Category Archives: Writing process

Self-consciousness & the writer


In ‘Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace’ a subject that comes up with regularity is self-consciousness and in particular its detrimental effects on the writing process. How true, I thought each time it was mentioned. How very, very true. Of course, David Foster Wallace had just written, if not The Great American Novel, then at least a huge one thousand page American novel. It was on the bestseller lists and he was on the cover of Newsweek amongst other major signifiers of fame. So the pitch of attention aimed at him was huge and the attention was of course, personal. It might have begun with the book but it sought the man who had written it and he was on the road appearing in bookstores, giving readings, signing books, being ‘the writer’.

The curious thing is however, and I think he makes this clear many times over in his marathon conversation with David Lipsky, is that ‘the writer’ is not the man. The man, or woman if that is the case, can be hauled out on a book tour, interviewed, photographed, lauded or damned but that is not the writer.  For David Foster Wallace being ‘outed’ as the man behind the writer was discomforting. He found thinking about himself too much, his reasons and purposes, the sources of his material to be a disquieting; a disturbance to his thinking.

This problem of self-consciousness is one of the themes of ‘Infinite Jest’ and it affects his characters whether they are tennis athletes or recovering addicts. This brought to mind a time in my life when for a curious set of reasons I was persuaded to play pool for the team at my local pub in Stoke Newington. I had been playing a lot of pool and so my game had improved quite a bit. This was in 1979 or 1980, the pub had one pool table and a jukebox and most of the clientele were Irish labourers. To get a game on the table you put a coin on its edge then when your turn came you put your money in the slot and played the winner of the previous game.  I’m not sure how this system evolved but it was the same in pubs all over London and the UK. What it meant however was that a good player, a bit like a prize fighter, could stay on the table beating all challengers and, another advantage, only paying for one game.  So that winter and spring with ‘The Green Fields of France’ by The Fureys alternating with ‘Brass in Pocket’ by The Pretenders on the jukebox I might manage to stay on the table for three or four, sometimes five games. There was one particular night when I unknowingly beat the star players of the pool team and was promptly recruited. The first game in the tournament was to be played in another pub in Dalston. It was a serious business this and the names of the players and their opponents were duly chalked on a board having been drawn by lots. There were at least two Paddys listed, a Jimmy, a Tommy. My name Jo, even without its masculine ‘e’, did not look out of place there, but when it was time for me to take my place at the table a ripple of interest spread out, gathered force and came back at me greatly increased in force and magnitude. It was rare, very rare back then for women to play pool. Everyone in the room was looking at me, everyone that is, except for the man I was playing, who darkly muttered something about having to play a woman.

The happy unselfconscious ease I’d had before was gone. I blew it. I blew it for myself and I blew it for the team. Quietly, without a word from either myself or them I left the team. The lesson there was that I could play well when it didn’t matter, but when it did, I went to pieces.

My sense of self-consciousness had become so loud and troubling and destructive at the point I was writing my first novel I came up with the notion of pretending I was someone else. This someone else had to be very different from me, he had to be a man; a tall man with dark hair who was handsome and supremely confident. Did he constantly worry that was he was writing was complete nonsense? Did he think he’d never find a publisher for it? Hell, no. Did he worry that readers would judge him as a human being if he wrote anything morally or ethically unclear? Was he being apologetic, or self-censoring? Hell, no! Was he a risk taker? Was he clear about his aims for the book? Absolutely.

I’m not quite sure how I performed this mental trick of thinking myself into another consciousness but somehow it worked, and eventually the book came out. The problem with this was that he, that supremely confident chap with a double first from Cambridge, had gone and there was just this little female person in his place. Of course, David Foster Wallace was a 6ft 2in man, but he still suffered from this thing, this awful, hateful self-consciousness. Maybe the key point here is to do with depression and the idea that when the writer is writing, they are not themselves, they become invisible. Or the world goes away. The mind becomes so engaged with the business of the fictional world they are able to forget themselves. Whereas the rest of the stuff, ‘the fuss’ as David Foster Wallace put it to describe his book’s reception, is the complete opposite.

