On truth

as

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?

On dailiness

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.

On the dimensions of writing

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.

On business books

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.

On conditional and absolute needs

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.

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

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.

 

The Beijing Series

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’

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 6 sept.

We are just passing through. With our mouths full of words. With our sleeplessness keeping us dumb. #tinylittlepoem from Hong Kong airport

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 7 sept.

I am not brilliant white. I am fumbled, tongue tied & lost in translation. I make songs with the sounds of my words. a #tinylittlepoem

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 8 sept.

Our fragile devices, these pieces of glass, the fingerprints left of ourselves. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 9 sept.

Childless, I am less than woman here – the shapes I make. Homeless, in the absence of my lines. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 10 sept.

Dragon-bourne and read, a two-forked tongue, a way with words. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 11 sept.

I am stuttered. The words come out on the page, not the world, & nobody hears them but me. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 12 sept.

The way the trees hold tight to the smoke haze, greying the avenues, softening the skies. a #tinylittlepoem from @mpoloproject in Beijing

Katie Keys : poet @tinylittlepoems · 13 sept.

A question of water, of art and of air – a question of who we might be. a #tinylittlepoem from China for the @mpoloproject

On reading a poem about Melbourne, Unesco City of Literature

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.

De l’audace, toujours de l’audace: on creative work and risk

‘De l’audace, toujours de l’audace’ said French revolutionary Danton. His statue figures at the Odeon corner, not far from where I studied in Paris, and I often repeated his words to myself as I passed it. It’s one French trait I have carried with me to Australia, and I have tried to reflect on this part of my heritage.

I recently joined a reflective dinner at Hub Melbourne, where the conversation skimmed over the usual topic of corporate drain vs unpaid creative work, and how to reconcile both. I proposed a different interpretation of the facts, saying that creative work is not ‘underpaid’, but carries a very high level of risk. I was apparently the only one to really believe in that line – and yet I had some evidence to support me. The richest woman in Britain, as far as I know, made her money writing Harry Potter. She took a risk – and won. Many writers fail and remain poor, not because the world ignores their value, not even because they dramatically lack talent – but through the multitude of factors that make any risky venture succeed or fail, and which the classics called luck or fortune. Making large amounts of money from a book, a work of art, or any creative production, is partly talent, partly hardwork, partly good judgement, and partly simple fortune – like making good money from a cycle of the spice trade, on a rough sea.

The point I’m making here does not deny that there may be multiple cases of exploitation, whereby a publishing or producing body absorbs most of the benefits and transfers all risk to the creative agent, but doesn’t share benefits in the same proportion, or keeps them willingly misinformed about the nature of the agreement. More should be said about a fair distribution of risk and benefits across actors in the creative industries – but I believe the inherent risky nature of creative work is a premise that all discussions in this area should integrate. And the recurring ‘pay the writer’ issue could be reframed, at least partly, within the framework of insurance and mutual (financial and personal) risk sharing across the profession.

This is an ongoing theme of reflection for me, and I’ll be coming back to it in further posts – meanwhile, please feel free to comment or disagree – I’m putting this forward as a proposal – it may be quite off the mark.

Fiction-guilt – in defence of TV shows

‘Glee is my guilty pleasure’. A dear friend of mine recently wrote this on a racing facebook comment trail about a new website called ‘help me write’. And I side-tracked into a line of thought I’d like to share here.

I’ve heard the feeling often: watching TV series is associated with feelings of guilt – whether it’s Glee, Gossip Girl, True Blood, Dexter, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, or ealier Friends, Buffy, 90210… watching the lives of imaginary characters and their complex evolutions is experienced as guilt. As if this was a worthless use of our time, as if there was ‘better to do’ than engage with fiction. Or maybe we should read, hey?

Then I realised, this is not new rhetoric – except it once applied to novels. Jane Austen denounces it in Northanger Abbey – others do too. Novels should be taken seriously: they’re a school for emotional intelligence, and they make us happy. So do TV series: they explore moral dilemmas, take us to imaginary worlds, relieve boredom, and make us think. What is there not to like? Sure, they might take us away from ‘productive pursuits’ – but then should our lives be devoted entirely to productive pursuits?

I would like, more precisely, to think about the role of fiction – imaginary worlds and crafted imaginary situations where imaginary characters make ethical decisions. I think in a future post, that’s what I’ll do – for the moment, I shall leave this reflection here.