On Words, Romanticism, Ramblings and Meanderings

I am coming to the end of the Glasgow Uni Creative Writing Society’s ‘Flash Fiction February’ Challenge. The aim is to write one piece of flash fiction a day, following prompts that are posted on the blog. The best thing I have probably achieved since I wrote my 10,000 word ‘The Quest’ story (complete with self-made Photoshop image and realistic fire effects) aged eleven is successfully averaging at least 700 words a day for a whole month (some days writing 700, other days moving upwards of 1300…). The reward is not just having a little portfolio of stories to go back and edit in the summer, but the habit of discipline that’s been earned. I have learned that I need the motivation of ‘completing something’, and that sharing one’s work and discussing it with others helps to feel better about writing. There is also the satisfaction of word count. If I averaged at least 700 a day, then that’s at least 19,600 for all of February. If I doubled my word count and did that for two months, I’d have a respectable 80,000 word novel. It’s an encouraging fact. Even if the content is sometimes pretty crap, I have something to work with! I just have to keep up the daily habit. It’s a bit like crack, only not so addictive, and cheaper. And, well, you have to work for its effects.

One of my fascinations is with the daily routines of successful writers. Not necessarily just literary authors, but philosophers, artists, journalists – even mathematicians. Anyone who gives up a significant chunk of their day to solitary writing, creating or just working. There is a fabulous blog called ‘Daily Routines’ which is the ultimate procrastination: putting off work by reading about how others work. It’s refreshing to see that not everyone needs a wee dram or French cocktail to get the imagination flowing, though it seems to be a recurring theme. As well as the time of day and the choice of stimulant, I’m a little bit obsessed with peoples’ medium: the effects of the pen, pencil or keyboard; how one’s writing implement impacts upon their style, speed and even argument.

Susan Sontag. Source: nymag.com
Susan Sontag. Source: nymag.com

For instance, Susan Sontag on her writing routine:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

[…]

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

One day I want to write a big essay looking at how writing style changes according to how you get the words on the page (I even bought a beautiful typewriter to test that out). I love the idea that Sontag uses layers and layers in her writing and editing: the process of writing on top of writing, of scrawling and scoring out like the palimpsest diary Cathy in Wuthering Heights creates on the margins of a bible. Like Heidegger with his under-erasure being.

I also find it fascinating how people can study and write with music playing around them. I used to be a lover of total silence: a pure space in which I find the need to fill up the void with words. Now I can sometimes do with a bit of ambient sound: coffee shop clattering, birdsong, falling rain and so on. It makes a difference whether you are in the actual space (writing in a real garden or a coffee shop, for instance) or in the hyperreal zone of generated sounds (there are excellent Youtube sources of ambient sound, from whale-song to fire crackling in a grate). One will distract me to write about immediate details, the other soothes you into a weird creative ‘roll’ where you can pour out your words or nonsense like code streaming out in hyperspace. OK, I’m being self-indulgent.

And indeed, there is a self-indulgent aestheticisim to all of this: the endless procrastination involved in selecting the correct font for a piece, the need to rearrange one’s desk or shuffle books or change your pen or whatever it is. Yet there is something more important here that relates to publishing itself and the way literature often gets sucked into a commercial vacuum (think of the likes of the Brownings’ letters or Shakespeare’s sonnets which get beautifully repackaged in time for Valentine’s Day) . The original text is beautified by the paratext, and what is left is perhaps more of a consumer object than a discourse of words and sentences. There is an emphasis on white space, the chic luxury of thick paper and the gaps between printed letters. James Fenton said that, ‘what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page’. But what is this page? Is it the sublime landscape of print paper stretching out its possibilities of unblemished whiteness? Or perhaps the virtual page: the ever-changing Internet archive that risks the dreaded 404, this page is missing; that risks alteration and collaboration and manipulation – and is this not a good thing? It is poetry changing, in transition; undergoing the morphological process of the human into cyborg. An automated computer voice reading aloud, staggering over the dashes and tildas and sharps, the onomatopoeia and enjambment like a child having a crack at reading Derrida. Il n’ya pas hors text: there is nothing outside the text/there is no outside-text (he writes in Of Grammatology).  When somebody reads aloud I imagine the words before me, drawing out of the page like butterflies coming to life; I can’t help it, it’s the way I learned to play with poetry. The world I like is the enclosed, shy space between the black ink and the reader’s eyes, the moving lips so silent.

