Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Beware The Blank Page

The writer's greatest enemy: the blank page.  Scarier than you think. For all those who think writing is trivial, think again. It is anything but. It is serious, deep and dangerous. Real writing that excavates the bones of who we really are. It is dark psychological terrain. 

No one can explain this better than prolific Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. She is one of my favourite writers for her sense of unflinching truth. Her writing goes straight to the gut, and stays there. She is fearless and fearsome in tackling dark matter. Who can forget the dystopian nightmare of The Handmaid's Tale or the disturbing insights offered in Alias Grace? All of Atwood's fiction indeed, cuts to the bone. 

I was especially stunned and haunted after reading her take on  the blank page, or the page, as she puts it. This is writing as dangerous, writing as diving into deep matter, writing as a compulsion and a sacrifice. 

I just have to copy it here for you to read and become aware of, if you aren't already. And if you haven't happened upon her essays and short fiction, start!  This extract, 'The Page' comes from the short collection 'Murder in the Dark' which features other short essays and prose poems.

'The Page' - Margaret Atwood

1. The page waits, pretending to be blank. Is that its appeal, its blankness? What else is this smooth and white, this terrifyingly innocent?  A snowfall, a glacier? It's a desert, totally arid, without life. But people venture into such places. Why? To see how much they can endure, how much dry light?

2.  I've said the page is white, and it is: white as wedding dresses, rare whales, seagulls, angels, ice, and death. Some say that like sunlight it contains all colours; others, that it's white because it's hot, it will burn out your optic nerves; that those who stare at the page too long go blind.

3. The page itself has no dimensions and no directions. There's no up or down except what you yourself mark, there's no thickness and weight bu those you put there, north and south do not exist unless you're certain of them. The page is without vistas and without sounds, without centres or edges. Because of this you can become lost in it forever. Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page. 

4. If you decide  to enter the page, take a knife and some matches, and something that will float. Take something you can hold onto, and a prism to split the light and a talisman that works, which should be hung on a chain around your neck: that's for getting back. It doesn't matter what kind of shoes, but your hands should be bare. You should never go into the page with gloves on. Such decisions, needless to say, should not be made lightly. 
    There are those, of course, who enter the page without deciding, without meaning to. Some of these have charmed lives and no difficulty, but most never make it out at all. For them, the page appears as a well, a lovely pool in which they catch sight of a face, their own but better. These unfortunates do not jump: rather they fall and the page closes over their heads without a sound, without a seam, and is immediately as whole and empty, as glassy, as enticing as before. 

5. The question about the page is: what is beneath it? It seems to have only two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing, you say, disappointed. 
    But you were looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story. Beneath the page is a story. Beneath the page is everything that has ever happened, most of which you would rather not hear about. 
     The page is not a pool but a skin, a skin is there to hold in and it can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just lie there and do nothing?
   Touch the page at your peril: it is you who are blank and innocent, not the page. Nevertheless you want to know, nothing will stop you. You touch the page, it's as if you've drawn a knife across it, the page has been hurt now, a sinuous wound opens, a thin incision. Darkness wells through. 
(*From  'Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems' © Margaret Atwood Virago UK 1994)

Indeed.  All of this rings true and through me. How about you? 

Dangerous, yes. But exhilarating too. Like climbing your own veritable Everest. All those metaphors of whiteness. The page is definitely somewhere you can lost, but also where you can be found. If you're brave enough of course, to ditch the gloves and the safety measures, and dive in there, whole-heartedly.

~ Siobhán

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Solitude: A Writer's Privilege & Prerogative

Sometimes, I need to be alone. I need the solace of solitude when the world, in the words of Wordsworth, becomes 'too much with' me. 

My alone time is so important to me. It is the bedrock of my being. The foundations of my creativity. I need it to recharge and enhance my thinking and feeling and understanding ability. 

Without periods of solitude, I'd implode. I'd cease to be me. Especially after lots of time spent socially, I need the antidote of quiet time to recuperate and recover my self from the voices and influence of others. I need it to differentiate and consolidate the individual from the collective and find my bearings once again, as Virginia Woolf said, 'myself being myself.'

I can't go for any long lengths of time without this sacred time to myself. I'm sure this is true for all writers and creatives. How else would we create? Or germinate the seeds for creating? Like any seeds, they need dark and deep quiet.  

Just as Charles Bukowski says, solitude is as necessary to me as anything else, even more necessary than company. Without solitude, I wouldn't be a writer. In order to  write, you need to stand apart from the crowd to observe. Solitude is this observing space.

