Thursday, August 10, 2006

The best thing for being sad

Over at Ampersand Duck's place there is a wonderful post, with illustrations, about the TAFE course in bookbinding that she has taken up. Those familiar with AD's work know that as a letterpress printer and visual artist she often writes these intriguing posts about making things, with photos of the beautiful, sometimes magical things that she has made.

But this one, the one about learning bookbinding, has sparked some connection with my own ideas about writing. Sometimes when I find myself talking at cross-purposes with friends, with students or indeed with fellow-bloggers about writing, I know that the problem is the different ideas we're beginning from about how writing emerges -- what writing is.

Because I think of a piece of writing, any piece of writing, even a shopping list, as something I've made. I don't think of it as an extension of my self. I don't think of it as only something I've got to say, or as a persuasive lure, or as a weapon in some war, an attack, a defence, or any other kind of mere means to some other end.

Rather, I think of writing as essentially an expressive thing; a thing made for the purpose of communicating, naturally, but a thing nonetheless, an object, made lovingly and with everything I know of craft. I tinker -- with rhythms, sounds, grammar, images, stages of an argument -- until they fit, like a mitred corner or a resolving chord, as closely and neatly as I know how to make them, and look right to me when I'm finished and sit back to take them in.

By now this tinkering is second nature; I do it on the fly, as it were, and it's the reason I write very slowly. There's a capital-R Romantic notion that writing is some kind of inspired, unmediated form of pure self-expression that comes gushing unimpeded out of one, not unlike vomit, as I have often pointed out to resistant if not hostile students of creative writing who do not want what I am saying to be true.

But Ampersand Duck's beautiful, intricate books and boxes are much closer to my ideal of a piece of writing: something made with loving, infinite care, with the maker constantly changing the scale of her vision to make sure everything looks right up close and also from a distance, and everything fitting in with everything else just so, with neat even stitches and satisfying colours and all the corners lined up and tucked in.

Making something and learning something are my two fall-back activities to be invoked when one is at the end of one's rope, precisely because they both do take you out of, away from, your raving, needy, sorry self. One reason I liked this post of A. Duck's so much is because it combines the two: learning to make something. Quite apart from its intrinsic value and pleasure, learning bookbinding must be the ultimate therapy. Virginia Woolf knew this, as indeed she knew it about the precision and intricacy of letterpress.

So here is my answer, or coda, to Ampersand Duck and her lovely post: my one all-time favourite quotation from any book anywhere, Merlyn to the very depressed Wart in T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone:

'The best thing for being sad,' replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, 'is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then -- to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.'


Ampersand Duck said...

[clasps hands together and holds to chest]
That's magical. I love that book, and I will have to seek out that quote which I obviously didn't take in on the first read.

I'm writing this at work, catching my breath before I ride my treadly slowly home. I've just spent the day teaching a letterpress workshop to a group of keen and mostly older adults (not art school students) who soaked in *everything* I could give them in one day... and I was learning too, and through the day I was thinking about the idea that no matter how long you've been doing something, there's always more to learn. You must have picked up the vibes.

I love -- and support -- your vision of writing... thanks for writing this post!

Kate said...

I might print that quote up and put it on my bulletin board above my desk so I can read it every day.

Dean said...

Nice quote PC!

I've taken it to heart -- even some months ago. I'm doing a media course and I'll tell you it's challenging! But it's worth it.

Not only getting the results. The whole process. The questions and the disappointments -- they all add up to a great experience.

JahTeh said...

I love covering books and boxes, although the hands don't take kindly to it now. I'm in the middle of covering a box for a man's birthday in the most superb purple/burgundy brocade with gold Indian pattern. The inside is burgundy shimmer material which has been in my oddlot box forever but was the perfect match for the brocade. No wonder I can't throw anything away.

Pavlov's Cat said...

JahTeh, that sounds beautiful.

On learning things -- when I was still teaching at Melbourne U, I was very conscious of what a dreadful nightmare I am as a pupil/student myself, especially in something for which I have no natural aptitude (computer skills, say) -- I loathe feeling or being made to feel like a fool, and I beat myself up when I can't master something straight away.

So in order to keep reminding myself of what life was like on the receiving end of tuition for a student finding her/his way with unfamiliar material and ideas and skills, I would from time to time enrol in classes or lessons for something -- singing, screenwriting, piano (AGAIN), ballroom dancing, and the BIGGEST CHALLENGE EVER: learning to drive at 32, and I mean learning to drive at 32 on Sydney Road, Brunswick, in the winter. (Trams, wet tramlines, interstate trucks, gridlocked traffic and 8 million pedestrians.) I was neurotic about driving and rigid with fear -- but its distractions got me through the worst year of my life.