Yes, this is about writing: what is love?
What is love? Is it, as the sociobiologists say, an illusion, a construct, what we call sexual selection, how our genes find other genes, to make genes? Is it the love of Romeo and Juliet? Is there love in what we dismiss as puppy love, is it love that twists and distorts and makes a man kill? Is it love that tells us, “Turn off the life support”, is it love that takes a woman to smother an old man, or, says a mother, is it what she feels when she first holds a bloody newborn child, when it first suckles?
Is love of your God, love? Does love involve the desire to hold, to possess, to keep from others and can it create hate? Or is love that thing they say, when they say, “If you love her let her go”?
Shall we call in men in white coats to measure love? Perhaps it’s only pheromones, height ratios, genetic compatibility, or gene machines that seek other gene machines to compensate for vulnerabilities. Or, when you realise nobody can ever define love, ever explain love, do you simply say to me, “I don’t exactly know what it is, but I can give you examples.”
So now we write a story. We don’t tell people what love is. We don’t tell them, what we think about love. We say, “Watch.”
Watch Romeo, Juliet, see Sophie make her choice, see Anna Karenina lie down in front of a train, look at Madame Bovary. Enter into the mind, the world of a loving husband who smothers his pain-wracked wife, and can’t you see how that’s not so different from Old Chief Broom when he knew he had to kill the lobotomised McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The point is, about love, we know it when we see it, but when we look at it, it shimmers, it moves, it runs away, it’s shy. And when we chase after love it disappears. It doesn’t want to be categorised. It doesn’t like definitions. It is just me, it says, you can’t define me, I am the indefinable.
So you give examples.
You apologise to love. You say, I’m sorry. Yes, you are special, enigmatic. Yes, no mortal should have the temerity to examine you. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
So you go write a story.
You write a story where Jack needs Jill. Jack needs Jill so much he knows, without Jill he will die. But Jill wants a man called John, and Jack, because he feels such an intense emotion, this thing we have called love, Jack’s for Jill, Jack, heavily, brings John to Jill.
John and Jill live happily ever after. Jack dies.
Or there’s this guy.
When he was alive, he never made a move on his beautiful librarian, but now he’s dead, and while he’s being taught to fly by his foul-mouthed angel-trainer he begins to understand about fair hearts and fair lady. And his beautiful, sheltered, shuttered librarian, so missing out on love, has gone to another country. She has found marriage, not love, and now she lies there, beside a bitter, dark man.
Our guy is about to enter Heaven, or he can enter the dark, bitter man, and soften his librarian’s life. Our guy can give up his eternity. He will not have his librarian (he missed his chance, alive), but he can do this, this, just to make her life a little better because there is an ache in him, some ‘thing’, some unfulfilled thing. All he can do is give, and hope it is enough.
Flannery O’Connor once said she wrote to find out what she thought. I have always railed against that notion. I believe often we know, we know, we know, but we just don’t know how to say it. Or it is the unsayable, like at the depths of nuclear physics where things are so other that it all seems comic, or spiritual, and the names that fly around like singing electrons (and when they told us that it was weird enough) are mere hints. But they tell us, that down there – (in me, in you, in everything) there really are these things, quarks. Oh, yes, we are assured, up quarks, down quarks, top quarks and bottom quarks, and charm quarks and strange quarks.
What has this to do with writing? What has this to do with love? Should I explain or should I tell you a story so you will understand?
I’ll tell you more than one story, because I believe Flannery O’Connor said it badly and, because of that, beginning writers think they can just write and “see what happens” and it will all work out in the end.
Hang on for the next bit, because it’s about feelings, and incomplete things, oddities, non sequiturs, failures to round out, accidents of non-explanation, failures to hit the button, the nail, on its beautiful, sweet, satisfying head.
Once I was using Google for some research – why I don’t remember – and I read about a US Navy tragedy in Barcelona harbour, two ships colliding and many drowned. If I Googled now I could give you names and dates, but I will not. That world, those meanings are out there, waiting for a unique you to find them as you will, as you must. All those things, those many things, all with meanings, and every combination unique.
What struck me? This: At the conclusion of the port visit a very touching moment occurred as the ship was leaving the pier and heading for sea. An older Spanish woman, dressed traditionally in black with her head covered, quietly appeared on the pier and, one by one, slowly tossed red roses into the harbour water, one for each of our lost shipmates.
