2020 July: Searching my Older Souls

Tomorrow I am going to stage the first Rosa and Lawrence reading in a long while, and for the first time in Italian, thanks to the new translation completed by artist Alberto Condotta. I am looking forward to hearing the text in this romantic language, and although I don’t speak Italian, I will roughly be able to gauge the lines as they come. The Italian couple reading it will meet me online from their home, and I will be back in that position again, when I used to visit people at their houses and record them reading the text in their own homes. I’d like to structure it much as before: the readers must be encouraged to not feel self-conscious about the quality of their reading, and to focus instead on taking in the words for their own sake as they read the text aloud. I’ll wait for them to read everything, and then interview them a little on their experience reading it immediately afterwards.

–The next day–

That was really wonderful. I still feel there’s some value in this work, even after all these years, and the way people bring the text out with their own charm of character is really uplifting to watch. I was really charmed by these two! To keep the momentum, I will try to have this on the go for a while – and keep having a future reading scheduled. I will probably film a Serbian couple next. I’ve never thought this before, but it’s occurred to me that it would be nice to try to publish Rosa & Lawrence in print with an experimental theatre or poetry publisher: I imagine a little booklet of barely a few pages and maybe a quick foreword, absolutely insisting that the text be read aloud, and possibly used as entertainment on rainy evenings with guests over – being given, preferably, to be read by two people unaware of the work).

 

Anomaline

For some time I have been quite troubled about my relationship to my novel, a feeling which probably started early during my MA. Perhaps I have been taken aback by how difficult it can be to sustain a story for so long; at the same time I felt that somehow what I had written so far is not sufficient to warrant stopping where I’ve got to. Time and again, I’ve set myself deadlines and pressure to get on with it, and I believe I grew increasingly obsessed with the idea of finishing the novel. Finish it by the end of the MA. Finish it by the start of the PhD. The latest deadline I set myself was to finish the first draft by September 2020, the start of my second academic year on the PhD. I imagine what an achievement that would feel like, having had this substantial work completed so early in my PhD, with all this time left for who knows what to develop on top. Truthfully, I suppose it seduced me as a safety net. ‘If I suddenly have a creative block that lasts the remaining two years of the PhD, at least I will have written the novel’. As you can see, the anxiety of being sufficient, and achieving enough to have something to show for all my time spent at Goldsmiths, has been subtly brewing underneath all my artistic endeavours, and I don’t think it’s healthy. I might, in part, have become overzealous about all the forewarnings I’d received in various forms before starting my research degree – that planning was of the utmost importance, that I needed to project my outcomes and schedule their delivery. As a result, I took that to heart and probably spent far too much time timetabling, trying to predict my research trajectory and invoke some kind of quality assurance on the entire process to ensure success. I suppose this comes from a certain scrupulousness, a desire to be responsible and not take my opportunity for granted. But of course, being overly rigid and forcing one’s practice to conform to one’s theories is itself a contradiction of both artistic and scientific methodologies alike. One must not impose a preempted outcome on the research. It must necessarily be an open ended path, to lead anywhere relevant and unskewed by one’s own biases. But more crucially and on a practical level, all this rigidity in effect works to erode my own curiosity in what I am doing. Certainly it would not sound appealing to me anymore, if I were to try to conform my writing of Anomaline, for example, to fit into whatever working theories I have at the moment, which I use to write my proposals… I started to think that there was something a little askew about my initial motivation for pursuing the novel in the first place and that there was no quick fix for it – that there was some ingrained anxiety that kept impeding my natural curiosity in the work that I had to dig for and uproot thoroughly, before I could continue.

After a bit of some such familiar fretting at the start of July, I decided to do some soul searching. I read over my diaries and previous art journal entries – there is a copious amount of documentation of my working process in these writings which I thought might shed light on what has worked in the past and what hasn’t, in addition to whether there might be some recurring mistakes at play – and I looked over old work and also old inspirations. I had talked about The Matrix trilogy in both my Annual Review Panel and when I presented the first two chapters at the Writing for Practice Forum (which I’ve lately begun to co-organise with Kate Pickering), and so I decided to sit down and watch all three movies. It’s a great source of inspiration, partly in its stylish, cinematic splendour, and partly because of its overtly philosophical identity as a sci-fi action movie. I come across few movies which are so openly exploring ontological questions – whatever the genre (mine I currently term ‘philosophical romance’ – a term I am very pleased with as it immediately sets a tone in a mind which I very much enjoy). In looking over my past writings, I began to find that one of the worst enemies of my work has been something I’ve come to term the ‘professionalising stance’.

The professionalising stance is when I realise I might be onto something with a work of mine, and in my excitement and desire to do greater justice to it I suddenly switch gears and begin to impose some attitude or behaviours which somehow I got into my head are more ‘professional’ and ‘serious’ than what I had been doing when I stumbled upon the good thing. I say to myself, “that was all well and good what I was doing there, but now I am going to do it properly”. It has been, in various guises, a consistent impediment to my work and I do think my relationship with my novel has been a victim of that thinking. For instance, I may have become more preoccupied with the vain and abstract idea of ‘finishing the novel’, than the more substantial questions provoked by it. This is of course, inhibiting to my curiosity and drive, and probably has a lot to do with my feelings of impotency and lackluster mood when working on it.

Unfortunately, I do not think that my awareness of the professionalising stance and my having given it a name will free me from continuing to resort to it. So, in addition to scrapping my scrupulous timetables and schedules, I decided I would not write my novel until I really wanted to write it. Instead, I’ve been working on cultivating that desire.