The Mariner's ship and the Albatross. Source: thestage.co.uk
The Mariner’s ship and the Albatross. Source: thestage.co.uk

Like the ‘fluttering stranger’ that Coleridge observes as a child at school in ‘Frost at Midnight’, words in poetry become strange: there is an uneasiness to them that we cannot quite place. Verbs, adjectives and nouns are not what our teachers told us. You cannot fix them to a blackboard, and anyway chalk crumbles. While butterflies might be pinned down and classified by their colours, words are dependent on each other for meaning. So signification sifts in swirls of dreamy reading, and the mind makes connections. The imagination stirs and sometimes forgets them. Footnotes adorn the margins and confuse us, as they perhaps do in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where we are driven into warmer but often more perplexing territory, as Coleridge’s gloss is less an academic explanation, and more a multiplicity of voices. At once, he joins in the action, ‘Like vessel, like crew!’ – yes, ‘her skin was white as leprosy’ – and we too catch this virus, moving between microbes of words that open and mutate through the strangest imagery. We shift between and through things with Coleridge’s metonymy, as in the gloss: ‘[a]nd its ribs are seen as bars on the face of the setting sun’. What are we to make of this being, ‘a Death’: an embodied spirit whose translucency both stirs and disturbs and amuses us, all at once? Aesthetics and meaning all blur into one.

Mount Snowdon. Photo by by Scott Wylie. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotbot
Mount Snowdon. Photo by by Scott Wylie. https://www.flickr.com/photos/scotbot

With Romanticism what we often get is the journey, the progression through space, selves and substance, and through visual experiences: the sublime, picturesque and the beautiful. Not to mention the ugliness of Frankenstein’s monster, mirrored in Mary Shelley’s own monstrously patchworked collation of tropes and terrors and texts (imagine being raised on Milton but growing up like Rousseau  – being both Satan and a noble savage – now that is Otherness embodied, surely?). We follow Wordsworth up Snowdon and along the Alps in his glorious Prelude, with the seamless switch between interior musings and the expansive, golden panoramic shot that reveals the gaping ice and mountains, the tracks the subject’s wandering thinness:

The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

(Wordsworth, Book VI of The Thirteen-book Prelude, lines 566-572).

Where nature itself merges into one terrifying being, where opposites uncannily forgo their differences to become ‘features | of the same face’ and still the sweet ‘blossoms upon one tree’, we are in a sublime landscape, and then in the pastoral garden. The subject stamps himself upon the mountains, as the mountains are stamped upon him; we recall, with the help of the OED, the varied meanings of the term ‘character’: as both noun (a literary figure of self/person; a sign or symbol used in writing, print, computing; a code; the properties of a substance) and verb (‘to distinguish by particular marks, signs, or features’). Wordsworth’s figure is the self encoded in the text, the lonesome Romantic imprinted in his white sublime of Snowdon, going deep into the very properties of the rock itself. All is viscous, melting subject into object. All is, as Timothy Morton so aptly puts it, a mesh: where there can be nothing ‘out there’, as we are all a set of strangenesses, part of an existence that is always coexistence; and yet we are not simply part of a holistic collective, but connected in our differences, in our mutations that separate, stick and undo us. There are those clouds which seem ‘unfettered’ and yet even they cannot rise above the poet’s vision, the tacky link of aesthetic projection that takes nature from unified cliché  to a space of wilderness in which things move between abstraction and reification, and humans move with them in the ambiguous space between – like those viruses that multiply and mutate, ‘first, and last, and midst, and without end’.

This dangerous, homogenised idea of ‘landscape’ can be undone by thinking of it textually: as a palimpsest too of sorts, where human language adds layers to our understanding, alters our relationship with nonhuman things of the living and non-living. In writing and reading ‘nature poetry’, we are reconfiguring our place in the mesh; just as a drop of colour upon a single Paint pixel shifts the impression of the whole picture.

While Romanticism takes us on these messy forays into psyches and space, in the twentieth century we have, as Fenton has suggested, the poem as object: the poem as visual play on the page. The attempt to make the poem an object, to get to the very basics of objects. Think of Ezra Pound’s Imagism: ‘The apparition of these faces in a crowd; | Petals on a wet, black bough’ (‘In a Station of the Metro’). Think of William Carlos Williams’s notorious modernist poem, ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, in which Williams’s poetics bring the object into stark and colourful being, like an object being rendered on some kind of graphic design program. Assonance coats our visual impressions so that we can almost taste what we see, the wheelbarrow ‘glazed with rain’. On the page, the poem too is a spilling of rain, of long lines dripping into single words, of basic objects hardening, forming. The ‘red wheel | barrow’; the ‘white | chickens’.

