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.

Advertisements

American Snapshots 2: Something Real

nan g

A woman enters a bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London. The shop specialises in art books, many of them expensive; even paperback editions and more so imported ones. Outside it’s a dry dusty day sometime in 1986, double-decker buses trundle up and down the road heading south towards the river or north to Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. The pavements carry waves of people; Londoners, workers, tourists, students, shoppers. The woman moves casually over to a central display table, hovering as if uncertain of what she is looking for, but this is a disguise – the first of many. Despite giving the impression that she is browsing, she has come here for a distinct purpose, which, while it isn’t theft might be considered by some shopkeepers as almost the same as theft and certainly, not a thing to be encouraged. She selects a recently published American photographer’s monograph and, resting it on a pile of books, she first looks at its cover then slowly, savouring each one in turn, she begins to turn the pages. Her eyes travel over every photograph in the book, noticing new details or finding that a previously overlooked image has suddenly increased its impact. Those pictures which are very explicit – a naked man masturbating, a couple making love, for example – she turns the page on quickly. Bad enough to be caught looking with no intention to buy, even worse, if you are apparently mesmerized by the elaborate swirling patterns of black hair on a young man’s pale body while he casually, gracefully even, touches himself.
She has done this, looked at this one particular book, at least twice before. She wants to possess this book – to buy it – but it is beyond her means. She wouldn’t steal it – too scared to risk that – so she steals it this way instead. By stealth; by turning its pages, by lingering, staring, memorizing, absorbing with unparalleled awe the audacity, the daring of these images, the way a very intimate world has been recorded and – by means of this book – disseminated. Cock and cunt, tears and laughter, bruises and blackened teeth, Monopoly games and shooting up, babies and beaches and bars.
All of these photos have been taken by an American woman called Nan Goldin and the images are of her circle of friends and family, mostly in and around New York City, but also in places like London and Berlin. No one says ‘no’ to Nan and her camera it seems; no one raises a protesting arm to block their image, to catch the bleaching glare of the flash in the palm of their hand.
Nan Goldin is not the first photographer to create a body of work that is both autobiography and documentary; Larry Clark did it before with his book, ‘Tulsa’ (1971) and while Clark’s friends shoot up, play with guns, ‘wait for the man’, get naked and encounter death, it’s all presented in grainy, gritty black and white – the traditional medium for any serious documentary photography and one which gives a degree of distance between what is seen in the pictures and the here and now. The photos in Goldin’s book, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (1986) are all in dazzling colour and might have been taken yesterday. Turning the pages, certain faces and names are repeated; Nan herself, Suzanne, Brian, Cookie. Stories, or at least their traces can be discerned, most particularly Nan’s story, which includes friendship, love and sex, and then, starkly, shockingly getting beaten up. Not that the act itself is seen, only its aftereffects on her face; the swollen lips and nose, the terrible, hurt eyes flooded with blood and shadowed by discolouring bruises. Her captions are often minimal and blandly factual; this one says, ‘Nan after being battered, 1984.’
The woman standing in the Charing Cross Road bookshop in 1986, stealing a look at this work is herself a mainly self-taught photographer. She is around the same age as Goldin and earns her living as a graphic designer on magazines. Sometimes she gets the chance to go on photographic assignments, taking photographs of political demonstrations, of dancers, writers, actors, artists. Her work is predominantly black and white. She gets her film developed and contact sheets made by a photo lab down an alley off Oxford Street. She is always excited to collect her negatives – back then, before digital cameras; there was always a delay between shooting pictures and seeing them which increased the anticipation. In her mind’s eye she has a rough memory of the pictures she has taken, but sometimes a particular shot may be marred by something being out of focus, or by camera shake or a faulty exposure – by then of course the moment is passed, you can’t reshoot. She collects her negatives early in the morning, on her way across London to work, allowing enough time to go to a café where she opens the envelope with hungry trepidation. She uses a yellow wax pencil to mark up the contact sheet; a large cross through rejected pictures, a happy box around successes and on others lines and cross hatching that indicate how an image might be cropped.
Sometime before, she had attended a week-long workshop in Derbyshire, run by Paul Hill and led by Martin Parr. Brian Griffin, renowned for his surreal editorial portraits in magazines and on record jackets, was also meant to be there, but cancelled due to a family crisis. This was a disappointment, as it was the promise of Griffin that had persuaded her to enroll on the course. At one point Parr had shown the group his recent work – colour slides in gaudy colour – images of brash seaside places, where people wear cheap nylon clothes, surrounded by garish signage, while their children paddle in water bobbing with a tide of washed up plastic and polystyrene packaging. The images are shocking; brazenly banal and unflinching – almost to the point of cruelty.
Later in the week attendees are invited to have one-to-one sessions with Parr during which he reviews the portfolios of work they have brought. When it is her turn he is entirely and obviously uninterested in her black and white efforts whose aim and subject matter are inconsistent and scattered. She feels not only disappointment, but a measure of shame – shame for even daring to show them, or for ever undertaking the workshop.
After this she made an effort to be more consistent; set herself a documentary project, but still resisted the leap to colour, partly because of the cost, partly because she was still enamoured with black and white photography, its simplifying graphic qualities and the control she has when making enlargements in the darkroom.
She stands in the bookshop, turning the pages of Goldin’s book with awe, seeing the future, but still not able to change her own practice.
Time passes. Now she is working for another magazine, and happens to notice on the book editor’s desk – a shining new copy of ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. It has arrived with an invitation to interview the photographer, Nan Goldin, who is in London because the slideshow of her work is due to be shown at the ICA. No one from the magazine is planning to take up the invitation to meet Goldin, so she asks if she might. The response is a shrug of the shoulders – sure, why not? Though they won’t publish the interview and offer her instead a two hundred word blurb to go along with one of the pictures from the book. She contacts another magazine and asks them if she can do the interview for them – she feels she must have the legitimacy of a definite feature before she contacts the press office at the ICA – they agree.
