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CREATIVE WRITING AND KINDNESS
Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much.
My father spent his working life as a civil servant in the Pakistani embassy in London. Sometimes he wrote sports journalism for Indian and Pakistani newspapers. Primarily he wanted to be a novelist, and believed this was a skill you might learn from books. He became an enthusiastic reader of writing manuals, though there were far fewer of those around then than there are now. But they did include classics like Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing. Because Dad liked to talk about these books and what he would call “the whole technique of writing” I would read them as well, trying to pick up tips. Since then I’ve continued to read and collect many of these writing manuals and have several shelves of them at home. They are a good way to avoid getting down to actual writing. Several of my favourites are the many volumes of the Paris Review interviews, which are among the most honest and realistic pictures of what it really is to suffer the agonies and pleasures of being a working writer.
These books were published long before the word “creative” was regularly added to the word “writing”. I’d like to find out when in fact this became common as it is a fatuous redundancy, and I could clout the culprit over the head.
The latest so-called creative writing books - of which there are too many, but I have read a few and have even been quoted in some – are, in keeping with our neoliberal times, stricter in terms of form and structure, and are mostly written with film and television in mind. They tell you where and when there should be a conflict or a climax in the story, and often at which page. This kind of formulaic patterning is more like colouring-in than real writing. It’s certainly not creative but the idea is to get television shows off the ground rather than produce interesting, original work.
The point of this introduction, apart from giving me the opportunity to talk about “creative writing” - something I have always enjoyed – is to say that the writing manuals all talk about the necessity of conflict driving each scene. These are conflicts between individuals, classes, races, countries, neighbours or whatever. But it will always be stated that from Shakespeare to Hollyoaks conflict is the essence of drama. It would be very strange, experimental and interesting – like an absurdist drama – to write a play or movie in which the characters were only nice to one another, gave one another gifts, said flattering things to one another, had only wonderful sex, and then ended all wars by shaking hands and hugging. It would be like a movie made up entirely of happy endings.
I have been in hospital since the end of December and as we enter the fresh Roman spring - probably the most pleasant Italian season, since it is not yet too hot - I have had more and more visitors. Many friends have started to look in on me, some coming specially from London. Others have been passing through Rome, and have popped in to see me at lunch-time.
The ritual is that Isabella refreshes my face, brushes my teeth and takes me from my room into the hospital garden. These friends watch her feed me lunch while we gossip and then take walks around the garden, every blade of grass I know like the back of my hand. We exchange stories about mutual friends, politics, movies and television shows, and life in London. Far from being conflictual, argumentative and difficult, these conversations are entertaining and informational; they are full of fun and giggles. They help me forget myself and my situation.
But I do wonder – I can’t help it – about how others see me, now I am crippled. Do they look at me and find me abhorrent? Do they pity me? Do they love me more, less, or the same amount? Have I become some kind of love-test for them? Will they want to come and see me again? Or will they feel they have done their duty? What feelings do I arouse in others?
Sometimes I feel ashamed and humiliated by what has happened to me. I can’t help wondering if somehow it’s my own fault. But these are morbid thoughts. Mostly my illness brings out the best in others and seems to have done the same to me. These generous friends always bring gifts. They are curious, they listen and they want to hear about how I’m doing. I have had visits from close friends, acquaintances, and people I barely know. Semi-strangers write asking if they may visit. I always say yes.
Isabella says that I like to complain about being isolated, abandoned and lonely, but my daily diary is full; I can hardly fit everyone in. Sometimes people have to overlap. In London I barely saw anyone apart from family, but now I have become what one friend described as a social butterfly.
You would think from reading any drama that the world is full of terror, terrible marriages, bad sex and wars. And it is true that I myself have been the subject of a catastrophe, but this is nothing like the whole story which, if it is to be the whole story, will have to include stretches of harmony, joy, and the pleasure that people can take in one another’s company. How much people want to give one another; how altruistic they can be. Gentleness and kindness - it’s hardly dramatic - but there’s a lot of it about.