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  • Sue Harper

Writing from the Edge


What I want to do in these blogs is to talk about writing - how to do it, how it feels, what it means. To a certain extent, I’ll be talking about my own work, my own position. But it has to be more than that, otherwise it would just be an egofest, of no interest to anyone but me. And one of the great things about the internet is that (if you listen well) it can be a great communicative tool. Both the speaker and the listener can learn and change.

I used to be an academic writer, admittedly rather a maverick one, but a cultural historian with recognisable tools. These are the sources you use: these are the methods that are appropriate. Clear as a bell. As I got older, I began to think that the telling of stories was more important to me. When I was at infant school, my teacher Miss Pickerell intuited that I could tell stories, and at the end of every Friday afernoon, she lifted me onto a high stool and I would weave little tales for my friends: about a cloud who cried himself into nothingness, about a cat who could talk, about a girl who was invisible. I well recall how I felt afterwards: squeezed like an orange, to be sure, but at the same time full of pleasure that I had told something, either from deep inside myself or from the world I had seen. And that feeling - of simultaneous emptiness and fullness - is what I wanted to recapture. When you are in what is probably the last decade of your life, you have to get it right. There are no second chances. These are, as the great Ken Kesey put it, the conditions of total emergency.

Where does creativity flourish most? I think it flowers best from the edge. Generally speaking, those who sit at society’s hearthstone tend to be captured by its charms. Believing in the establishment, speaking on its behalf, rarely produces work which is exciting. Rather, it tells the reader what they know already: it rehearses common sense. There is always a tiny, ironic frisson to be observed in the work of artists who seem to have been bought by those in power, but who in fact are critiquing it: the devil is in the detail. This is particularly evident in visual artists like painters or film-makers: Rembrandt and Sirk, for example.

Writers whose social position is inferior or insecure take more risks, and a different kind of energy emanates from them. Hardy, Lawrence, Dickens were originally outside the established structures of social power. If such writers are lucky, their struggles will not exhaust them, and they will not allow their talents to be bought off. When I think about my own work, both academic and fictional, I realise that my working-class background was the best present I could ever have had, though it did not seem so earlier on. I wanted to know everything that I was not born to know. I wanted to snatch it from the masters of discourse. Being an outsider to mainstream culture may not confer status, but it certainly confers ambition, obstinacy and bloody-mindedness. It seems to me that a certain awkwardness of tone, a textual embarrassment, obtains in writers who are outsiders in class and cultural terms. My own work is full of ellipses and strong juxtapositions, and it’s a way of marking (and celebrating) a certain unfamiliarity with the great tradition and its lapidary tones.

So much for class outsiders. But there are gender ones too. In spite of our pious hopes, patriarchy is still (horribile dictu) alive and kicking. To be sure, there are cracks in the surface, and there is supposedly a “crisis in masculinity” (when was there not?). But anyhow, I am as sure as I can be that women, gay people and non-patriarchal men (and there are such) are advantageously placed in the culture wars. We know that the struggle for meaning is real. It is a matter of life or death. I am not talking about political correctness or wokeness here, but saying rather that being excluded from the dominant paradigms produces a fierce hunger: not to take over the discursive hierarchies and enact them, but to reform them. My own work tries to show the transformative power of this anger: to encourage the reader to imagine a world where nothing is stable and everything is possible. To disquieten.

A lot of radical art trails a sort of puritanism in its wake. This is a big mistake. I want to sing the body: its pleasures, its pains, its absurdities. Our flesh and blood is not just a set of wheels to aid locomotion. In all its forms - youthful and old, weak and strong - it is our glory, until it is laid down for ever, in earth or fire. And so I want to argue that the erotic, rather than being a minor aspect of culture - a sort of amusement arcade - should be at its very centre. The goddess Venus can be seen everywhere, if you know how to look.

In my next blog, I want to talking about something a little less challenging: how to write.

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