I am completely torn apart
When I first read Raymond Carver’s Fires I loved and understood all of it, except for one sentence. I refer to the last phrase of his magisterial eponymous essay, where he describes the silences in his life now being ‘right’. This puzzled me. At the time of reading (I was soon to find out) I had not had children. Whilst I could empathise with his description of sitting in a laundrette one Saturday in Iowa, I could never imagine a time when my life would provide me with the ideal conditions in which to write. Silence of any kind was not in it. I thought that then, and I still do now, even though I am now at the start of the phase of life out of which Carver was writing, that phenomenon known in dinner party circles as the ’empty nest’.
It has floored me.
More than waking up for months on end at 03.33; more than the red-eye of packed lunches and school-walks; more even than the dead-end shift of trying to wake them for the same as teenagers. (Looking back, what perfect conditions for creativity these were. Perma-exhaustion is a great defence against the dominance of the rational mind.) I have a theory that it is something to do with the combination of turning fifty, clearing out the loft of baby clothes and watching Toy Story 3 all in the same week. (My wife thinks it is do with the shock discovery that I am the same age as Nigel Farage. Let me tell you, the xenophobic gurning of the UKIP leader and his goons have nothing on the sight of my daughter’s bagged up bridesmaids dresses followed by Woody and his pals making their descent into the fiery furnace.) If I did not already know it, I certainly do now: the days of having any influence on my children are effectively over.
The silences should feel ‘right’, but they don’t.
It is possible I have always known this but have just been too timid to admit it, to myself at least. I am brilliant at passing this on to others. I catch myself holding forth in response to the questions of my students: should they do a Masters after qualifying to teach, they ask me, or a PhD? And where should they work? Should they head to London or stay in the South West? I tell them I have no idea, and that they shouldn’t listen to me anyway: a man who moved house and home in the middle of his own Masters, and to a city where he had a mere two friends; a man who deliberately cut down on his earnings to pursue the least profitable form of literature on the planet. They look at me blankly.
So I tell them the story of being diagnosed with cancer at 42, just as I had a ‘Selected’ book of poems coming out, one I hoped would be a breakthrough. And that half-way through my treatment I was told I was already relapsing, a ‘fact’ which nine days later was shown to be a mistake. I could go on, I say to them. Sensing their bafflement, I make a joke of it: I am a major revisions man, I say. What tiny wisdom I have garnered has only ever been the hard way. To push the point home to those who remain in the room, I say this: there is no such thing as the perfect time for anything: getting married, having a baby, writing your first book of poems, moving house, putting in for a doctorate. The silences are never ‘right’. The best you can do is go where the energy is, commit to it and hope for the best.
There are no awards, no breakthroughs, no perfect silence when inspiration will jolt from the skies into your brain with the right mixture of Zeitgeist and technique. All you get, fleetingly, is the dogged satisfaction that you have showed up often enough to call some poems you own (but never to say ‘poet’).
By now there is one person left in the room. They regard me warily, with something between pity and fear. More information has been revealed than they asked for. Being polite, however, they thank me. As they reach the door they turn to ask me one more thing: should they do their essay on boys and writing or Shakespeare in the primary school? Either, I say. It doesn’t matter. I mean it does, but not really. If you give it everything, it will turn out to be fine.
Art by Kath Hadden: http://www.kathhadden.co.uk/