Writer’s Block – The Affliction of the Creative

It’s  five am. Late. Or maybe early. I’m sat at my desk in the dry light of the approaching morn, writing. I’m a walking cliche, I know. The wannabe desperate nomad who seeks solace from the oppressive city in a battered old notepad and pen – thoughts of great poets and her own shaky verses churning in her mind.

But while I sit and stare at the page, no words come out. It’s in moments like these where one contemplates the fleeting nature of ideas. Here I am, stressed and useless, probably (definitely) tired, just thinking about how best to manufacture inspiration. Thoughts and ideas always seem to ebb and flow. Emotions, events going on in my life, a busy schedule, all feed into my ability, or indeed, my inability, to write.

Biting my pen at the end so that the ink swells into large globules on the page, I give up. I go back to bed. I remind myself that I am not the Romantic poet who wakes at dawn to hear the birdsong, the whistling wind, the chords of the Aeolian harp, nor am I the late-night genius working by candlelight to produce his next masterpiece for the court of Henry VIII. My mind races and doesn’t deliver. Especially at five am.

The next day I’m running errands around the centre of Berlin, looking at everything with an author’s zeal, inhaling intricate details of everything I pass to aid my woeful attempt at writing. I gaze at the contours of the buildings before me, some almost beautiful in their concrete majesty. I look to the sky, incandescent in the waning light of the afternoon and to the wily shapes of trees reflected in the river. Is this poetry, or just plain bullshit? I laugh at myself, clutching my books tightly as if to impress their words onto my tired hands and down the nib of my pen, and at the failure of my corny attempt to write something that matters. Darkness approaches, the streets fill up and inspiration has fled.

Writer’s block – the affliction of the creative. You berate yourself for failing. You berate yourself for trying.

Sometimes you just cannot force it. 

We’re taught in life to banish feelings of self-doubt as a hindrance to progress. Yet, here I am, yielding to self-doubt and making up words in the process. I have produced little else but a personal essay composed of self-depreciation, but I have somehow managed to string coherent sentences together.

Writing is about identity. I haven’t quite found mine yet. A personal essayist I could perhaps say, or just someone that rambles on in the direction of something vaguely meaningful. My writing is inescapably inflected by my own experiences. My thoughts and opinions seem to infiltrate my sentences at any available moment, no matter what the topic. A personal essayist, I could say, or just a plain narcissist?

In later years when I am more wizened with age, perhaps my writing will take a different form. Perhaps I will always be overthrown by too many ideas rather than too few. A good writer understands the limits of his or her understanding of the world. The most important lesson, I think, is to stay curious. This brief essay has been nothing if not a practical exercise of self doubt, but by allowing my mind to wander, I reminded myself of my motto: ‘ideas flourish at the hands of the uninhibited.’ Trusting your own process, your own curiosity, can, at times, pay off.

And on that note, in a further absence of ideas, I leave you with a friendly platitude from Sir Philip Sidney on the subject of lapsed inspiration:

‘Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:

‘Fool!’ said my muse to me, ‘look in thy heart, and write.’

– Astrophel and Stella 1. 13-14

Germany & the Anxiety of Remembrance

I was walking in the vast forestland of Grunewald the other day, accompanied by someone who grew up in East Germany in the days of DDR. She spoke of how she was taught Russian in school but has now forgotten most of what she learnt. After losing the ability to remember her Russian education, she vowed to retain her English vocabulary. She remembers Germany as a country that, in her childhood, was divided by the territorial interests of foreign invaders. World War II (1939 – 1945) arguably set the stage for the Cold War (1947-1991), and the construction of The Berlin Wall, set across the landscape like an ugly scar, made Germany’s dissolution a tangible reality.

It was during this conversation that I realised how events of the last century still retain so much prominence in the lives of German people today. Forgetting is unimaginable. Treading through neat rows of trees heavy with leaves, my companion pointed out that they had all been planted, tall and straight like soldiers in a row, decades ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that much of this land had been obliterated in the Second World War by the Allies who littered the land with bombs: tearing out the trees by their roots and sewing seeds of destruction in their place.

Seventy years after WWII, it is estimated that more than 2000 tons of unexploded munitions are uncovered on German soil per year. Casting my mind back to a century ago, it is easy to imagine the curves of the Havel River shrouded in mist; the barks of the trees and the foundations of buildings reduced to ash and cinder.

To me, this newfound information was remarkable. Somehow I had never contemplated the probability that of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Germany by Allied aircraft, at least some of them would have failed to explode. It hadn’t occurred to me that while I was taking a pleasant afternoon walk in the forest, I was actually ambling across a minefield.

