It’s a small distinction, but one that always feels very important to me: that it’s possible to write ‘about’ or simply to write. Writers I like, even when they are writing about a specific subject, seem to be doing something that conjures up all kinds of magic in me. People who write about a novel, for example, seem to be doing something the author never intended to do … they thematise, explain and elucidate. People who write may begin with, for example again, the subject of a novel, and of course they may elucidate, but what seems to happen in their writing is unpredictable, almost alive, and allows me to experience something other than the novel itself – its bones or whatever might be left after they’ve picked over it.
This isn’t to say I don’t like writers who do the ‘about’ thing. I read a novel, The Perfect Storm, which never seemed to go far beyond writing about a storm, about danger, about death and about calm. For whatever reason (and I hope you might imagine some) I never felt the book took me any further than some of my tamer dreams; the ones where waves reached up above cliffs while I am walking along the coast and which I awoke feeling I knew very well what they meant, or the sense of plunging headlong, tripping in the dark, and only for a second fearing the worst. It left me with sensations, but nothing sensational – nothing for me to marvel at or desire to the point where my own imagination really began to fire.
Novels like The Perfect Storm cast down something fixed and still: a printer’s form full of letters rather than the magical content Freud describes in The Mystic Writing Pad. He writes about the old waxy boards children used to play with, covered with a sheet of plastic that you wrote on to create words which lasted only until the plastic sheet was raised.
The best writing is always more to do with the mystic writing pad. Read it, and move on, and it’s gone, and then something else is there. Immortality involves a kind of a disappearing act where the most extraordinary thoughts, feelings, writing, art, meld into other people’s, artists or not, who carry them and pass them on in almost infinite numbers of ways. That’s writing. Not writing about.
A footnote: those tamer dreams of mine often contained something easy to miss. Their message seemed so clear that when I eventually caught a sense of what they stopped me understanding I wondered how on earth I might have found out without the help of somebody or something else (there have been many people, even some animals and a few good places, not only psychotherapists …). I wouldn’t have.
Often I find something worrying in the writing of the ‘writers about’. Perhaps a hidden agenda almost obscured by their clarity – maybe more a certain tone a reader could end up carrying that might resonate with something less savoury than they’d ever consciously imagine. Nobody’s to blame – there’s no sleight of hand, only a certain lack of enquiry on the part of the writer, who looks out onto other people’s work to judge it rather than enquiring after their own, and themselves.