2011 Calibre Prize (winner): 'The Death of the Writer'

In February 1878 in Marseilles, France, Józef Teodor Konrad Nałęcz Korzeniowski, a twenty-year-old Polish seafarer tormented by depression, lifted a revolver to his chest and pulled the trigger. The suicide attempt failed: the bullet, whether by chance or design, penetrated the young man’s body without disrupting any vital organ. Korzeniowski recovered quickly and, only a few weeks later, took to the waters again aboard a British steamer bound for Constantinople.

Had that piece of lead deflected into the heart, or severed a major artery, or precipitated some mortal infection beyond the scope of nineteenth-century medical science, the evidence of Korzeniowski’s brief life and violent death, paled by six score and ten years of subsequent human endeavour, lumbered with the unbearable weight of its appalling insignificance, would now be lost to history. Instead he survived, changed his name to Joseph Conrad, and came to be embedded in the collective consciousness on the strength of some of the finest novels ever written.

Conrad’s youthful suicide attempt may have lacked the resolve that characterised those of Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Primo Levi, fellow writers who, having identified and largely satiated their need to record the turmoil of existence in prose of remarkable craft, met their ends by way of a deep stream, a double-barrelled shotgun, and an upper-level landing, respectively. If Conrad had succeeded, today there would be no Heart of Darkness, no Nostromo, no Under Western Eyes, none of the works that stand alongside Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Hemingway’s short stories and Levi’s If This Is Man in the annals of Western literature.

Self-inflicted or otherwise conceded death went on to become a common theme in Conrad’s fiction. There is Winnie Verloc in The Secret Agent, who outwits insanity by embracing the tenebrous depths of the English Channel. There is Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, who, in his final moments, pronounces ‘a judgement upon the adventures of his soul on this earth’. There is Lord Jim, who succumbs, ‘proud and unflinching’, to Doramin’s precisely aimed bullet. Perhaps the most extraordinarily depicted of them all is the suicide, by firearm crossed with submersion, of Nostromo’s magnificent Don Martin Decoud, that complicated soul whose body slides down into the waters of the Placid Gulf and is ‘swallowed up in the immense indifference of things’.

Although Conrad lived well into his sixties and accomplished literary feats of which most of us can only dream, he never managed to eradicate the demons that led him to shoot himself on that winter’s day in 1878. His malaise fed into his writing, and his writing no doubt nurtured the malaise. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics version of Nostromo, Martin Seymour-Smith notes that not only did darkness and desolation pursue Conrad throughout his life, but also that enduring such circumstances was to a great extent a necessity in terms of his art; to be prolific he needed ‘to be ill, broke and in a state of despairing self-hatred’. Moreover, Seymour-Smith goes on to assert that, for Conrad, ‘the only salvation lay in writing’.

That is what writing is for many – an act of salvation. It is also an act of defiance. Those who write are likely to do so in the face of an unstable amalgam of self-belief and despair. Though it is always possible to descend irrevocably into the latter, when writing one should only ever have a passing acquaintance with the former. That is because to write with full confidence in one’s own ability and purpose is to submit to a hubris antithetical to the exploratory nature of the process. Rather, the best writing is likely to occur in defiance of anguish, an anguish born of a perpetual questioning as to whether each word fashioned on the page is worthy of existing in the face of the standards set by antecedents such as Conrad.

So far as this thing called writing is concerned, the actual physical act of transferring thought onto page constitutes only part – arguably, only a minor part – of the occupation. To write one cannot merely be ‘a writer’: one must first be a reader, an observer, a listener, a thinker. To write imaginatively, one should be a voracious student of literature, of art, of music, of film; of current events and historical records and distant cultures. No particular set of facts, or specific version of history, or major aesthetic tradition must be known inside out in order to write. There is no one group of authors or body of canonical texts with which one must inevitably engage. There is only a nebulous pursuit of knowledge set off by some inkling or stirring within – a pursuit with no end point that must be undertaken by those who are destined to write, in order to fulfil a nagging impulse that cannot be dealt with in any other way. And the ultimate consequence of that pursuit is writing.

