The beautiful filth of writing and why it should be treated with celebration, not snobbery
The art we unleash from unexpected places
I would like to identify myself as a writer, I have written after all for much of my albeit short life; although to what authority I appeal asking whether I am worthy of this title, I know not. For does status as ‘writer’ lie in the adverb itself, or in the resultant product, or in publication? There are potentially multiple paths we can take with this definition – paths which offer clean definition amidst an art which I believe is, and should be, dirty.
The word ‘dirty’ may well cause upset in itself – bringing forth connotations of illicit sex and stains and sordidness. In actuality, the adverb ‘dirty’ according the OED is ‘Covered or marked with an unclean substance’ – a statement I believe describes, not defines, the process of writing quite well. This is the liberation modern writing and writers should revel in; taking a pure white page, whether electronic or physical, and filthying the page with ink. Well what makes ink and its product – words - unclean, you may say? It is of my view that any writing is unclean in comparison to that ascetic, blank, expressionless page it is put on. Like the art of a painting lies in dirtying the canvas.
And there is certainly something deliciously indulgent about that.
But why this obsession with the dirt of art in an article concerned with marginalia? The answer is this, that this is an article inspired by the historical process of writing, as well as its future. I draw personal inspiration from, for example, a coffee stain left within the markings on my first year university essay. It told me of a life beyond the oft-anticipated impersonality of academia. Writing is often subject to this gaze, I feel - Stereotyped as the work of academics or eccentrics sitting in solitude, in silent rooms. This stereotype can be discouraging – even children with the potential to write grow disillusioned by the craft’s association with the rote of learning and routine. Such a stereotype exists and yet is frustratingly distant from what good writing is.
The ‘goodness’ of writing is indeed subjective, yet so is the wiring itself. Writing captures the particulars of experience and this should be recognised; recognised that what matures writing is life, not its suspension. There is, I feel, a sort of snobbishness which tempts us to reject the association of writing with ourselves, our immediacy; causing us to question who needs poetry at a time of character limits, social networks, Instagram where a photograph can tell a whole story?
Because writing can tell the stories before it, during it, upon it. Writing shapes and shares geographies, from the graffiti tag on the street corner to a whole novel such as Steinbeck’s ‘grapes of Wrath’; both share the similarity of language and association. The popularity of Humans of New York for example, lies in a combination of the photograph – and then, the text, of course, which pushes the boundaries of it.
Writing after all, is a creative impulse which comes from beyond the margins.
Of course, your writing in its final form may be limited by margins, but there is a poignancy in that the content has the potential to break boundaries. I was inspired to this conclusion by works I have read recently – ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone De Beauvoir and ‘By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept’ by Elizabeth Smart (works which assert both extensive information as well as passionate prose); works which involve female liberation but are not defined by it. And not only does writing produce broken boundaries, but it is a product of such a breakage. The plan for this essay, afterall, was written on the underside of an old sketch, a product of recycling, just as Emily Bronte gathered ideas whilst chanting round a table with her sisters in Haworth. Writers are not polished, preened figures though the final pressing of the book may be – of course, only on the surface. Emily Bronte herself indulged in violence, once hitting her pet dog with such force that it drew blood. And to consider Emily Bronte just for another moment, it is of especial drama that in Wuthering Heights itself, we see one of the protagonists, Cathy, revealed not by her adherence to doctrine – the hymn book she is given to read by the servant Joseph – but by her scribbling on its pages, her marginalia. In their own time, writers are often producing, more marginalia it seems, than anything else. Wuthering Heights was regarded as ‘abhorrent’, even 20th century works now considered ‘great’ such as Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ were received as ‘dirty’ in the most pejorative sense, seen as works circulating at a dangerous edge of society.
And it is my aim to defend such dirt.
