What would the French moralists have to say about this bizarre desire to share everything – and rather than keep our unwanted manuscripts in the back of boxes inside drawers, publish them online. Some absurd hope that someone will stumble upon them, and find some gold in them?
A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.
From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.
Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .
An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.
The question remained since, haunting me. “I don’t believe in a single truth,” my father repeated, “but individual perspectives.” The sophistic position, hiding under a veil of humility. My cousin – a criminal barrister – put it more bluntly: “I can’t imagine how anybody would be presumptuous enough to become a judge.” Especially when defending people pays so well.
My ongoing commitment to writing has to do with a yearning after truth. But again, this is a blurry concept. There are truths about the past – historical explanations. These are notoriously difficult to reach. Sources are unreliable, memories change, we don’t have any foolproof model of causality, and our conclusions are likely to be incomplete. Yet we have a fascination for heroes of past truths, detectives or adventurers, Miss Marple and Indiana Jones.
Another type of truth is predictive. The voice of the prophets, Cassandra, retrospectively vindicated, or not. How much of it is self-fulfilling, and how to gain trust in time, here lies the debate.
Finally, there is effort at articulating truth about the present, clumsily trying to describe the world around us, uncover its patterns of causality, and – yes – make a judgement about the relative relevance of its various elements. Then, clumsily, try to cristallise it in words. Does that qualify as truth? And does this kind of truth have a history?
Since the beginning of this year, I have made a shift in my writing practice. I used to believe that I should block off moments to execute a piece – short story, novel, essay. Ideas would bubble up under pressure, a form emerge, and the writing come together. External deadlines would help, and I should set up a calendar based on competitions and calls for stories.
Now, I write a page every day, and publish it myself. I have no further goal. This is not ‘a project’. Projects involve a tension, an anxiety. I imagine a future state where the piece is complete. I sense the future piece. I draft it in my head. I make a plan. I know where I’m going before I even start. In this new daily practice, I am not tensing towards a future. I am present.
Projects entail scarcity. I set a goal. Reaching it requires something I miss. I establish what that is, and I labour to get it. Daily practice engenders abundance. From hollow spaces in my day, I breed new thoughts, new sentences, new writing. Over time, they grow, fall, mingle, form a rich humus, where new flowers bloom, fast, rare, beautiful.
This requires trust. Trust in the process. Something will come. Not if I simply stand still and wait. I have to move, even without a clear end point. I listen to my internal rhythm, I follow my inner compass. Then I look back, and I understand.
This requires flexibility. Halfway through journey, I can change, take a turn, step aside, or jump. It is acceptable. Over time, through this daily repetition, I change.
Since the beginning of this year, I have written a post every day, following the same process. I have a large notebook, and write a full page by hand. Then I type it into wordpress, editing as I go, publish, and circulate.
Speed is of the essence. Drafting takes about ten minutes, the whole process no more than thirty, short enough that the task allows regular commitment. Over time, posts accumulate, the notebook fills in, and patterns emerge, pet themes, structures and recurring concepts. I can hear myself think.
I enjoy the process of handwriting. Not only the sensual physicality of it. There is an irreversible quality to tracing lines over paper. I can strike, I can blot, but I can’t undo. Digital word processing is more elusive. On the page, I can feel the balance of the piece better, I am halfway through now, the end is in sight, I have to pivot.
In about ten minutes, over one page, I write about 250 words. If I rushed, I could probably double the rate. From a reader’s perspective, there is a tight connection between time and word count – a longer piece will take longer to read. For a writer, this is a very loose relationship. With practice, sketches become faster, sharper. Until suddenly, the flow stops on a word, or the closure of a paragraph. Minutes pass, nothing grows.
The words we write have a mysterious dimension. On the page, in front of me, they exist as a physical thing, a trace of ink over paper. If I close the notebook, they disappear. Their thin-as-thin third dimension vanishes. As I go back through my past notes, reading them in turn, they flatten. My segmented, daily pages become one continuous meditation, unidimensional.
Last week, I received a new book in the mail: Alex Ostervalder’s Value Proposition Design, a quasi A4-sized illustrated volume in landscape format. It attempts to provide organisations with tools to develop products and services that match customer demand. The book is divided in four colour-coded sections: canvas, design, test, evolve, and offers a series of graded activities to the reader.
Value Proposition Design explores an innovative model of blended publishing. A website offers extensions to the book, including an online test, printable blank canvases, and further exercises. The paper version originally combines text, images and diagrams, is clearly written, and quite an enjoyable read. It sold remarkably well too.
