how you write is what it’s for

Mike Harrison’s anti-memoir managed to be everything you thought it might be, but nothing at all like what you expected; that negating prefix to the generic category is an obvious warning, a hockey-stick graph where the y axis represents lateness of style, but such graphs—as has been demonstrated—are easily misinterpreted, and/or renarrated to provide comfort and shelter from the very obvious and uncomfortable implications: the literary equivalent of telling yourself “well, at least the summers will be nice”. It’s calculated, yes, just as you thought it would be, but through the use of a mathematics which couldn’t actually exist in your own universe; the incommensurability of these systems is generative of the thrill encountered in the reading.

The writerly memoir turns out to be in some regards a generic form whose expectations are harder to overcome than those of sf/f—or perhaps it’s just a form where the conventions allow Harrison to skate much closer than usual to that line of familiarity before salting the ice and fleeing into the crowd at the edge of the rink. It would be easy—be honest, it was easy, all too easy—for you to interpret the passages of personal literary philosophy as the assertive workshop guidance that any writer worth learning from studiously avoids providing. There are layers of compound error in this reading, but the foundational one—the one you didn’t think you were still capable of making this late in your own very amateur take on the game—is the assumption that the affect of Harrison’s work is a “style” which might be imitated in the manner of a painter scouring eBay to buy up new-old stock of the same brand of oils that their favoured impressionist used in early C20th France.

Eventually you locate a truth beyond that—or you construct one, which probably amounts to the same thing—that frees you, perhaps only temporarily, from the suppressed anxiety of influence: those imperatives on the matter of character and plot and trope exist alongside liminal scenes from the writer’s life—allusive, and almost certainly fictionalised, whether intentionally or not—in order to illustrate the only lesson you’re capable of taking: how you write is what it’s for. Harrison depicts writing as a struggle to encounter the self and the world and the self-in-the-world, and maybe it is that for every writer, but for every writer the self and the world in question is different, and to try to clone a “style” is akin to trying to clone a philosophy, an error made most frequently in one’s adolescence (and not just within the field of artistic production), but which persists as a lifelong flinch in a species that learns through imitation. The cruel hypocrisy of playground chants: “you want to be him!” It hurt then because it’s true, and you hadn’t entirely realised it. It hurts now for the same reason, but also because you realise that the him you want to be didn’t even want to be itself; you have aspired to a thing that aspired to be anything other than which it was, or to be nothing, which may amount to the same thing.

But there is a new and different comfort in that realisation—and for that reason it should perhaps not be trusted, but it’s what you’ve got in the moment, so you’ll take it and run. How you write is what it’s for—and this is the slingshot flipside, perhaps, of that thing you quoted yesterday, the exhortation to stop worrying about how you write and what you write for and how regularly you do it, and accept that, if you write at all, you are writing in the way that only you could write, in the way that is only and wholly you. The assessment above, instinctive and impulsive, unplanned and based on no notes or underlinings, could imply a tragedy and sadness which is definitely present, but there is nonetheless a luminosity to Wish I Was Here, which you choose to take as indicative of Harrison’s realisation, in the process of writing it, of the inevitability and inseparability of life, self and style: a coming to peace with disquietude, a coming to rest in restlessness.

This is nonsense, of course, and you know it: the self-same imposition of story that Harrison warns against. But you understand now that story is necessary for you in the same way that its destruction and abnegation has been for him… and it’s a coldly comforting nonsense that allows you to continue your own haphazard work. You’ll take it, and use it to cover up the stain of doubt that will linger on the walls of your mind for as long as your memory lasts. You wouldn’t have it any other way, either.




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