The discovery of bombs, and their safe detonation, is, I’m told, standard procedure in Germany. People will be digging in their gardens and will come across munition lying unsolicited in the ground. Being asked to leave your home in such an event is a daily menace – more of an inconvenience than a weighty cause for alarm.

While the East and West of Germany rose from the ashes of a ruined Reich, layers of unexploded bombs lay beneath its surface. An apt metaphor, I think, for how the legacy of the World Wars is still embedded in the soil, the foundations, of German society.

Berlin’s visual culture of remembrance is almost suffocating in its excess. Memorials to victims of National Socialism crowd the city. Each Museum inscribes guilt into the description of every artefact. Statues pertaining to power and national pride are, unlike other places in the world, notably absent. New reconstructions of buildings have in common an architecture that inspire little emotional response in their simple design. It all seems like one huge apology. This is a city who cares about the lessons of its past, and has its moral and educational mission inscribed in every last scrap of its stone.

Peter Eisenmann’s National Holocaust Memorial is emblematic of this mission. Placed strategically between the central crossing of Potsdamer Platz and Tier Garten, it is nigh impossible to ignore. One does not merely stumble upon it, but is accosted by its harrowing shapes that tower above street view. Constructed of 2711 large concrete slabs reminiscent of coffins, it demands to be interacted with. When walking through its narrow aisles, the coffins engulf you the deeper you go in. Children play hide and seek in this maze, their voices lost, like those of the dead, to the impersonality of stone.

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But how does a country truly repent for the heinous crimes of its past, and for how long? While the generation of individuals who survived Germany’s 1933-1945 Nazi era is dwindling by the day, Germany’s youth have now been passed the baton to bear the burdens of its past. And while the legacy of the Holocaust is still, as in Eisemann’s Memorial, at the forefront of everyone’s imagination, guilt is epidemic. Germany’s contrition is enshrined in law and written into the ‘federal government’s funding objectives.’ The World Wars take centre stage of every classroom history lesson. Education about more recent German history, like that of DDR, is forfeited in lieu of the remembrance of the deaths caused by the National Socialist regime.

This constant apology, this inability to forget, has seeped, I’m told, into current politics. After Hitler, the ‘you know who’ of the past century, the man who ostensibly cannot be named in conversation with anyone of German origin, all parties now choose to languish comfortably in the centre. Politics has become diluted, as neither Left or Right dare to express any views that may be considered ‘extremist.’

What does seem to be a consensus though is Germany’s willingness to talk about it. Far from labelling its past as taboo, Germany admits to its prior aggressive war politics, its responsibility for the World Wars and the crimes of National Socialism to such an extent that generations from now may still feel the weight of its legacy.

In February of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the nation’s guilt after Poland imposed a law that criminalised any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. This is ultimately just a war of words played out on the international stage. A petulant blame game. It’s not enough that Germany must apologise visually and rhetorically again and again. In the current view of the world, no reparation can be made.

But what is the future?

Germany must remember those who fell victim to the World Wars and to the Holocaust, as all countries should. The past should not be eradicated, but understood. Guilt should not be absolved, but transferred to its actual perpetrators – the last generation of Nazi criminals who will soon be lost to history.

While the young should have no guilt, they must, at least, have a view.

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Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin’s old coexists with its new. The city is still largely under construction, torn between its opposing agendas: commemoration of the past, and innovation for the future. The city centre, while laden in concrete, retains its beauty in a complex collage of remodelled pre-war structures and baroque architecture. Functionality collides with ornamentation. Berliner Dom and the Reichstag, which have been recently reconstructed, maintain their pre-demolition splendour. On the East Side, creativity flourishes as artists continue to move into industrial spaces to practice their art. Older buildings lie in disrepair as vessels for rain and canvases for graffiti. Berlin’s monuments to the dead are located in the beating heart of the city, forming a part of Germany’s past and future.

To visit Berlin is to feel a part of the current of history. In language, in architecture, in memorials, this place seeks to repair the damage of the last century. While bombs may lie dormant beneath its surface, Germany’s sense of cultural responsibility, however, does not. How long must this country continue to repent? Only time will tell.

Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.

WATCH IT: Review of ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

On Sunday 25th February, I watched writer-director Josephine Decker’s third film at the Sony Centre as part of the Berlinale International Film Festival. Decker boldly confronts issues of mental illness and identity in ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ with a remarkable sense of sensitivity and openness. This film is especially interesting in its attention to the nuances of a confused millennial teen’s sense of self.

