|The University of Newcastle|
We take our place at the place of writing. Ranged around the vacant centre of the room, pen and paper, hands unclenched, listening, hovering over the silent keys, waiting for the first chords, the ghost-notes. Conductor without a score, I listen hard for a clue as to where we will go today. Writing is an act of listening, learning to tune in to what Seamus Heaney calls 'the music of what happens' (Heaney 1990: 127), and the role of the creative writing teacher is to engage the student writer in the practice of solitary listening. I feel for the pulse, the temperature, read the faces, trying to hear the breath of the stories, the poems. They are there, locked in the tundra, veins of it embedded in hard rock, waiting to be mined.
How can the writing teacher help his or her students unearth the stories?
How to free these beginning writers into their own voices? The danger
of any writing class is that the tenets by which the teacher operates
become the faith of the students, and it is the fear of many writing teachers
that the students end up sounding like them. I am guilty of promoting
the existential view of writing - writing as a way of making real our
lives, confirming that we are here, alive and making creative decisions.
I incline towards poems and stories with a strong autobiographical thread.
I have to remind myself not to bring Raymond Carver too often to class,
remind myself not to dictate the kind of work that will emerge. I try
to create the space in which the students can discover clues to where
to take the writing. I want to nudge them into the solitude in which they
listen and learn to ask the crucial questions about their art.
I begin by suggesting that we are beginning a journey here. I tell them
what I see in the middle of the room, the middle ground of our lives,
where our solitudes are ranged round, bordering each other, bordering
on that empty quarter where the words will emerge. I see silence, a whole
desertful and mountainload of it, and this silence echoes the solitude
in which we wait. Attend. We are each alone, yet bound by the quest: this
is the paradox of the writing place - that the writing has to inhabit
both a solitary and communal space, that the poem or story emerges from
a private source and becomes more itself in the shared space of the workshop.
I tell them that in the centre of the room is our Mount Kailash, Mount
Meru, a black stone around which we will perambulate for the rest of the
year, for the rest of our lives maybe. Somewhere in
the centre is 'the still point of the turning world', to use Eliot's imageless
image (Eliot 1963: 191). I tell them about Cézanne,
who surveyed his mountain for years, chronicling its moods, its faces,
prospecting, picking at it, his palette, till the mountain moves his brushes,
till the mountain rests in the heart of his work. I tell them we will
plan our route of advance, plot the climb and let our words print out
each escarpment, each crevasse, each cliff face till the mountain reveals
itself, in the middle of the room.
I tell them we will try to find the centre of the mountain, write from its heart, the centre of our lives. I tell them about Hanshan who roams up and down his mountain, printing poems on trees and rocks. I tell them we have to find each our personal mountain, the place of solitude, the place of writing. And a good place to start is from the centre of our lives.
How do we start? Raymond Carver reveals that 'everything we write, is
in some way, autobiographical' (quoted in Edwards 2001:
47). I like the idea of writing as wiring, making neural connections,
as we print out the words on the blank page, from the fingers up along
the arm and synaptic conduits to the place where everything we have lived
and imagined is stored. Writing is an act of coherence-making,
'a momentary stay against confusion', to use Robert Frost's famous words
(Frost 1959: 18). I urge them to go back, to re-search
the beginnings. As an incantation to prepare us, we recall Robert Frost's
'Directive', the poem about rediscovering the hiding places of childhood,
and the release resulting from that reclamation: 'Here
are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond
confusion' (Frost 1973: 212).
To know where we are, who we have become, we have to go back to the beginnings.
I suggest we retrace our steps, dig back to the first
moments when we became conscious of our finitude, the moment of our being-turned-towards-death.
I try Elizabeth Bishop's 'In the Waiting Room' as
bait, that terrifying moment when Bishop experiences the void, the cosmic
terror, her aloneness in the face of death. We abandon ourselves to the
dark currents travelling into the past, to when we first became christened
by the knowledge of death.
