The Music of What Happens

Lately, I’ve been falling in love with Irish writers. That’s not hard to do, of course. Eimear McBride, Colum McCann, Anna Burns, Michael McCormack, Eugene McCabe, Sally Rooney, Colm Toibin, Niall Williams … and Nuala O’Foalain is on my list, but I’d love to hear of others you’ve loved.

I wonder if there’s something in the wind from the sea, or a history of magic in the land itself — or maybe the whisky that gives them the gift. So many have a depth and wisdom that is held lightly, with a respect that isn’t a burdened reverence, but a clear-eyed wonder and a sense of play. And such musicality in their sentences. Over the last few months I’ve gone back to Colum McCann and his little book, Letters to a Young Writer. I opened it two or three weeks ago when I was in despair, and it sparkled with warmth and wisdom.

I especially warm to his thoughts on the importance of trusting language. I suppose I’ve always loved words, but I can still remember the day I first heard Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’ read aloud in a university tutorial. It’s familiar now to most of us, but it always repays a close study of the ways the words are working. For me, it was life-changing. Even though it was almost forty years ago, I can still see the small room, the light outside the window, the desk where we all sat, listening.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

It was as if the tutor had said: ‘Look, let’s open this window, there’s a new landscape out there.’ I suddenly heard what words could do. It seemed to be permission, or even an invitation, to find out what I could do with words.

But a novel is more than words: it’s narrative and character and plot, and it needs to have the right structure and point of view, a good voice, enough pace. So many aspects to consider; so many questions to answer. There’s usually a point (many, in fact), where I come to a standstill, caught in a tangle of worries. Thank goodness there are writers like McCann who can shake me down and help me to come back to the words themselves. Here are a few snippets on the importance of language and sound from Letters to a Young Writer :

Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language.

Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language — character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge.

I note that word, ‘eventually’! It’s kind of reassuring, but nerve wracking, to hear that plot takes its time to turn up.

Plot matters, of course it matters, but it is always subservient to language. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens. and how it happens occurs in the way language captures it and the way our imaginations transfer that language into action. Any fat man can come down the stairs, but only Joyce can make stately plump Buck Mulligan descend the stairhead bearing a bowl of lather on which a minor and razor lie crossed.’

Listen for the quiet line. Anyone can tell a big story, yes, but not everyone can whisper something beautiful in your ears. In the world of film we need motivation leading to action, but in literature we need contradiction leading to action, yes, but also leading to inaction. nothing better than a spectacular piece of inaction. Nothing more effective than your character momentarily paralysed by life.

We must care about the music of what happens. One thing leads to the next. And the issues of the human heart unfold in front of us. Such, then, is plot. Anything can happen, even nothing at all. And even if nothing happens, the world still changes, second by second, word by word. Perhaps this is the most astounding plot of all.

I understand the value, the true beauty, of inaction, paralysis, stillness, in the writing of others, and I think I manage it a little, but I still ask myself, Is this is what is needed, or have I lost pace? I’ve yet to learn to really trust this in my own work.

McCann’s thoughts on language remind me of George Saunders’ ‘What Writers Really Do When They Write’, a description of his writing process, listening and adjusting as he moves through the work, trusting the language.

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception”.

How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this? The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.

And how lovely, to think that a story we write could be better than we are!

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