How often do you come across a book, poem or story that you should have written? I mean a piece of writing that reaches right inside you and expresses something you have been thinking ought to be written, if only you could think of a way to approach it.
There are books I’m excited by, and think, ‘I wish I could do, or had done, that,’ while knowing that the subject material is not really mine. They’ve transported me to other worlds, lifted me out my slothfulness, or boredom, misery or complacency. Often they’re adventures – I’m a sucker for clever active characters who dare to do things that would terrify me.
The books that I love and admire are not necessarily all ones that I should have written. I have shelves full of books that I can’t bear to part with, which I return to at significant moments for the therapy only they can provide, but many of those take me out of myself. They allow me to slip into another character’s world and explore feelings and responses from a different perspective.
The kind of writing that makes me think, ‘Damn, this is my story,’ often does the reverse of that. It says something that I recognise I have been trying to say, maybe forever, and failing. I found this quote from Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985), the other day, and had just such a eureka moment.
The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions. The unconscious speaks – in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations – with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.
You see, what I get from this, regardless of what Calvino may or may not have intended, is that we have to keep trying and, maybe, slightly failing, to successfully convey our ideas through language or even symbol. Thinking too much about how that process works can act as a block.
Once I accept that words are a different language, I become a translator. I hope to find the right word, but accept that not all languages have as many ways of describing love as the Welsh do, or of snow as the Inuit’s do. So I have to play with the vocabulary I have, finding other ways to convey what I feel, see or know. Sometimes the bridge that links the unconscious to ‘the language of the waking world‘ is made up of the gaps between words.
Poems, songs and radio plays know this. On Saturday, when I listened to John Malkovich in Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, on BBC Radio 4, it wasn’t the detailed scene setting that transported me back to the sets of Tarzan or the parties with Johnny Weissmuller, it was the absence of them.
The best cinema in the world happens inside our minds, where it is augmented by the associations that come from our own histories. The wonderful part of that process, in my experience, is that it doesn’t restrict us. It utilises the same principles that creative writing does, by connecting what I know, a remembered sensation, and transferring it to a time and space I have never visited. In this way, I’ve not just travelled the world, I’ve explored a variety of universes.