I don’t know what this means.
I feel something. It aches. But I don’t know what it means.
Now tell me, do you really believe “I don’t know what it means”? If I was in a court of law, and I was asked, on penalty of imprisonment, “Mr Keegan, what do those roses mean, why an older Spanish woman, why is she dressed in black, why is her head covered, why roses, why slowly, why one by one?” could I drag out a plausible answer, could I get off the hook?
Of course I could. I’d give the court enough to satisfy them. I’d get away with it. I’d churn something out that “sort of” fits the facts. The judge would say, “Thank-you, Mr Keegan,” and the prosecuting counsel would be frustrated because they would know this is not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it’s a fashioned, reasonable, everyday explanation.
But I did not bare my soul. I only pretended some superficial truth that my heart said, “Lie!” because I didn’t want to go to prison.
I did not answer honestly. I told a kind of truth but I knew it wasn’t the truth. It wasn’t explaining my ache, my deep “something” ache, my indefinable fat fist of spiritual understanding, my glimpse of God, my search for what life is about. That image is so strong, it smoulders in me. It calls to me, and still I haven’t written fiction to re-examine it, to find what I think.
There I’ve said it. I’ve said what Flannery O’Connor said, and I disagree with. I write to discover what I think. I write to discover what I feel.
And this is where Flannery and I part company. I believe I know what I think. I just don’t know how to express it. I don’t have the tools, or the mathematical formulae, or the wondrous machines to reveal that there are quarks, and not only that, six types of quark ending charm and strange. I don’t have the mind that can deal with the idea that we, human beings, are almost totally space that we are emptiness, blackness, actual nothingnesses across which darts energy.
I know what my Spanish lady means. I can see her, feel what she is doing, sense the pain (and the beauty). It’s just that when I look straight at it my life gets in the way. Funerals, cremations, roses for love, chrysanthemums, lilies, organ music, a friend’s suicide, a train-wreck, there a million things trying to trick me, trying to make me lie in court just to keep out of jail, when what I should say is, “Your honour, I know, but cannot say. Please lock me up.”
Then, when they lock me up I will hit a guard. They will throw me in a dark cell, a dirty cell. And I will close my eyes and sense this woman, feel that which is her force, the emotion those roses contain. Not the trite, simple and symbolic, the easy, the cliché. We’ve seen the Hollywood movies, we know the clichés, we’ve heard the stirring music. If that was all that scene meant to me I would have seen it, logged it, filed it away and carried on with my life, but it was more. That is why I keep going back to my Barcelona and trying to understand.
And the way to understand is to find the story.
You cannot look directly at a quark, not an up quark, not a down quark. You cannot look at a top or bottom quark; or a strange quark; or a charm quark.
But we know quarks exist. We know them because they cause things to happen. We discover stars and planets, not because we can see them but because they affect other stars and planets. An imperfect orbit here, a meteor arrives late there, because it has been affected.
We know there is a thing, love, because we see it’s symptoms. We see orbits altered. We know somewhere, some entity exists, but it’s invisible. So we experiment. What happens if a man passes by that woman, will she affect him? Oh yes! She contains it! He contains it! Or ‘it’ resides between them, or it is magically created from the nothingness between them.
Here is something I cannot prove. Call it my seventh quark. Deep in me, deep in my heart, underneath my soul, timid, shy, elusive, so fragile that it will cease existing if I look directly at it, is a light. This tiny light, this pulse, this thing is exactly what my Spanish lady means to me.
Quite literally, I believe she calls to me, “Make me whole, let others see what I am. I came to you, you specifically, you exactly, you uniquely, and you understand. Give me a voice, give me light, let me out.”
To write what I know would be a story that mattered (at least to me) I have to see this light that cannot be looked at. I have to discover the light, its meaning by not looking at it, by writing about the orbits it minutely affects, and the nearest orbit is me, my thoughts, how I think.
Do you understand that I will rise from this table, go grab a coffee, eat some toast, make a phone call, beep an email? I have a life. And that life is mere function. It is not angelic. This is angelic. I seek, I hope to find.