Dirt is that which is unclean, unordered, unsterilized , even accidental – like the coffee ring on my papers, the expletive. People often refer to the soil of the earth as ‘dirt’; seemingly because of the layers and grains of potential it accumulates. It is easy to believe that creative inspiration lies in sterile, aesthetic environments with books alphabetically ordered and amidst silence. But it is not from that most writers write, for many writers , they are dragging on each experience of marginalia – the unusual at the edge of society, those inexplicable emotions at the edge of our consciousness, and in fiction, alternate realities which supersede the boundaries of what we know. Such potential awaits the reader, whether as exaggerated as the science fiction of Ursula Le Guin for example or the interpretation of nature given by Ted Hughes in his haunting poems concerning nature, especially ‘Crow’. Some may believe me unjust in placing the persona of these two writers – Le Guin, oft seen as a liberating feminist figure, and Hughes, who is often stigmatised as the opposite – so close in my prose. But this is part of the point – for I want to illustrate the versatility of writing, both for readers and writers, how it projects and perfects personas, and shapes them. I am of the view that we can use writing to shape ourselves, explore our views and opinions, as well as involving ourselves in the medium which can challenge others.
And in the modern day, I believe that there is more and more opportunity to write.
This article is titled as it is in avocation that some of the best writing, I believe, does come from the edges of society - in looking beyond the print and experiencing the edge. There is a thrill in running ones finger along an edge – whether the edge of a knife, a piece of paper, or an open page – it brings forth a kind of expectation. If art is to be judged (as it often seems) on its expression of accusative feelings, thoughts, location, then why is there so little focus on the kindling of creative energy? Perhaps it is because there seems a stigma against spontaneous creativity – there seems something ‘wrong’ in writing straight onto the laptop, or keying some quick ideas into a phone on Westminster Bridge (as indeed I have done). They are all perceptions, just as writing arises from. In turn, it is my conviction that the multiplicity of perceptions involved in good writing should be celebrated – people may be amazed how easily watching people pass by, passing through a different street, closing one’s eyes and listening the wind, the layers which compose our day, can be inspiring.
There is nothing wrong with spontaneous creativity.
In fact, there is all the more reason for writing to flourish as an art in the modern day, considering the extent to which social margins and boundaries are pressured and pushed. An example of writing at and on the margins is encapsulated by the ‘Beat Generation’ of writers in the 1960’s, both in Britain and America, who celebrated the apparent potentials for non-conformism in the written word – evident in the use of ‘beat’ itself as an adjective, which can be interpreted as negative in terms of to ‘beat’ down (popular usage in American colloquialisms at the time), yet was intended by associated writers such as Kerouac to advocate a new side, celebrating the musical associations and hipness of the word ‘beat’. For me, this is just a brief illustration of one of the great powers of writing – it is room for re-interpretation, remoulding. There is something both satisfying and liberating in taking lived experience and translating it through the pen or the keyboard.
Taking the words of the poet Allen Ginsberg for example: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix – these are the opening lines of his epic poem ‘Howl’ of composed between 1955 and 1956. It is a poem electrified by anger, the unpunctuated pouring lines apparently reflecting Ginsberg’s angst at an American society which attempted to place people within its margins. In the poem there appears much allusion towards the destructive nature of the creative impulse, an interpretation which can still be explored today – as was the case in a recent programme aired on radio 4 titled ‘Recycled Radio’ and it’s concern, ‘Art’. There was a delicious doubling here – not only was the programme composed of past radio clips thus questioning whether what had been created was a rough collective or actual ‘art’, but also the content itself questioned what ‘art’ was. There was a haunting analysis of art, on one level, as a kind of ‘hunger’ or appetite, which even frightens the artist concerned. This could be seen amidst the academic stereotype, that those who ‘can write’ consume the regurgitations of the past desperately, reading book after book. But artists like Ginsberg advocate beyond that – they fuelled themselves with experience, non-conformism beyond the word, as not only evident in Ginsberg’s own life – drug use and blatant promiscuity – but as seen here in his use of language. For example, here, his use of ‘negro’ to describe the darkness of the streets; typically a word used as a noun to refer, often negatively, to people based upon their ethnicity. Through writing, Ginsberg was not only turning racial discrimination on its head, but showing the potentiality of text to turn heads.
