Wednesday 23 March 2016

Writers writing

What writers risk, and sometimes court, is is the sympathy of others. Here's Will Eaves in
The Inevitable Gift Shop.

They see someone in fugue. And they may be indefinably irritated. Because  . . .  what is special about your claim to be writing? The painter and the musician have skills, obvious refinements of dexterity that can be pointed out as the art happens. But in the literate age everyone writes. The writer's ability is merely a claim. While it is being created the work is occult - from occultus, or 'hidden'. It has no very extraordinary appearance. It is an impersonation of anyone.

Yes - everyone writes in this literate age, certainly, but only in the sense that everyone - more or less - reads. Think of the vast spectrum of reading - from packaging to tabloid newspapers, from novels to menus and timetables. Not everyone who reads reads novels (and come to that, thank the stars, not everyone who writes writes novels). And not everyone who reads novels reads books, not any more. But the act of reading is easier to portray than the act of writing - think how unconvincingly actors 'write' when a scene requires them to do so - they scribble energetically but I cannot imagine that anything they 'write' is in any way legible (and it puts me in mind of actors swigging from empty mugs, and equally distracting and annoying tendency).

Faced with the challenge of presenting different types of artists at work, Hollywood in the past came up with a handful of fondly-remembered tropes (now rarely employed). Here are there of them:

a) the composer sits at the piano, ideally in a small urban apartment. The window is open (no air-conditioning) and we hear dogs bark and the odd police siren. It's very late, or early. The ashtray is full, a bottle empty. He plays a few notes, then a chord, then another chord. He scribbles on some sheet music paper. Plays again. A pause. He then screws up the paper and tosses it to the floor. His wife/girlfriend enters in a negligee . . .

b) the painter at his easel (I know - it's always guys). Another small apartment, but it's daytime. He makes a few gestures with his brush and pauses. Looks at the picture neutrally and then in a sudden fury obliterates the image - whatever it is - with savage strikes of a fully-laden brush. A version of this is beautifully executed by Barbara Belle Geddes in Hitchcock's Vertigo: "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

c) the writer by night, working by the light of a single lamp, the surrounding darkness of his squalid accommodation suggesting the pressure of thought as he scribbles, paused, reflects and then crumples yet another page into tight hall and tosses it onto the floor (the wastepaper basket long-since filled to overflowing). What wouldn't any of us give for the contents of Beckett's waste paper basket?

In the first and third examples the Barthesian signifier is the screwed up piece of paper - perfect emblem of thwarted creativity. Many years ago I spent what was at the time ten quid I couldn't afford on Martin Creed's Work No. 88 A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball (1995), which (as we authors used to like to say, 'is before me as I write'). It has a slight whiff of tobacco as for years I kept it in an old cigar box. It's a brilliant idea (rarely the case with contemporary conceptual art), the humble materials and means of production in tension with the rich line of reflections that the resulting object sets in train.  The crumpled paper ball came with a certificate, signed and dated by the artist, which I've framed. The idea that the proof of authenticity is the same material as the artwork it validates is a perfect symmetry (and for all I know my particular crumpled up ball of A4 (number 323) may, if carefully teased open, prove to be another such certificate of authenticity). That he could sit at home and, as it were, create an income stream by producing (in an open-ended edition) artworks which in any other context would be nothing more than a rejected failure, also makes me ponder.  That I still have the crumpled ball more than twenty years after I bought it in the ICA shop adds to its quiet significance. It has accompanied through turbulent times and now rests under a dusty glass dome, the sort of thing that might at one time have housed a stuffed linnet.

Quote © Will Eaves / CB editions

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