Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Act of Making, George Szirtes and the Muse in ordinary shoes

The poet George Szirtes asked a question on his blog (see link on right) and on Facebook 'What is it like writing a poem?'. He also provides a link to Andrew Shield's blog as well to help stir up the discussion. The piddling box on Facebook allows for brevity and pith but not expansion so below is my attempt at some sort of answer. I like a good bit of blogger dialogue it makes me remember someone is out there reading all this stuff!

The Act of Making

I sometimes have cause to work with children who have an autistic spectrum condition (significantly it is no longer regarded as correct to refer to it as a ‘disorder’). This condition can take many forms and express itself in many ways. A couple of years ago I came across this definition of autism.

Autism can be seen as a disturbance in personal psychology in which the conventional use of language, reaction to stimuli, interpretation of the world, and the formation of relationships between events are established sometimes out of temporal sequence, in extraordinary ways and follow unusual patterns.

It seemed to sum up for me the state I enter when I am writing a poem.
George Szirtes refers to Don Paterson writing about the pre-language state but I think there is also a hyper state of language when the conventionalities embedded in our synaptic pathways from our first encounters with sound and the meanings we give and are given to those sounds are momentarily discarded and new pathways taken within the brain.

Research as to how the brain of a person who has an autistic condition responds to words has been undertaken. It shows that very different areas of their brain are fired up when they are exposed to verbal stimuli. They approach words and language differently, often in a more deeply personalised and concrete way. This would explain why idioms are a nightmare for them to deal with frogs in throats, raining cats and dogs, pull up your socks can lead to problems and puzzled expressions. The concept of irony, metaphor and simile has to be taught to them. When I say ‘You have ants in your pants today I mean you are wriggling about as if you had them in your pants and I am not saying you have real ants in your pants.’

Such problems with language are not a function of intelligence or creativity. It is nonsense to have this view of autism as a condition in which people cannot be creative or express emotion. I have worked on using metaphors, similes and poetry with some children with this condition and never cease to be amazed at their ability to express themselves brilliantly in language.
‘He was as prickly as a row of ones’ ‘The day was as grey and thin as my sister in her faded pyjamas.’ ‘The clouds were like liquidised bone’
‘She cried like she was trying to wash it all away’ ‘He smelt as if he were trying not to smell of anything’.

The above are just a handful of examples from children with this condition, examples I wish I could steal for my own work!

I think when I write at my best ( everything is relative Mr Einstein ) I funnel my mind into a state of autistic focus in which that description of autism above holds sway. Things connect in a different and unconventional way and I interpret the world both the inner and outer in other ways. However to that experience, unlike those who have an autistic condition, I can bring other experiences; social skills inherent in communication and means of expression in language, which is I suppose where the craft of writing and the re-drafting experience come into action. I have to say that on a number of occasions the energy and that sense of travelling to ‘another place’ (I am loathe to use the word heightened as this has implications of superiority rather than difference) become lost in that re-writing and editing process. I suppose the best writing attempts to keep this journey but ensures it isn’t a self indulgent one.

So to summarise when I write I think I become focused to almost a quasi autistic state when temporality, conventions of language and connections become unconventional. I even become almost over sensitised to the point where loud sounds, particularly sudden ones becomes painful (as is the case with many autistic people). At home I even have certain obsessions or routines like the need for a mug of tea and certain things around me. The world around me can become so fluid that I have taken a couple of heartbeats to actually recall where the hell I am and in the case of fiction once, who the hell I am, when I stop writing. This of course is only peculiar to me and may make me sound mad but then I think writing is a disciplined form of madness. I am in all other respects quite sane ( but I would say that wouldn’t I ) but when things or ideas have been whirring in my head for a certain length of time the only relief for me is to choose this small private so called psychological disturbance. This ability to choose and continue to choose is maybe one explanation as to why some writers and poets have experienced the distress of no longer being able to come back from the journey or disappear into a bottle to ease the crossing of some undefined boundary.

All the above may sound a touch over the top but I tried to address the question asked as honestly as I could. The act of making is for me essentially the act of becoming.The Muse may not shuffle in like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (a terrible cliche portrayal of just one very particular rare kind of autism) but he or she (lets not be gender ridden here) does have a kind of disjointed awkwardness as if they are not quite comfortable in their everyday ordinary shoes.

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