Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Hanif Kureishi on Writers and the Writing Process

You don’t have to be familiar with Hanif Kureishi and his previous work in order to appreciate the contents of his book Dreaming and Scheming (Reflections on Writing and Politics). This nice collection of essays and insights that was culled from nearly two decades of Kureishi’s non-fiction writings is some sort of a love letter to writers and aspiring writers. With brutal honesty, Kureishi traces his writing roots from the nights he watched his father stubbornly write unpublished novels to the day he himself made it as a successful spinner of words.

Kureishi has the uncanny ability to inspire you to pick up a pen and start writing at the same time telling you that most of what you are going to write will likely amount to nothing. Zero. Zilch. If you love writing or if you think you love writing, Dreaming and Scheming is a book you should read. Below are samples of the gems and nuggets you can find in the book.

Writing seems to be a problem of some kind. It isn’t as if most people can just sit down and start to write brilliantly, get up from the desk, do something else all day, and then, next morning start again without any conflict or anxiety. To begin to write – to attempt anything creative, for that matter – is to ask many other questions, not only about the craft itself, but of oneself, and of life. The blank empty page is a representation of this helplessness. Who am I? How should I live? Who do I want to be?”

You don’t want to make mistakes because you don’t want a failure that will undermine you even more. But if you don’t make mistakes, nothing is achieved. Sometimes you have to feel free to write badly, but it takes confidence to see that somehow the bad writing can sponsor the good writing, that volume can lead to quality. Sometimes, too, even at the end of a piece of writing, you have to leave the flaws in; they are part of it. Or they can’t be eliminated without something important being lost, some flavor or necessary energy. You can’t make everything perfect but you have to try to.”

At one time I imagined that if I wrote like other people, if I imitated writers I liked, I would only have to expose myself through a disguise. I did this for a time, but my own self kept coming through. It took me a while to see that isn’t a question of discovering your voice but of seeing that you have a voice already just as you have a personality, and that if you continue to write you have no choice but to speak, write, and live in it. What you have to do, in a sense, is take possession of yourself. The human being and the writer are the same.”

One of the problems of writing, and of using the self as material, is that this will recall powerful memories. To sit at a desk with a pen is to recall familiar fears and disappointments – and in particular, conflicts – which are the essence of drama. This is partly the difficulty of coming to terms with the attitude to learning that you have already picked up from your parents and teachers, from the experience of being at home and at school; and from the expectations of all of these. There is the inability to concentrate and the knowledge that you must do so for fear of punishment. There is boredom, and the anxiety that more exciting things are going on elsewhere.”

Then there was writing, which was an active way of taking possession of the world. I could be omnipotent, rather than a victim. Writing became a way of processing, ordering, what seemed like chaos.”

To write is to be puzzled a second time by one’s experience; it is also to savor it. In such reflection there is time to taste and engage with your own life in its complexity.”

Sometimes writers like to imagine that the difficulty of becoming a writer resides in convincing others that that is what you are. But really the problem is in convincing yourself. You can become trapped within an odd, Beckettian paradox. There is the internal pressure of what must be said.”

If artists suffer it is not because their work involves sacrifice and dedication. It is because they are required to have close contact with the unconscious. And the unconscious – bursting with desire as it is – is unruly. That is often how creativity is represented, as being an unruly force, a kind of colonial mob or animal instinct that must be suppressed. Artists become representative of the unruly forces within everyone. They have to live these out, and live with them, all the time. It is the price they pay for “talent”. If most people in the bourgeois world have to live constrained lives, artists do a certain kind of crazy living for those who can’t.”

Photo credit: Jillian Edelstein
One of the conditions of being a writer is the ability to bear and enjoy solitude. Sometimes you get up from your desk under the impression that your inner world has more meaning than the Real one. Yet solitude – the condition of all important creative and intellectual work – isn’t something we’re taught, nor is it much attended to as a necessary human practice. People often avoid the solitude they need because they will feel guilty at leaving other people out. But communing with yourself, the putting aside of time for the calm exploration of inner states where experience can be processed, where dim intuitions, the unclear and inchoate can be examined, and where the undistracted mind drifts and considers what it requires, is essential. In this solitude there may be helplessness. You may be aware of too much experience, and an inability to see, for some time, what the creative possibilities are.”

Any kind of writing is an act of faith. At first it is a “relation” but not yet a relationship. The writer has to believe, somehow, that not only does he have something to say, but that he is of interest to others; that he can engage rather than bore them, that he can stimulate desire and curiosity in other people. He has to believe in the future, believe that writing this page today will, in the years to come, be sufficiently alive for others so that they might even pay to read it.”

I have always assumed that reading and imaginative writing go together. A writer’s originality can consist of how he distorts or uses someone else’s work. Even a failed plagiarist is an artist. What I’m trying to do, I guess, is get the students to read and look as writers, seeing how the author achieved an effect, being aware of what they can use or transform for themselves. If writing is the translation of feeling into language, I want to encourage a closer acquaintance with the language in order to increase the quantity and quality of expressed feeling. This is not reading for fun, and it is not literary criticism.”