The First Words: One

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It matters very much how you say what you say.



A line of Robert Frost’s read long ago retains its appeal to me: ‘May something always go unharvested.’ He is writing of the apples he picks from the trees in the fall. The fall - that resonant American word for the late time of year before winter closes everything down. It is a time of abundance, a gathering of fruit especially. The apples fall from the trees, followed by the leaves. Then it is winter.

Something lingers for quite a while. The aroma of fallen apples left in the orchard grass is a blend of sweetness and decay. It is a surprisingly good smell, strong with hard but not an unpleasant air. The frosts preserve the fruit in its state of decomposition. In the spring what remains has returned to the earth to enrich the soil for the growth of a new crop.

We do not speak out loud all our thoughts. Writers do not submit all that they write. Notebooks are filled with possibilities, improbabilities and nonsense. From the scrawl of ideas and images emerge the lines of a readable writing, an approach to, if not an achievement of, literature.

And what do I mean by literature except permanence? Speech fades even in memory.  The written word has the chance of a life far beyond its time and place. Words carved on stone or inscribed on papyrus may speak still from several millennia past. These voices echo through history. Writing connects us to things beyond ourselves and our time and space.

The printed word is indelible. This makes print the senior medium among so much ephemera. Other things may not be ephemeral but they may be trivial. There is weight and value in print. It gives substance to its content even if the content proves to be insubstantial. Print is serious. Print is the mind of history, for it lasts longer than the canvas that fades and the stone that crumbles.

Writing may be considered the search for a metaphysic. It is an exploration of language, of course, but it is also an exploration through language towards an understanding of the world. The understanding is not merely in material or practical terms, although it is founded on observations of experience. Nor is it purely theoretical, for it is not exclusively a matter of intellect. The process is in some measure intuitive.

It may not be immediately clear why this quest for a metaphysic need be undertaken when a metaphysic, culturally appropriate, is readily available. Is it useful to speak of writing as an act of faith? It is useful if we consider the investment of thought and feeling that writing requires. By an act of faith in language the writer enables random impulses and vague ideas to cohere into literature.

The intuitive relation to language a writer undertakes is not a search for a prescription. It is not a political act within a reasonable meaning of political acts. Writing has a social role, but is not confined to a social role. Literature speaks across continents and centuries. It is a means of rediscovering and articulating experience in symbolic terms. These are terms that have a life beyond immediate concerns. The metaphors of poetry refine and thereby redefine the meaning of experience. Life is something that keeps on happening and so always will need to be described and considered.

The things that happen to us personally we feel to be unique in human experience. No-one else ever has fallen in love. In a way that it is true because the feelings each of us has are ours alone, though they are shared by others in our common humanity. The experiences that really matter are the ones that seem to bring us closer to a realm beyond everyday experience. Reaching out beyond ordinary things enables us to feel like pioneers in the wilderness. There are no imprints of wheels to follow. There are no signs to indicate this is the right way to follow.

That is where literature comes to life as the guide through the starless night on the open plain. To borrow the vocabulary of weaving, the warp of fiction is the narrative. A novel needs a guiding voice, an intermediary between the events described and the reader’s reception of those events.

Now to speak of the weft of fiction: it is the development of style. We may think of style as a question of mere surface, and in a general context of living it often is. In writing the style expresses the essence of what is written. It matters very much how you say what you say. In fiction the style runs at counterpoint to the linear development of narrative. Woven together, these threads of style and narrative create the fabric of fiction. It is a crafted aesthetic, not a collection of random jottings.

‘All my thoughts are second thoughts,’ said Aldous Huxley. Everything written is revised. Raw emotions are refined into crystalline images. Subtlety of meaning is sought by the uses of allusion and irony. Clumsy phrasing, obscure and repetitious points are all ironed out in revision. It may be that some years later a complete recasting will be needed. Do I still agree with what I wrote? Yes, but today I must put it another way. The argument will be more considered, and the style more elegant or more urgent, and the attitude more mature.

Thoughts worth having are always in need of direction. It is essential for the writer to find the inner compass that can lead you through the hustle of people. Imagine yourself in a crowded station, searching for the right train. What impedes you is not only the noise and hurry of other travellers, but their indifference to anything beyond themselves. They may seem to be going nowhere, whereas you have a destination in mind and in fact.

Crowds are overwhelming. Thoughts are submerged in the tidal waves of the incidental conversation overheard. All the talk and all the motion are without apparent purpose. You find the quality required of creativity is an inner stillness. Only when we centre ourselves do we begin the process of discovering the voice within us that is the real voice.

Life on the surface is illusory. The ground looks firm but is actually as thin as melting ice above a swell of treacherous waters. An essential truth is a truth that is slow to reveal itself. Veritas, the Roman goddess of truth, secretes herself in a well. I picture the well as covered with nettles and thorns. It is known only to those prepared to search carefully for her dwelling place, her truth.

Slowly the inner self emerges into the daylight. This is an inescapable process. If the writing is to be true the self has to be true. Writing reveals how we really feel about things. That is very different from how we may wish to feel, or how we think we ought to feel. It is a question of how we actually feel. Surprise yourself by uncovering sympathies buried beneath the detritus of experience. You have been hurt and so have forgotten how to love. Writing returns your humanity to you.

John Wain once wrote that a short story will reveal all the social feelings and political or religious allegiances a writer has. That is, surely, too schematic about things that are indefinite. In the background there must be the beliefs and commitments for they have been among the urges to creativity. They shimmer on the horizon. They are pale and indistinct. A writer’s point of view will be present in the writing by suggestion and implication. Overstate your terms and the writing clunks. To change metaphor, the delicate thread of literature is, like a spider’s web, easily destroyed.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of a novel, Heaven’s Invention [revised paperback edition Black Wolf, 2017] and a collection of poetry, The Rites of Paradise [Cyberwit 2020]. See also mention of his work in Kate McLoughlin’s British Literature in Transition vol. 4 Cambridge University Press 2019. He lives in Cambridge.

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