On Ethical Immediacy

I confess I was nervous, even pre-emptively embarrassed, when I wrote in January about what I call the murmur and how it stands as the source of the imperative to write. It seemed too abstract, too wishy-washy, too plainly preposterous to be taken seriously, and all the more so when I came around to using the loaded language of morality and ethical immediacy to describe my response to the imperative to write. Then, via @Twitchelmore, there came to my attention a video of a captivating conversation between Gabriel Josipovici and Lars Iyer, and an early exchange particularly piqued my interest:

Iyer: You’ve said that writing begins with a kind of prompt. I’m quoting you here: “One tries to catch an elusive something that will not let one rest until one has had a stab at turning it into a narrative of sorts. That something can be a rhythm, a character, an incident, or a combination of all these. One’s responsibility is to the elusive thing, and to that alone.” I was very interested in this word “responsibility.” I wanted to ask you, what does it mean to face up to this responsibility honestly?

Josipovici: Well, for me there isn’t an alternative. I mean, it has to be honest because this is your life. You’re not fooling anyone except yourself. But I suppose what it means is you’ve got to go on until you find the form that will be adequate to it, or at least until you have gone as far as you can. … I mean, responsibility? Well, maybe that’s a wrong sort of term. It sort of won’t let you alone, won’t let me alone, until I have found a shape for it, found a way in which something which is… I think… It has to start by being wordless. … I think there has to be this sense of the terrible need to find words, a shape, for something, a feeling, whatever, and words or things aren’t there. So what you’ve got to do is find a form that will allow the words at least to hint at it, or to move towards it.

Iyer: But it’s very interesting, this idea of responsibility. You express reservations about this word, but the reason I like it is because of this ethical register. The idea that you owe something to something or other. So you owe something to this prompt, to this inspiration, to this wordlessness… [and yet] there’s a tension between being able to write, and then, when you’re called or summoned and you respond in this ethically responsible way to what you’re called or summoned by, you feel, at that moment, unable to write.

Experience, not intellect, tells me that’s exactly how it is.


Dissatisfaction is the Source

Julienne van Loon, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, wonders, as I’ve been wondering, where writing comes from:

Fiction is concerned with itchiness. Or, to put it differently, storytelling is concerned with some kind of friction. But let’s extend it further: I would argue that the urge to write something substantial at all, in a way that requires imaginative effort, to shift ideas from fleeting feelings or impressions towards more fully realised and substantial creative works, requires a certain dis-ease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction: anger, confusion, disbelief, disapproval, or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this.

Which isn’t too far removed from the way I tried to word it.

Rigorous and Iterative

Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”

I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name:

My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

“The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist,” Saunders says, taking part in a “rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system” and “always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” That’s true in my experience as well, although I’d be careful to specify that “those thousands of incremental adjustments” don’t necessarily alter the course of “the story” so much as the course of the work. For me, in fact, even though incremental adjustments have already devoured the lion’s share of the time I’ve spent writing Winter Fugue, and even though I know that they will continue to do so as I revise the novel, the story is by far the least of what will be changed in the process.

I wrote the first draft of Winter Fugue over the course of maybe two weeks, producing something between 5,000 and 10,000 words per day. Those words were all extremely rough, hastily chosen, and nowhere near fit for purpose. What exactly would be their purpose? At a rudimentary level, the purpose of the words in a novel is to capture and hold a reader’s attention by conveying a series of narrative events. Often, however, those events can be conveyed with equal effectiveness through any number of different words. Finding the right words for a novel, and putting them in the right order, has less to do with selecting them for their effectiveness in ordering the events of a narrative and more to do with their own intrinsic aesthetic properties: their capacities for evocation and connotation, and especially the acoustic resonances of their prosody and tone.

I wouldn’t deny that words enable readers to envision the action of a narrative, but I’d say that to use them primarily for that purpose is to treat them as instrumental things in the utilitarian sense of the term. This is how I treat them when writing my first few drafts, before I switch on what Saunders calls the “forehead needle.” Once that needle starts flicking from side to side, once I set out on the “rigorous, iterative engagement with a thought system,” the narrative already has its shape and the needle registers only the relative merits of what words can do to a reader beyond conveying narrative events. My needle treats my words as instrumental in a musical sense, measuring their distance from or proximity to the sound, the susurration, I can still hear in my head.

The Heft of a Novel

Marilynne Robinson, "The Givenness of Things"So, yes, Winter Fugue is underway. How has it taken its first few steps into being? I don’t mean “being” as a concept; I mean “being” as a synonym for pixels and ink. Beyond the emergence of the work of fiction as a flickering response to the raw and burning imperative to write, how does it — how has it — come to assume a definite form on the page?