Among the millions who are for the most part indifferent to writing lingers a significant minority who must write. And that is the most important trait to be discerned in a member of the latter group: the necessity to write, the requirement to live much of one’s life through the prism of writing. To need to write, that is the vital thing; to succumb to an instinctual demand for which the term ‘writer’ is quite inappropriate in its certitude and imperiousness. For to write is to engage in an ongoing battle with self-doubt, but to call oneself a writer is to operate under the arrogant pretence that those doubts have been conquered. Therefore, I want to argue that for writing to properly occur, it is necessary for us urgently to pursue the death of the writer.

Such a command inevitably evokes Roland Barthes’s well-known essay ‘The Death of the Author’. Barthes, however, concerned not with the truth of writing but rather with its potentiality, looks to pass judgement on the class of persons termed authors by focusing upon that hitherto underappreciated group known as readers. In doing so, he calls, if not for a symbolic murder to be committed, then at the very least for a rhetorical euthanasia to take place. It is only in this way that all of those moribund, written-out authors might be usurped by that eternally inquisitive type within whom all writing comes to fruition: the reader. According to Barthes, the reader constitutes ‘the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost’. By dispatching the author from the equation he seeks a shift in emphasis towards the activity that breathes the very life into writing.

The death being suggested here, on the other hand, must be a self-inflicted one – a suicidal act carried out in the understanding that not only is writing an unavoidably arduous, solitary activity, but that it is also, largely, an ineffable one. It is pointless to desire to be a writer.  How can anyone possibly know what a writer is supposed to be? A loner? A visionary? A masochist? An obsessive? A nondescript? Perhaps, in order to write, an individual must be a combination of all these things, but who can be sure? No, it is better to understand what one who writes should not be, and that surely is the kind of person who comfortably wears the self-imposed mantle of writer.

A personal anecdote may reinforce my claim that the dream of becoming a writer is a chimera. For some years, I fancied that a decisive epiphanic event was driving my own writerly ambitions. If nothing else, I can claim the circumstances of the episode to be unique. Who else has experienced such an epiphany in surroundings as incongruous as those of a city morgue?

The unfortunate subject of my attentions on that day was the doll-like body of a tiny infant. He or she (regretfully, I cannot remember which) was undergoing a post-mortem examination in circumstances whereby homicide was suspected. As a detective specialising in such cases, I was on hand to document the proceedings. Having attended like events a number of times previously – always mediated through the glass screen of an amphitheatre, which somehow rendered the affair all the more unsettling – my concentration was apt to waver. The pathologist proceeded, each scene of the drama recorded with due detachment by a mute police photographer, while surprise was expressed from both stage and audience as careful examination of the skull and brain failed to reveal the expected evidence of insult. As the inspection moved on to the torso (‘heart apparently normal’, ‘stomach contents unremarkable’, ‘no evidence of bronchopneumonia’), my mind diverted from the task at hand long enough to reach the abrupt and irresistible conclusion that I could no longer devote life to inquiring into the gross maltreatment of children. Instead, I determined to pursue my long-held goal of becoming a writer. My incredulity at the autopsy’s unexpected dénouement seemed in hindsight to add the final impetus for an unlikely career change from investigating child abuse and neglect to literature and philosophy: the defenceless baby’s liver had been split in two, evidently stomped on in a fit of rage by the mother’s boyfriend.

In retrospect, this alleged epiphany owes its force to the appalling fact of the child’s murder, not to the imaginary moment of the birth of the writer. It was just one of dozens I had around that time, yet my emerging writer’s ego was so inflamed that I came, albeit unconsciously, to associate the significance of the occasion with the fervour and purity of my nascent literary ambition. Only later came the realisation that it is the nameless infant that remained forever pure, while the dream of being a writer has appropriately come to rot in the graveyard of vain aspirations, swallowed up in the immense indifference of things.

