Saturday, April 01, 2006

John McGahern on Writing...

Saw a very good John McGahern documentary this evening on RTE. The renowned Irish writer passed away this week.

The documentary was done at John's home and the farm he lived on. Beautiful imageries of woods and trees and apples and tomatoes inter-cut segments of interviews with John. The unwavering glare from his round blue eyes and his small chin are what struck me about his appearance. The home itself was quite modest, with bare walls painted in a bluish tone and plain furniture, but the rooms all had beautiful views of the farm, as well as shelvefuls of books.

Of his books, I only have "Amongst Women", which was given to me by the wife of a colleague a couple of years ago as a thank you for something I did for her (but I can't remember what I did now, I just remember that the gift far outweighed the little favour I'd done for her). I frankly found the book a bit boring, too "Irish" almost, but when he read out a passage from the book against the backdrops of his home and farm, the words made a lot of emotive sense and were actually quite affecting.

He said several things about writing which stayed with me. One is that he needed to have a boring life (as a farmer and a teacher) in order to write. That he needed to clear his life of as many things as possible so that what was left in his mind were all his imaginations, nothing else.

However, I am more of the school of thought that says writers must immerse themselves in the thick of life in order to have anything "real" to write about, that they won't become so detached from the world that their writings have no resonance with the people living in the outside world at all. John instead proclaimed his method as being much more laissez-faire about reality: that writing happened when he had several images in his head which he couldn't get rid of, but which he had to set down on the page.

Indeed, a lot of his writing has to do with farm life and the country and Ireland (well at least from the one book of his that I've read). So perhaps he actually hadn't quite realised the influence that his farm life had on his writing, even though he was at the same time trying to detach his writing from his life as much as possible.

Being a farmer suited him however, not only in terms of allowing him headspace to write, but it also suited his laid-back personality, and he admitted that he sometimes enjoyed the tasks of farming much more than writing. But he said, "Writing is what I do." John very clearly identified himself as a writer first and foremost; the rest - farming and teaching - are coincidentals of what he also did in life.

But the one thing he said about writing which I really want to record here, is his view that all good writing depends on the reader. That writing itself doesn't create anything - it is the reader who interprets the writing who makes it good or bad. So according to John, "All good writings are suggestions, and all bad writings are statements".

This is such a profound insight. And it is true. Well... mostly. I do remember the times when I applaud a writer because of the way s/he eloquently articulates what I have wanted to say but can't due to a poverty of vocabulary and a lack of craft over language. So I guess some polemical writings are great precisely because of their effectiveness as pronouncements, as statements that people can latch their feelings onto.

Ah, but I now see, that this still depends on the readers who willingly proclaim the author's pronouncements as their own. So in the best sense of the term such pronouncements are still only "suggestions"; whilst bad writings are statements that carry no receptacle to hold readers' feelings and perceptions but the author's own.

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1 Comments:

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