.Catherine Dunne
There was a story book that I used to love as a small child.
I can see its cover still: crammed with lurid, shiny images of gods and goddesses and all the superheroes of old. From Artemis to Zeus, from Jason to Paris to Helen of Troy, the myths and legends of ancient Greece and Rome gripped my imagination. I couldn’t get enough tales of chance and change, of chaos and transformation, of thwarted love and the agonies of betrayal. Learning to read those stories on my own was my first, personal Rubicon: my initial, childish point of no return. Crossing that river meant that nothing could ever be the same again. Because reading is, of itself, an act of transformation, a powerful metaphor for travel and adventure, for the crossing of borders and the transcending of boundaries. Virgil, hailed as the greatest Roman poet of all, paid homage to this centrality of the journey - however we define it - in his epic poem The Aeneid. He says: ‘It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide. But to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air - there’s the rub, the task.’ He might have added ‘the task of writing’ too, because our physical journeys, our spiritual journeys, journeys from darkness to light, from good to evil and back again: these are all the stuff of stories, grist to the writer’s mill from time immemorial.
Dante, too, in The Divine Comedy, tells us of his travels through the three realms of the dead. His guide on the journey through Hell and Purgatory is, naturally enough, Virgil, while he is guided through Paradise by Beatrice, his ideal of the perfect woman. All these journeys are quests for knowledge: knowledge of the self, of other, of the worlds that we inhabit. Travelling quickly thorough time, I am reminded of a more modern epic: the magnificent ‘Danube’ by Claudio Magris, in which a physical journey of discovery on those most majestic of waters becomes a voyage into history, philosophy, society and, ultimately, the self. Eastern wisdom holds that the most profound of all our journeys, and the longest and most arduous, is the inward one. For such a journey, as for so many others, books are the most faithful and forgiving of companions.
I remember being surprised to discover, at some point in late childhood, that other people regarded reading and writing as separate activities. How could you do one without the other, I used to wonder. And while of course I accept that there are many readers who never write, who don’t yearn to write - although part of me wonders if this is really so - I can’t conceive of a writer who was not first a reader. By ‘reader’ I mean that avid, dedicated, passionate relationship with stories, poems, any form of the written word - the sort of reading so many of us did when we were younger, before we had learned, or were taught, to make distinctions between what was ‘worth’ reading and what was not. The sort of fervour that used to make me rush home from school at lunch time, fill my schoolbag with what I needed for afternoon classes and tear up the stairs to spend the remaining fifteen minutes immersed in a book.
My bedroom was very small. I had two older brothers who shared the larger bedroom at the front of the house, my parents slept at the back. I was given what was called the ‘box room’ - a cosy, compact space that fitted a single bed and a wardrobe and pretty much nothing else in between. It had bookshelves above the bed, but it certainly didn’t boast of anything as unnecessary as a chair. I used to kneel, quite happily, on the bedside rug and prop my elbows on the bed, with whatever book I happened to be reading spread open on the counterpane in front of me. I am astonished every time I revisit that room: its tininess, its narrowness, its functionality. And yet, in my memory, it is that secure and predictable place where a whole other universe existed, one that had no difficulty reconciling psychic ‘big bangs’ with small suburban spaces. My imaginative world exploded in that small room and reformed itself, expanding and developing with every new literary discovery that my teenage self made. Between those four walls, boundaries dissolved, universes collided and merged with one another, and life, rather than fiction, seemed to be the art of the possible.
I remember devouring our local library’s collection of Chekov and Ibsen during the summer after I turned thirteen. I’d heard their names mentioned somewhere and I liked the sense of foreignness, of otherness, of the exotic that they brought with them. Besides, the books were all brand-new, their spines still intact, the pages breathing out that smell of new-book that is as erotic as perfume. I am not for a moment claiming that I understood everything that I read that summer, but it didn’t matter. It took me many years to realize that intellectual understanding is part - and only part - of reading. There is also the imaginative, creative response to the written word where some inner self becomes aware and says ‘Hang on - I’m not sure exactly what this means, but I know it is significant and I know it without knowing that I know.’
My first teenaged summer was long and wet, as summers in Ireland tend to be. People have often wondered why Ireland has produced and continues to produce such a disproportionate number of writers. Many arguments have been put forward that draw heavily on psychology, on the oppressions of colonialism, the fractures of the Famine and our isolated island state. Might I also suggest that it has something to do with the weather? Sunshine forces us outdoors, into sociable activities, often with an emphasis on the physical self. The relentlessness of grey skies and damp beaches, however, brings about an altogether different response: a longing for escape into the bright light of the imagination. I’m only half-joking about the weather: introspection and solitude are necessary writerly tools, both watered and nourished by the Irish climate. Maybe the EU could give us a grant for it. ‘Grow Your Own: Plant a Writer Here. An Ireland Inc. Initiative, sponsored by Church, State and the Banking Fraternity.’ That kind of thing.