The simple plot, the elephant in the room, is the unspecified mental illness of Madeline that has driven a wedge between her and her mother. Regina (Miranda July), ultimately weak and ineffective in her attempts to control Madeline, battles to maintain a relationship with her daughter. Her maternal concern often comes out in screaming and shrill sounds of despair that July skilfully allows to perforate her dialogue.

            ‘You don’t know myself. I am being myself.’

Madeline clearly internalises the stress of her home environment. Amongst rather violent verbal tirades against her mother, we see momentary glimpses inside Madeline that seem to elude definition. Madeline is not one self, but many.

“The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat — you are inside the cat.”

Madeline’s acting class becomes an escape, but also a powerful tool for self-creation. An interesting relationship is struck between Madeline and her acting teacher. Evangeline (Molly Parker) seems to be interested in Madeline’s talent, but only so far as it reflects her own as a director.

Decker brings into the forefront questions about storytelling through Evangeline, who is completely wrapped up in her own artistic vision for her performers. Who has ownership of a story, and who has the right to tell it?

Evangeline performs the role of a surrogate mother to Madeline to such an extent that the teen becomes notably dejected at the announcement of Evangeline’s pregnancy. Both Madeline and Evangeline are trying to fill some kind of vacuum through the relationship and Decker’s treatment of this theme is superb.  The transference of control from actual mother to surrogate mother is striking, but feels almost too much like Stockholm syndrome.

In the final scene, Madeline releases her narrative of pain and suppression in an immersive monologue that she performs in front of her acting class and her mother. This moment is chaotic, made up of fragmented angry speech and unrelated thoughts and emotions that recount her story. Within this, we see the strength of a woman who takes control of her own personal and artistic journey.

Helena Howard (Madeline) is remarkable in her performance of such raw, explosive emotions which makes for an altogether intense viewing experience.

Sound design gives rhythm to the most extreme moments of this film, building suspense with snatches of music and visceral echoes of panting and heavy breathing. The unfocussed camerawork gives an ethereal, dreamlike quality that disorientates our sense of narrative.

When Evangeline attempts to take Madeline’s story to use it in a piece of theatre, the other actors protect her from the cloying hands of their power-hungry teacher.

The stealing of another’s story for artistic purposes is seen as a heinous crime. Evangeline’s empathy with Madeline only stretches as far as her desire to make Madeline’s vulnerability into art.  Some kind of triumph for Madeline is achieved. Evangeline is eventually weakened in the wake of Madeline’s assertion of her own power and identity.

Madeline plays out her mind’s vacillations between ecstasy and delusion, she plays the vulnerable girl coping with an identity crisis, she plays the devilish virgin who offers herself to her teacher’s husband, and she plays the cat – the lone, independent woman with nine lives, each carefully crafted for our viewing pleasure.

No matter how abstract things get in this movie, the emotion driving it is always visible.

 

 

Sylvia Plath and the Art of Dying

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‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

An odd line for the start of a book, I thought, upon reading the opening of The Bell Jar. I had read about Sylvia Plath before: sadist, suicide fanatic, suppressed artist, but never before had I read her novel which, upon further investigation, is undeniably about her life. A life characterised by such a sharp, unsettling sense of self-hatred as to make one quiver while reading. But this is only speculation.

Plath has been psychoanalysed to an inch of her life since her suicide in 1963. Sunday 14th January 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and occasioned my desire to add my own share of interpretation. It would be easy for me to mythologise Plath as a suicide fanatic, majestically draped in a robe of madness, but this would serve to trivialise her torturous experiences of clinical depression. What is striking about Plath, however, is the way in which she spoke of death with such an ease of expression. This was a woman who was deeply enraptured by visions of her own destruction that were so intimately crafted and, ultimately, so memorably enacted.

When considering the biographical details of her life, the opening line of The Bell Jar becomes more comprehensible. It was the summer of Plath’s senior year at college, the summer where they ‘electrocuted the Rosenberg’s’, and where Plath received electroconvulsive therapy multiple times before her first medically-documented suicide attempt. Plath, like her protagonist Esther, was in New York interning at Mademoiselle, a job a lot of women would have died for, chasing a rather stilted version of the American dream. Surrounded by conflicting modes of American womanhood – the domestic homemaker of the 1950s, the secretary who was learned in shorthand but ultimately subject to a man’s dictation– Esther, and Plath, began the downward spiral of despondency.

