. And then my legs. My spine wasn’t snapped. I’d been winded. I’d had a fall. Sit up. Get your breath back, lad. You’ll be fine in a moment.
In a moment.
In many ways, I am still there – in that moment. The moment I lay suffocating to death, paralysed. The moment before I died. I want to emphasize: it wasn’t the moment I thought I was suffocating, thought I was paralysed, because during that moment – which still continues – it was the whole truth. I was just dying. I would never breathe. I would never move.
As I consciously understand myself, this is the origin of my obsession with suffocation and paralysis. But who knows, it may have been the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck in the womb, or whilst I was being born, or something later, some obscure realisation of death.
I have written many times about being paralysed, directly and indirectly. In deadkidsongs, to cite one example, I gave a character called Paul a scene of falling out of a tree, being winded and thinking he’s dying.
Paralysis is in every line of Patience. It’s there all the way through – all the time.
Werner Herzog is one of my few living artistic idols. In his ‘Minnesota Declaration’, he wrote about the difference between facts and ecstatic truth:
4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.
5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
Herzog has said elsewhere –
A. If we are paying attention about facts, we end up as accountants. If you find out that yes, here or there, a fact has been modified or has been imagined, it will be a triumph of the accountants to tell me so. But we are into illumination for the sake of a deeper truth, for an ecstasy of truth, for something we can experience once in a while in great literature and great cinema. I’m imagining and staging and using my fantasies. Only that will illuminate us. Otherwise, if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate. (‘Werner Herzog Is Still Breaking the Rules’, interview by Mekado Murphy, The New York Times, JULY 1, 2007)
This is Herzog’s definition of the difference between truth and ecstatic truth: the latter is revelation rather than realisation, magic rather than the mundane.
The etymology of ecstasy is ‘outside standing’ – ek-stasis, from the Greek – standing outside oneself, standing outside the something that was oneself and may become oneself again, standing outside being, standing outside time.
Heidegger establishes in Being and Time how da-sein, how you (in other words), is a time-being. A being thrown into time, towards death. In order to write ec-statically, standing outside social time, you need to cease existing within a concensus version of temporality. (Heidegger calls this concensus Das Man.) You need to stop being the time-being you usually represent yourself as being. How is this possible? In the performing musician’s case, through greater involvement with the grain of the sound of their instrument, with the space they’re in, with the moment they’re in, with the other musicians they’re playing with. In the writer’s case, through language. You’re not principally being a being when you’re becoming a sentence. Of course you’re still physically there in the room, as someone who would answer to your name if someone shouted it, and you’re present as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and oxygen atoms, but as much of you as possible – in terms of consciousness – has absented itself into pure concentration upon the object you’re attempting to make, or that – magically – seems to be attempting to make itself. This is why composing musicians speak of themselves not writing the song but being there – luckily – to overhear the song that was already there in the air.
One way of looking at this is as the kind of self-deluded nonsense artists come out with; another is as a ruthless ascetic practice of self-absencing at the moment of art-creation.
This blog is excerpted from a lecture Toby Litt gave to students on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA and MFA.
The full version of his ‘Secret Lecture’ is available on Toby’s website: https://tobylitt.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/the-secret-lecture/
To pre-order a limited edition of Patience, head here.