"Writing makes me happy....All those years I couldn't do it...writing was a painful, awful absence in my life....I love paintings, but it's never hurt me that I can't paint for toffee. Which bit of myself, and when, elected to need to write, in order to be me...? I used to feel...that life itself wasn't quite real, unless I could write about it in fiction. Now that I am writing..., that mild insanity has dropped out of sight. I have a fear, of course, of its returning, if writing ever failed." -- Tessa Hadley
Tessa Hadley joins Alice Munro, William Trevor, and John McGahern in my pantheon of writers who write the way I wish I could. When I was younger and had more ambition than talent, I was so jealous of successful women writers that I declined to go hear Margaret Atwood read from her work. Of course, I regret that now. I admire Atwood, though I wouldn't call her a favorite, and I subsequently fell in love with her critical study of Canadian literature, "Survival." Thankfully, I have outgrown my youthful sensitivity and can now rejoice when reading a short story by Lorrie Moore or a novel by Kate Atkinson. At least I have the satisfaction of believing I'm a good audience for these more accomplished writers. I do, however, resonate with the Hadley quote above. It follows in an epilogue to her latest novel "The London Train."
Once upon a time I wrote fiction and was quite serious about it. I even had a short story published in a Canadian ladies' magazine and was paid $400 for it. That was the peak of my writing career, though I did follow it up with an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English literature. I'm no academic; in my bones I still feel like a writer, but writing about literature seems to come easier to me than creating fiction. I wish it were otherwise, but there it is. One thing I do know, I need to write, as well as read, to keep a grip on life. Somehow, putting words on the page anchors me. The shape of the English language contains the best of whatever thought I have and keeps it from leaking away. I have loved to read my entire life. As soon as I could read by myself, I climbed down off my mother's lap and lost myself in the mysteries of the written word. I can remember the passion I felt for particular books when I was four or five years old. I have it still.
As a PhD student, I, of course, read a lot of literary criticism. Some of it was very, very good. There is a chapter by M.H. Abrams on "Moby Dick" that was life-changing for me, and Jonathan Bate's "The Song of the Earth" is a book I would hate to have missed. But the pursuit of criticism, the effort to find something new to say that both provokes and rings true, the unending need to be somewhere near the cutting edge, the knowledge that few people will ever read you or care what you think are all too disheartening for me. I'm glad to have climbed those mountains, but I cannot live in those climes.
In my twenties I struggled to find something to say. Perhaps I had not yet lived enough or lacked the distance from experience that is necessary to see all its contours. I was an empty vessel. Now I contain a river of words and can release them almost at will. Whether I actually have anything worth saying is another matter, but I'm beginning to think that really doesn't signify. In the end, I am writing to get inside my own head, to hold a conversation with myself. Solipsistic, I admit, but true. I would love to be able to express in words the ways I feel about the people I love. I believe nothing could mean more to me. Of all the things I need to say, that is the most important--and the most daunting. Much as I love language, I know I could never make it dance to the music in my heart. Words are all-important, but at the end of the day the things that most need utterance are locked in fearful silence.
When I read a novel like "The Train to London," I fall in with the rhythm of the writer's mind and for a while can make it my own. This illusion of release and connection paradoxically makes lived experience richer, just as Monet's waterlily paintings encourage the viewer to see nature more vividly, or the way a painting by Braque casts a landscape seen from an airplane in an entirely new light. E.M. Forster said, "Only connect." These words have been my mantra every since I first read "Howard's End." Imagine two planets colliding or two amoeba dissolving into each other. Watch an iron filing crawl toward a magnet or a mother cat surround her kitten, and you begin to realize that in everything, living or inert, connection is the constant. The only way I've found to truly get inside another mind, or at least to feel that I have, is to read something--prose, poetry, fiction--that draws me into connection with it. This is a need that goes beyond entertainment; it is not a desire for escape. In fact, it is just the opposite. For me, literature is the road to life itself.