This notion of escape, however, is one that continues to be an important part of the function of literature. I want to make a distinction here between ‘escape’ and ‘escapism’. ‘Escapism’ suggests a retreat - and only a retreat - from something that is unsatisfactory. And of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. ‘Escape’, on the other hand, is an altogether more positive activity. It is much more than a retreat or a withdrawal: it is, in fact, a liberation, a crossing of the boundaries that restrict the imagination, that hinder the development of the creative self. Susan Sontag writes about this kind of escape in a collection of essays published posthumously last month. (1) She says:
"What saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona"...(was) reading books. To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck.’
That’s quite a claim. But it’s one that I think most readers will instinctively understand, most writers agree with. And if that is the claim we want to make for books and literature and their effect on us as readers - then how can we describe the whole process that creates them? What is it that writing is made of? What are its freedoms and its boundaries?
I once gave a talk to a group of aspiring novelists. I tried to give them an insight into the insanity of the writer’s life. I described the writer’s existence as a solitary one, but said that of course the art of writing itself is easy...
...You just sit - and here I am quoting the Irish novelist Joseph O’Connor quoting someone else, but Joe delivered it with such wit and understatement that I enjoy the memory of his dry humour: you just sit quietly, facing the blank page until ‘drops of blood form across your forehead’. And you continue to sit, conversing with characters who do not exist, who have no past, only an imagined present, and no future, except what the writer chooses to confer upon them as possibilities beyond the covers of the novel. And yet, and yet and yet. Writing fiction - and indeed, non-fiction - is work, work of the soul, the spirit, the invisible self where the spark of creativity lodges and lights a fire, however small, that illuminates something of what it is to be human and imperfect and struggling. Susan Sontag insists that to be engaged in the creative work of writing is important because: ‘Writers....are emblems of the persistence (and the necessity) of individual vision.’
I believe that this ‘individual vision’ to which she alludes then becomes part of the collective understanding of who and what we are. Because writing, at its best, is more than anything else, an act of imaginative empathy. How else can the writer bridge the gap between the imagination and the lived experience of others? In order to jump from that creative precipice, to dare to cross the borders between what we know and what we feel might be true, writers need to make a leap of empathy - and of faith.
Sometimes, the advice given to struggling new writers (as opposed to still struggling older writers) is to ‘write what you know’. Well, yes and no, if we equate ‘knowing’ with ‘personal experience’. If we do that, then how does the writer write, for example, about the act of dying? Or the daily lived reality, captured magnificently by Gillian Slovo in ‘The Ice Road’ of ordinary people being caught up in the Russian Revolution? Without empathy, how could Margaret Atwood have created the chill of dystopian universes in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or ‘Oryx and Crake’? Writers do this, because the business of writing is to know, certainly - but what we need to know is human emotions. In other words, to feel what might be possible and transform that emotional experience into fiction. To empathise.
In a wonderful essay entitled ‘Literature is Freedom’(2), Susan Sontag reflects upon this necessary quality of empathy:
‘Literature can tell us what the world is like"Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours. Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?"
I went to Newgrange some time ago. Older than the pyramids, these burial places of ancient Ireland spoke clearly of other domains, other selves, other dreams. I didn’t experience the winter solstice on that occasion, but instead, I took part in a convincing re-enactment of the actual event. A fictionalized winter solstice, if you like, where an ordinary summer’s afternoon was transformed into that moment that hovers between darkness and light, between the fear of death and the possibility of life, between the end of winter and the hope of spring. The whole thing was done very efficiently with hidden lights illuminating the passage grave and those present were awed into silence as we contemplated what our ancestors must have seen and revered, with bowed head and averted eye. Of course we couldn’t have been standing there thousands of years ago, and standing there simultaneously in the present.
But that’s what it felt like. It seemed to me to be a happy metaphor for fiction, for the making of stories: that act of the writer taking a truth, transforming it, illuminating it with a personal, individual vision - and bringing the reader along with you.
Doris Lessing once said that she belonged to the ‘noble and ancient tribe of storytellers’. Sontag talks about this too, about the importance of narrative, the ‘deep knowledge’ contained in stories and myths. Serious writers, she tells us, ‘...tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives might be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate - and, therefore, improve - our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.’
Heady stuff. To evoke, to stimulate, to improve, to enlarge and complicate the presentation of the conditions of our lives... What is the role of inspiration in all of this? Writing, according to the short story writer Frank O’Connor, is composed of ‘ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration’, which I have always felt to be a very generous deconstruction. Ten percent? That much?