Other aspects of this idea of self-consciousness and depression seem to tie in with the idea of confidence. I’ve only just realised that while I have been writing this very short essay something; either confidence or faith has been flickering off and on, off and on. When I speak of faith here I mean faith that writing this has meaning, faith that another person will read it and may get something from it, faith that I am not writing nonsense.

I suppose the faulty light bulb of confidence is bound to be set off when exploring this topic, to try to write about self-consciousness is, in a sense, to peel off one’s skin and inspect what’s beneath. Writers are just human beings, if you cut out their hearts and leave them on a table then the cat is just as likely to eat them, as was rumoured to be the case with Thomas Hardy’s.


Writer’s Diary 2004

This morning the new issue of Granta arrived.
I flick through to get a feel for the issue and am bowled over by the drawings done by film directors; Hitchcock’s in particular, which are reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s etchings in some ways.
Early this year I found myself suddenly becoming re-interested in Edward Hopper, partly as I’d had a previous little surge of passion for Andrew Wyeth and had bought a second-hand copy of a book about his Helga paintings from Amazon’s American site. Amazon do that thing with recommending books for you based on past purchases. Sometimes this brings me old and new interests as happened with Hopper, other times you begin to see that the recommendations can be quite a disturbing reflection of your current preoccupations. For a few months back last year it seemed like the only books I was getting recommended had to do with depression, suicide, corpses and crime scenes, which reflected a number of books I had bought on those subjects in order to research the novel I am still writing.
But to get back to Hopper, who by the way was six feet five tall, my interest in him, as well as his wife Jo Nivison, inspired a couple of poems. But now of course due to the current exhibition at the Tate, everyone is being reawakened to Hopper and so the poems seem rather obvious. And the habit of writing poems based on this or that work of art is overdone. So maybe they were tired out old wordplay anyway.
On Saturday I treated myself to the new issue of the New Yorker, my excuse was that it was the Summer Fiction issue and had three new stories by the Canadian queen of the short story Alice Munro. I saved this for Sunday morning, which is the only time I feel it’s actually okay to sit in bed and read. As it turned out I didn’t read the stories then, but instead I read a very interesting article in the same issue about writer’s block by Joan Acocella.
It links writer’s block to all manner of causes, amongst them depression, alcoholism and aging. As I’m not getting any younger and as I had at that particular moment in time a rather nasty hangover it seemed there really wasn’t much hope for me. Though I suppose I am writing, after a fashion, but I am convinced that what I am producing is utter tripe.
Then there’s the other thing that’s blamed for writer’s block; success, which means forever after you have something to live up to. Or rather that the author becomes too self aware of what he or she is doing, and that trips them up.
Failure is also clearly problem.
My theory in regard to my own work is that everything I’ve done so far has been a fluke, and pretty soon someone is going to notice that I’m not what I’m meant to be and I’ll get frogmarched out of literary Wales and deposited by that slip road on the other side of the Severn bridge where no cars ever stop to pick you up.
Anyone who’s ever hitchhiked out of South Wales will know that spot. Just as anyone who’s ever tried to write will know that while every so often you get the equivalent of a lift in a fast comfortable car with a perfectly normal driver, most of the time you’ll be tormented by lunatics, rain and boredom.
Last night I went to see Lars Von Trer’s strange and rather wonderful new film, Dogville. It’s three hours long, has voiceover narration and uses none of those things that we have come to expect from the medium, ie location, natural atmospheric light and seamless scene changes. It is the sort of film that forces you to search for meaning of a moral, philosophical or political sort, and provides no easy answers. In short, it makes you think. And thinking in its turn is inspiring, but after three hours in a darkened cinema on a Monday evening you tend to go to bed rather that stay up all night writing, but as you turn the light off you hope that in the morning; the ideas will remain. And perhaps they do to some extent, but they’ve mutated.
Experiencing work like that, whether it’s a film or a painting or book, can serve to remind the artist or writer why they began to create art in the first place.
The downside of this is expressed in Posy Simmond’s latest cartoon in her series on literary life in the Guardian, faced with so many brilliant writers and artists one can wonder one is even attempting to produce yet another piece of work. Maybe this is why some writers chose to not read their contemporaries’ work.
I haven’t read many novels lately, but I think it’s more to do with a sort of shift in perception wherein fiction suddenly seems like so much artifice. Or maybe it goes like this; as someone who is attempting to construct my own little palace of artifice, I am too aware of the writer who created those other novels, and my mind refuses to enter into the contract with them. I cannot, or perhaps will not, suspend disbelief. Maybe this comes as much from jealousy and my own failure more than anything more practical or noble. Whatever it is, I am currently not reading, and my bedside table despite the pile of books there seems bare.
I may, on the other hand, be going quietly mad. Sylvia Plath’s first breakdown began with an inability to read, which might have been at first a sort of heightened self-awareness. Which of course, is part of the problem with writing, one has to be self-aware enough to consciously guide the work in hand, but also one needs to lose oneself in order to get into the zone.
So maybe this where other art forms have their role; they can inspire without incapacitating.

