by Tony Mitton
The story. The lyric poem. Narrative. Intricate thought process verbalised. They are spheres, bubbles, alternative spaces, places to be alternative to the world of everyday. Escape. Even if the scenario is real. At the most extreme, in make-believe, there is escape into a pretend world. And the psychologists will tell us that that pretend world is a way (like Jung’s dreams) of processing, of dealing with, the menaces and challenges of the real world (see Bruno Bettellheim’s The Uses of Enchantment for an early version of this notion).
From another angle, even when stories and poems treat of the real world in all its hardness and harshnesses, the act of writing about it can prove a way of managing, of controlling, of ordering it. Shaping it into a palatable form, a manageable plateful. The beast is tamed and caged in the text. Behind the safe bars of the words. See how Rilke’s panther paces with nervous menace behind the long lines of that poem. And look, there is Blake’s Tyger in the safe remove of a metaphoric forest.
Even now, as I write this blog, I can make my work into a figure, a metaphor. From my safe brick and tile tower, the artisan’s answer to ivory, I weave the sad story of my childhood and adolescence and use it to account for why I am a writer and not a soldier. Even this is yet another web of storytelling, storymaking.
In writing this blog I don’t for a moment suggest that what may be true for me will apply to other writers. Besides, what I say here may be, even for me, only speculatively accurate. One looks at one’s life and makes judgements, inferences, guesses and such. One hopes to learn a little about life and about oneself by doing so. It is an imprecise process, relying on observation, memory, intuition and inspiration.
My childhood and teenage years were, to my mind now, unstable. Perhaps most people would say the same. But if I give you certain facts I can then use them to suggest what may have made, for me, writing a desirable and rewarding activity. An inviting prospect.
My mother was manic depressive and infantile regressive. Thus spake one psychiatrist in the 1950s. Perhaps nowadays different diagnoses would be forthcoming. But, whatever the labels, she was an unhappy woman. To me, from earliest consciousness onward, she was a source of love and comfort that could withdraw into witch-like misery almost overnight. At her best (from my own standpoint) she was pretty, physically affectionate, and full of frivolous fun. At her worst she made me miserable. I wanted her to be happy and loving, yet was unable to do anything about her condition.
My father coped as best he could. But he too carried his demons. I would now say that, in a carefully controlled way, he was addicted to alcohol. And my father’s behaviours, like many men’s between the 50’s and the 80’s, perhaps even yet now, were never allowed to smutch his public face. His drinking never interfered with his work and always took place at home and at night.
I could go on with this narrative but feel I have said enough to pause and ask, ‘But what has all this got to do with the choice to write, the act of writing, the attempt at ‘being a writer’?’
I think that for me writing is both an escape and a form of engagement. At one level the weaving of a cocoon of comfort to make up for my mother’s absence. At another, a way of remaking the world into shapes and forms which soothe and satisfy me. You could say it’s a form of escape. You could alternatively say it’s a way of making sense, a way to understanding it and thus gaining some control over it. Both may be true. Few truths are absolute. Perhaps I have learned to swing on the hammock of a paradox. It’s more comfortable than being strung on the horns of a dilemma.
And my latest book, Wayland, is a story that wonderfully embodies the predicament of the artist, the creative maker, in the world that must broker his work. Read it and see. Ask yourself, if you wish, which characters you can identify with, or which characters may represent aspects of your own nature. Or forget all that and take it as a ripping good yarn (perhaps the best way for stories to do their work, unanalysed).
But do I think that my family history nurtured my inclination for writing? Yes. It gave me a lot to brood about. Brooders often become writers. And Wayland? Does a plot like that intersect with issues I may have encountered in my own life? Certainly. Let’s leave it there for now.
Tony Mitton, Cambridge January 2014
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