Conrad
Joseph Conrad, 1924

Like Conrad, I suppose, some kind of depressive state came to envelop me as I lingered halfway between the grim reality of traumatised children and the apparent illusion of literary fulfilment. Again, however, it was not writing that ultimately lifted this gloom. It was all of the reading and contemplating and reminiscing that takes place preparatory to writing, which, if considered discretely from those attendant pleasures, is likely to lead only to eternal torment. I do not wish to evoke here the stereotype of the writer as tortured soul (who isn’t?) but rather the reality of the act of writing itself as torture – sometimes exquisite torture, it is true, but torture nonetheless.

In the end, it took only a few years of interaction with the world of formal publishing for the desire to go on writing to triumph over the absurd notion of striving to become a writer. I soon came to appreciate that to have work published, no matter where or how, is to watch it disappear into a gigantic vortex of texts as incomprehensibly vast as it is utterly convoluted, handing on to the reader (if, in fact, there is one) exclusive power over your authorial existence. I came also to grasp how the idea of the writer tends toward the assumption of a finished product – of what the writer wrote – when, in truth, there is no end point to writing, no time when you stop editing in your head a text with which you have ostensibly parted company. Certainly, there is no finality in writing like that of a broken child laid out on a stainless steel table. Viewing a documentary film on the Australian painter Jeffrey Smart helped emphasise the point: at one stage, he is seen in a gallery space moments before the opening of an exhibition, working away with a brush on one of his ‘finished’ paintings, while in the background the apoplectic curator fulminates against bloody interfering artists.

Just as, thankfully, any tendency to equate publication with success was quashed by growing dismay at the warped priorities of the intellectual milieu through which I was attempting to find a pathway into writing. Willa Cather once observed that, as a rule, both writers and publishers are destroyed by their successes. Little could she have imagined just how debilitating the equating of achievement with institutional and monetary gain would become in modern-day writing. Success, I decided, is anathema to good writing, which should always be focused upon improving what has been (or is about to be) inscribed, whereas to be deemed a writer is only encouragement to wallow in whatever faint glories have already been bestowed.

Despite being a frightening representative of a society that has turned against the written word, the fire captain in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 – a fancy-dress fascist splendidly portrayed by Cyril Cusack – provided another filmic revelation that hit home insofar as the potential pitfalls of writerly success are concerned: ‘When they started out, it was just the urge to write. Then, after the second or third book, all they wanted was to satisfy their own vanity, to stand out from the crowd, to be different, to be able to look down on all the others.’

So, as I wandered with increasing bewilderment around the university campus where I had chosen to commence my literary stand, corridors echoing with the sounds of numbers being furiously crunched and grant applications eagerly typed, there arose a mild yet nonetheless palpable pining for my former vocation. Unlikely as it may seem, the combat zone of battered babies and shattered lives, of sexual deviants and sterile courtrooms, began to engender a certain nostalgia when compared to the word-spattered labyrinth in which I now found myself. I felt, as the critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith would have it, a ‘culturally exotic reader’ suddenly transported to the outskirts of the academy; a nomad who had strayed close enough to the literary underworld so as to become reluctant witness to some of its more unpleasant transgressions. All the while, a song title from early-1990s daisy-age rap group PM Dawn kept playing over and over in my head: ‘Reality used to be a friend of mine.’ How, I asked myself, could one possibly negotiate all of this – the bureaucratisation, the populism, the hucksterism, the advertisements for oneself – to become a writer, yet still remain anchored in reality?

In the twenty-first century, there is an outstanding reason why one should on no account desire to be known as a writer. To adopt that designation is to instantly assign oneself to a class of considerable disrepute. Just look around at some of the types who classify themselves as writers in this country. There are the abundant political propagandists of a mostly conservative bias, furnished by all manner of media with grounds upon which to ply their ridiculous trade. There are the multitudes of bloggers, many of them seemingly intent on filling cyberspace with clichéd gossip. There is the gaggle of newspaper and magazine and Internet reviewers apparently unburdened by any thought that the first and foremost target within a critic’s sights should be themselves. There is the steady procession of jaded rock stars and sports stars and television stars publishing cataleptic memoirs in runs of many thousands. There are the tabloid robots who turn out page after page of ostensibly different words but incontrovertibly identical content; the screenwriter whose major achievement is episode eighty-nine of some grimy soap opera; the corporate communicators wholly subservient to bland in-house style sheets; the ghost writers and shadow writers and co-writers helping stock bookstores with lurid biographies on cultural idols of passing notoriety. All are qualified to mark their occupation as ‘writer’ on the annual tax return, or apt to reply ‘I’m a writer’ to the customary dinner party enquiry.

