Tuesday, April 8, 2008

It's A Dog's Life







On a bad day — like today – I will empty a saucepan of reheated-one-too-many-times gone-cold again coffee into a dirt trough just outside my door. There must be quite a few bad days like this because the house dogs have started gathering regularly at around 5pm, waiting for their chance to slurp up an espresso with dirt and leaves. It seems to make them very active at night.

I’m throwing the old coffee away because I am making a new pot. I have got it into my head that the evening will be more rewarding. Throw caffeine in the blood, throw sleep to the angels. And sing like a dog to the moon.

I am, of course, a writer.

And I have chosen the path many find necessary when working on a book project: complete and utter seclusion.

In my case this means retreating from the city of Sydney where I live to a small country town of some 500 people called Millthorpe, a good three to four hours drive over the Blue Mountains out in what’s called the ‘Central West’. Holed up out the back of a friend’s garden, I do my best to emanate monkish dedication to the task at hand. Here I have a one-room shack with a wood stove, a stereo for company, a computer and about half my library along to stop me going insane. There is no running water, so I do the dishes in a steel tub, which I fill from a tap down at the main house. In this environment I feel rustic, authentic, Zen, native, humble, etcetera, all those mortifying things that might somehow prepare me for the divine act of work itself.

By comparison, my city life is filled with corruption: I go out too much, I drink too much, I enjoy too many things and too easily as often as possible. Amid such circumstances and temptations it is hard to keep my mind still for very long. Especially still enough to draw in my energy and give out the sustained focus that a book requires.

So it is that I’ve been out here — on and off, all right, I’ll admit it! — indulging in a stripped-down life since the start of the year, trying to immerse myself in the task at hand. As I write I am currently in that nether region between half done and almost finished that could go on forever (like Borges’s proverbial “book of sand”).

But my withdrawal from social life brings with it other concerns beyond actually finishing the project at hand. It also raises fears and thoughts that go right to the heart of what it means to be a writer. Most obviously, the process of sitting down alone, separating oneself totally from the world — often for long stretches of time — in order to communicate again with the world. A strangely circular and evasive way to make a living, you must agree.

More deeply, there is that dialogue with the self, that interrogation, which writing demands. It is not always a pleasant or happy conversation. I have always been haunted by the fearful lessons inside George Johnston's My Brother Jack. An apparently entertaining period piece about growing up in between-the-wars Melbourne, My Brother Jack descends into a picture of mid-life crisis and cruel suburban entrapment, and the awful reality that this particular Australian writer is more honest in his “fiction” than his life. A very unpleasant place to be.

J.M. Coetzee discussed something similar in the New York Review of Books a few years ago. The famed South African author was responding to a book called Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (1999) by William H. Gass. Coetzee quoted a perception by Gass that went straight to the heart of Rainer Maria Rilke’s creative existence: that the German poet was an artist whose writing was “the consequence of an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it took its strength.”

It’s no surprise that Coetzee should have been disturbed by that description. His Booker Prize winning novel Disgrace is ostensibly the story of a South African university professor accused of sexual harassment. As Coetzee’s novel twists and turns through a father-daughter relationship, racial tension and a rationalising futility that can never come up with satisfying answers, it’s all too easy to see that Disgrace is marked by the same condition Coetzee took note of in Gass’s book: an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it takes its strength.

If Disgrace has redemptive power beyond that, it lies in the antagonist’s surrender to his fate, his belated self-recognition. This deep and terrible humility — and the detachment with which it Coetzee observes it — makes Disgrace a magnificent work. With the context of South African contemporary history set behind it like a shadow, you are drawn in as a witness to the unsettling, even cold power of a man’s genuflection into sadness.

These understandings have always led me to fear some intrinsic part of my own identity as a writer: notably, that perverse desire to be apart from the world in order to communicate with it. Even more distressing is that eternal inner struggle with honesty — as an artist and as man. How seemingly easy the former can be; how elusive the latter.

Forthrightness on the page = silence in life. That can sometimes be the equation for a writer. A commitment of that kind to one’s art is rather like dying slowly, letting oneself leak away from living and take up complete occupation on the page. And I, for one, do not like the existential gulf within that, or wish to surrender to, let alone celebrate it.

How to bridge it is the question that plagues me now.

In “Goofing Off While The Muse Recharges” (The New York Times, 8 September, 1999), Richard Ford writes about these contradictions with typically laconic wisdom. He discusses writer friends who are constantly absorbed in their working process, observing, somewhat amusingly, “as if god abhors a motionless pencil.”

Ford then talks about the idle pleasures he takes in not writing — indeed, the necessity to stop altogether for a while. He finally reflects back on the act of writing and says, “What’s most demanding is to believe in my own contrivances and to think that unknown others with time on their hands will also be persuaded. To do that, it helps a lot to know what bright allures lie just outside your room and beyond the pale of your illusion.”

Such encouraging words for his fellow writers. Such fine, human advice.

I should confess right now, however, that I am hardly the obsessed, workaholic genius steeped in a constant fever of scribbling! I will dodge the obligation of writing for as long as possible — until pressure sits upon my shoulders like the great weight of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and I finally bow down to the act itself.

Hopefully, there will be some burst of inspiration already outlined on the page — a rough sketch, a brilliant opening gambit, an elemental trace that might be worth following. What Michael Ondaatje so brilliantly described in the opening to his memoir Running in the Family: “the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hang onto”.

Even if there is something wonderful like that bone, it will certainly be a struggle to hold it. Writing is usually hard, slow work. An act of inspiration supported by days on end of effort and trudge, the mental toil that finally supports the lit and pulsing traffic of life that you hope to capture in a completed story.

Thus my self-imposed exile. Here, almost inevitably, I still find myself distracted, thinking about all these other ideas.

I see that what I am experiencing is a moral ache. That this ache comes out of the act of reflection and even silence itself. That this act of reflection is, of course, important for finding some temporary grace as a writer. But that grace, fully realised, comes from living and not just reflecting in isolation.

It has been a bad day today. So I make a new batch of coffee and hope to do better tonight with these jumbled thoughts and words of advice passed down to me. Outside, the dogs are barking at the moon again. I feel something in their inarticulate, wild yelps — a little of myself reaching out through words to live again. They remind me of how I miss the city and its busy heart. They remind me of how I miss my writer’s life.

- Mark Mordue

* Essay first published in Australian Author, 2002.
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