Why I Write

book cover diving

Philip Roth once said that real life was so extraordinary that no fiction could compete with it – if a writer invented such outlandish plots no one would believe it. Thinking about this, it strikes me that among the chaos of the life lived; a fictional world is eminently more controllable, more safe. I think I have always written in order to explore what motivates people to do the things they do – in particular the small cruelties, the manipulations and then the self-justification that follows.
I was never much of a reader as a child, so I jumped straight from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson to Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Edna O’Brien and Sylvia Plath. The choices were arbitrary – based on chance and my immediate reaction to the first pages more than anything.
Falling under the long shadow of Plath the dark dreamer, good scholar and perfectionist was silly. I couldn’t have been more different – a lazy, lousy scholar, impatient, messy, feckless – but there was Sylvia, her tape-recorded voice, that clipped bitter delivery of the words, the strange nasal accent, the nursery rhyme rhythms beating out the poems including ‘Daddy’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ to a group of young students. We were doing a foundation course in art and once a week a post-graduate student from the university came to teach us what was loosely called ‘Liberal Studies’. As I remember it, he gave no introduction to the recorded poems, but after said, ‘This poet took her own life just months after writing this work…’
We were then invited to discuss our reactions. One young man began by condemning Plath, saying she was cruel, irresponsible, selfish. I was shocked by the level of his anger. I found myself speaking up for her, defending her.
Is that why I write?
Years before that afternoon in Art College, when I was fifteen and staying with a friend at her aunt’s house in Brighton, I had been lounging on a bed when something whispered my name very close to my ear. On opening my eyes I saw that my friend was over on the opposite side of the room. Later that night and on subsequent nights something was scratching at the walls of the same room – scratching and fluttering and seemingly trying to get to me. When I returned from the holiday I discovered that my mother had given a necklace of mine to a psychic who did ‘readings’ from such intimate possessions. When I met the woman she told me that I was like her – I had the power to be a seer. Three years later I retold this story to some friends in a pub. One young man was scornful and angry. ‘Go on then,’ he said, ‘do your mumbo jumbo!’ I was reluctant but the crowd egged me on. The psychic had told me that to do it I should just quietly hold the subject’s hand, close my eyes and empty my mind. I did this. There was nothing. Nothing at all, but then I saw gently lapping water, tall reeds and sandy banks. Something like an estuary.
‘Well, come on, then. What did you see?’ he said with a sneer.
All eyes were on me. ‘Oh, nothing really, just water and reeds…’
At this he was furious. Frighteningly angry as he stood up and stalked out of the bar.
Someone then told me that recently his flatmate had been depressed and had drowned himself in a nearby estuary.
Is that why I write?