Undeniably, at the same time there are a good many people providing striking and substantial prose on all manner of subjects and in a variety of formats. However, they are for the most part individuals cowering in the interstices of the cultural terrain – folk largely concealed by the looming shadow of their perpetual self-doubt, laid low by a nagging frustration at their inability to write something even better than what they came up with beforehand. (Blanchot hints neatly at the balance to be struck: ‘Optimists write badly. [Valéry] But pessimists do not write.’) These are the types that consider themselves readers rather than writers, thus engendering in them a healthy Barthesian respect for their audience (though again, they often fear that there may not be one); the kind who believe that if the likes of Sarah Palin (to take one of the most demoralising examples) have written books, the appellation of writer should be regarded with the utmost scepticism.

If it is to be used at all, the title should perhaps remain exclusive to that rare living being who has transcended anonymity and written himself or herself into the greater culture: a McCarthy or a Banville, a Morrison or an Atwood, an Ondaatje or a Díaz, a Garner, or a Malouf; a J. Hillis Miller or a Meaghan Morris or a Greil Marcus or a Drusilla Modjeska. They are more commonly called authors – respected individuals whose achievements have led them into a face-off with Barthes from which they have emerged still standing, though bloodied and chastised, and with an enhanced understanding of the decisive role that the reader plays in maintaining their authorial status.

It is doubtless no easy thing to give up the idea of morphing into a writer when there is so much going on to encourage that very transformation. Take, for instance, the ever-more-common spectacle of the writers’ festivals that now feature in most major cities, and a few minor ones. At the sites of these literary pilgrimages, stages appear overnight like hastily erected gallows, upon which writers – who, as Kafka once observed, should have nothing to say – are paraded, babbling or mumbling as the case may be, before the assembled minions, to be pardoned or hung depending on their ability to exude vivacity in a theatrical setting.

Meanwhile, said minions scamper from one event to the next, clogging the thoroughfares with their stubborn fantasies of becoming famed writers, flocking to sessions with titles such as ‘Five Pitfalls of Writing Fiction’, ‘Romance Sells’, ‘Keep Control of your Plot’, and ‘Secret Men’s Business’. And how queer it is that these fledglings do not seem put off by the fine print that determinedly cordons them off as non-writers even before they have paid for their tickets (the 2010 Sydney Writers’ Festival website, for example, makes clear that unsolicited submissions, inappropriate approaches, and other general annoyances perpetrated by the unauthorised and the unpublished upon the assembled celebrities are expressly forbidden).

There is also the burgeoning concept of the Creative Writing course, academic or otherwise: writerly production houses where degrees and diplomas and certificates and medallions are dangled in front of aspirants who are drawn by the prospect of careers in media writing and scriptwriting and technical writing and travel writing; where seminars and workshops and conferences and masterclasses offer cures for writer’s block and writer’s cramp and writer’s fear and writer’s solitude; where potential bards come to be magically imbued with imagination and stamina and ingenuity and derring-do.

Let me not for a moment be seen as implying that such gatherings do no good whatsoever. Writers’ festivals and writing courses are fine if they encourage people to write better, and to think about what it means to write and what more there is to writing than putting pen to paper or hand to mouse. They are fine, too, if they make more people cherish the fact that exceptional writing exists in the world. But writers’ festivals and writing courses fail if they merely encourage more individuals to single themselves out as writers.

