August 1, 2012

What writers can learn from the Olympic games

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:00 pm by Susan

Despite all I feel about the cost of hosting the Olympic games in London this summer (siphoning funds that could, in my view, have been put to much better use), I have to confess to finding the dawn-to-dusk media coverage not only impossible to boycott, but also on occasion compelling.

For example, women’s archery. Amazon-like contestants raise their bows, release the arrow, and there it is piercing the small gold ring at the centre of the target.

Except that sometimes, it misses. One archer I watched produced three perfect shots, then, on her next turn, fired three that were so wide of the mark they scarcely added to her score.

I suspected this was what archery is like, even at the highest, Olympic level. Some you win, some you don’t. But the commentators had a different explanation, which made me think about writing.

The contestant, the commentators said, had lost not only her focus but her nerve, and it was this that caused the arrow to land wide.

It was a theme I heard many times during the course of the London Olympics. It was footballer Aaron Ramsey’s hesitation as he took his second  penalty shoot-out against South Korea that ended Britain’s hope of a place in the final. Conversely, taekwondo fighter Jade Jones’ ‘bonkers’ gold medal win was the result of a sudden surge in confidence. No one doubts the reason Team GB did so spectacularly well at their home games was down to the belief and support of the crowd.

In many ways, writers are luckier than Olympic contestants. What we do does not depend on a few minutes’ trial in circumstances which may not be ideal (Ramsey had a long wait before that crucial second penalty, and all the archers I watched struggled with a breeze). If words don’t fire well on a particular day, we can always come back the next and try again.

And yet. There is a depressing statistic: thousands of novels are started each year but only a small percentage are ever completed. While some of these will remain unfinished for good reason, I suspect many potentially fine novels are abandoned from lack of confidence. It is all too easy, when writing, to let doubts pull us off course: do my words have the  grace and precision of an arrow? Will they reach a reader? What will that reader think of me if I miss?

Completing a novel depends on three things. The first is action. Nothing will get written if space is not cleared so that words can be set down each day. The second is persistence. It isn’t enough to write on Monday when hopes and energy are high, the process has to be repeated each day of the week over months and probably years.

The third element is confidence. As all Olympians know, believing you can do something is perhaps the single most important ingredient in striking gold.

I wonder what insights the London Paralympics, just starting, will give…

Tribute to Hélène Cixous

Posted in Susan's Blog tagged , , , , , , , , , at 8:30 am by Susan

Hélène Cixous celebrated her 75th birthday in Paris recently. Here is my personal tribute to her extraordinary literary oeuvre.


Before reading, came looking. Before understanding, already such surprise. For instance: Partie. Where does the book begin? Does it have two beginnings? If it does, what happens to ending? And which of the two beginnings is the ‘real’ beginning? Or can the reader choose?

Then, as the French words became more familiar, and I began to read with the aid of the very few English translations then available, more questions arose. Aha, so voler means ‘to steal’. But it also means ‘to fly’. Which is right? What happens if we allow it to mean both?

It feels impossible even to list all the gifts Hélène’s work has brought me over the years, to sum up in a few hundred words the experience of reading her. For a start, that English singular ‘work’ is all wrong, threatening as it does to conceal the extraordinary range and variety of her oeuvre.

The first text I read was a brief extract from ‘Sorties’ (Ways Out), which had been translated in a then pioneering new collection entitled New French Feminisms. I was just about to come to France for the first time and was in that awkward linguistic crossover when I still didn’t quite trust myself to read accurately in French. The effect of that first piece was extraordinary. Never before had I come across such writing. I felt the words grip hold of me viscerally: I knew that if I carried on reading the world would never be the same again. I was being shown injustice with such bravery and compassion, such understanding and force, that what had, before, been dimly perceived, suddenly became transparent.

After this, I became a regular reader of Hélène’s work, a body of which already preceded me and which grew, with new texts appearing at dazzlingly short intervals. This prolificacy is yet another of her gifts, as is the breathtaking diversity of her writing, much of which is impossible to categorise (is Le Livre de Promethea [Book of Promethea] a novel or a love poem? is Le Jour où je n’étais pas là [The Day I Was Not There] biography, autobiography or something totally new? is Rêve je te dis [Dream I Tell You] a dream diary or an imaginative exploration of the powerhouse of the unconscious?).

Actually, that word, ‘work’, is growing on me. I think one of the greatest lessons Hélène’s writing teaches is that reading is work. She asks her readers to participate in a relationship of encounter, courage, opening, discovery, change and exchange. The lirécrire (writereading), as she so brilliantly calls it, involves writer and reader working in tandem.

Reading Hélène is the hardest possible work. It was Hélène, more than anyone else, who showed me that texts are in constant dialogue with one another, and that in order to read faithfully (something else I learned to do), it is important to try to follow all the many threads writing contains. Hélène’s work is richly allusive, interwoven (one might almost say written in tandem) with the widest possible temporal, geographic and linguistic literary understanding, and reading her demonstrated the value of identifying and tracing all the multifarious references – deliberate or accidental, accurate or not – of which a text is comprised.

More than anything else, I learnt from Hélène that nothing means only one thing and that words bring gifts that can change our view. When I wrote ‘tandem’ a moment ago it gave me a new image for that experience of lirécrire. ‘Tandem’ means working alongside each other, but it also means a bicycle for two people. So I suddenly had a startling and apposite picture of reader and writing pedaling the text together in tandem, the writer at the front steering, but the reader working (that word again) just as hard behind her. In fact, the second person on a tandem is called ‘the stoker’ – literally the one who assists the driver by adding fuel to the fire. It’s Hélène’s metaphor of the reader setting light to her words all over again.

Cycling and stoking are both hard, physical labour, but the spark needed to ignite a text also requires a whole host of activities which, at the time when I first encountered Hélène’s work, fresh from an undergraduate degree in English literature, I had learned to marginalize as not properly belonging to academic criticism. Listening, for instance, to a text’s music, to the play and echo of signifiers, to the polyphony of words, and the possibilities for alternative meanings these engender. Reading with all of one’s senses (it is the case that because of Hélène’s writing about the apple I can never now read the word without salivating, without an immediate and urgent desire to bite into flesh which is suddenly so appleyapparent I can smell it). Letting oneself be touched by the text, allowing emotions as well as the intellect to guide comprehension, reading with the body.

Hélène has changed not only the way I read but the way I write, and I would like to think the way I live. Hers is a work of extraordinary generosity. She offers us the means to be transported, inviting us to ride tandem with her on a voyage of discovery, where we can, if we keep pedaling hard enough, leave ourselves behind, and encounter at last all those feared, desired, necessary and above all altering others.