Friday, October 27, 2006

Boredom, real life and the life of the imagination

Orhan Pamuk on writing novels, at the Guardian. His tone is a bit serious for my taste, but much of what he says strikes me as exactly right (boredom in particular is surely the most necessary ingredient for writing, I find I have to let the boredom and understimulation mount up over the course of the morning to an alarming and actively unpleasant degree before I steel myself and sit down to write):

Let me explain what I feel on a day when I've not written well, if I'm not lost in a book. First, the world changes before my eyes: it becomes unbearable, abominable; those who know me can see it happening to me, too, for I myself come to resemble the world I see around me. For example, my daughter can tell that I have not written well that day from the abject hopelessness on my face in the evening. I would like to be able to hide this from her, but I cannot. During these dark moments, I feel as if there is no line between life and death. I don't want to speak to anyone, and anyone seeing me in this state has no desire to speak to me either. A milder version of this despair descends on me every afternoon, in fact, between one and three, but I have learned how to treat it by reading and writing: if I act promptly, I can save myself from a full retreat to my corpse.

If I've had to go a long stretch without my paper-and-ink cure, be it due to travel, an unpaid gas bill, military service (as was once the case), political affairs (as has been the case more recently) or any number of other obstacles, I can feel my misery setting inside me like cement. My body has difficulty moving through space, my joints get stiff, my head turns to stone, my perspiration even seems to have another smell. This misery can only grow, for life is full of punishments that distance a person from literature. I can be sitting in a crowded political meeting, or chatting with my classmates in a school corridor, or eating a holiday meal with my relatives, struggling to converse with a good-hearted person whose mind is worlds away or else occupied by whatever is happening on the TV screen; I can be at an important "business meeting", making an ordinary purchase, making my way to the notary, or having my picture taken for a visa - suddenly my eyelids will grow heavy, and though it is the middle of the day, I'll fall asleep. When I am far away from home, and therefore unable to return to my room to spend time alone, my only consolation is a nap in the middle of the day.

So yes, the real hunger here is not for literature, but for a room where I can be alone and dream. If I can do this, I can invent beautiful dreams about those same crowded places, those family gatherings, school reunions, festival meals and all the people who attend them. I enrich the crowded holiday meals with invented details and make the people themselves even more amusing. In dreams, of course, everything and everyone is interesting, captivating and real. I make the new world from the stuff of the known world. Here we come to the heart of the matter. To write well, I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction, I must enter into life. It is when I am bombarded with noise, sitting in an office full of ringing phones, surrounded by friends and loved ones on a sunny seashore or at a rainy funeral - in other words, at the very moment when I begin to sense the heart of the scene unfolding around me - that I will suddenly feel as if I'm no longer really there, but watching from the sidelines. I'll begin to daydream. If I'm feeling pessimistic, I can think about how bored I am. Either way, there will be a voice inside me, urging me to "go back to the room and sit down at the table". I have no idea what most people do in such circumstances, but it is this that turns people like me into writers. My guess is that it leads not to poetry but to prose and fiction. This sheds a bit more light on the properties of the medicine I must be sure to take every day. We can see now that its ingredients are boredom, real life and the life of the imagination.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the seriousness you mention is a result of his tone, tone and colour being some of the most difficult aspects of translation. That's why I always try to read at least 2 or 3 translations of a text, especially poetry.

    What disturbs me, though I've also linked to the article and find much of interest in it, is some of the generalised theorising.