And I not only need solitude, I like it. I welcome it and revel in it! A free space where I can  spread my wings and know my wingspan. I relish time spent alone. Without it, I'd be a lesser less-known version of myself.

Well, I can't explain it any better than that. But just have a look at the collection of quotes below by many great artists and writers who truly knew the value of solitude.

enjoying my quiet time, 



"I have to be alone very often. I'd be quite happy if I spent from Saturday night until Monday morning alone in my apartment. That's how I refuel." - Audrey Hepburn

"I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.” Charles Bukowski

"If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

 "I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” ― Henry David Thoreau

"If you are alone you belong entirely to yourself. If you are accompanied by even one companion you belong only half to yourself or even less in proportion to the thoughtlessness of his conduct and if you have more than one companion you will fall more deeply into the same plight.” ― Leonardo da Vinci 

"Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.” ― May Sarton

 "A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer

"I need solitude for my writing; not 'like a hermit' - that wouldn't be enough - but like a dead man.” ― Franz Kafka

"Language ... has created the word 'loneliness' to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word 'solitude' to express the glory of being alone.” ― Paul Tillich

"Solitude is independence." - Hermann Hesse

"How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.” ― Virginia Woolf,

 How can you hear your soul if everyone is talking?” ― Mary Doria Russell,

 Anything we fully do is an alone journey.” ― Natalie Goldberg

"Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.” ― Philip Larkin

"I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.”Rainer Maria Rilke

 "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.” ― Henry David Thoreau

"In solitude the passions feed upon the heart." - Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

Friday, 20 July 2012

L'esprit de L'escalier & Other Speech Impediments...

It's fair to say that there's a lot of difference between the spoken word and the written word. A colossal difference in fact.

Speech - chatting, talking, gabbing, yapping, nattering - just doesn't measure up to writing for me. Is this every writer's perspective I wonder? For me, writing is true and exciting and exhilarating and revelatory. And speech I'm increasingly finding, is tiring, predictable,  draining and bland.

Maybe it's been my experience of late. Cul-de-sac conversations that are flat and featureless with phrases worn to rags and been-there-said-that fillers. One size fits all conversation caper, talking by ticking the usual boxes. Why can't people glitz up their conversations? Say something different. Add a bit of crackle and dare. Or better still, some truth. Some hint of identity and personality. Some original thought.

No, rather it's like most people stick to a script, a safe tried-and-tested small-talk script so that they'll never veer off into the dangerous territory of insights and personal revelation and unforeseen topics.

Language to a lot of people, is a means of concealment rather than communication. To me, it's a means of expression. What you say, what you write, tells so much about who you are. But when expression is stifled for socially befitting fill-the-silence drawl, it loses this aspect and falls into the category of perfunctory and redundant.

For example, a quintessentially Irish thing to do is talk about the weather. It suffices instead of a genuine greeting. Weather talk takes the place of 'hi, how are you?' - instead we have  'lovely day isn't it' or 'that's a nice day' or 'what a horrible day.' I don't know about you - but I'm much more interested in the emotional meaningful fronts you may be personally experiencing today, not the irrelevant meteorological ones.

Social conversations are the worst. People are so busy trying to stick to the normal verbal code of conduct, they have started to sound like clones. Individual sentiments are silenced for the louder collective phrases of the crowd, the area, the social situation. No true sentences uttered anywhere. No exclaiming of truths. No expressing of emotion. Just in the words of Yeats - 'polite meaningless words.'

Maybe that's why writing exists as a foil to the downfalls of speech. It's a space where you can fully express yourself, without any social trappings or expectations.

Like in the caption above, when I'm speaking I only say a fraction of what I really want to say. For every word I utter, there are hundreds more squabbling behind it. And mostly, what I say, it comes out wrong or warped or a weak, watered-down version of how I would write it! I can explain what I want to say so much more easily in writing than the muddily fuzzy speech bubbly compendium.

In writing, every word is measured and nuanced. In speaking, every word is rough and ready and more often than not, tame and tedious, a rehearsed conditioned run-of-the-mill refrain to suit every situation. 

And usually, when we're talking to someone, we subconsciously match our speaking style to theirs - their general vocab and colloquialisms - and let our own individual voice stay silent in response to this aspect of social conditioning. This does not happen in writing. In writing each to their own; in speaking, each must match the other. Because if there's two different modes of speech going on, effective communication just ain't going to happen. A case of - 'talk to the hand cause the face ain't listening' - because  'you just don't speak my language do you?' (And I'm not even going to start on the fact that so many conversations these days are made up of monopolising me-me-me monologues!)

