Katherine Angel, this week’s guest author, is finishing a book on ‘Female Sexual Dysfunction’ in American psychiatry, and holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary, researching the history of psychiatric classification in the US and Europe. She is the author of Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult To Tell, published in the UK, the US, Germany and Holland.
In Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive, Ryan Gosling responds to his neighbour asking him what he does by maintaining an uncomfortably long silence, watching her carefully, and eventually saying: I Drive. When people ask me what I do, I have begun adopting this active yet evasive formulation. I Write, I say, remolding The Driver’s deliberately gnomic statement, if not his toothpick and his sideline in getaway driving.
I write. I’m a writer. Writers write because they need to write, because they have to write, because they have no choice. Marilynne Robinson once said that what writers have in common is a frustration with the ‘thinness and inadequacy of ordinary speech’. And Tom McCarthy has said that ‘If there’s one thing writing isn’t, it’s straight-up talking.’
I write in order to ask questions that I don’t think can ever be fully answered, even if we must continually seek to answer them. Is it possible to tell a historical story – a narrative – about anything, and especially about the self, given its instability, its fragmentation? Stories – true stories – are also always in some sense false, because we can’t ever tell the whole story. As soon as we start to say anything, we are omitting something else, we are leaning on one part of the world, and ignoring another. And, as Wittengstein said, ‘an explanation must end somewhere’.
The curious thing about writing is the shift of gears, after publication, from writing to speech – to Tom McCarthy’s straight-up talking. People ask you to explain what you have written; to re-cast it in ordinary spoken language. Which, in one sense, is kind of nice, and very lucky indeed. And in another is profoundly challenging. Because if I were really able to say what I had to say through speech, I wouldn’t need to write. Writing, for me, is a wrestling with the language that we have, over-determined and saturated as it is – particularly around women and sexuality – in order to try to undo that language. Writing is a way to use language in order to dismantle it; an attempt to use our shared language in order to resist the sometimes coercive, dulling effects of that language. It’s a search for language, given the frustrations of language. Just as we are creatures who desire not to desire, and to get beyond our desire, so we are creatures who want to use language to get beyond language. And we are, then, of course, doomed to fail – though what a privilege and a pleasure to make the attempt.
Years ago, I heard Will Self say, on some radio programme or other: ‘In the economy of ideas, nothing is wasted.’ I have drafts and drafts of chapters, articles, talks, fragments – many of which bear a trace in things I have published. Sometimes a visible trace, sometimes a less visible one. It can take a long time for me to work out what form, and what voice, is the right one for the thoughts that I have. Working out how to say the thing you want to say is part of working out what it is that you want to say. It can be arduous, and it can be confusing. It’s a curious pleasure, one I don’t feel entirely in control of – which is, I think, part of its pleasure.
Two things are, I think, crucial to writing. Both involve not fighting yourself. The first is an awareness of the scale that suits your way of thinking. Twyla Tharp talks about this in her book The Creative Habit, from which, about six years ago, the phrase ‘close focal distance’ jumped out at me, and released me from some illusions. I am able to think and to write if I start off examining something up close; zooming in and trying to capture the detailed texture of it, and then, thinking from that place, moving back outwards. If I try to resist this, it’s agony, and I get nowhere but frustration. The second thing is refusing to be convinced that anything is beneath your notice. If I have any advice for anyone writing, it’s this: pay attention to what intrigues you. Don’t be a snob about your interests. Everything is relevant – and will yield something. Maybe not in this book, in this thesis, in this essay; but at some point, it will rear its head – if it matters. So: write everything down; capture everything that strikes you, no matter how fragmentary or fleeting it might seen. Be generous with your own curiosity. On the other hand: don’t worry about writing everything down or capturing it all. Trust yourself. If you need to write about something, it’ll insist on being written about. It’ll come back, and make you write it.