The Yellow Book. Source: http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/tag/fin-de-siecle/
The Yellow Book. Source: http://www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/tag/fin-de-siecle/

There is also the lovely aestheticism of the fin de siècle: the beautiful margins and separation of art and text in the The Yellow Book, and of course Husymans’s jewel-encrusted tortoise, which eventually dies from the weight of its ridiculous embellishments. Does a text too collapse under the weight of its stylistic ornamentation? The fashion for minimalism perhaps gives way to this assumption, and yet what about the explosive textuality of Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow; anything by Henry James, or for that matter, Angela Carter? Art for art’s sake is not a dip into vacuity, but is necessarily a political statement, a textual position, after all. An attempt to escape the shading blinds of ideology. You might write a dissertation on the politics of purple prose; you might float buoyantly along the clear river of Wikipedia readings.

And now I have lost my place in the forest and cannot find the light again. Birds tweet shrilly and their song is like stars tinkling and various shades of darkness hang in blue drapes from the bowers of pine trees. If I look around I see the jewel of every dew drop glisten and I know that it is twilight. I am looking for something particular: that silent speck of a presence; that which evades me every time I turn over each new leaf. Only I know that I cannot see, cannot see the gathering of these particles; the light is fading and soon the day will close its drapes.

These are just words after all, and who would cling to them?

Some further words:

Derrida, Jacques, 1967. Of Grammatology.

Edgar, Simon, ‘Landscape as Story’, Available at: http://www.lucentgroup.co.uk/the-landscape-as-story.html

Morton, Timothy, 2010. The Ecological Thought.

Huysmans, J. K. 1884. À rebours.

Mould

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It was a moon-scape she saw, peering into the mug in her mother’s study. Yes, a moon-scape with little lumps of perilous blue and grey, seeping into one another. Or maybe it was another kind of space terrain: she imagined the ground of Pluto, with its eye-like holes and fissures. She gave it a shake, and watched the particles break up and drift away, flotsam on some unreal ocean. A polluted ocean; maybe the earth’s oceans in a hundred years’ time. They told her in school that the world was filling up with waste and one day everything would melt away, like those paintings of dissolving clocks she saw when her mother took her to the museum. You could already tell it was happening, her teacher had said, the way that it gets so warm these days. The mildness of winter. It wasn’t right.

Well, the moon wasn’t right either that night. No; she could not stop thinking about what she saw in that mug. Another world, was it? She wished she could go back and count the dots, knowing that if she did she could start to chart this new universe, and in knowing it better she could sleep. She could enter its landscapes, drift across it with the powers she had in her dreams. Her mother put a sachet of lavender under her pillow and she could smell it through the cotton, soft and sweet…but it was not enough distraction. She needed to know what she had seen. But her mother might hear her and send her back to bed. It had to be worth a try. Sucking in her breath, she tip-toed back into the study, closing the door quietly behind her and flicking on the light. It was an energy-saver bulb, that took ages to properly glow. So she stood in the dull orange light, watching the wall till it got brighter. Then she would pick up the mug and see. Then she would know again.

Finally it was bright enough and so she went to pick up the mug…but this time, oh how the smell caught her! It was sharp and evil like the stench of seaweed, only worse, like the most rotten thing in the world, slowly fermenting. Yes, she smelt it and was knocked backwards almost. But it was fascinating. She let her nostrils quiver and sniff deeper as she held the mug to her nose. The she looked into it again and saw how the dunes and lumps had mushroomed and the blue was turning greenish, or maybe that was just the duller light. Still, these were definite changes. And she was thinking of the clumps of toadstools she’d seen in the school playground, while they were out measuring soil quality and watching the teacher bending in the grass with a thermometer. They were big brown flat things, ugly and intriguing, and she knew that some of them were poisonous, and some of them if you poked them let out a puff of steam. She wished she could touch these mushrooms but the thought of putting her finger in the mug was repulsing. It was kind of like a horror movie, she thought, where they showed you somebody’s festering wound, only it never looked quite real. Still, you would not like to touch it, it was just sort of funny to look at. No, she would not touch it; instead she shook it again, and this time the dunes did not dissolve, but she could see little fissures rippling across them. Her stomach turned over as if emptying something, and she felt a surge in her gullet. She put the mug down and breathed in deeply, trying to rid herself of the awful smell that clung to her like a disease.