I'm sure you're all familiar with  l'esprit de l'escalier - the French term which refers to that stinging sense of realization of the perfect remark you should have said at a time prior -  that classic comeback to a conversation long over. It literally translates to the 'spirit of the stairs' - the feeling of regret that strikes when you're leaving the place of conversation and realise what you should have said. This is a given with most conversations. More often than not, we never say exactly what we want to say. We hold back; we hesitate; we prefer the safety fillers of small talk, rather than the raw acoustics of real communication and so, end up empty and drained and worse yet, further compromised on our ability to forge a real connection with another. Whereas in writing, there is no l'esprit de l'escalier; the inking process is all-encompassing, there is no leaving out of anything. There is only hardcore truth and a real hand-on-heart communicating.

If only there was a way to reconcile these two mediums? To ditch the small talk and go for the big talk. The real stuff. The stuff that makes us tick. The truth of who we are. If only we all could open the books of ourselves and display the wonderful font and language we contain. Instead of settling for blether and blabber and polite meaningless chit-chat! And choose to express, not repress ourselves. To talk up and over and outside of the box and in all kinds of shapes and sizes and squiggles and scribbles and spontaneous gushing in deference of our individual, colourful selves. Burst our allotted speech bubbles and say what we want, when we want, and whatever way we want - regardless!


Saturday, 7 July 2012

A Poet And You Don't Even Know It!

Who are poets? How do we identify them, exactly?

It really gets me that people have a preconceived pompous notion of who and what a poet is! How they should look, act, and exactly what age, sex, occupation and personality they should have.  Hmpfh!

Well I can tell you one thing. Forget all the stereotypes of who poets are - what they look like, dress like, talk like, think like etc. The truth is, we are all individual different human beings.

So, to debunk.

We don't wear berets for one. Or cravats. (Well, some of us might, French male poets most likely, but it's technically not required for the job.) The same for goatees, moustaches, beards and ponytails. And FYI, we are not all men. 

And we women poets are not distinguishable by our long hair, hippy clothing, copious amounts of handmade jewellery and refusal of make-up. 

We are not all old and grey and bespectacled. We do not all wear tweed.

We are not all gay, lesbian or trans-sexual.  We are not all lovers or beloved or obsessed with muses.  We are not all sentimental fools.

We are not all loners. We are not all gypsies, tearaways or bohemians. We are not all immune to sports. We are not all geeks. Nerds. Bookworms.  We are not all morbid, manic depressives. We are not all outsiders. Or substance-users. Or unemployed.

We do not all use quills and quote Shakespeare.  We are not all posh or privileged.  We do not all spout whimsy. We do not all carry moleskin notebooks. We are not all academics or retired teachers or elitists.

We don't wander lonely as clouds. We are not all necessarily nature lovers. We are not all airy-fairy.

We are not all social outcasts. We do not wear a permanent pout or thinker pose.  We do not all look frazzled and bewildered. We are not all classical music lovers. We do not all care about iambic pentameter. We do not all take part in poetry readings. We are not all drama kings or queens. 

We are not all part of a political movement. We are not all alienated or isolated. We are not all lost, or lonely. 

We are not all philosophers. We are not all literati. We are not all library enthusiasts.  We are not all pretentious.

We are who we are.

We are all our own individual selves. Most of us are quiet and unassuming. Some of us are chatty. Most of us wear casual clothing. Some of us wear lipstick. Some of us are teenagers, twenty-somethings. Listen to rock music and rap. Drink beer. Are pretty ordinary, when it comes down to it. More of another than other

What we do all have in common is our love of language. And our irrepressible desire to express our vision of the world, our reactions to it, in language. We all love words. We all know the power of words. We all have been seduced by what they can do.  We all think in words and feel in words. And we all have a heightened sense of awareness that can only be  satisfied by expressing itself in verse.

The stereotype is wrong. Most of us are poets incognito. Our love for language is an invisible thing. You couldn't pick us out in a crowd if you tried.

You could be standing right next to a poet and not even know it!! (And they could be writing a poem about you in their heads right at that moment and you wouldn't even know it!)

Anybody can be a poet. There are no pre-requisite looks or vibes, quirks or dress codes necessary to distinguish those with a poetic sensibility. It's not what's without, but within.