In The Bell Jar, death is a longing, a desire, but also a real, proven, possibility. The novel is sharply inflected by sharp motes of Plath’s own brush with self-destruction. Anne Sexton wrote how she and Plath ‘talked death with burned-up intensity, both of [them] drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb.’[1] This metaphor of electricity is used time and time again. Esther feeds off the adrenalin, the electric feeling of seeing ‘redness flower from her wrists.’ The potent image of red vividly reminding us of its author, Plath – a woman bent on mutilating herself body and soul. The reality of hurting oneself is glamorised. A nightmarish image of sinking further into a blood-stained bath ‘under a surface gaudy as poppies’ is swallowed up, forgotten, as we are lulled asleep along with its victim.

The morbid lucidity of Esther’s moments of pain are shocking to the reader, but all the more pleasurable to their author. Esther plays a game with us, and equally with herself. How much pain can she inflict upon herself, and how much can we hurt as a consequence?

One of Plath’s most momentous attempts at suicide is described in The Bell Jar. Esther heaves her body into a gap in the cellar wall and, after swallowing her mother’s sleeping pills, lies still on the brink of oblivion. She describes how ‘‘The silence drew off, bearing the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep’’. Her fragile body, this vessel of ‘tatty wreckage’, is finally numbed, nearly engulfed and swept away with the tide, but is saved before extinction.

I said earlier that is was easy for one to mythologise Plath because in a way, she wanted us to do that. She said herself that The Bell Jar was a ‘throw[n] together’ series of events from her life that she focused upon ‘fictionalising to add colour.’ You can’t help but think that suicide is an assertion of power and character; the additional ‘colour’, the redness flowing from the wrist, needed to remedy a life lived in torment.

Esther’s fantasies of suicide are tied to famous fictional narratives. Death is a stage, and we the spectators. Madness becomes theatre. In Plath’s poem ‘Edge’, she writes:

‘The woman is perfected. 

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment.’

This is a woman that has been prodded and preened and packaged up in an image of death. At last, perfected. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, a woman who has survived several acts of self-destruction, the cat with nine lives, says that,

‘Dying is like an art.

Like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.’

It is in these poems that I hear echoes of Plath’s own residual thoughts of suicide. It is she that is finally placed in the centre of the amphitheatre, here until the final close of the curtain, where her dead body will be brought onto the stage in full display.

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23 Fitzroy Road. Previously home to W.B. Yeats, Plath moved here with her two children after her split with husband and poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was here that she was discovered after she had taken her own life. 

 

Plath’s final collection of poems are characterised by what her daughter Frieda Hughes described as a ‘distinctive Ariel voice.’ Ariel is where Plath’s inner demons – rage, violence, punishment, fever – are tangibly personified and brought before us as an offering. You feel the energy of a tormented psyche in search of something deeper, darker, to ‘colour’ her life with catastrophe.

The electric imagery, the rage, returns, and then the numbing effect. The speaker of ‘A Birthday Present’ exclaims ‘My god, the clouds are like cotton’, a smothering, white expanse, muffling, nursing a wounded soul with the numbing effect of ‘carbon monoxide.’ But these clouds are in ‘armies’. They too desire to hurt. The speaker cries, ‘I am alive only by accident.’ She does not want to be saved.

In ‘Tulips’, the imagery of white returns with a hallucinatory quality. The speaker contemplates ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.’ She says:

‘’I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted, 

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’’

The tulips offer an offensive brightness which startle the speaker. She does not want flowers. She desires an existence devoid of self that only the sterility of the hospital can offer. She wants only to be ‘empty’, effaced. Eileen Aird remarks that: ‘The world of Ariel is black and white, one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion.’[2] The redness, the life of the tulips should ‘be behind bars like a dangerous animal’ while she, empty, light as a cloud, can be ‘free’, ‘peaceful.’ It is Plath’s own dead body that is left, wounded, despised, when a whisper of, ‘from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life’, is heard, echoing, reverberating, at the end of the collection. Each word dropped like a stone in the ocean.

As self-confessed, ‘peanut crunching’  voyeurs of Sylvia Plath’s plight, we have cast her opus under the eye of the interpreter more times than one can count. The posthumous unearthing and publishing of her works reveals a woman who seemed reluctant to reveal herself. Self-flagellant, self-sadist, sufferer of torturous thoughts and assaults, she was a woman who, seemingly, did not feel in the world. Subject to continuous psychoanalysis for all who read her works, it’s doubtful that Plath’s mind and body will ever rest in peace.

 

[1] http://www.theparisreview.org/viewinterview.php/prmMID/4073

[2] Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.