Praying for a chuckle
Nothing remotely trivial

Witnesses to the spark

I've blogged before about how a novel exists whole in my consciousness long before I write it down. In Bodies crying out I described how my nameless new novel landed in my lap last February and, more recently, in Are you listening? I was wondering aloud if you could think that this whole, complete entity of a story sets about making the writer it will need if it's to be written. But it's always been very clear to me, in the kind of physical, gut-level certainty that tells you, for instance, whether you're going to be able to balance on something, that this entity isn't verbal. It exists quite independently of words.

And it's true of writing at the micro as well as the macro level. I've always known that I don't photograph the same things that I write about, and that on the whole an experience demands either my notebook, or my camera, but not both. This first became clear to me after one of the wonderful writing-soaked workshop weekends which are how the MPhil at Glamorgan operates. Since we were only an hour or so's drive from the Brecon Beacons National Park, what could be better than spending the following day on a horse before I had to trundle back to boring old England? We were riding the length of the valley about half-way up one side, and gazing across to the other. It was patched with acid green grass and rust-coloured heather, while the earth was an astonishing dark red. Far below were trees and rocks which betrayed a stream we couldn't see but only hear, along with the soft thud of hoofs and creak and jingle of harness, and looking down I saw a heron cruising above the trees, so close I could see the white stripe across the upper side of its wings. From force of habit, I started to do what I've just done here: turn the moment into words. And then I realised I was translating: the experience had not been verbal. It had been pure right-brain, just as (maybe because) riding is a very right-brained activity: simultaneous, sensory, non-linear, a-logical. In one sense, the most faithful translation of that moment would have been simply: 'is'.

So while it's clear that tigers would have existed whether or not Adam had got round to calling them that, I've always been troubled by a fundamental tenet of Theory, and its offspring literary theory, which at its most extreme (as explained by Jonathan Culler in his life-saving Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory) maintains that 'the language we speak determines what we can think'. I just don't think it's true. Yes, I'd have trouble distinguishing the fourteen different types of snow, let alone explaining the distinction. But that doesn't mean my senses couldn't apprehend them, if I took the time to look and touch well enough. If my life depended on the distinctions, as it does for the Inuit, then I'd learn pretty fast, although, yes, I'd probably make up names in order to hold on to my distinctions.

This tenet seems to have become so much a given these days, among scholars who think about literature and culture, that you feel ignorant and un-enlightened if it isn't a given for you. So it's been a joy to discover that there are plenty of people in the world who know exactly what I mean. I've only just started a book which is all about such moments, but I'm hooked. Sparks of Genius is subtitled 'The 13 thinking tools of the world's most creative people' which makes it sound like the most ghastly how-to management book, but it's much, much more interesting than that. And where does it start? With the 'pre-verbal' intuition which is the basis of all thinking. As Georgia O'Keefe put it, 'even if I could put down accurately the thing I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at.' There isn't room here to repeat the other examples the book gives of this experience, but the roster is long and distinguished, from Einstein to LeGuin by way of Stephen Spender, Bridget Riley, Richard Feynman and T S Eliot. I haven't even got as far as the composers - and now the supper needs cooking. But I think even that lot will do as witnesses that 'is' really exists, don't you?