One way in which I’ve been doing that, is with the following idea: “perhaps a good way to want to write again, is to write excessively in other ways besides novel writing”. That’s actually one reason why I am here. I found in my old diaries and journals a corpus of verbosity; excessive descriptions of the most trivial moments. I remember worrying at the time that I would become like Beckett’s protagonist in Krapp’s Last Tape, but now reading back, I find myself smiling at the energy that has gone into these secret writings, written for no audience other than me. Not only were these attempts to record my life, and create a kind of repository of wisdom to aid me in future dilemmas (as they are now doing), but by and large I was practising. Writing after all, is a craft; a muscle that needs exercising and a material that needs acclimatising to and gaining an intuition for. I was wrong if I had ever come to think that I needed to reserve all my writerly efforts to the main channels of my practice – if I am going to write at all, it’s going to have to be excessive, and even the verbosity of my reflections here are instrumental in my work on Anomaline. It is as though I have begun to take my ability to write for granted, as if it didn’t need constant practice; as if the muscles didn’t need to be flexed every day. I thought that the problem was located in the abstract realm of ‘ideas’; not having had ‘good ideas’ lately – but as with drawing so with writing: I have always said that it is an engagement with the material of the line, the ink, the paper – a curiosity in its properties, which gives rise to ideas. So too with the writing; I must work to reacquaint myself, constantly, with the written word; typed or penned, if I am to have ideas in this medium.

I’ve matured enough to mistrust any quick fix, and although I feel my recent efforts in soul searching working, and my interest in my novel once again piqued, I discipline myself to resist a little more, to refuse to write for a while longer, until I am more grounded in substantial, rather than insubstantial motivations. A little more reflection is required.

–Continued another day–

It may seem silly, but I must write here first, before I can return to looking at my novel, which I intend to do in a bit. That’s because of the weight of habitual thinking that, if not consciously addressed, will surely bring me down again on my next attempt to start working on my novel, no matter that I’ve found within myself the motivation to get started again. The professionalising stance, and the desire to package the novel up like a product and claim the rewards of achievement, is the thing that will bring me down, and which has the ability to render me inert for weeks at a time. So, if not pursuing the novel fuelled by the drive of a worker’s ethic, then what?

First of all, let me acknowledge the mechanical joy of typing; of seeing words materialise at my fingertips. The magic of the technology of writing is still not lost on me, whether that technology is mediated by the keyboard or the pen – the idea that I can store fleeting ideas and fix them to the page like scaffolding, to then slowly build upon and make more complex than my own mind could muster unaided, is very satisfying. I think many artists would agree that an appreciation of material is a good place to start.

Yet I am not starting from scratch, though it often feels like that, with each fresh attempt to ‘get back into the novel’, as if I were deterred from entering it. I am not starting at all, merely continuing. There is already a substantial amount of scaffolding in the novel. It is of my own making, though I can’t always recognise myself in it. The drive might not only derive from the joy of typing alone, but also of reading and conjuring existing imagery. The feeling I wish to have I think, when I read over my work, is that lots of little tendrils unwind from my mind and connect into tailored sockets in the novel, so that I feel reunited in my control over its inner workings. Often people say that this artistic control is at odds with the freedom of the character which the story posits – but I don’t feel that intuitively to be true. I have a sense for what might be the ingredients of her freedom, and might work painstakingly at realising those conditions; does that make me her master? I have a feeling not, though, these questions are themselves best put to the test, rather than endlessly argued in theory.

–Continued another day–

Besides ferociously reading North and South to the point of gluttony, and finding my own writing now utterly drenched in Gaskell’s 19th century prose, I have been reconnecting, little by little, to my Anomaline. I started off with some ‘menial tasks’ to jog me into it; transcribing bits and pieces of handwritten text scattered across several notebooks that could make possible additions to the novel; and going through the remaining parts of the manuscript that are still in past tense, to transform them into the present. I’m still pretty certain about that idea. Every time I translate the tense into the present, the text seems more alive and conceptually attuned to the notion that the character lives in the moment of writing, and reading – adding a certain ‘liveness’ to the prose.

Just now I am in the middle part of the novel – those parts I remember the least at any one time – and in reading them I am pleased to reaffirm my attempts to weave a grandiose tale out of tiny, still observations. I have been criticised about this linguistic decorum a couple of times; I suppose some people rebel against it, or find that the archain melody of the language chafes against their literary sensibilities; but here I’ve been reading North and South and it’s very apparent by the rate at which I’ve consumed the book that I personally have no problem with that at all – that I love the way in which every emotion is overturned and examined, giving such relatable expression to simple gestures and mute objects. I was particularly impressed with the power of the free indirect style, which slows down time to the point of tracking every mental fluctuation taking place in the developing character’s mind; how Margaret’s every flutter of temperament becomes visible and her every thought (suppressed or acknowledged) given form.

I’m not hugely well-read in the literature of that time, but some of its characteristics seem to have seeped into my novel regardless. The past few chapters I’ve read (those immediately following and preceding ‘The Guest’) are highly descriptive of every elusive thing in a way that I now find stimulating. Immediately before reading North and South, I might have been a bit embarrassed to read over these chapters – chapters in which nothing in particular happens, yet in which so much attention to detail is given to thoughts, and to inanimate things. But now that I found myself enjoying another author’s highly descriptive parlour drama, I feel less impacted by the criticisms that may have made me doubt the style I’ve adopted in many of the passages in Anomaline. I feel the purpose of my writing here in the Art Journal at this moment, is really to pledge to myself, now that I’ve decided that the linguistic focus and style of my text is not trivial and boring but a good thing, that I will allow myself to indulge fully in that direction. I might also allow myself to burn through more Victorian novels as fuel and reinforcement for my own writing – the Brontes are next.

 

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