Cassandra, a retired administrator, is already on her way. She is always early, never misses a session. Her posture is erect, but she has a stooped look, the diffident air of a late-starter. Her thin lips are pursed, pinched in thought, the lines around her mouth etched in determination, but an uncertainty hovers over it. She is writing or rewriting herself into being after what she calls 'a living death of thirty years'. She is discovering, in quiet ecstasy, that she can save herself, salvage the moments, redeem the time, even at this late stage. She digs into the inscrutable terrain, armed with tools she never had before, words. Though a late starter, she is well ahead of us already. This is what she has retrieved:
We are stunned by how the whole poem has arrived, the dark mineral ore
of it loaded on the freight of the words. Cassandra, in her retrospective
augury, has brought us back to a dark night of soul in which she is seized
by sudden realization of her future death. We are silenced by what Martin
Buber calls 'the encounter', the turning of the self towards the other.
For a fleeting moment, there is meeting, our entire
being coming face to face with the being that is Cassandra. All living
is in the meeting, Buber says (Buber 1970: 100). What
we have just experienced is our encountering Cassandra encountering the
place between her writing and being. Bishop is there, in the cadence,
the movement of the lines towards the vertiginous discovery; but the poem
is firmly planted in Cassandra's childhood and her
own voice is there, tentative but audible.
We are beginners all, Rilke reminds us (Rilke 1993: 54). I talk about Eliot's Four Quartets, about how the four movements recapitulate the beginning. Eliot says: 'In my beginning is my end' (Eliot 1963: 196). We have to go back to the first smells, the first colours, first images, the first wounds, the first deaths. Amy, she has travelled well the last two months. She has abandoned the science fiction realm where she had been writing herself into unreality. Now the theme is beginnings and what better place to start from than with fathers. The past few private sessions have started her on a different journey, in which she begins to seek an authentic relationship with her writing, in which rather than create virtual worlds which deny her reality, she is beginning to map what she knows, what she has known. The father poems I have been priming them with are now triggering a flood of father memories. Raymond Carver's 'Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year' seems to stay with them, its snapshot simplicity striking deep chords. We contemplate the photographic image, how it is a site of loss and remembrance, the life preserved in it an ironic reminder of death. For one who has not read or written much poetry, these two father poems possess what Lorca calls duende: they have got soul:
I feel the father in those poems has reached out and touched us. Out
of the broken ground of the past, she has released this ghost, found the
snapshot to contain that moment between life and death, or beyond them.
We are moved by the elegies, silenced by that which is beyond speech.
Witnessing the emergence of these poems, I know nothing is impossible
in this place of writing: the revelations, the conversions, the blindness
and seeing. From robots and humanoids, Amy has stumbled into the embrace
of her father and home. I can feel the jouissance as she reads
what has come to her, the deep ecstasy that writing has occasioned, even
though the subject is grief, death.
I let the fathers rule the workshop, ply them with more father poems like Mark Strand's 'Elegy for My Father'. The fathers, dead, alive or absent, start to appear in a few more poems. I like to believe that Amy's father-spirit has called to the buried father in Maria's poems. Maria is from Sweden and at this distance, she is able to summon her long-lost father:
She wants to move on to the short story, but I see her father's ghost
is still unappeased. I urge her to stay with him, let the images unveil
themselves, let the sunken memories float to the surface. A few days later,
she brings us more portraits of the past.
She says that writing the poems in English has given her an enabling
distance, freed her into a relationship with the past that does not deny
the pain but affords forgiveness and love. Her Scandinavian English is
sharp, heavily accented, the grammar and syntax strange in some places,
but the emotions are palpable, resonant, honest. We are drawn by the poem's
unflinching gaze, its lyric voice, the snapshot clarity of the key images.
We humbly point out the unEnglish constructions which in a strange way
add to the poignancy of the poems, and wonder if poetry is what is lost
in translation, how Maria's poems would emerge if written in her native
Today Amanda comes and says she is leaving the program. She has tried
to squeeze out the words, but nothing will come. Her voice has a fragile
edge, she has been through a separation, and her health is faltering.
She is trying to write about the pain of the divorce,
the betrayal. I stumble, fumble around about art not being therapy; yet,
I give her John Updike's 'Separating'. In
the workshop we deal with the confessionals, how Lowell detested the
term. He was the first to admit art did nothing to heal. He asks: 'Is
getting well ever an art / or art a way of getting well?' (Lowell
Amanda is still unable to find the language adequate to the pain. I think she has to go further back and ask about her childhood. If the present paralyses, perhaps you have to go further back to the hiding places, to the dark places of childhood. We agree to wait for the images to surface. Then she emails me this scene:
The scene tracks the family rupture, the child's withdrawing into the inner room of her self. I urge her to hold the focus in the third person and to keep the reel moving. Frame by frame the scenes are emerging, and we do not talk about whether it is fiction or fact.