But when I stand up, if I let go this heat, I enter a lesser state, a far more ordinary state, a let’s-get-by, don’t-be-silly, earn-a-few-dollars, go-get-the-mail, use the bathroom, phone the agent, muddle-through state. That’s a state far away from the seventh, unknown quark, the six imagined quarks, electrons and nuclei (remember them?) flesh, bone, a moving animal, me.
It’s down in the spirit where truth is. The question is how do I get there and stay there long enough to understand?
I mention the machine-me, the living, functioning, goes-to-the-bathroom me because he is who I have to remove to write. I have to turn off that me, and I have to become something else, someone else, and slowly disassociate from my mechanics, the plain, the knee-jerk, the automatic, the stereotype and the stock, the cliché, the obvious.
I have to do this. If I do not I will write what I expect, what people expect, the glib, the superficial, the beach-read, mere entertainment, gone faster than it is read, meaningless.
So how can I find my Spanish woman?
I find her by being in her orbit, by circling, by being close, by allowing her to affect me, by singing and listening to the notes.
I said here are things I cannot prove. I cannot. But I can show people the results. Show how, merely by “allowing”, by moving into a state, I turn away from the mechanical, obvious me and begin to find the receptive me, the planet light enough to be affected in its orbit.
I chant, I sing, I play with sound, with feeling, with language. This is the hardest part of my writing to explain. I write ‘in and around’ the feeling, always, always, always the opening. I believe in finding the voice that is the story’s voice, like Marquez.
But I believe, if I allow it, that voice is shaped, directed, magnetised, steered, resonated-with, orbit-affected by, not merely my Spanish woman (she mans the foyer), but by what she means.
If I am brutal, if I am a planet so big, those fine gravities are lost. I must be small, a quark, soft and influencible. I must write with soft hands. I must drop into a zone of effortless not-looking. I must, via language, sounds, feel, words and not drugs, enter a state where things are fluid, echo, resonate.
My unproven, but near-absolute belief is that if I can enter some near-transcendental state and allow my writing to “just happen” (feeling, feeling, sound, atmosphere, and never, not even remotely plot), my opening will answer the call from the light, the falling roses.
I feel around, trying to tune in, letting fall the words, the visions, the viewpoints, tone, tense, colour and smell of the opening. Some jar, some feel wrong, some feel better, some feel good. Understand I don’t mean “good” in a literary sense, not “good writing”. I mean good, this is closing in on the feeling, the essence, the conduit.
What conduit? A direct line (never look along it) to what the Spanish woman means.
I must be crude for a moment. It’s as if my lady stands there listening to me, waiting for me to speak in the right way, for me to be simpatico.
If I was to start with a horrid, crude, aggressive, abrasive voice, she would turn her head away. She wants me to be seductive, so she will, in her turn, whisper to me.
I already have an instinct. I know approximately how I should speak, and of what. But it is by “tuning in” to the message (all feeling) that I find the one (and only one) opening that aches so perfectly I simply know it is the one, the sent one, from the light, of the muse, with the music.
There is no explanation here. There is nothing in the opening that explains. If anything the sound and feel, the hum, the music, the colour and tone may feel like they are taking me on a journey away from my woman.
Nevertheless is feels so right, so right. I know I am being affected. I know that the light, the roses, the woman, the meaning, is a gravity and these words resonate, they feel so right, because every time I try to change one the boats rocks, the current below me is less smooth-flowing, less definite.
The opening answers the light.
The light reflects the opening.
Now, provided I am light-footed, treading softly, because I walk on dreams, the next paragraph comes as it must, as it should, as it can do no other. It follows.
And the next, the next, the next. The waterfall tumbles, but it is only going one place, and all the time it’s ache, the ache building, getting closer and closer to a woman in a black dress.
Remember she calls to me, affects my orbit. It is the tonal feel, the music and colour of the work that carries the meaning. I choose, by now, words which fit and are not dissonant, Every word, every sound, and every accumulating phrase brings me closer to understanding, until, just before the end I realise I have been narrowing, narrowing, falling ever-inward to the moment of truth.
Does this truth have to be a complete articulation of such precision that we can write it on a board like a scientist writes his formula? No!
