Reid and I: a writer’s double life

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion Of Creation (1892). Public domain (Wikimedia)

Reid’s public self at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

In 1960 a very short story called ‘Borges y Yo’ appeared in Argentina. Its author, on the verge of becoming internationally famous, was Jorge Luis Borges. Translation soon made this story widely known under the English title ‘Borges and I.’ It begins abruptly: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ The first-person narrator goes on to describe someone who is almost identical with himself, but from whom he feels somewhat alienated.

‘It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me.’

Ultimately they comprise an inseparable dyad, as the story’s final sentence suggests: ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’

It’s an amusing way of depicting the tense relationship between any literary figure’s public persona and the more private self who quietly does the writing.

In the opening piece of his essay collection The Writing Life (2014), David Malouf considers the distinct selves involved in writing and living. ‘There’s a gap,’ he says, ‘a mysterious and sometimes disturbing one, between the writer’s daily self, his walking and talking self … and the self that gets the writing done.’

Another essay in the same book, ‘When the Writer Speaks,’ picks up the theme:

‘The real enemy of writing is talk. There is something about the facility of talk, the ease with which ideas clothe themselves in the first available words, that is antithetical to the way a writer’s mind works when he is engaged in the slower…deeper business of writing.’

Malouf refers to a short story by Henry James, ‘The Private Life,’ in which the narrator is astonished to discover that the person who publicly poses as the admired author Clare Vawdrey, entertaining people with plausible literary conversation, is not the person who, invisibly secluded, writes Vawdrey’s books. There is an arrangement of convenience between those two distinct people. As Malouf remarks, James’s tale dramatises a fundamental truth about literary activity: ‘The social self is a front…behind which the real writer can hide.’ The latter is ‘a creature of solitude, of the inner life.’

Like any writer, I’m acutely conscious of this tension described by Borges, Malouf and James – and I feel quite ambivalent about what often seems to be my double life. When I glance back at the ‘Events’ page of my website I’m reminded of the umpteen different literary and para-literary activities that have engaged much of my time in recent years. I’ve attended numerous meetings related to the writing life, such as Board sessions of the Australian Society of Authors. I’ve given presentations under the auspices of the Copyright Agency, WritingWA, the State Library, national and state English Teaching conferences, the National Trust and other bodies. I’ve run writing workshops for several schools and for groups such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Peter Cowan Writers Centre. I’ve lectured on literary topics to metropolitan and regional branches of the Mature Adults Learning Association, and to U3A and Probus groups.  I’ve been a featured guest speaker at several different literary festivals. I’ve given countless talks about my books in libraries, town halls, universities, community centres, bookshops, local museums and other venues. Book clubs have invited me along to the-author-meets-his-readers discussions. And so on.

While I enjoy all such encounters, I’m also haunted by Malouf’s admonition: ‘Too much time talking about writing, not enough doing it.’ Perhaps I should follow the example of Henry James’s Vawdrey and hire someone to impersonate me in public so that, unobserved, I can get on more productively with the solitary task of writing?


6 thoughts on “Reid and I: a writer’s double life

  1. Great piece, Ian.

    I’m inclined to suggest that the public self of the writer (or the artist), which ought to be called the public self of that Self which is sufficiently sensitive to feel the distinction keenly, is not a counterfeit self at all, just another facet of that same Self, and which has its proper place and should be accorded its proper due.

    We should beware not to accord the sensibility of the artist or the writer too much pre-eminence in this matter. Everybody has a public mask, which slips and stays-put by turns and to varying degrees, and this is (probably) a necessary and (potentially) an interesting and enervating facet of our integrated identities. I regard this as less of an evasion from supposed ‘authenticity’ and more of an expansion of one’s capacity to engage and to gain insight and connectedness. Indeed, I rather think that the vital ‘inner work’ of the artist would be greatly diminished without the external interactions and their subsequent impressions to inform and inspire them. Nothing Comes From Nothing, as the old saying goes…

    There are also questions of balance, and of valuable experience versus wasting time. Writing is necessarily a solitary and, conceivably, lonely business. A person’s existential reality places him or her within a certain proximity with similar Others with whom they can engage. Both the possibilities and the limitations of that engagement enriches and progresses the individual’s subjective reality, which then seeks the ongoing interplay between public interaction and private experience. But there should always be layers of the Inner and Private drawn from all of these which give depth to the Whole, whether such private developments are then expressed by one’s attitudes and demeanour, one’s values and sense of integrity, one’s kindness and generosity, one’s artistic creations, or merely one’s presence when presence is required.