John Keats says that 'if poetry comes not as naturally
as the leaves to trees it had better not come at all' (Keats
1967: 23). Writing is about waiting, being attentive, about listening
to the intimations, like the patient listener in Keats'
'To Autumn'. Not forcing the words. Nicolas Malebranche remarks: 'Attentiveness
is the natural prayer of the soul' (quoted in Benjamin
1999: 812). I pray for this prayerful state in the room; I urge us
to attend so that we may hear the music of the spheres, the shifting chords
of light, the wavebands of smell, and the passing of angels on way from
here to here. I want them to feel through the medium of their writing
the possibility of the other realm. The presence of the ineffable, the
intimations of the angel or Orpheus, the flutter, the breath, the movement
in and out of time, or the intersection of time with the timeless. I wish
for them the state of being possessed, entranced, induced into a dark
cloud of knowing or unknowing.
We are mediums, awaiting the visitation of the duende, waiting to be consumed by the fire of language. We talk about possession, about inspiration being like the visitation of angels. I show them Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, the scene in the library, where the angels eavesdrop on the conversations the readers have with books. How writing opens up a way into the other realm, where we become something other. Joanna seems to have found her angel; she is laying out the words in a trance almost. She does not read the words in class but a few days later we look at it together:
She says she is writing to someone she has loved and lost long ago, but
as she writes it turns into someone whom she may have never met but whom
Some days I fear that the fire could not light, that the synapses would not connect, that the words would not bait, that we would miss Gerard Manley Hopkins' 'the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation' (Hopkins 1985: 68). Then I abandon the lesson plan, the hoard of thoughts and quotes from the masters, and let the spirit of the place take over. I quieten myself and listen. I note the blue hour outside, the winter evening. Just before class I listened to Joni Mitchell's 'Blue'. That was the chord for the class, blue. All things blue came to the room, Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue', lapis, Kiezlovksy, Picasso, Chagall, the blues. The blueness of the hour seep into their minds, carry them into their own kind of blue! Cassandra picks up her brushes and immediately paints:
There are days when the workshop turns savage, bent on tearing apart,
unwriting a poem, and then there are days when we are too timid, courteous,
too easy to please, too ready to approve. I try to adjust the frequency
and make us listen harder. The workshop critiquing prefers the I-It relationship,
which turns the work into an object, an artefact we scrutinise for flaws
or genius. We shut our minds to the person behind it. We apply the clinical
touches, dissect and reassemble. When the writing is contrived and the
false note overwhelming, and nothing will salvage it, the critic comes
to the fore, brandishing the surgical tools. The writing place becomes
a veritable workshop.
But always the writing practice disarms us, brings us back to the meeting
ground, the place where we all begin again, the place of writing where
we turn to each other and yet are fully engaged with ourselves.
Sometimes nothing comes; we draw a blank, like a bad poem. I take these
bad days, these bad poems, as preparation, drafts for the good days. I
take it as a sign that we have to go back to our beginnings, to the waiting,
to the reading to discover the voice that sponsors and defines our voice.
We go back to Carver for example, in so many respects the writers' writer, to relearn the fundamentals. We take heart from 'Fires', where Carver revisits his early years as a writer, saddled with early fatherhood and the need to write. And then his posthumously published piece 'Kindling', about a man called Myers who is 'between lives' (Carver 2000: 7), a recovering alcoholic who finds release in chopping wood and in words. At the close of the story, Myers starts writing in his notebook, recording the day that has just passed, and feeling the appeasing power of the words:
Patrick, who has been juggling parenthood and writing, and is building a house with his own hands, finds a precedent, an exemplar in Carver to reconcile the conflicting demands of life and art. The story emerges of a man also 'between lives', and who also finds assuagement in the writing:
It is a moment of clarity, albeit fleeting. When life and writing meet in an affirmative balance, the writer achieves a moment of epiphany in which the hearts of the reader and writer are 'moved off the peg just a little from where they were before' (Carver 2000: 201-2).