So the call to all budding scribes out there is this: kill yourself or get over it. Robert Hughes, in the preface to the second edition of his The Art of Australia, wrote with affection about the comprehensive history that he precociously wrote in his mid-twenties. All the same, Hughes was moved to observe that he would ‘no longer endorse [the] luxuriant metaphors and tendency to jib at formal analysis’ of the fellow who wrote it. Insightful words, yet Hughes alludes here to a paradoxical truth that must be encompassed by anyone with a yearning to write well: those who write do so in order to live, but at the same time they must figuratively die at the end of each day. This is not meant in the sense of Blanchot and his writer–actor, who ‘is born and dies each evening in order to make himself extravagantly seen, killed by the performance that makes him visible’. Rather, they must die because the conversation had, or the film viewed, or the book read, or the words written, changes them irrevocably and makes them more aware, more self-critical, than they were before.

Dispatch those writers within, too, in deference to all the unknowns who, unlike Conrad, did aim their weapon truly, who died and descended into the void before having the chance to create the masterpieces fermenting within. Kill them honourably in acknowledgment of the high probability that some of the greatest authors the world would ever have known were among those taken prematurely by the many famines, by the umpteen wars, by the countless genocides that humanity has engineered. Kill them, finally, because, as René Magritte reputedly once asserted, he could never imagine wanting to be just a painter – a creed anyone with the aim to write would do well to adopt.

To thrust a final dagger into the faltering body of the writer, to assist by tightening the cord around the neck and kicking the chair out from beneath the struggling form, it is best to turn to the author who arguably heaped the most constructive disdain upon the very process he lived by – Jorge Luis Borges. For Borges, writing was foremost a way of staving off the eternal banishment to which the transitory nature of being would eventually condemn him: as his 1986 New Yorker obituary (quoted by Geoffrey Green) states, ‘for Borges it was only in writing that the living moment could be held, saved from oblivion’.

The stories of Borges are accordingly crammed with images and aphorisms that tend to diminish the writer to little more than a lazy alter ego obsessed with self-preservation. In ‘The Secret Miracle’, Hladik is described as a man who, like all writers, ‘measured other men’s virtues by what they had accomplished, yet asked that other men measure him by what he someday planned to do’. In the fictional world of Tlön in ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Teritus’, the writer is demystified first by the verdict that all books must be the work of the same author, then by the declaration (which comes to the same thing) that each individual author’s role in its encyclopedic creation was but infinitesimal. ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’predates Barthes by alluding to how the privileged status of writer quickly evaporates in the flux of readings/rewritings that envelop all texts from the moment they arrive into the world.

All of this questioning of the character of the writer culminates in the single-page parable ‘Borges and I’ which first appeared in his collection The Maker. Here, Borges famously divides himself into two distinct beings, Borges the writer (and actor) and the other, private Borges (the real one), whose endeavours sustain him:

I allow myself to live, so that Borges can spin out his literature, and that literature is my justification. I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or tradition. Beyond that, I am doomed – utterly and inevitably – to oblivion, and fleeting moments will be all that survives in that other man.

Like Conrad, Borges almost died before his writerly twin came into full existence. In 1938, a blow to the head led to septicaemia and left him on the threshold of extinction for several days. Had he died then, both Borges the person and Borges the writer would have soon faded into everlasting anonymity. Yet Borges knew – an awareness that seeped into virtually all of his subsequent writing – that by surviving and going on to produce a handful of vital texts, his staving off of mortality would only be provisional. He helps us to see that writing, and thus the writer, is neither here nor there; every moment in which writing takes place is only a momentary suspension of both past and future, little more than a beneficial means of preparing for the oblivion that awaits us all.

Borges prompts us always to remember that in a universe containing many times more stars than there are bodies languishing in all of the graves on earth, those who write can hope for nothing more than to create a few ‘sound pages’ that might help sustain humanity throughout the remainder of its forlorn, ephemeral existence. Write because you must, but it is better to do so sobered by the knowledge that the time will eventually arrive when there is nobody left to read what you have written, when the only remaining hint that writers once populated this earth will be embedded within a series of ever-decaying radio waves pulsing slowly out into the stupefying emptiness of space – where there will be no one ever to detect them.