Remember that.

 ordinary incognito poet,

~ Siobhán

Thursday, 5 July 2012

My Achilles Heel: Greek Myths

Ever have a book hangover? You know when you've just finished an enjoyable book and are hung up on it for a few days, can't stop thinking of it, so moved by its contents that you can't possibly move on to a new book? 

This happens to me all the time. Which could explain the hiatus between books in my reading life. It takes me a while to get over a good book! At the moment, I've just finished reading The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, a rave-reviewed retelling of Homer's Illiad by a debut author. The book was good - but the story itself was what I was taken with - that is, the original plot of the Illiad itself.

Homer's text is one of  the foundational texts of Western literature. It is the ultimate in war stories. And epics. And archetypes. I have always been fascinated by Greek myths. So many characters - heroes and gods and monsters - so many arguments and conflicts and arrogance and greed and revenge and love and death - so  much storytelling magic.

I especially love the story of the Illiad - Achilles and his fated glory. Or was it a curse? The book explores this aspect of the story, focusing on Achilles as a human first and foremost and in turn, analysing all those hefty questions of war including the worthiness of glory and honour above love. The book is good at this aspect - at portraying a feeling human being rather than a warrior machine. Achilles is one of the most fascinating of the Greek heroes - how his destiny seems to go against him and how he must choose between pride and honour and love. The phrase Achilles' heel is now synonymous with a weakness - but when I think of Achilles, I don't think of weakness. If anything, his pride was his weakness. But more than that, this book seems to say, love was. As it is for all of us. An indestructible warrior, almost a god, brought down by his ability to care. 

The story is told from the point of view of Patroclus - his childhood companion and lover.  This has not always been the traditional stance - some versions tell of him in love with his war prize, servant-girl Briseis. In some, Patroclus is his cousin. Miller takes some liberties with this portrayal. But the great thing about the Illiad is that it's so open to suggestion that different readers can read different subtexts into it (and writers, write them). Maybe that's why it's been interpreted so many times over, by so many different authors, with so many various agendas and so many stunning results (most notably maybe - Joyce's Ulysses, based on Homer's Odyssey). This sideline arc that Miller takes allows us a deep insight into the character of Achilles, something that the original text doesn't.      

If you enjoy Greek myths, read this book! If you enjoy a good story, read this book! Or a fast-paced narrative, an action-filled adventure, a gripping love story. That's the beauty of such stories - they have an undying universal appeal.

Below I've included some poems that I've come across on the theme of Achilles. You can see how poets have used the story for their individual desires. I especialy love Michael Longley's 'Ceasefire', a moving and affecting poem, a simple lyric summary of the meeting of Achilles and Priam when the King of Troy goes to ask Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, who he killed. Powerful. Especially when we recognise the modern context it alludes to.

What's your favourite Greek myth or character? There are so many more! Do  you know of any other books that have rewritten the myths?? Do share!


Here's a witty comparison from Carol Ann Duffy of Achilles to David Beckham, footballer extraordinaire of our time, whose injured ankle led him to dropping out of a former World Cup. Clever and humorous, as always: 

Achilles - Carol Ann Duffy

Myth’s river- where his mother dipped him,
fished him, a slippery golden boy-
flowed on, his name on its lips.

Without him, it was prophesied,
    they would not take Troy.

Women hid him, concealed him in girls’ sarongs;
days of sweetmeats, spices, silver song...
  but when Odysseus came,
with an athlete’s build, a sword and a shield,
he followed him to the battlefield,
the crowd’s roar,
and it was sport, not war,
his charmed foot on the ball...

but then his heel, his heel, his heel...

Next, an emotional analysis of the story from Louise Gluck, touching on the real moral of the story - that it was indeed love - the human side of Achilles - which was his true weak point:

The Triumph of Achilles - Louise Gluck

In the story of Patroclus
no one survives, not even Achilles
who was nearly a god.
Patroclus resembled him; they wore
the same armor.

Always in these friendships
one serves the other, one is less than the other:
the hierarchy
is always apparant, though the legends
cannot be trusted--
their source is the survivor,
the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire
compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles
grieved with his whole being
and the gods saw
he was a man already dead, a victim
of the part that loved,
the part that was mortal.      

And a profound allegory here from Irish poet Michael Longley. This poem was written in 1994 and published in The Irish Times just days after a ceasefire had been declared in the North. Here is an example of how myth can transform a familiar situation into an archetypal one, an universal one, and more importantly, one which so wisely imparts essential truths.

Ceasefire - Michael Longley

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'