Monday, 30 April 2012

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.

As someone who has spent a considerable portion of my life writing and teaching about literature and the creative process it was with some trepidation that I launched on my attempt to become an active participant myself- to become a writer. I enjoy the process of writing, but it is for me virtually impossible to apply the same analytical and evaluative approach to my own writing that I apply so freely to others'.

The thing is that the creative and analytical thought processes are clearly different and engage entirely different parts of the mind. Truly effective creative writing, I firmly believe, arises largely from the unconscious process of the brain over which we exercise conscious control at our peril. As a writer you know what it is when those unconscious processes take over. Time seems to disappear and you simply vanish into the world of your creation, emerging after some unspecified period with repetitive strain injury, an urgent need to relieve yourself and no clear sense of what you have just written. That doesn't happen often of course (that bloody man of Porlock with his constant Facebook status updates), but it is when the best work is produced.

The quandary then is that when you reread later with an analytical frame of mind it can be easy to spot that a passage (or an entire novel!) is not as good as you had hoped, but impossible to rewrite it in a way that retains its original fluency. So, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea I generally just tinker- frightened to change too much and lose too much, yet frightened too that what I have written actually needs far more radical surgery.

And then there are all those small but irritating issues about research and the need for accuracy. Here again the devil is on one side, the deep blue sea on the other. I personally cannot stand those books where the author has clearly spent many hours in the British Library and is DAMN WELL going to shoehorn in the results of their research at every possible opportunity. On the other hand it can be equally irritating to read in a novel something that you KNOW is wrong. Like the description of a scene you are familiar with in real life, when you know for a fact that the character could not possibly have seen that building from there (or whatever).

One such small (but for me irritating) dilemma emerged around the title of my novel and the quotation from which it comes. The title is An Absence of War and it comes from (what I thought to be) a Spinoza quotation:
"Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice." 
Lovely, I thought, and so appositely summing up the central themes of my book. Only Spinoza didn't actually write that. It is an incredibly loose translation that has somehow gained common currency and been attributed to him. What he actually wrote (in Latin) was something closer to:
"For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character: for obedience is the constant will to execute what, by the general decree of the commonwealth, ought to be done."
Not quite so snappy. Or as lovely. Actually quite profoundly different. Still, I didn't want to lose the title. So I added a prologue, and tried to weasel in the meaning of the 'quote' as I had originally felt it, without misquoting a great philosopher. Here is that prologue. I will leave you to judge whether it works.



It happened again last night. I woke in the cold grey of the dawn, struggling for breath, my mind a confused jumble of tortured images, of shattered fragments of suffocating dreams. In the empty hours while others sleep I relive those days, those weeks, those months. No matter how far I go, they always pull me back.

TV and the internet parade their endless images of death and destruction, of devastated towns and their traumatised inhabitants. I watch streams of refugees wheeling their pitiful collections of household treasures in ramshackle carts past the burnt out wrecks of armoured vehicles. I see reporters in flak jackets, picking their way through the shattered wreckage of a family home; hear politicians intone their platitudes about the need for reconstruction, for a political solution.

Yet as I lie awake it is Germany I see, in the autumn and winter of 1945. I see a hand, its fingernails blackened, its skin grey with dust. I see a throat, slashed across in vivid red. I see a man slumping down to the floor in front of me; see his body shaken by the motion of the truck; see a girl clutching a package tightly between thin hands.

And words from those days still speak to me across the years. Words spoken by a man I once called my friend— k├╝mmern uns um die Nummer eins: look after number one. Words forged in heavy black steel on the gateway to hell— Jedem das Seine: to everyone that which they deserve.
And more than anything I hear a voice. The voice of a young boy, his whoop of joy echoing through the empty ward of an abandoned hospital, tearing my heart with its belief in a better world.


Unable to sleep I lay listening to the World Service, so often my companion in those dead hours before daylight brings me fully back to the present day. A reporter had returned to some benighted region of our war-torn planet to see how the people there were dealing with the aftermath of conflict. He spoke of recrimination and reprisals, of hardship and deprivation. The cameras of the world have moved on, he said, but for the people the ending of hostilities has brought little respite.

It was the Jewish philosopher Spinoza who first said that peace is not simply an absence of war. It is many years now since the ending of the war that ripped my childhood world apart. Yet still I wonder when peace will truly come.

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