Recalling the final weeks of the life of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell), Malcolm Muggeridge tells how his friend, bedridden by the ravages of advanced tuberculosis, expressed to him an old aphorism to the effect that ‘writers who have more to write cannot die’. Muggeridge felt that up until that time Orwell would have been quite accepting of death. After all, Orwell nearly perished in 1937 when, during the Spanish Civil War, he was shot in the neck by a fascist sniper. Now, however, encouraged by the fame that Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four had brought him, Orwell wanted to live and to go on working. He was making plans – to remarry, to travel, to write. Yet for Muggeridge it was ‘all a dream; writers still with things to write can die’. A short time later, Orwell did.

All a dream ... Borges has referred to writing as nothing more than a guided dream. Conrad, via Marlow in Heart of Darkness, observes that we live as we dream, alone. For Charles Baudelaire, true reality exists only in dreams. Might writing be nothing but a series of solitary dreams, dreams taking place in the minds of those who have survived septicaemia, or a bullet to the chest or neck, or any of the other multiple deaths that could have befallen them in one of the thousands of parallel lives to be endured had fate so decreed? Do Orwell, Borges, Conrad, Woolf, and the rest all exist today only as half-memories drifting through the minds of readers, their true selves long condemned to the same vanishment that awaits all who try to emulate them? Is the best anyone who writes can hope for to survive on, in print, for as long as a Shakespeare (long enough, that is, for people to start arguing about whether you wrote what you did in the first place), or maybe an Omar Khayyám (to be dragged, eight hundred years hence, from the blessed peace of the mausoleum and inserted into the canon of some latter-day civilisation beyond your worst nightmares)? Or are writing and immortality two sides of the same imaginary coin, the first merely a succession of waking dreams, the second a yoke which those dreams will in time come to purge in a Baudelairean flash of necrotic release? (‘You worms! dark fellows without ears or eyes, see how there comes to you a glad free corpse.’)

Fairweather
Ian Fairweather at Bribie Island, 1966 (National Library of Australia)

The eminent Australian painter Ian Fairweather is yet another who, like Orwell, like Borges, like Conrad, evaded a premature demise to go on to achieve renown in his own field of aesthetic endeavour. Fairweather’s well-documented raft excursion from Darwin in 1952 would, had the prevailing winds driven him a little farther south of the western-most tip of Indonesia, have rendered him an insignificant footnote in history, more for his suspect navigational abilities than his art. There is a sense in which this fortuitous escape threatens to overwhelm the work even of a painter of Fairweather’s standing. His name is rarely recalled without reference to it, and a replica of the raft and accompanying depiction of his voyage, recently featured in the Queensland Art Gallery, seemed to generate as much interest as his art ever did.

Compare all this with a passage from Fairweather, Murray Bail’s definitive account of the man’s life and art. Bail records that in 1962, around the time of a groundbreaking exhibition of the then seventy-year-old’s work, Fairweather, having been treated for an infected ear after being bitten by a goanna in his bushland hut, left a Brisbane hospital ‘trailing bandages’ and ‘stood up in a bus all the way back to Bribie [Island]’. Here is a reference to a journey arguably just as fascinating as the earlier Timor Sea crossing, not least because it will be forever buried deep below the surface of authenticated history. What was Fairweather thinking that day as he rode the two hours back to his island home? Was he aware by then of his standing as one of the nation’s most celebrated painters? Did the other people on the bus assume him to be some crazy old man? What did the highway north from Brisbane look like in the early 1960s?

These are the types of questions which anyone who writes ought to be interested in. To write well one should be prepared to dig beneath the surface, to abjure the obvious for the neglected, to raise up dead history or the soon-to-be-dead present in order to examine them in a new light. Think of Borges and his obscurantism, his references to long-forgotten texts and quaint lists of seemingly arbitrary marginalia. Think of Orwell and his anonymous treks among the downtrodden and the disenfranchised of society. Think of Walter Benjamin’s monumental Arcades Project and the many years he spent resolutely sifting through the accumulated minutiae of nineteenth-century European culture.

