Listening to the Murmur

Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a book voucher to the value of £100. I used it to nab a dozen new paperbacks that ended up making me nauseous. To be fair, I had anticipated the feeling. It’s a familiar one in the process of writing a novel. I can barely write a word without first looking around at the superabundance of novels already in existence and asking myself if the world is really in need of a new one like Winter Fugue. More than that, I can barely write a word without first looking over the handful of novels that I consider flawless, the novels that I’d say have changed my life, and wondering why a new novel should be written when whatever faint power it possesses will almost certainly fall short of theirs.

It’s a truism of writing workshops that it’s impossible to become a writer if you’re not first and foremost a reader. I don’t disagree with that, but I also recognise the double-bind it involves. For me, being the reader I am, it’s impossible to write the novel I’m writing without bearing in mind the force of the competition it faces. I’m constantly aware of the inadequacies it harbours, relative to the best of its kind, and I’m aware, too, of the obscurity that likely awaits it if it makes its way into print. To write it at all, in fact, is to labour away in conscious defiance of this dual awareness, with a wilful dismissal of everything that the reader in me is trying to warn the writer about.

Nevertheless, I don’t stop writing. I’m still writing this novel. I’m writing it because I can’t not write it, because I can’t choose not to write it. I can’t not write it for the same reason that, too often, I can’t write most of the things I know I have to write to get by in everyday life. The reason I have to write Winter Fugue is because I hear the murmur, and the reason I can’t write so many quotidian things is because, in those cases, I can’t hear it. The murmur, when it comes, always compels a response, but forcing out words when it’s not there is an agonising test of my will — a test I tend to fail.

The murmur is the beginning of the imperative to write. It’s almost like a sound, like a resonance in the skull, like a muffled voice coming from the other side of a wall. It fluctuates, it has rhythms and cadences, it rushes loudly and softens to a whisper the way a river flows, pools, eddies quietly, trickles on, cascades over rocks. It doesn’t come to me in words so much as in atmospheric noise, a backing track to my interaction with the world. I recognise it as the herald of the start of something new, something for which I am a sort of medium or transmission device, and it doesn’t stop, it won’t abate, until I move to bring that something into being. In fact, I know, it will persist, and it will only grow louder until I cave in and answer its demands.

My hunch is that the murmur, too, springs from my habits as a reader. In an average year, I read between fifty and sixty works of fiction, as well as mountains of essays on works I haven’t yet read. The murmur, I think, is the voice or, better, the audible pulse, the stylistic sound signature, the prosodic tempo of a work of fiction that I’m searching for in the world, that I want to find already in existence, but that does not yet actually exist. For this reason, it comes to me as a voice that I genuinely have not heard before in all my experiences as a reader of fiction — and as a reader of writing by other readers of fiction — and after a time the fact that I am alone in hearing it becomes something I can no longer abide.

I mean that in a moral sense. In an essay I wrote long ago — I forget exactly where — I tried to describe the sort of writing that exists because an author seems to have reached a point at which its absence from the world becomes intolerable. It becomes intolerable in the way that any event of ethical immediacy becomes intolerable. Inaction amounts to a passive consent to the continuation of a state of affairs that must be brought to an end. In this case, I said, the imperative to write comes from an “irritation of the conscience.” Intellectually, of course, it’s clear that there’s no moral weight or urgency to this imperative to write — the world will survive just fine without the work that feels as if it must be written — but the imperative does exert an emotional pull equivalent to that of a moral one. When the murmur builds and builds, eventually it saddles me with a conviction that a world that lacks this thing, this thing that wants to exist, is a world that can’t be allowed to go on as it is.

That said, exactly what it is that wants to exist — what it might say, what it might contain — takes longer to discover. There’s no scenario, for me, in which ideas or views or events arrive first and cry out for expression. Writing always starts with the murmur, which is always unintelligible, and only over time does it congeal into something more substantive than pure sound.

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