About writing ‘Atlantic Exchange’

It is not uncommon when reading the biography of someone like Sylvia Plath, to fantasise about saving her from her final act of self destruction. Depressed as Plath was, it is easy to imagine her getting through that last terrible winter and awakening to a spring that heralded a very different world; one that, casting off the last shackles of post war convention and conservatism, she would have embraced.
It’s been suggested by many people that putting her head in the gas oven was a cry for help – that a new au pair or mother’s help was due to arrive the next morning – early enough to raise both the alarm and Lady Lazurus from the dead. If that was the case then it was a deadly gamble.
The idea of saving Sylvia is of course pure speculation – as useless as staying Dylan’s hand as he drains his last glass of whisky dry.
Two poets then, who died too young; one directly by her own hand, the other indirectly – though the reckless self-destructive drinking, smoking and general self neglect is just as efficient, just as final.
I can’t remember when I discovered that Sylvia Plath attempted to meet Dylan Thomas during her Bell Jar month in New York. Possibly it was in Linda W. Wagner-Martin’s 1988 biography, but the reference was unemphatic, so that it slipped by, a vaguely interesting fact that was actually a non-event and non-events by their nature gather in multitudes and must be set aside as meaningless. I must have read further references to this in other books, so that the non-event gained weight and the heft of it seemed to drag on the tightrope of fate, creating a sort of bulge – a kink in time.
What if she had met him? The more I considered it, the less it seemed a random coincidence. Just the fact of their being in the same city for an overlapping period of 24 or 48 hours between her arriving in New York on the 31st May 1953 and Dylan leaving on the 1st or 2nd June. Cyrilly Abels was the key who made the possibility of their meeting less random. Sylvia worked directly under Cyrilly Abels and Abels knew Dylan Thomas and during that period was ardently pursuing him so that Mademoiselle magazine could publish the new play Under Milk Wood in its entirety (which it eventually did in February of 1954).
Sylvia Plath’s image is often at odds with her writing, but strict conventions (such as those imposed by Mademoiselle) demanded hats and gloves and evening gowns, disguised the bitch-goddess behind the smile.
And again I return to what if they had met – might they, like comets colliding in deepest space have thrown each other off orbit so that their respective fates were altered. Might there not be a grand event in Cwmdonkin – a joint birthday party for two elderly poets this October 27th 2014 – Sir Dylan Thomas a hundred years old – remarkable! And Dame Sylvia Plath, 82 – a grand old lady of letters, numerous collections of poems and several novels forming her lifelong achievement.
If they had met I can’t imagine them in love, despite his stature as a poet she wouldn’t have fallen for him, but perhaps falling in love was not what either needed in order to be saved – that is why as I began to create my story they merely sit companionably side by side in Central Park. The park, as all parks are or are meant to be, creating a refuge from the hustle and bustle of real life, an Elysium field, a serpent-free Eden for our poets – outside of space and time.
And if the two are sitting there what could be more natural than for Sylvia to give the horse an apple (which appears out of nowhere as if she’s plucked it from the sky in one of Magritte’s paintings).
And then along comes Vivian Maier, nanny and utterly unknown photographer, whose work was only discovered in 2007 after the contents of her storage unit were auctioned off – all those paper wallets of cheap drug store prints, undeveloped film and more than 100,000 negatives, that formerly only one person ever saw as a body of work – the photographer herself. As the hoard was split into small lots some images may have been lost and so it’s perfectly possible that Vivian (in the imagined place of my story) did photograph the two of them together, not knowing who they were (Sylvia was unknown then anyway) but just liking the composition, the way the light fell. It crossed my mind to put Diane Arbus into this story too, but my research couldn’t quite pin down her whereabouts during the crucial period – like Maier she wandered through Central Park taking pictures – but any photograph she chose to print would have rendered Thomas and Plath freakish and strange – so the gentler, more mysterious and nearly invisible Mayer better suited the story.
Finally there is the scene of their meeting at the Hotel Chelsea. Outside on the sidewalk, like a desperately hungry soul that has transported itself miraculously across the Atlantic, waits Dylan’s daughter, Aeronwy. She stands there aching to be noticed, to be with her father, but he sees her, blinks and she is gone. Then suddenly it is 9 year old Sylvia waiting for her father, wanting to get back to him. The two bereaved daughters are like mirrors of one another, hurt and helpless, like dreamers who cannot wake from a nightmare.