For me, the first words of a fiction never issue from an idea or an image, or a narrative dilemma, but always — strange to say — from a feeling in the body, a mood that circulates through blood and breath, an incarnate sensation in no way tethered to events in the outside world. They come on top of the murmur that drives the act of writing and they take shape in response to, or in mimicry of, an inner disturbance that feels physically like the growth of some alien thing, some subcutaneous burr, lodged in the fibres of muscle and flesh. Marilynne Robinson gives voice to an experience of much the same sensation in her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things:

In writing I have often felt as though I am my mind’s amanuensis, in reading its researcher, in repose its slightly dull companion. I feel a novel begin to cohere in my mind before I know much more about it than that it has the heft of a long narrative. This heft is a physical sensation. A forming novel is a dense atmosphere more than it is a concept or an idea. I find my way into it by finding a voice that can tell it, and then it unfolds within the constraints of its own nature, which seem arbitrary to me but inviolable by me. When I lose the sense of them everything goes wrong. I suppose it is inevitable that I should think of a fiction as a small model of the simulacrum of reality that is given to us by sense and perception, and as a way to probe anomalies that emerge in the assumed world when it is under scrutiny. But this is only a hypothesis, an attempt to account for a phenomenon I cannot will and, in an important degree, do not control.

Because this sensation is physical, it has, for me, a shape that can be felt out. By this I mean that it has, or at least suggests, a palpable form, a form that possesses contours and branches which conjoin in various places and in various proportions to one another. This form is the closest thing to a story that I ever really feel. Its contours are the events of a narrative, and its branches are the scenes in which the narrative might be rendered. Where those branches conjoin are the places where events connect, sometimes causally, sometimes tacitly, and the branches grow out into different proportions depending on the duration of various scenes and their relative significance. But the events themselves always arrive at a later stage, piecemeal. The shape of the whole comes first, making itself known by its heft in my body, and there it opens up a complex of interlocking spaces that events trickle into over time.

Listening to the Murmur

Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a book voucher to the value of £100. I used it to pick up 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 out there in the world, that I want to find already in existence, but that does not yet actually exist. For that reason, it comes to me as a voice that I genuinely have not heard before in all my experience 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 am no longer able to 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.


These words are a distraction. I don’t necessarily mean for you — although there probably is something else that deserves your attention right now, isn’t there? — but certainly for me they arrive here at the expense of something less occasional, something more worthy of my time.

For a little bit over eighteen months, working in fits and starts, I’ve slowly been piecing together a new novel. It’s called Winter Fugue. At the start of the summer, it existed as a loose-limbed, shaggy beast of about 80,000 words. It was recognisably one thing, fully formed in the sense that all its core components held together, but its surface textures were coarse and unfinished and its proportions were all askew. I’ve been going over it again since August, trawling through it line by line to tighten it up and smooth it out, and now, with the first 25,000 words in better shape, I feel like I’ve passed at least a minor waymark. Time to pause for a look back over the route that has brought me to this place. Time to rest and take stock, and survey the terrain ahead before setting off again.

The truth is that the results are still nowhere close to readable. Even those 25,000 words aren’t quite ready for the eyes of a reader who isn’t me, and there’s a long way to go before all the remaining words have been made to yield to the contours of the second draft. But day by day something is unmistakably coming into being, and it’s now at the stage where I can pick up any one piece of it and feel, beneath the skin of its prose, the coordinated movements of muscles and sinews and bones; I can see, from a single fragment, the integrity of the enterprise as a whole.

It’s hard to reach the stage of writing I’ve come to now. Especially hard, for me at least, is having to grapple always with the persistent doubt that I’ll ever be able to reach this stage at all, the doubt that I’m writing something valuable enough to even warrant being brought to where it is today. Hardest of all, though, is not simply allowing myself to carry on with the task at hand in spite of my doubt, but instead finding a way to seize my doubt and turn it around and use it as a reason, as fuel, to continue to write. I suppose I’m saying that I’ve only reached this point because not for a moment did I give myself permission to believe I could actually do it. I don’t think you can write a novel worth reading if you’re not prepared to invest your life in it, and I can’t see that it would be worth investing a life in it unless it takes a form that has never been given life before. To write a novel involves a lot of trouble. Why would you voluntarily endure it, except to give expression to a thing conceived as so fully itself that trouble is an essential condition of its existence?

Odd, then, to break away from the book and bash out a few new words for this blog. Or at least I can see how it might seem that way. There’s clearly a chink in the logic here. You can’t write about your focus on producing a new novel without breaking the very focus you say you want to sustain. But really, the focus is never sustained. It’s interrupted, time and again, by nagging questions about the meaning and overall shape of the work, by thoughts on the problems encountered in the process of writing, by anxieties towards the standards that must be met if the end result is to be everything it should be.

Although these questions, these thoughts, these anxieties are in some ways woven into the words of the novel, mostly they remain hidden from view. I’ve written this post as the first in a series through which I hope to throw some light on them. I don’t mean to explore the nuts and bolts of things like my preferred writing routine or the layout of my workspace. I mean to consider the trinity of subjects that have been enumerated at the top of this website since I started writing Infinite Patience almost seven years ago. I mean to consider the what, the how, and the why of literature — as always — albeit less as a reader searching out the best of it than as someone shepherding more of it uncertainly into the world.