Creative writing teachers are fishers of images. I try all kinds of bait. I cast lures with lines from songs, poems, lone words and postcards. We encourage the close encounter between reader and writer, the illusion that the stories and poems that speak to us seem to be written for us, intended as messages and clues for us to find our own way. Pastiche is creative imitation, or imitative creation. It is a liberating act, travelling on the voice of a writer till you find your own velocity, your own trajectory. Today April writes from somewhere in Illinois. We miss her lively insights, her quick grasp of the nuances and tones. She is facing a block, and despairs of completing her portfolio. I say there is no such thing as a writer's block. That this is just a halt, a time for stocktaking, for things to grow and reveal themselves. I send her Elizabeth Bishop's poem 'The End of March' and recommend she takes the first lines for a launch pad. A few days later I receive this:
Close to the end of the semester, she writes to say that her grandfather
has died and her being away and not being able to say goodbye has halted
her work. She fears not being able to complete her portfolio. I ask her
what it is like there now, in Kirksville in Illinois. She says it is snowing,
the first flakes. I suggest she takes a walk out there, breathe, take
deep breaths, forget writing, reading, do nothing, just walk, breathe,
walk, breathe, count one two, one two, life, death, death, life.
A day later, she says she has found her grandfather in the snow:
The elegy, as real poems do, brings us to a place where words give way to the music of silence, where we approach the unsayable and bow before it.
Now as the sessions draw to a close, I turn them towards the mountain,
the empty quarter, the wilderness in the middle of the room. I pose them
the question which Rilke would have his young poet confront: Can you not
live without writing? (Rilke 1993: 19). I ask then if their writing has
moved, if they have moved, whether the words have helped, made them aware.
I tell them about Peter Matthiessen's
The Snow Leopard, how not finding the snow leopard is the meaning,
for we live in what we seek. I utter the cliché that the journey
may be more important than the goal, the pauses on the path, the stumbling,
the detours, the long way.
Then I share with them a poem I have written, a poem which seems to have been ghostwritten, as if every one in the class has just piled on the mani or prayer stones with each orbit of the mountain, and it had grown into a cairn, an improvised stupa. In a way, it has been written by every pilgrim in the class, the spirit that has sustained and spoken to us for the past year:
I don't know why I chose the sestina. Maybe it has to do with the ritualistic pattern of the workshop: we take turns to read the stories, the poems, the life-writing, and a good session is like a sacramental act in which we are changed by the words we read and write. I tell them I do not know what the mountain is or why we circle around it, but the questions keep us moving, keep the writing coming. Sometimes it feels as if I am the one whose writing life needs validation, that these student writers are here to sustain me. In fact, after each workshop, I feel emptied, but at the same time nourished, full.
In Peter Brooks' film adaptation
of Gurdjieff's Meetings with Remarkable Men, dervishes, magicians,
shamans, singers, storytellers congregate somewhere in the Pamirs in Afghanistan
for a kind of corroboree. It has been a long time since I saw
the film; I did not like it very much and liked the book less. But the
opening scene has strangely remained with me, not as it was in the film,
but translated into a scene that hovers between memory and dream. In my
version, the storytellers of different tribes and stripes descend from
the highlands to a conference place, marked by a fire. This fire is maintained
through the duration of the gathering. The bards and raconteurs take turns
to take the stage, delivering their tales with flourish and some with
talismanic aids. There is no prize to be won. The storytellers convene
with the stories in reverence to tradition, to the spirit of the place,
so that the land listens and is kept happy with the human stories. Meanwhile
the fire burns. Does the fire burn because it is fed by the words, or
does the fire feed the words? No one knows.
We seek the fire, the influences, the tutelary spirits. We keep the mountain in the middle. It may be a peak in the Pamirs or the Himalayas. Or it may be our Uluru. Each his or her personal mountain. The coordinates are in the stories and poems we read, and the ones waiting for us to write, and they are here in this place of writing.
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Kelson, April (2004a) 'November.' Initio: An Anthology of Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle. Kim C. Boey (ed). Newcastle: Uniwrite. Return to text
Kelson, April (2004b) 'Requiem.' Initio: An Anthology of Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle. Kim C. Boey (ed). Newcastle: Uniwrite. Return to text
Lorca, Federico García (1979) 'The Duende: Theory and Divertissement.' The Poet's Work: 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry on the Origins and Practice of Their Art. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Return to text
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Kim Cheng Boey is lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. This paper has developed out of a paper first presented at the 2003 AAWP conference at the University of New South Wales.
Vol 9 No 2 October 2005
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb