Tag Archives: Thomas de Quincey

Writing in bed

7 Oct

Mark Twain writing in bed


I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.

Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.

Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.

Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.

The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”

“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”

But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.

No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:

“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”

Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.

If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.









First We Read, Then We Write

29 Jan

This incontrovertible statement is the title of a book I have just read about the work and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson – why is no one called Waldo anymore? – and a very fine book is it too, though it might not be to everybody’s taste, dwelling, as it does, on the concerns and obsessions that beset the writer going about the daily business of writing: a messy business, as a rule.

Robert D. Richardson clearly knows Emerson like no other; he swims with nimble strokes through the waterways of Emerson’s thought, and leaves you with a definite feeling for the measure of the man. I, for one, knew practically nothing of Emerson, and now, although I will find out more, my conception of him will always be coloured by the things I have learned from Richardson.

I suppose in many ways Emerson is the closest thing to an American Montaigne. Reading was his passion, but like many writers, he read ‘almost entirely in order to feed his writing’ – which is more or less the same thing as saying the two activities are contiguous upon each other: writing is simply an extension of reading, and vice versa. But reading needs to be conscious and creative: ‘Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes.’ The advice is to take only what one needs from reading, to stop as soon as it becomes a drudge or an obligation, and to read selectively, casting the dross aside.

He gave advice to many young writers on how best to keep up a journal, to be watchful and to process the material of the world like a tide mill ‘which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.’

As for the planning of a work of fiction, his advice is right up my street: ‘You should start with no skeleton or plan. The natural one will grow as you work. Knock away the scaffolding. Neither have exordium or peroration.’

This is much what E.M. Forster meant, with the words: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ Or Coleridge, with his appeal to ‘organic form’.

Writing should be a process of surprising oneself. If I had a plan, down to the last detail, of what my story will be, what would be the point of writing it? I mean, what is in it for me if I know precisely what is going to happen and what my characters are going to think and say and do? It would simply be a matter of typing.

So, Richardson says, ‘If Emerson’s writing does not always, or even usually, proceed in a straightforward, logical manner, it is not because he couldn’t write that way, but because he didn’t want to, and was after something different.’

Other grand quotes from Emerson:

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.

Hitch your wagon to a star. (yeah, well, I thought it was Lee Marvin too)

People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad . . . Give me initiative, spermatic, prophesying, man-making words.

Every hero becomes a bore at last.

The maker of a sentence like the other artist launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and Old Night.

There is so much here that rings familiar: that we are essentially bound to nature and that all we touch and see is, at some profound level, a metaphor for ourselves. ‘The Universe is the externalisation of the soul’ – all stuff that would not have sounded odd coming from Blake. There’s a lot to take on board, which is how Emerson would have liked it. None of it is easy. Take it or leave it, but for me these writers, like Montaigne, de Quincey, Emerson, Stevenson, Proust, Borges, for whom writing was some kind of epic night journey, are almost always the most rewarding.

And what a motto (even if, like me, you have to look one of them up): Neither have exordium or peroration!