In spite of all these qualities, I doubt if Ostervalder would ever make it to the guest list of a Writers’ Festival. In cultural circles, business books are dirty. They hover halfway between noble writing and instruction manuals for vacuum cleaners.
My first job in Australia was with a strategy unit in government, and I’ve since done my bit of project management. I realised that the skills required in these ‘office jobs’ were exactly those I developed as a novelist. What is the precise sequence of steps required to take a set of characters from A to B? And what is the best way of conveying this information to a reader, so that they understand the complexities involved, both cognitively, and emotionally?
Whenever I enter a bookshop, I leaf through the pages of novels on the front shelf. Few capture the complexities of our contemporary world with such elegance as Ostervalder. Few pay such attention to form. Few shed such a clear light on our present context. Yet I keep returning to the fiction shelf with more reverence, excitement and anticipation than I do when I browse through the business section.
In the comment thread of a presentation on slideshare, I read the following: “Thank you Grainne. It is very interesting, but I need to know where it has been published? Conference, journal, etc? Many thanks.” This message was sent from an English University two years ago, and never received a reply.
Academic institutions impose a number of constraints on scholars. Career progress depends on published research, and the process of peer-assessment includes strict referencing guidelines. These and other requirements certainly constitute a hassle. They slow down the production and dissemination of knowledge. Yet this does not suffice to make them evil. Setting structures to moderate haste may count as a form of wisdom.
More concerning is academics representing these arbitrary constraints as absolute. Not ‘I would like to acknowledge your work, make you part of the conversation, and for that, I need to gather the details required by the process.’ Just – ‘I need to know’.
Yesterday, I was talking with two colleagues about a potential joint project, which involved practical applications. The conversation then lingered on publication opportunities in a peer-reviewed paper – ‘it’s part of what we’re supposed to do’, said a colleague. ‘It’s not part of my KPIs’, I replied. ‘I’m not in a tenure track, nor am I interested in one. I don’t have to do it.’
We live surrounded by many demands, most of them conditional, but presented as absolute and universal. Let’s clarify the difference, always. Articulating a clear if-then may be the first step on our path to freedom.
Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:
‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.
What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’
Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.
This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.
Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.
With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.
Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.
Today, I’m running a poetry translation workshop at Monash University, preparing for a special event at Montsalvat Open Day next week. We’re going to translate pomes by Katie Key’s @tinylittlepoems, written during her stay in Beijing, known as ‘the Beijing series’
We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport
I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem
Two days ago, my partner sent me the link to a poem by Koraly Dimitriadis, Greek-Australian writer and performer, called ‘Open Letter to Melbourne Unesco City of Literature‘. The poem throws flame at Melbourne literary institutions – festivals, magazines – denouncing their whiteness in direct, explicit ways – and expresses the rage of the poet for having to stay outside the door.
Oddly, this piece resonated very strongly with me. I wouldn’t have expected it to. I’ve been trained in French formalism, the raw emotional style jars with my classical taste, and I find its direct name-throwing discourteous. Yet I was very moved.
I’ve been invited to many of the forums and events Koraly denounces, disproving their exclusive anglo-ness, or non-queer friendliness. I never felt I was in as a ‘token foreigner’, and witnessed real commitment to diversity from the organisers, many of them women. Maybe I’m just nice and naïve – or maybe there was, indeed, genuine desire for more diversity.
Yet in all these instances, I also felt a great solitude, as one of the very few migrants, foreigners, non-native English speakers, among panelists and audience. I never quite know what these figures mean, but I read that in Greater Melbourne, 25 to 30% of people speak a language other than English at home. This is certainly not the soundscape I encountered at any literary forum in Melbourne. But then, literary forums are not home. Except if English is your native tongue, it will certainly feel closer.
I do notice a gap between a discourse putting forward cultural and linguistic diversity – aspirations to be some international city of literature, even – or in other circles, a part of Asia – and the domination of anglo-american authors and references in our literary life. It’s embarrassing, at a literary event, when you never heard of such American author, and the person you’re talking with has never heard of such Italian collective you love, or some Shanghai-based blogger. But it’s happened to me so much now, that I sometimes avoid talking about literature altogether – or when I feel provocative, I just say: ‘I don’t really read English-language books much’. It’s a great conversation killer.
Still, it’s a tough game: it’s hard enough to lead a reasonable conversation within one’s own tradition – trying to bridge aesthetic and ethical gaps may be beyond what audience or readership can accept. I’m not sure rage is the most appropriate way to deal with this, but I believe we should be very aware of issues Koraly raises. If I wasn’t invited, maybe I would feel that same rage. And as a semi-white writer myself – for better or worse, I felt good after reading this piece.