‘I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.’
I’ve always avoided writers’ biographies, beyond the potted versions at the front of the work. It was an early decision, and one I’ve more or less stuck to over the years. When you start out at writing, it’s tempting to go looking for the magic formula which will make things happen, and this can lead you to the treat the lives of your literary heroes the way that Christians treat the lives of the saints. (I’m thinking mainly of the Beats when I write that). Books should always take precedent to writers, and if you’re following one writer so slavishly that you’re copying his or her life, then you’re probably never likely to notice anything for yourself.
When the bookseller, Mike Hart, died, a friend of mine sent me his obituary. We would visit Compendium Books in Camden for readings, and it was hard not to be moved by the report of his death, and to consider that a small part of the city which had once attracted me, had died with him. Later, I would realise that it wasn’t the only reason that my friend had sent the piece, however. ‘Here you would find Mike at the heart of a group of autodidacts, musicians, writers, lowlifes and drunks … whose cultural heroes were Jim Thompson, Hank Williams, Tom Raworth and Little Willie John.’
That line in the text hadn’t been underlined, but it might as well have been. It was hard not to see myself as a background character in that crowd, coming back from America as I had with A Killer Inside Me and Savage Night, enthused by meeting Raworth at a party in Denver. I took it as a little warning, and it’s a lesson which remains with me to this day. It’s easy for your tastes to compensate for your experience (or lack of) but anyone can pick up the same book and be defined by it. The work teaches you technique, it’s true, and that technique is vital for your development. Remain slavish to your literary influences, however, and they will define you, and you will never grow beyond them. You need to draw on something more.
Going back to writer’s lives, it’s always truck me that all the facts you need to know come through the work, anyway. Kafka worked in a bureaucracy. Hart Crane vanished from a boat. Flannery O’Connor loved God with a critical emotion, and died too young. Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville went to sea. The direct facts of the life might not appear in the work, but they remain a logical extension of the writing, as inevitable and unique as any plot. Imaginative transformation is all well and good as an aim, but most writers are like Oz casting shadows behind a curtain. The work will always reveal the creator’s hand. Raymond Carver once wrote that literary influences should be cast aside as quickly as possible. Instead, he concentrated the ‘baleful’ influence of his children’s lives on his work, as well as other, similar forces. Other influences will always be more profound than the merely literary. Where you grew up. Your relationship with your parents. Their relationship with their own. The people you’ve met, and left behind. The places you’ve passed through. These are the influences which linger. Without them, writing becomes a genre game, a perpetual exchange of exercises in style, without any relation to personal or universal truth. And when that happens, it really is a dead art.
Words © Daniel Bennett