Are you comfortably numb?

Sunday, August 20, 2006

I want to be Nick Hornby

There are times in life (and these happen to be depressingly frequent) when I am consumed by hopeless inadequacy and inexpressible inspiration, all at once. I can be captivated by something in such a way that, for one beautiful moment of clarity, I am sure the sole reason I was born was to spend as much blood and sweat and tears and toil and heartache as is necessary striving to create just a shadow of it. Yet I am simultaneously enveloped by a thick, dark cloud of unrelenting inferiority. For me, there is nothing that evokes this cocktail of emotion more than reading a good piece of writing.

I don’t think it’s the same with songs. There are so many different genres of music, so many instruments, so many effects you can add in, and so many people available for collaboration, that to me each song written takes on an unavoidably unique persona, and the listener is able to soak up this persona without feeling vastly inadequate for not being able to produce an identical sound. Someone can listen to Santana and not feel inferior at all because they want to sound like Devendra Banhart instead. Of course, they could feel inferior listening to Devendra Banhart, but then they can just go away and listen to something else different and remind themselves that music can take any form its creator wants it to, and still be considered good. And if all else fails, they can just stick on some Jose Gonzalez, and figure out that one only needs to be capable of poor imitation to hit the big time.

With writing, not so. All wordsmiths are just that. The tools available are but one – language. This is a blunt axe without the skill of craftsmanship. A piece of writing can invoke an almost spiritual pleasure in me, the kind of pleasure which is magical and soulful and sometimes painful, and is swiftly followed by the piercing knowledge that I myself, although receptor of this gift, cannot bestow it upon anyone else. Good writing goes straight to my heart and a carefully crafted sentence can move me to as deep an emotion as anything else in life. Words have an intangible and mysterious power over me. How frustrating, then, that I cannot master the very things that rule me. Words are an intricate yet unyielding cage that I have constructed around myself. I am caught up in an abusive love affair… “do do do doo, da da da da…” Maybe Sting had a point.

I’m sure even the best authors had similar moments. Even the Steinbecks and Fitzgeralds of literary history, the masterful tamers of language that I now read with awe and misery combined must have had their share of rejection and disappointment and perhaps even despair. And unlike most people’s perception, writing is not the easy transferral of a whim from brain or heart to paper or the fluid progression of an idea from thought to fingers. It is the combination of raw talent and ruthless, self-destructive reworking. It is the willingness to weed out the obstinate weaknesses in your work and to spend as long as is necessary replacing them with something vaguely worth reading. It is possessing the mental and emotional power to be one’s strictest critic and editor.

It is one thing to write an article about politics, or the state of society, or how to feed your pet rabbit properly. It is another to write about someone’s life, or to catalogue your own, or to record an historical event. But it is perhaps the most sought-after, and thus elusive, skill to be able to write the human experience, to use these strange curly shapes and straight lines to make the intangible tangible. Those deepest feelings that you sometimes cannot even understand yourself, those observations that the reader did not even know they could relate to until they found them penned by a fellow human being – these are what I want to be able to write. If you don’t know what I mean, I’m talking about what your heart looks like when you hear the first notes of the soundtrack of a film that makes you cry, or when you say goodbye to someone who makes you feel like life is life, or when you realise that a betrayal has occurred, or when you look at someone you love and know that something, somewhere is imperceptibly but terribly changed. I want to be able to write the look in someone’s eyes, two people’s fingers brushing together, a child seeing his mother cry and pretend not to. I want to write the stuff of life that ‘you can’t put into words’, the feelings that ‘you can’t express’. There are people who can indeed express these things and you read them and you want to weep and laugh at the same time, because someone else has understood, and understood in such a way that they have made the impossible and nonsensical translation of the conceptual to the concrete. I want to write about the feelings that are the lines and wrinkles on life’s face; writing about the features is all very well, but it’s not where the pain and the joy and the uncertainty lie. It is doubtful that I will ever be able to. This is just evidence of my fallibility. But I’ll keep trying because as long as I’m still reading, I’ll still be writing.

P.S. I am really embarrassed about posting this. But I just want some CONSTRUCTIVE feedback. Thanks.


  • Hi, Bec.

    There's lots I'd like to say, and perhaps I will at some stage, but for now I'll just stick to: don't be embarrassed if something as important as expressing what it means to be human matters to you.

    By Blogger Paul (probably - maybe Liz), at 4:33 pm  

  • Hmm by the way everyone, I'm aware I haven't put anything about God/Christianity in there, and obviously all those feelings occur within the framework of knowing my identity is in Christ and God's love for me as his child, and not my ability in human or worldly terms, but that's still how I FELT when I wrote it, and just because I have a greater assurance doesn't change that human feeling!

    By Blogger Bec, at 4:35 pm  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Blogger mamaluke, at 1:39 am  

  • Your thoughts just got to prove that our God has creatively created us to be creative. We should continue to be inspired by his creation and the God honouring creations of his ultimate creation - man. Our feelings of inadequecy should be a momentary thing, inspiring us to greater things and a reminder of our earthly mortality. Your desire to create the "stuff of life" in writing, it was once a desire of mine too, but using film rather than words.... maybe one day... (ask me to show you my degree fim when you come to stay). Keep the faith, keep creating, love ruth x

    By Blogger mamaluke, at 1:41 am  

  • Wow- an excellent post I must say, and quite a humbling read, doing the course that I do, to see someone with such a passion for writing and mastery of words. I'm afraid I don't have any tips on expressing the inexpressible- I really struggle to create characters that aren't just bland objects to help move the plot along, so I do feel your pain from time to time, especially when amongst great craftsmen and more passionate writers than myself.
    The only advice I can give is on the redrafting/editing side of things- be brutal!! I've touched on this a little on my blog, but the most helpful thing I've found when writing is having other people pointing out the bits that don't work and then ripping them out myself, putting new bits in and demolishing those in turn until something readable comes out of it. Don't expect it to come out right first time, about the best quote I've come across on my course comes from Ernest Hemingway who said - "First drafts are Sh**!"

    All the best with it- if there's any other would be writers out there we could maybe form some kind of e-mail group and send each other stuff to look at or whatever.

    By Blogger A figleaf of your imagination, at 12:41 pm  

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