She’s conducted interviews before and taken photographs to accompany articles, she’s travelled to different parts of London, gone to publishers’ offices, hotels, theatres, studios and found herself face to face with famous and not so famous strangers, most of whom are kind and obliging, submitting themselves to her camera lens and carrying out her instructions to sit there, look here, turn towards the light. They trust her. She acts with confidence in these situations. Another of these disguises, this confidence – inside she’s a bag of jittery nerves, fearful of messing up, of being unmasked as an impersonator – not the genuine article at all. But of course, unlike the person who pretends to be a brain surgeon or a pilot, the impersonation of a photographer (as long as there is film in the camera) transforms the actor into the real thing.
She’s goes to the ICA at the appointed time, taking with her a portable cassette, a list of questions and her camera loaded with black and white film.
The woman she meets at the gallery is glowing with life and health and positive spirit, and welcomes her warmly. Goldin had recently turned her life around, going into rehab, where one of the first things they did was deny her use of her camera. In New York she had lived for years either a nocturnal existence or one conducted in rooms and apartments with boarded up windows and thus many of her images were taken with flash. She explained how during recovery she had rediscovered light and thus, in recent self portraits she had shown herself with daylight streaming into the hospital room, almost, but not quite, receiving the light like a contemporary Danaë seduced in a shower of gold.
Goldin talked about her slide show; the way her work had developed, the way it was meant to be seen, of how she was strongly influenced by the 1962 Chris Marker film, ‘La jetée’ – a narrative film (that prefigured and influenced ‘Twelve Monkeys’) which is entirely made up of still images. Goldin’s slide show had a musical soundtrack, ‘I’ll be your Mirror’, ‘Downtown’, ‘This is a Man’s World’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – the choice of song adding to and indicating the subject matter on the screen.
Nan talks about her older sister’s suicide over twenty years before, an event which was and is an abiding influence in her life. The two women are alone in a dimly lit auditorium, the interviewer (in her disguise) whose tape machine is still purring along, suddenly has the impression that their conversation has strayed into confidences which Goldin might not want made public. Is it some strange inbred British reserve of hers which makes her think this? Or politeness? Or inexperience – her confident disguise of worldly reporter slipping slightly?
She has forgotten perhaps that in Nan’s introduction to ‘The Ballad’ she had not only written about her sister’s death, but reproduced a snapshot of her standing outside the family home. The revelation, or what had sounded like a revelation, was already out there. It was no secret to be jealously guarded. Where is the borderline between the public and the private? How is it utterly stripped away for some individuals and kept intact for others? Does it depend on the life changing trauma of a family member’s suicide, after which secrecy and silence and control are abandoned? The place of suburban conformity blown apart.
Or is it something to do with the American psyche, which is not constrained by politeness, or class, or tradition. Or just the difference between these two women, one of them in the disguise of someone more legitimately there (because otherwise she will fall apart), the other who has no disguise whatsoever, but whose ‘no disguise’ might be like an inverted version of the emperor’s new clothes?
Nan had written about wanting her eye to be her camera, for there to be ‘no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing’. The other woman had wanted this too, but more perhaps because of a wish to be invisible, or at least invisible in terms of taking photographs, because unlike Nan’s lovers and friends, she is certain those close to her would not wish to recorded at all and every moment, caught forever, irrevocably, a butterfly skewered on a pin.
‘How do your friends feel about the pictures you take of them?’ the interviewer says, reading from her list of scribbled questions.
‘Nothing is taken without their complete collaboration. There has to be trust. They always know and often initiate it. The problem is, sometimes people go through periods of personal revision where they don’t want aspects of their lives to be shown, so I try to respect that. One of my big motivations is to leave a record that nobody can revise, because both personally and socially I come from a revisionist culture where history is constantly rewritten.’
The interview comes to its close; the interviewer asks if she can take her subject’s photograph. Nan agrees and says she’d like a cigarette, maybe they could go outside? In the afternoon light they sit together smoking, chatting now about alternative communities in the US and the UK, about Tepee Valley in Wales and the convoy and Thatcher and Reagan and AIDs. Broken dreams and broken promises.
Then the time comes to take the photograph. In their respective practice, one of them photographs what is there, is real, is a moment out of time. The other creates it, art directs it, choosing a location, relying on natural light, asking her subject to sit in such a way, to direct his or her gaze in a particular direction. One of these women is already a success, is on her way to world renown, the other is a shadow. Now on the broad flight of steps next to the ICA, the shadow is lifting her camera and photographing the photographer. There’s a roll of black and white film in her SLR and a wide angle lens fitted. The steps provide an interesting graphic effect, receding into the background like an exercise in perspective. The American woman sits on the steps. She is very relaxed and comfortable, easy in her own body. Two, three, possibly four shots are taken, and they’re done.
They part company, each thanking the other. One promising to send the published article to the other when it comes out.
But it never does – the magazine that in a sense sponsored the whole affair decides that it can’t be of any interest to its readers as no one knows who this American woman, Nan Goldin is.
Time passes. Shadows shrink and grow, the sun rises and falls many times over. Nan’s fame and influence grows. She is celebrated for her honesty, her single minded vision, originality and consistency – then damned by some for the same.
The other woman takes a different path, moves home several times, loses the original cassette on which she recorded the interview, misplaces the written transcript and the negatives for the portrait, mysteriously has only one half of the written up article and can only lay her hands on one print from the photos she took. It’s in a frame, she has to remove the tape and pull out the framer’s points to open it up. She places it on the glass surface of the scanner. It’s over twenty years since she took it. But here it is – something real.