Such deviations and digressions are not unique to distinguished literature. Music, most obviously, is replete with creations born of unlikely detours and unexpected borrowings. Consider how in the early 1970s Miles Davis created a new and revelatory style while absorbing ideas from Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Jimi Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys, from Sly and the Family Stone, and from Indian classical music; or, later, how the finest perpetrators of the scavenger aesthetic known as sampling have created stunning collages out of the discarded and the disparaged morsels of audio history; or how the Australian Ross Bolleter charms improvisations of precarious beauty from ‘ruined’ pianos.

Ultimately, all art takes place amidst the rubble of human history. It is born of that rubble and destined to form part of it. All that is written contributes to the vast mound of debris, making it more foreboding to each new generation that entertains hopes of adding to it. So expansive has it become that those who write can barely contemplate its extent in their mind, even though, on the scale of all things, it exists on an imperceptible speck of dust marooned in an abysmally secluded corner of the universe. But contemplate it they must, for its shadow will fall across the page every time they sit down to write.

Borges, then, was surely correct to ponder whether there is anything original in writing, for by now all of the possible nooks and crannies to be investigated show the footprints of others who came before. It is instead a matter of deciding which trails to re-explore and in what order, of laying all of those used words out in front of you and rearranging them in different and exciting new ways. It is a matter of engaging in the processes of reading and thinking and reorganising and experimenting in the hope that, from this conscious dream, worthwhile writing will somehow result, of being thankful that, like clouds, new collections of words come along every single day, essentially familiar yet in unique formations that retain the power to amaze. For writing, done well, bears repeated scrutiny like a cloudy sky or a Fairweather painting, on each new viewing able to reveal yet another aspect of its grace.

In a rare filmed moment towards the end of his life, a frail Ian Fairweather is clearly uncomfortable when the interviewer asks him how he spends his time. The artist, squinting into the camera, gives a four-word response that serves as the raison d’être for his entire existence: ‘I paint, damn it!’

What sterling advice for all those who wish to write. Forget about becoming a writer. Give up worrying about whether or not you are already a writer. Reject the notion that by classing yourself as a writer you might one day induce others to do the same. Just go ahead and write, damn it. To paraphrase Barthes, the birth of admirable writing is most likely to occur at the cost of the death of the writer.

Dean Biron shared the 2011 Calibre Prize for an Outstanding Essay with Moira McKinnon, whose essay ‘Who Killed Matilda?’ appears in our July–August 2011 issue. Calibre is presented in association with Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund.

Bibliography

Murray Bail, Fairweather, Murdoch Books, 2009
Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (trans. Stephen Heath), Fontana, 1977
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (trans. Keith Waldrop), Wesleyan University Press, 2006
Maurice Blanchot, Vicious Circles: Two Fictions and ‘After the Fact’ (trans. Paul Auster), Station Hill Press, 1985
Ibid, The Writing of the Disaster (trans. Ann Smock), University of Nebraska Press, 1986
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (trans. Andrew Hurley), Penguin, 1998
Willa Cather, On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing As an Art, Knopf, 1949
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (ed. and intro. Martin Seymour-Smith), Penguin, 1983
Ibid, Heart of Darkness (ed. and intro. Paul O’Prey), Penguin, 1983
Ibid, Lord Jim (ed. Cedric Watts and Robert Hampson), Penguin, 1986
Geoffrey Green, ‘Postmodern Precursor: The Borgesian Image in Innovative American Fiction’, in Edna Aizenberg (ed.) Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts, University of Missouri Press, 1990
Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia (rev. ed.), Penguin, 1970
Malcolm Muggeridge ‘A Knight of the Woeful Countenance’, in Miriam Gross (ed.) The World of George Orwell, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1971
Barbara Herrnstein Smith, ‘Contingencies of Value’, in Robert Von Hallberg (ed.) Canons, University of Chicago Press, 1984

Published in May 2011 no. 331

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