She wondered what it was that these microbes loved so much about her mother’s tea. She considered if they’d accept her into their colony. Like them, she was partial to a glass of milk, but maybe not tea, unless it was laden with sugar. She wondered how they’d order themselves, scattered about as they were like that. Bulbous, growing over each other. It would be a ruthless economy. She sat down on the comfy office chair and span around slowly. The queasiness was leaving. She liked how all the objects rushed around her, melting into long white and orange lines. She stifled a giggle; she must not wake her mother up. She whispered stories to the mug. Telling them about the boy she wrote a letter to once in class and the time she left her homework on a bus. Soon she would say goodbye to her mother. She knew that it could not be long before she was ready to join them. They would be like ants, or the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels – Lilliputions – running all over her body. Only, they were so small you could not see them. You could just imagine them, growing and multiplying, all over her skin.

They made the moon rocky and bumpy, like that boy whose skin was cratered with pimples. She had seen on television once two fat ladies in white coats scrubbing away green things from the corners of a bathtub. She and her mother didn’t have a bathtub, but sometimes she saw things come out of the plughole in the shower. Great streams of wiry hair that poked out, or smeared themselves upon the porcelain. Once a huge spider. She heard its legs patter and she screamed, and her mother tried to lift it out with a gardening trowel. Sometimes there were little black seeds all over the bath, and the first time she thought maybe a plant had vomited up all its babies (in class that morning she had been drawing diagrams of sepals and stigmas and filaments and seed-pellets), but then her mother told her it was just exfoliating beads from some lotion she had. She tried the lotion and it made her skin burn, but it was not unpleasant; kind of like the scratch of dry sand. It left a pinkish blotch on her legs. She was wondering if the moon was like that: all pastures of dry sand. Were there lakes or ponds or waves? Trees, even? In the mug she could not see any trees, and the only waves were from when she rippled the sticky liquid with the swirl of her wrist. She thought maybe if she lived there she’d have to invent some more things, to keep her interested. There would be a gift shop, for one thing. You could buy t-shirts with maps of the land on them, with close-up details of the blue-green growths and the tea-stains that ringed the china walls. It was like a whole continent splayed out, with all the countries slotted together, their landmasses enveloping each other. A strange thing.

She would take the mug into school on Monday, for show-and-tell. It was the right thing to do. Everybody else would bring in their cinema tickets, their remote-controlled helicopters, Pokemon cards, a book they had read over the weekend. And they would talk about themselves, nattering away about this thing that had brought them  their childish joy. Then she would take to the stage, like the prime minister on the telly, clasping her precious mug, and she would tell them how she had found the moon. At first they would laugh, she recognised that, but then they would realise how clever she was. How amazing was her discovery. She giggled just thinking about it. But I must let it rest, she reflected. After all, she needed to let her colony expand, for the spores to pile up higher upon one another until they were spilling over the edges of the mug. She wanted her colony to be huge and impressive. I mustn’t let them escape. She took a postcard from the wall – it was a painting of a lemon and a teacup by Francis Cadell – and she placed it over the mug. The moon was safe, and its surface would continue to bubble and grow in their new warmth and darkness. So she tip-toed back to bed and lay awake, her mind floating around this wondrous space. Each star was a point of contact, a possibility.

And she spoke to the stars, even as she jumped between them, as you jump between chairs and tables and sofas when you play ‘The Floor is Lava’. Each one told her a story, and she basked in the glow of all those words weaving a tapestry around her. Soon she could slip into sleep, soon, soon, soon…she closed her eyes to a new darkness, felt the warmth of the space beneath the sheets. The smell of mould dissipated from her brain, and now there was only silence, the scent of lavender, wafting in delicate waves…

When tomorrow arrived, it was Monday, so she got dressed for school and went downstairs. To her horror, she saw the mug up-ended on the draining board. What on earth…? Mummy? Her mother came down to boil the kettle and make her porridge, but was startled to see her daughter crying so early in the morning. What is it, darling? She was already late for work, and starving. She threw her handbag on the table and brushed down her jacket. What is it? she repeated. The child was pointing at something next to the sink. Mummy! she wailed, you’ve killed the moon! 

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