Jeff Wall, A Sudden Gust Of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb.
And so a week, blurred and broken by some virus or other, slips away in birdsong-strewn silence, in a few new pages of novel. It’s good to be back, fitted into the world again.
Meantime, I’ve followed an impulse to reread Tender Is The Night, for pleasure, of course, and because it’s been so long since my first reading and because Fitzgerald seems maybe not the presence he was, outside of Gatsby, and I wondered what he had to tell me now, in this moment. I will write up my thoughts soon, and will get back to a decent posting schedule.
One of the things that struck me is how much it is imbricated in psychoanalysis and its Jamesian drama of the graduation from innocence to adulthood is to do with returning past histories and realising the nature of the double bind, the violence or hatred sublated in loving relationships. All very Freudian, and there seems to be a lot of that about at the moment. I’ve been enjoying some myself, partly through Showtimes’s brilliant Couples Therapy and mostly through reading of Adam Phillips’ books. I read The Beast In The Nursery, which I thought wonderful, and in which Phillips quotes from a Paris Review interview with Ted Hughes. It really resonated with me as someone who writes everything longhand. This really slows me down but it feels like the only real writing to me, physical, biological, tactile. Here’s Hughes’s theory:
What tools do you require?
Just a pen.
Just a pen? You write longhand?
I made an interesting discovery about myself when I first worked for a film company. I had to write brief summaries of novels and plays to give the directors some idea of their film potential—a page or so of prose about each book or play and then my comment. That was where I began to write for the first time directly onto a typewriter. I was then about twenty-five. I realized instantly that when I composed directly onto the typewriter my sentences became three times as long, much longer. My subordinate clauses flowered and multiplied and ramified away down the length of the page, all much more eloquently than anything I would have written by hand. Recently I made another similar discovery. For about thirty years I’ve been on the judging panel of the W. H. Smith children’s writing competition. Annually there are about sixty thousand entries. These are cut down to about eight hundred. Among these our panel finds seventy prizewinners. Usually the entries are a page, two pages, three pages. That’s been the norm. Just a poem or a bit of prose, a little longer. But in the early 1980s we suddenly began to get seventy- and eighty-page works. These were usually space fiction, always very inventive and always extraordinarily fluent—a definite impression of a command of words and prose, but without exception strangely boring. It was almost impossible to read them through. After two or three years, as these became more numerous, we realized that this was a new thing. So we inquired. It turned out that these were pieces that children had composed on word processors. What’s happening is that as the actual tools for getting words onto the page become more flexible and externalized, the writer can get down almost every thought or every extension of thought. That ought to be an advantage. But in fact, in all these cases, it just extends everything slightly too much. Every sentence is too long. Everything is taken a bit too far, too attenuated. There’s always a bit too much there, and it’s too thin. Whereas when writing by hand you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it when you couldn’t write at all . . . when you were making attempts, pretending to form letters. These ancient feelings are there, wanting to be expressed. When you sit with your pen, every year of your life is right there, wired into the communication between your brain and your writing hand. There is a natural characteristic resistance that produces a certain kind of result analogous to your actual handwriting. As you force your expression against that built-in resistance, things become automatically more compressed, more summary and, perhaps, psychologically denser. I suppose if you use a word processor and deliberately prune everything back, alert to the tendencies, it should be possible to get the best of both worlds.
Maybe what I’m saying applies only to those who have gone through the long conditioning of writing only with a pen or pencil up through their mid-twenties. For those who start early on a typewriter or, these days, on a computer screen, things must be different. The wiring must be different. In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas. Perhaps that’s what I am talking about.
The ‘word processors are making people write badly’ idea was prevalent in literary conversation in the nineties and has no relevance now among the digital natives. I grew up writing everything, including my university essays, by hand and I very much recognise the sense of having one’s whole being gathered at the desk, focussed down to the pen’s point. There’s something here of Les Murray’s description of poems:
our daylight and dreaming mind, our
emotions, instinct, breath and native gesture
into the only whole thinking.
Worthwhile Attention Seeking
I watched a couple of excellent conversations with Adam Phillips too. These are very suggestive and interesting, worth watching a couple of times I think.
This one is from The LRB Bookshop with Devorah Baum:
And this is in Paris with Alice McCrum, just a couple of weeks ago:
Youtube Treasure #11
Ivo Pogorelich: when he’s good, he’s the best.
I think I’m going to save this for next time so as to have a whole month of weather words precipitating all at once.
More soon, sooner, I promise.
It’s so interesting reading what Ted Hughes had to say about writing, thank you. As a teacher of younger children, I really see the physical battle of writing every day - and share in it - either writing on a large paper flip with them, or on a page under a visualiser, as well as in their books when I mark. Children still write with pen and pencil at school. When they have finished, they have made something on a page that is very personal to them: their handwriting, crossings out, ink blotches etc The writing books themselves express each child: some creased and dog-eared, some somehow kept pristine, some with rule-busting doodles on by their names on the cover. None of this would be apparent if we went digital.