the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Month: August, 2012

When reading makes you sick

by MDY

It’s more than just a question of taste. I know many literati who will happily say that a book or a play made them want to puke, but we take for granted that they don’t really mean it. My own reactions to words are usually more muted, more accommodating. I try to finish reading every book I start, and when I don’t – for reasons of time, or maladroit disinterest, or the extensible-yet-ultimately-finite span of library loans – I feel a vague shame in the corners of my mouth, like I’ve let the author down somehow.

These symptoms are literal. I had never read Philip Roth before, and while the book (my surface-consciousness has blocked out which one) had an off-putting angst of the polemical about it, there was  no one thing which I could point to and say “see, this has made me ill”. It was violent too, a wrenching of the intestines that sparked great shuddering coughs; the body’s attempt to expunge what foreign object had lodged within my (by this time very) nervous system. I couldn’t get past Chapter 4. There have been other instances too, what I call “textual anaphylaxis” for its suddenness and ferocity, but none as severe as that first instance. There are, as I see it, no correlations of form, subject or tone between my allergens, which has rendered somewhat problematic my attempts at inoculation.

While rare, its consequences can be profound. What if I had been forced to read Roth as part of my studies? Who takes responsibility if a student vomits blood in class: the author, or the teacher who thought “allergic to the book” was a puerile attempt at absenteeism? Those who write are often responsible for their words, whether they expect it or not. Our words are still less likely to ignite claims of medical negligence than libel suits or fatwas. But when we write, our duty of care goes both ways. Just as words can sicken, they can also heal.

Do writers exist?

by MDY

A year before I finished high school, one of the broadsheets interviewed the state’s most recent doyenne of English examinations. “I’m a writer,” she was quoted as saying, and I knew immediately that she was the antithesis of everything my seventeen-year-old self stood for. Exactly what those things were, I’m not so sure now. I think artistic integrity might have been one of them, but I know integration by parts definitely wasn’t (maths was never my strong point, though I often envied its purposefulness and exotic symbols). I do remember being vehemently opposed to the notion of my being a writer, so much so that upon receiving a daub of prestige in a competition run by that same broadsheet later (or was it earlier?) that year, I would downplay the calibre of my work with a singular aggressiveness whenever it came up in conversation. I didn’t win the competition.

Even now when people ask me what I do, it’s “I write stuff” and not the other thing. The habit runs deep in my neuroses. To me, the term yokes along a whole wagon of personality disorders and bohemian undergarments and a mounting tally of operational expenses like alcohol and extramarital affairs. I fear these things. But there’s a deeper fear too, of being straitjacketed into not just bohemian undergarments which repulse me but any set of undergarments at all. I like being able to switch between sets of underwear, and wash them regularly, and even throw them out with a touch of nostalgia once they’ve obviously passed their wear-by date. And so whenever someone says “I’m a _____” I feel this shameful little tingle of fear mixed with schadenfreude at the fact that I’m not at all like them in their worn-out boxers but at the same time I am.

Five years on, I still write stuff. Despite my best efforts, it’s increasingly the only thing I really do. Improving a craft requires a monopoly time, and that means jettisoning the competition: music, academia, large chunks of social interaction. Not all of it, though. My best words are those of others, plucked from conversations or stories or the walk home past mothballed terraces crowding out the piebald sky. I resist my craft’s efforts to define me because I suspect the moment they do, I will cease to have anything to write about. A facility with words opens many doors, much like a facility containing many battering rams. It’s a powerful tool but nothing more, and I intend for it to stay that way. Writing can be who you are, but better, I think, to keep it as what you do.

Writing about boring things

by MDY

The trick is to remember what Hamlet said. My first writing job involved me putting together encyclopaedic entries about antiques. Very few seventeen-year-old boys have a natural interest in antiques. I was not one of them. But after completing only a few of these entries, I realised that antiques weren’t just antiques. The process of intaglio, for example, has much to do with Walter Benjamin’s arguments in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, while the term “campaign furniture” (the subject of my very first entry) draws for its etymology a long process of utilitarian evolution going right back to Julius Caesar’s ill-fated invasion of the British Isles. I was writing about so many more things than just old jugs, and while younger more nubile ones might have commanded greater attention, it didn’t matter, because antiques weren’t boring. Once you realise everything is tied to everything else, you can write about anything with passion and vigour.

Writing helps you understand. Unlike most journalists or professional writers, I don’t have a particular area of expertise which I’m most comfortable with. If anything, my area of expertise is my writing – and I’ve not particularly exemplary in that regard. But I can only write effectively about something if I understand it – and not just the superficial “A does B and B does C and therefore impending apocalypse” understanding, but the sort which tries to really get what’s going on and what’s at stake and exactly how a bunch of wires can enable some cute-looking cone of expensive hardware to single-handedly (-wiredly?) arrest a 12,000-mile-per-hour descent and plonk itself down in a crater on a red and dusty and entirely alien world.

So I talk to people who do understand. I ask them questions, and read their books, and follow them around, and do my darnedest to gain a smidgen of the understanding which they possess. Terrifying? Yes. Boring? Never. And it also works for academic essays (understanding a concept), job applications (understanding a business), and longform fiction (understanding a life which is not your own). Too often boring is a synonym for incomprehensible. Too rarely is writing a synonym for learning.

I have trouble with repetition, though. Even the most interesting subject in the world gets dull once you’ve written about it more times than there are rings in Olympic iconography (which, if you’re having trouble counting, is still a single-digit figure). I treat these occasions like weightlifting – painful, and potentially sweaty. But just like a body-builder, I know that “doing reps” is a necessary part of my development. Repetition ensures the understanding you’ve gained doesn’t disappear. It renders you more fluent in what you’re writing on, either by dint of familiarity with your subject matter or the ability to present it to different sorts of people. It gives you the chance to improve your writing technique by strengthening old things or trying new ones.

My pectorals are not much bigger than when I was a seventeen-year-old. But that’s not what my daily work-outs seek to do. They help me write about a world where ab can be a preposition, a testing framework for start-ups, or a latitudinal core strength indicator  of which I currently possess approximately 1.07. There’s nothing boring about that.