    I sat in on a crime writers session at the Margaret River Readers and Writers festival this weekend. Michael Robothom recalled Val McDermid likening crime writers to today’s outcast smokers, all standing outside a very sober and formal function with their cigarettes, and all laughing their heads off in the delight of each other’s company. His point was that, whether by inclination or in response to their ‘less than’ status in the literary stratum, crime writers take the work seriously but don’t take themselves seriously. I’d like to think that I can aspire to all of these traits and pursuits in the right measure. I see Malouf’s point but, taken in isolation, it seems that either he’s painting with a very broad brush, or he’s taking himself too seriously, or he’s been badly way-laid by very dreary company. On the other hand, if it’s talk about one’s writing-in-progress that he’s warning against, then I agree with him completely; some aspects of the private should not explicitly stray into the public sphere for fear of trivializing and diminishing the vitality of both. That comes back to the old maxim of never showing anyone your first drafts – they are both blueprint and engine to the creator, but a haphazard swamp for anyone else, and any careless intrusion into that protean, ego-laden terrain by an outsider will likely spell disaster for both!

  2. Thank you, Glen – I’m glad that my piece has stimulated such a thoughtful response. Your meditation brings some important and subtle nuances to this general theme of a writer’s separable selves. As you remark, it’s not simply a public/private dichotomy – more like a layering of consciousness. Well said!

  3. I realise that all of us have stages where we alternately seek company and solitude, for various reasons, and that, even for people who are engaged in creative work, there are times where either company or solitude is too much imposed upon us. But it was that statement of “the real enemy of writing is talk” which set my teeth on edge a little. It puts me in mind of another statement in a text I was set to analyse as an undergraduate: “Man is a talking animal; when he has no-one to talk to, he talks to himself.” What is writing but a form of talking to an imagined Other which, at the moment of composition, might as well be a facet or an idealised version of oneself? An inner dialogue of some form is inevitable, but any art, whether or not it contains a narrative, has to at least attempt to communicate beyond the sensibility that wields the pen or the brush or the camera. In other words, we can’t just right-off the process of “talking” to an audience of some kind unless we want to guarantee that the glorious manifestations of our personal experiences will remain entirely private, not to mention running the risk of them being self-indulgent, impenetrable, and even cruelly exclusive. On the other hand, artistic visions and premises may be unfamiliar and hard to fathom even when the artist is keen to spread their ‘message’ as far and as wide as they can. Whether or not these challenging intentions can be interpreted by others in a way that is satisfying to everyone is another matter entirely…

    Of course, too much nurturing and honing of the private experience might engender worthy art at the expense of the health, happiness, and growth of the artist. In answering questions as to the efficacy of “being in the world,” or working through the painful wellsprings of one’s writing via other means (such as therapy, which is a heightened, focused, and sympathetic mode of good old talking), the individual has to evaluate the chance of artistic realization against the chance for personal relief or comfort. They are not always mutually exclusive, and sometimes the Talking Cure can actually facilitate deeper understandings and more nuanced appreciations of those inner aspects of oneself that can be codified into art. At the same time, the one is not always conducive to the other, particularly if a direct bone of psychological contention is resolved or accepted before the actual dilemma and its significance can be evoked in a specific ‘work’ of some kind.

  4. Your comments cover a lot of interesting ground, Glen, and prod me into thinking further about all of this. There are several issues here, I think. One is that nobody (especially no writer) is a single self. I cherish Katherine Mansfield’s reflections on that point, quoted in my blog post on Character:
    Another issue is raised by what you say about the psychology of creativity: writers differ from one another in their individual temperament, particularly in how each balances the need for quiet withdrawal with the need for sociability. (I have the impression that Malouf, for example, is relatively shy. In contrast, I enjoy discussing my literary interests – hence this blog, among other forms of interaction.) And there’s also your observation that talk shouldn’t be placed in opposition to writing because writing always implicitly incorporates dialogue with a potential readership. Very true. Thanks again for your thoughts on these and other aspects of the topic…

  5. You’re welcome. I suspect I’m being a bit hard on poor Malouf; your probably quite right about him being shy, and public interactions can be a terrible burden for shy people (and aren’t we all a bit shy sometimes?) Sian Prior mentions in her “Shy” memoir that she really wanted to get more involved in social situations, but felt too vulnerable to do so. By the same token, other shy people are perhaps not particularly drawn to “society” at all. All this puts me in mind of Winnicott’s observation that “‘Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” Swings and roundabouts.
    I just re-read that earlier post of yours in which quote Mansfield and Grenville and others (that’s a great analogy from Mansfield in particular). In 2018, I didn’t remember reading it when you first posted it, and blow me down if I didn’t actually comment on it four years ago as well! The contrast between a character like Copperfield and one like (amongst others) Uriah Heep shows Dickens’ facility as both a psychological realist and a caricaturist.

  6. I love that aphorism from Winnicott – it would be a nice epigraph for those stories I mentioned by J.L. Borges and Henry James!

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