Monday, February 25, 2008

Essential and non-essential writing.

There's the stuff I have to write because I am compelled to write it. Because I can't and won't rest until I have written it. And yet, and yet, this -- the most psychically and spiritually essential work imaginable -- is the work I postpone, the work I resist. I know it will cost me a great deal of labour, pain even; it will be hard to get right; I may not be capable of getting it right; it may take me to the limits of my capabilities as a writer and find me wanting. So it grows inside me, like a... well, you know what like. One day, maybe, if I don't lose my wits or die in the meantime, I may be able to get it out. But I can't yet.

Then there's the stuff I have to write because I'm obliged to write it. As in contractually obliged. Don't get me wrong. I want to write it too. And maybe this work will somehow, indirectly, slyly, enable me to get out the stuff I mentioned above. I don't know. Maybe the books I am writing about nineteenth century St Petersburg are autobiographical after all. Maybe we can only ever write about ourselves. In that case, am I Porfiry? Or am I Virginsky? Or am I the murderer? I'm a great believer in genre fiction. I believe it can do anything it is asked to do. I'm a great believer, too, in the entertainment principle in writing. That there's nothing wrong with writing you want to read. As opposed to writing you feel you ought to read.

Then there's the stuff I have to write because I want to write it because I think it's a great opportunity because you just don't get opportunities like this coming along very often, if at all. In that category is a project (or two) that I'm working on in collaboration with the composer Ed Hughes. Ed and I have worked together before on a short piece of musical theatre called The Devil's Drum. Now Ed, perhaps rashly, has asked me to provide the libretto for a full scale opera, which is scheduled for performance in spring 2009. Things have been and remain uncertain in terms of the commissioning of this piece - but we are proceeding on the basis that it will go ahead. I'm also working with Ed on another project, involving music and narrative, which at the moment is in a more speculative phase.

Then there's the stuff I don't have to write at all and which only serves to get in the way of all the above categories of stuff. Stuff like, uh, this blog post. Oops. I really do have something else I should be doing!

Plug plag pliggity plog

Just wanted to share a review that appeared in the Sunday Times at the weekend. From Joan Smith. "Extraordinarily vivid" is perhaps the pull-out quote, though I was very pleased by the whole thing, especially the way she held my Porfiry up to the original and did not seem to find it lacking.

Link plink linkety splink.


Sarah Hilary said...

Fascinating post, Roger, especially about the autobiographical content of everything we write. I think that fear of getting it wrong is present in all of us - the more urgent the need to write it, the greater the fear that we will mess it up or tackle it prematurely (there's some fascinating stuff about this in Ralph Keyes' Writer's Book of Hope, which is neither as banal nor as patronising as the title may suggest!). I too have stories I know I must tell, that consume me, that I hesitate to start. Part of the reason is that I don't feel ready, as a writer, equipped to write these yet. Partly they are stories I cannot tell in the lifetime of family members who would struggle to understand my need to tell them. But carrying a story like that, nurturing it in your head, is an amazing feeling, isn't it?

Mum'sTheWord said...

Great post, Roger. Maybe Virginsky is your younger self, and Porfiry is your projected older self, and you're currently somewhere in the middle.

Keep doing what you're doing, I say. And congrats on the review.

Anonymous said...

Hi Roger
The Sunday Times review was a great one and well-deserved. Congratulations. And I loved and comletely understood the learned helplessness post - nice to know we're all going through the same things!
Brian McGilloway

Roger Morris said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for looking in. There are times when The Writer's Book of Hope sounds like just the book I need! Sounds interesting. I don't know in all honesty if I ever will write the stuff I was talking about in para one. It may turn out to be just too personal. But this nagging sense of having something important to do may be caused by unfinished business. Or it may just be because my road tax is coming up for renewal!

Thanks for the kind words Emily.

Hi Brian, yes, there is a great deal of consolation, I think, in discovering that you're not the only one.

Anonymous said...

Roger, your project with Ed Hughes sounds so exciting - The Tin Drum was really wonderful (and my opera-singer/musicologist sister agreed) so I can't wait for this.

But yes, why do we resist what seems the most important writing of all? Yes, you want to do it justice, and yes, you know it'll be more overwhelming - even painful - than other material which is less close to your core. But as you say, it's not a binary division between autobiographical stuff and external stuff: since everything comes from inside us, everything's autobiographical. Maybe it's the difference between what just gets in there because it's us writing it, and what we actually decide to explore in all its layers and complexities.

Sometimes I think the resistance is because we're just not ready. I know I'm only just ready to write about some things, but I've known I will do it when I'm ready for a couple of years.

Roger Morris said...

Thanks Emma. Very interesting and thought-provoking take, as always. I agree with the thing about being ready. I'm a great believer in letting things cook. The danger with that when you're dealing with autobiographical material - for me at least - is that the longer you leave it the more reliant you become on your memory. The greater the danger of forgetting the details that are actually at the time the most vital element and therefore laying yourself open to the risk of making stuff up to fill in the gaps.

Thanks for the kind words re The Devil's Drum.