Sunday, 5 February 2017
In your head there are worlds of death and stardust: on your face is a look of vacant possession. The trouble with thinking about writing is how you often end up looking.
I do wonder if Jane Austen's celebrated ability to write and socialise at the same time really comprised of her writing, then staring insatiably at Great Aunt Maud, then at the curtain, then back at the notepad. When you think about writing, let alone when you actually write, you are somewhere else. And it might not be a good place.
It could be somewhere dark with you almost alone, except for what is supposed to live there. You visit hard places, dank, terrifying places full of thoughts you feel are not your own. You step into them willingly, almost like visiting a haunted house, only to find you overestimated your courage - but you have to stay til the end of the ride. No wonder that people stare at you when the outside version of yourself reacts to this inner adventure.
Sometimes it's a good place and you have it just right, but real-life marches on outside and your smiling face is not happening when it should, your excited jump as you realise a great truth is out of kilter with the quiet, sedentary moment you were meant to be living.
All this pales though, with the reaction I have had from people once I put pen to paper. I have no idea why the physical act of writing seems to worry people so much, but it really does. Writing, writing, lines of words shooting across the page, and then they look on, look down at the pen and back at you, strangely.
I tried taking the laptop with me instead of the notepad, when I went out into the wilderness of everyday life. Lots of people take laptops into cafes, don't they? It was the same reaction.
In the end I realised it was the volume of writing I was doing which seemed to worry them, not the writing itself. They picked up on the speed I was writing or typing and equated it with something out of the ordinary. And the human animal worries about the less than ordinary, unless they know it well or have paid to see it perform.
So death and stardust it is, because the only way to get past the effect of thinking and writing in public is to keep doing it until you don't care. If you look up and find someone fixing you with a strange look, wave your pen at them and smile - the problem resolves itself quickly.
I've even stopped worrying about the vacancy, or the inappropriate expression. My students will catch me staring into the corner, like a cat seeing ghosts. Nowadays I just look back, smile and continue with the lesson as if nothing happened, then go back to the corner to trap the stray thought.
You see, I've discovered that when it comes to poetry at least, it has to be written as it happens and I do my best writing when I'm in the middle of normal life. If I'm lucky, I can pull the car over and write the poem in the solitude of a layby, but if I'm somewhere more public, I still stop and write it.
The poem is more important than the ordinary moment: ordinary moments are ten-a-penny, poems are little, crinkle-cut, shining lives which flicker into existence and then are gone, unless you write them down.
Later, in the dark places where you are almost the only one there, the poem shines your way through, flickering in your hands and wafting against your cheek as you look for the way out. And if it is a dark poem, still it sits in your hand and keeps you safe until the light breaks in.
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