And will heads still turn? People often seem afraid of writing – and fears to circulate; fears of rejection, of ridicule, the fear of being on or portraying the edge of society. Fear of writing fallen out of favour to be eaten up by computers or television.
Well would I be wrong to say that there is an ever-increasing demand in the modern day for the type of fiction I allude to? A popularity lies in pushing limits and as a student I should know this – considering the events of fresher’s week, the influx of alcohol, popular culture. But this is not just amongst young people; boundaries are breaking all the time, thoughts escaping into new fields – the growing acceptability and popularity of erotic literature, the now apparent normalcy of seeing a person wearing earphones, listening to another reality, whilst out on the street. It is evident that people want to get beyond the mundane, get beyond the routine – people want to look at the narrative of their lives and underline parts for emphasis, score bits out, re-word, re-write.
What we want is an elaborate fiction.
It is fiction like this which comes from lived experience. Fiction, creativity, writing is within walking through the streets and reflecting, being conscious of the complexity of someone else’s expression as they wait for the bus, the roll of mechanical motion beneath the feet. It is a journey to write just as life is a journey through experience, and is about time we recognise that writing and writers need not be solitary or stigmatized, but should be celebrated. For example, the contemporary writer Will Self, has grown to be recognised not only for his writing, but for his walking habits which seemingly fuel such – in 2006 walking from London to Heathrow, it is this disengagement from the expected and the embrace of the unusual or marginal – like the art of the solitary walk, which feeds a script. There is a wonderful culture in writing itself to be unwrapped; the concept that some rent rooms to write in, have rented bodies on which to base their descriptions, others write best whilst on the move or in bed, some write notes on the back of their hand, others carried in a notepad or laptop. It is an eclectic mix – morally subjective, ever to be interpreted.
As a writer, whether I have earned myself the title or not, I gain a kind of comfort in even the negative experiences of my past, because when I apply them to writing, they become experience and influence rather than regret. In this way, writing has the potential to heal as well as hurt, and as we have seen, provides escapism, as well an entrapment. It is an ever-continuing paradox.
I want people to explore writing just as writing itself is an exploration which should never be downplayed. It should be recognised that some of the best writing arises from an exploration of the edges - taking one’s life to new rooms, feeling a different sensation, feeling pain, pleasure, anguish, writing carries beyond the mundane, out of the margins. Now there is all the more opportunity to do that – the opportunity to be able to glimpse in and out of people’s lives on social media, transport which allows us to travel further and faster than ever before –whether down the road or out of the country. The experiences we don’t expect, often push at the margins the most – writers often return to refresh material on illness, on travel, on experience. That is what makes writing brilliant.#
Words and writing are a little like loose change – sometimes we underestimate its value and ignore its contribution to a final captivating product, dirty like lose change – words are the material from writing, often dug from the least expected and often most interesting places.
So this could be seen as an article encouraging an exploration of the edges. The same could apply to reading, like Nabokov observed that the best reader sat with their book of choice and dictionary – always plumbing the depths. For that is what good writing offers – depth – the depth we can lose ourselves in, and depths which should be valued, wherever from we take inspiration from our writing. This depth may be technology, it may be in films, in talking to new people, or recalling conversations with old friends. Writing is of many guises. That is what makes it brilliant, dirty, devious and fun, with the power to transform even regret into potential.
It was the point I had left
On my left
With a kind of rejection
The words weft on the page
And the section
It confessing a chastity
Regardless of sense and reality
It believed itself precious.
The second sense, jealous
What that which could see
Lusted back for that emptiness
The coffee had ringed
As she sat in her nightdress
Whilst the husband poured tea
Across the public park.
The mistress had shaken her hand
As hers had
Marking over the paper
Tears in the margin.