Thursday, 5 September 2013

On the Probable Futility of Keeping Your Self out of Your Writing Picure

As you may know, I recently read Al Alvarez' The Writer's Voice. As with all good books about writing, it threw up many questions about the self, the world and the word, but the thing that really made me think was biography. People are absolutely mad for, and will voraciously consume, biographical detail about authors; trying to pry into their lives, either to unlock something within their texts (as in the study of Literature), or just because they're nosy.

This is unappealing to me. And not because of some lame 'privacy violation'. What bothers me is the focus it takes away from the work itself, either in the sense that people would rather read something else about you, as opposed to from you, or in the sense that such information can bend and warp meaning in your work. At a recent wine tasting (no, I'm not a Tory, I was working), a customer expressed her disappointment at the prices of the wines being listed on the sheet. This extra context, for her, meant that she couldn't enjoy the wines for their intrinsic merits, and instead could only make relative judgements such as 'it's not worth the money', for example. It's not a big leap from that to writing, I feel. I want my work to be 'waterproof', to stand fully alone and be (hopefully) enjoyed for what it is, rather than let it leak in 'real' bits of my life that will obscure its inherent message.

As usual, though, there are many problems here, some of which I have hypocritically blundered through in my post here. The first one is all the detail I've already revealed about myself (that I work at wine tasting, for example). I could have taken it out, but not only is that 'how the post came to be', it also sets up a (rather poor) 'joke' about Tory poshness. So it stays. Even at the risk of revealing certain political allegiances... The second problem comes in terminology - what did I mean by "'real' bits of my life"? I was literally meaning 'true revelations', rather than the fake ones I sometimes put in for humour/other effect. But does the way I phrased that not suggest that the act of writing inherently involves putting bits of your life in? I'd say so. As David Shield says in Reality Hunger, "...all writing is autobiography: everything... including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it" which puts it nicely. And even if it is a made up life, is the author not living it on some imaginative level? Maybe I'm getting too metaphysical here, but I do want to stress the difficulties of writing and not revealing things in your life - that's where most inspiration comes from right? Think Plath's Bell Jar, Larkin's High Windows or Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata', as a pitifully small sample.

What are the options anyway? I've thought about deleting profile pages (or maybe inventing deceptive ones) and, in the unlikely event I'm ever published again, keeping my author profile as 'Martin Palmer is'. This might come across as arrogant and, to prospective employers/collaborators, unprofessional, but that's a personal sacrifice made for the work. I remember someone saying to me about my profile in Edge Hill's Question Mark vol 2, "You've not said a lot about yourself, look at everyone else's!" Well, I think perhaps I put too much ("Martin is a third year student of English and Creative Writing. Predominantly a scriptwriter, he also enjoys creating fiction, poetry and life writing."). So yeah, there's either abstaining from, or messing with, the profile. The former will make you mysterious and not-quite-there, but the latter, whilst meaning you'd have to perform a little on the level of a clown/jester, still runs the risk of tainting your work. And the things people read into it would be stranger, so I don't think that's an efficient strategy, as amusing as it might have been to list my occupation as 'Moonraker' or some such... thing... I don't know.

Another option could be the pen name, but my initial knee-jerk reaction to that is that it's my work, I want my name on it (complete with fist-banging-table motion). There's also an increased administerial duty here which, being a lazy sod, doesn't appeal. The benefits, though, would include a fresh biographical start. I wouldn't want to invent a new one, like Ern Malley or Rene Van Valckenborch because I wouldn't be writing as a new persona. I'd still be me, but no-one would know and therefore the work would stand or fall on its own worth, as opposed to some contextual consideration. Worth looking into for future projects... Need to come up with a better name than Nitram Remlap though...

Really, this is not the best medium to be judging myself on in terms of biographical detail. It's a blog, and this post is a personal essay - of sorts - and thus more susceptible to me 'being in it'. Also, it's not 'art' or literature, so the motivation for me to keep myself out isn't there as it would be in, say, a poem. In general, though, is there any point in trying to cover our tracks and make art 'self-sufficient', i.e. free from its creator/s? Sure, when we're still alive and our energies are more mercurial, there's less 'call' for biographical scrutiny. We are still in the act of writing, not just about inspirations from life and things we understand, but also writing in order to find meaning or revelation. After death, though the call increases. People either miss the artist on a personal level or, maybe, the work becomes popular and/or the subject of research (i.e. by Literary academics). And these biographers know everything about everyone, no matter how far in the past the evidence is (could give any example here... Coleridge, there you go).

These days a biographer could all kinds of stuff from our ever-increasingly self-documented lifestyles, from how often you've complained about the sniffles to every single TV programme you've ever claimed to watch. So what's the point in trying to be nobody? There's a tome of biography hanging around all our necks with no lock on it. As soon as we're dead and the bounds of our life have set, you can be boiled down easily. If you tried a pen-name it will be cracked and then you're not just over-contextualized, but over-contextualized as the person who tried to avoid being contextualized, i.e. a failure. So this post has all been a load of rubbish then... It's unavoidable, really, to be tied to your work and run the risk of people using your life as a key to unlock (possibly spurious) 'hidden messages'.

Having just finished Elfriede Jelinek's Her Not All Her has shed some light on possible ways to progress though: master your own myth. Reto Sorg's afterword to this book is a very stimulating few pages, and here I muse upon't.  Sorg is guilty of the 'boiling down' I mentioned in the last paragraph when she says of Robert Walser (who the play 'is about') that he was, "...a naive genius who used his writing to reveal his existential position, whose career fell apart almost before it got started, who entered an insane asylum despite being sane, and who gave up his passion in order to live out the remainder of his life silenced as a writer..." Seems almost abrupt, non? She balances this out with an interesting thought on the topic of legacy; that, "...Walser himself contributed to the Walser myth." He did this, Sorg argues, by maintaining a, "...stoic view of his own life as a writer... as one who turns his everyday personal life into his subject." This, along with making "the context and act of writing into his theme..." produces an "overlap between the real person and the fictional character" which "becomes the vanishing point of his work." To sum up, "he invented himself in the act of writing and at the same time made himself disappear." So the ways to move forward are to either 'manipulate the myth' or give up altogether. After all, if you produce nothing, then it can never be ruined by context.

But that's never gonna happen!

Bye for now folks (and apologies for this being such a long post. Please share any thoughts you have, or even just tell me that you made it to the end and I'll congratulate you).

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