American Snapshots

nan g
Everything’s broken. As one of the characters in Jennifer Egan’s A visit from the Good Squad, reasons, ‘Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!’ All because of digitization – its effects on production and the economic ramifications of free downloads, the question of truth, value and the new uncertain models of the culture industry.
Looking at Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency again in 2011, I can’t help but notice its similarity to Facebook – of this, now common, act of flicking through someone else’s photo album. On Facebook you can set your security so only friends or friends of friends see your pictures – in the beginning that’s how it was for Goldin – she took photographs, first sharing them physically with her circle in Boston, the drugstore prints passing from hand to hand, or pinned to a wall, then later as a tape-slide projection with musical soundtrack shown at the very same places where some of the shots were taken, and watched by many of the people whose images were shown. Like a room filled with mirrors endlessly repeating the faces seen and the faces watching.
Once upon a time photographers (back when they weren’t busy calling themselves ‘lens-based artists’) were distinct from the rest of the camera owning population, because they took the whole business seriously, and this seriousness might be defined by its economics. A photographer, as opposed to a snap shooter, had more expensive cameras, paid for better film, bought a whole array of gadgets – tripods, flash units, lenses, filters, studio lights, darkroom equipment and so on – this meant that generally the images they made was of a better quality than those who hadn’t invested as much.

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.