I started with an ache that held a meaning. The ache and the meaning affected my orbit. I became a very small planet and by sailing, allowing, my orbit became the one that was required. Then I merely allowed a story, never plotting, always feeling and allowing people, sound, life to simply enter.
And if I have not imposed, who did impose? If I have not imposed, what cause the words, these words?
I know this is difficult, but like we tell stories about people to understand love, so it is that we tell stories about stories to understand art.
Here is a story about a story.
I was teaching, and a student, a lady with grown boys talked about a news report. She had read about a fishing-boat, a trawler which had sunk, losing all hands. Those lives were five fishermen and a carpenter.
Five fishermen’s widows wanted to leave the trawler in the deep. Because that is what they did. That was what felt right. Their men had always belonged to the sea. It was how it was.
The carpenter’s wife was not a fisherman’s wife. She needed her husband’s body. She believed she needed the body, a coffin, a grave, the earth.
She asked for the trawler to be raised.
Now, my student said, there’s some terrible ache here, but I can’t get hold of it. It is a fish, it escapes me.
We talked. We asked each other questions. We asked these imagined wives questions. We would have talked to the sea if it would have answered.
We could feel an answer somewhere, sense a meaning somewhere. And when interrogated, we decided it was “something about the difference between being a carpenter’s wife and a fisherman’s wife, something about fatalism, stoicism, primitive ideas about Neptune or Poseidon, the sea, the cold grey depths. But no, no, no, the meaning would not come, the story would not come.
Then write the opening, I said. Nothing more, nothing explained. Just write these women, watching, as the trawler is raised. What is happening? Who stands where, who feels what? What is the tone, the colour, the music?
I imagined something like: The cranes are ready, they slap down into the green sea and I watch. Soon they will begin to raise the “Dark Moon” and bring out our men. On my left is Martha, widow of a fisherman, the first mate. I am the widow of the captain. On my right is the woman whose husband was a carpenter who drowned with the others.
What came to me, for me was the fact that the carpenter was different, his wife different. They were separate. They did not belong. The fishermen’s widows understood the needs of the carpenter’s wife, so they allowed the boat to be raised. But the carpenter’s wife, the widow, was not one of them.
This is not the opening, merely a simple one of mine, but what the writer’s opening began to do is reveal the crux, the otherness, the separatedness of the carpenter’s wife.
Before the student had started we had got close to the feelings, but any true articulation had been impossible. Now the opening, the voice (far better than the above) had the smell of the answer, the tone required, and the specifics of separateness.
Now all the student needed to do was describe the lifting, inter-cut the dilemma and retain (but never describe) the sense of separation, of difference.
And it worked. The boat is raised. Close to tears now and they bring out the first body, wearing orange oilskins. It is the captain, the narrator’s dead husband. He is laid on the deck.
Then another body. It is the carpenter, a different coloured oilskin, all the fishermen wore orange. The carpenter’s wife says thank-you.
I am not imposing meaning. The student writer is not imposing meaning. We simply feel something but report facts.
It is at this point that the student writes that now they will put the captain’s body back into the trawler, so that he may be drowned again, that he may be given back to the sea.
This might well have finished things, the carpenter still a carpenter, his wife a carpenter’s widow, but, because the writer is following the voice, the feeling, the meaning of the meaning that she cannot touch, spontaneously she wrote that the carpenter’s wife asks for her husband to go back into the coffin-ship.
This was not plotted. This was not planned. What happened for the writer was that the almost-articulatable “meaning” had swollen up through the words and a simple action had revealed what she had been feeling all along.
The carpenter’s wife gives back the carpenter to the sea. Now the carpenter is one with fishermen. The carpenter’s widow is now a fisherman’s widow. There is a closure, a fullness. Nothing is explained, it is all contained within. We have described love by showing it happen, shown understanding by seeing someone understand. The light that will not focus shines all through the work, illuminating, moving, shaping the whole.
Even now, asked to write ten words answering, “What is the theme of this story?” the student is uncomfortable. She should say, “Read the story, the theme is there. That is enough for me.”
I cannot explain love, but I can write stories where people fall in love. I cannot explain, quite, where stories come from, but I can tell stories about stories coming together. I do not want to know exactly what I feel. I just want to feel something I have never felt before.
I want to ache, to feel those roses, falling, one, by one, by one, into the sea.