Inspiration comes in very different forms. For some, like Jake Arnott, for example, inspiration for the written word comes from the visual: in his case, from a photograph of his grandmother who worked as a showgirl in Paris in the 1920’s. Similarly for Melissa Bank, who sees a picture of a blindfolded rhino as a metaphor for the struggle, ‘the possibility of rescue, the blind faith that writing requires’. For Jonathan Franzen, his office chair that squeaks ‘horribly and irremediably’ is his inspiration for his craft and Jane Smiley favours the hot water of showers and baths whenever she suffers from writer’s block. ‘I have always,’ she claims, ‘had recourse to the same remedy - water. Bath, hot tub or shower, it never fails.’(3)
Smiley’s Pulitzer prizewinning novel ‘A Thousand Acres’ has resonated with me for well over a decade. If we need an example of the deep truths hidden in myth and story, then this is such a novel. She takes the story of that ‘foolish, fond old man’ King Lear, and re-imagines, re-works, relocates it to modern day America. We no longer have an elderly, vain and self-centred king dividing up his ancient kingdom, forcing his daughters to say who among them loves him the most. Instead, Smiley’s story is set among the ‘thousand acres’ of the title: valuable farming land, which the owner sets about dividing among his three daughters. And ‘dividing’ is the word: divisions occur, conflicts emerge, jealousies rage. Shakespeare’s tale - and the tale, no doubt, of yet another writer before him, and one before him again - acquires a new cloak and walks in the modern world. It illustrates the lengths to which people will go when motivated by greed, envy or avarice, and it makes those lengths comprehensible, inevitable, almost - or so it appears, given the author’s extraordinary act of empathy. Like the borders and boundaries of the farmland where this novel is set, the satisfying beginning, middle and ending of this tale leave the reader with a sense of completeness, almost of security in their understanding of the order of things:
‘A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders.’ Sontag again asserts the importance of the ‘sense of completeness’ given by the novel, and the ‘felt intensity’ of the story. By the end of the novel, the reader must come to that ‘fixed position’, she goes on to argue, from which he/she can see ‘how initially disparate things finally belong together.’ Stories must have their end, she insists. And the reader must feel that the end conveys ‘completeness’ and gives a sense of ‘closure’.
I mentioned the insanity of the writer’s life a moment ago. Isn’t this evidence enough of how the creative imagination slips effortlessly from one dimension into another? From the visual - showgirls, blindfolded hippos - to the sensual waters of showers and tubs to the aural: the squeaking of office chairs. Doesn’t this demonstrate how the worlds of ‘sense’ and ‘non-sense’ of seeing and believing, of the ‘real’ and the ‘not real’ have no real boundaries, no discernible crossing points - at least not for the writer, and I suggest, the painter, the composer, the sculptor, the dancer. Yeats once wrote about the impossibility of knowing ‘the dancer from the dance’. I think I know what he meant.
The ninety percent ‘perspiration’ that Frank O’Connor talks about is at least visible in the writer’s craft. We can see it, hear it, like a stain upon the page or the echo of distant drumming. The honing of sentences, the authenticity of voice, the drive of the narrative. These things at least we can discern - either in their presence or, possibly even more often - by their absence. To keep practising the craft of writing means discipline, searching, pushing the boundaries of whatever it is we have done before. Perhaps even to fail and fail again, as Samuel Beckett would have it. But at least, he tells us sternly, on each occasion to ‘fail better.’ Susan Sontag has things to say about craft, too - and its relationship with truth. The clarity with which she writes, the empathy she displays, the integrity of her particular individual vision make her recent death an ever greater loss:
‘We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality.’ Those who write, she continues, must:
‘Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.’
And what a world, this one to which we must pay attention. A world lacking in all the certainties that previous generations seemed to take for granted - although that perhaps is an illusion, too. The world has always been fractured - South Africa, Northern Ireland, Palestine and the world after September 11th are some of our particular fault-lines. Old conflicts, new conflicts, newly-perceived conflicts. Truth becomes a casualty everywhere as words shift in meaning, as the world becomes reduced in so many ways to so many versions of ‘them’ and ‘us’. That’s why we need novels and stories to help us make order out of chaos - to give us through reading and writing that ‘kind of liberty’ as Sontag calls it, that freedom that ‘life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death.’
I’m going to conclude with the words of the American writer, Edith Wharton. Although belonging to another time and place, to a life very different from my own, these words also resonate and have become my personal metaphor for the joy of writing, the sense of inner stillness that comes from engaging with the flame of creativity.
In her short story ‘The Fullness of Life’, Wharton wrote that a woman's life is like ‘a great house full of rooms.’ Given the nature of most women’s lives in the nineteenth century, lives that were lived quietly in the domestic sphere, existences that retreated from the public gaze, Wharton said that most of these ‘rooms’ remained unseen. However, there existed an ‘innermost room’, that she called ‘the holy of holies’. In this room, she claimed, ‘the soul sits alone and waits for a footstep that never comes’.
I celebrate that ‘innermost room’. That ‘holy of holies’ where writing lives. That space where the footstep may be hushed and tentative most of the time, but is nevertheless there, still audible, still faithful.
I await its arrival, wait patiently while it hesitates, then crosses the threshold and another adventure begins. The stirrings of creativity, the birth of story, the journey that has no borders, no crossing-points, no boundaries.
The journey that begins and ends in the silence of the ‘innermost room’.

(1) ‘At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag, Hamish Hamilton, 2007
(2) Ibid.
(3) How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, ed. D. Crowe with P. Oltermann, Rizzoli, New York, April 2007
.Chiudi .Stampa .Segnala